Fallout: Equestria - Wasteland Soul.

by SonnyStar

First published

When a Stable repair pony is forced to leave his home, he discovers the horror of the outside world. He quickly learns that in order to survive, he must change. Along the path, he finds himself deep in a plot that could change the Wasteland forever.

To avoid persecution and a fate worse than death, Sparks, a repair pony from Stable 63 is forced to flee into the Baltimare Wasteland. There he is faced with the realities of war-torn Equestria and where he fits in the grand scheme. With the help of his friends, he comes to find his place in the wastes as a beacon of hope. Along his travels he stumbles onto fragments of a secret that could destroy the world all over again. With his friends by his side, he is off to change the Baltimare Wasteland forever, for better or for worse.
Friendships can change a pony, sometimes in ways we don't expect and most never ask...is it always worth it?

This story is based on the original Fallout: Equestria by Kkat, who was kind enough to give me their blessing.

Now with wiki page. Fallout Equestria: Wasteland Soul. I'll be updating it as often as I can find the energy to do so.

Introduction

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War. War never changes. It was the inevitable result of the path Ponykind had chosen. Everyone who entered into the conflict expected victory. Equestria had grown into an industrial superpower. Everyone was optimistic. But as the hostilities escalated, optimism faded and society began to collapse.

It was the Great War. It was the nightmare everyone feared. Millions died during the first attack when spears of balefire rained from the skies. Many more on the surface fell victim to the burning, poisonous air. For those who endured, there was only the wasteland – no order, no law, only survival.

Some had been fortunate enough to reach safety, taking shelter in great underground bunkers called Stables as dark magic swallowed the world. When the great darkness passed, these stables opened and their inhabitants emerged to begin their lives again.

If war doesn’t change, ponies must change. But the scars left by the past have not yet healed. And the world has not forgotten.

It is here our story begins. Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria...

Prologue

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Prologue

The first thing I felt was…nothing, my senses were intact but they felt as if they were far away. I felt completely weightless, like a ghost. Maybe I was one, stuck between this world and the next. The second thing I felt was that I was not alone. Raw fear permeated what was left of me but it was quick to vanish. He was gone and I was with friends.

“I wasn’t expecting to see anypony.” I turned around to face them. “Am I something like you now?” I asked with a chuckle.

I took this opportunity to look around my immediate surroundings. I was indeed floating, suspended with a view of the massive black void. The others spoke to me the first voice kind, the second almost motherly. Then out of the corner of my eye, a small flash of light illuminated the void for several seconds and I found myself smiling again. The flash was soon followed by several more, which caused my smile to fade. My ears fell back against my head.

“No one ever really wins do they?” I said more for myself than present company. They already knew that hard truth. I hung my head and sighed heavily and turned to face the ghosts of the past. Some of them looked shocked, others looked on with grim acceptance and one with a weary smile.

“I never thought I’d be able to talk to you like this.” I said, a tinge of disbelief that I was even talking at all. “You’ve seen me at my lowest and still stood by me, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank you for that.” I struggled to maintain eye contact. I was so tired. “I know some of your stories and now it’s time to tell mine. Maybe decide if it was worth it.” I sighed one last time. “It all started in Stable 63…”

XXX

Another low rumble shook the halls of the Stable’s maintenance department. To anypony else that may seem strange but to us stable dwellers it was something that everypony just got used to. Occasionally the Overmares would hijack the stables radio station to remind us all of the 'regular tectonic activity.' How it was harmless to the stable as a whole. Just like the rumbles themselves, we ignored them. On the bright side the ‘harmless’ tremors often shook important wires and other bits loose causing no shortage of demand in us, the general repair staff. The best part about this job was that you never knew where the repairs would send you. One day you could be sent to do really important things like make sure the water talisman was aligned properly, or incredibly mundane things like fix old Mr. Fern’s door because he’s locked himself in his quarters. Again.

Even with the unpredictability of the daily tasks though, it got dull, and fast. After a while you will have done everything multiple times. So while you may do something different every day the pool of tasks was finite. Stable-Tec just built some things too well. If it isn’t obvious yet, I was a repairpony or “maintenance technician” as was my official designation. Couldn’t be much else with a cutie mark of a lightning bolt striking a cluster of cogs. Unfortunately, neither my tasks nor the tremor were on my mind but rather the yelling that suddenly erupted in the hall outside my stall. I set my work aside and looked up from my desk towards the commotion. I got up to investigate when my partner Crescent Wrench at his desk opposite mine spoke up. He put his hoof up to his forehead and sighed.

“Sparks please just let it go this time.” I hesitated for a second but quickly rationalized my intention to him. I pointed an accusatory hoof at him.

“Do you want to listen to this all day? What if it gets worse? Not in my wing.” I stated matter-of-factly. Ignoring any further protests from him I opened the door to the hall to get a look. It was worse than I thought. While there were two main participants in the shouting match one unicorn mare and an earth pony mare, each one had a crowd gathering behind them calling for blood. Things were going to get violent. I ducked my head back in the stall and called to Crescent.

“Call security things are getting ugly out here.” Without waiting for his response I dashed back out into the hall. Things escalated quickly.

“If you ever come near my daughter again Forceps I will kill you!” The Earth pony mare was furious, beyond furious in fact yelling at the unicorn Doctor.

“I’m telling you Miss Ginger, It was just a checkup. I did nothing to young Miss Butterscotch.” The Doctor spoke slowly and calmly, touching her hoof to her chest in a gesture of sincerity. The pony known as Ginger didn’t acknowledge the gesture and continued to yell.

“Bullshit!” she stomped her hooves angrily on the floor, anger and fear etched on her face. “Ever since her ‘checkup’ my little girl hasn’t slept and keeps having strong headaches. You drugged her didn’t you? You slippery fucking unicorn snake!” I wanted to slink away from the crowd, go back to my stall and let security handle it but something kept me there, kept me from turning away.

I couldn’t stand to see such hate and if I could do anything at all to alleviate the hate I would gladly step between them. I flared my horn and pushed them back away from each other to get some room to make my stand.

“Ponies please!” I stepped between them and now all eyes were on me.

“Oh great, the blue bleedin’ heart is here to preach at us.” Somepony from behind Ginger said.

“Get out of the way technician this doesn’t concern you.” Somepony else behind Doc Forceps said. I continued my stand undaunted.

“Let’s all just calm down a bit okay? No matter what our differences are, we’re all ponies. Nopony needs to get hurt.” Ginger took a couple steps forward and stared me down.

“Fuck you! This is about my daughter and she is already hurt.” Doc Forceps said nothing in her defense this time. This was not the first time I found myself in this situation. Trying to talk down angry ponies with few and often no supporters. I tried my best to stand up tall and puff out my chest but I’m certain I just looked silly.

“Let’s address the buffalo in the room. Why did you let Doc Forceps look at your daughter instead of your Doctor?” I asked making a move that might have gotten me kicked by poking her in the chest. Ginger’s ears drooped back and she let out a big sigh.

“Butterscotch asked to be taken to Forceps.” Now that was curious. I gave a confused stare back at Forceps hoping she’d have an explanation for everypony. It was difficult to read her expression being the serious caretaker she was but behind her glasses I thought I saw a glint of affection in her eyes. She cleared her throat and adjusted her glasses before she spoke.

“Butterscotch means a great deal to me Ginger.” Doc forceps stepped her way around me and laid a gentle hoof on Ginger’s shoulder. “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you this but she has been coming to see me in secret. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up, she told me so. I’ve been mentoring her for a few months now. Please believe me when I say that I would never do anything to harm that girl.” Ginger lifted her head to meet Forcep’s gaze. I could see tears forming in the corners of her eyes. I can’t be certain but I could swear I heard her whisper I’m sorry.

Before anything else could be said stable security arrived on the scene. “All right everypony, clear out, back to business as usual!” bellowed the voice of Security Chief Summer Blaze. She was flanked by four other guards. Slowly the crowds broke apart and went on their way back to wherever they belonged. Some mumbled to themselves as the passed me.

“Damn corns better watch themselves." I heard one say.

And another “Leave it to those hornless to get all worked up over nothing.” It’s an unfortunate truth but scenes like this were common amongst the stable. As far back as anypony can remember it has always been this way. The Stable was divided, Unicorns and Earth ponies in their own separate sections with their own Overmares, sharing only the cafeteria, atrium and hallways. That created mutual mistrust, rumors and the like. When something went wrong it was always the other groups fault. There were exceptions like with the Doc just now but they seldom came to make a difference on the whole.

Then you get ponies like me, the mediators who try their damnedest to keep confrontation like this from escalating. I let out a big sigh of relief and went to return to my stall. My reception was mixed. Sarcastically clopping his hooves together was Crescent Wrench still sitting at his desk.

“Congratulations to the big damn hero of Stable 63!” he spoke with mock reverence. “Seriously Sparks, why do you bother? You still tryin’ to impress that school teacher?” he wiggled his eyebrows on that last part which made me stop and think. Why do I do it? I don’t really know myself but it was just a conviction I’ve always had. My mother used to tell me stories of way back before the war, when every pony got along with one another. Maybe that was my secret longing, the source of my conviction. I was roused from my thoughts by the maintenance officer who came out from her office and snapped me back to reality.

“Sparks! Did ya hear what I said?” She sounded annoyed.

“Umm… no ma’am, is everything okay?” She facehoofed and sighed.

“No it isn’t, a tremor just passed and I’m gonna be down one worker. The Overmare sent for you, get goin’ before she gets impatient.” The Overmare? What did she want with me? I’m just a maintenance worker. I felt fear creep on me as terrifying possibilities multiplied in my head. I couldn’t find any words on my tongue, so I nodded my acknowledgement and backed out to the hall with just a wave to my co-workers.

I turned to head down the hall and bumped headfirst into a burgundy colored muzzle surrounded by light brown mane. “Ack!” I cried, falling back against the maintenance door. I rubbed the back of my head and sucked in a breath through my teeth. “Owww, Summer? What the hell? You still here?” She placed a hoof on her chest and nodded.

“That’s right Sparky, I am to be your escort to the Overmare.” Escort? Now I was really terrified. What had I done? Was she going to reassign me? Banish me? Make me clean the Stable door again!? The possibilities were many and frightening. I don’t know how long I sat contemplating what was going to happen but eventually Summer must have lost her patience and gave me a tap on the shoulder.

“Hellooo? Sparks? C’mon we don’t want to keep the Overmare waiting.” I jumped up faster than I thought the situation would allow and motioned for her to lead on. It was all I could do to keep my mind from wandering any farther.

By the time we got up to the living quarter’s section I found myself contemplating possibilities that were less emotionally debilitating. Maybe she wants to promote me? Or reward me in some way? But that again begged the question. Why? Either way, good or bad, I wasn’t somepony exemplary. Both scenarios were equally confusing in my mind. I tried to pump more brain power into the building mystery before Summer freed me from my fortress of thought.

“So, how are you and Winter doing Sparks?”

My thought process came to a screeching halt. “Wha- huh?” I blurted, caught off guard by the sudden derailing. I coughed into my hoof to try and regain some composure and wrap my head around the question before addressing her.

“We are doing okay, I guess. Not exactly too many romantic places to take a date.” Summer smiled and turned to face me as we walked.

“You know she thinks the world of you and so do I. Even though you are always making work for me and my team by playing hero. I’m really glad you were able to pull my little sister’s head out of those old books.”

I rubbed the back of my head again sheepishly. “She’s really come into her own hasn’t she?”

Summer chuckled. “She really has. The kids at the schoolhouse love her, she’s making friends and she’s dating a unicorn. You're really the best thing that’s happened to her in years.”

I never thought of our getting together as anything more special than anypony else and changing her certainly wasn’t my intention. I didn’t care that she was an earth pony and I was a unicorn but maybe I have a biased opinion since I was the product of such a union.

“Heh, yeah.” I agreed.

We climbed the stairs up to the unicorn Overmare’s office in silence until Summer’s PipBuck made a little noise. She lifted her foreleg to look at the little computer like device and sighed.

“Shit, another incident, I trust you can find your way there from here?” She winked before trotting back down the stairs with a wave. “See ya later Sparks!” I waved back even though she was out of sight.

“Yeah, see ya later.” I whispered to myself as I found myself staring down the Overmare’s door. I suddenly felt fear form in the pit in my stomach. Even though I entertained the idea that this encounter could go either way, I couldn’t have prepared for the level of fear I was feeling at that moment. I inhaled a large breath to ease my nerves to no avail. Suddenly I was a colt again, playing the counting game. I’ll knock on three I thought over and over again. I counted to two once, twice, three times, extending and pulling back my hoof each time. I bet I could have stood there forever, that is until the door fwooshed open revealing Overmare Rose Thorn’s face.

“Eep.” I managed to squeak from my surely ridiculous looking pose.

“Ah Mr. Sparks, there you are. Please, come have a seat.” I flinched when she said my name but I had no choice but to obey now that I was in her sights. I did as instructed, taking my seat opposite her desk as she sauntered back to her seat. She slowly folded her hooves together over her desk.

“I bet you’re wondering why I called you here.” She said softly. Truthfully, I was desperately wanting and fearing an answer simultaneously. Yet I couldn’t find my voice. I sat in front of the pony who could either be my savior or executioner. Every feeling I was having sunk so far down my body I almost fell out of my chair. I swallowed hard and managed enough strength for a nod.

“I’ve been watching you Mr. Sparks. Watching you talk down aggressors whenever one of our own butts heads with a hornless. I’m also not the only one watching.” She motioned to the circular window overlooking our atrium.

“Some of those ponies look up to you, even if you don’t know it. It may not seem like such an accomplishment given our environment but the way I see it, if they look up to you that should be reflected in your position.”

Curiosity helped me find my courage and thus my voice. “What are you saying Overmare?” my voice low, just above a whisper.

“I’m saying that I’m giving you a new, more important role in the Stable. You are a model of how a pony should treat others. Those ponies out there have put a measure of trust in you and I’m returning the favor so to speak.”

I was stunned. Of all the things I expected, a promotion for essentially being a ‘good’ pony was not one of them. I quickly felt the fear and dread drain away to be replaced by joy and relief. I cracked a big goofy grin. I just couldn’t help it. I had built up this idea in my mind that nothing good could come of our meeting but I was wrong. Dead wrong. The Overmare grinned with me.

“Since you are currently in maintenance, I thought it fitting to bump you up to chief engineer. That means you’ll be supervising the day to day operations of the spark generator, electrical grid and power distribution. Congratulations Chief Engineer Sparks.”

I was dumbstruck. I just went from general repairpony to chief engineer. I was happy sure but I was also just a bit skeptical.

“Are you sure I’m qualified Ma’am?” I half scoffed, half laughed. “I don’t know the first thing about running a whole department.” She just nodded.

“Don’t worry we’ll ease you into it and train you as you go.” I had more questions that I wanted answered but before I could vocalize them the Overmare beat me to it. “Report to the generator room tomorrow and we’ll get you broken in. Dismissed.”

“Yes Ma’am” I replied swiftly and let myself out of the office.

The first logical step was obviously to brag, so after a quick trot back down to the living area I found my old quarters and knocked. A few seconds later the door opened and I saw her. White Lily, my mother. Her white coat and blonde, slightly greying mane looked as regal and dignified as ever.

“Hey Mom.” I smiled warmly. “May I come in?” she shared my smile.

“Of course sweetie, you don’t need to ask.” The old apartment looked as decorative as ever. Mom was a natural artist in every sense of the word. From paintings to sewing to sculptures and music, she cornered the market. She says it runs in the family but I certainly missed out. Being the stable’s best artist her work was in high demand. It was no surprise to see more than one apartment that was just as colorful as hers. Though she did lose some of her passion after dad died in an accident with the spark generator and was incinerated.

I found a seat and Mom followed suit.

“So what brings you by sweetie?”

Without hesitating I just blurted it out. “Mom, I got promoted. The Overmare just made me chief engineer!”

A puzzled expression found its way to her face. “Really? You must have been working very hard then.”

“That’s just the thing, I haven’t, not really. She said it was essentially for standing up for earth ponies.”

“That’s wonderful dear.” Excitement had beaten away the confusion. “It’s good to see such a noble belief like yours rewarded so highly. Your father would be so proud of you.” I smiled in embarrassment.

“Thanks Mom that means a lot.” She reached across to me and took my hoof in hers.

“You absolutely must let me plan a celebration for you.” In that instant I saw some of her old passion flash in her eyes. That alone made me happier than any party could.

“Yes please, that’d be great.”

“Wonderful! I’ll get to work immediately. Come by tomorrow after work and we can discuss some ideas and see if we can’t persuade our way into the atrium.” And with that she practically leapt of her seat, grabbing this and that in her levitation in a whirlwind of creativity.

“Sounds great Mom, I’m gonna go tell Winter so I’ll leave you to it.” She heard me but I don’t think she was listening but I didn’t mind. It was just so great to see her like that again.

Another quick trot around the hallways led me to my next destination. Home. I stepped in through the doorway, removing my utility barding and hanging it up near the bed. I spun around looking all over the room.

“Winter? You home?” A hiss from the bathroom door behind me drew my gaze in its direction for me to see Winter Gleam emerge from the room with some steam following her out, a towel wrapped around her mane.

“You’re home early Sparky.” She reached up to continue toweling off her mane.

“Yeah I am and you’ll never guess why.” I said with exaggerated smugness.

“Oh?” she cocked her head to the side, throwing her towel back into the bathroom. “You sound excited, so what is it?” She asked as she walked back into the bathroom. “Come in here and tell me about it.” She stopped in front of the mirror and grabbed her brush and began pulling it through her mane. I followed her inside and also faced the mirror getting a look at us.

I was about a head taller than Winter allowing us to talk into the mirror without losing the simple act of eye contact. Winter’s coat was as white as her namesake with a dark blue short feathered mane and tail with little pink streaks in them. She wore a flower shaped pendant on a chain around her neck, a gift I had given her long ago. Her cutie mark was of a pink flower. As for myself, I too had a coat color that matched my namesake. Sort of. I had an electric blue coat with a neck length dull silver mane and tail.

“I got a promotion.” I stated flatly. Hoping to elicit some kind of reaction out of her. She turned to face me directly lifting an eyebrow.

“Why?” caution was evident in her tone. But not for much longer.

“That’s the best part. Nothing! I got a promotion for nothing.” I smiled my biggest smile. Winter poked me in the chest.

“Sparky that doesn’t make any sense. That’s not how a promotion works.” I chuckled and booped her nose.

“I know. The Overmare said it was for being a good pony. She said some of the other residents have started looking up to me for trying to mediate conflict between our two groups. And because of that she wants me to have a more active role in the stable.” I struck my most heroic pose “Say hello to the new chief engineer!” Winter looked puzzled.

“Your Overmare promoted you just for being you?” She wrapped me in a tight hug. “That’s so great Sparky! I can hardly believe it. I’m so happy for you.”

“I’m happy for us. Who’d have thought that my heroics would not only net me an awesome marefriend but a better job too?” I broke the hug to prance around the room like a little colt on Hearth’s Warming Eve.

A sudden kiss planted on my lips broke me out of my silly dance. Winter wrapped her hooves around my neck and as our lips separated she looked up at me with half-lidded eyes.

“I think we should do a little ‘celebrating’ of our own.” I saw a delicate blush form on her cheeks. A blush that soon found its way to mine. She gingerly stepped out the door, brushed her tail under my chin and motioned me towards the bed with her hoof. I could feel my blush threatening to singe my fur. When we reached the bed she slowly crawled over the blankets and pillows, giving me her best come hither look. That desire in her eyes caught me off guard, forcing a little excitement spark to shoot out of my horn. Then… well… a gentlecolt never kisses and tells.

A rather surprising ending to a surprising day. Yet they paled in comparison to the surprise that would await me the following day.

Chapter One: Reality Lost

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Chapter One: Reality Lost

“Sometimes the truth is cruelest of all”

I had no idea what to expect as I trotted down the hallways towards the Spark generator. I felt better than I had in weeks and after some more celebrating this morning in the shower I was ready for anything. I hoped that the position was mostly managerial instead of hooves-on but fate rarely took a fair form. With that thought staking its place in the front of my mind I inhaled deeply and prepared myself for what was to come through the doors standing before me.

The doors retracted upwards with a hiss allowing me the visage of what I would soon be responsible for. The room itself didn’t stand out much beyond a symmetrical layout with what I assumed to be power reading monitors dominating the front. To both sides were doors leading to the stables inner workings, if the signs above them were to be believed. In front of the array of monitors sat the only pony I could see in the room. She was sat in a chair typing away at her terminal doing Celestia knows what before she spun around to face me.

“Well hello there, you must be Sparks.” She was an elderly unicorn mare wearing comically oversized glasses and a stable lab coat.

“Uhh… hello?” I responded nervously. I held out my hoof to extend a proper greeting and when she took it a peculiar look appeared behind her timeworn eyes.

“Ah, I see…so…it’s you.” She looked into my eyes with a piercing gaze when she spoke and it almost sounded like she was in awe. I withdrew my hoof quickly.

“Excuse me?” she looked into my eyes again but this time she saw me.

“Oh, I was just… flustered! Yes that’s it…flustered.” What is with this old mare? “There is something you should go have a look at.” Her tone had gone from flustered to serious in ten seconds flat.

“What do you mean? I thought I was to receive an orientation of some kind.” I couldn’t quite figure this old mare out, was she keeping something from me?

“No time for that, we must get you down to the spark generator ASAP.” Now I was getting very suspicious. This crazy mare definitely knew something I didn’t. What was her angle? I thought it in my best interest to come up with an excuse.

“I may be the new chief engineer but as of now it is in title only. I don’t think it’d be wise to fumble with machinations I do not yet understand.” Nicely done me, way to pull that shiny new rank! Yet she was undaunted.

“I understand that but trust me dear, it would be best for all of us if you just go down there and do as I ask. You needn’t worry about how it works.” I was really starting to get frustrated now but before I could voice my annoyance I noticed a subtle glow from the tip of her horn.

Of course I would need to know how it works you loon. Is what I wanted to say but that wasn’t what came out. “I suppose I don’t need the details.

“You will go down to the spark generator and investigate.”

I will do no such thing. “Sure, what am I looking for?”

“Don’t worry it will all become clear once you arrive. Oh and once you get there forget we ever spoke.”

Like hell I will, this is going right to the Overmare. As soon as I was alone I would be sending the Overmare a message. “All right I’ll play along.” I nodded and made to move out the door, I’ll show this old bat what happens when you try to bewitch me.

The position was starting to seem like it was just for show, especially since the setup was mostly automated. Perhaps then it was just for appearance? Then what was the point? Lead the level with the most automated duties and one crazy old witch? I hate to admit that I didn’t actually know where the spark generator was but for the moment I was content to wander my domain and get a feel for things. Eventually I did find it and once I got a look at it I had the strangest feeling in the back of my mind. Wasn’t I supposed to do something when I got here? What did that mare say? Did she even say anything? I stood there staring at the device, trying to force a memory that just didn’t exist to surface with no luck. Finally frustration won the day and I gave up. I was about to storm out when something caught my eye. I loose panel had fallen from underneath the generator.

I bent down to peer into the gap between the generator and floor to see that it was a tight fit under there. The generator itself was a large circular device partially suspended over a semicircular indentation. For what purpose? Who the hell knows but that was where I found myself squirming. Once I was situated I saw that the panel that had fallen hid a power distributor. It didn’t take me long to worm my way under it and secure the panel back into place. Now that I was done I tried to shuffle back the way I came. Seconds later I was stuck. Well now I feel stupid. I had crammed as much of myself as I could underneath it in my curious haste to find the problem. It was as I was thrashing around that a thought sprung from the back of my mind. The indentation feels hollow underneath me yet my body was a little behind as I continued to thrash around regardless. After I don’t know how long I gave up my effort to free myself and just laid there. Real nice Sparks, look at you stuck under there like a… wait a second. I could hear something under me. Something below me clicked and part of the indentation dipped to one side. Goddesses it really was hollow!

Fear found its way deep into my heart, freezing my body despite my desire to run or crawl or anything. I screamed at the top of my lungs yet even I couldn’t hear my words as I slid down through the gap into the dark hole below. I reached out and tried to catch anything I could to slow my descent. My panicky flailing only got me scraped and bloody hooves as my body struck a flat surface and pain shot up my spine to my eyes where my vision had started to fade. I could hear my own haggard breathing and rhythmic heartbeat in my ringing ears. I tried to call for help but couldn’t find the strength to form words as darkness fully crept into my vision.

***

I awoke sometime later with a heavy throbbing in my head. It was a struggle to even open my eyes let alone try to stand. It was as I tried to find my balance that a sharp stabbing pain snaked its way up my right hind leg. The worst part of all was that I couldn’t focus on anything, where I was or how I got here.

I pressed on the only direction I could go and because of my bad leg I was constantly losing my balance as I clung to the wall for support. I could hardly keep my eyes open as irregular periods of ringing would assault my ears and when I did manage to keep them open it was like looking through a haze. I continued forward at a slow pace until I felt an indentation that I assumed was a door. I flailed my hoof around hoping I would bump into an access panel. I was rewarded with the sweetest sound of the door hissing open and then the thump of my body hitting the floor.

Despite my body’s every protest I managed to just so slightly peek through my squinted eyes. What I saw was almost enough to bring a tear to my eye if there weren’t some there already. Up on the wall next to the door was a yellow, pink striped box with three little butterflies in the center, the universal indicator of a first-aid box. With all my remaining strength, I managed to pull my crumpled form underneath the box and reach up towards it. A soft click later and a moment of pain as the box’s contents spilled out on top of me, one glass bottle breaking on my head and another just to the left of it.

Amidst the clutter one bottle survived which I immediately snatched, opened, and drank its contents greedily to the last drop. A warm sensation formed in my stomach and then gradually spread through the rest of my body. Within seconds the fog in my vision dissipated, the ringing in my ears vanished and my focus returned. The pain in my leg however was still there, not as severe but still there. Fortunately magical bandages don’t break on your head when they fall on you, so I scooped them up and wrapped them around my leg. Now that I had the ability to stand without help, I could figure out just what in Luna’s name happened.

The room I was in was poorly lit and had very little inside it beyond the first-aid box and a lone desk with a terminal on it. Now I’m normally not a pony who snoops through another pony’s things but after what I just went through I think I earned a snoop. I limped my way over to the desk, keeping careful to keep pressure off my leg and sat down. Now I may have said I didn’t snoop but I could get my way into a locked terminal, you know, for repair stuff. Working for the repair staff had its perks such as my special tools that granted me access to the terminals code, now all that remained was finding the right password.

Hacking the terminal was surprisingly easy, almost as if the protection was just a formality, like owner had one hundred percent confidence nopony else would ever read it. The password was “perfection” and appearing on the pale green glow of the screen read “Welcome Chief Scientist” and beneath that were three files I could view. I started with the first labeled “Prime Directive”.

Welcome to Stable63. Stable 63 is part of a top-secret scientific program. Should the unthinkable happen and megaspells destroy our fair nation it would fall upon us to breed the stock of a new world. The goal of this project is the redefining of ponykind’s genetics. Fear, paranoia, and lastly hate. It is these feelings and emotions that brought the war upon us and it is these traits we seek to repair. The refinement of the pony genome will be a process that will likely take generations but we believe it can be altered rapidly with selective breeding and genetic modification. The gene lab has also been equipped with top tier cloning technology should the stable’s population provide few non-viable subjects. To this end, we have built stable 63 with a secondary stable above the labs. It is here the divided population of unicorns and earth ponies should, over time, produce for us individuals fit for genetic harvesting. You will maintain a healthy relationship with the Overmares of the above test stable, as it is from them you will be receiving test subjects selected at their discretion.

I was in a whole other stable. The one I came from, the one I was born in, was nothing more than a breeding ground for the science ponies who lived down here in the true stable 63. Stable-Tec didn’t care about our lives. They only cared for their experiment, the one we were meant to die for. I was starting to sweat and hyperventilate. My very existence was nothing more than to be harvested by these scientists, or die a meaningless death above. In an attempt to prevent a panic attack I pressed on to the next entry, hopefully to occupy my mind despite my every wish that I could close my eyes and make it all go away. The next entry read “Staff Replacement”.

For the sake of the “experiment” in the stable above, the science team staff will consist of exclusively pegasi. With the labs advanced cloning technology, whenever a pegasi embryo is discovered in the above stable, it will be safely removed to the lab and replaced with one of the aforementioned sub-species. However given the overall goal of stable 63, should a Pegasus be found with the desired traits (see prime directive or review the chief scientist briefing packet.) do not hesitate to escort them to the genomics lab and harvest them (do not forget the genetic harvesting protocol.) Do so without their knowledge so they will be more compliant and submissive during the standard harvesting procedure. The harvesting of a staff member should be decided at the discretion of the Overmares and chief scientist.

Pegasi? I remembered once, way back when I was in school that I was told that, even though it’s rare, two unicorns or two earth ponies or a mixed pairing can sometimes produce a Pegasus. My breathing had slowed to a manageable and much less panicky state as I eyed the last entry I could access. Unlike the other two, which were dated presumably before the stable was sealed, the last one was dated about 20 years ago.

This is absolutely unacceptable, this is not the first time a subject has overpowered my staff but it is the first time one managed to escape the lab and then the stable as a whole. With this turn of events I demand additional placed security at the stable door. Despite our warnings to the population some are unafraid of what we tell them of the outside. And they are right. The “Wasteland” as the scouts called it, is quite livable as far as radiation is concerned and habitable by the environmental sensors standards. The nearby city of Baltimare is also still mostly intact. Should the escapee return and spread the word of the surface we could have a full revolt on our hooves. I needn’t remind you of how important our work is if Equestria is to ever have a future. I will not allow centuries of work to be all for naught so again I say post some ponies at the door. He must never return and nopony else must ever escape.

-Chief Scientist Flash Freeze


The terminal indicated that the message was sent to both Overmares but that’s not what drew my interest. Somepony had escaped. I didn’t have to resign to the harvest. Although my chances looked dismal and if the message was to be believed, I wouldn’t be able to slip out unnoticed. Maybe I can get back to the top stable? Perhaps forget all that I learned and go back to my life as chief engineer with Winter.

Sadly I was denied action on either course as who I assumed to be the chief scientist walked in the room. He was an older white-blue Pegasus stallion with a white mane. His face was not one I expected to see on a pony who lived their whole life in a lab. He had deep wrinkles around his eyes and forehead. Upon seeing me his wrinkled brow furrowed in anger and surprise. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” he barked and punctuated each question with a hoof stomp.

My courage was nowhere to be found and when I didn’t answer he unfolded his wings and with a look of unbridled hatred leapt into the air and flew into me, knocking the wind out of me and for the second time today pushing me into unconsciousness.

***

I awoke in what definitely fit the bill for when I think lab. All around me were little desks and tables littered with the usual science paraphernalia; beakers and flasks filled with colorful liquids, microscopes and the like. Beyond those tables were terminals filled with years upon years of data regarding their gene project. Finally peppered between all those stations were several pegasi in lab coats, some resumed their work as if nothing was amiss and others stole glances in my direction.

I was sat in a rather uncomfortable chair near the center of the room. Near me was a large round table where papers and notes of all kinds were strewn about, their significance unknown to me. Above me was a circular balcony for what I assumed was another floor. In each direction on the far walls were collections of terminals. It was then that I noticed that each section of the staff wore different colored coats.

It dawned on me that this particular room must have been like a melting pot of sorts. Four teams of different sciences were working on whatever the hell was their focus and compiling their data on the center table. It was almost admirable to see them working so well together towards a singular goal. This was what I wanted for my stable but seeing it in effect now, down here, was eerie.

I went to rub the fog from my eyes when I realized that my forelegs were shackled together.

“Ah, you’re awake.” Spoke a voice from up on the balcony. A voice I recognized. Overmare Rose Thorn. After what I read it wasn’t a surprise knowing she was involved in the grand scheme. She smirked and let out a little chuckle.

“You weren’t supposed to arrive here for at least another week or so. I’ll have to teach our caretaker the meaning of patience.” I furrowed my brow.

“What do you mean by that?” Rose Thorn sighed and shook her head.

“Now Sparks, it’s not befitting of you to lie to me.” From behind her appeared the stallion from before who took a place beside her. “Flash Freeze told me he caught you snooping through his terminal.” I mustered as much strength as I could to respond.

“Why?” Was all I was able to manage. Rose chuckled again and continued her speech.

“When we find ponies like you with the desired traits, we move them to jobs that some would consider dangerous. That way when we tell the general population of their 'mortal accidents' they believe us. Then, we secretly move them here and the rest you know. Or you’ll find out very soon.” She punctuated her last remark with a smug grin.

She nodded towards Flash who nodded back and flew down to me. What was I going to do? They were going to harvest me! I had to stall for some time. I stood from my chair and pushed Flash aside. I looked up at Rose with determination in my eyes.

“Why!? Why do you keep this up? The world outside is destroyed!”

“That is precisely why. The world was destroyed by foolish ponies who lost their very natures. We have so many genomes mapped, we are so close to creating the perfect pony. Then we will rebuild and Equestria will be better than it was before the war.” She took a stance like she was reciting holy words.

“You can’t do this to ponies, lie to us and keep us contained. We can’t live like that, waiting to die or being killed down here.” Rose scoffed.

“Bold words from a pony who just learned of the truth. It is no different than if you lived your entire life up above. This way your death at least serves a purpose. Your being will help shape the future of ponykind. Stable-Tec granted us that power and I WILL exercise it. Besides, no matter how many have to die for this cause, the cost is worth it to revive Equestria. These ends justify the means and these means will secure our future. Equestria thanks you for your sacrifice Sparks.” She had nothing more to say. Flash pushed forward towards one of the adjoining hallways but I had figured out what I needed. A distraction!

As we passed one of the tables with beakers on them, I shook off Flash Freeze and bucked one of the table’s legs as hard as I could. The weight of all the things that littered the table brought it down with a crash. Two different colored liquids met and instantly burst into flames. The flames followed the liquids to their source and exploded, sending globs of flame all over the room.

The staff members ran and flew back and forth across the room in a panic, trying to do whatever they could to save papers that were going up in smoke. Smoke that activated the warning klaxons, flashing lights and sprinklers on the roof. Flash stood there mouth agape in pure shock.

“What have you done?” He spoke softly. “What. Have you. DONE!” his pupils shrunk down to pinpricks as they simultaneously filled with rage. He reared back and brought his hoof down hard across my face, sending me crashing down onto the floor. I could feel a split in my cheek where blood now freely dripped. Flash reared back again to crush my skull but before he could a loud popping sound as well as the scent of ozone filled the room.

Flash looked back over his shoulder to see a screen on one of the terminals blow and then catch fire. He forgot me immediately.

“NOOOO! You fools! Save the data!” He screamed over the klaxons to rally his staff. I quickly rose to my hooves and shuffled my way up the stairs to the balcony where Rose was. As I crested the top of the stairs I saw her turn tail and gallop down a different hallway. Behind where she was standing was what looked like an access elevator. I had no idea where it led but given my surroundings, I doubted I’d survive if they got their hooves on me again.

I moved as quickly as I could to the elevator door and mashed the summon button over and over again. For fucks sake, when were buttons going to understand urgency!? A relief bringing *ding* sounded as the door slid open. Without skipping a beat I leapt inside and repeated the process on the only destination button inside. The ride up the elevator was an unsettling contrast to what I just experienced. While down below ponies were running to and fro trying salvage their life’s work in a flurry of dancing flames and here I stood in a box trying to calm myself with only my rapid heartbeat and some obnoxiously upbeat polka music to grace my surroundings.

Another *ding* sounded, announcing my arrival to… a dark hallway that ended in a staircase to nowhere. I stood in the dark for a moment before I remembered I had a light. Now that the hallway was illuminated I noticed a little access terminal mounted to the wall near the start of the stairs. Seeing no alternative, I plugged in my PipBuck’s adapter cord and got to work. The security on this terminal was substantially tougher than the one before, taking a good ten minutes to get in and once I was there was only one command ‘Open Emergency Tunnel’. The ceiling above me hummed with life as it was pulled away, completing the stairs to my escape. The room I stood in appeared to be the Overmare’s office but her desk was missing. Then, as if on cue, the mechanism that hid the secret elevator room moved back into place, reforming as the Overmare’s desk.

It was then that I knew my escape was not the end of my misfortune. I noticed that the warning klaxon and choking presence of smoke had never stopped, even as I exited the elevator. The entire stable was on high alert. The artificial lighting that illuminated most of the stables corridors were off and replaced by spinning, flashing warning lights which cast a dull orange glow through the smoke filtering in from the labs. I couldn’t just stand there, I had to find help. After some mental reassurance from myself I opened the doors and descended to the living quarters.

What I saw was chaos. There were ponies everywhere fighting, wounding and killing each other. All the commotion, the klaxons, lights and smoke must have finally ignited their paranoia into the explosion of madness I saw before me. A myriad of security ponies were scattered throughout the masses, quelling the fighting as best they could. Pure adrenaline spurred me on as I ran as fast as I could through the carnage with the shackles still binding my legs.

As I ran I saw Crescent Wrench fighting with an earth pony stallion whom he struck on the head with a security baton. My first light of hope in a sea of despair.

“Crescent!” I tried to shout over the din of conflict. I made a beeline straight towards him. I was out of breath when I reached him. I panted heavily between words. “Crescent can… you please… get these shackles… the fuck offa… me?” His mouth was dripping with fresh blood and his expression showed little empathy.

“You’d better get the fuck outta my face RIGHT NOW!” He swung his baton at me in his telekinetic grasp then charged past me and yelled. “If I see you again I will kill you!” Why was he angry at me? Before I could ask another question I lost him in the crowd of ponies. In front of me, behind where he was standing was the body of an earth pony mare who had had her throat tore out. Disgust welled up in my body, which I violently released on the floor. The discomfort hit hard, but not as hard as the realization that Crescent had done this with his teeth. The blood from his mouth wasn’t his. Another convulsion hit my stomach but what little I had in my body was already out so I was just retching up nothing as my body was racked with pain.

The fatigue set in quick as I shakily got to my hooves and just kept running. Turn after turn I ran, seeing the same scene again and again. I turned another corner ran headfirst into sompony’s hoof. I fell back and hit the floor hard as stars started crowding my vision. Then I saw a pony shaped form hovering over me, a security baton in their mouth. “Spahks?” the voice spoke around the baton. My assailant spat the baton down with a clang and lifted me to my hooves.

My vision cleared revealing my would-be attacker: Summer Blaze.

“Sparks, I’m so glad you’re ok! I can’t believe I found you.” She pulled me into a tight embrace.

“I’m… glad…” Was all I had breath for, the rest had been hugged out of me. She released me from her hold and pulled my face to hers, gazing intently into my eyes.

“Tell me you had nothing to do with this. Tell me this isn’t your fault.” The relief in her voice melted away, replaced by worry and concern. How would she know I was even involved? The fire only started about 15 minutes ago.

“What are you saying Summer?” It looked like she was just barely containing tears.

“The Overmares put out an alert that you are to be captured or killed. They say that you started the riot.” Summer shook me slightly, her eyes never straying. “So tell me! Tell me you’re innocent!” Her grasp tightened around me, her eyes welling up with tears. I reached out and touched her cheek.

“Summer, I would never do anything to hurt my friends.” Summer released me and wiped away her tears, a small smile appearing on her lips. It may have been the truth but it was a partial truth, I was still responsible overall and lying to her cut me but it wasn’t my fault.

“I knew it, I just knew you would never put my sister in danger… Oh?” She looked down to my shackled forelegs. “Here let me get those off.” The shackles hit the floor and I sighed in relief.

“That’s so much better… uh what are you doing?” Summer was stripping out of her security barding.

“You’re going to need this.” She said as she shoved it into my hooves.

“I don’t understand.” I looked at the barding in my hooves, then back to her.

“Somepony’s got to be held responsible for this. If it’s not going to be you, you are going to need this to get out of the stable. The other guards probably won’t let you go if they catch you.” I checked my PipBuck’s auto sorting spell to see fully what I had been gifted. Besides the barding itself, she gave me her pistol in its holster and some ammunition.

“Aren’t you going to need some of this?” I said, trying to give her the pistol back. I had never fired one before and even if I kept it I doubt I could make much use of it.

“Keep them, you’re gonna need ‘em more than me. The stable door’s override code is in the saddlebags too.” She picked up her baton and took a strong stance. “Now don’t worry about me, I can handle the rabble. Now go, get going, the stable door isn’t far.” I couldn’t speak. I was afraid, afraid of leaving my home, afraid of what might happen to Winter or Mother. But I couldn’t stay they would kill me or harvest me if I did. I couldn’t risk their safety and maybe, just maybe I could find help outside so I could come back and free them. I choked back some tears of my own, my voice cracking.

“Take care of Mother for me would you? A-and tell Winter…t-tell Winter I lo-” She placed her helmet over my head, silencing me.

“I will.” She gave me one more hug before pushing me where I needed to go. “Now get going, I’ll do what I can to get you to that door.” I turned and headed down the hall towards my destination. I stopped and turned back to her with a forlorn look. I blinked away my tears and pressed on.

The disguise worked well enough, most guards I ran past didn’t give me a second glance and it pained me to pass by so many scenes of violence but I couldn’t help them, not now. The stable door was in my sight. A gear-shaped door, four feet thick emblazoned with a giant yellow 63. Guarding the access panel stood two guards who were either unaware of the riots or were very steadfast in their duties.

I ducked out of sight and slipped around the left side of the door behind the release mechanism. Just below me where the guards stood I heard a crackle of static.

“Yes Captain?” One of them asked. His voice was low and gruff.

“Stonewall, I need you and your partner to help suppress the riots. Get your flanks down to the living quarters.” From behind my cover I could hear them shuffle around, unsure how to respond.

“B-but Captain we can’t leave our post, the Overmares-”

“Are nowhere to be found.” Summer cut them off. “And in their absence, I am commanding you to assist me to prevent further loss of life, or do you want that blood on your hooves?”

“Understood Captain.” The sound of clopping hooves disappeared out of the room, leaving me all alone. I exited my cover and stood before the massive steel door of Stable 63. I brought up my PipBuck again to access the sorting spell and find the override code. I found it and entered it into the access panel, it was CMCRS2. More klaxons started sounding as the giant metal arm above me lowed and extended. It grabbed the center of the door and pulled back. I was forced to cover my ears as the klaxons were drowned out by the vicious sound of metal scraping upon metal.

Once the door was fully recessed, the metal arm pulled it to the right revealing before me a wall of darkness. I took the smallest baby steps I could towards the black abyss. I closed my eyes and thought of my Mother, Winter and even Summer. Then I charged forward headfirst into the unknown.

After a brief moment standing still just beyond the doors edge with my eyes slammed shut, I opened them and saw a cave. I switched my PipBuck’s light on and saw that the rock walls and floor of the cave inclined slightly upwards and led to a wooden door at the end. I took a few tentative steps towards it as the klaxons sounded for the final time and the Stable door was loudly pushed back into place. I looked back at the Stable I called my home. The cave smelled of damp, rotting wood and scattered across the floor were pony skeletons that didn’t look as old as they should have been. It was then I noticed that the skeletons were dressed in strange garb and that two of them had holes blasted out the back of their skulls. Those ponies were killed after the bombs. What happened to the ponies out there? I suddenly felt very small and frightened. I broke and ran back to the Stable.

“I change my mind I don’t want to be alone!” I screamed at no one, clambering over a few rocks to get to the outside access panel. Ok ok CMCRS2… Denied!? “Oh no, oh shit, shit, oh fuck.” Goddesses no, the entry code was different! After several moments beating on the steel door I collapsed against it and just laid there for Luna knows how long, feeling sorry for myself. After a bit I finally stood up and wiped some tears from my eyes. “Won’t do much good if I just stay here and cry.” I whispered, trying to pump myself up. I reached the door and grasped the handle. Ok here it goes, just like they did, the escapee mentioned from the terminal. I inhaled and sighed deeply, threw open the door and took my first steps into the Wasteland.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Egghead – Your Stable smarts mean you gain an extra +2 skill points per level up.

Chapter Two: Wasteland Welcome

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Chapter Two: Wasteland Welcome

“Everypony you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”

I thought I knew what fear was. I thought I knew what it was to feel small and alone. I had no idea what fear was until I faced the massive expanse of the Equestrian Wasteland. This was nothing like facing the Overmare before, or almost being harvested for my genes. This was a level all its own. Before me lay pure devastation. When I read that the wasteland was livable from Flash Freeze’s terminal I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not what I saw.

Stretching out as far as the eye could see was the barren and scorched land, deeply hued in the colors brown and grey, occasionally the shriveled black corpse of a tree would grace the emptiness. At this point in my life I had no concept of outside, living in the cramped rooms and hallways of the stable made the freeing sensation I felt at all this empty space a foreign and unsettling one. Then I made the blunder of looking up.

I kept moving my eyes upward until my legs gave out and I doubled backwards onto the ground. Staring up at the big empty space between me and the blanket of clouds made me feel like I was falling deep in my core. For a moment I was suffocating, afraid that if I moved even a little I would go careening off the ground into the sky. I laid on the ground for several minutes letting every new sensation pass. The falling sensation left my stomach but was replaced by a strange gust of wind that caused a shiver to run down my spine, carrying on it unfamiliar smells of dust and decay. I braved a glance at the sky again and now that a fear of falling wasn’t my prime focus, I noticed a colossal cover of clouds, completely hiding the sky from view. To the north I could see the tall skeletal remains of skyscrapers, indicating that I was near what was once a major city.

A soft pinging noise alerted me to my PipBuck which notified me that the auto-mapping features had activated and set to work, marking the area I was standing near as Stable 63. After sparing a glance at the screen on my leg I spotted a sort of booth at the top of a small incline directly forward of the cave the stable was in. Filling my lungs with filthy, stale air, I checked the magazine in my pistol and headed up the hill towards the booth. The booth itself was made of metal and fairly small, barely big enough to house one pony. It looked to me that it was set up as a check-in like booth. One that checked if you were authorized to relocate there by Stable-Tec and the terminal I saw through the glass-less window confirmed my thoughts.

Wishing to do anything but wander away from the stable, I forced open the door to the booth, the doors hinges crying out from years of rust build up. The terminal itself was surprisingly still functional, the screen flickering on and off periodically, no doubt whatever powered this area was running low. The variety of options to pick on the screen were minimal, most were simply log information pages, checking what families made it into the stable. However, one particularly suspicious entry read ‘Message to Radiance’ I accessed the entry and was greeted by a preface: Error – Line to Stable 63 has been lost – message routed to directory terminal.

The date stamped on the message was one I recognized from school, the Last Day, the day the megaspells destroyed the world. The shockwaves of the blasts must have severed the communication lines from the outside, isolating us from the world…Not that anything would have come afterwards. I pressed a few more buttons and loaded the message:

Radiance, I know that I told you that Stable 63’s goal was very important when I named you Overmare but I’ve changed my mind. Playing with pony genes isn’t the answer, its ideas like this that escalated the war to what it is. I want you to decommission the labs and act as a control stable. Truthfully little sister, I’d rather you up and leave and instead head for Stable 54 under the old sun and moon cathedral. I know you want to stay because of him and if you do decide to stay, please put a stop to the gene experiments before they can even begin. Ponykind is something to be surpassed but not like this. I’m not telling the others, the experiment is just too dangerous, meddling with what we ponies are, it’s not right. Take care of yourself whatever you decide to do Radiance, I love you.

-SB

I felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach. Every part of my brain was screaming for justice, for revenge, for… anything. I had lived my whole life in the stable. Never knowing its true purpose and even though I only learned what that was today, knowing that it was never meant to be, that our lives could have mattered, that we wouldn’t have been stock for mad scientist ponies was emotionally and mentally defeating.

I took two steps away from the terminal and fell on my rump, my brain silenced, mouth agape. Our fate was decided by a message that never reached the stable, by a time frame as low as minutes. I didn’t know if I wanted to get up. I didn’t know if anything I did mattered. What was I? Was I meant to exist? Or was I nothing more than a statistic to be bred for ‘the greater good?’ I sat sulking in my sorrow of whether or not my existence meant anything…when I remembered I had a gun. A loaded gun. I levitated it out of my saddlebags, flung my helmet off my head and pressed it to my temple. I could feel tears form in my eyes and hear my heart beating in my barrel. I was never supposed to be I thought and pulled the trigger. *click* nothing. I pulled the trigger a few more times to the same effect. A quick inspection later I had, in my melancholy, forgotten to remove the safety. So I fixed my error and silently thanked nopony that Summer hadn’t given me a defective gun.

As the cold metal of the pistol touched my temple again I couldn't help but think of Summer. Thinking of her led me to thinking of my mother and then to Winter. They didn’t know the truth and they were still inside. It took all my strength to willingly leave the stable but I remembered why I did it in the first place. To save the stable, to save all those ponies from the labs that were never meant to be used. To save the ones closest to me from a fate that shouldn’t be. To save them all. I returned the gun to my bags, stood up, dusted myself off and walked right out of the cramped booth. I couldn't quit, not while they were still trapped. The stale wasteland air hit me again but this time I didn’t flinch, I didn’t close my eyes. I looked back at the cave that led to stable 63.

“I’ll be back guys, as soon as I can.” I turned and started walking north down the fractured road to the city I saw in the distance. “I’ll save you all.”

***

I walked for about an hour down a broken road without much to occupy my attention except the unsettling feeling of dirt and asphalt against my hooves. I had lost sight of the city’s decayed skyline so I didn’t know if I was traveling a direction that would be helpful to me or not, so in an effort to collect my bearings I climbed a small hill to the left off the road to survey the area. At the top of the hill rested a large rock jutting up towards the clouds. I poked my head around it and looked down the other side of the hill and saw the last thing I expected to see so soon.

Ponies! There was a group of ponies moving westward. Three adult stallions and a cart full of children being pulled by a two headed creature of some kind. I was so excited I was practically bouncing with joy. I almost called out to them when I noticed how they were dressed. One of the three stallions wore a simple leather vest and was carrying a whip in his mouth, the second had very spiky armor and was carrying an equally spiky bat. Lastly the third one, who I assumed to be the leader, or at least the strongest of the trio wore black and worn combat armor with no helmet because of his horn and was armed with both a small pistol like mine and what looked to be a shotgun.

The children on the other hoof wore practically nothing save for large metal collars with little red lights on them. I ducked back behind the rock and watched them carefully from safety. I had no idea what to make of this group. Before I could analyze any further one of the children, a little unicorn colt, locked eyes with me and started shouting. My legs turned to jelly as I slipped back behind the rock as fast as I could. I put my hooves over my eyes praying to anypony who would listen to keep me safe. The colt continued to yell.

“Guys look! We’re going to be ok, he’s here to save us!” Oh goddesses he was talking about me, those ponies were going to find me! I heard a loud cracking noise followed by a sharp cry.

“Shut it you little shit! Nopony’s coming to save you.” The colt’s voice was quieter and cracked.

“You’ll see.” He said defiantly sounding as if he was choking back tears. “He’s going to save us and kill-!” Another crack silenced the rest of what the colt had to say. Then I heard a deeper, smoother voice.

“Your parents are dead, your friends will suffer and nopony is coming for you.” A deafening boom echoed around us followed by a dull thud. “Let that be a lesson to the rest of you. Your new master doesn’t care if a few of you don’t make the trip. Be silent and your chances improve. Understand?” There were no voices. “Good.” I heard another whip crack followed by a sound of pain from the creature pulling the cart. I hyperventilated as quietly as I could and waited for the sound of the cart to disappear. When my breathing returned to normal and my heart quieted I felt calm enough to put my hooves down and open my eyes. I was still trembling slightly but I had to peek around the rock again. I don’t know what I thought I’d see, maybe I just wanted to confirm my fears.

Regardless of my intentions it didn’t change the fact that on the ground where the cart had previously been rested the still form of the little unicorn colt who saw me. His body was facing away from me. I very carefully approached the colt but was startled by the wet feeling I got from stepping in the damp dirt quickly absorbing the colt’s blood. Doing my best to ignore it I continued towards him. Again with seemingly no reason except to force myself to look upon what I already knew, I reached out and rolled the colt over so that I could see his face.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes again as I forced myself to look upon the mutilated face of the brave little colt. His head had been blown completely in half by that stallion’s shotgun. I fell back on my rump and stared into the distance. This was my fault. This colt’s only crime was seeing me and hoping that I could save him and I couldn’t. For believing in me, a stranger, he had to die. He had died for me. He had died for nothing.

True despair was something I had never felt before. Back in the stable a pony’s death meant something. That they had given their life in service of the greater good, even in the true stable a pony’s death meant something. I sat over the colt and cried. It didn’t make sense, he had to have died for something. It couldn’t be meaningless, it had to mean something and most of all it couldn’t have been for me. And that’s when the realization really hit me, he had died for me. Whether he meant to or not. I survived and he didn’t.

“Not for me.” I whispered. He had died trying to inspire hope in the others and I just hid, like the coward I was. “Not for me…” Tears were freely running down my face when I heard something approach me. I wiped my eyes and looked up to see a metal ball hovering in front of me with bug looking wings staring intently at me behind a faceless screen. I could feel the presence of somepony watching in silence behind the screen. I waved my hoof in front of the floating ball.

“Hello? Can anypony hear me?” A small crack of static popped out of the ball.

“You couldn’t have saved him you know.” Said a robotic voice.

“What?” I sniffled and blinked away the tears in my eyes. Did the robot ball see everything that just happened? It spoke again.

“You couldn’t have saved him. If you had tried you’d be dead too and what would that accomplish?” I didn’t understand. Was the pony behind the robot telling me to just let innocent ponies die? “A noble sacrifice is only worthwhile if you solve the problem at hoof. There are more slavers out there. You dying here wouldn’t have helped anypony.” I just sat back in silence, unsure of what to say.

“I’m sorry you had to experience something like this, it’s just the way the world is now.” I still couldn’t say anything, my attention was fixed on the colt on the ground. His coat was red and had a little comic book for a cutie mark. He didn’t deserve this. According to the voice, things like this were considered normal now. Slavery and murder, the farthest you could go from the Equestria that was.

“You should continue down this road here going north, eventually you’ll find a little settlement called Black Town. When you get to the gate tell them that you are looking for the Sky Lounge and they should let you in. While you’re there, try to make some friends. The wasteland is no place to travel alone.” It was a lot to take in given the circumstances. As the robot started to leave I shouted out.

“Wait! Who- who are you?” The robot turned back at me and was silent for a moment.

“…You can call me Watcher.” I looked to the ground in confusion.

“Watcher? W-what are you watching for?” The voice did not answer but continued to look in my direction. I stood to my hooves and stepped closer to the robot. “Tell me! Why are you helping me!?” As expected it just kept staring.

“Times up. I’m sorry. We’ll talk again soon.” Another crackle of static sounded from the robot and the source of the voice was replaced by an obnoxious orchestra of polka music. With that the robot turned away from me and started casually flying back the way I came. I watched in silence as it started up the hill I was just on before I gave chase.

“Hey! Where are you going!?” I shouted after it. I couldn’t let it get away. This was my chance to have so many questions about the world answered.

“Stop!” I don’t know if I really expected it to or not but by the time I was back on top of the hill I gave up on the thing as is just kept on going, spewing out its unbearable noise. I sighed heavily in defeat and looked back over my shoulder in the direction ‘Watcher’ told me about. A lead’s a lead I guess. I looked back to the little red colt before descending back down the hill.

“I’m sorry…” I whispered again as I turned my back on his still warm corpse.

***

The hour or so I’d been walking down the fractured highway that supposedly led to some kind of sanctuary had actually managed to enlighten me to how the wasteland worked. First and foremost, everypony wanted to kill you… probably. I can’t say I could back up my claim with evidence but the occasional gunshot sounding in the distance kept reminding me that I was never safe.

I remember in school they taught us about the dangers of balefire radiation and why we must not leave until the all clear was given from Stable-Tec. I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps they didn’t know everything about it. Across the landscape there grew almost nothing and what did grow did not present the image of life. Even though the grass was gone and the barren leaf-less trees were slowly deteriorating into sawdust I still saw signs of life, I also was detecting a strange smell that didn’t match up with the rest of the dirty and gritty world.

I kept to the road as best I could, too afraid to venture far from the safety of the asphalt, for what little it was worth. I paused a moment, craning my head over my shoulder. I swore I heard something behind me. I kept my gaze on my tail as I took a few tentative steps forward. Nothing. The sound had disappeared. Maybe it was all in my head after all. Letting out a relieved sigh I returned my attention to where I was going, just in time to for something to burst out of the ground behind me. The sound from before was back and in full volume, along with the sound of snapping claws and quiet hissing. When I turned to face the threat I saw that it was a large scorpion about half my size. Before my brain could process its fight or flight instincts it speared me in the chest with its venomous stinger. I yelped in surprise and fear as I felt it stab through my armor. I backpedaled as fast as I could, pulling myself off the stinger to see the brown-green venom spew from its tip. I didn’t feel any pain which meant my armor stopped it and that was good but I still had the threat at hoof to deal with. I quickly drew my pistol, remembering to release the safety and attempted to take aim. Adrenaline surged through my system, making my grasp shaky as the pistol wavered in my magical grasp. The scorpion skittered towards me, its stinger raised to strike again. Whether by chance or luck I managed to dodge it, though my graceless movements cost me my hold on the pistol. It hit the asphalt and bounced behind the scorpion, leaving me defenseless. In desperation I began to prepare a spell when in an instant a loud boom sounded and the scorpion erupted a spray of green-yellow blood. I was scared stiff.

I slowly turned my head back the way I came. Standing there was a large brown earth pony stallion with a mounted saddle like machine holding two large rifles, one off each side and a hairless orange-brown two-headed cow pulling a cart. The stallion leaned in closer and squinted his eyes.

“Hmmm I ain’t never seen you before. Ya headin to Black Town?” I was still scared stiff. I just stood there cowering slightly, trying desperately to summon my courage. For the moment the best I could manage was a nod. He started walking closer to me, I instinctively closed my eyes. With every heavy hoofstep I flinched. I was ashamed of myself. I despised that my hidden trait brought out by the wasteland was cowardice. No matter how hard I tried or how badly I wanted to stand up in the face of this stranger, my body wouldn’t move. I couldn’t hear hoofsteps anymore and I could sense the presence of a warm body very close to me. My eyes refused to open. I did the only thing my body would allow and cowered so close to the ground that I could feel the pavement scratching against my barding. A heavy silence hung in the air, so heavy that it was becoming hard to breathe when out of the silence rose his voice.

“Looks like you dropped this.” I was finally able to open my eyes.

“Huh?” The stallion had my pistol in his hooves, she tossed it towards me and I caught it in my telekinesis. It looked no worse for wear and I carefully placed it back in its holster. When I finished I looked back up to see the stallion chop the tail off the scorpion and toss it in the back of his cart.

“Name’s Dusty Trail by the way.” He wasn’t facing me so my gaze drifted to the ground.

“Oh…um my name is Sparks and uh… thanks.”

“No trouble at all.” I didn’t know what to make of this yet. So far he hadn’t tried to rob me or kill me so that was a good sign. Especially since it was my first real encounter with a Wastelander. He turned and looked at me firmly.

“You got some fancy armor there Sparks, and yer awfully clean and spiffy. Where’d ya come from and what does that there 63 on your shoulders mean?” I wasn't sure if I wanted to tell Dusty even though I was no longer frightened, cowering before him and he seemed friendly. That thought led me back to what Watcher said ‘try to make some friends’ was he trying to help me or play me somehow? What does he know that I don’t? Or maybe he really was just trying to help. He didn’t have to tell me about this Black Town place and really what would he get out of it? I looked off to the blanket of clouds in the sky, thinking carefully about what to say next. I supposed it wouldn’t matter telling him. Nopony can get in the stable now anyway and that was the whole reason I was out here, to find a way back in and save them from the experiments. I looked back to meet the gaze of Dusty Trail.

“It means I’m from Stable 63. I’ve only been outside for a few hours.” Is that all it’s been? So much had happened that I never thought I’d see in so little time.

“Stable? Ya mean that big ol bunker to the south?” He nodded his head back the general direction I came. “I thought everypony who lived there had died or sumthin’. Ain’t nopony ever come out before and I heard that back in tha day ‘bout fifty years ago some ponies tried to get in there and scavenge the place but couldn’t open the door.” Ponies had tried to get in? I was told there was monitoring equipment outside the stable door but nopony ever mentioned an attempted breach. Maybe the Overmares back then didn’t want us to know there were survivors outside or were more likely too occupied with the ‘perfect pony’ project, or both. Come to think of it though, I don’t recall seeing any cameras or anything when I came outside. Then again I probably wasn’t paying much attention to things like that.

Then I remembered that one pony who escaped in the past. I wonder if he’s still alive. I still wasn’t sure if this information was significant of anything so I saw no reason to tell Dusty Trail.

“Yeah that’s still true, nopony will be getting in anytime soon.” I couldn’t know if that was true. In fact I hoped it wasn’t seeing as how I hoped for nothing more than to go back in.

“Why’re you outside then?” Dusty Trail was rubbing his chin in thought, pondering what he knew and what I said. I looked away from him and scanned the ground a few more times. I didn’t want to say, not yet and not to just anypony.

“Alright I get it. Don’t wanna say that’s fine.” Another awkward silence started between us, one that lingered almost oppressively. “You said you were headin t’ Black Town right?”

“Yes! Uh... *ahem* yes. Yes I did.” Turns out I wasn’t very good at first impressions. I was just so thankful for the silence to be over. Although I suppose it was partially my fault it was there to begin with. I couldn’t be sure how ponies in the wasteland were, not yet especially after what I saw an hour ago. Dusty seemed to be of a different stock though. One who survives the wasteland, not takes advantage of it. Without adding anything else he looked towards the…cow thing and stomped his hoof twice. That seemed to have told the thing to get moving again. Dusty took his place in front of the wagon and I followed suit.

The rattling of the contents in his cart got old real fast and remembering my own advice from a moment ago I spoke up.

“Sorry if I seemed twitchy and stuff back there. This place gave me a rough introduction.” I could feel my heart sink a little remembering the scene that played out in front of me not but an hour or so ago.

“S’fine. Nopony gets a good introduction, born out here or not.” Given what I’d seen so far I couldn’t help but think that was an understatement. “Were you some kinda fighter back in yer shelter? Yer armor is pretty impressive lookin’” I let out a soft chuckle.

“No no I was the head enginee- er repair pony.” It didn’t want to use the title I had been given seeing how I had it for less than a day. “My friend gave me her armor so I’d be safe out here, she was a fighter but not me.”

“So you probably can’t shoot for shit with that piece ya got?” The question kind of caught me off guard. It’s true I didn’t know how to use it. The only thing I tried to shoot was the scorpion and myself…better not bring that up. I didn’t want to think about it. I also didn’t want to think that I’d have to learn to use my gun, probably against other ponies. That thought alone made my stomach flip. I suddenly found my hooves very interesting to behold.

“No.” My voice was barely a whisper.

“Well then. I think you could do for a lesson.” I looked up in surprise.

“What?” The smile on Dusty’s face said it all, he was already rifling through his cart looking for whatever he needed. He set aside a number of bottles and cans then went to work unhooking his cow from the cart. I just watched in amazement just how fast he set up a little shooting range. He carefully set up a line of five cans along the edge of his cart.

“You must have done this before.” I said. He lovingly patted the rifles on his sides.

“Black Town militia.” He stated matter-of-factly like it was common knowledge. “Well g’on get yer gun out.”

“Right.” I levitated the gun out of its holster and did my best to look down the sights at a can.

“Hold on, can’t just go shootin like that lemme show you some basics.” Dusty snatched the gun out of my telekinetic grip and was holding it in his mouth. “Da fuust fing you wanna do ish-” BLAM! The gun fired unexpectedly and in his shock Dusty had dropped the gun.

“Celestia’s cunt!” An oddly unique swear I thought. “Fuck Sparks, I didn’t think you’d have the safety off AND a bullet in the chamber.” I looked away from his gaze and began absent-mindedly drawing circles on the ground with my hoof. “No, this is a good thing. The wasteland is not a safe place. I’d say always have yer gun ready to fire at the drop of a hat.” I turned back towards him.

“Is it really that bad out here?” I already knew the answer. I deeply wished it wasn’t so but I knew.

“Yes. Ponies out here are all lookin’ out fer themselves. They’d kill cus you pissed em’ off or they wanted yer stuff of just cuz they could.” Dusty’s expression suddenly turned angry. “The world will knock you down and shit on everything you ever cared about just cause you had the gall to live in it.” This all started with a smile from him and now I think I might have inadvertently pulled up bad memories.

“I’m sorry...I...I.” I wish I had something more comforting to say. What could I have said? He had lived out here his whole life. Any consolation from me would probably just make it worse.

“S’fine. Really. Now pick up yer gun and pick a target.” I wasn’t sure I believed him but prying at that stage seemed unwise. I picked the gun up from the ground in my levitation and took aim as best I could. Ok, ready… aim… and. BLAM! Miss. Ok, try again. BLAM! Miss. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Finally on the fifth shot one of the cans imploded and flew off out of sight. That wasn’t so bad. Holding a gun with magic meant minimal recoil but it still didn’t help my aim.

“I got one!” I shouted and victory and had to suppress a joy hop. Dusty nodded in approval.

“Alright, yer not... terrible but try not to shoot so much when you get nervous otherwise you’ll end up with an empty clip and if those cans were shooting back…” He let his warning trail off, the implication speaking for itself. “Four cans left. Try holdin’ yer breath this time.” I nodded my acknowledgment and took aim, sucked in some air and… BLAM! Another can disappeared off the cart. I smiled behind the sights then moved on to the next one. *click*

“Huh?”

“Out of ammo?”

“Uh yeah I guess so.” Dusty’s smile returned.

“Hold it one second.” He rummaged through the cart again and returned with a second clip and a little box of bullets and gave them to me. “.45 Right?” after loading the clips and another round of shooting cans all three were gone and the lesson was done. It wasn’t much but it was enough to make me feel glad. Dusty playfully hit me in the side. “Don’t get too cocky now Sparks. Raiders won’t hold still for you.” I was still left feeling a little uneasy about all this.

“Hey Dusty? Umm…thanks for helping me. You didn’t have too but you did.” Dusty’s expression was forlorn but quickly shifted back to a neutral one.

“Don’t mention it. I can tell yer one of the good ones. If I didn’t help you and you died out here then the wasteland wins. The world needs more good ponies in it and I’ll be Celestia-damned if I let that vindictive bitch have another one.” I nodded, content for now with his words. We got the cart all set up again and continued our way to Black Town.

***

As we neared our destination that mystery smell from before made an appearance. It was the ocean. The closer we got the better my view of city became. If I recalled correctly the data in the terminal back in the stable named this city Baltimare, which Dusty confirmed for me. The city of Baltimare was built around a large bay Dusty said was called horseshoe bay. One guess why they named in that.

Most of the city was surprisingly flat until it reached the water’s edge. As it turned out, Black Town was just a few neighborhoods that some ponies had built walls around so it was still connected to the whole of Baltimare, although barely. As we approached the gates my PipBuck pinged again labeling Black Town on my map. The guards patrolling the wall turned their attention to us. The one who stepped forward to speak was a dark green middle aged looking unicorn mare with an eyepatch.

“What’s your business her- oh. It’s just you Dusty.” Her gaze softened at the sight of Dusty but returned to a suspicious one at the sight of me. “Who are you? Is he with you Dusty?” Dusty shrugged casually.

“Sorta.” The mare turned back to me.

“What’s your business here?” I hated the outside. It wasn’t like I had never talked to an authoritative pony before then but doing so out here in the wasteland always made me shrink away in fear. In my silence I took the chance to remember what watcher told me. My gaze wouldn't meet her scrutinizing eyes.

“Umm…” What the hell did watcher say? “I’m looking for…the sky lounge?” The look on the mares face was one of indecision.

“Is that so? Hmm… alright. Open the gate boys. Dusty?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I count on you to keep an eye on your ‘friend’?” I supposed it was only fair for her to suspect my intentions. After all, I was a metaphorical and literal stranger to the wasteland. I wondered if the situation would have been the same if I hadn’t been wearing Stable gear. The large of sheet of metal that served as the gate made a terrible racket as it was lifted up by two makeshift pulleys from inside the wall.

The first thing I noticed as we walked in was the large twenty story building in what could be called the center of the settlement. What stood out about it was that compared to the other bombed out buildings it looked as if it had been set on fire. It was possible it happened during the megaspell bombardment but compared to the other buildings it stood alone in that regard.

“I see ya noticed the Black Tower.” Dusty must have noticed me staring. “That burned out thing is why this place is called Black Town, in case you were wonderin’” That made sense, although something about it just seemed strange to me. Though the namesake of the town was hardly something on my priority list. Then something crossed my mind, this place wasn’t always called Black Town? How did my PipBuck know how to label it? We continued to walk in silence giving me the chance to look around. It wasn’t so bad. There were ponies walking here and there. Along what I assumed to be main street were little stalls and the like selling goods to residents and travelers. I even saw a couple foals running in circles around their parents playing.

We came to a building almost as tall as the black tower, the sign read ‘The Manefaire Hotel’

“Go on inside Sparks. I have to go take care of somthin’” I looked at him then back to the hotel then I repeated the process a few more times.

“Is- is this the place?” I asked almost incredulously.

“Just go in. I’ll be back soon.” And just like that the issue was settled as he walked out of sight, cart following behind him. I turned back to the sign and sighed heavily.

“Ok, here goes.” I pushed open the doors and was greeted by a large lobby with a second floor balcony, all of which seemed to be a part of an improvised bar. Behind what used to be the check-in desk was a tan earth pony stallion with a stylish, almost cartoony mustache. The desk he was behind had been built upon to create a full bar, one almost fully stocked with dirty bottles of liquor.

The room still had the look of a hotel, or at least my idea of one. On the floor leading up to the bar was a red, fading carpet with frayed edges and near each corner of the wrap around bar was an empty pot that I imagine once contained plants. All around me were ponies sitting at tables they dragged in or booths somepony had built. Not a one paid any attention to me. Any presence I had was drowned out by the music playing and the din of conversation.

I made my way to the stallion with the mustache occasionally dodging a pony here and there. When I got to the bar I climbed up and took a seat on one of the stools in front.

“H-hello.” I greeted weakly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in my establishment before.” The stallion said as he disappeared below the bar. He came back up with a shot glass and a bottle of something. “Which means first ones on the house! Welcome to the Sky Lounge!” He poured a shot and passed it to me looking at me expectantly. “Come on young buck, it’s the only free one you’re gonna get, better enjoy it.” I had never drank before, alcohol was in extremely limited supply in the stable but it looked that not drinking it would offend him so I did the only thing I could. Slammed the shot back and swallowed it all in one gulp. Which was a mistake. I cringed as the liquid burned its way down to my stomach. I coughed a few times trying to settle the sensation.

“What the hell was that!?” Not the greatest first question in retrospect. Though it did make him laugh.

“Haha! Gets ‘em every time. That, my friend, was Griffonstone brandy.” He laughed again and put the bottle back where he got it. “Name’s Corkscrew.” He held his hoof out in greeting. What I saw stunned me. Attached to Corkscrews foreleg was a PipBuck.

“Where did you get that?” I punctuated my question by showing him mine. Corkscrew’s eyes widened at this.

“Well I’ll be, another stable dweller. I traded it from a fella named White Noise a long time ago. I wanted it for its radio function and he practically gave it away for free. Seemed real happy to be rid of it.”

“May I check something on it?”

“Well it ain’t coming off so I don’t see why not.” I went to work looking through the data and found nothing useful about who it may have belonged to. Whoever it was wiped it before giving it away. The only thing of use I found was the wearer’s blank ID tag which told me that this PipBuck had indeed come from Stable 63.

“Find what you were looking for?”

“No.” I sighed. I should have known it wouldn’t have been so easy. I didn’t even know how long ago that pony escaped from Stable 63. Though I was positive this PipBuck must have belonged to him. Nopony else made it out of the stable…right?

“Well that’s a shame.” Corkscrew seemed genuinely upset that I hadn’t found anything. Even without finding anything meaningful I wouldn’t say I came away empty-hoofed.

“Oh I’m sorry, I’m Sparks.” I said. This time I held my hoof out. One he took in his and shook.

“Pleasure.” After the pleasantries something he said nagged at me. I had forgotten about the PipBuck’s radio function. I looked through what I was able to pick up. There were two stations I could tune to. One was labeled M.A.S.E.B.S and the other GPE-RDF. I placed my ear-bloom into my ear and tuned to the first frequency which played the same music that was currently playing in the lobby. The second frequency played nothing but silence.

“Hey Corkscrew? You know anything about this station?” I held up my PipBuck to show him. He rubbed his chin, more for show than thought.

“Oh that. That station popped up about a month ago. I think only special radios can tune in to it properly.”

“But what is it?”

“I don’t know, nopony I know has been able to tap into it. Not even Circuit Breaker.” I didn’t know who that was but I assumed they must be some kind of tech. Good to know ponies out here still have those kinds of skills.

“Hey Sparks.” I heard Dusty’s voice call out behind me.

“Hello Dusty.” He took a seat on a stool next to me.

“So… That’ll be 150 caps.”

“Huh?”

“You know for the ammo, lesson and the safe trip here. What? Did you think I was helping you for free?” Yes I did think that! He gave me those bullets without a choice and now I got to pay!?

“What? I don’t have any money! And did you say caps? Like bottle caps? Don’t you mean bits?”

“Yeah I guess it was too much to hope you knew bottle caps were valuable, let alone have any.”

“How the hell would I know that? Why’re bottle caps money? I’m not paying you anyway.” Dusty was starting to look annoyed.

“Come on you owe me for the safe trip.”

“There was no danger.” I retorted.

“There is never guaranteed safety. Then what about the equipment I gave ya?”

“You forced them on me, what was I gonna do? Say no?”

“You coulda. What about the target practice?”

“I didn’t ask for that.”

“Goddess dammit Sparks, yer makin this real difficult.” Now it was my turn to get annoyed. Although I had nothing more to say. “I know how you can pay me back. Do me this favor and I’ll clear yer debt.” I sighed again.

“Fine! If it’ll get you off my back. What is it?”

“The towns sending out a supply caravan and I got some of my goods invested in it. Go with them and protect my merchandise, ya know? Make sure it gets where it’s supposed to go. Don’t worry about sellin’ the stuff, the merchants will take care of that.”

“Dusty I told you before, I’m not a fighter and that means by extension, a bodyguard.”

“Doesn’t matter, this helps you as much as it does me. You need experience out in the wasteland. I can’t and won’t always be there to help ya. Plus there will be other ponies to help protect the convoy.” I wanted to keep arguing but he had a point. I needed to learn to fend for myself. And going out there in a large group sounded like it wouldn’t be so bad. “And to sweeten the deal, I’ll pay you 100 caps. C’mon what do you say pal?” I still needed help to get back in the stable, maybe if I do him this favor he will be more inclined to help me if and when I ask.

“Ok I’ll do it.” Dusty cheered and celebrated with a couple more drinks. Was I making a friend in him? I couldn’t tell but I was hopeful. It was then that I was reminded by a rumble from my stomach that I hadn’t eaten since that morning and I left that on the floor back in the stable. Dusty seemed to have heard.

“Hungry?” I nodded.

“Well why didn’t you say so, c’mon I’ll show you some wasteland cuisine.” I didn’t even get to get a word out before I was ushered right out of the bar and back into the streets of Black Town. The last bit of light was disappearing under the horizon, casting the blanket of clouds in a golden orange glow. We arrived at an establishment called the Main Grain bakery. Unfortunately the title was more than misleading. After letting Dusty pay for some food, I was disappointed to see old pre-war snack cakes wrapped in sealed plastic wrapping. I wondered what that said about old Equestria seeing as how the old homes of ponies were slowly disintegrating but some fancy buck snack cakes that had been around for almost two hundred years were still perfectly edible.

Dusty said there were alternatives if what he gave me didn’t suit me but after a quick trip to another stall later I didn’t think anything they had would suit anypony. Steaming cubes of strange colored meat on skewers were being cooked over an open flame with a small crowd gathering around to watch and possibly partake. Were ponies even supposed to eat meat? Did ponies out here LIKE to eat meat? The thought alone almost spoiled my appetite but luckily I was able to keep the cakes down.

“Since you don’t have any caps to pay for a bed at the Manefaire, I suppose you can sleep at my place. Since yer doin’ me a favor and all.” It was a kindness I wasn’t expecting but one I was thankful for nonetheless.

“Thanks for everything Dusty.” He waved his hooves dismissively.

“Don’t thank me till the job is done. Until then, consider this an investment.” The way he said that made him sound like a suave business pony.

“Fair enough.” Dusty’s shop was an actual store, one with walls and a roof like the bakery, a nice contrast to the rag-tag stalls lining the streets. I had little time to look around as Dusty again ushered me to where he wanted me but from what bits I did see I…still couldn’t have told you what he sold. The broken shelves and desks were lined with oddest assortment of odd and ends. Was this the general store? Junk store? I didn’t recall seeing any kind of sign outside. After climbing some stairs to the second floor Dusty led me to a corner where a sleeping bag was curled up.

“It aint much but it’ll do fer tonight.” Dusty said with his trademark eloquence. “Try to get some rest. The caravan leaves at dawn.”

“Thanks again Dusty I’ll see you in the morning.”

He grunted a noise of acknowledgement and left, presumably to his bed. I shed my armor and unfurled the sleeping bag. I did it, I survived my first day and what a hell of a first day it was out here. Here’s hoping the next one will be better I thought. Good thing I didn’t bet on it.

***

The morning came sooner than I wanted and was jostled out of bed by Dusty.

“Rise and shine princess, got a big day ahead of ya!” A quick check of my things later I was ready to go. As we walked out the door a bad feeling crept into the back of my mind.

“Hey Dusty, anything I should know about these ponies?”

“Ya, try not to talk too much and never let yer guard down. They might be guarding the caravan but their all out for themselves. If trouble comes let them deal with it but try to keep an eye out, ya might just learn something.” The warning didn’t ease my troubled mind. A quick meet and greet with the other caravan guards later we were off. I never bothered to ask where we were going, but truthfully I didn’t care. It would be easier to find help in Dusty when I got back rather than try again somewhere else. The sun was shining behind the clouds giving us plenty of light to enjoy the bleak atmosphere. After two hours of walking in silence things got ugly.

One of the other guards slowed down until he was walking beside me.

“So I heard you’re from a stable. An active stable. How would one get in this stable of yours?” I narrowed my eyes at him.

“It’s not important, nopony will be getting in.” His expression turned livid.

“We’ll see about that.” He reared back and hit me in the face with both hooves. I hit the ground, rolled over and started backpedaling away.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!?”

“Do you know how much shit there is to salvage in a stable? Maybe I could sell it to those ponies at the shipyard! I’d be so fucking rich!” His eyes were sparkling with sadistic glee. “Now tell me how to open the door before I blow your fucking head off!” He pressed his gun to my forehead.

“Hey Ash leave him alone! We don’t need your delusions fucking up another run.” A different guard spoke while drawing his gun.

“No! He’s right, we’d never have to do menial shit like this again. I’m with you Ash.” Shouted another.

“How do I get in!?” The guard they called Ash shouted. Striking me in the face with the barrel of his gun. I could see stars around the edges of my vision and feel a warm trickle running down my chin. “Last chance bitch. Tell. Me. NOW” I couldn’t see straight and I'd sooner die than risk my family's safety at the hoof of one delusional asshole. “Well that’s a shame.” He cocked his weapon and pressed it back to my head. “Say hi to Luna for m-” Ash was interrupted when his head exploded into bone fragments and brain matter.

“RAIDERS!”

I couldn’t tell who shouted but it didn’t matter as the area erupted in gunfire. From a nearby hill I could see the flashes of guns being fired as well as seven or eight ponies running down the hill. I Found my way back to my hooves and pulled out my pistol. I took aim at the nearest raider when a bullet hit me square in the chest, knocking the wind out of me but thankfully being stopped by my armor. A raider pounced atop me flailing a knife in his mouth. I pushed my hooves into his chest trying to throw him off. He ducked his head low and cut a deep line in my right leg, my scream of pain was not heard over the gunfire and his maniacal laughter muffled behind the knife.

Blood ran down my leg making it even harder to keep his knife away from my neck. I summoned what strength I had left to probe the area with my magic trying to find my pistol. Keeping my focus while a psychotic murderer was trying to slit my throat was understandably difficult and terrifying. Whether through luck or happenstance I found the pistol and levitated it to me. Either the raider didn’t notice or didn’t care about the glow of my horn which I used to my advantage. I pressed the barrel of the pistol to the side of my attackers head and blew a thick red paste out the other side. Even through the terror I was felt my stomach tighten into painful knots.

I had just killed a pony. He hadn’t given me a choice, he was trying to kill me. I had no choice.

Amidst the chaos I could see that we were outnumbered and many guards had fallen. Every instinct I had told me to run but my brain told me stay and fight. Finally one won over the other and I broke and ran the opposite direction. I closed my eyes and fired my gun blindly behind me to cover my escape. I didn’t want to be a coward. I wanted to be better. I wanted to help, but I wouldn’t do it by dying here . Out of nowhere a burning hot pain ripped through my left hind leg. Combined with my cut up front right leg I took a nasty tumble into the dirt. I was going to die. I closed my eyes and resigned myself to oblivion. The bullets had stopped and the dirt around me was quickly turning wet from my blood. My vision became blurry and I saw some pony sized shapes standing in front of me. How’d they get in front of me I thought? Their voices were distorted as two of them approached me and the shroud of unconsciousness took me.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Empathy – You have a better idea of what to say to ponies to not upset them. Or maybe you’re a mind reader.

Chapter Three: First Steps

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Chapter Three: First Steps

“All it takes for evil to win is for good ponies to do nothing.”

The first thing I felt was a heavy cold. Was this death? Was I feeling the cold of the void? I opened my eyes and all around me was a great blackness. I couldn’t see anything, yet I was still able to stand. A red mist started to form around me, simultaneously lighting the blackness with a crimson glow. I was starting to hyperventilate and a cold sweat was starting to form on my brow. I began frantically running in any direction hoping to escape or just disappear but no matter how far I ran the mist never faded and the nothingness remained. My breath was getting ragged and my legs were getting sore. I was getting nowhere but I couldn’t just stand there. It was then that the mist started getting closer, practically choking me with its heavy presence. I stopped in my tracks and began coughing heavily, the mist was now swirling around me in an intense vortex, forcing itself into my lungs and keeping my eyes shut. I felt my hooves leave whatever floor I had been standing on as the swirling mist lifted me into the blackness. I gritted my teeth and flailed my legs hoping that somehow I could get free. Then all of a sudden I hit the ground. When I opened my eyes I could see the wasteland again but the sky and horizons were still replaced by blackness. I shakily got to my hooves and screamed.

“Just let me die! Stop tormenting m-”

“Hey mister who are you talking to?” the sudden voice made me leap out of my skin. I turned to find it and was met with a young colt with a big smile on his muzzle. “Hi!” He said enthusiastically. I was speechless. I thought I was never going to see anypony ever again. When I didn’t say anything the colt’s expression turned quizzical.

“Umm do you wanna play?” Play? How long had it been since I heard that question? Somehow just hearing it asked made me happy. I sadly couldn’t indulge the kid.

“Can you tell me where I am? Am I dead?”

The expression on his face never changed, like he hadn’t even heard me.

“Let’s play hide and seek. You’re it!” And with that he ran off giggling all the way. I couldn’t help but giggle myself. Maybe I wasn’t dead. Maybe this was just some kind of dream. I didn’t have to be afraid then if that were the case. And if it was the case, then I had all the time in the world. I smiled at the realization, closed my eyes and started counting. “Ready or not here I come!” I opened my eyes and followed in the direction I saw him go. It was almost as if wherever I was knew what we were doing because suddenly dotted all around were great hiding spots. I swiveled my ears and heard a rustling sound not too far from me. I crouched down and started very sneakily approaching the tree that I reasoned was his hiding spot. I bounded around the tree triumphantly.

“Gotcha!” Sitting there plain as day facing away from me was the colt. “Umm...gotcha?” I said again weakly. “Hey kid, you ok?” When I spun him around to face me my ears were abruptly deafened by a loud blast which made me cringe.

“Are you alright!?” I could barely hear myself over the ringing in my ears. I reached out blindly to make sure he was ok and felt something wet on my hoof. When I opened my eyes everything from the day before came back and hit me like a train. Sitting in front of me was the colt from the slave wagon staring back at me with what had been left of his head.

“Your fault.” A voice whispered in my ears. Even though his lips weren’t moving, the voice was undeniably the colt’s. I fell back onto my haunches and desperately tried to scurry away from the specter.

“W-what the fuck is going on!?” I screamed back, unaware if it could hear me. Then the mutilated corpse flopped at me like a string-less puppet.

“It’s because of you!” the voice was coming from everywhere at once, boring into my head.

“I… there was nothing I could have done…” I defended weakly.

“Justify it however you like. It doesn’t change the fact that it is because of you.” Tears were freely rolling down my cheeks

“I’m sorry, I… I wanted to help so bad but I-” The apparition jabbed me hard in the chest.

“But you did nothing. You watched, you hid and you failed. You chose to put yourself before an innocent child.” I tried to cover my ears with my hooves but nothing could stop the voice.

“I couldn’t…I would have died…”

“But you would have tried! Instead you did nothing. YOU killed me just by being there.” I could barely talk around the frog in my throat.

“No…that’s not… what I-”

“You know what SHOULD have happened?” The colt pressed its muzzle against mine, its blood trickling down my face. “You should have killed yourself back when you left the stable. I would be a slave but I would still be alive!” The colt slowly started to disappear but before it had completely faded one last whisper echoed in my mind. “Because of you…” The world around me started to collapse and I sank into the blackness.

***

“NOOooo!” My eyes shot open and my flight instincts kicked into overdrive as I rose to my hooves as fast as I could only to be swiftly reunited with the floor. It had all been a dream, or rather a nightmare. I heard the sound of water. A steady flow and sparse droplets here and there. It was then I realized that I had survived as a crashing wave of realization hit me. The pain from where I had been shot returned as a dull throbbing. It wasn’t an open wound or anything like I imagined, in fact at a glance you couldn’t even tell I’d been shot. It was still sore and putting any weight on it was out of the question for now.

“Whoa, easy there guy, it’d be in your best interest to stop moving around like that.” My eyes snapped open as I searched for the source of the voice. Behind where I had been, casually laying on a table, was an orange mare with blood red mane wearing a brown leather duster and a cowpony hat.

“Where am I? How did I get here!?” she rolled her eyes in annoyance as if I was supposed to know the answer and jumped off the table.

“Relax. You’re at my place. We saved you from the raiders. Only survivor actually…” Those words hung in the air for a moment, a look of remorse on her face.

“Y-you…saved me?” I couldn’t remember much from the attack but I did remember seeing something in front of me before I passed out.

“Yeah. We heard a caravan was coming from Black Town and thought we’d check it out. Found you instead. You’re with us now, the Regulators.”

“W-What do you mean?”

She turned to face me and got so close that were practically touching muzzles.

“It means that you are one of us now and we are going whip you into fighting shape.” I looked away from her and nervously rubbed a hoof through my mane.

“Yeeeaaaah… thanks for the offer but I need to get back to Black Town and-”

“Ahem. Maybe I wasn’t being clear before so let me rephrase it for you. You are one of us now. We saved your miserable life and used the last of our meds to get you into working shape. You owe us.” My eyes were darting back and forth desperately looking for a way out.

“B-but I… I didn’t… You-” She stomped a hoof loudly against the floor and I was silenced.

“So here’s what’s gonna happen. You are gonna do some work for us at least until you pay off what you owe and then you can do as you please. Hopefully once you see what we are trying to do here you’ll stay.” With that she turned and started walking out of the room, leaving me sitting in the middle of… where was I? All around me were buckets of water, all manner of equipment and makeshift hospital beds. Some were clean and untouched and others were caked with dried blood. All around the room instead of walls were old sheets creating a barely passable amount of privacy. I looked down to my leg and rubbed it gently, a fraction of the pain still lingered. I should just go along with it for now I thought. Whether I asked for it or really even deserved it, they did save my life. For what it’s worth I owed them that much. Before I could get up on all four hooves the orange mare poked her head back in through the sheet wall.

“C’mon follow me, you aren’t gonna do us much good unarmed.” And with that she disappeared again. It was then that I noticed how cold I was, looking back over my shoulder the first thing I noticed was my bare flank. I was completely naked. It wasn’t the strangest thing in the world for me or ponies in general but back in the stable you hardly ever saw anypony without their stable jumpsuits on at least. It was a little uncomfortable but I was positive that it only bothered me, so I shoved the issue into the back of my mind and got up to follow the mare who would hopefully lead me to my things. I made my way past the sheet wall to see two large groups of chairs that were bolted to the floor. In the middle aisle was the mare trotting at a steady pace. I followed after her casting a glance behind me to see that the improvised hospital was a small stage area.

“Just where the hell are we?” I accidently said out loud.

“Just follow me and you’ll find out.” We reached a set of double doors at the end of the aisle which she pushed open. The doors led to a raised balcony of sorts. We were on the second floor of whatever this building was to either side of the raised path were giant glass tanks, many of which had their face panels smashed out. Also from many of the tanks flowed a steady supply of water, partially flooding the ground floor below.

“So that’s what I heard.” I mumbled under my breath. That’d also explain why it was so cold.

“Welcome to the Baltimare Aquarium. Or as we like to call it, Requari.” High above, crisscrossing all over the ceiling, were pipes of all sizes going in all directions some dripping here and there. The mare followed my gaze upward and smiled. “Yeah it’s not in the best shape but it grows on you. Anyway c’mon lets go get you your stuff.”

“Hey um… Miss? I just wanted to say…thank you.” She lifted an eyebrow like she was confused, though her smile never faded.

“Miss? None of that. My name is Sunny Smiles.” I chuckled at that and cracked a smile of my own.

“My name is Sparks and thanks again.”

“No need to thank me, I’m sure I’ll be saving you again real soon.” I hoped she was joking, but I knew better. Sunny led me further into the aquarium where I saw other members of the regulators dutifully practicing their craft, tinkering with odds and ends or just lazing about enjoying each other’s company. Which reminded me.

“So Sunny, just what do the Regulators do?”

“We’re vigilantes, though many ponies are distrustful and call us mercenaries even though we don’t take contracts or anything like that. We try to make the wasteland better for everypony so we take it upon ourselves to represent the closest thing to law there is out here and clean up the scum in true wasteland fashion, with bullets”

“You kill them?”

“What kind of question is that? Yes we kill them. You should know by now that it’s kill or be killed. I sifted through the caravan’s wreckage after the attack and do you even know what they tried to kill you for?” I honestly never thought to ask what we were escorting. I really only agreed as a favor to Dusty. I wondered if he was worried about me or even if he knew what had happened.

“No.” I muttered dejectedly.

“Building materials. They slaughtered all those ponies for bits of wood and nails.”

“Do you think if they knew that… that they-”

“What? Would have left you alone? No. Raiders don’t care who you are or what you have, they will kill, rape and destroy everything just because they can. The wasteland can get to you Sparks, in ways where you can lose yourself to it. Don’t ever defend them, don’t ever give them a second chance and never let them get away if you can, cuz no matter who they were before the wasteland consumed them what you will see out there are devils squatting in their corpses and it would be best to put them down like the monsters they are.” I wanted to say something, to say everypony deserves a second chance but that dream I had stayed my tongue. Whatever that thing I saw was it was right, I couldn’t hide when facing them and have innocents die through inaction…not again and Sunny was right, maybe it would be easier to just see them as monsters. My ears fell back against my head and I stayed quiet.

“Don’t worry about it, trust me- you’ll get used to it.” I didn’t know that I wanted to ask anything or even talk to her just in case she had more heavy words to weigh my heart down and with that decision the rest of the walk was one of silence. When we got to the room where my things were being kept (which was just an old janitors closet) the first thing I did was quickly put on my utility barding and security armor over it. Behind me I felt Sunny put a hoof on my shoulder.

“Hey…can I ask you a question?”

“Umm sure.”

“I see you have a PipBuck on your leg… do you know how to use it?” I contemplated what that question was supposed to mean longer than I should have. “It’s pretty obvious you’re from a stable or recently scavenged one. So tell me, can you use that tech.”

“Look, I’ve had this PipBuck since my cute-ceañera I’m pretty sure I know how it works.” I said with an air of pride.

“Weird, your E.F.S should have told you that you were in danger before the attack.” Her smile one was that said she knew something I didn’t.

“…My what?”

“That’s what I thought. Here give me your leg.” I held up my leg for her to see as she went to work navigating through the screens. “It’s easy for you stable types to forget about these magical features when you live your whole life in a bunker.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll go over the other in a minute and the first one you should see right… now.” With that she pressed a final button and released my leg. A strange tingle ran up my spine as my sight began to change. Now when I looked at Sunny I saw a little yellow blip the stayed with her as I moved around the room. Some yellow blips were visible in other places where I couldn’t see anypony. Was this some kind of life detector?

“This is amazing what is this?”

“That’s an E.F.S spell, or Eyes Forward Sparkle. It shows living creatures around you, also it does this.” Sunny quickly took me out of my excitement by shoving me back onto the floor and pulling out a knife which she pressed to my throat.

“What are you-?”

“Sheck your compaf.” Check…the compass? Oh, now that’s useful, the blip that was yellow before was red now. When she saw the look of realization on my face she spat the knife out of her mouth and let me up. Her blip returning to its neutral yellow color.

“Cool huh? It can tell you if the life forms are hostile or not.” I nodded and looked at my PipBuck with a new sense of appreciation.

“You probably could’ve showed me in a better way.” I said, cautiously touching a hoof to my neck.

“Maybe but this way I could teach you a lesson at the same time. I knocked you down without much effort, the lesson? Always be on your guard, you’re a regulator now. Now for the other spell, it’s called S.A.T.S or the Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell. It should work well for a novice like you.”

“What does it do?”

“This one’s better used in the field and once you do it’ll speak for itself.” I didn’t have much time to ponder everything I was learning before I was rushed back to my hooves and out of the room. “Alright, we’re losing the light let’s get out there.”

“Wait we’re going back out there?”

“Yes, we used the last of the medical supplies on your sorry hide so we’re gonna go scavenge some more… hopefully.”

“But isn’t it a little late to be going out, shouldn’t we wait?” I was hoping she’d go for it. I guess I just wanted more time to get used to the world after being shot and that…that awful dream I had.

“Nope, we’re heading down towards the clinic by the old stadium and that’s in Red Asphalts territory, it’ll take a while to get there so we are gonna use the cover of night.” I sighed and accepted the fact that I was going to get forced back out into the wasteland and there was no way I was going to get out of it. It didn’t take long to gather enough gear and supplies for going out so within moments we were ready to go. Sunny had equipped herself with a shotgun mounted battle saddle with a bite trigger and saddlebags and I my bags and pistol. As we walked out of the Aquarium I could see where they got the name Requari. The big sign above the entrance had lost several of its letters, turning what it used to be ‘Baltimare Aquarium’ into ‘-------re –quari--’. The sun was just dipping down below the skyline, or so I assumed as the horizon was cast in an orange glow. I wondered just how far away I was from Black Town and the Stable. We walked for about forty-five minutes and all around the area was collapsed and partially collapsed roads that lead to streets lined with small storefronts flanked by suburban neighborhoods.

“Stay close to me Sparks and try to keep quiet.” I trusted her survival skills better than my own so I did as I was told. We were stealthily approaching a nondescript house when something very loudly clambered from the inside. Sunny held up her hoof telling me to stop as she turned back to look at me, frantically pointing to my leg. I activated my EFS on my compass and saw Sunny’s yellow blip and one red blip from the direction of the house. I pointed to the house and drug my hoof under my throat, hoping that the message got through. Whether it did or not, was an answer I never got as the door to the house slowly opened. What shambled out was a pony who was bleeding from her eyes, nose and ears. She was unarmed and her eyes were darting every which way in frantic circles.

“Sunny, we should help her.” As I whispered this to her, the pony in the doorways eyes snapped to us and let out a blood-curdling scream. Without time to react it charged where I was crouching down and tackled me to the ground as Sunny dodged to the side. I erratically kicked around trying to force her off me as she bit down on my foreleg crushing the flesh between her teeth. I screamed bloody murder as I desperately levitated out my pistol and pressed it to her belly and fired three rounds into it. The crazed mare seemed unfazed as she continued to thrash her head back and forth with her teeth still clamped to my leg like a starved predator. Sunny ran to my side and bit down on her trigger which fired a blast from her saddle which flung the mare away from me.

“What the hell was that!?” I whispered through gritted teeth, cradling my wounded leg.

“We have to go! Now!” Sunny immediately turned and started to gallop away from the wild mare who was now back on her hooves. I recoiled in shock, the shot from Sunny had ripped a hole in its chest cavity and its insides were flopping out as it stood. Behind where it was strode another pony bleeding from its eyes and ears from behind a partially collapsed wall. I didn’t need to see any more and turned to gallop after Sunny.

“We need to get inside!” Sunny shouted over her shoulder. I followed her as best I could, thanking the goddesses for adrenaline. I turned to look back at the crazies to see that besides the one with its intestines swinging about, that two more had joined its chase. We ran out of the suburbs deeper into the city, dodging or going around piles of rubble that had blocked streets. We came to an intersection that was completely blocked by debris with no way around.

“C’mon we’re going over!” Sunny dashed up the pile kicking loose chunks of concrete free. I followed after as fast as I could, hearing the clambering of the others not far behind. Sunny was perched at the top of the pile facing our attackers and She kicked a little lever thing behind her battle saddle and smiled.

“Check this out.” When the closest crazy got to the pile she let loose a shot that ignited the bastard, sending it sprawling into the streets engulfed in flames. The other two didn’t notice or didn’t care as we stood atop our hill watching them climb towards us.

“What are we waiting for!?”

“I only had one of those pyro shots, use your PipBuck.” I didn’t have much choice, they would be on us in a matter of seconds. I found SATS and hit the button and marveled at the sight. Time had practically come to a stop, allowing me to survey the area. When I scanned the two crazies little numbers popped up over them and their specific body parts. They read as percentages as ‘chance to hit’ I queued up three shots on the legs of the one nearest to me. I hit the button again as time returned to normal and my shots were carried out on their own through the spell. One shot missed while the second hit low and passed through hitting the rubble behind it. Lastly the third hit directly in the middle of the knee joint separating it from the rest of the leg. The creature fell face first onto a jagged piece of concrete fracturing its skull causing a small bit of blood to spray out. I smiled the same smile as Sunny as I turned to face her only to see her tail disappear down the other side of the pile. The last one was still coming towards us with full vicious intent. I tried to enter SATS again but was met with a recharging alert. I swallowed hard and nearly leapt off the mound after Sunny, narrowly dodging a swipe from the bleeding pony.

Sunny weaved through an alleyway to the left of the pile and then made a quick beeline for a nondescript single story building with me trailing after. As we got close I was able to make out some lettering above the door that read ‘North Baltimare Police Department’. Sunny didn’t slow down at all as she jumped into the air, tucked in her legs and crashed through the stations doors. She was back on her hooves in no time as we kept moving. We turned and ran down a set of stairs to our right which led to a cell block when suddenly a red blip appeared on my compass as a turret descended from the ceiling. I froze as the turret trained its sights on me before Sunny pushed me into one of the cells beside me as she dove into the one across from me. The turret opened fire where I had been standing, hitting our pursuer who had just made it down the stairs in the chest. A loud alarm began sounding as all the doors in the cell block slammed shut except for mine as the bars had been jammed with the bones of its previous occupant. I rose to my hooves just in time for out attacker to charge into my cell, pinning me against the wall biting at me with gnashing teeth. I couldn’t get to my gun so I had to get creative, I wrenched a leg bone off the skeleton in the cell with my magic and swung it as hard as I could. The blow caught it in the temple knocking it to the side, giving me enough time to turn and buck it in the chest with all my strength. It flew back out into the hall where it hit the bars of Sunny’s cell. Before it could come at me again, Sunny reached through the bars with her knife and pinned it against the bars by its throat. It thrashed and growled trying to get away as her blade cut into its neck. Its cries of distress turned to gurgling, its blood choking the air from its lungs. Sunny kept pulling harder and harder until finally the gurgling stopped and its head hit the floor followed closely by the rest of its body. I limped towards Sunny’s cell when the whirring of the turret locking on to me reminded me of the danger. I ducked back into the cell just in time for a volley of lead to hit the wall. I stepped back out into the hall and to my delight was able to slip back into SATS. I queued up three shots on the turret and on the second it exploded into a shower of sparks and metal.

“What the hell were those things!?” I tried to yell over the alarm.

“Go back up the stairs, find a terminal and end the lockdown so I can get out!” She pointed back the way we came. I did as I was told and returned to the first floor. Not too far towards the back was a large office with the placard next to the door reading ‘Chief’. The office was fairly bare bones with only a few filing cabinets gathering dust on either side of the large window behind the desk. On the desk was a shattered vase which once held some flowers, a terminal with no power and the skeleton of who I presumed had once been the chief slumped over in the chair. I walked around and gently pushed the bones onto the floor

“Sorry” I whispered as I took his or her seat. A quick inspection of the terminal and I was able to determine that it was still connected to its power source but it was just not drawing from it. Then I remembered a spell that the maintenance officer back in the stable taught me. A low power lightning spell that we used to test electronics and machinery when we needed to disconnect them from the power grid. I closed my eyes and focused my magic, willing it to the tip of my horn where it arced out in a low crackle. Whether that connected it back to the main line or powered it itself, it let me bypass the password protection since it counted as a reset. Among the various inter-office correspondence entries and police files, there at the bottom of the list was a command ‘Lift Lockdown’. I selected it and the alarms stopped sounding followed by a few sounds of cells from several blocks opening. I was getting ready to get up to go meet Sunny when I saw a case file by the name of ‘Silver Tower, now the Black Tower’ the Black Tower? That giant building Dusty pointed out back in Black Town? I remember thinking that something about it seemed strange. I opened the file and began reading.

It has been one week since the Silver Tower was set on fire from the inside. When questioned, the head of Tomorrow-Tec, Sterling Silver-Mane said that the pony we have in custody had no current or prior relations with the company. Which begs the question, why did she do it? The culprit, one Cider Splash has been thoroughly investigated and it is both mine and the department’s conclusion that she is not a zebra sympathizer. Through some…questionable methods used by The Ministry of Morale we have determined that it was indeed Cider Splash who set the fire yet she continues to deny it, claiming that she has no memory from that morning until the time we arrested her. Since learning that, the M.O.M has refused to share more information with me and have since removed her from our custody.

I knew there was something strange about that tower. Before I could dedicate more thought to it heard Sunny’s hoofsteps drawing near so I continued to comb the terminal for information. The next entry I found was a bit of inter-office messages regarding new technology.

-Chief, I know you’ve been looking into new equipment for the men so I request that you grant me leave to attend the S.M.I Expo. They claim to have something akin to the M.W.Ts power armor called automatic armor. Since the ministry is very strict on releasing their armor for public use I’m hoping I can look into this new armor for use by the police.-

I wondered if there were any sets of the armor they mentioned around the station. That line of thought was pushed aside when Sunny made her way into the office.

“Thanks for getting me out of there, we should really get moving though.”

“Why’s that?”

“If there were any more bleeders or Red Asphalts men nearby they will have heard the alarm. We need to be gone before any of them get here.” I couldn’t argue with that line of thought so I got up from the chair and followed her back outside. “Oh yeah, here.” She reached into her bags and threw something at me. I clumsily caught it in my hooves to see that it was a roll of magic bandages. “You better wrap that leg up before we find trouble again.” I hadn’t noticed my leg much in all that commotion but as soon as she said something sweet Celestia did it start to hurt. I quickly wrapped it to the best ability and caught up to Sunny.

“So those things back there are called bleeders?”

“Right.”

“What are they?”

“Don’t know, they look like ponies but act like ghouls. Although ghouls are a lot easier to kill. Even headshots don’t kill bleeders sometimes.” I didn’t know what a ghoul was but nothing should have been able to shake off a point-blank blast from Sunny’s guns like that thing did. What in Equestria could’ve turned a pony into something like that?

“Hey thanks for doing what you did back there.” I snapped out of my thoughts with a puzzled look on my face.

“What do you mean?”

“I know you aren’t too thrilled about being out here with me or being a part of the regulators. You could have cut your losses and left me in that cell but you didn’t. So I wanted to thank you for that.” That thought never crossed my mind. I could have left her and returned to Black Town. What would that have made me? What did Dusty call me? One of the good ones. I wanted so desperately to live up to that but found myself frequently doing nothing or hiding away from danger while others fought or died for me. I could be better than that. I will be better than that. I resolved to do better, to be the pony I wanted to be.

“Sunny…I-” I was interrupted as a bullet from somewhere hit just in front of me, kicking up a cloud of dust.

“Take cover!” Sunny shouted as she dove and rolled behind a mailbox, returning fire as she did. The shot had come from a roof across the street. I slumped up against the building they were in and used my EFS. There were three hostile blips inside the building. I turned back to Sunny and yelled over the gunshots.

“Three of them!” She nodded in acknowledgement and dove from cover, side-stepping two bullets as she ran to me.

“Ok, ready to go in?” My stomach was doing backflips and I was practically choking on my heart but I couldn’t run. I had to face them, for Sunny, and for myself. I reluctantly nodded. Sunny cracked a lopsided smile and kicked open the door to the building and charged in with me right on her tail. Once we were inside we were immediately jumped on by a brown stallion from the second floor landing. He drove his knees into both our backs, knocking us both to the ground. He turned his attention to me first, getting in a good hit to my gut and another across my face before Sunny tackled him off of me and started a deadly brawl. As I got to my hooves a yellow mare with a pistol in her mouth walked out onto the landing and lined her sights on me. I dove through an open doorway to a connecting kitchen where I just barely landed behind a refrigerator. My heart was beating a million times a second and my legs were shaking violently. It was easy to give yourself a pep-talk or swear you would change but no matter the circumstances, even ones dire as this, it was difficult to change who you were. When bullets stopped hitting the fridge I instinctively peeked around the corner to see that the mare had jumped down from the landing and was heading my way. As she crossed the threshold to the kitchen I immediately did the first thing I could think of. I picked up a nearby toaster with my magic and threw it at her with all my might. Whether through dumb luck or chance, the toaster connected with her muzzle, forcing her to drop her gun.

“Fuck! You’re gonna pay for that asshole!” She scowled at me through a few missing teeth and a mouthful of blood. She rushed me and pinned me against the fridge, wrapping both hooves around my throat. I grasped uselessly at my neck, trying desperately to free myself. The edges of my vision were started to go black when she leaned in and whispered in my ear.

“Try not to die, we could use more racers.” She started to giggle to herself as she watched my flailing slowly start to weaken. I closed my eyes one last time and quickly gathered enough magic to fire out a weak lightning bolt that caught her in the eye. She screamed in agony as she reared back, clutching her face. I hit the ground hard as my vision started to return to me. I got to my hooves as fast as I was able and hit her with my left hoof, catching her above her other eye with my PipBuck which left a large gash in her forehead. She crashed to the ground through the now splintered remains of an old wooden table and did not move. I coughed as I struggled to breathe through the pain when I noticed that the raider mare’s mark on my EFS had turned yellow. I guessed that meant she was unconscious at the least. A crash from the other room reminded me that Sunny was still in trouble. I turned through the doorway to see Sunny sweep the stallions legs out from under him, rear back and bring her front hooves down hard on his head. Unlike the mare in the kitchen, this one’s blip just disappeared as a dark puddle began to form around his head. The look on Sunny’s face made me uncomfortable. I still wasn’t used to the sight of corpses or so much blood but the look in her eyes reminded me of the look Crescent Wrench had when I found him in the riot. She turned and looked me over.

“Nice work Sparks, now c’mon, just one left.” We ascended the stairs and Sunny kicked in the first door at the top of the landing. In the corner of the room was a desk with a glowing terminal atop it. To the left of the desk were some tattered curtains waving in the stale wind from the open window. Another look at my foreleg and I noticed that there were no more red blips. Sunny saw this and frowned. She went to the window and poked her head out.

“Must have jumped and ran. Shit!” I flinched a bit at her outburst but she calmed down very quickly.

“Were those the ponies you were talking about?”

“Yeah, Red Asphalts crew.” That was the third time I’d heard that name and yet I still didn’t know who they were.

“Who is Red Asphalt?”

Sunny scrunched her nose and sneered.

“He’s in charge of a big raider and slaver community. Their base of operations is the old hoofball stadium. He’s been a threat to the communities around here for a while now, foalnapping travelers or townsponies and raiding caravans.”

“Why hasn’t anypony stopped him?”

Sunny’s ears fell back as she looked down to the floor.

“I’ve tried before, we didn’t have the numbers or equipment to assault the stadium but I tried anyway. It was a massacre. They had that place defended better than I thought and I ended up getting a lot of ponies killed.”

I fell back on my haunches. “I…I’m sorry…I-”

Sunny waved a hoof limply at me.

“Look don’t worry about me, I’ve come to terms with it. I’m fine.” I wasn’t sure I believed her but I didn’t think I knew her well enough to press so I left it alone and just nodded. As she started to leave the room I remembered something worth sharing.

“Oh, the one in the kitchen is still alive, unconscious but alive.”

“Oh? I think I’ll go have a little chat with her.”

I grimaced internally for just what exactly that meant but I decided it’d be best to push it out of my head.

“I’ll…uh stay here and see if there’s anything on this terminal.” I was pretty sure she didn’t hear me and truthfully it was mostly an excuse to not have to witness their ‘chat’. The terminal wasn’t locked so getting in was no issue. What followed was a series of personal journals from one of the raiders, the oldest entry was only a week old.

One week ago

Boss sent us out to find a new spot to watch for travelers. At first I thought he was trying to get us killed by sending us where we’ve seen bleeders before but less than an hour after setting up shop in an old apartment I shit you not a family of four ponies walked down the street. It was a good catch, they were all in pretty good shape. Although two of them are children so we can’t use them in the races but should fetch a good price to the slaving operation out of the Shipyard. Hopefully boss won’t mind that we had to kill the father when he got awful mouthy about how we were treating his wife. Fuckin Razor just couldn’t keep it in his sheathe and didn’t cover the bitches mouth. Woke the whole building up with his fun. Guess he likes to hear them scream? Whatever to each their own, they’re all goin’ to the stadium tomorrow.

Four days ago.

We set out further into the ruins today. After having no luck waiting after the first family it seemed like a good idea. We ran into a couple of bleeders and Razor got his stupid ass torn apart after he shot himself up with some Rage and thought he was invincible. At least while they were killin’ him the rest of us got back to the apartment. Now the three of us left sit around all day and wait. At least Yellow Bell is a good lay.

Today

Heard some commotion from the old police station. Something set off the alarms and hopefully whoever it was comes our way. I hope it wasn’t some bleeders shuffling around. We really need some more ponies for the races, I don’t know if we’ll have enough by tomorrow.

That was all there was. I felt sick all over again. I had heard talk of slavery and even seen it myself but I didn’t want to believe it. These raiders were enslaving other ponies. Ponies! How could they do such a thing? And for something as menial as entertainment only added insult to injury. I was suddenly very upset that the raider who was up here had got away. I’d have caved in his skull myself. I was fuming as I walked down the stairs to the kitchen to see what Sunny was doing to the raider mare, the one the terminal called Yellow Bell. She was sat on the floor tied up with rope. She looked up at me with her one good eye, the other looked as if my lightning had fused her eyelid shut.

“What did you get out of her?”

“Nothing, she can’t tell me anything useful anyway.”

I frowned and motioned towards our captive.

“Then why is she tied up?” Sunny silently scooped up the gun that Yellow Bell had dropped earlier and threw it at me. I caught it in my telekinetic grasp and gave her a confused look.

“Kill her.” A simple request, one I had trouble accepting.

“I…but she’s all tied up.” It was easy to want justice for the one who wrote the journals upstairs but seeing this helpless mare extinguished that fire real quick.

“Do you think she’d hesitate if you were in her position?” My ears fell back against my head.

“That’s not fair Sunny. It’s different.” Sunny shook her head.

“No Sparks, it isn’t, she tried to kill us today and we can’t let her go or she’ll just kill again. Now shoot her.” I levitated the gun up and aimed the barrel at her head. This didn’t feel right. Why didn’t it feel right? Sunny was right but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The gun was shaking in my magical grasp which made her start to laugh.

“Hahaha! Fried my eye but can’t finish the job? I knew you were weak. C’mon you fuckin’ pussy DO IT!” I closed my eyes and tried to focus. Okay breathe, c’mon that’s it. Now steady, ok on the count of three… one…two… *BLAM* I swallowed hard and opened my eyes. My gun was still shakily floating in my grasp, a tiny wisp of smoke escaping out of the barrel. I did it. I executed her.

“I didn’t think you’d do it. I’m impressed Sparks, you just might have what it takes to survive out here after all.” She craned her head to look back at the remains of our prisoner. “Just remember that you can’t hesitate Sparks. If you do, you could get yourself or others killed.” She put a hoof and my shoulder as if she were proud of me. I just stared at what was left of Yellow Bell’s head. “Sparks? You gonna be ok?” A cold chill ran up my spine and my mouth started to water.

“I think I’ll be alri- BLARRGHH!” I hadn’t realized how little I had eaten. All that came up was stomach acid and bile. “Holy shit.” I gasped through my teeth as I spat out what was left. Sunny stood behind me patting me on the back like a concerned mother. I was glad she was there for me. It might not have looked it in the conventional sense but she was trying her best to help me adjust to wasteland life…I think. Watcher was right, it was good to have friends. I coughed around the rest of the bile in my throat as Sunny handed me a bottle of something.

“Here drink this, it’s not much but we gotta put something in ya.” I took it thankfully and inspected the bottle. The label read ‘Sparkle-Cola’ I popped off the cap and threw it in my saddlebags as I remembered that Dusty had said that caps were the currency of the wasteland and greedily downed the bottles contents. It was warm, flat and tasted heavily of carrots, it might have even been a refreshing drink two hundred years ago. I heard a ticking noise as a little meter on my PipBuck rose by a tiny fraction. Built in Geiger counter? This little piece of tech really was the pinnacle of magic and technology.

“Don’t worry, you’d have to drink like 100 Sparkle-Colas to get radiation poisoning.” I smiled weakly as the post vomit fatigue started to set in when I remembered what I had been thinking about.

“Hey…Sunny. Are we friends?” The question seemed to catch her by surprise. Her eyes were moving about in thought and she was rubbing her chin with her hoof.

“Hmm… Sure.” …Not quite the response I’d hoped for. Regardless of the lack of ceremony, hearing that did make me feel all warm inside for the first time since I’ve been outside. I don’t know, it was somehow different with her. With Dusty I just kind of assumed there was a sort of friendship but Sunny said it to my face. There was something to be admired about that kind of honesty, even if she didn’t give it her all.

“We should stay here for the night.” I suggested. “If what I read upstairs is true there shouldn’t be any more of Red Asphalts ponies out and about tomorrow.” Sunny nodded her head and we set about to combing through the kitchen to hopefully find something worth eating. Luckily we found a couple of dusty old cans filled with pear slices. I thanked the goddesses for whatever they put in them to make them last so long. After sharing the fruit we made our way upstairs to the room with the terminal to settle in for the night.

***

We set out back into the ruins as soon as light peeked its way through the clouds. Now I could really see just how massive the Baltimare ruins really were. We must have been just barely skirting within its borders if the skyscrapers in the distance were any indicator. Most notable of all was a tall, white needle like tower in the north part of the ruins that disappeared through the clouds. Seeing the clouds again made me sigh.

“For Luna’s sake is it ever going to not be cloudy?”

Sunny scoffed a little at my remark.

“You really are from a stable aren’t you? I wouldn’t get your hopes up on ever seeing the sky while you’re alive.”

“What!? Why not?” After all the books I read about old Equestria, seeing the sun and moon for the first time was one of the few things I was looking forward to.

“When the bombs fell, the pegasi retreated to the sky and closed it up with that cloud cover and it’s been there ever since.” I felt all my hope of ever seeing Celestia’s sun or Luna’s moon fly out of my heart like air out of a balloon. History remembers the day the world ended as the Last Day but I had assumed that to simply be a dramatic name. Now I saw it for what it truly meant...the Last Day... Equestria had not seen the sun or moon in nearly two centuries and would likely never see them again. But if the pegasi were up in the sky that begged a question.

“Does that mean there are no pegasi in the wasteland?” I hadn’t really noticed or thought about it but in my short time outside I had yet to see a Pegasus.

“Pretty much, they’re all up there above the clouds living normal lives, pretending us surface dwellers don’t exist”

“They don’t ever come down?”

“If they were going to come back they should have done so by now. Besides why would they want to? Down here we got monsters, mutants, radiation and death is a constant threat.” That was just another disappointment to add to my list. There weren’t any pegasi back in the stable either, well in the stable I was born in. Dejection invaded my mind as I accepted the fact that I would never see the sky. We kept moving through the ruins, stopping periodically to survey the area with my EFS. I nearly had a heart attack when we came upon a whole slew of red blips that only turned out to be giant mutant roaches. Sunny explained that Radroaches as she called them were more of a nuisance than a threat. What we couldn’t simply crush with our hooves we were able to avoid until after about an hour we made it to the clinic.

We entered through the main doors that had long since been forced open into the lobby. Directly in front of us sat a receptionist’s desk flanked by a staircase on either side that both led to the second floor. To the left and right were long hallways with patient rooms on either side and off to the right of the desk was an old gift shop that was eerily undisturbed. Other than the shattered panes of glass that once contained the room, there were many shelves of empty plant pots, old dirty stuffed animals, a rack filled with rotted mulch that once held get well cards and a veritable birthday parties worth of deflated balloons. It almost brought a tear to my eye. It pained me to think that patients here went ignored by loved ones. I hoped that the clinic didn’t have many patients when the end came and that was the reason the shop was so full. Sunny tapped me on my shoulder, reminding me of our mission.

We ascended the stairs to the second floor and started inspecting the operating rooms for supplies. Outside each room on the wall next to each door was a safe and a terminal that controlled it. Unfortunately most of the safes were empty and the ones that weren’t had their locking mechanisms broken by somepony who had carelessly tried to force them open. Room after room and the trend continued, broken, empty, broken and empty again until finally we found a safe that was intact with an unpowered terminal beside it. Sunny pulled a screwdriver and a little box of bobby pins out of her bag. I heard a small snap followed by a mumbled curse from Sunny as she threw a broken pin to the ground, followed by another and another.

“Shit! You don’t have any bobby pins do ya Sparks?”

“Umm no…I don’t know how to pick a lock but check this out.” I stepped up beside the terminal and fired a lightning bolt into it. Arcs of energy rippled through the screen and keyboard and then…nothing?

“Huh?” I fired another and received the same result. “Damn, it must be completely broken and not just without power.”

“Hmm you ever use that on a pony?”

“Yeah, yesterday on the mare we tied up.”

“So that’s what happened to her eye. You ought to use it more often.” I didn’t like the idea. I studied that spell to power small machines to help with repairs, using it to hurt ponies just seemed perverse. Although I couldn’t deny that it might save my life one day, or more importantly somepony else’s.

“Let’s keep looking, there’s got to be something here.” I nodded in agreement as we continued down the hall. Just as we turned the corner to the next hallway we found a recessed office in-between the two. The door was locked but through the windows on either side of the door we could see the faint glow of another terminal shining out of the darkness. I wrinkled my brow in curiosity which Sunny must have seen since she then bucked the door off its hinges. I trotted behind the desk and rubbed my hooves together as I set to work getting myself into the terminal. Sunny was meandering around the room sifting through the clutter on the floor or the cabinets and bookcases that lined the walls. It took a moment of combing through nonsense data and decoy passwords before I found the right one ‘dazzling’. Oddly enough there was only one command on the screen: Disengage lock. I selected it and a soft click sounded from somewhere in the room. Sunny must have been closer to the source as she knocked a weathered and peeling painting off the wall revealing a wall safe. She opened it and pulled out a key and a small memento box.

“What do you suppose that goes to?” I asked.

“Well it’s not this little box. Here you hold onto it.” I seized it in my magic and placed it in my saddlebags.

“Maybe it’s a master key?”

“Only one way to find out.” We immediately ran back out into the hall and made for the safe that had denied us before and sure enough the key went right in and it surrendered it contents to us. We did a few laps around the second floor unlocking what safes we could and shoveling all we could find into my bags. After using the sorting spell on my PipBuck I determined that we had accumulated six healing potions, five bottles of painkillers and two super healing potions.

“This is a better haul than I expected. It won’t last long but we should be able to get all our boys back on their hooves with these. I couldn’t have done it without you Sparks.” I rubbed the back of my neck and smiled nonchalantly.

“Well I wouldn’t be alive without you Sunny. It’s the least I could do.” I really did owe her and I was glad that I could help the rest of the regulators.

“If we move quickly we should be able to make it back to the aquarium by dusk.” We enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the second floor’s hallways before I felt a little tap on my shoulder.

“Hey Sparks?”

“What is it Sunny?”

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to but why did you leave your stable?” I knew that question would come eventually. Yet unlike the other times, I didn’t feel like I should keep the truth from her. I sighed heavily and hung my head low. “Oh, that’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it.” I detected a little bit of disappointment in her voice.

“It’s alright, it’s just still fresh in my mind. I had no choice but to leave or the Overmares would have killed me. Things down there are probably really bad after the riot. I had to leave to survive but since I got out here I’ve decided to go back and open the door for good and save all the ponies trapped inside, including my family.” Sunny looked at me with a forlorn expression in her eyes.

“Who did you leave behind?” She asked in a whisper.

“My marefriend, her sister and my mother.” I was almost relieved that I finally could confide in somepony, now was as good a time as any to try this. “Hey Sunny, umm…You’re my only friend here in the wasteland…do you think that maybe after we’re all even that you could…you know, help me?” I really hoped that she would agree. At that moment I had nopony I could count on besides myself. Sunny stopped in her tracks as if pondering the question. We made our way down the stairs to the lobby and before she could answer I saw several red blips on my EFS. I was about to open my mouth and warn her when I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my neck. I pulled whatever it was out with my magic to see that it was a needle. Within seconds my sight began to blur and it became harder and harder to stay on my hooves. I heard Sunny yell something but everything I heard was a dull echo. I could feel and hear gunfire back and forth between Sunny and whoever shot me. I couldn’t move my head to see what was going on and Sunny ran out of my field of vision. The sounds of battle started to fade away as two blips disappeared off my compass, one of which was Sunny’s. A dark form appeared in front of me and spoke.

“That’s them, the ones who killed Bell and Bruiser. They should be out of it for about an hour so let’s get them back to the stadium and see if they’ll accept some late entries into the race.”



Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Scavenger – Whether through sharp eyes or dumb luck, you are more likely to find item stashes.

Chapter Four: Racing Dissension

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Chapter Four: Racing Dissension

“He who hunts monsters should take care not to become one.”

I was jolted awake by a hard kick to the face. I opened my eyes just in time to be kicked again. I felt my lip split and a warm trickle run down my chin.

“Hey! Take it easy on that pony, he can’t race if he’s dead.” A stallion’s voice yelled out.

“Fuck you Axel. They deserve it for killing Bell and Bruiser.” A mare’s voice yelled back.

“I agree Bittersweet and they’ll get everything that’s comin’ to them in the race.” I looked around frantically searching for anything that could help me. Sunny and I had all of our legs tied together and were lying in the back of an old cart being pulled by somepony I couldn't see. I recognized the voice of the one standing over us as the one who identified us back at the clinic. She had a dark green coat, purple mane and was wearing my stable armor and Sunny’s hat leaving me with just my basic utility barding.

As best I could tell it was just the two of them, the one in the cart with us and the one pulling it. Binding our legs was only mere rope so I decided to try and fry them off with magic starting with Sunny, she’d do a better job at fighting them until I could free myself than the other way around. I focused my magic and prepared to fire a weakened bolt at the rope around Sunny’s legs but was instead greeted with a dim red glow from my horn. I tried again but to no effect, each try resulting in the same red glow. My efforts only got me a kick in the gut, knocking the wind out of me.

“Thought you’d try some sneaky magic shit so we slapped a magic nullifier on you. You’d better behave until we get to Monument stadium. Boss won’t like it if we lose anymore racers but I won’t shed a tear if you and your friend die.” I swallowed at the implication. This pony wanted revenge so bad that she was willing to disobey her leader to get it but something was holding her back. “I’d love to see you dead but I’d much rather see you suffer in the races first.” And with that I had my answer. She didn’t want to just gun us down in the back of the cart, no she wanted to see us broken first. I didn’t know what hell was awaiting us but for our captor to deny herself her own revenge in exchange was a thought that had me almost wishing she’d just shoot us.

The rest of the cart ride went by in an awful silence with nothing to see above us but the tops of destroyed buildings, the eternally grey skies, and the hateful glare of the one watching over us. Sunny had surprisingly not said a word or tried to escape since our capture, even the look in her eyes seemed distant somehow. I could see the looming husk of the stadium coming into view and with it the sound of ponies. As we crossed the entrance my PipBuck pinged and made a mark on my map labeling the place as Monument Stadium. We were immediately thrown out of the cart and had collars slapped around our necks. I grabbed at mine trying to get it to loosen. Any slight turn of my head made it cut into my neck painfully.

“I wouldn’t mess with that thing if I were you. You wouldn’t want it to go off and splatter all these nice ponies with your brains now would you?” I stopped my fumbling immediately as my eyes shrunk to the size of pinpricks. The pony whose name I learned to be Bittersweet smiled a devious grin. “Oh? Never seen a bomb collar before?” She mock pouted as she pulled out her gun and motioned me and Sunny down a side hallway. “Its real simple, try and escape and it’ll blow, piss us off and it’ll blow and even if you do manage to get outside the perimeter…haha you guessed it, it’ll blow and take your head with it.” She punctuated that last part by pushing her gun barrel into the back of my head.

A minute or so passed and we were led out onto the once green field of the stadium. In the center was a large sloppily constructed pen surrounded by a razor wire fence where I could see dozens of malnourished ponies. Bittersweet beckoned to some guards who joined her as she opened the gate to the fence as they in turn opened the door to the pen. We were violently thrown in with the rest of the slaves as the door slammed shut.

“I can’t wait to watch you die!” Bittersweet yelled through the door, her words dripping with venom. Before I could even take a look around a loud screech echoed across the stadium followed by static.

“Welcome once again friends to the red races!” A mare’s voiced yelled out over the stadium’s PA system. A roar of applause and cheering erupted from the stands that I had neglected to see were partially packed with ponies. “However I regret to inform you that our beloved leader, Red Asphalt, is not expected to make it in time for the races. So it is with great sorrow that I must tell you that today’s event will be put off until tomorrow.” A second roar came from the crowd, this time filled with boos and jeers.

“Now Now, I understand how you ponies feel, though I shouldn’t have to remind you that none of this would be possible without Red Asphalt. So doesn’t it make sense to wait just one more day so that he may witness the fruits of his labor?” The crowd started to talk amongst itself, seemingly agreeing with the announcer. “I knew you ponies would see it my way, return to your duties for now but be sure to be back in your seats tomorrow at noon for the greatest day in post-apocalyptic sport!” Several ponies in the pen sighed in relief, but the one outside yelled in frustration. She snatched Sunny’s hat off her head and threw it into the dirt.

“No! Goddess Damn it!” She stood just outside the door hyperventilating. She placed the hat back on her head and her eyes full of hate met with mine. She walked up to the fence that separated us and snarled. “I will see you suffer yet worm!” she whispered before turning tail and leaving out the way we came. I could still feel my heart thundering in my chest. We had one day to figure out an escape plan or something so I walked up to where Sunny had been siting since we had been thrown in.

“Sunny what the hell are we going to do now!?” I whispered harshly. She just stared. Not at me or anypony else, she just stared at the ground, her eyes looked empty like there wasn’t anypony behind them. I took her by her shoulders and started to shake. “Sunny! C’mon snap out of it! Sunny I need your help…” She didn’t react at all, she didn’t say anything, she didn’t move and I’m not even sure she blinked. She was completely out of it. I sighed in defeat and did the only thing I could and sat down next to her, a hopeless sigh escaping my mouth.

“Yeah I’ve seen that happen before.” I opened my eyes to see that another stallion had come and sat down beside me. “Don’t worry though she’ll come back eventually or…you know, die.” He was a younger stallion with a dirty brown coat and yellow mane and he had several long scars along his body.

“Name’s Ribbon Dancer, you best get comfy because the only way out of here is in the shackles of a new master. Or you could just die.” Ribbon Dancer’s expression stayed neutral as he spoke of our situation as he stared out into the stands of slavers. “Or if you’re very very lucky you could win the races and with it your freedom.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just like I said pal, did you think that they put on the races just to torture slaves for no reason?” After everything Bittersweet said about the race that’s exactly what I thought it was for. It was at that moment that I truly got a look around the slave pen. All around me were ponies with collars like mine and many of them had scars like Ribbon Dancer. Presumably from lashings they got from previous masters or the current ones. In the middle of the roof above the pen was a large opening that led down to a trough filled with a greenish-brown slop that was to serve as barely passable nourishment.

“Although most ponies who win generally decide to join up with these guys rather than face the wastes again. Then the cycle continues.” He continued.

“How…um how long have you been…you know…?”

“A slave? Three years now. They captured me when they attacked my previous masters. This might sound weird to you but I liked my old cage better.” It did sound weird to me, very weird. The fact that ponies out here could enslave each other and had been enslaving each other for years enough to allow a slave to have seen enough cages to have a preference was sickening.

“I overheard the mare that brought you in, you musta really fucked up to get that kind of reaction out of her.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way or anything Ribbon Dancer but I really don’t want to talk right now.” Ribbon Dancer nodded accepting what I had said.

“I hear ya, nopony likes to think about the day they were enslaved.” Ribbon Dancer seemed like a nice enough pony but that was the thing, he was a nice pony. He should have been angry or sad or something!

“How can you be so positive about this? Why are you talking to me?”

“Because I have been here for months and seen plenty of races, do you get what I’m saying?” I shrugged hoping to speed along his answer. “That means that they have never picked me for the races. All I have to do is not stand out and I have it pretty good here all things considered. I don’t have to work for some asshole and I don’t have to die for the sake of ‘entertainment’.” I glared back at him, his answer was less than satisfying.

“That doesn’t explain why you’re trying to help me.”

Ribbon Dancer rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you been paying attention…?”

“Sparks.”

“Sparks. I’m trying to help you cause I know for a fact that you’re going to be out on that field tomorrow and somepony should try to comfort you because of that. And of all the ponies in here why not me?” I suppose I was thankful for that, even though he approached the subject with the tact of a freight train.

“But why me specifically? I’m sure there’s plenty of ponies in here that are going to be out there tomorrow.” Ribbon Dancer closed his eyes and sighed.

“Because of her.” He said pointing a hoof at Sunny. “When these raiders took me from my old master they also took my sister. Our parents sold us into slavery to pay off a debt for some fuckin' thing or another and we had been sold as a pair ever since. After we got here and watched our first race Ocean Crest, my sister, shut down just like your friend over there and then she was hoof picked to be in the following race. When she refused to participate she was given a choice, stand up and run, or die. I can still remember the look on her face. It was empty, like she had given up. So they executed her on the spot as an example to the rest of us.” I was at a loss for words. I wanted to say something, to try and console him but what could I really say? The only loss I had ever experienced was my father’s death and I was too young to remember it that well. I felt a hoof on my shoulder, Ribbon Dancer must have seen the concern in my eyes.

“Hey don’t worry about it. I just don’t want you to go through what I did.” Before I could say anything Ribbon Dancer got up and started trotting towards the center of the pen. “C’mon, let’s try to get some food before it’s all gone.”

I got up on my hooves and looked at Sunny. “I’ll bring you back something to eat.” I followed after Ribbon Dancer towards the food trough. As we got close I could see the mass of ponies standing around it. I jumped up to try and see over the crowd and noticed that there was nothing in the trough.

“We’re too late, it’s already all gone.” I said kicking at the dirt in frustration.

“Not quite Sparks, look up.” Ribbon Dancer motioned skywards with his head where I saw a couple raider guards pulling a container towards the hole in the roof. “Get ready, you gotta be quick.” I had a pretty good idea what he meant but regardless I wasn’t prepared.

As soon as the guard tipped the container over and the sludge that was to be our dinner spilled into the trough all hell broke loose. Ponies immediately dove forward greedily sucking down as much as they could. Others were less concerned about the food and were more interested in fighting away competitors.

Ribbon Dancer had jumped up and ran over the backs of the others making his own dive at the slop. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have it in me to fight my way to the trough, especially considering all these ponies were slaves and were considerably less fed than myself. I sat myself down a fair distance away from the commotion and resigned to waiting for the others to have a chance.

Ribbon Dancer ran back up to me holding the rags that he had been wearing as a crude bowl in his mouth.

“I fahht Id find joo vaack heer.” He said as he passed me the makeshift dish. “Next time you’ll have to get it yourself.” I nodded in thanks and almost dropped it all over the ground, forgetting that my magic was nullified by the ring around my horn. I grabbed it in my mouth and immediately ran back towards Sunny. As I drew near I was tackled to the ground by another slave. I dropped the rags and the slop spilled all over the dirt.

“No!” I screamed out. I had to bring something back for her, in her state I doubt she’d eat on her own. I got to my hooves to face the pony who knocked me down. He was a big burly dark blue earth pony with a black mane. He was shamelessly salvaging what he could from the spill. “Why!?” I yelled, stomping my hoof on the ground, anger swelling up from inside me.

He looked up at me and snarled.

“You wanna do sumthin’ about it scab?” He stood at his full height and despite the poor conditions in the slave pen he was still reasonably fit and about a head and a half taller than me. My ears fell against my head as I shrunk away from him. He approached just as fast as I could flee. “I think you need to learn your place in here.” He rose back on his hind legs ready to strike. I flinched and prepared for the worst when I remembered that I still had my PipBuck. I quickly slipped into SATS and queued up as many hits on the stallion as I could. It was a different feeling using SATS without a gun. An unseen force took control of my body as I executed several perfectly aimed hits on the stallions gut.

The spells effect had passed but with the undesired effect. The big stallion had recoiled a bit but the look of fury in his eyes dashed any hope that I’d get away without a beating.

“I’m gonna enjoy this.” He whispered through closed teeth. The first hit came hard and fast along the left side of my head followed by a second hit on my right. I managed to stay on my hooves and tried to dodge the next swing but two hits to the head and the fact that there were now three stallions attacking me made it impossible. As he closed the distance the three ponies fused back into one as he bucked me off my hooves and into the dirt. My vision stared to fade and I could hear a loud ringing in my ears. As I was down the stallion got a running start and kicked me in the gut sending me skidding across the ground. Through my heartbeat and the ringing in my ears I could hear the sound of a gun being fired.

“That’s enough Granite.” I opened my eyes to see one of the guards on the roof pointing a gun at my attacker. “Dead ponies can’t race, you kill another slave and it’ll be you that dies next.”

“I can’t believe this shit.” Granite huffed angrily and started to walk away whispering under his breath. I stood up and noticed that my left eye was starting to swell shut. I had no choice but to return to Sunny empty hoofed. As I sat down next to her Ribbon Dancer ran up and followed suit.

“What the hell was that Sparks? I didn’t tell you to pick a fight with Granite.” I glared back at him with my one good eye.

“He attacked me first.” I said indignantly.

“You’re lucky he didn’t just kill you.” Judging by what the guard said Granite had killed a slave already maybe more than one so I guess I was lucky.

“Yeah I guess. He was real eager to fight though, is he always that way?”

“Yeah kinda, he used to be one of them.” He said pointing to the raiders on the roof and around the perimeter. “Then he did something to piss of Red Asphalt and got thrown in here with us. He’ll be the one to watch out for during the race.” I swallowed at the thought. He was just waiting for a chance to be free again and wouldn’t hesitate to kill all of us slaves to get it. I really hoped Sunny would snap out of it soon. I wasn’t capable enough to help her like she had helped me, that thought alone made me feel pathetic. How I wished I could go back to the Stable before all this happened, return to my repair stall and live out the rest of my life without ever knowing the wasteland. I couldn’t change my position no matter how badly I wanted to but I could change the others' who were still in the Stable. I had to be strong for them, for Winter, for mother and for myself. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t abandon Sunny, not now, not after what she did for me. I had a friend out here and I wasn’t about to let that go so easily.

“Sorry I couldn’t get you any food.” I whispered to Sunny. I felt that hoof on my shoulder again.

“You’ll get some next time Sparks. The ones who gorged themselves won’t be competition next time.” That thought brought me little comfort because after tomorrow there might not be a next time.

***

There was little to be done the following day as the gates to the pen were thrown open and a dozen armed guards trotted in and got all the slaves lined up around the fence. The sun was just about in the middle of the sky now as one well armored slate grey earth pony stallion with a scarlet mane flanked by two heavily armed guards walked through the masses and hoof picked ponies to compete. Sunny was still unresponsive and as soon as the grey pony got close an eerie smile formed on his face.

“Well well well, what have we here?” His voice was rough yet charismatic. “If it isn’t miss Sunny Smiles.” Sunny didn’t respond, move or even look at the pony. “No response eh? That's a shame, I have no use for a broken toy.” He said, leaning over towards me. I glared back at him, leaning in between him and Sunny. “Is this a friend of yours dear Sunny? I suppose he'll go in your stead. Oh…A stable dweller, now that should make you an interesting participant.” As he spoke the guards following him escorted me out of the pen and onto the crude track around the field. I sighed a breath of relief, it was a small victory but Sunny’s pseudo-coma definitely saved her from the race. It did little to help my situation though as the area around me was filled with more racers.

Among them I spotted the stallion from yesterday, Granite and felt a chill run up my spine. Soon after the guards slowly filed out of the pen with one last competitor, kicking and screaming as he was forced to the track. It was Ribbon Dancer, the look of pure terror on his face made me shiver.

It was at the moment that I finally realized that it was here that I would die. Why me? Why did the goddesses forsake me? It shouldn’t have been me. It wasn’t even me that killed those raiders and here I was facing a punishment that wasn’t mine. Sunny wasn’t picked because of her state so I had to pay the price through association. Sunny would have been able to do something about this, perhaps even win.

A crackle of static echoed across the stadiums speaker system and the same energetic mare’s voice from yesterday began to speak.

“Welcome back all you ponies to the greatest, fastest, blood spillingist event this side of the mountains!” A roar of applause erupted from the maybe one hundred or so spectators in the stands. “And without further ado, here he is the stallion we hate to love, Red Asphalt!” The applause continued for a brief moment before subsiding. The voice of a stallion radiated out for all to hear.

“Welcome once again to the event that’s looked forward to by everpony in post-apocalyptia! Fillies and gentlecolts, before we get to the pleasantries I have a couple special announcements to make. First and foremost, you all out there have had run-ins with the Regulators right?” A round of boos and jeers flowed throughout the crowd.

“I thought so, so it is with great pride that I inform you that down in that pen we have captured the one and only Sunny Smiles, leader of the regulators!” The reaction from the crowd sounded like an even mix of cheers and boos with some calling for her immediate execution while other wanted to see her race. “Now now, calm down. We can’t risk such a valuable slave to something as petty as death. Also what if she were to win? Or opted to join us? Would you ponies like that?” The crowd turned into itself. Each group of ponies talking amongst themselves seemingly agreeing that the pen is where she should stay.

“And that brings us to my second point. Cast your eyes down to the racers. See that one there in the middle? The one with the PipBuck on his leg. That’s right fillies and gentle-colts we have an honest to goddess stable dweller. Let’s all hope he wins, or cheer when he dies. Either way we could use that PipBuck.” Did that mean Red Asphalt had encountered a stable dweller before? Or did he have some knowledge about PipBucks? Either way now everyponies attention would be on me, for better or for worse.

“Now as always, we will run the first two laps to thin out the weak. Then whoever is left will compete in a series of death battles until we have only four left standing. As a reminder to our brave racers, first place comes with full freedom and an invitation to join the Red Runners. Now let the Red Races…Begin!” The chorus of cheers and applause exploded out into the sky once again as all of us on the field were herded into starting positions on the track.

“Alright racers.” The mare from before took her place on the mic. “The rules are simple, two laps around the track and if you survive you advance. On your mark…get set…”

“NOOOooo!” My head jerked around to look behind me as an extremely shaken looking mare had bolted off the track and was making a mad dash towards the exit.

“You can’t do this! You’re not going to kill me!” She screamed as she ran.

“Haha! Look at her go. Hold your fire all, I thinks she’s earned it.” What? They were just going to let her go? That didn’t make any- I was interrupted out of my thoughts as a distant beeping started to sound. I looked at the runaway mare and saw the light on her collar was flashing. The beeping sped up until the collar around her neck exploded and took her head with it, leaving nothing behind but bone fragments and blood.

“There’s one in every race folks. Now on your mark…get set…GO!” A loud horn blared from the loudspeaker and immediately the mass of ponies broke down into chaos. We all stuck together in a herd as we started galloping around the track. Ponies all around were falling prey to various traps set into the track. A pony just directly to my right had had stepped onto a brown tarp covering a pitfall. She screamed as she fell before she was silenced by spikes at the bottom, piercing her lungs and ending her life. Suddenly all my limbs became heavy. If I had been just another foot to the right I would have fallen in as well. I couldn’t follow anypony to closely otherwise I could share in their fate.

“Alright snipers you may fire at will!” The voice of the announcer ordered. From a myriad of vantage points, ponies started to open fire on the track, indiscriminately killing whomever they could. This was insanity. At any moment my life could be ended in an instant. In that moment I made some of the more regretful acts of my first days in the wasteland. I saw a sniper off near the stands take aim at me and in my state of terror I ducked behind a taller stallion. The bullet meant for me pierced his throat spraying blood all around in a disgusting geyser. He fell to the ground wheezing and coughing up a fine mist of blood before he was trampled to death by other terrified racers. I could feel the bile rising in my throat.

I was somewhere roughly in the middle of the pack as we finished the first lap. I looked around to see that about half of the racers had succumbed to death. The second lap was much of the same made even more difficult by having to dodge or jump the corpses of fallen racers. The second round of sniper fire was much harder to avoid now that there were less ponies to hide behind. That very thought made me sick to my stomach. There were roughly ten racers left when a young mare slipped on the remains of a dead racer and fell head over tail hard onto the ground where she was easily picked off by a sniper popping her head like an overinflated balloon.

“And there you have it fillies and gentlecolts, these are the ponies who will advance to the next round!” The crowd let us all know how pleased they were with the mindless slaughter of approximately twenty ponies. I looked around the track to see the many bodies strewn about in pools of blood. Some had died quickly from a bullet to the brain while others had the unfortunate fate to spring a trap set on the track. Some like the mare who fell into the spiked pitfall had died instantly while others faced the torture of bleeding out from a gash in their side or being trampled due to crippling injuries.

A new feeling was brewing in my heart. Hatred. It was something I didn’t feel often as it was my pride to prevent such feelings back in the Stable. But I wasn’t in the Stable anymore. Seeing such pointless slaughter awoke a new hatred for these raiders, a desire to see them suffer like us. A desire to see them die. A desire to have them die by my hooves. A group of raiders approached us survivors and gave us a look over. One of them made some motions towards the announcer’s booth.

“It looks like we have one too many competitors.” The mare declared over the speakers. “Which means it’s time for a little game.” One of the raiders down with us walked toward our group with a hoofful of sticks. “Choose wisely everypony, you don’t wanna get caught with the short stick.” We were all lined up and one by one we were allowed to choose a stick. As I looked down the line I saw that both Granite and Ribbon Dancer had made it this far. When it came to my turn to draw, time slowed to a crawl. If I chose wrong it could mean immediate death. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears and I was sweating bullets. I slowly reached out then closed my eyes and quickly snatched a stick out of the raiders hoof. I was shivering waiting for it all to go dark when I heard the raider walk further down the line to pass out more. Was I safe? Did I make the right choice?

“Alright racers, hold up your sticks!” We all did as we were told and held them out in our hoofs. I heard a gasp from two ponies to my right followed by the sound of a bullet being loaded into its chamber. A lanky cream colored mare held in her hoof a stick with a black ring around the middle. Her eyes were wide as she began to violently shake. Tears were silently falling from her cheeks.

“No…” She whispered. “I’m not ready to di-” *BLAM* A shot from the raider behind her separated the top half of her head from the bottom as it spun through the air vertically. Her corpse collapsed limply to the ground, the top half of her skull was gone leaving only her limp tongue hanging out of what remained to bleed into the dust.

“And then there were eight!” The spokesmare cried. “Now we pick combatants for the Death Battles!” I was immediately caught off guard as one of the nearby raiders wrapped a blindfold around my eyes. I was shoved around here and there until my blindfold was ripped off leaving me staring Ribbon Dancer in the face. Both of our eyes went wide yet not a single word was spoken between us. Now that the fighters were set we were led to what must have once been a swimming pool, now empty and filled with odds and ends from the wasteland. As we got closer I could hear a ticking sound from my PipBuck telling me that the pit was very irradiated. Down in the pit was a puddle of viscous goo near the deep end next to an overturned barrel. Along the bottom and sides were old black blood stains that were slowly flaking off in the wind. I wondered how many ponies had died in this pit. This pit was used for fun once, now it was the graveyard of Luna knows how many.

I found it easier and easier to hate my captors, hoping with all my power that a similar fate would befall them all. Granite and the mare he was to fight to the death were pushed into the pit.

“Remember ponies, crowd participation is allowed during the Deathmatch’s, just don’t kill either of the fighters unless you want your ass to go in the hole next.” The spokesmare warned. “Now once the fight begins do not stop until one of you is dead…Begin!” It was one of the most unsettling things that I had ever watched. Granite was ready and willing to do whatever he had to do to be accepted back into the Red Runners. He was easily twice the size of his opponent who he easily threw across the pit, snapping bones and drawing blood with ease. The mare’s pleas fell on deaf ears as Granite stomped on her face again and again with an honest to goddess smile on his face until her head was reduced to a thick paste of blood and brains. I was so revolted that somepony could take such glee in such an act that I refused to watch the second fight.

In hindsight that was a poor decision. Deep down I think it would have been better to see what was happening with my own eyes rather than the carnage that I imagined from the sounds of screaming, bludgeoning and tearing flesh. When I saw the aftermath later it was apparent that some ponies from the crowd had thrown in weapons which had ended the fight decisively. Now was the moment I was dreading. My fight with Ribbon Dancer. It was easy to fight for your life when you were cornered or in danger, facing Ribbon Dancer in the pit gave me none of those feelings. How I wish I had gotten Granite as my opponent. I would rather chance the vicious beating or even death and fight a pony I hated rather than him.

Neither of us made a move. I think we were both having the same thought. What a fucked up situation we were in. I doubt they would have let us both go without executing one of us.

“Listen Ribbon Dancer, we don’t have to do this.” I whispered. “Maybe if one of us fakes dying we could-”

“No.” He said. “There’s no getting away from this Sparks. One of us is going to die in this hole. And the way I see it, it might as well be you!” With that he dropped his neutral stance and lunged at me hitting me quick in the face. I staggered a bit but dodged his next kick. For the next few minutes our fight became a dance where I did as best I could to keep dodging but every so often a hit would connect.

“Alright this is getting boring. You guards down there, get in that hole and restrain them.” The spokesmare ordered. Before I could react both myself and Ribbon Dancer were pinned up against the wall of the pit. “No more of this weak dodging shit.” That was the first time that I detected any emotion other than joy in the spokesmare’s voice. “Yes? Oh? Yeah that’s good.” She must have been talking to somepony else in the booth.

“Guards! Hold them up.” We both had our front legs lifted over our heads, exposing our bellies. What was their game? We waited a minute or so before I saw the head of Bittersweet poke over the edge of the pit.

“You two.” She said pointing at two unicorn raiders. “Pick a slave and ram them with your horn.” She was grinning evilly, looking at me as she did. “I secretly hoped you’d survive this far, have fun bitch.” I watched her disappear out of sight but my eyes were now transfixed on the unicorn mare in front of me on the other side of the pit. I looked to my left to see that Ribbon Dancer was in the same situation.

The two unicorns reared their heads and started galloping towards us, their horns leveled at our bellies. They wouldn’t. They couldn’t make us fight while bleeding to death. I had desperately wanted to close my eyes but I couldn’t. I watched in horror as the unicorn rammed into my gut. A searing hot pain lanced through my insides, leaving me with a gaping hole from which my blood flowed profusely. The unicorns had aimed low to not hit our lungs which let us yell out in agony. I fell to the ground clutching my stomach, gritting my teeth as I tried to hold my blood inside. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ribbon Dancer struggling to get to his hooves.

“I had never *Ngh!* been picked for the races *Aahh!* until now. Freedom is so *Ack!* close now. I won’t let you stand in my way!” By the time he finished talking, he had limped over to my prone body. He punctuated his last word by kicking me in the stomach. I screamed bloody murder as a fresh round of pain radiated across my body, threatening to rob me of my sight.

He was right in his own way. He had never been given the chance to free himself. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing was no longer important. What was important was just accepting my fate. If it took me sacrificing my life to give Ribbon Dancer a chance for a normal one, then that was a price I was OK to pay. I closed my eyes and tried to think of home before the end came.

“SPARKS!” A voice called out. A voice that I recognized. It was Sunnny! “Sparks you have to fight back! Do you understand!? Is this how you are going to save your Stable?! By throwing your life away?! Get up and FIGHT!”

She was right. I still had to save them. I still had to save her. I couldn’t abandon her to whatever fate Red Asphalt had for her and I needed her help to get back in Stable 63. I couldn't believe I almost gave up. I couldn’t waste the chance Summer had given me three days ago. I gathered what strength I had left and rose to my hooves.

Every bit of movement made me wince and with every step came the danger of passing out. Ribbon Dancer wasn’t in any better shape than I and that was my advantage. He was desperate to win and that made him clumsy. He threw one last wide punch which I was able to duck and get in close, wrapping my forelegs around his neck. I looked deep inside to Winter, Mother and even Sunny for strength to tighten my grip. He was thrashing with whatever energy he had left trying to throw me off.

The sounds of his choking and the strength of his struggling were starting to weaken as I squeezed even harder. I closed my eyes as he started foaming at the mouth and his eyes started bulging out of his head. I didn’t want this. I wished there was another way but sadly the truth was I had more to lose and a stronger reason to stay alive. I still had my family to save and his…his was gone. It didn’t take long for his body to fall limp in my hooves and as I dropped his now lifeless corpse my own strength failed me and darkness filled my vision.

***

When I awoke I found that my stomach wound had been healed while I was unconscious. I guess it wouldn’t have been fun to have the both of us die. That was it. It was over. There were four of us left. Granite, myself and two other slave ponies, both mares.

“Now that the stable dweller is awake let’s move on to deciding first place.” The spokesmare’s voice had once again been replaced by Red Asphalt’s. “Personally I think it goes to the stable dweller.” I was surprised to hear that but was even more surprised to hear cheering from the crowd supporting his claim. But why? I hadn’t done anything exceptional the whole event. I was convinced that Red Asphalt was picking me so he could get to my PipBuck. Which in itself meant that he didn’t know how to get it off my leg so I was just the tag along for his prize.

“WHAT!?” Granite screamed up towards the announcer’s box. “You’d pick this fucking scab over me!?” Red Asphalt sighed through the speakers.

“Fine. Who thinks Granite should get first place?” There were some cheers here and there but not nearly as many as I had got.

“That’s bullshit! Do you know how many ponies I killed today!? I’ve paid my price! Here I’ll show just how much stronger I am!” He yelled as he directed his gaze at me. Before he could even get close a loud bang rang out and a bullet hit Granite’s left hind leg. He fell straight on his face and slid for a foot or two. In his fall he must have bit through his tongue as an uncommonly large amount of blood was running down his chin. While I was gawking at Granite’s wounds Red Asphalt had decided the last two places, settling on second for Granite.

“And with that we extend an invitation to you stable dweller. Will you join my Runners or face the wasteland alone?” The idea of joining these scumbag raiders made me want to violently puke up my own internal organs. But given my other option it was the best opportunity I was going to get. I had to keep an eye on Sunny and ideally find us a way out. I only hoped that I didn’t have to do anything I would regret before I could find a way.

“I accept.” I said with as much confidence as I could muster.

“Very good. Now…show me your commitment and kill Granite."

“What!?” Granite and I cried at the same time. One of the raiders next to me handed me a pistol with one bullet.

“Prove your worth and do as I say. Kill him!” It wasn’t a request anymore. It was an order. One I had no choice but to obey for my and Sunny’s sake. I looked towards the pen and met her look. Her expression was still neutral with an air of expectancy. I think she knew what I was trying to do. I thought back to what she been telling me the last day and a half. I pressed the barrel of the pistol to Granite’s forehead.

“You won’t hurt anypony ever again.” I spit the words out my mouth like poison. Granite just scowled at me, spiting a mouthful of blood at me in defiance. *BLAM!* one shot through the head put the big pony down the same as anypony else. For the first time since the race started I was no longer facing slaves. Killing Granite was the first step to earning Red Asphalt’s trust and the worst part was…that killing him felt good. I could hear a pleased snicker over the loudspeakers.

“Good…Bring the stable dweller to my office but first the rewards for third and fourth place. Third now gets second places’ reward. A pass to never be picked for a race again.” Two of the raiders down on the field quickly picked up sledgehammers in their mouth and proceeded to break the now second place pony’s hind legs. I had seen and heard many disturbing things in the wasteland so far but nothing made me want to puke as much as the sound of breaking bones.

It wasn’t the prize I expected it to be but in a cruel sort of way it made sense as a crippled slave couldn’t race. Second place wailed in agony as she was drug back to the slave pen.

“Third place is rewarded with the status quo. Back to the pen with her.” She was also escorted back to the pen with a look of hopelessness on her face. One of the other raiders approached me and took the pistol I was given away.

“Follow me.” He ordered. I did as I was told. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a number of slaves begin to remove the corpses from the track under armed supervision.

Monument stadium had more to it than I gave it credit for. From my limited understanding I had assumed that the Red Runner’s home was just the stadium. Outside on the opposite side from where I was brought in was a sort of shanty town were many ponies who weren’t raiders or slavers made their homes. I supposed it was easier for them to accept the evils of Red Asphalt and his raiders for protection rather than endure the wasteland on their own.

Red Asphalt’s office was the most intact room I’ve seen since I left the stable. There was a relatively undamaged red rug across the middle of the room and a few well preserved paintings on the walls. The paint on the walls was peeling off in places but still maintained some color. Red Asphalt himself was sitting behind a large wooden desk facing away from me and looking out the window over the field where the cleanup was still going on.

“It’s not my greatest idea but we can only care for so many slaves at once and admission to watch the races is worth more than transporting them and selling them to the operation at the shipyard.” Red Asphalt spun in his chair to face me. It was the stallion who had been hoof picking the racers from before.

“Truthfully I don’t really care for the whole slaving thing. Some of my men just started capturing them on their own accord and I just haven’t put a stop to it. Does that really make me such a bad pony stable dweller?”

“My name is Sparks and yes, yes it does.” Red Asphalt smiled maliciously as he stood up and removed my magic nullifier.

“Well you’d best get used to it now Sparks, cause as of now you are one of the bad ponies. Unless… you’d like to go back to the pen that is?” I really hated this pony. Nothing would have made me happier than to just leap over his desk and try to take him out, even if it meant I would die doing it. What was it Watcher had said? A noble sacrifice only works if it solves the problem at hoof. As much as I wanted to throw myself at him it wouldn’t change anything, even if I could kill him then what? The rest of them would kill me in retribution and somepony else would take his place.

“Going back on your word now? I won my freedom and I can do whatever I want with it.”

“I never go back on my word. Don’t forget that you gave your freedom to me when you accepted my offer. Of course you may leave if you so desire but my ponies don’t much care for traitors.” It didn’t take much to see the threat behind his words. Like it or not I had accepted this role and now I’d have to play it. I just hoped I wasn’t making a terrible mistake.

The door to the office was loudly kicked open by Bittersweet as she stormed in, pushing me aside and marching straight up to Red Asphalt.

“You’ve got to be fuckin' kidding me! You recruited the pony that killed my friends!?” Red Asphalt didn’t show any kind of reaction to her outburst.

“Yes I did. As you might have heard he took first place.” Bittersweet was shaking with barely contained rage. I was oddly enjoying watch Bittersweet get told off by her boss.

“Oh and I’d like my things back now.” I said pointing at my security barding that she was wearing.

“Ah of course. Bittersweet return his belongings.”

“No!” Bittersweet slammed her front hooves on the desk. “This wasn’t supposed to happen! He was supposed to die! I won’t give back what is mine!”

“Bittersweet, I know how you must feel about this but he won the race. You did not. Now return what you took from him.”

“No. I demand that you kill him right now or I’ll take my supporters and leave.”

Red Asphalt had a sad look in his eyes. “Is this really how you feel Bittersweet?”

Bittersweet took a big breath and poised herself. “Yes, yes it is.”

Red Asphalt closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m very sorry to hear that.” Red Asphalt pulled out a pistol faster than I thought an earth pony capable of and shot Bittersweet in the forehead before she could even react. She fell to the floor, her body limp and leaving a rapidly growing pool of blood.

“Good thing the rug is red eh? I’d recover your things fast if I were you, before too much blood gets on them.” I was speechless to see him execute her so casually. I wasn’t going to complain though, I got my stuff back and the only pony with a vendetta against me was now a barely noticeable stain on the floor. She had taken everything from both mine and Sunny’s saddlebags. The only thing that was unaccounted for were any caps we may have had and the medical supplies. I silently cursed that fact. Making our venture out here now completely worthless.

I had my gun, bags and armor back along with Sunny’s hat and battle saddle. It was an interesting weapon with a shotgun mounted on either side with a mouth trigger device just below and in front of my face. The pony who had escorted me here was now dragging Bittersweet’s corpse out of the room, leaving a smeared blood trail behind.

“String her up somewhere her followers can see and make sure they understand what happened.” He called to the guard then returned his attention to me. “You may go now, look around, explore if you must. Try to get some rest though. Tomorrow I’m going to send you out with a group to find something for me. Chestnut will tell you more when the time comes. Until then, congratulations on your victory.” I could see that sinister smirk return to his face as I left him alone in the office. While I was walking around I couldn’t deny that a curiosity to look around almost took hold of me but instead I found myself back at the slave pen. The guards were now eyeing me disdainfully as I walked the inside perimeter fence looking for a certain orange mare. I found her sitting alone in one of the corners.

“Psst! Sunny! Come here.” I whispered. She stood up and came over to the fence. “Sunny what should I do!? What if they ask me to kill somepony innocent? What if-”

“Sparks you need to calm down. Try not to think about stuff like that. Just focus on these things for now. Find the armory and a way to get in. Then see what you can do about getting us out of here.” I nodded and made a quick exit as the guards on the roof were starting to take notice. I aimlessly wandered around until I found a place to lie down and rest. With my new goals given by Sunny I closed my eyes and let sleep take me.

***

I was nudged awake by a light brown unicorn stallion with a dark brown mane.

“Get up new blood, we got work to do.” He stated gruffly. I had to keep up the act so I did as I was told and followed him. As luck would have it I was taken to the armory to stock up on ammo so now I knew where it was and how to get in. It was just an old locker room repurposed for storage and only guarded by two ponies. Not long after, we had met with another pony and left the stadium heading south. The stallion who had roused me out of my slumber was named Salted Chestnut, the one Red Asphalt had told me about. The other mare who joined us was named Lilac. She was pink with a light green mane that was cut very short. Our expedition only included the three of us. Them for support and me for my PipBuck’s map.

“So what are we looking for?” I asked. Lilac hadn’t said a word since we collected her for the trip but at least Chestnut was willing to talk.

“We’re looking for an old pre-war stockpile of magical energy weapons. We’ve scavenged the area several times but can’t find a way into the lower levels. That’s where your PipBuck comes in.” I lifted my leg and just looked at the device on my leg. I wondered just how valuable one of these were out here. “Once we have them we will take out those regulators over in their aquarium then we’ll have free reign over this area.”

Shit! I couldn’t let them find those weapons. I sent a prayer out to the goddesses that this trip would be a bust. We walked for a good three hours with only the occasional mutated creature blocking our path. Soon we made it to a large pile of rubble that used to be a research facility. Or at least that’s what I assumed it was when my PipBuck named the site the ‘Tomorrow-Tec South Ruins’.

“Alright new blood, put that tech to use and find us a way down.” A more daunting task than I think he realized. Chestnut and Lilac were wandering around the rubble keeping watch while I combed the piles of warped metal framework and concrete trying to find a staircase or something.

After forty-five minutes of no results I switched to the zoomed in map function. Twenty feet away from me, according to my map, was a way down into the lower levels.

“I think I found something!” I called. The sound of approaching hooves became the sound of exertion as we started clearing the debris in the area. Almost an hour later we had dug out a staircase leading down blocked by a door.

“Nice work new blood.” Lilac finally spoke.

“Locked. Get that door open Lilac and let’s get a look around.” Chestnut ordered. Lilac pulled a screwdriver and a couple bobby pins out of her saddlebags and got to work opening the door. I steeled myself for what was about to transpire. If we found what was allegedly down here I wouldn’t have a lot of options. I couldn’t just let them take the weapons back or report where they are. Maybe once we were in I could catch them unaware and kill them and try to pass it off as wasteland casualty. Goddesses was this really how I thought now?

Every second of watching her fumble with the lock was another second closer to the inevitable murder I was about to commit. I tried to control my breathing and banish the butterflies from my stomach.

“Almost…got it…aaaannnd.” I suddenly got a very bad feeling as I brought up my EFS. Behind the door was a giant mass of red.

“Don’t open the door!” I cried just as the lock clicked into place and Lilac was crushed by a mountain of bodies. They were all without their coats and manes. Most, if not all of them, had some sort of open lesions on their bodies, that combined with the lack of fur or manes made them look like moving corpses.

“Ghouls!” Chestnut yelled as he started firing his rifle in the mass of bodies that had crushed Lilac.

“The fuck you doing new blood!? Back me up!” I reflexively levitated out my pistol and indiscriminately shot at the ghouls. Many of or shots did not faze them as they shambled to their hooves and started making their way up the stairs snarling at us. Chestnut and I had retreated to the top of the stairs firing as we went. I figured now was a good a time as any to use Sunny’s battle saddle so I entered SATS and bit down on the trigger sending bursts of pellets into the oncoming horde. But they wouldn’t stop coming! We had to leave or we would be overwhelmed.

From behind I heard the sound of something metal clinking together as Chestnut lobbed what looked like a metal apple down the stairs.

“Run! We gotta get out of here!” He yelled as he started galloping back the way we came. I turned tail to follow as an explosion shook the ground around me. I turned back to see bits and pieces of many ghouls fly into the air leaking a greenish ichor as they went. I galloped as fast as I could away from the horde.

We made it safely away from the ghouls but were still about an hour’s travel from the stadium. Chestnut must not have been too bothered by Lilac’s death if his stony expression and steadfast silence were any indications. Or perhaps he cared too much.

Before I could think of anything to say or ask I saw the silvery form of one of those floating balls vomiting out an ugly tune out of the corner of my eye. Yes! That was just what I needed. I didn’t know if Watcher could help me but it was a chance I had to take.

“Hey I’ll uh… catch up to you, I need to go check something.” I kinda lied.

“Fine, but if you’re gonna go play with that spritebot be sure to salvage its spark battery.” Chestnut kept walking and I trotted over to the spritebot as he called it. I grabbed the bot as best as I could with my magic, turning to make sure that Chestnut was out of ear shot.

“Watcher? Watcher are you in there?” The aggravating polka music continued to play. “Goddess dammit Watcher you better answer me!” the music disappeared in a crackle of static.

“I can’t be everywhere at once you know.” The neutral voice spoke with and undertone of annoyance. “Oh hey it’s you, the one from stable 63. Good to see that you’re still alive. So, did you make a friend in Black Town?” the question had an air of expectation, like he knew something I didn’t.

“Umm yeah I did…Listen Watcher I need you-”

“So where is he? I wanted to tell him that his family is okay.”

“Huh? How do you know Dusty Trail?” The bot was silent for a moment before answering in the most unfeeling tone yet.

“…Who? You mean you didn’t meet Grim in the sky lounge? Dang it, I thought for sure that you two would hit it off, maybe I shouldn't try to play matchmaker. Friendship can't be forced. ” I had no idea what Watcher was going on about but I had bigger problems.

“Watcher, that’s not important right now. Can you help me?”

“I can't promise anything, I try to stay out of wasteland affairs. However I will listen. What do you need?”

“I need you to get a message to the Regulators in the Baltimare Aquarium. Tell them that Sunny Smiles has been captured by the Red Runners and that they have an ally inside. Tell them to attack the stadium and when they do I can arm the slaves and we can hit them on both sides.”

“...” Watcher's silence lingered for so long that I'd though he lost connection.

"Watcher please..." I whispered. "My friend is in there, as well as dozens of slaves. You can’t float there and turn a blind eye to their suffering."

"I don't think you ever told me your name." Watcher's mechanical tone betrayed none of his intentions.

“Sparks. My name is Sparks.”

“Sparks... I’ll be sure to remember it.” With that last statement the floating bot made a popping, staticy sound and began playing that intolerable music from before, floating away aimlessly.

I felt my blood begin to boil. By the way the conversation had gone I figured it was pretty likely Watcher was going to help me but the way he said it, like his precious neutrality was worth the lives of others really got to me. I knew that the single robot wasn't Watcher himself but I sure pretended it was as I took aim. The spritebot exploded into bits as I blasted it with the battle saddle. I sifted through the scrap and grabbed the luckily still intact spark battery and chased after Chestnut.

***

We made it back to the stadium by dusk. Both Chestnut and I went to Red Asphalts office and told him of our experience. He didn’t seem too bothered that we lost Lilac to the ghouls and promised to send a larger force to the site the next day to exterminate the ghouls and get the weapons inside, if they were still there.

Thankfully I was not going to be a part of the second trip, my part was done. I figured that I wouldn’t be needed until Red Asphalt needed my PipBuck again for something. I just hoped that he didn’t get any ideas and try to take it from me as that would leave me without a leg and possibly my life.

I went to see Sunny again just after nightfall. She was back in her coma-like trance and I couldn’t get anything out of her and I wouldn’t dare talk about the Regulators attack this close to the guards. I wondered if the ponies in the shanty town outside the stadium would survive the attack. Maybe, if everything goes as planned, I could evacuate them?

In hindsight I wish I hadn’t thought of that. Now instead of priority one, getting out with Sunny was down to two. I couldn’t let innocents get caught in the crossfire even if they were allied with Red Asphalt. They only did so to save themselves, they were victims of their environment. Perhaps once the attack starts they would fight too. Regardless of what went through my mind I decided to walk through the shanty town just to be sure. The town itself was nothing more than a collection of crudely constructed shacks up against the edge of the stadium. Many of the ponies there avoided me, gave me dirty looks, one even started throwing insults at me before he was pulled away by his terrified friend and one mare was trying to usher her colt away from me. I guess even the ponies out here knew who I was now.

Given their reactions though I guessed that they had no love for the Red Runners. Hopefully when the time came they would run away or fight back. I was just about to return to the stadium when I noticed an older stallion watching me from a nearby shack, the look on his face marginally more accepting than the others. He waved me to him and curiosity got the better of me. As I approached him I saw his light grey coat and short greying auburn mane. He seemed to perk up at my approach but his expression remained empty.

“Come to see the rabble have you? Survey the little ponies for your lord?” He mocked, yet he never shied away. He didn’t seem to hate me or fear me as the others did.

“No.” I said plainly. “I came because I wanted to. To see you for myself.”

“And? Did you find what you were looking for?”

“I think so.”

“Is there something you’d like to tell me?” I suppose one didn’t get old in the wasteland without acquiring some level of wisdom.

“The stadium is going to be attacked soon. I don’t want innocents in the crossfire. Gather yourselves and flee.” I didn’t wait to see his reaction or hear his decision. I quickly retreated inside the stadium, back to where I had slept the day prior before realizing that I couldn’t fall asleep. I had to stay awake in case the regulators attacked. I roamed around for hours, making sure to keep the direction they would came from in my sight. I was staring out over the fractured streets of Baltimare when I felt a hoof on my shoulder.

“Can’t sleep? Or are you trying to show me initiative?” I turned to see that Red Asphalt was standing beside me.

“I can’t sleep.” I said which was the honest truth.

“Worked up about Lilac? I understand nopony wants to see a comrade die on their watch. Don’t let it get to you though, can’t make an omelet without letting an egg or two get torn apart by zombies.” I was appalled by that, the fact that his followers were just tools to be thrown away so long as he got what he wanted.

“By tomorrow evening we’ll make sure that as many ponies as possible get a warm laser in their hooves.”

“Forgive me if I don’t leap for joy.” Red Asphalt chuckled and slapped me on the back.

“Don’t worry pal, you’ll get one too. Rest easy now!” He called out as he made his way back the way he came. It wouldn’t be long now, he was going to get what was coming to him. I decided to move to a different spot. After several more minutes of wandering I found myself outside the door to the announcer’s booth. It was maybe an hour before dawn with light just barely lighting the wasteland. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a gently illuminated line of ponies heading the opposite direction away from the stadium. They heeded my warning after all. Once that weight had been lifted I pushed my way inside the announcer’s booth.

The spokesmare, or at least that’s who I assumed this mare was, was actually quite attractive. She was a bright pink mare with a lavender mane and a heart with an arrow through it as a cutie mark. From the ground it didn’t look like the booth was as high as it was and it had a great view of everything around with wide windows on every wall. That must have been why she was still here, to keep an eye out for trouble and alert everypony if she needed to.

“Notice anything unusual?” I asked nonchalantly. She jumped slightly in her seat as she spun to face me.

“Oh it’s just you new guy. You scared the shit outta me.”

“Sorry, can’t sleep.”

“And got curious eh? I get it.”

“So…anything unusual?”

“The townies have packed up and left. Don’t know where they think they’re going but we’ll send a party out to get them in the morning. They won’t get far.”

I was just about to continue the conversation with her when I saw several dozens of ponies advancing up a street in the distance. The spokesmare must have also noticed them as she tensed up and started to reach for the microphone. I couldn’t let her raise the alarm! I raced up behind her and with the aid of SATS closed the gap between us and knocked her unconscious with a sneak attack. There was no going back now. I took the spokesmares body, tied all her legs together and stuffed her under the bedframe in the corner. Then I ripped the microphone off its cord. Nopony would be raising an alarm this morning.

It was still going to be a few minutes before the Regulators got here so I wasted no time as I zipped through the halls and down the stairs to the field. They picked the perfect time to attack. Most of the raiders were still asleep while a fair amount kept watch. It would take some time for the Runners to rally a defense giving me time to do what I needed.

I stayed out of sight and watched the pen waiting for the moment to come. Gunfire rang out from the north gate along with the screams of ponies. Just as I had hoped, all the guard ponies around the pen left their post, leaving only one to watch the door. The sound of battle hid my approach but stealth wasn’t going to make what I was going to do any easier. I left my cover and galloped at the raider mare at the door. I lowered my head and fired as strong a lightning bolt as I could at her. She barely managed to duck the bolt and it hit the fence behind her charring the metal and showering her with sparks.

She had lost her balance avoiding my blast just enough to allow an easy shot to her chest from my battle saddle. Her body was flung into the fence where it fell, unmoving, to the ground. I ignored her corpse and quickly threw open the outer and inner gates. Before I could say anything Sunny immediately blew past me and disappeared into the stadium. She must have been eager for a fight but I was worried as she had no weapons. Which brought me back to the slaves in front of me, all of which looked at me with wide eyes.

“Quick follow me to the armory! I’m getting you ponies out of here!” I didn’t wait to see how many takers I had and turned and galloped off towards the armory. I thanked Celestia and Luna that almost all the raiders carried their weapons with them, making the area around the armory very devoid of ponies. I could hear the thundering of hoof steps behind me as we turned the corner to the armory. The two guards saw me running and raised their weapons suspiciously. When the rest of the slaves came around they started firing. I put one of them down with the aid of SATS while the other fell beneath the onslaught of many furious hooves. As they threw open the doors of the armory I left them to take their revenge however they pleased. I had to find Sunny before something happened to her. The Battle for Monument Stadium had begun.

The Red Runners were now caught in the middle of a two front battle as the slaves ran onto the field and began firing up at the raiders running through the bleachers. One of the slaves had found a battle saddle with a mounted missile launcher and fired one into the sky boxes where the raiders were hunkering down. It exploded into fire and splinters of wood, raining bits of pony and ash onto the field below. Fire started to spread through the upper rows of seats and other sky boxes, forcing the raiders to fall back.

Somepony must have noticed me near the mass of angry slaves as several bullets kicked up dirt near where I was standing. I galloped forward through the way I had been brought in originally where I encountered the back line of the raiders fighting the Regulators. Somepony had brought and set up a mounted machine gun in the middle of the entrance keeping the Regulators suppressed. I tried to go into SATS again only to be greeted by a recharging message.

I swore under my breath and eased myself out for a look. Several regulators had taken up positions behind old skywagons and other vehicles strewn about in the stadium’s parking lot. That gun was going to keep them pinned until they could pull out some other nasty trick. If I didn’t take it out soon then this battle would be over and the Regulators would be wiped out. I took a deep breath and looked down my sights at my target, the large box of ammunition next to the mounted gun.

I squeezed the trigger and was rewarded with an explosion that blew the gun off its mounting with the many bullet casings acting as shrapnel and shredding the pony who had been using it. In that quick moment one of the ponies outside had broken cover and thrown a bottle in through the entrance where it exploded into flames that consumed at least three ponies. Their screams pierced the sound of gunfire as their clothes ignited, fusing skin and armor together. It was a sight I would never forget, the smell of burning flesh would forever haunt me. I had done enough there and given the Regulators the advantage they needed.

I tried my best to ignore the battle around me as I searched for Sunny. The fire from the sky boxes was raging out of control and had consumed most of that side of the stadium. With nopony to fight it, it would surely consume the whole structure. Across the field I could see Sunny impaling a raider with a piece of rebar before she turned and ran up the stairs. I jumped the railing and landed hard on the field, the battle saddles additional weight almost proving too much for me.

I shuffled on my hooves and gave chase after Sunny. It was unsettlingly easy to follow her path. Littered around the hallway were raider corpses in various states of mutilation. One had had her intestines spilled out onto the floor where they steamed in the cool morning air and another who had his head torn from his body and pinned to the wall with the piece of rebar. Regardless of how steeled my resolve was it was still a fight in its own right to swallow back the vomit in my throat. I continued following the trail, trying not to linger on any particular corpse when I found something I couldn’t ignore. Red Asphalts office.

I kicked open the door to see him casually standing in front of his window, watching the shanty town below be consumed in a separate fire as his men died for him.

“I hadn’t thought the Regulators were capable of such an attack.” He said as a distant explosion shook the office. The fire must have made its way to the armory. He turned around to face me.

“I’m almost a little proud to see you responsible for this.” He smiled cruelly. “I bet you fancy yourself a hero but really you are no different from me.”

“That’s not true!” I yelled back. “I don’t massacre ponies for no reason!”

“Oh but don’t you? How is this, what you have done here not a massacre? You might call it by another name but when it comes down to it, you have killed these ponies simply because they chose to survive differently than you. So you can destroy them and call it justice. You’re a murderer Sparks…just like me.”

…No, that couldn’t be true. These ponies here were monsters they deserved their fate…Didn’t they? Before, I thought that the townsponies were victims of their environment. Could the same be said for Red Asphalt and his group? Were they only trying to survive? Even if that was the case they could have done so without the need for slaves but he was still right in a way. I was a murderer.

“You see you and I are very similar.” He continued. “I never imagined myself where I am now and I bet you could say the same thing. What separates you and me is that I adapted to what was happening around me and you stand in defiance of it.”

“How can you not!?” I screamed, flames of anger rising in my chest. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”

“Equestria is dead.” He said, his eyes hardening. “We who remain must survive in whatever way we deem necessary. There is no right, there is no wrong, there is only the Wasteland. Adapt to it and it cannot hurt you. I can show you if you like.” He held out his hoof his cruel smirk softening.

“I…I’m not…” I hesitated a moment. Could even a pony like Red Asphalt be nothing more than victim of circumstance? No, this had to be a trick of some kind, he was trying to get in my head. I quickly drew my pistol with my magic and managed to squeeze off one round before an orange blur interrupted and flew past me, leaping over Red Asphalts desk yelling like a mad mare. Sunny tackled Red Asphalt to the floor and began hitting him in the face over and over again. The sound of struggle soon became the sound of splattering as Sunny just kept hitting, long after his face had become unrecognizable.

“Sunny… That’s enough…Sunny!” Sunny dropped one more hit, breaking open the skull and wetting the floor with brains and blood. Sunny looked up at me with a look of fury and disgust.

“My name’s Downpour and don’t you forget it stable colt.”

***

The battle died down less than thirty minutes after Red Asphalts death. The leftover raiders who hadn’t fled were gathered up executed by the Regulators. About two thirds of the stadium had burned to the ground, effectively taking it off the map. I was just glad that old stallion led the townsponies away before the fighting started. Sunn… er... Downpour gathered what was left of the Regulator force, loaded them up with what could be salvaged and sent them on their way back to Requari.

“You, stable colt.” She jabbed me sharply in the chest. “My sister seems to have a fondness for you. I can’t imagine why.” Without explanation she pried the battle saddle from my body and reequipped it on her.

“I personally think you’re a weak little bitch. You almost let that grey dick in the office waste you.” She scolded, swiping the hat from my head and returning it to hers. “Now don’t you have to go back to Black Town or some shit?” I was afraid to say anything. Whoever this ‘pony’ was she was very callous and hostile. I simply nodded and we started the long walk back to Black Town.

Downpour was not one for small talk unless it was to berate me on something or another which made the trip go by very slowly. For most of the way we traveled with the remaining Regulators and any dangers we faced were dealt with before I even knew there was danger. We stayed the night in Requari and I was still too afraid to approach Downpour and when morning came I couldn’t find any willing Regulators to answer my questions about whatever had happened to her.

She pushed me back outside like it was her who needed to go to Black Town. It was about two in the afternoon when we approached the gates to Black town. The eyepatch mare from before recognized me.

“Well look who it is, I didn’t think you had it in you pal. C’mon inside, I’m sure there’s plenty of ponies who want to meet you.” What the hell was she on about? Downpour and I were quickly ushered in past the walls where a surprising number of ponies had gathered. In the center of the market area was a crudely constructed stage where an overweight grey stallion with white mane stood behind a dirty podium.

Downpour had a genuine smile on her face as I was pushed up the stairs by a guard to the podium. The crowd had its collective eyes on me. Then the stallion spoke.

“Fillies and gentlecolts. It is my great pleasure to introduce you to the hero who took down Red Asphalt and his army of raiders!” The crowd started cheering. How the hell did the news get here before I did? I smiled nervously and waved to the crowd. The stallion left the podium and approached me.

“My name is Mayor Slate.”

“Umm hi? I’m Sparks.”

“Good to meet you Sparks. In thanks for ending the terror of Red Asphalt it is my great honor to grant you with this key to a home here in Black Town.” I took the keys from his hoof but I still had to know.

“Mr. Mayor I don’t meant to sound ungrateful but how do you know any of this?”

“DJ Pon3 of course. He reports on all events in the wasteland!” DJ Pon3? I had no clue that there was somepony reporting ponies’ actions. But that only raised another question; how did this DJ know? I supposed that those were questions for later as I realized what the Mayor had called me. A hero. It made me feel uneasy. To have expectations suddenly thrust on me. Especially since I hardly did anything in the battle. I wasn’t even the one who killed Red Asphalt. Yet I was the one who was receiving the credit. It was exactly what I wanted and I hated it.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that. I had a real opportunity to help ponies behind the guise of a hero. It still made me a little sick inside to take credit for somepony else’s actions. I resigned myself to play the role of the hero for now until I could meet those expectations or until death took me. And when that moment came the wasteland wouldn’t have lost anything of value. Then it hit me, the reason I was out here in the first place. “Mr. Mayor, do you know anypony who could help me get through a Stable door?”


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Tough Hide (rank one) – The brutality of the Equestrian Wasteland has hardened you. You gain +3 to your Damage Threshold per rank of this perk.

Chapter Five: The Way Forward

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Chapter Five: The Way Forward

“Those who have walked through fire, leave sparks of light behind them.”

“Helloooo, Equestrian Wasteland! It is I, DJ Pon3, bringin’ you all the news your little heart’s desire. Now, not too long ago I was graced with the first bit of good news to come from the far side of the Foal Mountains in almost twenty years. That’s right listeners, I’m talking bout the stallion that took down that madpony Red Asphalt and his merry band of marauding maniacs from monument stadium. For the first time in decades the outskirts of the drowning city of Baltimare are now safe to travel. From Black Town to Red Sands, from Griffin Rock to the Corral, no longer will you have to worry about your caravans disappearing or your loved ones being foalnapped. And it’s all thanks to that brave stallion, that Harbinger of hope, yeah that’s a good one, who cleared a path for your future. Now I know what you’re thinkin’ ‘DJ Pon3 how could one stallion take down the whole operation?’ Well I’m glad you asked cause good ol’ DJ Pon3’s got a story for ya. Early yesterday morning after infiltrating the stadium the Harbinger somehow got word to a group of ponies called The Regulators and convinced them to attack the stadium head on while simultaneously freeing the captive slaves and arming them, hitting Red Asphalt with a fight on two sides. It was in that fight listeners, that the Harbinger struck down Red Asphalt himself and to that we say good riddance. Now I have it on good authority from an eyewitness that he is in Black Town as I speak. So if you see the Harbinger of Hope be sure to give him your thanks and a big hug from yours truly. That’s all for now listeners, until next time this has been DJ Pon3 bringing you the truth, no matter how bad it hurts. Now here’s Sweetie Belle with…”

I pulled the ear-bloom out and put it back in my PipBuck. It was all happening so fast. I had no idea that there was a pony reporting on occurrences across the wasteland. I assumed that what had transpired would stay… I don’t know, a secret? I didn’t like hearing about my exploits, especially since they weren’t really mine. Sure some of what was reported was true but the event that elevated me high enough to deserve some kind of heroic moniker was false. Sure I’m glad that I helped so many ponies even if indirectly but did I really deserve the credit I was receiving? If what he said was true about nothing good coming out if this area in decades then maybe it would be worth taking responsibility. Regardless if I liked it or not I was like a role model to these ponies.

The mayor told me, with great reservations, that the most obvious ponies who could help me get into a stable was a faction he called the Steel Rangers. He said that they had their base of operations northeast of the city on the north peninsula of the bay in what was left of the Equestrian Naval Academy. I didn’t know if they would help me or not, at the very least without doing something for them. As I was quick to learn, nothing was free in the wasteland. I tried to go by Dusty’s but he was nowhere to be seen. Then I fell back on something Watcher had said to me when we last spoke. He wanted me to go to the sky lounge to meet somepony. Since Dusty wasn’t around I figured it couldn’t hurt to see if whoever I was supposed to meet was still there. I walked back into the sky lounge with Downpour following behind me, slinking off to the side as she did. Being everypony’s hero wasn’t like it was in old comic books or holotapes. I wasn’t being lifted into the air by a mob of excited ponies but even so Downpour didn’t like the attention we were getting. Everywhere we went talk and gossip wasn’t far behind. Several townsponies even came up to me and thanked me directly. I accepted the idea of being a hero even if my body didn’t, I knew I had done a good thing but the internal dissonance made the attention uncomfortable. Doubly so now that I knew some radio character had broadcast my encounter to the whole of the wastes. Thinking about the whole thing made me anxious. I crept up to the bar where Corkscrew was standing, trying my best to not stand out.

“Excuse me? Corkscrew?” I tapped on the bar to get his attention and when he turned around it looked like he would need surgery to get rid of his smile.

“Hey! Look who it is! Let me get you something kid, on the house. In fact free round for everpony courtesy of the Harbinger of Hope!” He shouted, not at me but at the whole lounge. A veritable cacophony of cheers broke out and suddenly I was the center of attention. I tried to avert my eyes but there was no use trying to hide.

“Please don’t call me that.” I mumbled under my breath. Corkscrew was diligently concocting some kind of drink when I tried again. “Corkscrew, I really appreciate this but can you help me with something?” His eyes never left his creation.

“Sure, anything for the stallion who killed Red Asphalt.”

“I’m looking for somepony. They came through at least three days ago maybe more. Name was…” I tapped my chin in thought trying to remember what Watcher had said the name was. “The name was Grim? Yes, Grim.” Now it was corkscrew’s turn to ponder for a moment as he slid his creation over to me.

“Hmmm, I seem to recall somepony with that name passing through. You talkin’ bout that griffin?” he said pointing to a booth towards the back. “He’s been here a couple days now. If it aint him your lookin’ for then maybe HE saw the one you’re after.” I steeled myself and slammed back whatever mixture he had given to me and nodded to him my thanks. I approached the griffin in the booth and sat down across from him.

“I’m sorry to bother you but are you-” The griffin looked up from his drink and chuckled softly.

“Ha. It’s really you isn’t it? The pony from the radio? The Harbinger? I wondered what all that cheering was.” He was a head taller than me with light grey fur on his body and darker grey feathers on his wings, head and chest with black fringe.

“How do you know that? The radio pony didn’t say what I looked like.” I could explain why the townsponies recognized me after that impromptu ceremony earlier but from my understanding this griffin wasn't a local and I certainly didn't see him during the ceremony.

“The one earlier didn’t but the one yesterday did.” I had no choice but to believe that as I hadn’t caught the first broadcast. “So what can I do for you Harbinger?” I closed my eyes and shook my head.

“Please don’t call me that, Sparks is just fine.” He nodded and leaned back resting his claws behind his head, encouraging me to continue. “Is your name Grim by chance?”

“Grimgrin Talonrend is my name, just Grim for short. How is it you know me?”

“A…um…” I was hesitant to call Watcher a friend and I wasn’t sure how to classify him…it. “A certain talking spritebot told me.” Grim dropped from his relaxed state and leaned in close.

“You’ve met Watcher too? What did he tell you?” I followed his example and leaned in.

“He told me to try to make friends as ridiculous as that sounds and to come here although he wouldn’t tell me why at first.” Grim’s talons clicked on the table.

“Funny he told me something similar.” I nodded and continued.

“Then, when I talked to him the second time he asked about the friends I made and mentioned you by name.”

“That’s weird… what do you think that’s supposed to mean?”

“Well I think because he gave us similar tasks to go ‘make friends’ that he might have been trying to pair us together.” Grim leaned back and his seat and looked away, deep in thought. “And that’s why I’m here Grim. Watcher thinks we’d get along and I wouldn’t object to some help getting to the Naval Academy.”

“Naval Academy? What could possess you to seek out the Steel Rangers?” If Watcher was to be trusted and after he helped me it’s only fair to give his idea a shot. So I told Grim of my story of leaving the stable, meeting Sunny and my plan to get back in and that my best lead to getting through a stable door was the Steel Rangers.

“I don’t know about this plan of yours Sparks. The Rangers aren’t exactly the most helpful sort. They are far more interested in technology than helping ponies, you sure about letting them know there is an un-pillaged Stable out there?"

“I have to try. Maybe I could just get whatever equipment I need from them and circumvent their involvement entirely.”

“I don’t know, it still sounds pretty risky to me. But seeing as I am a Doctor and you seem deadest on getting yourself shot full of holes it would be against my principles to let you harm yourself.” My ears perked up in surprise.

“Does that mean you will come with us?” He nodded.

“Watcher seems to have seen something in you and from what I’ve seen,” He said motioning to all the jovial ponies around the lounge, “You are heading in the right direction.” A gentle smile graced his beak. “We still have plenty of daylight, should we get a move on?” he said pointing over his shoulder at the exit.

“Alright then, let’s go.” We started heading towards the exit and I beckoned at Downpour who was still waiting off in a corner to follow.

“Hey stable-colt, what’s with the birdbrain?”

“Ah and you must be miss Sunny Smiles.” I closed my eyes and prepared for what I was certain would be a verbal bloodbath. Grim had lifted his claw to give a hoof…er clawshake in his case. Downpour didn’t return the gesture.

“Look here birdbrain, we aren’t brothers in arms and we aren’t friends so keep your claws to yourself and keep your distance. You might be with the stable-colt here but that doesn’t mean I have to give a shit.” Grim pulled his claw back slowly, his face showing an expression of incredulity.

“That’s Downpour, Grim…it’s complicated.” Complicated was definitely an appropriate description of Downpour. I hadn’t found the courage to inquire her about her ‘sister’ or what exactly had happened in the stadium. All the answers would come with time, or so I hoped but enough of Sunny was there to stand with me so I thankful for that. As we walked through the gates of Black Town heading north I thought I’d ask a question of my companions.

“You both heard the radio broadcast about me right? How did the DJ know about what happened so quickly?” I heard the unexpected sound of Downpour giggle.

“Oh yeah, I told him.”

“You did what?”

“I told him when we got back to Requari. You should have seen the look on your face when they pulled you up on that stage.”

I didn’t understand.

“At least that explains how he knew what I looked like and where I was today.” I said trying my best to cast Downpour an intimidating glare. She just giggled again.

“Well even if she didn’t have the best of intentions I say that the telling of your deed was a good thing. Baltimare has gone too long without something to look up to, something to believe in.” There it was again, that feeling of uneasiness in my gut. I had to ignore it because for now I had a role to play, whether I was the right one to play it or not. Both Downpour and Grim advised that we go around the outskirts of Baltimare rather than through the ruins and that was an idea I could get behind. After the stadium I had my fill of excitement for the near future. I didn’t want to run into anymore raiders or worse, bleeders.

“So birdbrain.” Downpour started. “It’s unusual to see a griffin who isn’t a merc or somepony’s muscle. How’d you get tricked into being a medic?”

“No tricks Miss Downpour.”

“Don’t call me Miss.” She warned, giving Grim an icy glare.

“Right. I opted for the trade on my own accord. I wanted to help people and that’s simply not what being a Talon was all about.”

“So you used to be a Talon?”

“I may be a doctor in practice but that doesn’t mean I can’t fight.”

“We’ll see about that.” For what it was worth at least they were talking. We continued on in silence for some time before coming to a stop at what looked like an old hardware store.

“This looks like a good place to stay for the night.” I said looking over my EFS to make sure it was clear. I might have seen a lot of twisted things since I left the stable and yet I couldn’t even begin to explain the feelings I was having as I watched Downpour fling two pony skeletons out of their bed. They had died in each other’s embrace, accepting their deaths. Now they had been casually thrown to the floor in a heap.

“Aren’t you even going to say anything?” I said expectantly. Downpour cast me a dismissive glance.

“Yeah, quit being a pussy. Or would you rather sleep on the floor with them?”

“That’s a little harsh don’t you think?” Grim asked as he ascended the stairs.

“Are you sure you were a Talon? How many ponies have you killed?” Grim looked away, as if he were ashamed to answer. “Thought so, and what about you stable-colt?” I couldn’t meet her stare.

“Seven…” I answered meekly. It was really the first time I’d thought about it. With that first raider it was kill or be killed which made it easier to cope with I suppose. Then I thought about the others. I had executed Granite and I had liked it. Ribbon Dancer was dead by my hooves because I had more to live for. I had taken his life out of some selfish sense of entitlement. It all made me feel sick to my stomach again. A reaction that Downpour must have noticed. She turned her head and scoffed.

“I appreciate what you tried to do for my sister in that slave pen, but I don’t think you’re capable of protecting her. So before we keep going let me give you something to think about, if you can’t take a life to save a life then you are going to die out here.” My ears fell back against my head and I felt a claw on my shoulder.

“C’mon Sparks, let’s just give her some space for now.” Downpour ignored us as we made our way down the stairs, hopping in the bed as we left. After several minutes of moving old shelves and display stands we had made a sort of camp behind the counter.

“So, now seems like a good time to tell me what the hell all this Downpour shit is about.” He seemed taken aback by his own words. He coughed into his claw and nervously smoothed out the feathers on his chest. “Sorry, but she isn’t like you said.”

“She started acting like that after I freed the slaves from their pen in the stadium. It’s like she’s a completely different pony.” Grim held a claw up to his beak, clearly deep in thought.

“Perhaps because she is.” That caused my ears to perk up.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know anything about her past?” I thought on it and despite the fact that I called Sunny a friend I really didn’t know much about her.

“No I don’t.”

“Hmm I think it might be Dissociative identity disorder.”

“What?”

“You can learn a lot from old world books.” He smirked. “In laymen’s terms, I think she has a split personality.”

I supposed that made sense, or did it? I had no reference to back up anything I could add to this conversation. It put more of a burden on my mind that I was supposed to be the ponies’ hero. “Think about it, she’s going by another name, she seems to be aware of her ‘sister’ and she’s very hostile. All of which are symptoms of the disorder. Sunny must have suffered some kind of intense trauma early in her life and in order for her mind to cope, she may have created a second mind to ‘share the load’ as it were.”

“We can’t exactly just ask her about it.”

“I’m not saying we should, But if I’m right then sooner or later Sunny’s personality will come back to the surface.” It wasn’t much of a comfort but it was all I had. I laid down on the floor and rolled over when something fell out of my bags.

“What’s this little box?” Grim asked pointing a claw to the little memento box Sunny got from the safe back in the clinic.

“Oh…I don’t know. We pulled that out of a safe before we were captured by Red Asphalt.” Grim picked up the little box and jammed a talon into the keyhole.

“I’m pretty handy with a lock. I should be able to…think I got something and…got it!” With an audible click the top of the box flipped open. Revealing only a small bit of paper and some kind of glass orb. Grim picked up the paper and began reading.

“One of the mares we recovered from the Cataclysm seemed to be holding a dangerous secret. We had been treating her for amnesia but once we began combing her memories we found something damning. It’s a good thing that these patients were sent to me for care. I will do my best to cover this up, the zebra deserve that much but by the time the Ministy of Morale completes its investigation I’m afraid it’ll be too late.”

I sat up and took the orb out of the box. “What do you suppose is in it?”

Grim shrugged indifferently. “I don’t think it really matters.” He made a motion with his arm as if he were showing off the state of the store. “Pre-war secrets don’t have too much value these days.”

“You aren’t the least bit curious?” He tapped a talon to his forehead.

“I know you don’t have any medical experience but perhaps you’ve noticed the lack of a horn on my head.”

“Alright alright. I’ve never seen a memory orb in person. All I know is from what I’ve read in books in the stable. Do you think you could watch my body if I decide to check it out?”

“I suppose so if you are so inclined.”

I rubbed my hooves together in excitement. I don’t know why I was so interested in the orbs contents. Perhaps it was simply my own curiosity. After all, the note claimed that whatever was on it could have had serious consequences if wartime Equestria knew about it. I picked up the orb and carefully touched my horn to it, focusing a little bit of magic as I did. I was filled with the sensation of falling as the world around me twisted into itself until it shattered only to be replaced by whole new one.

<------OOOO------>

I was sitting at a terminal…wait no it wasn’t me. It was the pony whose memories I was riding. I was seeing out of her eyes and feeling a cool breeze blowing through my…what were those on my back? I felt my body stretch out and flex its wings. It was a whole different sensation to have whatever magic I had located on my back. As a unicorn it was almost unbearable. I was filled with the desire to reach back and touch my wings but couldn’t. Whoever I was didn’t find her wings as interesting as I did. On the terminal before us was a huge list of names and numbers that were undecipherable to my untrained eyes. The room around me was blurry as my host was focused solely on whatever work she was doing. After several moments of that we switched to reading a news article.

The annexation of the Badlands has been completed and a flow of coal has been returned to Equestria. Many troops currently stationed in the Badlands are worried about an attack by the Zebra Nation and are already on edge by constant attacks and sabotage by the Changeling Insurgency. Also support from the general populace has been unfavorable as numerous rumors of Equestrian soldiers gunning down rioters among other atrocities have found their way back to the Ministries. When approached for comments Commander Buzz-

Suddenly I felt a violent shaking as the room adjacent to where I was sitting exploded into bits of splintered wood and flames. I immediately flipped the table I had been working at and hid behind it for several seconds before a loud siren began blaring followed by an announcement over a speaker system.

“All agents to arms! The facility is under attack by Changeling insurgents!” I jumped to my hooves and ran to a nearby hallway that branched off into another hallway already filled with other ponies. My host didn’t pay attention to anypony, her focus solely devoted to getting herself ready for combat as soon as possible. I quickly slipped on some light armor followed by a magical energy battle saddle. I turned to run out the door when I was stopped by a well-dressed dark green stallion. He handed me a slip of paper with some kind of writing I didn’t recognize on it. I saluted and bolted out the door. Instantly as I stormed out onto a balcony the sounds of gunfire and shouting was all I could hear. With a mighty flap of my wings I was launched into the air. I wanted to scream as the feeling of gliding through the sky was too much for me to handle. As I flew I noticed the glowing warmth of the sun on my coat and the cool rush of air through my mane. It was a stark contrast to the mountainous crags I could see in the distance and the small fires dotted around the barren landscape. I dove in low for a strafing run and gunned down several black creatures with black carapaces, small horns on their heads, solid blue eyes, insect-like wings and fangs. The pink beams of energy from my battle saddle reducing them to glowing piles of ash. But then three of them on the ground erupted into flashes of green, all of them now sharing the appearance of a pegasus mare.

“Clever bugs.” I mumbled to myself. The three doppelgangers took to the air themselves and began chasing me through the skies. At first I found the act of flying terrifying, yet now as I traded fire with multiple pursuers I was starting to find it almost relaxing. I banked hard and flew back into one of the copies, grappling it to a standstill as we hovered midair trying to take each other down. I looked into the creatures eyes and saw my reflection in them. These creatures had copied my form. I maneuvered myself to press the barrels of my guns just under the copy’s wings and fired. The energy beams burned through where its wings met its body separating them as it started to fall. The creature’s body erupted in a green flash again returning to its original form as it fell, screaming before its body splattered against the ground in a green mess.

“One down, two to…” I was interrupted out of my victory by the sound of crackling flames. I turned around to just barely catch a glimpse of one of what I assumed were changelings dive bomb into my back wrapped in a green aura that propelled us quickly towards the ground. I flapped my wings uselessly as the surface got closer and closer. I heard a loud snap followed by blinding pain as one my wings was snapped on impact. The changeling recovered almost immediately as if he wasn’t even hurt by tackling me out of the air and blasted me in the face with a green bolt of energy. Since I was riding a memory I couldn’t tell how long I was unconscious and frankly I’m surprised it didn’t end the memory but I was no expert. When I did come to I was in a kind of prison cell, I was hardly able to open my eyes and I was able to make out the silhouettes of a changeling and a zebra. The great thing about memory orbs is that no matter how well you yourself recall a memory, the orb will show what happened perfectly. The reason that thought came to me is that while I watched the scene before me my host didn’t react at all. We must have been in a weird state of consciousness and unconsciousness to have our eyes open to look and yet we could not see. The Changeling and zebra talked about something in the zebra language which I couldn’t understand. Is that what was written on the paper from before? The zebra language? What was interesting was the map that they had displayed on a screen behind them and on it were several locations of megaspell silos. I began to stir and the zebra noticed.

“Sorry for the rough treatment.” She said in a heavily accented voice as she approached the cell. “We barely got you out of there in time. Once you recover we have a big assignment for you. A ministry official is about to go…missing and the time of our ultimate plan draws near.” I stood up and a green flash surrounded me.

“Yes Legate Misua.” I had been a changeling the entire time!

<------OOOO------>

I must have fallen asleep in the real world while viewing the memory as the sun was just now slightly penetrating the cloud cover. When I awoke Grim was already up and about with a look that made it seem like he hadn’t slept at all. He noticed me jostling around, stretching my tired body; it wasn’t exactly the most restful sleep.

“Must have been quite the memory to put you out for so long.” He quipped.

I couldn’t really give him an answer. Who knew just how long the memory lasted with that stretch of darkness. My perception of time was completely gone while viewing the memory so maybe I didn’t fall asleep and was really in it for the whole night. “So was it worth it?”

I absentmindedly ran a hoof through my mane.

“I think you were right, it wasn’t all that important all things considering.” Why didn’t I tell him the truth? I was right and it didn’t matter in the grand scheme but there was no point to not sharing the finer details. Maybe it was the scientist in me that refused to share information without having it all myself, but really, what were the odds that I’d ever solve the mystery of what I saw?

“We should go wake the ‘princess’ up and get a move on.” Grim stated with the slightest bit of spite in his voice. We walked up the stairs to the bedroom that Downpour had claimed and knocked on the door. I could hear movement from behind the door and it opened. In front of me stood Downpour with an honestly cute case of bed mane.

“Oh.” She yawned. “Good morning Sparks…and…um…you there.” She gave Grim a puzzled look.

“Sunny!”


Footnote: No Level Up.

Chapter Six: The Way Forward, Part Two

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Chapter Six: The Way Forward, Part Two

“Friends can be an amazing source of strength, and can help you overcome even your greatest fears.”

It was hard to control myself as I practically tackled Sunny in a hug. It just felt so nice to have my friend back and to my delight she returned the embrace.

“The other one was here, wasn’t she?” She asked with an almost disappointed look.

“Yeah, Downpour right?”

“Yeah, how long was she with you?”

“Just about two days.”

Sunny turned around and kicked the wall hard enough to leave a hole in it, mumbling under her breath as she did. She turned back towards us yet didn’t look us in the eye. “It’s so hard to know what going on when she’s in control and she stays in control longer and longer.”

“Are you going to be ok Sunny?” Grim asked, placing a tender claw on her shoulder. Sunny shied away from his touch and shook her head.

“I’ll be fine it’s… everything’s fine.”

I knew a lie when I saw one. The look on her face was a troubled one, something about this whole situation was bugging her more than she would admit, even to me.

“Sunny if something’s bothering you, please tell me.” I tried to place a hoof on her shoulder but she wouldn’t let me touch her.

“I said I’m fine Sparks!”

I flinched away from the sudden shouting. “I’m sorry…I was just trying to-”

“My demons are my own, nopony else’s. So do me a favor and please just drop it.”

Without another word she retreated back into her room and shut the door on me and Grim.

“Neither of them were great at introductions it seems.” Grim quipped before turning to head back down the stairs. “Come Sparks, give her a moment to gather her things, we’ll wait for her downstairs.”

I looked at the door then to Grim and back at the door. I had to stop myself from knocking. Whether it was warranted or not I was worried about her and I really just wanted to help. But really what could I do? She had possibly lived her whole life with her other self buried inside. Even if I could help she didn’t want it, at least not from me. I sighed softly before joining Grim on the way downstairs. It didn’t take long for Sunny to make her way downstairs with a smile on her face as if everything from a few minutes ago never happened, which was probably for the best. We would deal with that another time. We took a moment to explain Grim’s presence and where we were currently going as well as what Downpour had done in her ‘absence’. “She reported the attack on the stadium to DJ Pon3? Huh, she must like you.”

I can honestly say that I never got that feeling from Downpour. “What does she usually do?” I asked, sort of fearing the answer.

“I really couldn’t tell you for sure ‘cause when she’s in control I only see vague images or ideas.”

Grim was tapping a claw against his beak. “Fascinating, you really have a second personality.”

“Yes, she normally only comes out in dire circumstances. The slave pen was the last straw for her.”

“Is that why you were unresponsive when we were captured? Was that Downpour trying to come out?”

“Actually it was me trying to keep her from coming out. There was no telling what she would have done if she took control in that pen with you and a bunch of slaves.”

A terrifying thought to be sure. To watch through your own eyes as your body is controlled like a puppet.

Sunny adjusted her hat for no discernable reason as she sat up. “Anyway, we should get moving. The sooner were done with the Rangers the better.”

We gathered what little we had and set out continuing our way north. The sun was gently shining through the cloud cover and the walk was a relatively nice one with only the sound of the dirt crunching under our hooves and the distant smell of the ocean blowing out over the ruins from the east. Occasionally we would see some kind of mutant wildlife that Sunny would pick off with amazing accuracy if they didn’t immediately flee from us. Grim was in the air scouting our surroundings but after a moment or so he flew back down and landed next to me. “The radio broadcast never mentioned you were from a stable.”

“Is it really that important?”

“Well no, not exactly but I’m curious. Why are you outside If I may ask?”

Just like before I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell anypony what had happened back in the stable. Sunny had never been nosy enough or cared enough to ask. If they were going to help me get back into my stable then I guess they would find out eventually and they were putting a level of trust in me. It was only fair to do the same for them.

“My stable was built for the purpose of selective breeding and genetic modification of the pony genome. They wanted to create ‘the perfect pony’ that couldn’t know hate and stuff like that. But that was only the half of it. Above the labs and such were regular ponies like me and my family. We lived our lives and maintained the stable and were getting along just fine. Then five days ago I was selected to have my genes harvested.”

“Wait wait wait…” Grim interrupted. “You’ve only been out here for five days?”

I didn’t know what to say to that and truthfully I didn’t want to answer. I hadn’t done anything spectacular or heroic. I just took the credit for a kill that resulted from pointing Downpour’s fury in the right direction. Nothing about what I did should be recognized yet here I was, The Harbinger of Hope, making everypony’s life ‘better’ in the wastes.

“Hmm, after I was selected for harvesting I found myself down in the lower labs and I learned the true nature of my home. But I escaped and accidentally set fire to the labs. The smoke from below filtrated up to the upper levels and sparked a full blown riot in the stables population. Since I was already marked for harvesting, I wouldn’t be safe even after the riots so my sister-in-law, the head of security, gave me her armor, gun, and code to open the stable door. I escaped with my life but my family is still in there, trapped at the mercy of the harvest and since I destroyed some of their data I think they’ll start harvesting more frequently. So that’s why I’m outside, to find a way back inside to save everypony.”

Nopony spoke for a while after that, whether they were stewing in their own thoughts or just plain had nothing to say I didn’t know.

“Bringing them out into this world might not be the wisest decision. It isn’t like death is any less likely out here.” Sunny didn’t turn to face me as she spoke.

I looked up towards her. “I know that but it’s better than leaving them down there to face a certain death.”

“I don’t know.” Grim started. “I think Sunny has a point. At least they are safe in the stable. Getting killed might not be a certainty but they will never be safe out here.”

I stomped a hoof in frustration. “You wastelanders will never understand. I’ve made up my mind and that’s final.”

That’s good Sparks push your only friends away. Sunny never actually agreed to help me. Downpour kept following me after the stadium because of Sunny’s subconscious influence. I didn’t know why she kept going along with me but I was too afraid to ask in fear that she would leave me. We kept on going in silence. It wouldn’t have surprised me if both of them were thought about leaving me to face the Steel Rangers by myself. Then I heard a little sound from my PipBuck. A little notice on the top right of the screen read ‘Stable 71 Emergency Frequency’

“Hey guys hold up for a second.” Grim and Sunny both stopped in their tracks and looked at me with curiosity as I placed the ear-bloom in my ear.

This is an distress signal from Stable-Tec: Stable 71. Message begins: I’m sending this message out on all frequencies. This is Overmare Junebug of Stable 71, We are under attack by…they came through the door and opened fire on…please if anypony can hear this help us…please. Message repeats.

Some parts of the message were obstructed by static but after picking up the frequency with my PipBuck I figured we could do a perimeter search to find its source.

“Guys I just picked up a distress call from another stable, they are under attack and need help.”

“Are you sure about this Sparks? Running in blind…” Sunny wavered off.

“If we can save them, then maybe they can help me get back into my stable! C’mon we can do this.”

“Alright I said I would help you and I meant it, I’m with you.” Grim said fluttering over to land by me. “Sunny?”

Her expression showed that she wasn’t entirely sure about what we were doing but she nodded anyway.

“Okay I think we can find the source, follow me!” I said as I turned and started galloping towards where the signal started to get clearer. I didn’t give any thought to what we might face. The prospect of helping them getting me back into my home was the only thought on my mind. After close to fifteen minutes of searching we arrived at what looked to be the remains of an old shopping complex where the signal was strongest. Cracked pavement stretched out from its entrance and several destroyed sky carriages littered the premises. The auto-map in my PipBuck labeled the building the Bridlestar Mall.

The door was knocked out of its frame but whether it happened recently or when the bombs fell was beyond me. The first floor was mostly just a reception area with desks to both the left and right with old computers with blown out screens and plants that had long since decayed to dust. In front of us was an out of commission escalator leading down to the actual shopping portion of the mall.

“I have a bad feeling about this. Tread carefully.” Sunny said as she took the lead down the escalator. What was left of the next floor down was limited to piles of debris and stores that were long ago looted. Some lights were still intact, giving us a few dim patches of light.

Grim walked up to me and whispered. “If we have time we should take a minute to look around when we’re done, you know for supplies.”

I nodded yes. It was probably a good idea as I don’t think I had ever taken a proper inventory of our supplies. That auto-sorting spell in my PipBuck was going to see some use in the future. Sunny was still leading the pack as she went down a second defunct escalator to the third floor.

I couldn’t fathom why Stable-Tec would build a stable under an underground shopping mall. I guess you could argue that if the mall was full when the last day came the stable would fill up very quickly. Maybe Stable 71 didn’t require reservations for occupancy? We reached the bottom floor to see a similar scene of looted stores. In the center of the floor was a dry white marble water fountain.

“Soooo…” Grim trailed off. “Are we getting any closer to the-” Sunny quickly covered Grim’s beak with her hoof.

“SHH!” She pointed towards the fountain where through the hazy lighting I could see the shadowed forms of several figures meandering about. We all ducked down low and silently shuffled back behind the escalator. Once we were out of their line of sight I took a second to glance at my EFS. I couldn’t tell how many of them there were due to how clumped together they were but one thing for sure was that they were all hostile.

“Did anypony get a good look at them?” I whispered. “What are they? Ghouls?”

“Give me a second. I’ll go take a look.” Grim declared as he quickly snuck around the escalator and disappeared into the shadows. Having dark feathers was no doubt a great help to his stealth. Sunny took a moment to make sure all her weapons were loaded and ready for action and I followed her lead and did the same. Grim returned after a short while and reported what he saw.

“I don’t know what those things are. They look like ponies but they are all malformed, bloated and…and.”

“What? What is it?” Sunny hissed.

“They all have wings…and horns.”

“Alicorns? Oh shit.” Sunny looked back towards the fountain with a look of dread.

“Alicorns?” I questioned. “Like the Goddesses? That’s a good thing right?”

“No Sparks.” Grim had the same look as Sunny. “Alicorns in the wasteland are nothing like the goddesses of old. I don’t think these are the same though, these ones just look…wrong.”

The look on Sunny’s face seemed to lighten after that. “Then maybe we have a chance.”

“So what’s the plan?” I asked, hoping they had some kind of idea.

“If you still want to help the stable, then we have to get through them.” Sunny said, biting the mouth bit of her battle saddle. “You two cover me, I’ll get their attention.” Sunny leapt out of cover with amazing agility and fired her shotgun across the room. One of the beasts on the far side took the full brunt of the buckshot and toppled over dead. The rest were now aggressively moving towards the source of the attack.

Grim grabbed me by the hoof and pulled me through the shattered window frame of an old storefront. He pulled out two submachine guns and peppered another one of the Alicorns into a hole-riddled mess on the floor. No wonder Griffins were praised for their skill in combat, it must have been a huge advantage to hold his guns in his claws rather in his mouth like most pony weapons. Whatever these things were, they looked like they had been tampered with in the sense that some of them had bits of armor grafted to their sides, weapons fused to their hooves and parts of their bodies were bloated and malformed.

One turned towards the storefront where Grim and I were taking cover and snarled. “Ponies! Try and hide from this!” its voice was deep, raspy and distinctively feminine.

Grim’s eyes widened in horror. “Scatter!”

Fear wracked my body as I desperately tried to jump through the window as a soft *Thoom* was almost instantly followed by a fiery explosion that ripped through the front of the store. My armor absorbed most of the damage but I could feel where the flames singed my coat and the intense pain where a fragment of the wooden countertop pierced my leg. I hobbled as fast as my legs would carry me. I ducked behind a stone support pillar as bullets from one of the monsters ricocheted off my cover, flicking me with bits of tiny stone shrapnel.

Sunny was right in the fray dancing around the bulk of the Alicorns. She easily side-stepped a sloppily casted spell and blasted an alicorn separating its leg at the knee. It gracelessly hit the ground where a stream of bullets from wherever Grim was drew a line of blood across its body. I dashed out from behind the pillar and fired a charged lightning bolt at the alicorn with the grenade launcher. It hit the alicorn in the neck making it start to violently spasm so it couldn’t move. Sunny must have seen the bolt as she took advantage and blasted the alicorn in the back of the head plastering the wall and parts of the ceiling with dark gore.

I jumped over an adjacent stores counter scarcely dodging a hail of bullets, showering me with wooden splinters. The sound of gunshots continued followed by the sounds of wet splattering. I hid behind the counter for a moment as I gripped the shard of wood in my leg in my telekinesis and quickly yanked it out. I grunted in pain as the wound was treated to a heavy throbbing followed by a gush of my blood. A shadow engulfed me from above. I looked up at the head of one of the twisted beings as its face contorted into a savage grin.

“I’m going to crush your bones pony!” I watched an overlapping aura of magic wrap around its horn as it prepared whatever spell it was ready to kill me with. I reacted as best I could, taking advantage of its inept attempt at spellcasting by pressing my pistol to the underside of its jaw, blowing its teeth out the top of its skull, raining blood and bone fragments all over me. By the time I wiped the blood from my eyes most of the battle was already won. With the combined threat of Sunny and Grim the rest were quickly dispatched. When I jumped out of my cover to try and help the last of the Alicorns was tackled to the ground by an airborne Grim where once it was prone it had its throat shredded by his claws. It gurgled with a disturbing sound as it tried in vain to take in breath. Grim’s beak curled in disgust as he put a bullet through its head. I limped up to where Grim and Sunny were standing.

“Where did these things come from?” Grim asked nopony in particular. “They definitely weren’t normal alicorns.”

“I don’t think they’re natural.” I added. “The way they tried to cast spells like they never had before…it’s like they weren’t born that way…”

“Grim, do you have any healing potions?” Sunny interrupted with a shaky voice.

I gave her a good look over to see that she had at least three gunshot wounds, one in the right shoulder, one just above her right flank and one through her foreleg.

“Oh shit, yeah hang on a second Sunny.” Grim quickly dug through his bag and passed her a potion. She drank it down calmly as her wounds quickly closed up.

“Thank you. C’mon we should keep moving.”

Grim tried to offer me a potion as well but I refused it in favor of a magical bandage, my wound wasn’t bad enough to warrant a potion even though I would be limping for a bit. We looked around through several of the stores until we managed to find a strange contraption on the underside of a desk in the back office that pulled the fountain back in the main room to reveal a set of stairs heading further down.

Even after what we just encountered upstairs I was still in a delusional state of mind that everything was going to be ok and that the stable ponies would help me get back to mine but as we walked into the entrance all of that was shattered. The stable door was wide open and just inside the door were four bodies that had been dead for quite some time. I fell back in defeat as Grim walked up and inspected the bodies. I felt a hoof on my shoulder and turned to see Sunny behind me giving me a tender look. It was a defeating moment but in a way I think I deserved it for building up the idea in my head that even if we had made it in time that they could have helped me. Grim motioned with a wing for us to come over to look at the bodies.

“They’ve been dead for a couple months at least and they were killed with magical energy weapons.” He deadpanned.

“So what does that mean?” I asked, hoping for a satisfactory answer.

“It means that this wasn’t just some raider attack, if the attackers had this kind of gear it means that there are very few groups who could have done this.”

An answer that only brought more questions to be sure, questions I wanted the answers to. So I motioned for the both of them to follow me into Stable 71. It was an unsettling image. It wasn’t because of blood or gore or anything like that, it was seeing a place so eerily similar to my home in such a state of decay. It was a sight that literally hit too close to home.

All around the hallways were broken, flickering lights and blast marks from energy weapons. Near the doors to the other wings were spinning orange emergency lights and the half melted metal remains of roof mounted turrets. We continued along finding much of the same all throughout the stable. As we walked into the atrium I saw something I never thought I’d see. The atrium was completely empty. Sunny walked around looking here and there before turning back towards us.

“There was obviously a fight here.” She said. Motioning around the room at the various blast marks and sparse blood splotches. “But where are all the bodies?”

She had an interesting point. Other than the four at the entrance there wasn’t a body to be seen. Here and there we did see blood but there weren’t any trails to indicate that the bodies, if there were any, had been removed. Which meant…

“The population was captured alive.” Grim finished my thought for me.

“But why? Why would anypony do this?” I asked frantically.

“The only ponies I know who regularly raid stables are the Steel Rangers or raiders and neither of them care about cleanup or taking prisoners.”

“Then who could have done it?”

“That’s what’s scary about this…I have no idea.”

Sunny had a look on her face like she was recalling a memory, a memory that terrified her. She shook her head and muttered something to herself.

I took a few steps towards her. “Sunny? Are you okay?”

She shook her head again before facing me.

“I’m fine Sparks…It can’t be what I thought…”

“What are you talking about Sunny?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

An uncomfortable amount of silence permeated the room as we all just stood there in the atrium.

“Well…since it seems safe in here I’m going to go see what I can salvage Okay? Okay.” With that Grim sped out of the room.

“Yeah that’s probably a good idea.” Sunny said as she herself slowly walked out a different door. Leaving me alone in the big empty room.

I looked up at the large circular window above the atrium that, if stables followed similar designs, was connected to the Overmare’s quarters. At the very least I should disable the radio beacon so others don’t waste their time exploring a mausoleum. There was a third exit from the atrium under the Overmare’s window and figured it was my best bet to get where I was going.

I was still having trouble accepting what I was seeing. I remember when I first came outside and how helpless I felt at just how big and empty it was. I never thought I would feel like that inside a stable. To feel such a crushing emptiness from small corridors and low ceilings. Walking through a hallway where barely two ponies could walk side by side knowing that nopony would cross my path. Thankfully I was pulled from my misery when I found the stairs up to the Overmare’s quarters.

The security panel next to the door was in pieces on the floor from where it was shot or possibly blown off. The inside of the room was laid out in a circular fashion with a large desk near the back wall flanked by the window overlooking the atrium. To the left of the desk were two filing cabinets with a beautiful tapestry in between them depicting Princess Luna and Princess Celestia flying around each other over their once peaceful kingdom. To the right was a secondary door that presumably led to the sleeping area and bathroom. Sitting in the chair behind the terminal on the desk was the slowly decaying corpse of Overmare Junebug. Her head was slumped over with her mane obscuring her face. In the middle of her body was a large stab wound surrounded by burn marks. She had been stabbed with something hot given the lack of blood the wound produced.

I very gently pushed the chair out from in front of the terminal and took my own awkward stance in front of it. The terminal itself was not locked which was a small and the only blessing the stable was fit to grant me. I found the commands to disable the emergency radio beacon and lift the lockdown from the stable. As I selected them I heard the faint sound of machinery clanking as the lighting returned to its normal brightness and the emergency lights retracted back into the walls. Among a few other bits of information like administrative and breeding policies I found a sort of diary from the Overmare. Maybe something in there would tell me about what happened. I started with the first.

Overmare Junebug report: First Contact.

Today was a momentous day. For the first time in centuries we received a signal from the outside. It wasn’t from Stable-Tec but instead from an organization called the GPE. They claim to have the authority of Stable-Tec to command our door to open so that we may integrate the stables population into theirs. I am hesitant to trust such a message. The GPE doesn’t appear in our records of the branches of the Equestrian government and my orders dictate I am not to open the stable door until I receive the All-Clear signal from Stable-Tec themselves. News of outside contact has already spread like wildfire throughout the general population with many in favor of opening our doors to the outside and others who wish for us to remain isolated. I find myself on the latter side of the argument for now and need to see about how to properly handle this situation.

Overmare Junebug report: First Contact cont.

It’s been three days since we were contacted by representatives of the GPE and they continue to push for our doors to open. I responded to them for the first time yesterday informing them of my orders to remain closed until certain requirements were met. They responded by transmitting many of the proper codes identifying them as Equestrian Military personnel... beginning to consider opening the door. They possess many forms of proper identification to back up their claims and the fact that they are outside waiting for us indicate that the outside is capable of sustaining life once again. Although I still remain skeptical as my orders are clear on the matter of waiting from word from Stable-Tec.

Overmare Junebug report: The Vote

One week ago we established a line of communication with the outside. Since then, the talk throughout the stable has been about what to do. Many still favor opening the door and the chief of security informs me that the open door supporters are starting to get violent about their cause. While I still have my doubts about the whole situation, I can’t risk a riot in my stable. So tomorrow I will be giving a stable-wide address from the atrium about my plan. To appease the opening supporters and to give those who want us to remain closed a chance to have their voice heard. We will be holding a vote to decide the stable’s course of action. I hope this is the right thing to do. Luna guide me.

Overmare Junebug report: The Vote cont.

The results of the vote were just barely won in favor of opening the door. I have informed... our decision and they await the doors opening ceremony. Security Chief Saltlick has volunteered himself and his family to be the ones to greet... gesture of peace and cooperation. We almost had another incident regarding the ponies who wanted the door to stay closed but we avoided any kind of violence by agreeing that nopony has to leave if they don’t want to. Tomorrow will be a most historic day as we open our door and rejoin Equestria.

Overmare Junebug report: HELP!

…massacre. As soon as the door was opened Saltlick greeted... family was quickly cut down by a hail of gunfire... stormed the stable and... started taking... the security force stood no chance... locked myself in my quarters and activated the emergency beacon... couldn’t protect them. Luna forgive me.


I wish I had more to go on but I had just as much information as when I started. It definitely didn't help that bits of the journals were corrupted. I skulked around the room no better off solving the mystery of what happened and managed to find a couple cases of bullets in the sleeping area as well as the gun they went to. I supposed if there was anything at all to be thankful for right now it was that the foalnappers didn’t take anything other than the ponies. I returned to the desk and nodded sadly at the Overmare's corpse. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a set of tools tucked away under the desk. I hadn't had a set of tools like this since I left stable 63.

"Sorry about this Junebug." I whispered as I pulled out a special key that was among the tools and removed her PipBuck, placing it in my saddlebags carefully.

I gradually made my way back to the atrium hoping that the others were there waiting for me. Sure enough they were. Sunny and Grim were talking between themselves about what they managed to find. They noticed me come in and now were showing their finds to me. Grim found enough chems and meds to essentially make himself a walking clinic and Sunny did the same with ammo, guns and armor.

“The next time we find a trader we should be able to come out with quite the haul. We might even be able to get some caps for the stable.” Sunny said, kicking her full bags for emphasis.

“Like sell its location?” Grim asked, squinting his eyes.

“Maybe, ponies will do a lot to keep themselves safe and what’s safer than a stable?”

I found the conversation a little more than ironic considering we were standing on the site of a mass foalnapping.

“I found something in the Overmare’s office.” I started carefully. “They were contacted by a group called the GPE. They demanded the doors to open and when the stable relented…” I finished sadly, my ears falling back against my head and my gaze met the floor.

Sunny walked over to me and lifted my face to meet hers.

“You can’t save everypony Sparks and dwelling on things that you couldn’t have changed won’t do anypony any good. You’ve got focus on what you can do now rather than what you could have done. Now, lift your head and let’s get going. You want to see your family again right?”

As much as I wanted to protest, as much as I wanted to say she was wrong, in my heart I knew she was right. Whatever happened here had happened well before I left Stable 63 and nothing I did would change that. I still had a lead with the Steel Rangers and getting to them was my new focus. I lifted my head and nodded with determination. Sunny and Grim both made sure that our weapons were all loaded up and ready and that we were in fighting shape.

I hung at the back of the pack as we passed through the stable door and salvaged the PipBucks of Chief Saltlick and his family, placing them with the Overmare's in my saddlebags. It was then a thought occurred to me. Hadn’t I seen GPE somewhere before? Yes I had seen it on my PipBuck’s radio list when I first arrived in Black Town. I checked the list again and it wasn’t there. Could I have imagined it?

“You said GPE right?” Sunny said, waiting for me by the fountain stairs. So it wasn’t my imagination.

“Yeah, why?”

Sunny didn’t respond, rather she seemed to be deep in thought as she absently meandered around the alicorn bodies. “Interesting.” She must have come to some kind of conclusion with herself. One that must not have been worth sharing judging by her silence.

We did a quick sweep of the mall above finding very little worth mentioning, a few bits of salvage there or a few caps here. Telling me that the mall was inhabited by ponies at some point after the war but long since gravitated elsewhere. We made our way back out to the surface to be reunited with sort of fresh air and light through the clouds. We continued to the north still skirting the bulk of the Baltimare ruins.

Before long we bypassed the view of looming skeletal skyscrapers and I was gifted with my first view of Horseshoe Bay. Very far off in the distance by each peninsula were the remains of a large bridge that once connected them. On the south peninsula I could see huge warehouses and giant cranes. The most interesting thing of all though, was the gigantic boat that was centered right into the middle of the bay.

“Hey guys, what’s that boat doing there?” I asked pointing a hoof at it.

“Oh that’s the wreck of the Lunar Liner. An old world cruise ship.” Grim said. “I don’t know if it’s anchored there or if it’s stuck on something but I hear rumors that there is some kind of cult living there.”

“I’ve seen it pretty lit up at night so I’d say that it’s more than a rumor.” Sunny jumped in.

“Pfft, that’s ridiculous. Just because there are lights at night doesn’t meant there are ponies living there.”

“I’m just saying that lights on a boat don’t last forever…unless there’s some ponies taking care of it.”

Sunny smiled slyly as she turned her attention forward. I had to suppress a chuckle watching the two of them. Grim trying to dismiss that ponies were living on the wreck and Sunny trying to scare him like a little colt. It was an enjoyable distraction and the last one we would get for a while. Hours later we approached the academy on the northern peninsula but were stopped by a tall wrought iron fence with a well-protected gate guarded by two giant metal ponies. The sign above the gate read ‘Equestrian Naval Academy’ which then appropriately was restated for me by my PipBuck.

“What the hell are those things?” I asked, pointing a trembling hoof at the metal monstrosities.

“Those are the ponies we are here to see. Those are Steel Rangers.” Sunny stated matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think that’s what he meant Sunny.” Grim added, giving Sunny a ‘you should know better’ look. “Steel Rangers are the only ponies in the wasteland that have access to power armor.” He said, looking at me. “That’s why they look like that.”

That did little to dissuade the growing fear in me as I noticed that they had battle saddles like Sunny only they were packing giant death dealing guns of some kind.

“So how should we approach them?” My voice was uncontrollably shaky. It was my own fault as usual. I didn’t ask any questions about who I was going to meet and from what I’ve heard thus far they didn’t sound like the most agreeable sort.

“I don’t think they’ll open fire on civilians, maybe we just ask for help?” Grim shrugged.

He didn’t sound convinced by his own plan. We bickered back and forth trying to think of the safest way to make our presence known. While we argued we hadn’t noticed Sunny walk out from behind the rock we had ducked behind and make a beeline towards the rangers. Grim and I held our breath as we watched in silence at the group interact. I could see Sunny’s mouth moving but she was either just far enough away or speaking just quiet enough so I couldn’t hear. She pointed back towards us and the rock. One of the rangers looked right at our hiding spot and one of the massive guns on its side started spinning.

“Step out from behind the rock. Now!” the voice had a speaker effect like I was talking to Watcher but this one was distinctively male. The expression on Sunny’s face was alarmingly neutral as the ranger pointed his gun at us. We very slowly and cautiously stepped out from behind our cover and walked up to join Sunny.

“Sunny what were you thinking!?” I whispered harshly. I hadn’t realized how close to her I was as our muzzles were pressed against each other.

“Sometimes if you need something done you just have to do it.” She turned and made a motion like she was presenting me to the two rangers at the gate. I was sweating heavily under their expressionless stares.

“What is it you want from us local? This mare claims you need something from us now speak up.” He spoke with the authoritative tone that reminded me of Overmare Rose Thorn.

“Uh…H-hi, my name is Sparks and I was told you could help m-me get inside uh…a stable?”

The two rangers exchanged a glance with each other before returning it to me.

“Yes my brothers and sisters are capable of breaching stable doors but the decision to do so is not mine.”

Grim’s feathers were visibly ruffled, whether from fear or irritation was anypony’s guess. “Well whose is it?”

The second ranger spoke this time, with a mare’s voice. “It is up to Elder Atrox Lions and Star Paladin SteelSkull.”

“Well may I speak to the Elder?” I asked taking a tentative step forward.

They both took a step towards me aggressively, blocking my path.

“Only Steel Rangers are allowed onto the academy grounds.” The stallion growled.

I lifted a leg as if to shield myself from his words while taking a few steps back.

“Please I need to get into that stable.” I implored but it was impossible to gauge their reaction through their helmets.

“I don’t care, my orders are clear. Nopony is to pass through this gate without authorization.”

I got this feeling in my chest like I was falling, as if everything I had done up until that point had been for not. I closed my eyes to blink away tears that were starting to form when Sunny and Grim took a position in front of the rangers.

“There’s got to be something we can do to help.” Sunny started.

“Maybe we help you and you help us?” Grim finished.

The two rangers shared another glance at each other before turning around and discussing something amongst themselves. It couldn’t be that easy could it? They turned back to face us.

“There is indeed something you could help us with.” The stallion began.



“Paladin Sureshot was deployed on a recon mission several days ago and has not returned or checked in with the Head Paladin.” The mare continued. “We can’t spare the personnel to mount a search and rescue but if you can find out what happened we might be able to help you.”

The stallion approached me and pointed at my foreleg. “Let me see your PipBuck.”

I did as I was told and held out my leg. He worked with it for about thirty seconds before letting go.

“There, I’ve programmed Paladin Sureshot’s ID tag into your PipBuck. The broadcaster in his power armor has considerably short range but once you get within about five hundred meters of it you should be able to track it.”

“You should start by going south towards the College. It’s very likely the Paladin stopped there for supplies or for information. Tell the guards that you’re working for Elder Lions and they should let you pass.”

I was at a loss for words. “What are your names?” The only thing that I managed to get out.

“My partner here is Flint.”

“KNIGHT Flint.” The stallion corrected upsettingly.

“Right.” She shuffled slightly in her heavy armor. “And I’m Knight Freesia. Now you better get moving, you don’t want to be caught in the ruins after dark.”

“Understood.” Sunny saluted at them and started walking south, nodding for me and Grim to follow.

I was still wiping tears from my eyes but not because of fear or sadness but rather they were for my friends. My friends who stood up for me and wouldn’t let me walk away from the Rangers without something. The falling sensation from earlier was overtaken by a warm glow. I had friends and they would see me through. Just that thought alone made me feel like we could take on the whole wasteland. I had friends. Watcher was right.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Teamwork – You’ve learned the Magic of Friendship. Whenever all members of the party are within sight, you gain a +5 to all skills.

Chapter Seven: Into the Open

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Chapter Seven: Into the Open

“When order is down the barrel of a gun, what is right or wrong when chaos is a hair trigger away?”

I was unusually calm as I walked into the maintenance wing and sat at my stall. My alarm clock must have been malfunctioning again because it was rare that I got here before anypony else. Since it wasn’t my duty to review what the day’s work would entail, I decided to just sit at my desk and tinker with my tools. I looked at Crescent Wrench’s stall and wondered just how long I would have to wait. As I sat, I found my eyes growing heavy and soon slipped into an accidental nap. I awoke an undetermined amount of time later to find that I was still alone. I sighed heavily and walked to the door to the wing and leaned against the wall, resigning myself to wait for my co-workers to show up. Where the hell are they?

“So is this what safety feels like?” A voice I didn’t recognize came from behind me.

I turned around to see somepony siting at my stall balancing a screwdriver on his hoof. He wasn’t wearing a jumpsuit so I didn’t recognize him from any of the other wings. His mane was yellow and his coat was unusually dirty.

“Don’t remember me huh? I guess that makes sense, you killed me without even looking at me. I can see why it wouldn’t leave an impact.”

“Ribbon Dancer?” What the hell was going on?

“I can see why you wanted to kill me. You had a great thing going in here. I mean, it isn’t exactly the most exciting life but you’ll never go hungry and don’t have to worry for your life every waking moment.”

The ground started to shake and the walls of the stable started to crack and shatter into a misty nothingness. I closed my eyes as the whole of my home fell apart. I tentatively opened my eyes to see Ribbon Dancer still sitting at my stall in the middle of a black void. I couldn’t see what I was standing on, a deep blackness was below and above me. As far as I could see in any direction were massive clouds of heavy fog.

“You better make my death worth something Sparks. You will see your family again. Me? This is all I’ll ever see.” He waved his hoof casually, as if to show of the darkness.

“He’ll never make it.” A deeper, gruffer voice spoke. Out of a fog bank walked the massive form of Granite. “When the weak kill the strong everypony suffers.”

I was still feeling extremely confused but it was soon overshadowed by a growing anger.

“No! No! You’re dead! You don’t get to taunt me anymore!”

“Fuck you scab. You didn’t earn my death, it was gifted to you. Just like Yellow Bell.”

As if on cue, a small cloud of mist from the void below swirled up before me and dissipated revealing the scene of me and Sunny in the kitchen of that house with Yellow Bell tied up.

“You’re a killer regardless of the circumstances. Self-defense or execution, it doesn’t matter. This is how you need to be.”

“That’s not true…I can…” I was losing ground to these apparitions.

“No you cant. You’re a weakling holding on to ideals that burned away with the world. If you can’t rise above the pathetic being you are then all that awaits you is death.”

Another swirl of mist formed beneath me, showing me a barren patch of wasteland with a half-buried skeleton. My skeleton.

“He’s right Sparks.” Ribbon Dancer jumped from my stall as it too faded into mist. “When we met you looked at me and thought I was weak yet I survived the race long enough to meet my death at your hooves.”

“I didn’t have a choice! I didn’t want to…” The fire of anger was starting to fade. I didn’t want to think about the choices I’ve made since I’ve come outside but now I was being forced to face them whether I wanted to own them or not.

“What will you do now? Do you have what it takes to make the hard choices? To kill when you need to or will you stand by and watch inoccents be butchered?” A miniature replica of the cart of slaves I saw on my first day rose from the mist, along with me cowering behind the rock on the hill.

“What will you do?”

I couldn’t muster a word, I felt as I did that day, too scared to fight and too scared to run.

“Disappointing. We all make our choices Sparks and you chose to not choose. You did nothing and you will do nothing.” Ribbon Dancer’s body started to fade away into the misty void. I turned to where Granite was standing to see that he was also fading away. He looked at me with a stern glare challenging me to do better. His face morphed into a warped combination of Yellow Bell’s and Sunny’s face. “Apathy is death…” With that last warning he finally faded completely. The fog in the distance began to rapidly enclose on me as the invisible floor returned to the barren surface of the wasteland. The fog continued towards me while the cloud was beginning to stain itself red. I felt my breath leave my lungs as the cloud congealed into a large bubble that turned to blood and splashed to the ground hitting me with a warm wetness. I tried to shield myself from the torrent of gore only to see it settle into a small pool. It started to bubble and shift up into the form of a small pony. I reached out a hoof slowly towards the blood pony. It whipped around faster than I could react pushing its face into mine.

“Apathy is death!” It stared deep into my eyes forcing the memory of the slavers I saw my first day to the forefront of my mind. Specifically the memory of the corpse of the little red colt that was dead because I refused to act. The blood terror continued to stare into my mind as its head exploded from the inside. It collapsed to the ground laying the same way as when I saw him after he died.

***

I woke up screaming into the night. Startling both Grim and Sunny into quickly jumping to standing positions with guns at the ready.

“What!? What’s happening?” Grim yelled as he tried to wipe the sleep from his eyes. Sunny did a quick check of the bombed out old sky-bus we decided to sleep in for the night before returning to sit beside me.

“Something bothering you Sparks?”

“I…I don’t know. I had a really bad nightmare.”

Sunny wistfully looked towards the sky. “What was so bad about it?”

I rubbed my foreleg nervously, uncertain if I wanted to share what happened.

“C’mon Sparks, tell us what happened. Medically speaking I find it fascinating to see what kind of impact dreams can have on your mind.” Grim took a seat on the other side of me.

Sunny gave Grim a nasty glare through squinted eyes.

Grim rubbed the back of his neck while shying away from Sunny’s eyes. “Uhh…Sorry. That probably sounded insensitive.”

I didn’t see it like that at the time but even though I knew they both had good intentions in asking me about it I still didn’t know how to share the dilemma the nightmare brought. It was, more often than not, kill or be killed in the wasteland and I had to learn that lesson the hard way. Even still my mind had a hard time accepting that reality. They were right unfortunately, all of them. Red Asphalt, the ghosts in my head and Sunny, all of them were right. If I couldn’t do what needed to be done then others would suffer because of me. The ghostly specter of the red colt flashed through my mind causing me to cringe.

“You want to talk about it?” Sunny’s voice came off very motherly and the look in her eyes seemed genuine.

“I…I don’t think I’m ready to talk about it.” I didn’t like not sharing what was on my mind with them but it was something I wanted to tackle on my own, it needed to be me. I kept thinking about every time we were in danger or in a fight and how I was always relying on Sunny to do the fighting for me and recently Grim too. It was a fault in my character that I had to change if I wanted to survive the wasteland and I wanted to face my weakness on my own. “I’m sorry, I want to deal with this one myself.”

Sunny’s expression slipped to one of disappointment or something akin to it. “Oh…Ok.”

“Are you sure you’re alright? Talking about what’s bothering you can be healthy.” Grim too looked genuinely concerned about what was bothering me but I was adamant about my decision.

“I’ll be all right guys, thanks.” The conversation was starting to weigh on me, keeping my friends in the dark wasn’t a decision I made lightly but one I had to make. I said it before, wastelanders just wouldn’t understand. I rolled up my makeshift blanket and tried to go back to sleep. I awoke later to the sound of whispering. I don’t know how much time had passed but it still wasn’t morning. The whispering was coming from Sunny and Grim so I decided to try and eavesdrop on what they were talking about.

“…Don’t have any reason to think he’d lie to us…seems like he meant what…” I heard Grim start.

“That’s not what I meant when I asked…wanted to know why you came with... you after?”

“I have no foul…still don’t know myself why…if I find what I’m hoping…tell you and him.”

“…Don’t know if I… I’ll be keeping an eye on you and if you do anything to…amount of medical training will help you.”

“I wouldn’t be wasting my time if…see something in… in time.”

With those last words followed the sound of shuffling, presumably the two of them attempting to return to sleep. Whatever was on their minds would have to wait, provided they felt like sharing it all.

We awoke, had a simple breakfast of whatever we could muster and continued on our way towards ‘the College’. I looked eastward to the bulk of the Baltimare ruins and wondered if my quest would ever take me into them fully. Grim was going on about something he read in a book about the old world and judging by the look in Sunny’s eyes when I looked to her to see if she was following, she wasn’t. I inched my way over to her.

“You have any idea what he’s talking about.” I whispered.

Sunny shrugged “I think he’s talking about pre-war politics or something, I kinda tuned him out a while ago.”

“You know it’s rude to talk about someone when they’re right in front of you.” Grim had stopped in front of us and spread his wings to block our paths. “It might not seem important to you but history needs to be remembered in order to build the future.”

I saw a lot of myself in that statement. Not because of how alike our ideals were but because it was Watcher who wanted us to meet. Watcher couldn’t have known that I was that kind of pony could he? Why else would he try to introduce us? I was suddenly suspicious of Watcher again. I was grateful that he was, in a way, responsible for me making these two friends but curious at how he knew what kind of morals I had. I had a lot to ask Watcher if we ever met again.

“Oh well, story times over for now, we got company up ahead.” Grim pointed a claw forward at two ponies, one mare and one stallion, traveling with a cart filled with supplies and junk being pulled by one of those toast colored two-headed cow things that Dusty had. They were going in the same direction we were and had yet to notice us.

“Oh good, let’s see if we can sell some of the stuff we found in the mall.” With that Sunny trotted up behind the cart and called for their attention. Grim and I did the same and when we caught up Sunny was already negotiating for our junk. She turned to us when we arrived and smiled. “And here are my companions. If you got anything you wanna get rid of now’s the time.” Grim and I simultaneously started digging through our bags for stuff we picked up that we didn’t need. Grim and Sunny had much bigger piles of salvage than I did. All I had to offer was the gun and ammo I found in the Overmare’s office and I wasn’t about to bargain with the PipBucks I had. I sat back and let Sunny deal with the traders as I still didn’t quite understand how much caps were worth so it was best to let her handle it so I didn’t get ripped off. We traded all our stuff for mostly healing potions, ammo for our weapons and a small stack of caps.

“Now that business has concluded allow me to introduce myself.” The stallion started. “My name is Rain Drop.” He then took a step back beckoning the mare to step forward. “And this is my wife, Sandy Storm.” She did a little curtsy and smiled warmly.

I was caught a little off guard with how welcoming they appeared. I hadn’t seen anypony smile like that outside.

“A pleasure, my name is Sunny.”

“You can call me Grim”

“And…um my name is Sparks.”

“You look familiar Sparks, have we ever met before?” Rain Drop asked, quizzically stroking his chin.

“I don’t think we ever met him dear, but look at his colors.”

Rain drop closed one eye and stroked his chin with more fervor, clearly deep in thought.

“Oh I’ve got it! You’re him aren’t you? The Harbinger! Oh we are so pleased to meet you. We heard about you on the radio!” He eagerly grabbed my hoof and shook it intensely.

This was the kind of thing I was dreading after hearing that DJ did a report on me. Maybe it would be different if I felt I was deserving of such praise and even though my actions improved their life it made me feel like I was deceiving everypony.

“We only have to worry about bleeders on our routes now and they are very rare and aren’t interested in robbing us blind.”

“It’s pretty safe now, almost to the point we don’t have to hire protection every time. You’re like the Guardian.” Sandy finished.

That sounded like an interesting title like the one I was given. “Who’s the Guardian?”

“I don’t really know, a couple years ago there were rumors of a mare called the Guardian who protected merchant caravans but I never knew anypony who met her.”

“There’s always a bit of truth in rumors.” Sunny added.

I wondered if she really existed or was just a ghost story created by the raiders or even the caravaners to try and keep them away. If she was real I hoped I would meet her. She sounded like she also had a heroic reputation thrusted on her or maybe she genuinely wanted to help ponies.

“I suppose it’s only pony nature to hope that ponies like her exist. Role models to believe in and such.”

“Like you eh Sparks? Unlike the Guardian, somepony can claim to have met you and I’m honored that it’s me.” Rain Drop did a silly little bow. Although the gesture was not lost on me I definitely didn’t want ponies giving me special treatment.

“Please stand up, I’m nopony special.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve removed one of the last organized raider clans. Without anypony to rally under the raiders don’t pose much of a threat on their own.” Sandy was looking at me in a way that reminded me of how I used to look at the old Mysterious Mare Do Well comic books. It was almost like adoration.

“We’d be grateful if you would join us on our trip. You’re heading south too, right?” I could practically see Rain Drop’s eyes gleam with anticipation.

“I suppose we could travel with you. At least as far as we can.”

“Great! Wonderful!” Sandy clopped her hooves together excitedly before slapping the two-headed creature on the rump to get it moving. “C’mon Rainy let’s get this show on the road.”

“Right behind you sweetheart.” They immediately set off along on their way.

I was still a little stunned at how the ponies of the wastes were treating me, leaving me standing in place watching them happily trot along just thrilled by my presence.

“You guys comin’? We got a lot of ground to cover.” Rain Drop waved for us to follow, a lopsided grin on his face.

Sunny walked up beside me and smiled a sly grin. “I think they like you.”

She didn’t give me a chance to react as she trotted up to join the couple.

“I told you the wasteland needed a pony like you.” Grim said from the other side of me before he also left me in silence to join Sunny.

It was interesting to see just how the ponies of the wasteland thought of me. Or at the very least these two. It honestly made me happy and at the same time conflicted. On one hoof I was glad that my actions were helping the greater wasteland and on the other hoof they weren’t really my actions. In that regard I was like the Guardian they told me about. Whether I was real or not (in my actions) I was somepony to believe in or look up to. I didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth.

“You folks thirsty? We got plenty of Brahmin milk.” Rain Drop gave the orange creature a loving pet to punctuate his statement.

I finally got a name for the two headed cows. I spared a glance at its undercarriage and saw that it indeed did have an udder. Although given the whole radiation cooked aesthetic of the thing I was going to pass.

“So…where are you heading?” Sandy twiddled her hooves together nervously while looking at the ground.

“We are going to the College. We are looking for somepony and hopefully we can learn something there.” Grim answered.

“Oh that’s good, then we’ll still have you when we get to the Crater.” Rain Drop chirped. “It’s about two hours from here. Nice town, nice traders, just got a new mayor.”

“Y-you don’t mind if we stop there do you?” Sandy added.

“I don’t see the harm. You said there are traders there and the more prepared we are the better.” I didn’t plan to spend the night there though. We couldn’t spare the time. The longer Paladin Sureshot was missing the greater chance there was that something terrible would happen.

We walked silently for a while, the couple content with just my presence. I didn’t care for the situation so why not start up a conversation?

“Have you two been traders long?”

“Not really. We only made the decision to get away from…from…” Sandy petered off, her voice cracking slightly.

I suddenly got the feeling that I overstepped my bounds by asking. “Oh…if you don’t want to talk about-”

“No…no, it’s ok Sparks.” She wiped some tears from her eyes.

“Don’t bring it up if it still hurts you sweetheart.” Rain Drop tried to console her.

“I’ll be ok Rainy…I can do it. It’s been long enough.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and wiped her eyes one more time. “Nine months ago we were living in a little farmhouse north of here. We couldn’t get much food to grow but we were able to keep and breed several Brahmin. One day our son Evergreen ran away and joined a group of raiders. The note he left behind said he wanted to help provide for us and would only raid outside the Baltimare wasteland. For about four months it was just Rainy, our daughter and me at the farm. Then our son came back and the raiders followed him. They demanded we hoof over our Brahmin and anything of value or they’d kill him and then us. Rainy didn’t take too kindly to that and shot and killed the one holding Evergreen. We all ran into the house to protect our home and after what felt like seconds a firebomb came crashing through our kitchen window. Our farm was engulfed in fire and in the chaos Evergreen was killed, our Brahmin stolen and our daughter went missing. We travel the wastes in hopes of finding out what happened to our daughter.”

Sandy must have had an incredible amount of trust in me to share that story with us.

“Do you have anything to go on?”

“We heard a name before Evergreen was killed. It was Chestnut something or something Chestnut.”

I suddenly felt a cold chill wash over me. Chestnut was at the stadium when we killed Red Asphalt and it was very unlikely he survived given how I saw the Regulators executing the survivors. I guess I still wore my feelings visibly on my face as both Rain Drop and Sandy were looking at me with wanting eyes.

“You know something we don’t?” Rain Drop said sternly.

“Rainy please!” Sandy pushed Rain Drop back a bit. “Sparks if you know anything please tell us.”

“…I met a raider pony named Salted Chestnut.”

“Yes yes! That was him did he have a grey unicorn mare with him?”

“…No…he didn’t.”

“Oh…well where did you meet him? Maybe we can track him down and tort-”

“No you can’t. I hate to tell you this but he was with Red Asphalt’s clan when we took it down. I don’t think he survived.” Even if I was a real hero I don’t think it would ever make delivering this kind of news any easier.

“…Oh…I see…”

Sandy didn’t bother wiping her tears away this time. She very slowly crawled inside the cart. I reached out a hoof to try and comfort her but a pleading look from Rain Drop stopped me in my tracks.

“Let her go…it’ll take time for her to recover, if she does at all.”

“I…I’m sorry…I…”

“It’s not your fault. We both got this idea in our heads that there was a chance we would find her after we heard about you. When we first heard about you on the radio we thought that only good things would keep coming. I don’t think Sandy thought that your actions would in any way hurt our hopes, that’s probably why it’s hitting her so hard.”

I could understand where he was coming from. If I built somepony up in my head only to see them fail that would possibly shatter my reality too.

“And if you don’t mind I’d like some time to myself. You are still welcome to come with us but I’d like to be alone for now.”

I could feel sweat sticking my mane to my head. “O-of course…take all the time you need.”

I fell back behind the cart where Sunny and Grim had been casually observing.

“I trust you guys heard all that.” They both nodded.

“Don’t let it bother you Sparks.” Grim draped a wing around my shoulder. “Sometimes things happen that are beyond your control. Just because you couldn’t stop something doesn’t lessen your value as a hero.”

That was just it though, my value as a hero. The fact that I had any was troubling. Even more so now that I saw the results of my actions both positive and negative, from the same ponies even. I looked to Sunny to see if she had anything to add.

“If you worry about saving everypony you might not save anypony.” She shrugged indifferently, saying pretty much the same thing she said in the mall stable.

I stared blankly at the back of the cart as we kept walking. The emptiness of the wastes were starting to become filled with ruined homes and for lack of a better word a proper road. I trotted up beside the cart and was amazed at what I saw. Unlike the other settlements I’d seen; Black Town, the Stadium, or Requari, The Crater was in a class of its own. The others had all been built upon the remains of old world buildings and suburbs but this one was built completely from the ground up after the war.

Dominating the sky above the city’s wall was a giant antenna array with improvised catwalks built around it where I saw at least three ponies patrolling with huge sniper rifles. Below them was a patchwork winding staircase that presumably went all the way down.

We made our way to what I assumed was the front gate. The walls surrounding the city were made entirely of scrap metal and stood about twenty-five feet tall. From atop the gate an armed guardspony looked down at us, similar to how I first entered Black Town. He looked over us with a vigilant eye but his expression faded when he saw the cart loaded with goods.

“Traders! Open the gates!”

With that the gates started to be pulled up and apart, screeching as they did. The town certainly lived up to its name as the first thing I saw inside the gate was a downward slope into a giant crater. Inside the crater were dozens on ramshackle structures, some built into the sides of the crater and some built up on stilts that were held together and connected through suspended walkways and stilts of their own. We slowly made our way down into the crater eventually stopping near the base of the antenna tower that had been built around almost to the point that it may as well have been a scrap building all on its own. Rain Drop started taking things out of the cart and setting up a display of some kind when a door leading to the tower was loudly kicked open. A light brown griffin with white plumage walked confidently out into the promenade like he owned the place. He stretched out his wings and prepared to take flight when he stopped and looked towards us. He made an immediate beeline in our direction and stopped in front of us. He stood tall and gave us all very stern glares which were accentuated by the scar across his beak.

I was staring to sweat under this guy’s glare when his expression changed to one of joy.

“Sunny Smiles! I never thought I’d see you here. I thought you were too busy with that crusade of yours to leave that fish farm you call home.”

Sunny chuckled quietly. “Hello Jack. Glad to see somepony hasn’t killed you yet.”

The Griffin called Jack laughed loudly before wrapping Sunny into a powerful hug, one that she surprisingly returned. “How the hell have you been boss?”

“I’ve been keeping busy, have you listened to the radio lately?”

Jack looked at Sunny then to Grim and finally to me. “You aint sayin’ what I think you are…are you?”

Sunny nodded.

“So that means you helped…”

Sunny nodded.

He pointed a claw at me. “And that makes him…”

Sunny grinned and nodded.

“Ha ha ha! I guess you have been busy, I should have known. Now I see why you left Requari; playing partner to the Harbinger must take all of your time.” Jack broke his conversation with Sunny and walked to me, slapping me hard on the shoulder with a smile. “Good work Harbinger, glad to see you're real. Red Asphalt was on our shit list for a long while. Might be some time before he’s forgotten but he won’t be missed.” He jabbed a claw into my armor, next to the number 63 on the shoulders. “Stable-dweller huh? ...Same number too. You’ll do just fine out here kid.” He jumped into the air and hovered there for a second. “Sunny we’ll have to catch up another time, I’ve got some duties as mayor to attend to.” He did a little two claw salute and flew away.

What did he say about the number? Clearly he had met somepony from my stable before but how could that be? Could it be the same pony who sold their PipBuck to Corkscrew in Black Town? The one who escaped before me.

“Old friend of yours Sunny?” Grim asked, releasing me from my thoughts as I turned my attention towards them.

“Yeah, that was my old second-in-command Smilin’ Jack. He left Requari after the failed attack on Monument Stadium two years ago. Good to see he’s doing well. Mayor huh? Didn’t think he had it in him.”

“We’ll have to make it a point to come back here sometime.” I assured, checking my PipBuck to make sure the town was mapped.

“So I think we are equipped well enough, should we get back on the road or…” Grim left the question hanging.

I couldn’t think of anything we needed. We restocked pretty well from the mall and what we traded from Rain Drop. Really, I only wanted to escort Rain Drop and his cart here rather than actually explore the town, for now at least.

“Yeah we should.” I walked over to Rain Drop and placed a hoof on the table he had propped up and set with goods. “How’s Sandy doing?”

He smiled as he answered. “I think she’ll be fine. She just needs a little rest.” I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was unconvinced by his own words.

“Again I’m sorry. It was a pleasure to meet you both.” My ears were practically stapled down to my head after I saw the pain in his eyes.

“Do look us up should you return. I think it’ll be easy to convince Sandy to stay here and settle down.”

“I’d like that, until then Rain Drop.”

“Until then Harbinger.”

I waved to him over my shoulder as we started back up the hill we came down from. Except for Grim, he slowly flew above us. Never thought I’d be envying wings in my life.

As we passed through the gates I found that I was almost immune to the sound of gravel grinding under my hooves and the bleak emptiness of the wastes. Despite the possible danger I really hoped that our mission…well MY mission, would eventually allow us explore the ruins of the city. I could always slightly smell the ocean in the air and part of me wanted to walk the beach around the bay. I started thinking back to the Crater and a question came to mind.

“Hey Sunny…why didn’t you go back to Requari?” I didn’t want her to think I didn’t want her company but she was the leader of a group of vigilantes, she had better things to do than follow me around the wasteland.

“Hmph. Since we killed Red Asphalt and his gang the most immediate danger is gone. I left my top lieutenant Blackhawk in charge and they can operate without me for a while, besides can’t I just want to help out a friend?”

My ears fell back in shame. I guess I already knew the answer but some part of me just needed to hear it. I smiled at her answer but at the same time my heart ached that I had asked to begin with.

We walked in silence so often that it was almost not awkward anymore but the keyword there was ‘almost’.

“So…Grim. It occurs to me that we don’t know a whole lot about you. Where are you from?”

“I’m from a city up north called Whinneapolis. That’s where my family and the rest of my clan…I mean company of Talons are.”

“Why did you come down here?”

“…I don’t know. I just felt that Baltimare was in more need than Whinneapolis.” I wasn’t sure I believed his answer, the distant look in his eyes and uncertainty in his expression betrayed him.

“Why did you become a doctor? From my understanding most griffins these days are mercenaries.”

“…That’s…harder to answer…I’m really not that interesting. I’m sure you’d get better stories from Jack”

“Don’t count yourself out pal, I’m sure you’re plenty interesting.” Please keep talking.

“No really, have you ever eaten the heart of your enemies for fun? I guarantee you he has.” He looked over to Sunny as if daring her to confirm his point to which she reluctantly nodded yes. “If it’s all the same to you Sparks I really don’t want to talk about my family. I came down here for more reasons than to help ponies and let’s leave it at that.”

Small talk was a skill of mine that had thus far shown no signs of improving. So rather than stick my hoof in my mouth again I opted to stay quiet.

We continued on for around another forty minutes when we saw smoke off in the distance.

“Anypony else see that?” I asked nopony in particular as both Grim and Sunny galloped passed me towards the smoke. I inwardly groaned and did my best to catch up to them. We crested a small hill to find the source of the smoke. An upside down traders cart had its contest spilled all over the ground while the cart itself and its escorts were slowly burning to cinders. The smell reminded me of the battle in the stadium which made me puke in my mouth a little bit.

“Oh Goddesses…” I cringed away from the sight and checked my E.F.S. Other than Grim and Sunny I saw no other blips on the compass. Whoever did this left no survivors. I retreated from the wreckage and practically buried my head in the dirt to try and get away from the smell when I heard an odd rattling sound. I looked up to see a set of heavily armored legs. Did one of the Rangers follow us? I kept panning up until I got to the head whereupon I screamed and frantically tried to scurry back to Grim and Sunny. Whatever had been in the armor had long ago died if its exposed skull was any indication. Sunny and Grim trotted up to my prone form and helped me to my hooves.

“What the hell is that thing!?” Grim asked.

The armored skeleton took an aggressive stance.

“Ghost Walker!” Sunny shouted as she pushed us both to the ground as a torrent of fire came flying out of the skeletons battle saddle. I could smell that the edges of my armor and the tip of my tail had been singed as we quickly got up. I levitated my gun out and blindly opened fire. Some bullets found their mark but did little more than ricochet off its armor and uselessly blow a few holes in its skull.

“Don’t aim for the head! We need to find a way to disable the armor!” Sunny called out.

Grim did his best to knock the thing over as he tackled it head on. The Ghost Walker held its ground but could no longer hit him with its flamethrowers. Grim couldn’t stand up to the armor’s hydraulics for long as the Walker lifted its front legs catching Grim’s hind legs and flipping him over onto his back. Grim quickly rolled out of the way as two metal hooves slammed into the dirt where he had been seconds earlier, kicking up a cloud of dust. Sunny ran in next and did a jumping kick into the Walker’s left flamethrower, hitting it hard enough to bend it downwards essentially disabling it. I did the only thing I could against such a heavily armored target and wrapped it in my magical aura and tried to lift it into the air. The Walker didn’t seem to notice it was airborne and only concerned itself with trying to immolate us in more flame to which I tried to keep its battle saddle pointed up. I started to pant heavily from exertion as I couldn’t get the thing very high off the ground. I gritted my teeth and put everything I had into my horn. A second aura flared to life around my horn as the walker shot off higher into the sky. I couldn’t take the strain any longer as I released my magical grasp. The armor crashed to the ground hard with two of its legs caving in on themselves and turning the old bones inside to dust. It kept trying in vain to stand up and resume the fight but its smashed armor kept it from doing so. It kept trying to spray flames from its weapons but it either didn’t notice or didn’t care that it was only spraying a thick gel from its broken barrel. I sucked in a deep breath and prepared myself for another spell.

“Get down!” I yelled as I mustered up a lightning bolt and shot it into the walker’s broken weapon mechanism, igniting the fluid inside causing the suit of armor to explode in a shower of metal plates, fire and bone fragments. The force of the explosion knocked me off my hooves and I felt something sharp rip through my right ear. I couldn’t find the energy to get all the way up so I settled for a difficult sitting position. I found myself breathing heavy from exhaustion and had to wait for the ringing in my ears to go away. I felt something warm running down my face and dripping off my chin. I ran a hoof across my cheek, brought it back to look and saw that I was bleeding. I remembered the pain I felt before I hit the ground and gently touched my ear and winced at the feeling. Whatever had hit my ear went clean through and left a sizable hole behind.

“No kill quite like overkill eh?” Sunny was sitting to the left of me, picking bits of bone out of my mane.

“Good shot Sparks.” Grim came and sat on my right side. “Oooh…um here, take this potion. I don’t know if you know this but the potion won’t fill in your ear so you’re going to have to get used to that hole.”

“What!? How big is it?” I accidentally went to touch it again only to regret it right after. “OW! Son of a bitch!”

“Just drink the potion.” Grim pushed the potion bottle into my chest.

I sighed in defeat, drank the potion and closed my eyes as I felt the warming sensation of magical science stitch my wound closed. Mostly.

“Be honest Sunny, how bad is it.” I gave a thoroughly unconvincing grin to try and give the look a bit of normality.

Sunny squinted her eyes, staring intently at my ear. She opened her mouth to answer when I saw Grim in the corner of my eye holding his claws up and shaking them to get her attention while shaking his head ‘no’.

“Umm…looks good Sparks…yeah.”

“And the award for best actress goes…to somepony else! Seriously guys, tell me! Is it that noticeable?” I flopped my ears around to emphasize the question. My tail flicked in annoyance after I didn’t get an answer. “That noticeable then.”

Sunny nodded. “Yeah but it could be worse. I’d say it gives you character.”

I opened my mouth to say something back when I noticed just how many scars she had. Whether I didn’t notice or never thought it important I had missed some very obvious ones. She had one that started just above and ended below her left eye; she had another that came up from her chin and stopped at her right cheek. Those were just the ones I could see on her face. Who knew how many others were beneath the leather duster coat she wore. It occurred to me as I was scanning the weathered coat that I don’t think I ever saw Sunny without it. Even in the stadium they had taken my armor and her HAT but let her keep the coat. Just like with the scars I either never thought it was important or cared enough but right now I was really annoyed that I had yet to see her cutie mark. I decided to let it go as every time I opened my mouth thus far about things like that I ended up doing more harm than anything else. I got back on all four hooves and sauntered over to the bulk of what was left of the ‘Ghost Walker’ as Sunny called it. I flicked my ear in irritation as it was going to take some time getting used to the feeling of air blowing through it.

“It’s unusual that you see one alone.” Sunny mused aloud. “Wonder if that means anything.” Sunny had followed me to its remains and kicked a piece of metal as she spoke. She had that same suspicious look in her eyes as she did in Stable 71. “Either way it looks like you’re getting the hang of surviving out here.” Sunny placed a hoof on my shoulder for a moment, probably the closest thing to a compliment I was going to get.

I nodded with a smirk. If I was going to bring my family out into the mess it would be wise to actually be able to teach them something rather than leech off of somepony else like I did. I waited for the heat of the explosion to die down before Grim and I both started picking through what little remained of the armor. And for a moment I wasn’t in the Wasteland. Something about the mindless act of doing technical work, something I had done for years in the stable, brought me a great sense of calm. After twenty minutes of digging and sorting what bits we found we had a pretty good idea what it was.

“This must have been top of the line technology, from what I can tell the suit had automatic hydraulics that could take over if the wearer was hurt or was otherwise incapacitated.” I started.

“And I found what looks like artificial muscle that I think could record the wearer’s movements and replicate them which is how it was able to fight us with a dead occupant.” Grim added.

“And?” Sunny raised a curious eyebrow.

“…Umm that’s it.” I sheepishly rubbed a hoof through my mane.

“Were we supposed to be looking for something?” Grim asked.

“I guess not. Shall we keep moving?” Sunny nodded her head in the direction we were supposed to be going.

As we got moving again I was still feeling the annoying sensation of the air going through my new ear hole, which reminded of something I had ignored before.

“Hey Sunny, how’d you get those scars?” I tried to ask as gently as I could, careful not to step on anypony’s hooves.

“These?” Sunny scoffed. “I’ve been on my own in the world since before I got my cutie mark. You don’t grow up to be my age in the wasteland without fighting the whole way and some fights leave marks on you, in more ways than one.” She pulled her hat down over her eyes as she finished.

That made me think she was talking about mental trauma. Which gave a lot of weight to Grim’s theory that something happened to her that created her other side. Some kind of intense suffering that fractured her mind into something outside her control. Maybe that was why she hid her cutie mark. Because she was ashamed of it or…or it linked to Downpour.

Before long, the terrain we were wandering was becoming more uniform, like it wasn’t natural. Across the fields were little lattice like nets of plastic on top of the dirt. If the namesake of our destination was any indication of what it was before the war then those plastic nets must have been what was left of where they rolled out the grass lawns. Not far in the distance were three buildings, a central one and two smaller ones to either side all surrounded by a brick fence with guard towers dotted along the length.

“That looks like a college. Think that’s the place?” a rhetorical question for sure as nopony answered.

We continued along the fence under the watchful eyes of whoever was inside the guard towers. After turning one corner along the wall we came to a double sided wrought iron gate with a security booth in between them. There wasn’t anypony in the booth and as we approached the gate we were stopped by a voice coming through a speaker on the wall above the left gate.

“Leave the premises immediately or we will be forced to take action.”

I saw the broken shell of where a camera had once been mounted and knowing they couldn’t see us gave me a bit of confidence.

“We are looking for somepony. Elder Lions sent us.” The voice behind the speaker was silent for a bit and I could hear the faint sounds of whispering in the background.

“The Steel Rangers huh? So be it. We are going to send some guards to the gate to let you in. Be prepared to surrender your weapons.” With a crackle the speaker fell silent. We stood in front of the gate waiting for the guards that were supposed to usher us in.

“I don’t like this.” Sunny started. “I’m not giving up my weapons, not again.”

I looked to Grim to see if he had something to say. “I think I’ll be fine.” He made a fist with his claws. “I’m never without a weapon.”

It was easy to forget that Grim had combat training given how fervently he kept us in good health.

“Okay, Sunny if you want to stay outside that’d be fine.”

“Ok, you two be careful in there and Grim? Keep an eye on this one.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“I’ll be keeping watch from across the way. There.” She pointed out across the empty streets to a two story apartment that had a good view of the gate and front of the College itself.

Grim and I nodded just as the gate was pulled back by two ponies while another two quickly moved forward and patted us down for our weapons. Grim and I surrendered them with little trouble and Sunny turned around and took her leave. The guards eyed her suspiciously as she went.

“Our companion wishes to stay outside, pay her no mind.” Grim spoke with a charming voice.

The guard scoffed dismissively. “Fine, follow me.”

We made the short walk to the main double doors that had its once vibrant red paint flaking in places and along the edges, revealing the aged cracked wood beneath it. The doors were opened and the hinges groaned in protest revealing a well maintained foyer. In front of us were two sets of stairs that went up and around a statue and met on the second floor. To the left, right and behind both sets of stairs were hallways that led out of the foyer. To each side of the door were glass trophy cases displaying various awards and accolades and above them were an assortment of flags, both from outside Equestria and other Equestrian territories. The statue between the two sets of stairs was of a unicorn mare with a starburst cutie mark wearing a formal suit with a neck brooch that matched her cutie mark. I felt like I knew who this mare was but couldn’t quite place where I had seen her before, if I had at all. The base of the statue read ‘Founder: Twilight Sparkle’ and with that I remembered. Twilight Sparkle led one of the six Equestrian ministries during the war. Twilight Sparkle and five other ministers essentially ran the country and only answered to Princess Luna herself. Twilight Sparkle led the Ministry of Arcane Sciences which explained why the College was so well maintained and hadn’t succumbed to the effects of time as others had. There were likely many spells and enchantments protecting the College making it possibly one of the safest places in the Baltimare Wasteland.

“I’m afraid the Director is not available right now to help you. You will spend the night here as our guests so if you would keep following us please.” The guards didn’t leave any room for argument.

We were in no position to refuse. I just hoped Sunny would be alright by herself for the evening. We were led down the hallway to the left of the foyer and out the door to the courtyard, heading to the next-door building. As we stepped outside I noticed that the sun had indeed dipped low into the sky. The building we were led into was one used for student lodging so the rooms were surprisingly well put together. The one we were to share for the night was simply furnished with two beds, one in each corner on opposite sides of the room with a tall window in between them and a dresser in front. The guards told us where we could find food and not to leave the dorm building until they came back to collect us. Despite the fact that, for the time being, we were practically prisoners I didn’t get that feeling. This place was great! A center of learning still intact and founded by one of the greatest mares who ever lived. We saw several other ponies moving about the hallways, retreating to their rooms for the night. They were dressed in modest scientist scrubs which only made my desire to explore the College grow larger. I felt a touch on my shoulder and turned to see Grim giving me a sympathetic look. A look that I could easily read. Now’s not the time. He was right, I wouldn’t be discovering anything until tomorrow. Grim and I picked up some food from the kitchen area and retreated to our room for the night.

“This place almost seems too good to be true huh?” I asked.

Grim waved his claw in a neutral expression. “I don’t know what to make of this place yet.”

“Well…hopefully we’ll get some answers from the Director tomorrow.”

The night passed by quickly and without dreams for which I was thankful for. Grim was up and about by the time I awoke and was looking very pleased with himself. “Sparks, when was the last time you bathed?”

I honestly hadn’t thought about it but Goddesses above I hadn’t cleaned myself since the day BEFORE I left the stable. Grim smiled at the look on my face and continued. “They have a shower room. The water works. It’s hot and it’s clean!”

My eyes grew to the size of dinner plates as I leapt out of bed and eagerly followed Grim to the showers. Grim laughed as I hastily threw off my armor and almost tripped over it as I scrambled to the water handles. Grim left the room as I started to take off my jumpsuit and sighed in bliss when I felt the water hit my coat.

When I returned to the room Grim wasn’t there but I did find a note with an image of my cutie mark drawn on it. I curiously grabbed it with my magic and opened it. And what I saw scared me.

Be careful who you trust.

Underneath the text was a crude sketch of the College itself. Somepony was watching us and they had been inside our room.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Stable Shot – Your attacks are smooth and precise. You have a higher chance to score a critical hit on an enemy, equivalent to 5 extra point of luck.

Chapter Eight: Mistakes of the Past

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Chapter Eight: Mistakes of the Past

“The smallest of actions can cause the largest of consequences.”

I stood there speechless, staring at the note I was holding with my telekinesis. Before I could process its contents I was quickly collected by another of the guards who brought us here. I stuffed the note in my bags without thinking, which made me look like a fool when I tried to explain it to Grim. My mouth was going a million miles a second and none of it was coherent. Grim was looking at me worryingly and expectantly at the same time.

“Whoa Sparks, calm down. Take a deep breath. Now what did you find in the room?”

I did as he said and took several greedy breaths of air to try and relax. As I was getting ready to tell him the guard shoved his hoof in my mouth.

“Save it. The Director is waiting for you behind this door.” The guard turned around putting his back to the door we were in front of.

“I-I guess we should go in.” I slowly opened the door and took a few cautious steps inside. The room was dimly lit, illuminated only by a weak ceiling light and the collection of terminals on the far wall. There was a raised dais taking up half of the room and up on it was an ornate desk and the back of a large chair. Just in front of the dais was a glass display case on a pedestal containing a small figurine of a purple unicorn. I saw that the cutie mark was the same as the one of the statue in the main hall, the statue of Twilight Sparkle. The little statuette itself was situated on its own little pedestal with an engraving in it ‘Be Smart’. What was most interesting about it was that despite the fact it was clearly centuries old it was in pristine condition. The glass around it was stained and scratched and the pedestal the case was on was cracked and worn with time. I found myself reaching out to it but I was stopped by a sudden voice.

“Now now, we mustn’t touch what isn’t ours.” The chair that was previously facing away from us started spinning around, holding a middle-aged dark blue stallion with an even darker blue mane, rectangular eyeglasses and a very clean lab coat. “To what do I owe the pleasure of-?”

He stopped mid-sentence and gave me a very intense look-over.

“That armor. Where did you get it?” His tone went from strict to almost menacing.

I shied away from the sudden shift in attitude and responded as clearly as I could.

“It was g-given to me before I left my home Director…?”

“Cobalt. So you are from Stable 63?”

“Y-yes sir. We’re here to-”

“Quiet I’m not through asking questions. When did you leave your home?”

“A week ago? I think.” I was having trouble thinking straight. Interrogation was new to me…at least this kind.

“Hmm…I see. Now, why are you here?”

I looked over at Grim who only smiled supportively and nodded towards the Director, urging me to continue.

“We were sent here by Elder Lions to see what you knew about Paladin Sureshot.”

Cobalt scoffed dismissively. “You mean that idiotic buffoon from the Steel Rangers? Yes he was here and no he isn’t here anymore. I don’t know what you could want with him. The Steel Rangers are a relic of the past, hoarding technology for themselves in the name of keeping it out of the hooves of those they see as ‘unworthy’.”

“Why was he here?”

“Why else? He looking for leads to fuel the technological obsession of his order.”

Grim stepped forward and spoke for the first time since we came in. “You said he isn’t here anymore. That means he found what he was looking for and I’ll bet you didn’t let him have it for free.”

He almost sounded like he was accusing him of something.

Cobalt squinted his eyes and his demeanor turned threatening. “My affairs are my own Griffin. I suggest you watch your tone.” The sound of a gun being loaded came from somewhere above us in the shadows.

Grim scowled, clearly upset by what was said but he backed away and shut up for now.

I swallowed nervously at the exchange. I didn’t know the extent of Director Cobalt’s power but the way he held himself told me he wasn’t to be trifled with. Which made asking my next question all the more difficult.

“Could you direct us to where he went?”

Cobalt scoffed again. “I suppose, although I don’t think you can do anything…” Cobalt drifted off, the look on his face was one of satisfaction, as if he just connected some dots in his head. “Actually yes. Do you have a map?”

“Not exactly.” I said, holding up my PipBuck leg.

“Ah, PipBuck, of course.” He stepped down from his chair and came down to us. “Lend me your leg and I’ll input the coordinates of where the ‘Paladin’ went.”

It was clear Cobalt had a strong dislike of the Steel Rangers but whatever his quarrel, it made no difference to me.

Grim came and stood next to me, still holding his sour expression. “I suppose this won’t come free either?”

Cobalt glared at him and growled through his teeth before taking a deep breath to compose himself. His expression relaxed and he smiled condescendingly. “Naturally. I trust you both have seen the ship anchored in the bay?”

Grim and I nodded.

“Good. I’d like you to investigate it. Rumors about it have piqued my curiosity.”

“Ok…how are we supposed to get there?” Grim asked.

Cobalt looked at Grim like he was stupid. “You have wings. Use them.”

“I don’t mean me assh- I meant for my friend here.”

“Commandeer a boat. Swim. I don’t care. I’m not going to complete your task for you. Figure it out yourselves. Come back when you have something for me…and I just may have something for your efforts.” Cobalt smirked devilishly before returning to his chair to spin away from us. “You may take your leave now.”

I nodded to him even though he couldn’t see me. “Thank you Director.”

Grim was more than happy to leave and I was equally eager to get moving again and reunite with Sunny.

“So now do you believe about ponies on that boat?” I asked trying to lighten the mood. Grim glared at me for a moment, still holding the expression from before, then he sighed and relaxed.

“I don’t know Sparks. That guy Cobalt.” He practically hissed his name. “Just really rubbed me the wrong way, I wouldn’t trust him if I were you.”

I could understand where he was coming from, treating us so dismissively and acting like…wait a second…trust! That thought reminded me of the note I found in the room we stayed in. Was whoever left it trying to warn me about the Director? Or something else? I sped up my pace even more eager than before to get the group back together and explain what’s going on.

“C’mon Grim I have something to tell you guys, let’s go get Sunny.”

None of the guards gave us the time of day as we hurriedly made our way outside through the gate, collected our things as we went and headed across the street to where Sunny said she’d be. We walked through the door and did a quick scan of the room. I checked my EFS and saw Sunny’s marker but since nopony was in sight she must have been on the next floor up. After a trot up some stairs we found where Sunny had spent the night. She was situated in the left corner siting in an old and cracked leather chair. In the opposite corner was a small stockpile of supplies but the most interesting thing in the room was the mounted sniper rifle in the window facing the College.

Sunny lifted her head as we walked inside and looked at the rifle.

“Somepony was watching…very recently.” She pointed at the rifle then looked at me expectantly. “Go on, take a look.”

I looked through the scope, unsure of what she wanted me to see but it couldn’t hurt right? What I saw made my insides sink. Looking to where the gun was pointed, I saw that the rifle was situated right at the window to the room where Grim and I had stayed. I backed away from the gun slowly and looked at Sunny. Hoping she had some kind of answer for me.

“I think somepony has taken an interest in you.”

I was almost certain that whoever had been watching from here was the same one who left the note.

“That’s…distressing. Now seems a good a time as any, Sparks you said you had something to tell us?” Grim cocked an eyebrow in my direction.

I took a second to get the note out of my saddlebags and threw it on the floor face up.

“I don’t know if this is as shocking now but I found this in our room this morning before or meeting with the Director.”

Grim and Sunny took a moment to inspect the piece of paper.

Sunny did a double-take of the room. “Well whoever it was, they didn’t come back to this room.”

“I don’t think we should be afraid, if they wanted to kill us they could have considering how close they were.” Grim said, rubbing his beak ponderingly.

“In that case we should get out of here. Did you find anything useful while you were in there?” Sunny asked pointing out the window at the College.

“Yeah he gave us the coordinates to where the Paladin went so that’s our next stop.”

“That’s great. Where are we heading?”

I went to the map function on my PipBuck to see where we were going.

“Looks like we’re heading south east from here and…into the ruins.”

Grim looked back and forth between us. “Is…is that bad?”

Sunny stood up from her chair. “So long as we play it cool and keep quiet we should be able to get in and out without too much trouble.”

Sunny didn’t miss a beat and made a hasty exit down the stairs. Grim tightened the straps on his bags and followed after her.

I took one last look around the room at the small amount of supplies left lying around and considered taking some. Then I thought about whoever it was who had been here. If the one who left the note and the one who stayed here were one and the same then taking from them would be wrong. If they meant harm towards me then maybe but at worst all I could say for sure is that they were trying to warn me. Of what exactly I wasn’t sure, perhaps it was a cautionary warning?

“Sparks!? You coming?” Sunny called from below the window outside.

I left my thoughts as they were and dashed down to join my friends. We weren’t walking for long before Sunny got curious. “So…Sparks, what was the cost for the Paladin’s location?”

I shrugged, equally curious about that. “I don’t know that there was one. The Director asked us to investigate the ship out in the bay but was very non-committal about it. Like he doesn’t care either way if we do what he asked.”

“That’s really suspicious.”

“What? Do you think he has an ulterior motive or something?”

Grim flapped his wings irritably. “He just might. You saw how he acted in there. The way he backpedaled into helping us without any hesitation. I agree with Sunny.”

I couldn’t fault his way of thinking. He did give off a devious vibe but that didn’t exactly make him a bad pony. Regardless of the Director’s intention, we had what we needed and nothing was going to get in my way.

The sun was just nearly passing its peak in the sky behind the clouds as we made it into the ruins. All around us was ancient debris and wreckage. The buildings around us were in various states of destruction with some having fully collapsed and others suffering only broken windows and slight scorch marks. The latter observation brought a question to my mind.

“Hey Sunny? It doesn’t look like the city was hit directly by a balefire bomb. So where did it hit?”

“Most ponies think it hit the ocean just a bit north of the city. The absence of severe radiation lends to that theory.”

At least I wouldn’t be dying of radiation poisoning anytime soon, for whatever that was worth. As we carefully made our way through the abandoned streets I started to notice that signs of life were beginning to show. On sides of some buildings were crude paintings of names or symbols to denote somepony’s territory. Also plastered along the walls in almost equal number were old propaganda posters. There was one of an upside down pony tied to a wooden pole dangling over a fire, behind the pony were zebras cloaked in shadows and dressed in tribal garb with deep red eyes. The text below the image read ‘Negotiating with Savages. Join the Equestrian Forces Today.’ Down in the bottom left corner was a small cluster of three diamonds. The company responsible for the poster perhaps? The poster by itself was a little disturbing. I never met a zebra but I didn’t think they were the savage demons the poster would have you believe but Equestria was at war then. I suppose it was easier to justify ones reasoning’s if you viewed the enemy as monsters rather than who they really were. With posters like this casually plastered on billboards, the sides of buildings and across most cities I’m sure it was hard to imagine that Equestria was ever a peaceful kingdom. As we crossed through the shadow of a piece of destroyed overpass my PipBuck made a notification noise. When I checked to see what happened I saw that I had come into range of a new radio broadcast. The frequency was labeled ‘Lone Wolf Radio’.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Sunny asked looking over my shoulder at the screen.

“Found a radio frequency. You guys ever hear of the Lone Wolf Radio?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“Huh…Grim?”

“I’ve only been in the Baltimare area for around a week…maybe? …so no.”

“Alright then. You guys lead the way and I’ll do my best to follow, I’m going to check it out.”

Sunny and Grim nodded and took point in front of me. I put in my ear-bloom and tuned to the frequency. All I heard was silence with the occasional sound of things being moved or something like that. Whoever was running the equipment had left dead air broadcasting out. Or maybe it’s been that way since the bombs fell or some creature accidentally turned it on. I made a mental note to check it again sometime. I did hear something on the other side so perhaps they just had nothing to say at the moment. I took the ear-bloom out of my ear and sighed as I remembered the hole in it. Sunny and Grim were stood still in front of me looking at a particularly garishly colored building. It was a primarily brown building with green and pink accents around the windows and roof. On the sign beside the entrance dominating the whole left side of the wall read ‘Wild Zebra: The Gentlecolt’s Paradise.’ I didn’t know what to make of it.

“Are we going in?” I asked, curious as to why they were so enraptured.

“Maybe. Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious?” Grim turned around to face us.

“Not really.” Sunny looked as if she couldn’t care less.

As for me, as much as I may hate to admit it, I was curious. Probably wasn’t a good trait to have but nothing ventured nothing gained right? I made up my mind and approached the doors. Sunny and Grim silently followed my lead as we pushed the doors open. The inside was just as garish as the outside. The carpets, at least the parts that hadn’t rotted away, were a thick pink shag all across the floor. There were three platforms for where the showmares would come out and dance or whatever for the patrons. The ones to the left and right were small isolated circular ones with poles coming out from the centers with enough space to support one pony each. The one straight ahead was almost three times as large and had a walkway attached to it that led back behind where a thick curtain separated the dancer’s area from the main floor. The main stage could have supported five dancers at once easily. Behind the platform to the right along the wall was a bar that was probably the first thing raided by survivors. Most hauntingly of all, there was a pony skeleton mid-dance fused to one of the poles on the main stage. All around all three stages were the skeletons of the ponies who were here when the end came. A number of chairs had fallen over and some had been trampled to splinters by scavengers along with a few of the skeletons.

“I guess split up? If you find anything interesting shout.” I didn’t know what we were looking for or even if we’d find anything. I hopped up on the main stage, careful not to touch the bones on the pole. I followed the walkway behind the curtain to what I thought was a dressing room. In essence it still was but it looked like the dressing room also doubled as a prison. On either side of the dressing room were small sized cages with only wooden benches in them to act as beds. I thought that what I saw on the stage would be the most disturbing thing to see but I was wrong. Almost all the cages were occupied with the remains of those inside. Not everypony died immediately after the bomb hit if the legs sticking through the bars were any indication. One had worn its hooves down to nothing trying to dig its way out anywhere it could. Another left an image in my mind of how truly hopeless the wasteland was as the skeleton was huddled in the back of the cell with its skull cracked open and a black stain on the back wall. Whether they wanted to escape radiation sickness or hunger they chose to end their lives on their own terms in the only way they could. At first I thought this place was merely a place of fun but now I thought there was something more sinister behind it. I silently prayed for the souls here that were left to die as I made my way out into the back area. The back area reminded me of the stable with how tightly packed a few of the rooms were and the layout was military. Just what kind of place was this? From somewhere inside I heard Sunny Call out. “I found a weapons closet but I can’t get it open!”

I was getting ready to call back when Grim beat me to it.

“Okay I’m coming to help! Where are you!?”

I left them to figure it out as I continued on into the back. Eventually I found the main office with only a desk with a terminal and big painting on the back wall inside. Naturally I investigated the terminal first to see that somepony must have tried to liberate its secrets at least once before as the screen had received a heavy punch which left the screen cracked. I sat there for almost ten minutes trying to get in that thing, having to back out and retry several times. What could have been in here that warranted such security? My patience paid off as eventually I found the correct password. Inside were documents detailing the club and its goals. The first one I looked at was titled ‘Break the Scum’.

Interrogation of these Zebra filth has yielded us no results, we can’t even figure out which one in the squad has the information we need. Unfortunately we don’t have the resources to hold a whole enemy squad so we are gifting them to you as well as a small compliment of operatives. Take them into your club, make them entertain the good ponies of Baltimare. Allow the citizens or soldiers to ‘enjoy’ themselves with them. We want their minds broken as well as their bodies and when they can’t take it anymore we will try to get what we need from them. And if we can’t well…at least they’ll be good for morale.

-Operative Silk Touch.

The hatred of the zebras must have been at an all-time high when the POWs were delivered here. Even if we were at war forcing them into sex work as an impromptu form of interrogation went a little too far in my eyes. The next one was from whoever owned the club.

I have been making a killing ever since the Ministry of Morale sent me all those striped sluts. At first I tried to follow the rules and keep the whoring to a minimal but I was astounded at the number of stallions who wanted a rut with a stripe. So I’ve been charging those curious enough to try and haven’t updated the Ministry in well over eight months. And to think I thought it was a burden when they dumped them on me and now it’s the most profitable venture I’ve ever been a part of. The only problem is the operatives the Ministry sent along with the mares are getting restless and suspicious of what’s taking so long. As much as I would like to see them go I need them to make sure nopony roughs up my girls too much. A dead zebra makes no money after all.

That only confirmed what I thought. As far as POWs go this had to be one of the worst punishments. I almost left the terminal and the room in disgust when I saw a third command in the list that said ‘Release Lock’. I activated it in the hopes that it was for the weapons locker I heard Sunny talking about but I had no hopes that we’d be so lucky. I made my way back past the cages to see that their doors were loosely hanging open. After all these years somepony finally freed them and it had been me. Too late to help as always. I tried to put them out of my mind and returned to the first open room to see Grim and Sunny had an assortment of weapons in their claws and hooves respectively.

“Strange that a place like this would have such an armory.” Grim said aloud as he set his load down on a nearby table.

“It was for the ministry operatives who were here.” I answered robotically. “Zebra mare POWs were brought here and forced into sex work as a form of torture.”

Grim nodded a little bit of pity obvious on his face.

“Guess that explains the name. Ponies can be cruel.”

Neither Sunny nor I could object to that. There was evidence all around us that pointed to that fact. We started picking through what Sunny and Grim had laid out on the tables when the front door was violently kicked in. Three stallions, two earth ponies and a unicorn, barged in pointing their guns at us.

“Hooves in the air! If I see anypony go for their weapons it’ll be the last thing they do!” The unicorn bellowed into the room. “You! Unicorn! If I see any magical aura around your horn I’ll blow it off. Understand!”

I nodded as fast as I could more than happy to comply. Sunny was showing signs of fear but not because of the stallions. The look in her eyes told me she was terrified that she’d become Downpour.

“Sunny, calm down, we’re going to be ok.” I tried to soothe her mind.

“Shut up punk!” The unicorn shouted again. “Remove her battle saddle and you, bind the griffin’s wings.”

Both earth ponies hurried to do as they were told, all the while keeping their guns drawn on us. As the one with steel bindings approached Grim, Grim reared back and screeched loudly, jumping forward and hooking his claws under the stallions chin. His cries were muffled by choking sounds as blood bubbled out of his mouth. The other two stallion opened fire on Grim but he used the body of the stallion he hooked as a shield. The other two stallions now had to pick their shots carefully lest they hit their friend. Unfortunately Grim was noticeably larger than the pony he was holding and several bullets were grazing him or finding homes in his flesh. Sunny didn’t think twice as two shots from her guns put the other two down. Everything settled down very quickly except for the stallion still writhing on Grim’s claws.

“You got what you deserve monster.” Grim whispered fiercely. Grim took his right claw and ripped it sharply downward, vertically slitting the stallion’s throat. Grim dropped him and watched as the desperate gurgling got quieter until it disappeared completely. Grim didn’t give either of us a chance to say anything.

“Slavers. The only thing in the wasteland viler than raiders.” I felt the same way after what I saw the day I left the stable. For the second time in my life I was happy to see somepony dead. We left most of what had just transpired in silence. I was a little shocked that I was building an immunity to seeing ponies killed in front of me. I wondered what Winter would think of me now. We looted what we could from the slavers which included about 5 bomb collars which we took mostly so nopony else would find them. After we rifled through all the items we found Sunny had convinced me to add to my arsenal which is how I ended up with a shotgun strapped to my back. Luckily I didn’t need a battle saddle to use it, magic does have it uses after all.

“That could have gone very differently. Good work Grim.” Sunny nodded her head in thanks.

“Don’t mention it.”

“Why do you hate them so much?” I asked. Nopony of good heart really needed a reason to hate them but his reaction seemed like it was beyond hatred.

“My mother was a slave. There was a high demand for griffin slaves where I grew up. Now there are no slaving operations in Whinnyapolis.”

“I wish could do that. Even knowing what they are I still freeze up.” My ears fell back against my head as I remembered my shame.

“You’re from a stable Sparks. No one raised in that kind of environment expects life to be this way. Sunny and I? We grew up out here, we learned what we had to do to survive. You have to unlearn how you were taught to live in the stable to do so out here. But raiders and slavers? They’re not ponies, not anymore so think of them like monsters and you will find it easier to put them down.”

“It’s not that simple, nopony is one hundred percent beyond redemption.” I had to believe that, it wasn’t their fault, it was the result of the world that was left for them by the war. Wasn’t it?

Sunny scoffed. “Were you in the same cage with me? Have you noticed a raider’s cutie mark lately?”

Whenever we ran into raiders their cutie marks were the least of my worries. Thinking back to it though when I had free walk of the stadium I saw ponies with very gruesome cutie marks, like one with a barbed whip or another with a bloody kitchen knife.

“Gotta wonder what kind of life they had to live to earn marks like that.” In a world like this were cutie marks like that really that surprising?

“That’s my point Sparks, they didn’t earn them. Do you really think ponies naturally get cutie marks like that? That somepony’s special talent is butchering other ponies? They don’t. It’s what they became after they change.”

“She’s right. The Wasteland can take you, break you and eventually control you. You must fight it with everything you’ve got, or else it will take you.”

My heart started to beat fast in my ears as they continued. They were really starting to scare me. Sunny kept going.

“There are ponies like you or me who will spend our lives surviving and fighting the Wasteland and there are others who couldn’t fight anymore or just gave up. They are lost to it. Make no mistake Sparks, if you face anypony like that do not hesitate and end them, you’d be doing them a favor.”

Both of them faced forward and continued on. Leaving me behind them to think about the lesson they just imparted on me.

The sun was starting to set low behind the clouds as we made it to the mark on my compass. What was unusual about the building in front of us was that there was no map marker added to my map when we arrived. How did that make sense? It marked things like the stadium or the post war, pony made Crater but not this place? Technology had its limits I supposed.

“Let’s not waste any time and find the Paladin.” I said, walking in through the broken down door. The inside was pretty much what you’d expect from a building that survived the end of the world. Bits of debris here the occasional skeleton there but unlike other buildings I’d been in, I felt like I was being watched. The place was too quiet. What in the world was the Paladin looking for here? The entrance hall was fairly tall supported by two stone columns with a reception desk situated close to the middle of the floor flanked by a staircase leading to the next floor.

“I got a bad feeling about this.” I said, my ears falling back against my head.

Grim’s wings twitched. “This place feels…wrong.”

And as if on cue a robot on treads with a vaguely pony shaped chassis and two claw tipped arms rolled around the corner.

“Please submit your employee identification.” It spoke with a robotic, almost childlike female voice. On the robots head was a glass dome of some kind filled with a bubbling fluid that held a brain. “Please submit your employee identification. You have ten seconds to comply.”

“Umm guys? What do we do?” I started to panic.

“Ten.”

“Let’s just junk this thing and keep moving.” Sunny said.

“Nine.”

“No! We can’t do that!” Grim started.

“Eight.”

“If we do.”

“Seven”

“It’ll alert any other defenses still active.”

“Six.”

“What if there are no more defenses?”

“Five.”

“Then nothing.”

“Four.”

“Then let’s just kill it.”

“Three.”

“Do you really want to take that risk!?”

“Two.”

“We’re out of options! Decide now!” I screamed.

“One.”

We all flinched as the countdown ended but nothing happened.

“Employee identification not found. Please wait while I contact the head of security.”

Sunny giggled softly. “See, you made a big fuss over nothin’ Grim.” She slowly aimed her guns at the robots head and shattered its brain case. Sending bits of brain and glass skittering across the floor. We were then assaulted by the wail of a security alarm.

Grim’s feathers were visibly ruffled. “SEE! I told you so!”

The number of hostile blips that sprang up on my EFS were too many to count.

“We don’t have time to argue! We have to go NOW!” I shouted over the alarm as two turrets descended from the ceiling. There must have been something of incredible value in this facility because unlike every other turret I’d come across these ones were firing lasers. The stone column I had jumped behind for cover was slowly turning to slag as the turrets kept shooting at where their tracking system said I was. I quickly leaned out of cover and zipped into the goddess-send that was SATS and fired off three shots with my pistol. The first two shots ricocheted off its metal frame but the third found a sweet spot and jammed the guns gears. It could still fire but it was effectively locked into one position. Grim must have noticed and flew up close to the ceiling, drawing the other turrets fire. Sunny stepped out of her cover and did what she could to destroy it. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of maneuvering room for Grim as a beam of pink energy burned through his left wing. He shrieked loudly and crashed into the reception desk, flipping and landing on the other side of it. Both Sunny and I focused our shots and disabled the troublesome turret. Sunny and I rushed over to Grim’s crash site and were relieved to see he was ok.

“Ahh Fuck!” He hissed, letting his wing hang limp. “That might be a problem. Let’s see if we can find a security override or something.” He was up and ready within seconds. I didn’t need any more coercion after a glance at my compass showed as wave of red getting closer to the entrance hall. As we ran down a random hallway I saw that a number of hostile marks were disappearing off my EFS. Maybe some of the other robots were too old and fell apart? Questions for later. I had to hit the deck hard to dodge a blue energy blast that was fired down the middle of the hallway.

“I hope when this is over we can still be friends.” Another robot called in its filly’s voice as it extended its arms and started firing more pink lasers down the hall. I dove into the first doorway I saw which landed me in some kind of break room occupied by only some cabinets and a long conference table. I could hear fighting out in the hallway in the form of bullets ricocheting of the robots chassis. “I’m sorry but my programming requires that I keep trying to kill you, so please don’t take this personally.”

I stuck my head out into the hall and tried to grab the robot with my magic. I struggled to get it off the floor as a laser blast hit the door frame in front of me peppering my face with burning splinters. In the end I was only able to turn it sideways in the hall. I took a deep breath and stuck my head out the door again, channeling magic into my horn and firing a lightning bolt at the robot. The robot didn’t seem to take any damage but its arms stopped firing and started flailing around.

“Neural connection compromised. Weapons not responding. Initiating reset.”

“Kill it now!” Grim called.

The combined gunfire of all three of us shattered its braincase and destroyed the brain.

“Robobrains aren’t the most dangerous robot but you don’t want to get hit by that psionic blast.” Grim said, kicking the treads of the dead robobrain as he called it.

The alarm blaring was a reminder that we were still in danger and we took off down the hallway. Somewhere in the distance an explosion rocked the building. Where did that come from? I thought as we rounded a corner and were stopped by two spritebots. For a moment I was relived.

“Watcher? What are you doing here?”

The spritebot responded by shooting me in the shoulder with its small laser gun. My fur was burned away and my flesh underneath burned and cracked. I recoiled in pain and instinctively grabbed it in my magic and slammed it against the wall, hard enough to embed it there. Grim then used his gun and riddled the other spritebot with lead and it exploded into scrap.

“Not every spritebot is Watcher you know.” Grim said, almost smiling as he did.

I sucked in a breath through closed teeth and looked at the wound. Small trickles of blood leaked out through the hard cracks of burned skin.

“Lesson learned.” I muttered, trying my best to ignore the stinging pain.

The fur around my shoulder was starting to get matted with blood and the stinging might have been the most intense I ever felt. Those magical energy weapons were no joke. We didn’t haven’t have time to stop and bandage me up with the alarm still active and Luna knows how many more robots after us. We rounded a third corner, following a power line to a nearby room. I didn’t have time to scope it out fully as I found my target, a computer terminal.

“Cover me guys I’m gonna see about shutting down security.” I saw them both take positions on either side of the door to the room as I set to work making the terminal’s secrets mine. This terminal wasn’t locked by any passwords and had a limited array of commands. There was no override command anywhere but I could flag other areas of the building as priority for the security measures. I hit the command and directed the bulk of the robots to the main lab, away from us. Now the only problem was to find the actual security terminal to shut off the alarm and put the robots in shutdown. To the south on my EFS I could see all the red markers clump into one location and oddly enough I still saw some disappearing, followed by another far off explosion. Something about that didn’t feel right. What was happening over there? We needed to hurry and find the Paladin. We were suddenly stopped by the sound of something metal rolling along the floor. A bulky, heavily armored robot with a large torso rolled out of a double door at the end of the hallway. It had a small head almost set into its torso, two arms facing towards us and three legs that ended in metal mecanum wheels.

Targets acquired. Engaging.” This one’s voice was deeper, masculine and much more robotic. It pointed one of its arms in our direction and fired a missile at us. There was nowhere we could go in the cramped hallway. I closed my eyes and prepared for the end. I heard the sound of the explosion impacting on something just front of me. I opened my eyes to see a white shield of magic blocking the hallway just in front of us. The force of the explosion cracked the shield and with it whatever focus had conjured it as it shattered into nothing. D-did I do that? I was going to have to figure out how to do that on purpose when we were out of here. The big robot merely switched to it other arm as it started spinning rapidly, spitting out a hail of bullets. The only thing we had in our favor is that so long as we were moving and dodging the robot couldn’t pick a single target to focus on. I zigged and zagged across the hallway trying to stay alive as bullets whizzed over my head or hit my armor. This machine was a force to be reckoned with. Its tri-wheeled legs allowed it to move in any direction and its torso could rotate independently of it legs and keep shooting.

“We need more room!” Sunny shouted over the combat, disengaging and galloping as fast as she could the way we came. Grim and I followed her as quickly as we could as another missile hit the wall just behind us followed by more bullets. I was pumped full of adrenaline as I could feel bullets just barely miss my legs and one or two did hit my flank but I was so scared that they didn’t faze me enough to slow me down. At our speeds it didn’t take long for us to make it back to the entrance hall. As soon as we crossed the threshold of the room the locked turret detected us and started uselessly firing again.

“That’s it! We need to lure the robot into the turrets path!” I said frantically. And as if on cue the large metal monstrosity barreled in the room after us, exploding into a shower of lead.

“Sparks! Think you could do the shield again!? If we’re gonna lure it we’re gonna need to clump together!” Grim asked with a look of desperation on his face.

“I don’t know! I didn’t even know I could do it!”

“Hopefully not dying’s a good motivator!” Sunny yelled as she jumped over me, taking my and Grim’s necks in her hooves as she held us together.

“Are you crazy!? You’re gonna get us killed!” I screamed, trying to wiggle my way out of her grasp. Even pumped full of adrenaline I could not match her strength. The robot rotated its torso to face us with its mounted guns.

Target locked.” It cautioned. Sunny was slowly and carefully pulling us parallel to where the locked turrets blasts were landing.

“Get ready boys!” Her grip around my neck tightened and I felt like I was floating. The sinking feeling in my gut that this was the end was overpowering any level of concentration I had. The robot fired a missile at us, almost in slow-motion as my fear raddled brain kicked my flight response into overdrive. I entered SATS to try and buy as much time as possible to think. Even with the slowed perception of time I still couldn’t come up with anything to get us out of this. That was when something occurred to me, magic! It didn’t have to necessarily be a shield. I closed my eyes and returned to normal time as a lightning shot out of my horn. The crackling sound and slight smell of ozone told me that the spell had worked. I opened my eyes in time to see my bolt connect with the missile and cause it to explode. The force of the explosion knocked us all to the ground and peppered all of us with bits of hot metal shrapnel. I could feel my body being dragged as I pressed my hooves against my ears to try and calm the intense ringing in them. When I could focus again I saw that Sunny had pulled Grim and I behind one of the support pillars, pulling us out of the robots line of sight. The plan wasn’t a total failure as it still put the robot on the path we wanted. It slowly rolled towards us into the path of the turrets laser fire. The great thing about having all your defenses tied to one system was that the IFF program didn’t register friendly fire. The hulking machine was tanking several laser blasts, each one melting off more and more of its armor plating. And as if our fantasies had come true, one last laser shot hit the robot in its now exposed wiring, disintegrating the entire robot into a hefty pile of pink, slightly glowing ash.

“Ha ha! You crazy bitch we did it! Good shot Sparks.” Grim celebrated. He breathed a sigh of relief and fell back against one of the pillars, wincing slightly as he remembered his wing. “I thought we were done for, I’ve never seen a Sentinel in action before.”

“Hopefully that cleared the way a bit, everpony pick the shrapnel out and drink a potion, we’re not out of this yet.” Sunny ordered.

We did as directed but grim denied the potion.

“Potions don’t replace lost tissue, if I drink that, my wing won’t heal properly and I won’t be able to fly.”

“Then what are we going to do? Are you going to need surgery?” I had no idea of the complexity of a wing so maybe I wasn’t that far off. If so I was more than a little concerned. I wouldn’t know how to feel in his place, I couldn’t envision life without my horn so I imagine that feeling was equitable.

“I should be fine. Do we have any regular bandages? That’ll do me for now.”

“Pass me some bandages too.” I pointed to the nasty wound that spritebot’s laser did to my shoulder.

After wrapping his wing and my shoulder, we set off back down the hallway we ran from. Now that I could get a good look at it without worrying for my life, I saw that our brief encounter had done a number. Two gaping holes, one in the floor and one in the right wall, and small patches of fire blocked our path. Fortunately none of the battle damage was bad enough to block our path so we had a straight shot to the room the sentinel came from. With any luck that was the security room. And Luna fuck me with her horn if that wasn’t the case. That sentinel must have been their ace in the hole because there wasn’t any danger in the office itself.

“Good thing we didn’t go down the other hallway eh guys?” I joked.

“Just get that alarm off, I’m getting a headache.” Grim whined, rubbing his head dramatically. A standard password search later, I was in. The first thing on my list was the security override. After a little bit of digging I found it and switched off the alarm and the robot security force, or at least what was left of it. There were two other entries that jumped out at me. One was about whomever was in charge of the site giving a building-wide notice and the second was about the security chiefs concern about the robots. I looked at the latter.

I understand that P.C. is running low on resources and able bodies but stealing my officers and replacing them with robots is starting to piss me off. It’s not like my ponies are eggheads so taking them from me for her project won’t help her as much as she seems to think. And these robots aren’t the greatest. Last week Lavender wasn’t wearing her identification badge and a sentinel fatally wounded her. We had to relocate the two sentinels to higher priority locations to avoid more incidents like this. The brainbots are also a little disturbing. The Ministry told us that the brains used weren’t pony or zebra brains but one of them started talking to me about its family and even claimed it was friends with Rainbow Dash in flight school. I doubt any kind of animal brain would have that kind of imagination. I’m going to pass this concern up to the M.A.S and get some answers.

Now that I wasn’t on the receiving end of a brainbots weapons I started to see the horror behind their existence. This journal practically confirmed that the brains used were pony brains or close equivalents. What was really disturbing was whether or not the brains used were volunteers or something more sinister. I did my best to put it out of my mind as I moved on the notice from the pony who used to run this joint.

Despite all the setbacks from our lack of resources I am delighted to announce that we are on track to have our first test of Project Outlast within the week. Sadly all of our adequately talented unicorns on site have been called to other projects so I will be the first test subject. I trust my team to keep things running while I’m integrated into the pod. If the project proves successful, Equestria will no longer need to rely solely on coal for energy. Twilight Sparkle will be here to inspect the project after we run a couple of tests so I expect all staff to maintain a high degree of professionalism and courtesy. This will be a huge step in ending the war, everypony should be proud of their work on the project and I extend my sincerest gratitude for all of your help and loyalty, even when assets were diverted away from us. In celebration I have scheduled Pinkie Pie of the Ministry of Morale to host a party at the end of the month. No thanks are necessary, you ponies have earned it.

-Project Lead P.C.

I was a little sad that the ponies here never got the party they were promised, especially if they were working to end the war but obviously they were too late. Paladin Sureshot must have been here for whatever he could salvage from the project. Whatever energy technology they developed here would be a huge advantage to the Steel Rangers autonomy or anypony’s for that matter. I transferred a copy of the buildings layout to my PipBuck and stood up from the terminal to join my friends back out in the hall.

“The Paladin is probably in the basement lab if I had to guess.” I said staring at the PipBuck map.

“Do you think he’s alive?” Grim asked.

I remembered the enemy blips I saw disappearing off my EFS before and the sudden realization dawned on me.

“I think he can handle himself, you saw how massive their armor is.” I felt like I was forgetting something important but I was too eager to find the Paladin.

Grim and Sunny both nodded, conceding whatever arguments they might have had. We made our way halfway around the building’s interior, down a set of stairs and into a kind of waiting room/lobby to the high tech security doors to the basement labs. The inside of the room was absolutely destroyed, like a gigantic explosion tore through it. Scattered all around were the wrecked bodies of a number of robots, including another sentinel. In the corner beside the lab doors was the source of the explosion. Paladin Sureshot. My legs became weak and I fell to my knees as my insides tightened up painfully. I remembered in my panic that I directed the robots here. I killed the Paladin.

“Looks like he self-destructed his armor to kill the robots.” Sunny said, hiding her expression under her hat.

I was on the verge of tears. Another pony was dead because of me and I could have prevented it. I knew something was wrong when we first got here. I should have known when the alarm didn’t trip until we got here. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I slammed my hoof against the floor and cried out in anguish.

“Come on Sparks, nothing we can do for him now.” Grim said, trying to help me stand up.

I let him help me up and slowly made my way to Sureshot’s remains. His armor was in pieces all around the blast site and bunched up in the corner lay the burnt husk of the Paladin. Around his neck were charred dog tags which I carefully took off his corpse. I held them in the air in front of me in my magic and got a good look at them.

Sureshot
16785369
Blood Type B-
Steel Ranger - Paladin

I wouldn’t be able to bring him back but I could bring these back.

“Umm…should we check out the labs?” Grim fidgeted anxiously, trying to break the mold.

In my mind I thought that since the Paladin was dead that maybe the rest of the Rangers wouldn’t help me. So I blindly agreed with the proposal. After a minute of fiddling with a key-card reader to open the door, Sunny lost her patience and destroyed it which in turn opened the door. Vertically blocking our path to an elevator was a shimmering blue field of magic.

“Huh. I didn’t see anything about this on the security terminal.” I mumbled.

“It’s probably controlled from the other side, to keep unauthorized personnel out of the labs.”

Sunny scrunched her nose and closed her eyes. “So…what you’re telling me is…?”

Grim smirked softly. “Yep, I think it’s a bypass shield.” He very carefully reached out as if to push the shield. His claws stopped as they came into to contact with it which left him comically leaning on it.

“So what do you think is allowed to pass through it?” I asked as I went to lean on it as well. That is until I went right through and crashed into the floor face first.

“Sparks!” Sunny stepped forward to try and help me only to be stopped by the shield. She hit it once and huffed in anger. “Are you ok in there?”

I gritted my teeth and rubbed my muzzle gently. “Son of a whore! Grim I thought you said I wouldn’t be able to go through?”

“I said no such thing, I said it was a bypass shield and nothing more.” He shrugged, giving me a look of amusement. He looked past me at the elevator. “Hey go check out that terminal by the elevator, see if you can’t turn the shield off.”

I nodded and took a look at it. My hooves went right through it. What the hell? Why couldn’t I use it? I frowned and tried to use magic instead. Again I just couldn’t use it. “What the hell is this thing!?” I yelled as I kept whipping my hooves through it as if it were vapor.

“Is…is that a cloud terminal?” Grim asked incredulously. “I never thought I’d see one on the surface outside of ministry hubs.”

“Your curiosity is gonna have to be put on hold because I can’t work the damn thing.”

“A Pegasus could use it, or I could if I could get to it.”

“Well you can’t get through the shield so that’s the end of that.” I said angrily, stopping halfway through the shield. “Let’s just take the Paladin’s tags back to the Academy and…” I was interrupted by the sound of wind blowing. I turned back through the shield and looked to the elevator where the sound was coming from to see an intangible mass of black and blue aura in the vague shape of a pony coming out of the floor. I tried to take a step back but my body wouldn’t move. Grim and Sunny were both pounding on the shield to try and help me but were stuck on the other side. The pony specter lifted its head and pierced me with its glowing golden gaze. It jumped forward, stopping just in front of me as it opened its mouth and let out a hissing growl. I saw a glow reminiscent of a unicorns atop the ghost’s head which must have snapped me out of my paralysis as I made an immediate U-turn and bolted through the shield so fast that I knocked both of my friends to the floor. We grunted and groaned trying to untangle our mass of hooves and claws. I was down on the floor underneath Sunny looking at the shield. I saw the upside down face of the ghost phase through the shield then stop just outside it. It growled again before retreating back through the floor.

“What the fuck was that thing!?” Grim cried after untangling himself from us.

I looked at the shield for a good long moment before answering. “I think we should go back to the Academy now.”

Nopony had a reason to say no, so we left and none of us looked back.



Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Hit the Deck! – You react very quickly to the sound of an explosive coming your way. You only take 2/3 damage from ranged explosive weapons.

Chapter Nine: Of What's to Come

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Chapter Nine: Of What’s to Come

“In innocence there is no strength against evil, but there is strength in it for good.”

“Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria, when the lands were still green and the sky was still free, ponies lived in harmony with each other. All was safe and we wanted for nothing save for love and happiness. Equestria was growing at an incredible rate and with that increase in growth so did our need for resources increase. Before long trade negotiations fell apart with our neighbors and conflict broke out. It wasn’t until the infamous massacre of Littlehorn Valley that Equestria was pushed into all-out warfare for the first time in millennia. From there ponykind became corrupted, we traded peace, kindness and tolerance for fear, greed and hate.”

“Please let me go! I want to go back to Momma!”

“Silence foal! You belong to me now and you will be a good little one and listen! Now as I was saying; The Zebra nation attacked immediately and pushed us into an extreme, rapid industrial revolution. Equestria was forever changed after the assassination attempt on Princess Celestia and the rise of the ministries.”

“Why are you doing this? I wanna go home!”

“Impudent fool.” The sound of a hard slap followed by crying was heard. “I see you have no interest in the history of this land. So be it. We’ll get right to the point. I was in this very city the day the world was swallowed by dark magic. My wife and I were visiting her parents when she went in to labor and we had to rush her to a nearby hospital. I was forced to reschedule our appointment for admission to one of Canterlot’s stables while we waited for our child to be born. My wife was unconscious when the baby was born so it was I who held her for the first…and last time. For it was that day, the last day when megaspells destroyed the world. After the initial blast I was knocked unconscious. I woke up hours later to see the cold lifeless face of my wife. She never saw our child and I never got to say goodbye. To top off my pain I had crushed my little girl beneath me when I fell.”

“You can’t do this to me! Let me go! Please! You’re hurting me!”

“I can do whatever I wish with you. I’ve had centuries to endure my pain but you… you know nothing of pain…you are going to learn today.”

“What!? No! Please no! Leave me alone!”

“I’ve had everything taken from me. My child didn’t survive, why should you? Everything is gone. You are alone. Let it all end.”

“Mommy! Help me! Somepony pleas-ack!”

There were no more words only the sound of slaughter. The sound of calm exertion from the stallion, screaming, crying and blood hitting the floor. In mere seconds the on-air murder was done.

“Thanks for joining me listeners, stay tuned tomorrow for another ‘special guest’. This has been Lone Wolf Radio.”

That was what I woke to in the dead of night. I forgot to switch off the radio the day before and woke to a truly monstrous broadcast. Everything I had seen or experienced up to that point was overshadowed by the sound of a child being murdered, forever etched in my mind. I couldn’t recall seeing too many children save for the cart full of slaves on my first day. Which only made my anger grow. The Rangers would have to wait. Forgive me Winter, I have to stop this monster.

After waking and convincing Sunny and Grim of what I heard we unanimously agreed that we had to do something about it. The voice on the radio was a very rough, raspy voice which Grim and Sunny surmised belonged to a ghoul so that narrowed the search down.

“So what are we going to do about this? He could be anywhere.” I asked quickly.

“It could be a tough search, if he’s a ghoul then he doesn’t need food, water or even sleep. Can you track him with your PipBuck Sparks?”

“No I can’t unfortunately. Not on a signal that strong.”

“Hmm, let’s think on this a second. You picked up the frequency when we entered the ruins right? So he can’t be using a very powerful relay which means he’s within the ruins at least. What do you think Sunny?”

“I think his set-up is south of here. Slavers pass through the Shipyard every now and then and I don’t think he catches the kids himself so he’d have to be close to them.”

Grim tapped his claw on his head. “Huh, Sparks you’re a tech kinda guy yeah? It’s likely he’s piggybacking off a relay tower, do you think if we found one you could use that somehow?”

I actually wasn’t sure. Most of my adult life was spent repairing small bits of tech here and there in the stable. I didn’t know if my knowledge would translate to working with radio frequencies or not. That wouldn’t stop me though. I let a child die on my watch once, never again.

“I don’t know. We don’t have much to go on though, so we’re going to give it a shot.”

They both nodded their support and each held out a claw and a hoof. I copied their gesture and added my hoof to the circle so we were all touching. “Thanks for everything guys. I’m lucky to have friends like you.”

It was going to be a rough start as we set out into the night. I turned on my PipBuck’s built-in light spell and levitated my gun out, hoping that the light wouldn’t make us a target but preparing for it nonetheless. We made it about one block before we were stopped under a skywalk by the sound of fluttering wings.

“Don’t move!” Sunny whispered, holding out a hoof to stop us. “Turn your light off! Look, up under the skywalk…Bloodwings.”

I shifted my eyes upward and saw what she was talking about and hastily switched off my light. Hanging upside down under the skywalk were maybe twenty or so giant bats. They were absolutely gigantic, if one got it’s fangs into you it was game over.

“Follow me.” Grim ordered. “They must have fed already if they’re not out hunting.”

“I think you’re right.” I said, pointing ahead of us. Out in the street were the shriveled dry remains of three ponies and their Brahmin. We all crouched low to the ground to try and get away without waking the swarm. Whether through fate or poor timing a nearby billboard decided to finally give up its fight against the elements and fell in our direction. The bulk of the sign crashed through the shattered glass of the skywalk, shaking it enough to dislodge large chunks of concrete, partially dropping part of the walkway. Again through a twist of fate, most of the Bloodwings were crushed when half of the skywalk smashed into the ground below. The rest of the swarm was violently shaken from their slumber with some of them hitting the ground without enough time to react. The ones who were able to recover screeched angrily into the darkness. Then one looked in our direction and screeched loudly before flying at us at full speed with its eyes fixed on me.

“Run! Get to cover!” Sunny screamed as she jumped up and body blocked the Bloodwing before it could reach me. I was in shock. I watched Sunny flip head over hooves several times as the Bloodwing tackled her to the pavement, wrapping its wings around her. I couldn’t run away, I couldn’t let her die. Not for me. In that moment my fear was banished and I found my legs moving on their own. I started galloping towards where they would stop rolling as fast I could, levitating my shotgun out as I did. The Bloodwing reared back to bite Sunny as I jumped and slammed into its side, knocking it off of her. It stood up quickly and knocked me aside with one of its massive leathery wings. It pinned me to the sidewalk and opened its fanged maw to take my life. I still had my shotgun in my magical grasp which I shoved into its mouth and fired. The blast blew out the back of its neck and it fell off of me lifelessly. Sunny was there to help me to my hooves and pull me towards the alley that Grim was running down. The rest of the swarm was hot on our tails. Luckily the alley was too small for them to get in except from above. Some did try to get to us only to hit the ground just behind us, the alley restricting their wingspans.

“Where do we go!?” I cried.

“We need to get indoors!” Grim answered back.

I had left my shotgun in the mouth of the big Bloodwing and I doubted my pistol could do much damage to them so fighting them was out of the question. Several of them landed on the other side of the alley in front of us, blocking our path. Grim and Sunny started to slow down.

“Don’t stop! Keep running!” I yelled as I passed them, taking the lead. We grew closer to the Bloodwings and they snarled viciously awaiting their prey. I closed my eyes and focused as much magic as I could into my horn whereupon it ignited into a powerful ball of light. The Bloodwings squealed in pain and recoiled, frantically flailing about trying to get airborne. As they scattered I saw an open hole to the underground in the middle of the road.

“There!” I yelled pointing at the hole as I jumped down it. I caught myself on the ladder about halfway down. I looked up fearing the worst but was relieved to see that Sunny and Grim made it in. We all were standing around the bottom of the ladder panting heavily as some of the Bloodwings above us were desperately trying to get in the hole. They gave up before long and flew off.

“That was too close.” I said turning around to face my friends when I felt a hoof hit me across the face. I hit the ground hard, looking up to see what happened. Sunny was standing above me staring at me angrily.

“What the hell were you thinking back there!?”

“I…I was just-”

“Just what? Trying to help? Do you realize you could have died? You almost killed us both Sparks!”

“B-but I-”

“But nothing! I protected you and you came back for me. So many things could have gone wrong and then we’d have both been dead.”

“I…I couldn’t let you die Sunny…I… I need you.” I started to feel tears welling up in my eyes.

“I’m glad you saved me, Sparks. I can’t thank you enough for that but what you did was dangerous and stupid. You won’t be able to help anypony if you’re dead and I don’t want you to die for me.”

“But…I can’t just let you die.” I wiped the tears from my eyes.

“I’ve lived my life Sparks, sometime freely, sometimes as a prisoner. I don’t make life or death decisions lightly but I am ready to die for my friends.”

And with that Sunny was done. She started following the tunnel deeper into the ruins. I stood up and wiped away my tears again. I felt a gentle claw on my shoulder and received a soft look from Grim. “C’mon, we shouldn’t let her get too far ahead of us.”

After a while I was starting to regret my decision to jump into the sewers. Walking parallel to century’s worth of a stagnant stream of waste was especially draining. The alarmingly fast ticking from my Geiger counter didn’t help matters either.

“What an interesting smell you’ve discovered Sparks.” Quipped Grim.

“I’m sorry your highness, maybe you’d like to go back outside with the giant killer bats?”

I was still shaken from before. I didn’t know how to comprehend the fact that Sunny was ready to die for me. Maybe it was the idea of having her die at all that was what was bothering me. The thought of the wasteland without Sunny was something I didn’t want to accept or even fathom as a possibility. Even if the worse came to pass I’d still have Grim, although that made me uneasy too. I called him a friend yet we still know hardly anything about him. Watcher knew more about him and I’d have some questions for him myself should we meet again.

“Sunny do you know where you’re going?”

“Not really. I’m looking for another ladder to the outside or to where this shit drains out.” She looked at the stream of sewage in disgust. We kept following the tunnel for another hour or so before we finally found a ladder back up.

“Finally! I’ve forgotten what fresh air smells like.” I said with a smile.

“Don’t get your hopes up, I imagine there won’t be any ‘fresh’ air when get out.” Grim reminded me.

“Thanks smartass.” I rolled my eyes and followed Sunny up the ladder.

“Good news, we’re inside.” Sunny said from the top.

“Inside where?” I asked, slowly climbing the ladder.

I wondered why she didn’t answer me but when I got to the top and had a gun shoved in my muzzle, I understood.

“Out of the hole, all of you! Where the fuck did you smoothcoats come from?”

I recoiled in horror when I saw our captors. Three walking, decaying corpses were standing around us with guns drawn. They reminded me of a comic I read back in the stable when I was a colt called the trotting dead. Those monsters scared me to death when I was little but my mother always told me that zombie ponies didn’t exist but here I was, facing three of them.

“Ahh! Zombies!” I screamed, remembering my encounter with the same creatures when I was with Chestnut and jumped behind Sunny, cowering like a foal.

“We’re not zombies you bigot.” One replied, hauling Grim out of the hole. “If I wanted to eat you I wouldn’t have pulled a gun on you.” He assured.

They sounded like the stallion from the Lone Wolf Radio. With gravelly and raspy voices.

“Forgive him, he’s from a stable.” Sunny said looking down at me crossly.

“I don’t give a shit! How’d you smoothcoats get in here? That tunnel only leads back to the Baltimare monorail station and nopony makes it past the Bloodwings. So how’d you get here?”

“If no one makes it past the Bloodwings and we’re here then there’s only one conclusion isn’t there? We didn’t know there was a settlement here…wherever we are. So if you’d kindly show us the way out we’ll gladly be on our way.” Grim tried smooth-talking them.

“Don’t trust them Slipknot, they’re here to kill us.” The one to the left said.

The center one, who’d done the most talking was presumably the one in charge, looked unsure. He looked at me with an amusing chuckle. “Nah I don’t think they’re here for a fight. Look at that guy on the floor, that’s real fear right there.”

“S-So…you’re not going to eat us?” I asked, starting to get up.

“Not really into eating ponies, even if they are smoothcoats. Unless they ask me to...real sweetly.” He winked. “Name’s Slipknot by the way.”

“Could you tell us where we are?” Grim asked politely.

“Guns down boys, if they wanted to scrap they’d have done so by now.” The other two ghouls did as they were told as their leader loudly and hoarsely tried to clear his throat. “Sorry bout the poor introduction. We haven’t had good experiences with you smoothcoats trying to get in to the Mortuary.”

“Why would other ponies try to get into a mortuary?” Sunny asked with a look of confusion.

“No no no. Sorry I should have known you wouldn’t know. This is what’s left of the Baltimare General Hospital. We just call it the Mortuary now cause all of us here are ghouls.” Slipknot said with a dry chuckle.

Grim suddenly got very excited. “Are there any medicals supplies or equipment left? I need help with my wing.” He said eagerly, raising his injured wing to accentuate his request.

“It’s not really my call to let an outsider use our equipment. You’d have to talk to the boss for that. Want I should take you to meet her?”

“Yes please! Lead the way.” The trio of ghouls made their way up a nearby flight of stairs and Grim readily followed close behind them.

“Try to reel it in Sparks, most ghouls are just normal ponies, so to speak. So try to treat them as you would anypony else.” Sunny instructed as she too started to climb the stairs.

That was my first time seeing a ghoul up close and it was worse than I thought it’d be. It would be a challenge at first to treat them like normal ponies but I was going to try, they weren't monsters... Right?

The majority of the hospital, according to Slipknot, was collapsed and inaccessible and since they didn’t really need any amenities they had no need to venture out into the ruins. He said that they did have a way out and sometimes would take in other ghouls but didn’t deal with regular ponies very often. As we passed through a larger room filled with dozens of ghouls I started to hear whispers behind our backs. It was an understandable reaction in an all ghoul community. We were taken up another flight of stairs and to a small waiting room kind of area where there were more ghouls wandering about.

“Dr. Scalpel? These smoothcoats want to talk to you.” Slipknot addressed the room.

An elderly unicorn mare wearing a tattered lab coat turned and faced us.

“Slipknot did your brain finally rot away? You let smoothcoats in? How’d they even get here?” What was left of her grey mane was neatly tied in a bun atop her head.

“They came through the monorail tunnel.”

“Really? Hmm it seems we should block off the tunnel altogether now.” The mare said, adjusting her cracked glasses.

“Um excuse me?” Grim butted in. “I was hoping you could help me with my wing. I won’t be able to fly again without medical attention.”

“Hmph, I suppose if you’ve gotten this far you’re not here to make trouble. Come, let me have a look at you, though I admit it has been some time since I examined a wing injury.” She beckoned Grim to follow her behind a divider curtain.

“Dr. Scalpel has been here since before the war. If anypony can help your friend, it’s her.” Slipknot informed us.

That was amazing. Dr. Scalpel was alive when Equestria was still green and full of life. It was tragic and incredible at the same time. Incredible that she saw the world before it was reduced to cinders. Tragic to have to live in the remains of that world for centuries. Something about that caught my attention.

“Wait. How long do ghouls live for?”

Slipknot chuckled. “I’ve been a ghoul for sixty years now and haven’t aged a day since then. Well, except for my skin flaking off and my mane falling out. So we ghouls might live forever.”

“That’s astounding. I’ve been told that you don’t have to eat? Or sleep?”

“Sorta, we can still DO those things but we don’t really need to. But with every miracle there’s a curse to balance it. Hunger, sleep and radiation, none of it matters to us but every ghoul has a monster inside them.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m talking about going feral. We're all going to go feral one day but when that day comes? Nopony knows. It’s different for everypony. It’s a terrible fate, to have your mind devolve to a bestial level, to lose who you are as an individual and give in to the beast inside. I knew a ghoul back in the day who could feel it coming and while he could still do something about it he put a bullet in his brain. Can’t say I blame him, I think it’s what I’m gonna do when the time comes.”

“There’s no way to stop it?”

“No there isn’t, at best we can slow it down, maybe. We don’t actually know why or how it happens and it’s that fact why most of you smoothcoats treat us like shit. Why treat ghouls like equals when we’re all going to become monsters? It’s easier to shoot first and ask questions never. I didn’t want this, I didn’t ask to look like a fucking rotten corpse!” He scowled at his own story. Possibly lamenting his fate. “Sorry, guess sixty years hasn’t been long enough to accept it.”

I had no way to relate to something like that. I did my best to look sympathetic but all I had was more questions and I don’t think he wanted to talk about it anymore. Sunny wore a similar expression of sympathy, perhaps relating to having a monster inside. A bit later, Grim and Dr. Scalpel returned to us. For whatever reason she walked right up to me.

“I know who you are Harbinger. Your friend is definitely going to need my help and soon.”

“That’s great! So you’re going to help us?”

“No.”

“What?” Both Grim and I asked.

“I said he needs my help. I didn’t say I was going to help him.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not in the habit of helping outsiders even if you are some kind of hero. Your actions so far mean nothing to me, only your actions to come. An eye for an eye Harbinger, you help us and I’ll help you.”

I exchanged a glance with Sunny and she looked neutral as always.

“Ok, what do you want from us?”

“Very good. The hospitals spark generator was damaged when the bombs fell and our scrapwork repairs are no longer sufficient to keep it running much longer. We need a replacement.”

“Spark generator? We aren’t going to be able to find one of those outside of stables.” I was beside myself. Spark generators were supposed to produce energy indefinitely so they weren’t common across Equestria.

“Don’t worry about that. We already have a lead on where one might be.”

“Really?”

“Of course, you don’t run this place for two centuries without knowing a thing or two. I remember seeing an exhibit at the Museum of Technology that had one on display and last I heard it was still there. Here I’ll give you the coordinates.”

“This is great!” Grim Chirped. “Let’s hurry so we can get back to going after the Lone Wolf.”

“You’re not going anywhere Mr. Grim. If you value your wing you are going to stay here and let me help you.” Dr. Scalpel put her hoof down on the matter. “Now I’m putting some trust in you Harbinger, show me that you are who they say you are.” With that she beckoned Grim to follow her into, what I imagined, was an operating room.

“Are you with me Sunny?” I asked just to settle my own insecurities.

“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.” she said with a small smile.

I was glad she wasn’t still upset with me, or if she was she wasn’t letting it bother her like I was. With that I smiled with her and psyched myself up to go to the Museum.

“Room for one more on this expedition?” We both looked back at Slipknot who was adjusting his belongings and hefting some saddlebags on.

“You…you want to come with us Slipknot?”

“Sure, looks like you got an empty spot on your crew. Besides I have a stake in this too ya know.”

“What do you think Sunny?”

Sunny shrugged indifferently.

“I guess that’s a yes.”

“It’s not.” Sunny corrected.

“Well, it’s close enough.”

Slipknot nodded with a smile of his own as he began following us. After walking down the flight of stairs we came up back to the big area with all the ghouls. It was at that moment that I realized that Dr. Scalpel didn’t show us the way out. It was a good thing Slipknot wanted to come with us otherwise we’d have had find the way out ourselves or to go back through the tunnel. Slipknot led us through a veritable maze of rubble until we emerged from under a collapsed section of roof and into what looked like the hospital’s main entrance lobby.

“Very few ponies know how to get into the Mortuary. Most just look at the pile of debris and disregard it as a path. We also have sentries watching this room in case somepony gets too curious or another ghoul is looking for a safe haven.”

“How many ghouls end up wandering in here?”

“Not as many as you would think. We aren’t the only all ghoul community or so I’ve heard. It wouldn’t surprise me if a good number went looking for the other place. We aren’t exactly sitting in the lap of luxury here.”

We carefully walked to the big exit doors, wary of the thick layer of broken glass on the floor. The sun was just starting to rise behind the cloud cover, lighting the horizon with a dull red glow. We set off down the destroyed city streets toward the map marker on my compass. It was eerie walking down streets that were once full of ponies, so full of life. The fact that even nature couldn’t come and reclaim the city made the destruction that much more disturbing.

“Is it true what the Doc said? Are you the pony we heard about on the radio? The Harbinger?”

“I didn’t pick the title, but yeah that’s me I guess.”

“Then I’m sure you’ve heard this before but thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, really.”

“I think you misunderstand me. I honestly don’t care about what you did or why you did it. No matter what your intentions. I’ve seen ponies looking for any reason to put themselves out of this misery but you made them see that maybe there’s a chance for us to do something more than just survive. I think the title fits you perfectly.”

I don’t know if was because of the praise or the fact that I was having an impact on the lives of the wasteland without earning it. Something inside made me want to put a stop to it all.

“I wish I had no title. I haven’t done anything to deserve any kind of adulation from anypony. All I did was save my own ass. I’m not a hero or anything of the sort. Even some of what was said on the radio wasn’t true. I wish that nopony knew who I was. I wish I wasn’t put on a pedestal I didn’t deserve. I…I…” I trailed off, hanging my head low with my ears drooping down. Sunny looked away from me in shame as she was partly responsible for my ‘fame’. As much as I wanted to be a shining beacon of hope to the ponies of the wasteland, it just wasn’t the kind of pony I was no matter how much I wanted to be.

“Just give it time.”

I turned back at look at him confused. “What?”

“Nopony becomes a hero overnight. Give it time, you’ll come into your own and become the pony we all hope you are.”

After that nopony spoke a word. It felt like in a way that he was forgiving me. For what exactly? I didn’t know. Before, I imagined that I was taking on the disguise of a hero to spread hope through the wasteland. Now I realized that I could, with time and effort, become what I represented instead of merely pretending. Was I truly up to the task? Even I didn’t know.

As time went on I was still boggled just how empty the ruins were. Given what I’d seen so far, I figured there would be more small towns like Black Town or the Crater. The perpetual silence was deafening. We eventually came across a section of a monorail line that had fallen and made a convenient ramp for us to ascend. From atop the monorail line we were able to get a better view of the ruins and bypass a few roads that were blocked up by fallen buildings. Past some of the lower rooftops I could see Horseshoe Bay and the hulk of the Lunar Liner. I started daydreaming about whatever it was that occupied the boat as we made it to a small monorail station. I heard Slipknot yell something but wasn’t cognizant enough to understand what was said. I looked ahead of us at the monorail station that we were walking into to see several ponies scrambling around. I was finally snapped out of my daydream when Slipknot tackled me just in time for a bullet to whizz over us. Sunny ducked down behind a trash can in front of a bench and started returning fire. Slipknot helped me to my hooves and pulled me behind a shelter covering a set of benches. Sunny was separated from us on the right side of the rails while Slipknot and I were on the left. Slipknot held a heavy caliber pistol in his mouth as he covered the right side of the shelter. I followed his lead and levitated out my pistol and took point on the left side of the shelter. I should have been paying attention to my EFS because as soon as I peeked my head out a red-eyed pony with armor made out of a mailbox and a knife in her teeth clipped me and knocked me out of cover. Slipknot moved to help me but was forced to switch cover as several bullets were sprayed where he was. The red-eyed mare smiled madly and pounced on top of me, knife glinting menacingly in the light. I quickly levitated my pistol between us, opened the mail slot in her chest with magic, and fired three rounds into her chest. She died quickly and her armor pulled her forward which left me pinned under her corpse. An action that had no effect on the rest of her crew as I could feel and hear more bullets hitting the corpse on top of me, some tinking off its armor. Seeing little alternative, I seized the corpse with my levitation and used it as a meat shield until I could move to proper cover. I took my own advice and checked my EFS when I got behind a stone trash bin. I saw at least four more hostile markers nearby.

“Harbinger! Are you alright?!” I heard Slipknot call from two shelters in front of me. As he asked one of the markers disappeared.

“I’m alive! There’s three left!” I called back.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sunny gallop up the right side of the platform. As she closed in to where two of the raiders were hiding, they broke cover and tried to fight her with a barbed baseball bat and a pool cue fashioned into a spear. The bat wielding raider’s swing was easily blocked by Sunny’s hoof. She followed up with her other hoof, slamming it hard into his head, knocking him off his hooves. Sunny quickly swiveled around to face the one she knocked over and brought a hoof down hard on his windpipe. The raider mare with the spear cue recklessly took a stab at Sunny where she connected with Sunny’s shoulder and broke off a length of the spear. The attack was followed through with a strong kick to Sunny’s barrel which pushed her onto her back. Before I could do anything to help, Sunny picked up the fallen barb wire bat and smashed it across the raider’s face where the wire caught skin and viciously ripped a portion of her face clean off. I was keeping the last one suppressed behind cover as Sunny and Slipknot converged on her from both sides. As they got closer she turned to her right and had just enough time to put two bullets into Slipknot before he shoulder charged her over the metal guardrail to her death on the pavement below. We all grouped up around where the raider fell to lick our wounds for a moment.

“Hey.” Sunny said as she moved her head to the left and looking at the bit of pool cue lodged in her shoulder. I scrunched my nose in displeasure as I carefully pulled it out with my magic. She winced as I did and the hole was starting to trickle a little line of blood. I scrunched my nose again as I caught a foul smell in the air when Slipknot walked up behind me. I looked over my shoulder at him to see that he had been hit in the haunch and squarely in the chest. From his wounds dripped a dark green ichor that I guess replaced a ghoul’s blood.

“Oh geez, do you need a potion Slipknot?”

“No, not really. Just gotta soak up some rads and I’ll be fine. Got any painkillers though?”

“Here.” Sunny said as she passed him a syringe. He took it in his mouth, stuck it in his leg and pushed the plunger with his tongue.

“Ahh…that’s better. I could take on the fucking wasteland now.” He said with a grin, throwing the empty syringe over the edge. “Let’s pat these pricks down, see what we can take from ‘em then head inside.”

“Head inside?” I asked myself. I must have been daydreaming longer than I thought. After a quick look around the monorail station I saw that this particular one was attached to the Baltimare Museum of Technology.

I was starting to get used to patting down the still warm and bloody corpses of raiders…or so I thought until I started to get queasy. At the very least I was able to keep my stomach contents down so as minimal as it was it was still progress. We scrounged up an assortment of ammunition, chems, caps and two healing potions. We decided not to take their weapons because they were all practically broken.

“Alright, let’s head in there and get what we need. Stay alert though, I’m willing to bet there are more raiders inside.” Sunny said as we made our way into the Museum. The stairs down led to a decently sized landing with two kiosks for tourist information on either side. There were sets of stairs leading further down on either side of the railing. Suspended above the stairs was a most peculiarly shaped, rotor-propelled flying contraption that looked like it was made of peppermint. It was hanging vertically, only one of its support cables holding it aloft.

“What the hell is that thing?” Sunny asked, stifling a giggle.

I walked up to the edge of the landing and wiped the dust off of the information plaque and began reading out loud.


“This flying contraption was invented by Minister Pinkamena Diane Pie more than a decade before Equestria’s industrial revolution. Dubbed the ‘GriffinChaser MK.1’ it was powerful enough to carry one pony up into the clouds with a single propeller powered by four pedals. It is an important piece of technological history as it shows the engineering prowess of a single earth pony and what they can do with extremely limited resources. Today it remains a proud symbol of Equestria’s technological fortitude and gives us hope for our future.”


“That thing flew? And was pedal powered? Kinda makes you wonder how we didn’t win the war.” Sunny said.

“We did.” Slipknot added. “Unfortunately so did they.”

“You’re right about that.” I said dryly, looking out a window at the devastated Baltimare skyline.

I would have loved to see the museum in its heyday. All the displays of technology from the ancient times all the way up to the war. From ancient amulets enchanted with magic from a hundred unicorns, to an early prototype of arcane-technology in the form of the first PipBuck. Unfortunately many of the display cases and exhibits had been broken into and pillaged long ago. Only the metal information plaques remained to enlighten me to their once prized contents. Which boded poorly for our search. I hoped that the raiders were clueless to its value and left it alone.

Slipknot let out a long whistle. “This place is absolutely trashed.”

“I’d venture that this was one of the first places looted when the dust settled. I know I would have if I could’ve.” I said, my gaze transfixed on the tiny screen on my leg. “What wing do you suppose it’s in?”

“I don’t think we’ll be finding it here.” Sunny said quietly.

“I know that’s why I was asking…what…wing.” My mouth hung open in disbelief. Siting in a large, raised exhibit was the destroyed remains of the spark generator. The damage wasn’t old, in fact it looked as though the raiders, whenever they occupied this place, had been using it for target practice.

“How…how could they? Those idiots!”

“Keep your voice down Harbinger, let’s get out of here before more raiders show up.” Slipknot whispered, motioning back to the stairs we came down. I sighed and turned to join them towards the way we came when I saw a bit of inspiration. On the wall next to the stairs we came in on were directional arrows pointing to the other wings. The one I saw that gave me renewed hope was the one that read ‘Stable-Tec Stable Exhibit’

“Guys look!” I pointed my hoof excitedly at the sign. “There’s still a chance we won’t leave here emptyhoofed.”

“Get real Harbinger, what are the odds there’s a second generator here.”

“I worked in a stable for years Slipknot. To the best of my knowledge they couldn’t power one without a spark generator.”

“Yeah but there isn’t a stable in here genius, it’s a display.”

“I say it’s worth a look.”

“We don’t have time for this. Sunny was it? What do you think?”

Sunny looked at me, then the sign, then back to me. “I trust his judgement. If he says there’s a generator there, then there’s a generator there.” She gave me a little wink and smile.

I smiled back the best ‘thank you’ smile I could muster.

“I don’t believe this. Fine. Lead the way then Harbinger.” Slipknot said deflated.

I think I hit the nail right on the head with that idea because as we got closer, several hostile markers showed up on my EFS. Did that mean the demonstration stable was still livable? Either way we were going to have to fight to get there. We walked through the threshold of the stable door and into an exact replica of a stable’s hallway. The lights were still on and bright. This place was surreal. Stable 71 was like an eerie clone of my stable but this? I could close my eyes and visualize the hallways filled with ponies and suddenly I was home. As we got further in that comparison started to fade. It was clear that raiders called this place home. There was trash littered all over the floors and mutilated pony remains hanging from the ceiling on hooks. The smell in the hallway was making me gag.

“Glad what’s left of my nose don’t smell too good anymore.” Slipknot whispered as he saw my reaction. We turned around a corner and encountered another display of ‘Wasteland Art’. Nailed to the wall was the bisected corpse of a mare. Up and to the left was her front half and down to the right was her back half, still connected to each other by her intestines. I remembered how I thought I was getting used to gory scenes like this as I puked up everything I had in my stomach.

“Luna’s sake Harbinger! Keep it together.”

“What the fuck was that!?” I heard someone yell from around the corner. A look at my EFS showed two red markers heading towards us.

“They’re coming, that way.” I said weakly, pointing to the corner where they were coming from. Slipknot and Sunny crept up along the wall just before the corner. I didn’t even get a chance to see what they looked like before Slipknot plunged a knife into one’s throat. He went down to the floor with Slipknot on top, thrashing and gurgling as they fell. The second one had no time to react as he rounded the corner and Sunny jumped over Slipknot and grabbed the raider’s head between her hooves and viciously slammed it against the wall. His legs were twitching slightly as his body slumped against the wall, a small trail of blood running down it. Slipknot stood up from the raider he knifed and looked at the one against the wall. Blood was leaking pretty steadily from his left temple. “I don’t think you killed him Sunny. Look at his eyes.”

Sunny didn’t respond and walked past the both of them down the hall. I quickly followed behind her, remembering her advice about raiders. It was easier for me to just ignore him and let him bleed out. He wasn’t a pony, he was an animal…right? The demonstration stable was much bigger than I thought it would be, granting even more likelihood that there was a spark generator, even if it was just a small one.

“Where do we go from here?” Sunny asked, looking back at me.

“I don’t know, this place isn’t laid out like a normal stable. We’re just gonna have to keep looking.”

“Fine by me.” She said, kicking the little lever under her battle saddle that loaded it.

I was surprised at the lack of raiders in here, as the décor would suggest they were indeed living here. Aside from the ones outside and two patrolling the halls there was not much resistance. Which was made even better when we reached a door with a sign marked ‘Employees Only’. If that wasn’t the spot responsible for powering the demo stable then I don’t know where we would have to look. The inside of the room was laid out pretty sloppily, at least compared to my stable, with the spark generator being the most prominent thing in the room. With a raider mare in a scavenged suit of Steel Ranger power armor, minus a helmet, seated atop it like a throne.

“Now just what the hell do we have here? To what do I owe the pleasure of a fucking home invasion” As she spoke, two raiders I didn’t see on either side of the door trained their guns on us.

The mare atop the throne made little circular gestures with her hoof, urging one of us to speak.

“I…um…we are here for the spark generator.” I said quietly.

“The spark what?”

“Um…your throne.” As I spoke I could hear the sound of movement behind me. I looked back to see that the two guard ponies had taken the weapons from Slipknot and Sunny.

“Aha ha ha! You want my throne!? Tell you what small fry, if the three of you can beat me, Skullsplitter! In a hoof-fight then you can take whatever you want.”

“You’re not really giving us a choice are you?” Slipknot asked sarcastically.

“Don’t be ridiculous ghoulie, of course you have a choice. Either fight me or I can have my boys here paint my hallway with your brains. Your choice though, no pressure.”

“So our choices are die or die struggling.” Sunny reaffirmed.

Our host nodded and smiled like a child opening a new toy.

“Well then.” Sunny started. “Game on!” Sunny lunged faster than I’d ever seen her move before, laying a heavy hit across Skullsplitter’s face. She staggered back a bit, smiling darkly. She wiped the blood trickling out the corner of her mouth off and laughed.

“Got some fight in ya huh? This’ll be fun!” She yelled, going for a wide hit, which Sunny ducked. Her armored hoof hit the wall so hard it left a huge dent. Any hit from her was going to be painful and at worst, fatal.

“C’mon!” Slipknot ran to help Sunny, waving for me to follow. Slipknot jumped to try and hit her in the only place she was exposed. Skullsplitter batted him to the side where he collided hard against the wall. I had a small opening with which I used to fire a lightning bolt at her. The bolt hit her in the middle of her chest…to no effect.

“Haha! Nice try horn head! You ain’t getting through this armor that easy!” she laughed. She started charging at me, barreling over Sunny in the process. She closed the gap between us in a flash, picked me up and threw me across the room where I hit a row of lockers. All the air was knocked out of my lungs and the pain made it hard to draw new breath. I had spots in my vision and it was getting harder to keep my eyes open. I looked up at the lockers I hit to see two of the locker doors dented in and one of the locker handles was red with blood…my blood. Skullsplitter picked me up again and pinned me against the lockers.

“Not a whole lot of fight in you it seems, how disappointing.”

“Guess again bitch!” Slipknot ran up behind her and smashed a chair over her head. She growled in pain and kicked him in the chest with one of her rears hooves. He flew across the room and hit his back against a maintenance desk. She looked at his crumpled form and laughed as he started coughing up copious amounts of whatever constituted his blood. She turned her attention back to me with a hoof ready to shatter my skull. I remembered a similar situation like this I was in and did now what I did then. I backhanded her with my PipBuck leg using all of my remaining strength. The edge of the screen caught her hard in the eye, causing it to burst in her eye socket. She dropped me, reeling back screaming in pain, clutching her face as blood leaked through her hooves. I chuckled to myself, satisfied with the damage I was able to inflict. Sunny made it back to her hooves only to receive a heavy hit right in her muzzle. She fell back, hitting the floor with all her weight as Skullsplitter took a position over her.

“You fuckers are gonna pay for this. I’m gonna kill you slow but first I’m gonna kill your friends.”

I saw Sunny’s eyes open with a cruel look in them.

“Sunny…No…remember who you are.” I was in too much pain, I didn’t have the strength to yell. I saw the look on Sunny’s face turn into the one I saw when Red Asphalt was turned into paste. Downpour was back. Downpour drew from a well of strength she had no right to have and head-butted Skullsplitter, causing her to back off so Downpour could get back to her hooves.

“There’s a fire in you, you cunt. It’ll only make your struggle more pathetic.” Skullsplitter ducked her head low and charged Downpour, hooking a hoof between her forelegs and hind legs, lifting her off the floor and slamming her into the wall. Skullsplitter smiled triumphantly for a moment before she saw Downpour get up like her attack was nothing.

“You’re the one who’s going to suffer.” I heard Downpour say quietly.

“W-what are you!?” Skullsplitter shouted fearfully.

“You should have worn the helmet!” Sunny yelled at the top of her lungs and she darted forward, swept Skullsplitter’s front legs out from under her, and wildly clamped her teeth down on her throat. In one swift yank, the whole of Skullsplitter’s windpipe was ripped out of her neck and thrown across the room. Blood dribbled down Downpour’s mouth and neck, as she wore a haunting expression of sadistic glee. Skullsplitter grasped at her throat, drenching the floor in her blood. I didn’t know how she was going to die first, from blood loss or drowning. The two ponies at the door wasted no time with their retaliation.

“Boss!” One of them cried, worry obvious in her voice. Downpour switched her attention to them, eyes fueled by a madness that only death would satisfy. The two started unloading their guns at her. The shots she couldn’t dodge she tanked like she didn’t even feel them. She threw her body at the first one, smashing her body against the door. Downpour snatched the gun out of the guard’s mouth and turned on the second guard. Firing three rounds in succession into the guards head, splitting it like a melon. She quickly ran over to me and vigorously shoved a healing potion into my mouth. I eagerly downed the warm liquid and got to my hooves.

“Thanks Downpour.” I said as I ran past her to check on Slipknot.

I pulled out a healing potion as fast as I could and prepared to force it down his throat when he stopped me.

“Save it kid.” He started weakly. “Back’s busted, I ain’t gonna make it.”

“The hell you are. Sunn- Fuck! Downpour! Grab the spark generator and let’s get out of here!” Downpour was rifling through the guards corpses, gathering the weapons they took from us. She threw me my pistol and I caught it in my magic.

“Grab the what?” She asked with a raised brow.

“The throne!” I yelled pointing to the improvised throne. “Detach it from the base, take it with you and follow me.” I used my magic to gently lift Slipknot onto my back. I ran out the door and started down the hallway when the lights went off and were replaced by the sporadic placements of the spinning orange emergency lights. I could hear the heavy hoofsteps of Downpour behind me. After we ran back into the museum proper, all I could hear was our hurried hoofsteps and fast breathing. I was moving so fast, my only thought was getting Slipknot back to the hospital. In a flash we were back on the monorail line.

“Hehe…you said…you weren’t a hero…but look at you…”

“Save your energy *pant* Slipknot I’ll *pant* have you back at the *pant* hospital in no time.”

“You might not…think of yourself as…a hero…your friend too…I know I do right now.”

We had just made it down of the monorail line and back into the streets of the Baltimare ruins.

“You’ll be the hero…they say you are…in no time…Harbinger.”

“Please don’t *pant* call me that *pant* my name *pant* is Sparks.”

“Hehe…Sparks…thank you.”

I felt his body go fully slack.

“No…No no no!” I put every shred of strength I had into my legs and kept pushing my body as hard as I could. Soon the hospital was all that dominated my sight. I galloped through the lobby, ignoring the pain I felt from the shards of glass embedding themselves in the bottom of my hooves and carefully ducked into the path in the rubble. I ignored the ghouls inside talking and in some cases screaming at what just ran through the room. I mounted the stairs to where we met Dr. Scalpel and started yelling.

“Dr. Scalpel! Dr. Scalpel! Help!” She came running from a back room with a concerned look on her face.

“What’s with all the…Oh Celestia.” She whispered when she saw Slipknot across my back. “Follow me, quickly!” She led me around the corner and into an operating room and I levitated Slipknot on to the bed. I heard the sound of hooves behind me and saw two other ghouls walk in with tray on wheels with assorted surgical tools on it.

“I’ll take it from here, get out.”

I nodded and went back to the waiting room area and sat down. I sat staring at my hooves for a good while before Downpour found me.

“You know, for a place full of zombies you’d think they’d be used to seeing somepony with blood all over their mouth, hehe.”

I looked up and glared at her.

“Ok, I gotcha, not in the mood.” She held her hooves up in defeat, then sat down beside me.

“What did you do with the generator Downpour?”

“The heavy ass box thing you made me haul across the city? I dumped it in the big room with the other ghouls.”

I sighed in relief, at least something good came from the trip.

“Let me ask you something stable-colt, I didn’t expect to see you around my sister again after we met. So why? What do you see in her?”

Nothing about this situation was normal, having two separate relationships with the same pony.

“Sunny saved me once when I was in trouble. So I stuck with her for a bit to repay her. In that time I started to look at her as a friend. That was before I met you and I wasn’t going to abandon my friend because of you.” That was especially true now that I knew she was willing to sacrifice her life for my own for reasons that still eluded me.

“You’re alright stable-colt. I didn’t like you at first but I can feel how fond my sister is of you and you seem to be keeping her safe enough that I don’t have to step in. In fact, she let me out to kill that tin can bitch to protect you. I don’t know how much she talks about me but willingly letting me out? She’s never done that before. I want you to know how much she cares for you and that I hope you return the sentiment. Otherwise…” She drew a line across her throat with her hoof, comically sticking her tongue out.

I never thought I’d see Downpour like this. I thought of her as nothing more than an aggressive beast. Yet here she was opening both her and Sunny’s heart, so to speak. Maybe she wasn’t as bad as I thought she was.

“Downpour…I…” I turned to face her to see that she had fallen asleep in the chair. I looked at the clock on my PipBuck and saw that it had been almost an hour since we got back. I laid back in my own chair and closed my eyes.

I was prodded awake by something pointy. I opened my eyes and saw Grim standing over me, his wing wrapped in bandages. As I sat up I saw Dr. Scalpel standing behind him. I jumped to my hooves and approached her.

“Slipknot…is he…?”

She nodded sadly. “He didn’t make it.”

My whole body slumped as I returned to my chair, my head in my hooves.

“There was nothing you could have done.” Dr. Scalpel said, placing a hoof on my back. “Don’t blame yourself for this, thank you for bringing him back.”

“The generator is down in the main room.” I didn’t want to talk about Slipknot’s death. I stood up and positioned myself by the stairs down. “Grim, wake up Downpour and let’s go.”

Grim’s face wrinkled into a frown. “She came out again?”

I nodded. “She shouldn’t bother us too much this time though.” I didn’t bother mentioning what she said to me. I just wanted to leave the Mortuary, its name actually seemed appropriate now and at the same time depressing.

“We can’t leave yet.” Grim said. Wrapping his good wing around me and turning me around. “I got to talking with Dr. Scalpel and she has something to show us.” He turned back to her, as if looking for permission to continue. To which she nodded back.

I shook Downpour awake, even if Sunny wasn’t here she should still see whatever Grim was talking about. She woke up with a yawn, rubbing her eyes. “What happened?” She asked.

“Downpour?”

“How long has it been?”

Sunny was back in control. Downpour must have relinquished control after we finished talking, that’s why she fell asleep. At least that made sense to me at the time.

“C’mon Sunny, we’ll talk about it later. Dr. Scalpel has something to show us.”

We all followed her down the same hallway I carried Slipknot through. We passed the very room I left him in. I looked in and saw a sheet draped over the hospital bed, the obvious outline of a body underneath it. I recoiled away from the sight and tried my best to put it out of my mind. We arrived at a similar looking operating room with another body covered by a dirty sheet. Dr. Scalpel walked to the side of the bed, carefully took the sheet in her teeth and pulled it away.

“Is…is that a bleeder?” Sunny asked.

A red flag was raised in my head. “Why is this here? HOW did you get it here?”

Dr. Scalpel shook her head. “Doesn’t matter how I got it here. What does matter is what I learned about them. I don’t know what this means…but have a look yourself.”

She carefully pulled back the top of its skull and showed us its brain. She wasn’t wrong, I had no clue what this was supposed to mean. Its brain was very clearly altered by somepony else. Bits and pieces here and there were removed and replaced with bits of tech. On top of it all, imbedded in the frontal lobe was a device that was glowing slightly. It worried me as it looked like a memory orb.

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know…but one things for sure, they aren’t natural. Something out there is creating them.”

Dr. Scalpel was kind enough to lend us what supplies she could as we set back out on our search for the Lone Wolf. Fortunately there was some radiation medicine in with it, I guess they couldn’t use it after all. I got to thinking about the bleeders. Sunny said that they had only been appearing in the last few years which ruled out some kind of pre-war mad science. Somepony or ponies who were still alive and active were littering the wastes with abominations in pony’s bodies. Maybe that was something we could investigate after I rescued my family, I’ve already taken too many detours as it was. I put in my ear bloom, hoping to find some kind of clue to locating the Lone Wolf. The signal quality was getting better so we were getting closer.

“So what happened at the museum?” Grim asked out of the blue.

“You mean how did Slipknot die?” I said evenly, cutting through to the real question.

“Uhh…yeah, I guess so.”

“We walked right into a trap. A raider in power armor jumped us and he died trying to help me.”

The look on Grim’s face became sad and forlorn. “Sorry for asking, I didn’t mean to upset you. I know what it’s like to have someone you care about die because of you.”

“Oh…I’m sorry Grim. Who did you lose?”

“I…I lost my little sister. Remember when I said I used to be a Talon merc? We were hired to take out one of the last slaver compounds in Whinnyapolis. My sister was stabbed with a knife coated in some kind of poison. Because the Talons don’t normally employ any kind of medics she didn’t survive the poisoning. There was nothing I could do to help her and she died in my arms.”

“Grim…I…I’m so-”

“Don’t be sorry for me Sparks. It was her death that inspired me to give up fighting as a merc and pick up medicine. It’s also why I left my home. Our Father took it just as hard as I did and when I told him I was leaving to be a medic he opposed me, said I should stay with the family. We didn’t part on good terms and that why I came down here. To distance myself. So don’t blame yourself for what happened. If there was nothing you could have done then there was nothing you could have done. All you can do now is learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.”

He was right, Slipknot’s death was out of my control. I just had to do better next time. I didn’t want anypony dying for me or because of me. I had to be stronger, I would be stronger.

We continued forward on our path as the sun started its decent below the horizon. We passed an old supermarket that had mostly been torn down. It looked like its walls had been ripped off to be taken and reused elsewhere. The only other thing of note was the bulletin board on the ground just by the doors. Most of the text had been worn away by time but a little bit could still be read.


Equestria’s coal supply has been cut off indefinitely in light of the Cataclysm that destroyed the Badlands. It has been universally agreed that the Cataclysm was a result of the Changeling Insurgency and Zebra forces. Further investigation shows…’


That was all that I could read. Suddenly I was vividly remembering what I saw in that one memory orb. I was an Equestrian soldier in the Badlands, or rather I was a changeling pretending to be a soldier. When I was captured I remembered seeing a changeling and a zebra looking at a map of all the megaspell silos in the Badlands. They had mentioned their ultimate plan. Were the Zebras so zealous that they would destroy an entire country? Over coal? I had some pieces to this puzzle but the rest would have to wait, if they ever appeared at all.

We didn’t have to travel much further to find out where the wood from the supermarket had been used. We made it to a large high voltage tower that had been turned into a makeshift building about three stories high. There were a few ponies patrolling around the perimeter with two spotlights scanning the area around the base of the structure. I saw several cages strewn about the area. The three of us crouched low and hid behind a crashed sky carriage.

“Safe bet says that’s the place.” I said quietly.

Grim made a ball with his claw. “Either way this looks like some kind of slaver op, I say we take it down regardless.”

As if on cue a pony stallion came out of the building, opened a nearby cage, pulled out an earth pony filly and took her back inside with him. Not ten seconds later did I hear the sound of the Lone Wolf coming through my ear bloom. “Welcome fillies and gentlecolts to another broadcast of the Lone Wolf Radio!”

“This is definitely the place, we’re going in guys and we’re going in hot!” Grim, Sunny and I didn’t need any more motivation and bolted out of cover, guns at the ready and started picking targets. After the first gunshot I heard the Lone Wolf start talking again.

“Seems like we have to address some hate mail. Sit tight sweetheart, I’ll be right back.” Grim and Sunny were methodically clearing the left and right sides of the building with killer efficiency while I ran right up the middle. The first floor of the structure contained only one mare who had obviously just been woken up by the fighting. She was in the middle of trying to put on her armor when she saw me and fired a sloppy shot in my direction with the pistol in her mouth. As she stumbled around, I seized her with my telekinesis, and threw her out the window. I didn’t stop to see how she landed and continued to the next floor. The second floor was entirely clear. I didn’t find any more opposition until I reached the last door that led to the third floor. Standing in front of it was the stallion who brought the filly inside. Seeing him up close was almost disheartening as he was a much bulkier pony than he looked from a distance. I refused to lose any momentum regardless of my foe as I charged up the stairs with the door just within my reach. I shot him with as strong a lightning bolt as I could manage which made his muscles seize up tightly. I remembered the pistol in my magical grasp and shot the big pony three times, twice in the chest, and once in the head. He slumped against the door, dead before he hit the floor. I struggled to push his corpse out of the way so I could open the door.

I took one step into the room and was viciously slashed across the chest with an improvised knife. The pain broke my concentration and my pistol was enveloped in another magical aura and thrown out the window. The room had very little inside it, a bed in the corner, a table in the middle and a ragtag tech setup for the radio. Sat in a chair in front of me was a larger than average unicorn stallion wearing an extremely dirty, faded suit and a monocle. I didn’t notice too many of the ghouls in the Mortuary with hair, so it must have been rare for a ghoul to have some. He had a light blue mane and fancy moustache. He was holding the filly in his lap with the knife held to her throat.

“You know it’s rude to barge in somepony’s home without an invitation.”

I moved as fast as I could to try and tackle him when I bounced off a magical shield.

“Now now, you shouldn’t try that again. I’d hate to deprive my listeners of story time.” He said cruelly, pressing the knife against the filly’s skin.

“Help me!” she cried, choking back tears.

“Stop! Don’t hurt her! Please.” I pleaded, getting back to my hooves.

“Stay tuned listeners, we’re going to have to go to commercial for a bit, I’ll be back after I deal with this muckraker.” He fiddled with a few buttons and dials at his radio console.

“Do you object to what I’m doing?” He asked, with look like he was genuinely surprised that somepony would dare try and stop him.

“Of course I do! What kind of monster murders children?”

“What kind of monsters allowed the world to be reduced to such a state? I’ll tell you who. Ponies. We had our chance with this world and we destroyed it and for what? Resources? Zealous fear-mongering?”

“So what? You would condemn an entire species for a past that nopony alive could have prevented?”

“Even if we survive to rebuild, we will only destroy it again. We prided ourselves on our tolerance and kindness but look what happened. Look how hateful we became. Look at the world we created, the world we deserve.”

“And who the hell are you to tell the world they can’t be better!? That we can’t rise above what was left for us!? I won’t give up like you did.”

“Ah…I see…You’re obviously an important pony to know.” All of a sudden the filly he was holding flung her head back as hard as she could, smacking the Lone Wolf right below his horn. He dropped his knife and tried to grab the filly as she leapt off his lap and ran to the corner of the room. That was my chance, while he was distracted I tackled him out of his chair. We both hit the floor and started scrambling for the knife. I hit him in the stomach as hard as I could and he coughed and grunted in pain, giving me the advantage in getting the knife. I had just picked it up in my magic only to receive a kick in the face. He got to his hooves faster than I could and he kicked me in the face again. He now held the knife in his magic but before he could slash me again, a glass coffee mug exploded against his face. I didn’t question where it came from and tackled him again, this time through the table in the center of the room. He created another shield around himself which pushed me off and away from him. I fell back against the wall and he came at me with the knife in his mouth instead of in his magic. Pure instinct took control of me and I shot him in the chest with a concussive blast of magical energy. He skidded back on his hooves and did not fall.

He snarled angrily and picked up anything he could with his telekinesis and started pelting me with a myriad of objects. A full can of sliced apples hit me right in the teeth and split my gums. As the objects continued to rain down on me, he lunged at me and brought the knife down. The knife, now that I saw it up close, was carved out of another unicorn’s horn. I brought up my forelegs to cover my face and the knife pierced right through my right leg. I yelled through my teeth as he twisted the knife deeper into my flesh. I didn’t know how well ghouls anatomically held up over time but hoped it was enough as I thrust out a kick to his crotch. He hunched over in agony as I got back to my hooves. I stood up as tall as I could on my rear legs and brought my front hooves down as hard as I could on his back. The Lone Wolf collapsed onto the floor under my attack. I excruciatingly pulled the knife out of my leg and drove it into the center of his back. His dry scream was horrible to listen to. He tied to stand only to fall back against his radio console. He smiled and looked at me through half lidded eyes as he pulled the knife out of his back.

“This is the only thing I have left to remember my wife.” He said, looking at the knife sadly. “Killing me won’t change a thing. The Wasteland is just waiting to mold another pony like me. Anypony can fall, everypony has their breaking point and somepony will take my place.” He looked at me with a challenging stare.

“Not if I can help it!” I countered. I let my anger flow through me. The Lone Wolf was surrounded by my magical aura, confined within a bubble shield. I put my all into the spell as the shield started to shrink. I closed my eyes and channeled all of my power into making the shield shrink around its occupant. I ignored the screams of fear and agonizing pain, the only sound I could hear was the smashing of bones and ripping of flesh. My head started to throb from the effort. I opened my eyes and saw the bright glow of my horn illuminating the room. My shield had shrunk to the size of a buckball, filled with a black and greenish-red mulch and my horn was glowing with three enveloping layers of aura. I grunted through my teeth as I tried to move the ball out the window. I gritted my teeth as I reached my limit and magical feedback exploded out from my horn disrupting my spell. All the gore contained in my shield erupted into its full amount, spilling a corpse load of bloody chunks and bone fragments onto the ground outside. I was unable to open my eyes due to the skull splitting pain in my head. My vision started to get blurry. I saw the shadowy form of the filly run from the corner to my side.

“Please don’t die! Help me! Somepony help!” The edges of my vision began to fade to black and the feeling of oblivion took me.

When I opened my eyes my again I was resting in the bed in the corner of the room. Grim and Sunny were in the room now, fiddling with the Lone Wolf’s radio set up. On Sunny’s back was the filly I had saved. Now that she wasn’t in danger I was able to finally get a good look at her. Her coat was white and her mane and tail were three different colors: pink, turquoise, and light blue blended together. She looked like a tiny Princess Celestia. The look on her face was heartbreaking. She was looking at the floor like she was barely holding back tears. She must have noticed that I was awake because her eyes grew to the size of saucers and her smile was brighter than anything I’d seen in the Wasteland.

“You’re awake!” She squealed, jumping down from Sunny’s back and trotting to the side of the bed. She stood up on her hind legs and propped her forelegs on the bed. Her smile quickly faded away.

“A-are you from the Shipyard?”

Grim and Sunny made their way over to the bed with her.

“Of course not sweetie, we came to rescue you.” Grim said, trying to put on his best reassuring smile.

“Really? But…where am I supposed to go?”

“I suppose you’re going to come with us.” I said as I pushed myself out of bed. On the radio console I saw my pistol that one of them must have recovered. I tried to use my magic to levitate it to me but instead it felt like a drill was piercing my brain from the base of my horn. The sudden pain made me scream and I fell back onto the bed.

“Whoa whoa, take it easy Sparks. You pushed yourself too hard, you suffered a magical burnout. You’re going to have to go without magic for a while.”

“Great…” I whispered through clenched teeth. I carefully got out of the bed again and looked down on the filly. “So, what’s your name princess?”

“My name? It’s Aurora Dawn.”

“Well Aurora, my name is Sparks. These are my friends, Grim and Sunny.” They each did a little nod as I said their name.

She shrunk a little under their gazes but still gave a shy wave. “N-nice to meet you.”

We all gathered what we could take and made our way down and out. Aurora passed me an old lunchbox. “I found this under the bed. There’s three glass balls in it, I don’t know what they’re for.”

I opened the box and true to her word there were three memory orbs inside, each labeled and with a corresponding note as well. The horn knife that the Lone Wolf used was also inside. I placed the box in my saddlebags, unsure about taking the knife. “Thank you Aurora, I’ll check these out later.” Or maybe I wouldn’t. Something told me that the memories of the Lone Wolf wouldn’t be fun to see.

We were about halfway to the Naval Academy when Grim slowly approached me and started to whisper. “What are we going to do with the kid? We can’t take her with us.”

“I know that Grim. I have an idea of somepony who can take care of her but until we are done with my stable we don’t have time for any detours.”

He nodded and accepted my decision for now.

I was almost thankful for the silence in our travel. I didn’t really know how to talk to a child and Sunny and Grim were talking amongst themselves in the rear. Aurora trotted up beside me, looking really nervous. “So…um…Mr. Sparks?”

“What is it Aurora?”

“Mr. Sparks…can I…um…stay with you?”

I immediately froze in my tracks so abruptly that Sunny and Grim ran into me. When we rescued her I hadn’t planned on adopting anypony. I looked down at Aurora and gave the world’s most unconvincing smile. I couldn’t be responsible for a filly, not out here.

“Uhh…no Aurora I… I don’t think so.” I said softly.

“Oh…ok…sorry…” Her head hung a little lower than before but she kept walking forward.

“Sparks…that was a little…”

“A little what Grim? Mean? I can’t take care of a child out here. Did you want me to lie to her, only to give her away later and make it that much more painful?”

“I’m just saying you have to be careful with children, sometimes it’s more noble to tell a small lie than to deliver a painful truth.”

Out here there were only painful truths. Better she learn that now.

By the end of the day we had made it back to The Naval Academy. Knights Flint and Freesia were still guarding the gate. Or at least that’s who I hoped was inside those metal suits.

“Look whose back.” Freesia said, presumably smiling under her helmet. “Any luck out there?”

I sat down and removed Paladin Sureshot’s dog tags from around my neck and held them out for them.

Knight Flint sighed. “I suppose we should have known this is what happened. Thank you for recovering these. It means a great deal to us.”

“It was the least I could do.” It was the only thing I could do.

“Elder Lions is busy at the moment but our proposal did reach him. He authorized us to give you this.” Flint held out some kind of device that looked like a modified PipBuck. “Plug this in to the door console and it should override the security for a short time. When you have concluded your business, please do come back. Even though he is busy now, the Elder expressed an interest in meeting you.”

“Of course, thank you. Thank you so much.” Freesia and Flint nodded to me as we turned around and made our way back home. My home. I don’t even remember the trip back to Stable 63. I was on a mission and nothing was going to stop me. Everything up until we reached the tunnel went by like a blur. I looked at the wooden door in front of me and then at the device in my hoof. “I’m coming home.”

I threw open the door and ran down into the tunnel with genuine smile on my face, my friends quickly following after me. When I got to the main door I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing. Grim and Sunny walked up beside me, their shocked expressions matched mine. Aurora took a few steps ahead of us looking puzzled. “What’s wrong? It’s just an open door.”


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Gunslinger – Through constant use, while using a pistol of any kind your chance to hit increases by 10%

Chapter Ten: To Chase an Illusion

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Chapter Ten: To Chase an Illusion

“All it takes is one little mistake, to create a cavalcade of despair.”

“Hellooooo wastelanders! It’s your favorite disc jockey DJ Pon3! What’s a disc? Well it’s a round…never mind. Let’s get to what you ponies really want…the news. To you ponies out there who were doubtful or even dismissive of the existence of the Harbinger of Hope, well my little ponies does DJ Pon3 got a story for you. I’m proud to report that the good ol’ Harbinger of Hope saw it in his heart to help out the poor Ghoulies in the hospital they call the Mortuary. There’s a lesson to be learned here for all you listeners out there. Not that you shouldn’t have listened to ol’ DJ pon3 to begin with. The lesson is that ghouls are worth your time. You see, ghouls are simply ponies who had the misfortune of absorbing a massive amount of radiation and didn’t die. I know they look like the zombie ponies out of those old Sword Mares comic books but I assure you that their hearts and souls are still very much pony. So I tip my hat to you Harbinger, you are doing great things over there and I hope you continue to fight the good fight. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.”

The giant steel door of Stable sixty-three was wide open. I walked forward across the threshold, mouth agape in pure disbelief.

“No…how could this happen? No…No no no!!” I lost all semblance of caution or self-preservation and galloped into the stable.

“Sparks wait!” I heard somepony call out behind me.

I didn’t recognize who yelled as I made a mad dash through the corridors deeper into my home. The first place of note I found was the security headquarters. The door hissed open as I approached and I brashly threw myself into the room.

“Summer!? Summer where are you!?” I looked around at empty workstations and desks. I could hear my heartbeat thundering in my ears. I anxiously brought up my PipBuck and checked my E.F.S. The compass was gone off my PipBuck. It was still there but it didn’t show the directions or any function it was supposed to. Something was blocking the Eyes Forward Sparkle spell. I dashed back out into the hallway and could hear the far off sound of hooves on metal, probably my friends trying to find me. I didn’t have the patience to wait for them as I took off down another hallway, heading full speed to my quarters. The fact that I hadn’t seen anypony thus far didn’t dissuade me at all from seeing it with my own eyes. My door flew open and I barreled into my room, falling over my bed and landing on the other side. I jumped back to my hooves like a pony possessed and looked around the empty room.

“Winter!!!” I called into the metal confines of my stable. I could feel my voice reverberating off the walls which only accentuated the loneliness. It was clear to me at this point there was nopony left in the stable but nothing could stop me from checking every important room anyway. I sat down sadly in the doorway of my mother’s quarters, my ears falling back against my head.

“W-where is everypony?” I remembered why I wanted to save everypony to begin with and suddenly got very angry.

“They wouldn’t.” I said to myself as I set off toward the Overmare’s office. I burst into the room with one goal in mind. I sat in front of the Overmare’s terminal and tried in vain to open the secret elevator to the lower labs. Somepony had changed the access method to open the way. I screamed in frustration and put my hoof through the screen of the terminal, bits of glass biting into my flesh. I sat there for several minutes trying to comprehend what could have happened here when Sunny and Grim found me, the both of them breathing heavily. Aurora was holding on to Sunny’s neck looking equally concerned, even though she didn’t know why.

“They’re gone…they’re all gone…” I whispered, pulling my bloody hoof out of the terminal’s guts.

“Who’s gone? What are we doing here?” Aurora asked. I almost gave her an angry stare when I stopped and thought for a moment. The inside of the stable was too clean for something to have attacked the stable or foalnapped its populace. Stable Seventy-one had its occupant’s foalnapped and there were signs of struggle everywhere. Maybe there was still hope for my family.

“Do you think they escaped?” I asked.

Sunny nodded. “It’s pretty likely. If they were attacked or forcibly removed then we should see some kind of damage, blood or something.”

“I think she’s right.” Grim added. “The cleanliness of the stable as a whole suggests they left on their own accord.”

I was starting to calm down even as a new calling made its way to the forefront of my mind. If the ponies of my stable were anything like me then they would find the first place I found.

“Catch your breath guys, we’re heading back to Black Town.”

I checked my map and made a straight line path towards Black Town. As we trotted along towards our destination I could hear the distant sound of gunfire ahead of us. My immediate thought was that if a group of stable ponies were being attacked by…well anypony, they’d be an easy target. I looked back at my companions and their expressions seemed to follow what it was we needed to do. I looked at Aurora on Sunny’s back and my expression turned to worry.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.” The look in Sunny’s eyes told me that she would do whatever it took to keep Aurora safe. I trusted her to protect the child as we kicked it into high gear and galloped towards the fray. As we crested a small hill we saw a small compliment of guards in a firefight with about twenty ponies. I recognized the one-eyed guard mare from Black Town in the back commanding her ponies against what looked like raiders, if their scrap work armor was any indicator. I took in a deep breath and steeled myself for a fight. I thought about what Grim told me about the slavers. Okay…they’re not ponies they’re monsters, don’t think twice, and don’t hesitate. Do whatever it takes. I struggled to reach around and grab my pistol in my mouth. I nodded back to Grim and Sunny as I started charging down the hill. We had a small advantage in flanking the raider gang as their attention was solely on the Black Town guards. Before they even knew we were there three raiders were felled by our combined gunfire. Unfortunately our advantage was quickly lost as several of the raiders turned towards us and started firing up the hill. We were easy targets as we had nowhere to go but further down the hill. Bits of dirt and dust were kicked up as bullets hit all around us. I felt a few hit me in the chest, being absorbed by my armor but still knocking the wind out of me. Just as I thought I was about to make it to the bottom I felt a bullet hit my right shin. My leg gave out from under me and I hit the ground hard, rolling the rest of the way down the hill. By the time I hit the bottom, I had scratched up my flanks pretty good and firmly planted my face against the dirt several times. I could just barely hear the gunshots through the ringing in my ears. I felt something warm running down my nose and mouth, a quick prod with my tongue brought me the irony taste of blood. I felt Grim wrap his claws around me and screech painfully as I saw he lifted me off the ground and carried me to cover. Our landing behind a large rock was not smooth as Grim dropped me before hitting the ground himself. I managed to sit myself up against the rock as I heard the sound of hoof steps approaching us. Sunny appeared in front of us, carefully cradling Aurora in her hooves. I could see blood flowing from holes in her duster.

“Grim, take the kid. I won’t be able to fight if I have to take any more hits for her.” She said, downing a healing potion and injecting herself with something I didn't recognize. Aurora hopped to the ground and ran to my side and began digging through my saddlebags. She held a healing potion in her hooves and fervently forced it to me. I took it gladly and chugged it. Grim sat up and motioned for Aurora to come to his side.

“Alright Sunny, Sparks. Get back out there. I’ll stay here and protect Aurora.” His breathing sounded labored, flying to save me on his recovering wing must have taken all his strength.

“Thanks Grim, we’ll be back as soon as we can.” I said, nodding my gratitude to him.

Sunny straightened her hat and kicked the loading lever of her battle saddle and disappeared into the fight. I sighed and prepared to follow her when I heard Aurora call out behind me.

“Be careful Mr. Sparks!” she looked at me with tears in her eyes. I opened my mouth to say something but no words came. I carefully placed my tongue on my gun’s trigger and turned my back on her to reenter the battle. The raiders were hard pressed to find any ground as they now faced a fight from two directions. Even though Sunny and I couldn’t do much on our own, drawing their attention away from the guards while they picked them off was just as good. I was starting to realize how much I relied on my magic as every shot from the pistol in my mouth felt like it was going to shake my teeth out of my skull. With that in mind I wasn’t contributing much to the battle save for flushing a few out of cover, only for them to be killed by the Black Town guard. The guards were starting to move up to clear out the rest of the raiders. The tides were turning in our favor. I was taking cover behind a cart of empty ammo cans surrounded by raider corpses as I took a moment to try and find Sunny in the chaos. I heard the sound of hoof steps again from behind me and when I turned around I caught a baton to the face. The back of my head hit one of the corpses on the ground and my assailant stood over me, ready to hit me again when they dropped the baton in shock. Right at that moment did I notice the pale brown mane and burgundy fur of the mare standing over me.

“Summer? Summer! Its m-” Before I could finish I was pulled into a death hug.

“Sparky! Oh goddesses I can't believe it’s you!”

“Gck! Summer! Ack! Can’t…breathe…” She quickly released me and helped me to my hooves. “You hit me in the face again!”

“I know I’m sorry!” She giggled. From around us the sound of gunfire ceased.

I smiled back at her and shared a small chuckle when the pressing question made its way to the forefront of my mind. “Summer what happened? Why aren’t you in the stable?”

“We evacuated about three days ago. The Overmares wouldn’t tell us why but they said we would all die if we didn’t leave, so we organized a mass exodus to the outside. A lot of the ponies didn’t know what to do or where to go. Most of my ponies left me saying that I wasn’t their chief anymore out here. Lots of us went different directions but the ones who trusted in me followed me and we found Black Town.”

“We? Is…is mother…? And Winter…?”

“Yes. They came with me and are both safe behind Black Town’s walls.”

My heart practically leapt out of my throat. “Please Summer, take me to them.”

“Of course I will Sparks, they’ll be ecstatic to see you.”

I nickered in excitement and pranced around in a little circle when I remembered something important, my friends. I trusted that Sunny could take care of herself but we left Aurora with Grim while he was hurt.

I dropped all of my excitement for worry. “Summer, I need your help, I need to go find my friends.”

“Okay Sparks, what do they look like?”

“There are three of them: One orange mare with a battle saddle and cowpony hat, a grey and black griffin and a white filly.”

“Got it, you go look for them and I’ll tell the others and we’ll get a quick search going.”

“Okay Summer. Thank you.” I said as I ran down into the battlefield. The battle was mostly over at this point. I could hear faint gunshots of the Black Town guard in the distance chasing away the stragglers. Down in the middle I found Sunny standing over a slightly twitching raider. She unsheathed her knife and firmly plunged it into the raider’s chest. I could see behind her a few guards doing the same thing on other raiders that were still alive.

“Sunny have you gone back to check on Grim and Aurora?”

She pulled her knife out of the raider and put it away. “Yeah they’re fine, still behind the rock though. You should go get them, I’m gonna keep cleaning up.”

I nodded and trotted back to where we left them. As I walked around the rock the first thing I heard was a joyful squeak.

“Mr. Sparks! You’re ok!” Aurora squealed as she squirmed her way out of Grim’s grasp and trotted towards me. She hesitated a moment, fidgeting with her hooves before leveling me with an imploring look. I hesitated for a moment also, unsure of what she was expecting from me. Grim saw our mutual hesitation before he mimed a hugging gesture. Aurora was still twiddling her hooves as I knelt down and gave her a gentle hug. She resisted at first, but once she realized what was going on she relaxed and returned the affection. I hoped I was doing the right thing.

“D-did you…kill them?” She asked, letting go of me and looking forward at the corpses bleeding into the dirt.

“I didn’t, not all of them anyway. Are you ok to move Grim?”

“Yeah, it’s my wing that’s messed up. I can still walk. Where’s Sunny?”

“She’s…finishing off survivors.”

“Good.” Grim stood up and carefully flexed his wings.

“You need a potion or something?”

“Nah, I didn’t get wounded or anything. My wing is just unbelievably sore.”

“Hey Summer! These the ones you’re looking for?” A guard called as he poked his head around the rock. A moment later Summer appeared from behind the guard.

“Yeah that’s them. Carry on.” She said to the guard who nodded and walked back toward the killing field.

“Who’s that?” Aurora asked, taking an apprehensive step behind me.

Summer only smiled at her question. “Aren’t you going to introduce us Sparky?”

“Oh…uh yeah. Grim, Aurora this is Summer Blaze my…”

“Sister-in-law.”

“Huh, I didn’t know you had a special someone Sparks.”

“It was one of my strongest motivations to get back into the stable.”

“Makes sense.” Grim walked over to Summer and did an over-the-top bow, unfurling his wings. “Owww… *Ahem* Pleasure to meet you Summer, my name is Grimgrin Talonrend.”

“Any friend of Sparky is a friend of mine.”

Aurora was trying to hide from Summer’s sight behind my legs.

“And what’s your name little one?” Summer approached me and asked Aurora gently.

“Umm…h-hi, my names A-aurora Dawn.”

“That’s a beautiful name sweetheart.”

“We saved her from a ghoul a day or two ago. We don’t…” I didn’t want to lay out my plan for her in front of her. It would be better that way. “Anyway, let’s go get Sunny and head to Black Town. There’s some ponies I need to see.”

We found Sunny pretty much where I left her, smack dab in the middle of the battlefield. She saw my approach, nodded and joined us as we made our way to Black Town.

The streets of Black Town were significantly more frantic than they were the last time I was here. It was clear that the town had been attacked by more than just the gang we wiped out outside. I recognized a few ponies from the stable in almost every position. I saw plenty of guards and others helping to rebuild the damage sustained on the walls. A number of townsponies saw me and suddenly looked to be in better spirit. Some even approached me and thanked me and others were glad I was back to help with their crisis.

“What was all that about?” Summer asked after the last fan returned to their work.

“I…killed a high profile raider boss.”

“I didn’t think you had in in you Sparks, nice work.”

I didn’t tell her that it was a deed based on misinformation and accidental heroism. If Slipknot taught me anything it’s that I would eventually grow into the pony I wanted to be and in time I would become the hero they thought I was.

Then I saw her. Her white coat, her blue mane with pink streaks, her stable barding and PipBuck. I looked back at my friends with a look of joy on my face. Sunny seemed to understand as she stopped Aurora from following me. I was locked on target and galloped towards her. I closed half of the gap between us when she saw my approach. Her eyes lit up like the summer sun celebration as she too galloped towards me. There were no words when we met. She pulled me into a powerful hug which I eagerly returned. I could feel her excited breathing and hear her crying quietly. She broke the hug and startled me with a passionate kiss.

“Sparks, I’m so happy to see you!”

“I’m so glad you’re safe Winter, I couldn’t bear the thought of you in the stable.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a long story but it wasn’t safe in there for you, or anypony.”

“I don’t know about that Sparks, we left our lives behind in the stable…I…I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“We’ll be ok Winter, we can make a life for ourselves out here and most importantly we’re all together again.”

“M-maybe…Where are we going to live? We have nowhere to go.”

“Actually…” I said, remembering that the mayor awarded me a room in the Black Tower for killing Red Asphalt. I winced as I fought through the pain and retrieved the room key from my bags. “We do have a home.”

“Sparky…How-how did you get this?”

“Well, I-”

“Harbinger!” I heard somepony yell. I turned and saw the mayor rushing at me. “Harbinger, I’m glad you’re back.”

“What is it Mayor…Slate?”

“I’m assume you saw the last attack on my city correct?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, it’s not the first. Ever since you killed Red Asphalt we’ve been under attack. Somepony new has been gathering raider clans and has been targeting us relentlessly.”

“So what is it you want from me Mayor?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I want you to kill their leader and scatter this army.”

I was very hesitant to agree but if my family was here I couldn’t just ignore these attacks. The rest of my group caught up to us and overheard the Mayor’s request.

“I’m behind you Sparks.” Grim said with an angry frown. Grim would never miss a chance to kill more raiders. Sunny, on the other hoof simply nodded, saying that whatever I decided she would accept.

“Give me some time to get my affairs in order Mayor, I’ll come find you when my team is ready to go.”

“Very well but try not to dawdle. I don’t know how much more damage my walls can take.” The Mayor trotted into the crowd and disappeared.

“You…killed somepony?” Winter whispered in horror.

“More than one.” I said back, giving her a serious look. “I’ve learned that out here its kill or be killed.”

She shook her head and retaliated with an angry stare of her own. “I’m not letting you leave me again. I just got you back!”

“I know Winter but I don’t have a choice. All the ponies I care about in the world are here. If I don’t fight to protect it, I risk losing it. I won’t allow that to happen.”

Summer walked up and stood by her sister. “What did he call you?”

“Harbinger. It’s a title some DJ gave me.” I felt something brush against my legs. I looked down and saw that Aurora was hiding behind them but still trying to get a look at Winter.

“Sparks? W-who’s this?” Winter asked, looking at her curiously.

“A-are you Mr. Sparks’ special somepony?” Aurora asked, barely finding the courage to look at her.

“Y-yes I am. I love him very much.” And as if those were the magic words Aurora darted out from behind my legs and latched on to Winter’s.

“Can I stay with you?”

“W-what!?” The look on Winter’s face was exactly like mine when she asked me the same question. “Sparks what is she talking about?”

“We saved her from somepony who was going to kill her…her parents are...gone.”

Winter bent down and placed a hoof atop Aurora’s head. The look on Aurora’s face spoke legions of silent pleading. Winter started to tear up and she gave Aurora the biggest hug.

“Of course you can.”

WHAT!?

“Winter…b-but I already had plans to give her-”

“I’ve made up my mind Sparks. I think she’ll be good for us.”

“What does that mean?” I asked only to receive no answer.

“So can…we all be a family?” Aurora looked up at me with a hopeful smile.

“I…I don’t know yet.”

“Oh…”

“Sparks! How could you say that?”

“It’s a lot to accept right now Winter. Where’s my mother?”

Winter scrunched her muzzle, clearly she was upset with me but we would talk about it once I’d ensured their safety.

“She’s at the Sky Lounge.” Summer answered for her.

“Thanks Summer. Here.” I gave Winter the key to the room. “Take Aurora and go check out our new home. I’ll go find Mom and meet you guys there.”

“A-alright Sparky, hurry home.” Summer and Winter, with Aurora in tow turned and started off to the Black Tower.

“Alright guys.” I turned to my friends. “You two go get whatever you think we might need for this excursion and meet me at the tower.”

“Okay Sparks. Say hi to your mother for me.” Grim gave a little wave as he left.

“You shouldn’t be so cold to that little girl.” Sunny spoke solemnly. “You only get one family and yours has an opportunity to grow. You should let it, trust me.”

“I do trust you Sunny but I can’t be the only one who-” I turned to face her but she was gone. I sighed and made my way over to the Sky Lounge, thinking about what she said.

“Hey kid.” An older stallion from behind a dumpster waved for me to come closer. Nopony would try anything in the town would they? I cautiously made my way over to him. He was wearing a tattered grey beret and a dirty black robe with a hood. His fur was light grey and his mane was auburn with slight greying streaks.

“Thanks for hearing me out.” He smirked.

“You got a name stranger?” Something about him seemed familiar.

“You can call me…White Noise.” He said questionably.

The name sounded familiar too but where had I heard it? His hesitation told me that he was probably using a fake name.

“Hmm…My name is-”

“I know who you are Harbinger…or do you prefer Sparks?”

“H-how do you know my name?”

“I know a great deal about you, more than you know. If you want to know for yourself you should look there.” He pointed over my shoulder.

I turned and looked where he was pointing at the charred monolith that was the Black Tower.

“What am I supposed to-” I turned back to White Noise but he was gone. Then something frightening occurred to me. That pony…was he the one who had been following us back at the College? How else could he know so much about me if he wasn’t shadowing me? What did he want? What was his goal? All these questions would have to wait and I had no doubt that I’d see him again though now I would be on edge for some time.

I walked into the Sky Lounge and was surprised to see that instead of Corkscrew behind the bar was the White and gold radiance of my mother. I sneakily approached the bar and jumped into one of the seats, knocking on the bar to get her attention.

“Hey could I get a shot of Wild Pegasus?”

“Of course Darling.” She said as she grabbed a bottle and shot glass with her magic. “That’ll be three caps.” She said as she turned around with a full shot glass. When she saw my face, her magical grasp vanished and the shot glass shattered on the floor.

“Sparks? Is it really you?” Her eyes began to glisten.

“It’s good to see you Mom.”

“I thought I lost you, like I lost your father…I…I don’t know what I would do if that happened.” She abandoned the bar and pulled me into a tight hug which I gleefully returned.

“Don’t worry Mom, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Sweet Celestia Sparks, what happened to your ear?”

“Oh that? Flaming shrapnel. Healing potions don’t replace lost tissue…well, so I’m told.”

“Flaming shrapnel? Just what have you been up to out here?”

“This and that, slight adventure, accidental heroics.”

“Ah ah ah I don’t want to think about that.” She said, theatrically covering her ears.

“I wish I didn’t have to either…Hey Mom? You know about the raider attacks on the town right?”

“Naturally. Why, what about it?”

“I…I’m going to go put a stop to them.”

“What? You’re going outside the walls? B-but you just got here.”

“I know Mom but that’s just it. You, Winter and Summer are all here. If there is anything I can do to keep you safe then I’ll do it no matter what.”

“Sparks, I forbid you to go out there!”

“You forbid me? Mom, I can take care of myself…besides, my friends can-”

“I don’t care! You’re not going out there to be killed!”

“Mom, I’ll be-”

“I can’t lose you again!” She slammed her hoof on the bar in anguish. Several customers around the lobby started starring at the spectacle that we created. I was a little taken aback by her outburst. I was ready to argue my point some more when I saw a tear run down her face behind her mane.

“Mom…I…”

“I lost your father…I can’t lose you too.”

“I will come back Mom, I promise. When you can find the time, come to the Black Tower. There’s somepony there I want you to meet. I love you Mom, I’ll see you soon.”

It broke my heart to leave her there behind the bar but I couldn’t allow anypony to threaten my family. I walked out of the Sky Lounge with a lump in my throat and I didn’t look back.

When I reached the second floor of the Black Tower I saw one open door and numerous voices I recognized within. I walked inside and saw the home I was gifted for the first time. There was one king sized bed set in the middle of the room with two nightstands on both sides and a large trunk at its base. Opposite the room from the door was a wide window that looked out onto the market area. There was a slightly faded painting of a calm suburb on the wall left of the window above a dresser with worn paint. Winter was on the bed with Aurora playing a game with a hoofful of rocks.

“My mother should be by sometime soon. I want you to introduce Aurora to her when she gets here Winter.”

“You don’t want to do it yourself?”

“Of course I do but I don’t think I should be here when she shows up. She’ll try and talk me out of going out to fight and I’m afraid I’ll let her.”

“Would that really be such a bad thing?”

“I don’t know Winter. What I do know is that if the raiders get inside they will slaughter everypony except the ones they can use to satisfy their disgusting desires with and then they’ll kill them anyway. I won’t risk my family to that fate. I’ve already made up my mind.” I almost sounded confident but the subtle shaking of my legs betrayed my true feelings. I was scared, plain and simple but I wouldn’t allow fear to be a barrier between me and my family’s safety.

That may have been the first time I made the conscious decision to actively try and live up to the hero guise. I was content to keep up the lie and keep taking credit for my friends’ strength and call it my own but after what Slipknot said to me before he died…I was starting to think that I really could do it. No longer would I fight from my friends shadows. I would stand by them and fight as an equal, not a liability. I had something to fight for now and nothing would stop me from doing everything I could to protect it.

“Take care of Aurora. I love you Winter…I’ll see you soon.” Just like with my mother, Winter was the only other pony who could have talked me out of my choice. I almost wished she would but she knew as well as I what would happen that if the raiders breached the walls.

“Wait! Here Sparks, take my necklace for good luck.” She remover her flower shaped pendant and lovingly placed it around my neck.

“I’ll bring it back…I promise." With that I returned the way I came and met Sunny and Grim on the stairs.

“There you are Sparks. The Mayor says he’ll give us access to the town armory. We wanted to wait till all three of us were together to take a look.” Grim said, eagerly waving for me to hurry up.

“Make that the four of us.” From behind us at the bottom of the stairs in the doorway, stood the armored form of Summer. “I’m coming with you.”

“Ok.”

“And don’t try and…did you say Ok?”

“Yeah, you were the chief of security in the stable. That’s experience I’d be a fool to pass up. Plus it’ll probably make Winter feel better if she knows you’re coming with us.”

She almost looked disappointed, like she wanted argue with me.

“We’d better get moving.” Sunny said, pushing her way through the doorway. We followed after her quickly and after a four pony search of the town found the mayor in what felt like record time.

“Ah there you are Harbinger. Did your partners inform you about the armory?”

“Yes they did. Please lead the way.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you!”

The Mayor led us to the basement of a rather large house. Standing at the base of the stairs in front of a terminal set into the wall was an unsettling looking robot in the shape of a pony. It was wearing a shredded bib around its neck and it was missing one of its glowing eyes. Its chassis was faded pink in color and its metal mane was a darker shade of pink and looked like it was supposed to resemble balloons.

“Is…Is that a PINK-E Bot?” Grim asked, hesitation clear in his voice.

“Yeah.” The Mayor affirmed. “We had Circuit Breaker re-purpose this thing to guard the armory. Sadly we couldn’t do anything about its vocal emulator.”

I rubbed my chin in though. I recognized that name.

“Pinkie…? Like Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie?” I recalled reading a plaque at the museum mentioning Pinkie Pie as the one in charge of the Ministry of Morale.

“H-h-h-h-hi! Welcommm to Pink-pinkie Pie’s Fun Land!” It greeted us excitedly in a very high pitched, energetic voice. “I hope you haaavvvee a wonderfulzzzz t-time!”

And with that I had my answer. Its malfunctioning and choppy speech that was supposed to sound happy came off as extremely creepy. Especially since it was spoken through a permanent smile set into its head.

“We aren’t here for a party. Open the door to the armory if you please.”

“Oh! H-howdy mistur mayor! Itzzz good to sssseee you again. I’m Alwayzzz glad toooo see one of muh friendssss.”

She bounced up and down like an excited filly at a birthday party, her aged body losing a few bolts and bits of metal as she bounded.

“Oh I’m zzzzory. I allllmost lost my p-p-party hat.” Its mechanical joints creaked noisily as it padded its head for a hat that wasn’t there. “OH MY GOZZSSH! Weeeer izzz my hat!”

“We don’t have time for this. Follow me please.” The mayor walked past the robot as it frantically dropped onto its chest and started rubbing its hooves across the floor, scraping its metal on the concrete and leaving smears of oil and paint behind it. The inside of the armory was dimly lit by one overhead lamp directly above a table densely set with heavy weapons. Around the room along the three other walls were various lockers and trunks. The most interesting features of the room was the small glowing statuette of an orange, blonde maned mare positioned mid-buck wearing a brown cowpony hat. I was instantly reminded of the statuette I saw of Twilight Sparkle in the College. Were these two connected in some way? It was equally spotless and pristine, despite its surroundings.

“What’s that Mayor?” I said, pointing to the statuette.

“Oh that? I don’t really know. It was a gift to one of my predecessors and it’s been here for some time.”

“Hmm, do you mind if I take it?”

“If you think it will help you, by all means take it as a down payment.”

I was more than happy to take it off his hooves. The second I touched it I felt a surge of energy rush into my body. I felt stronger, more confident and ready for anything. Embedded into the base of the statuette was an inscription that read ‘Be Strong’. I deposited it into my bags and set out investigating the rest of the room’s armament.

“Tell me what you want us to do.” I said, poking through a few of the lockers.

“Well, as I said earlier, this isn’t the first attack we’ve suffered since you left. As of now we believe the bulk of their army and their leader to be based somewhere to the north-west. We haven’t been able to spare any ponies to investigate and that’s where I hope you’ll come in.”

As he spoke, I found a new shotgun and a sniper rifle, both of which I slung across my back along with a fair amount of ammunition for them.

“If you can I want you to kill their leader, to at the very least disorganize them.” The Mayor continued.

“Where did you say they were based?” Sunny questioned.

“W-well we aren’t one hundred percent sure but we think they are amassing to the north-west.”

After affirming whatever it was Sunny wanted to hear, she grabbed what she wanted and galloped back up the stairs, the PINK-E calling after her.

“Pleaszzzz come again! We hope you njoyed yer visit to Pinkie-e-e-es fun land!”

“What’s gotten into her?” The mayor asked, his worry was easily readable on his face.

“I’m not sure but it can’t be good. We can’t let her get to far ahead us guys, let’s get moving. Grab what you need if you haven’t already and let’s go!” I followed after her up the stairs and out into the streets, ignoring the thanks of the pink robot. Something was undoubtedly on Sunny’s mind because she charged through the crowd, regardless of who was in the way and through the town’s gates to the outside. We followed her as well as we could but it was obvious from the start that we weren’t going to catch up to her unless she allowed it. We galloped for about twenty minutes before she started to slow down. I was so out of breath it wasn’t funny. Summer was in a similar state of exhaustion and we were passing a canteen of water around the group. Grim however, had taken it easy up in the sky, lucky winged bastard. I was starting to notice familiar scenery and most nauseating of all were the half rotted corpses of the raiders that attacked my caravan when Sunny saved me. We must have been close to Requari, I thought. Then out of the blue it hit me. I checked my PipBucks map to confirm my theory. Due north-west of Black Town was Requari. I understood Sunny’s fervor now. It was like what I went through trying to get back into the stable, she was trying to save her home and after how much she helped me I felt a strong commitment to help her. Our pace picked back up and within an hour we were just outside Requari and our fears were realized. Drifting into the air were billowing plumes of smoke from intermittent fires dotted across the outside of the structure. I heard Sunny make a pained noise and she rushed to the nearest door to the inside.

“Don’t let her out of your sight!” I told the others as I made to follow her. “She’s gonna try something crazy!” As the three of us made it inside, it was apparent that whatever force laid waste to the place was no longer there. That didn’t make the grisly aftermath any more bearable. The hallways were strewn with bodies, both clad in brown dusters and the rag-tag armor of raiders. It was a complete massacre, the body ratio was approximately one to four in the raiders favor. I slowed down to take in the slaughter and was almost overpowered by the heavy smell of blood. A gunshot from deeper inside brought me out of my stupor and I galloped to find the source. I found the stage area where the improvised hospital was to see Sunny taking cover behind some of the seats from four raiders on the stage. The rest of our group and I poured into the room and returned fire on them. Sunny was relentless in her attack and never gave them a chance to find cover. We had them pinned down in a firing squad. Three of them fell to the floor dead while the last scrambled on the floor trying to get away. Sunny made a mad dash for the stage and delivered a heavy kick to his gut, then one to his jaw in quick succession. He spat out a mouthful of thick blood and teeth as he started to plead. Sunny wasn’t going to hear any of it as she picked him up off the floor and slammed him against the wall, one of the barrels of her battle saddle resting under his chin.

“Where are the rest!?” She asked angrily.

“I-I don’t know-” He stammered, only to have more teeth knocked loose by Sunny.

“Don’t fuck with me! The rest of the raider army. Where. Are. They!” He looked at me, his fear slowly melded into anger.

“You!”

I took a few step forward to get a better look at him in the low light. “Chestnut?” The one I was sent out with after I temporarily joined Red Asphalt. “I didn’t think we left any of your group alive.”

“Enough of us survived and we’ve rebuilt stronger than ever!” he boasted, then a blast from Sunny’s battle saddle tore through his left shoulder. “AAggh!” He cried in anguish.

“You should pay attention to me or the next one’s going in your brain. Now tell me, where are they!?”

“The clans are gathering at Griffin Rock!”

“For what purpose!?”

“Ha ha ha, we need a new home, one capable of sustaining us all. Now that the clans are together and the Regulators are dead we are going to take Black Town for ourselves and rebuild!”

“Thank you for your assistance.” Sunny growled coldly as she forced the barrel in his mouth.

“Wait Sunny.” I said, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “We don’t need to kill him.”

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t!” She hissed.

“He gave us what we needed. If he didn’t, we’d have nothing to go on. Just let him go, we’re supposed to be better than them right?”

“I can do better than that, let me go and I’ll tell you where you can find our leader.”

“Think about it Sunny. We can stop them from doing this to anypony else but only if you let him go.”

“If I ever see you again, it won’t be pretty.” Sunny said, noticeably disgusted by letting him go.

“Thanks for understanding.” Chestnut quipped, dusting himself off and straightening up.

“Don’t forget we had a deal. Where is your leader?”

“She’s probably on her way to Griffin Rock. She’s coming from the south so if you leave now you might be able to ambush her at the Sun and Moon Cathedral.”

“It should take about half a day to get there.” Sunny informed us.

“Well then we don’t have any time to lose. Lead the way Sunny.” She didn’t need any more to be said as she made her way back the way we came with quickness.

“You should leave, Chestnut. Leave and never return.” I turned to follow Sunny, leaving him there speechless. After we made it back outside and crested the first hill in our path I thought that we needed a better way to get around. Sunny, however was a mare on a mission and any kind of mode of transportation would have to wait. We had little time to rest and luckily the worst we faced in our path were bloated, mutated insects.

“How are we going to take out a whole raider clan?” Summer addressed the problem we would soon face.

“I don’t know, Summer but if we pull it off it’ll be a huge step in ending the raider threat.” At least I hoped it would. Where the hell did these ponies even come from? I guessed they were just ponies like the rest of us, the ones who were taken by the Wasteland.

“Also I took a case of grenades from the armory.” Grim smiled, patting his bags confidently. “Furthermore, look at Sunny. She swapped out one of her battle saddle attachments for a grenade launcher so I think we’ll fare better than you might think.”

That did a bit in boosting my own confidence as we raced towards a very difficult fight. Though the closer we got to our destination the more uneasy I felt. Something was off about this but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on it.


The Sun and Moon Cathedral was surprisingly undamaged as it stood looming over us. The building was V shaped with a large wall of windows along the crest of the V. Inside was a large study, presumably used by whomever ran the cathedral. Set in the wall opposite the broken wall of windows was a very ornately decorated fireplace. Hung high on the wall above the fireplace was a beautiful oil painting of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. They were facing away from each other with their heads thrown back, representations of the sun and moon floating above them. The sky in the background was split in half with the left half supporting the glow of the day while the right harbored the dark of night. It was an unusual piece of art. Never did the moon and sun share the sky and seeing that represented here made me feel uneasy. In a small gap between the sun and the moon were six colored gems. The elements of harmony.

“Well now what are we going to do?” Summer asked.

“We wait.” Sunny said like the answer was obvious.

“What if they don’t pass by here? What if he lied to us?”

“We know where they are gathering. If this turns out to be a ruse then at least we have that.”

“That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our job here.”

“It doesn’t have to. We’ll give it a few hours and take it from there.”

Summer was understandably frustrated. We were all so enticed by the prospect of killing the raider leader that none of us questioned the possibility it could be a lie. Before any of us could speak again the door to the room opened and a raider with an orange line painted across his face walked in. He jumped at the sight of us and turned around to yell for help. Sunny leapt from her prone position and shoved a hoof into his mouth. His muffled screams were cut short when Sunny wrenched his neck diagonally upward and a muted crack signaled his death.

“Good news red, they’re already here.” Sunny gloated.

We carefully crept our way out into the halls of the cathedral to try and find the rest of the raiders. A faint stinging in my eyes and the smell of smoke told me that we were going the right direction. At last, as we were sneaking across a landing that overlooked the cathedral foyer, we found the bulk of the raiders. There were two improvised fires burning on the floor surrounded by tents and ponies eating, drinking and generally enjoying themselves.

“Maybe one of us should have gone back to Black Town.” Summer whispered.

“Use that fear red, make sure one of us gets back to Black Town.” Sunny said as she stood up and fired a grenade into the gathering.

KA-BOOM!

The explosion caught most of the ponies hanging around the fire, those whose insides weren’t destroyed by the force were wounded by the fragmentation. As if we kicked a beehive, ponies came rushing out of the tents, guns at the ready while orders were barked over the chaos. We hadn’t been spotted yet and Sunny took advantage, firing another grenade at the biggest group of raiders. After that we were spotted and return fire forced us to move to find cover.

“We’re in it now.” Grim remarked.

We were eventually backed into a room on the second floor whose door faced the length of the hallway. I jumped over the desk in the room and got down in a prone position with my sniper rifle. I took aim down the hallway under the small gap between the floor and desk.

“I’ve only got one grenade left. We need to find a way out before we’re overrun.” Sunny instructed.

“I’m on it.” Grim declared as he ran out into the hall and vanished.

Summer took position beside the door on the opposite side of Sunny. “I’ll support you.” She declared.

Sunny nodded and prepared for her last grenade shot.

“We aren’t gonna have a lot of time. We’ll hold this door as long as we can. Sparks you do what you can with your rifle. Grim better find us a way out fast otherwise we might have to chance the window.”

This wasn’t the first time I had accepted that I was going to face certain death but it didn’t stop me from shaking with dread. A group of raiders charged up a staircase connected to the hall and opened fire on us. They were too far away for Sunny to use her grenade so, for the time being, it was up to me. I lined up my crosshairs on somepony’s head and pulled the trigger. Their skull split into thick chunks of bone and brain matter. The bullet passed through the first pony and ended in the neck of somepony behind them. I found that it didn’t bother me all that much anymore to end the life of a raider. I kept firing down the hall and as they got close, Summer and Sunny started unloading on them. I could hear bullets hitting the wood of the desk just above my head, some of them punching through. I could only see Summer and Sunny’s legs so I hoped they were faring better than me. An explosion to our right brought down the wall in a cloud of dust and ear ringing noise. Grim gently flapped his wings to clear the dust and reveal that the floor in the next room was collapsed, forming a ramp down to the first floor.

“Grim! Get Sparks and head below, I got one last gift for these fuckers!” Sunny said as she aimed her launcher down the hall. As I stood to retreat through the hole in the wall, a bullet found its way into my right hind hoof causing me to lose my balance but not my speed as I crashed and slid down through the hole in the floor. I hit the bottom floor and looked up through my blurry vision as dark spots tried to block my sight. The explosion from above shook the room, scattering loose dust all over me. I heard the sound of hooves run past me, then felt Grim lifting me to my hooves.

“C’mon Sparks we gotta get out of here.”

We were slowed considerably as I had a leg draped around Grim’s neck for support as we tried to keep up with the others. I heard the clattering of somepony else tumbling down the hole. I glanced back to see a manic looking pony running at us with a grenade in his mouth, pin nowhere to be seen. Instinct took over and through the pounding pain in my head I tried to use magic. A small shield sprung to life and wrapped the raider in a white bubble of magic. He ran headfirst into the field of energy and dropped the grenade. He screamed furiously as it exploded, blowing apart my shield and splattering the floor with what was left of them.

“So now you can do shields when we need ‘em.” Grim joked.

“Hehe, saved your ass.” I stabbed back, hoping I wouldn’t need it again lest I suffer another burnout.

The hole in the floor led us down into the kitchen area of the cathedral which itself led to a fenced in outside area, full with three picnic tables and a now dry stone fountain.

“Sparks, what does your PipBuck say? How many are left?” Sunny asked, waving us behind the fountain.

“Don’t know, they’re too close together, maybe ten?”

“I think we can take ‘em.” Summer said, reloading her gun.

“I think we have a good shot. So long as Sparks’ magic is good to go.” Grim stated, looking at me for a confirmation.

“Yeah, I’m good to go.” I lied, muscling through the pain to flare my horn for effect. There were worst things than magical burnout after all.

“Well then get ready, we don’t have anywhere to go ‘cept open ground. It’s all or nothing now.” Sunny took a fighting stance behind the fountain and the rest of us followed suit. I almost felt bad for the raiders that would be rushing through that door any second. They would be running into a veritable firing squad. Although in hindsight it was foolish of me to think it would be so easy. Instead of a crowd of ponies, one single grenade bounced through the doorway. It didn’t land close enough to hurt anypony but that wasn’t the kind of damage it did.

“FLASH!” Summer yelled too late as it exploded into a blinding flare of light. I recoiled from the sudden pain in my eyes, accidentally stumbling away from the fountain. I heard the sound of yelling from the doorway followed by gunfire.

“Sparks get down!” Sunny shouted, too late for me as a lucky bullet tore through my shoulder through a gap in my armor. I hit the ground and tumbled around enough to lose my sense of direction. My sight was starting to come back but even then I couldn’t see through my tears. I saw enough to see who weren’t my enemies and fired a few blind shots into the mass of ponies that were flipping the picnic tables over for cover. I struggled to get to my hooves, simultaneously wiping tears from my eyes and trying to shoot anypony I could. Sunny jumped from behind the fountain and grabbed the scruff of my armor with her teeth and flung me back behind cover. Before she could get back to cover herself, I heard a loud boom and saw blood spray out from her back. She fell and did not move.

“NOOoo!” I cried as I tried to rush out to help her, only to be pulled back by Grim.

“You go out there Sparks and you’ll die!”

“I don’t care! Let me go!”

“Don’t be stupid Sparks, throwing your life away won’t change anything!” Summer rebuked.

“Fuck!” I cursed. I felt helpless. Every time I was in trouble, Sunny or Grim were there to save me and now that it was my turn I couldn’t do anything! No! I promised myself that I wouldn’t be weak anymore! Throwing caution to the wind I darted out of cover and dashed towards Sunny. Another loud shot sounded and hit me in the side hard enough to knock me to the concrete.

“Shit!” Grim shouted as I fell. “Cover him!” I heard a new round of gunfire join our attackers’ as they did their best to protect me.

The shot hadn’t pierced my armor though I couldn’t count on it to save me a second time. I spared a quick glance to where the shots were coming from just in time to see the glint of a snipers scope coming from a second floor window. I scrambled to my hooves and scooped Sunny up on to my back. I closed my eyes and poured magic into my horn, grinding my teeth to ignore the pain as I conjured a shield around us. Immediately the sniper’s bullet ricocheted off my shield, causing me to stagger and the shield to flicker as magical strain surged into my horn. My magic would collapse at any second and I had to get her back to cover no matter what. My legs began to quiver as the exertion began to eat at what little stamina I had left. With the last of my strength I managed to cover the distance and got us both back behind the fountain as my spell fizzled out.

“What the fuck were you thinking!?” Grim shouted over the gunfire.

“Shut up…” I said between heavy breaths. “Give me the grenades!”

“What’s your plan?” He asked, digging out a couple grenades from his bag.

“Just cover me.” Grim nodded as he popped out of cover and sprayed his machine guns all over the left table while Summer mirrored him and unloaded on the other.

No doubt the sniper was still keeping us covered so I carefully poked my head out and got a look at the battlefield. I took a deep breath and hoped I had enough power left. I ignited my horn and focused on levitating two of the grenades into the air. With measured exertion I moved them above and just behind each of the tables the raiders using and pulled the pins, releasing my magical hold on them. A few of them recognized the threat but the few that tried to escape were shot down by Grim and Summer. The rest were caught in the two explosions, ending the skirmish with a resounding boom. A quick check of my compass showed only one hostile marker left.

“Grim tend to Sunny as best you can, I’m going after the last.” I didn’t wait for any kind of agreement as I ran back into the cathedral, shotgun ready in my magic. I didn’t know if Sunny was going to survive but the only thing in my mind at that moment was vengeance. I followed the marker through the corridors of the cathedral until it looked like I found the room she was hiding in. I carelessly kicked in the door and received lead pipe to the muzzle. I fell back through the door with fresh blood running down my chin.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you.” She snarled. “But when I’m done you’ll be begging for it.” She pointed her long rifle in my face.

I reached out and grabbed the rifle in my hooves, wrenching it away from her and throwing it across the room. While she was confused I tried to get my shotgun but had it knocked out of my weak telekinesis by an angry kick from the mare. She made a dash for the rifle on the other side of the room, an action I had to mimic. As she got close, I unslung my own rifle and used it to club her in the back of the head. She fell forward but didn’t stay down as she pulled her rifle back into her hooves. She struggled to level it at me in the cramped room, giving me the opportunity to slap the barrel away from me and pounce on the mare. We were tangled in a flurry of hooves, punching, kicking and doing whatever we could to gain an advantage. I got a lucky kick to her throat and possession of the rifle was mine. I held it in my hooves, our roles now opposite from when I entered the room.

“This is for your own good.” I whispered, pulling the trigger. Her head came apart like a melon, spraying me with her blood.

“Sparks!” I heard Summer yell from outside the room. She ran in and gasped at the scene. I dropped the rifle on the corpse and turned to walk out of the room.

“C’mon Summer, let’s go back.”

When we got back to the fountain, Grim had Sunny laying on her back, her own blood pooling around her as he was carefully cutting into her chest.

“Is…is she gonna make it?” I asked with a crack in my voice.

“I don’t know, that bullet hit her in the back and went almost all the way through, I can’t give her a potion with the bullet still in there. I gave her some something to dull the pain. All I can do is hope she survives long enough for me to get the bullet out so I can give her a potion.”

I left him to his work and took a seat on the fountain. Summer quickly took a seat next to me to try and comfort me.

“Are you gonna be ok Sparky?” She asked, laying a hoof on my back.

“I-I don’t know” I stammered. My experiences out here told me that not many ponies lived to a ripe old age. Ponies out here died trying to survive and it was rarely easy. Maybe if you’d lived out here your whole life shit like this would be easier to deal with but that wasn’t the case with me. It was naive of me to think that somepony I cared about wouldn’t get hurt out here but even if I accepted that as an inevitability there was no way I could have prepared for it. She was my friend and I wasn’t ready to lose her.

“She means more to me than I ever told her.” I could feel warm tears welling up in my eyes. “I’d be dead if it weren’t for her.” Never did I want an escape more than in that moment.

“Here maybe this’ll help.” Summer answered my prayers and held a bottle of apple whiskey in her hooves. “Something to help take the edge off? If you want some that is, you weren’t much of a drinker in the Stable.”

I wiped the tears out of my eyes and smiled. “Whatever helps right?” I gratefully took the bottle and downed a couple mouthfuls. The liquid burned its way to my stomach and in a few moments I could feel it taking effect.

“Hey Summer? Could I borrow you for a second?” Grim asked.

“One second. Don’t get to carried away with that ok?” she said, leaving me with the whole bottle. I was curious to see how far the effects could go and downed a few more swigs. Ultimately it wasn’t enough to make me forget my feelings. I couldn’t even imagine the wasteland without Sunny. There was a lot that needed to be said between us and I was terrified that the chance might never come. Before I could worry more my exhaustion caught up with me all at once so I laid down and closed my eyes and I was off to sleep in mere minutes.


“Hey buddy boy, good to see you again.” I was standing in the same black void as always, with floating chunks of land off in the distance. However this time I wasn’t just standing on nothing, the immediate area that I fell asleep in was represented as a small island where we all stood. Ribbon Dancer was here again, distractedly digging through the splinters of one of the picnic tables. “It’s not quite like how it was with the kid but somepony else is dead cause of you. At least you’re consistent am I right?”

“This was outside my control…” I said weakly.

“Was it? I seem to recall it being your idea to go hunting. Could have stayed with your family but no, you had to go and get somepony else killed again.”

“Don’t listen to him Sparks.” I heard a raspy voice come from behind me. I turned and watched Slipknot materialize from the void. “What’s done is done and nothing you can do will change that. Blaming yourself only hurts you and you shouldn’t have to carry the burdens of things that weren’t your fault.”

“So now you’re taking advice from corpses instead of making them? This guy die on your watch too?”

“Back off kid, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It was my choice to go with him, my choice not his.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that you’d be alive if you never met. May not be his fault but it’s because of him nonetheless.”

“Now listen here.” A voice echoed from the void. I couldn’t make out anything about it other than it was a feminine voice. “Sparks, you are a good pony and you’ve been doing all you can to help. Ah’d reckon that if you weren’t so hard on yourself there’d be no limit to the good you could do. You gotta stop worrying about the things you can’t control and just try your best to make a difference.”

I had no clue to the identity of the mysterious voice but what she said made a lot of sense. I’d been holding myself back ever since the death of the colt outside the stable. Since then every consequence I’ve faced I’d multiplied on myself. I took accountability for actions that were both mine and others’. Whether I was deserving of it or not. Before I could say anything to the apparitions, the floating islands in the expanse of the void started breaking apart and disappearing.

“Times up.” The voice in the void declared as Slipknot and Ribbon Dancer faded out of sight. The island I was on crumbled beneath me and I fell into darkness.


I awoke with a jump to see Sunny standing over me with a smile on her face.

“Wake up numb nuts. I heard you missed me?”

Downpour, it was downpour standing over me. Didn’t stop the overwhelming wave of relief from hitting me though.

“Shut up.” I said as I reached up and pulled the multiple mare into a sloppy hug.

“Haha! You pussy.” Downpour didn’t resist as she let herself be dragged down into my embrace.

“This is just how she was when she came to.” Grim shrugged.

“That reminds me.” Downpour stood, pulled me up to my hooves and looked at Grim. “Thanks for patching me up. You’re alright birdbrain.

“It’s Grim.” He corrected, his expression becoming a little annoyed.

“I know.” Downpour slapped Grim on the back and smiled.

“Sooo…am I missing something?” Summer asked, looking between the three of us.

We told Summer the story during our agonizingly slow return trip to Black Town. The sun had just dipped below the horizon and darkness was quickly setting in. Everypony went their own way once we got inside, saying we would all meet back at my place. I went to search for the Mayor to tell him the good and bad news. Strangely enough I eventually found the Mayor sitting at the bar in the Sky Lounge.

“Mayor Slate? I have news for you.”

He turned around with a look of wonder on his face. “Harbinger! You made it! So did you succeed?”

“Well…yes and no.”

“Oh? How do you mean?”

“The area you sent us to had already been destroyed by the time we got there, however we were able to…coax the leader’s location from a straggler and we killed her before she could join the rest of the clans.”

“So you got the leader but we are still vulnerable to attack?”

“I think that’s a strong possibility yes, they plan on taking Black Town for themselves.”

“Oh…oh dear. If you’ll excuse me I have a great deal of preparations to take care of. I do hope you and your friends will stay and help us fight.”

“You can count on it Mayor. You know where to find me if you need anything.”

“I’ll try to keep you in the loop Harbinger. Excuse me.” The look on his face was dismal. I didn’t think he was prepared for a fight like this. Frankly I didn’t know if I was either.

“S-should I be worried?” My mother asked from behind the bar.

“I don’t know Mom. They are going to attack, of that I’m sure. I don’t know when and I don’t know how many. Without the Regulators to help us…I don’t know if the town will make it. We’ll just have to hope the town guard, town militia, and the wall will be enough.” Then I remembered something. The Black Town Militia… Dusty Trail! I needed to find him.

“Hey Mom, if I said I knew someplace safe for you to go…would you go there?”

“Do you really think the town will be overrun?”

“I don’t know Mom but I’d rather send you, Winter and…did you ever make it over to my room?”

“I’ve met Aurora yes…and I think we should play it safe. Where would we go and how would we get there?”

“Don’t worry Mom. I think an old friend of mine can help you get there.”



I found Dusty’s store and banged on the door until I got an answer.

“Goddessdammit what do ya want now!?” he said as he angrily threw the door open. “Sparks? Yer alive? Ya sure picked a bad time to come back. I’m packin’ up my shit and gettin’ outta here and I suggest you do the same.”

“That’s why I’m here Dusty. Would you be willing to take a few extra ponies with you?”

“Ahhh…How many?”

“Three, two mares and a filly.”

“Sure I think my crew and I can handle three more.”

“Thank you so much Dusty. Can you meet them at the Sky Lounge? Their names are Winter and White Lily.”

“Sure I’ll find ‘em and don’t thank me yet Sparks, if yer staying here you better not die. You and I have a debt that ain’t be squared up yet.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. Where will you take them?”

“The next best place fer a talented merchant such as myself, The Crater.”

“Ok, I’ll meet you there once everything is dealt with here.” I spun around and started on my way to the Black Tower to tell Winter. I was honestly considering abandoning ship with them. My need to stay was because of them and if they weren’t staying why should I? Deep down I knew I couldn’t do that. If I abandoned these ponies in their time of need then what would that make me? I knew what I had to do…I just didn’t know if I had the strength to do it. I had no idea how many ponies had their homes in the Black Tower but the silence was deafening. My worries weren’t abated when I saw the door to my room wide open. When I walked inside my heart sunk upon seeing the scene in front of me. Winter was laying on the floor, not moving and Aurora was nowhere to be seen. I rushed to her side and gently lifted her head in my hooves. Thank the Goddesses she was alive. Her left eye was bruised and blood was leaking out of her nose. I shook her awake and was overjoyed when she opened her eyes.

“Winter…what happened where’s…?”

“She took her Sparks. Somepony took Aurora!”

“Who took her? Did you get a look at them?”

“Yes…yes I did. She was a pink mare with a purple mane.”

“It can’t be…did you see her cutie mark?”

“Only for a brief second before she hit me. It was a heart…a heart with an arrow in it.”

The spokesmare from Memorial Stadium. It would seem she escaped the chaos of the battle. I wished that I had killed her instead of simply knocking her unconscious. It was yet another of my failures come to haunt me. I took the last of my potions out of my bag and gave it to Winter.

“Do you have any idea where she took her?”

“No…I didn’t even see her take Aurora…please Sparks…find her.”

“I will Winter, you should go to the Sky Lounge, I arranged for a friend of mine to take you and mother someplace safe.”

“No! I’m coming with you…I want my daughter back.”

Daughter? I’d seen that side of her before. There was nothing I could say to talk her out of something once she was determined to see something through.

“Alright…but stay close to me.”

“Ok, I will.”

We left my room behind and made our way out into the streets. Dusty wasn’t the only one who had considered evacuating, the town was in full bustle as families with carts loaded with their belongings began filing out of the main gate. We asked the townsfolk who stayed if they saw a pony matching the spokesmare’s description. Our leads were few and far between. On the rare chance that somepony did see her it was far too long ago to help us with our search. We found Summer and told her what had happened and had the bulk of the Black Town guard on watch for anypony matching the description. Hours went by and I was starting to lose hope but then I thought I spotted her in the crowd. I grabbed Winter’s hoof and dragged her into the mass of ponies after her. As luck would have it, it was indeed the pony we were looking for. I kicked it into high gear and sped after her, Winter barely keeping up behind me. She spotted us coming and took off galloping into the back alleys of Black Town. We followed, fully committed to catching her and getting Aurora back. We managed to track her to an empty looking warehouse on the edges of the Black Town wall. I told Winter to wait outside and I tried to carefully sneak my way inside. When I made it about halfway across the main floor, all the lights came on at once. Revealing the Spokesmare holding Aurora with a knife to her neck.

“After how savagely I saw you fight in the races I never thought you’d be our downfall, traitor.”

“What you and Red Asphalt did at that stadium was monstrous. The only traitor here is you, a traitor to yourself. Let the filly go and you can still walk away.”

“Help me!” Aurora screamed.

“Be quiet you little shit!” The spokesmare yelled, slowly dragging her knife across Aurora’s cheek, leaving a shallow cut in its wake. “Unfortunately for you, I’m not here to negotiate. I’m here to make you suffer! Salted Chestnut sends his regards!” The spokesmare made to drag the knife across Aurora’s throat when Aurora violently threw her head back and smashed her skull against the spokesmare’s muzzle. She dropped Aurora who scampered away from her and deeper into the warehouse. As she recoiled from her now bleeding nose I sprinted forward and tackled her to the floor. I pinned her beneath me and brought my hooves down on her face numerous times before she found the power to stab her knife into my chest. It pierced through my armor and cut into my flesh. I let out a yell of pain as she pulled her hind legs underneath me and launched me off of her. I flew back a few feet, the knife embedded in my chest. Fortunately it didn’t seem like she had any other weapons. Her focus was not on me but instead was on trying to find Aurora, as that was her only leverage left. However I wasn’t going to let that happen. I pulled the knife out of my chest with magic and proceeded to use it against her. I threw it at her with all my might to which she ducked out of its path but was unable to react in time to dodge another tackle. This time I squirmed my way behind her and wrapped a leg around her neck. I applied as much pressure as I could but my position left her hooves free, which she took advantage of, punching me in the face until I was forced to let go. She reared back and brought her front hooves down on the back of my head, viciously smashing my head into the cold concrete floor.

I was so dazed that I couldn’t focus, my vision constantly spinning. Then I heard Aurora scream in fear as the spokesmare was getting closer. I wrapped her in my magic and threw her against the opposite wall, away from Aurora. It was time for the finishing blow. I remembered the pain they subjected me to during my fight with Ribbon Dancer, to which I wreathed my horn with electrical energy. The spokesmare was slowly finding the strength to get to her hooves as I lowered my head and charged her. There was nowhere to go and with her back against the wall, I impaled her in the side and pumped as much magic as I could muster into a lightning bolt, ferociously electrocuting her inside out. Her burnt and charred corpse crumpled to the floor, her flesh and blood gently sizzling from the potency of my spell. Aurora ran crying from her hiding spot and hugged me as hard as she could. I lowered myself and returned the power of her hug. I could feel her gently crying into my shoulder.

“Daddy…” She whispered softly. Seeing her in trouble like this awoke something inside me. Winter had already called her daughter, I guess I could too. I gently stroked the back of her head to try and comfort her. To try and comfort my daughter. My daughter…that was the last thing I expected to take from the wasteland but…It was one of the best. Winter curiously peered into the warehouse and saw our exchange. She ran in and joined the hug. The family was here.

“We need to get to the Sky Lounge, get you girls to safety.”

“Where are you sending us?”

“To another settlement to the south-east called The Crater. I need to get you away from the danger. The raider army is going to attack Black Town at any time now and I don’t want you here when they do.”

“Y-you’re not coming with us?” Aurora asked, wiping her tears from her eyes.

“No princess, I have to stay and fight. Don’t worry, I won’t abandon you…I will never abandon you.” I gave her another love-filled hug. “We don’t have a lot of time so follow me, my mother is going with you.”

“Nana Lily!” Even after the ordeal she faced she managed an innocent smile. Nana eh? Looked as if I were the last one to get the message about the adoption.

“C’mon, we need to hurry.”

We left the warehouse behind with the charred corpse of the Spokesmare inside. We made it maybe one street over when a huge explosion brought down a section of wall behind us. I looked behind us to see a horde of ponies running in through the smoke and into the city.

“Run!” I yelled to Winter and Aurora as I levitated out my pistol and began firing into the mass of raider ponies. I emptied one clip into the crowd before I turned and ran after my family. I could hear the rabble of ponies rushing to meet the attackers in front of us. I ushered the two off to the side as the raider army met with the Black Town guard and militia. The early battle was heavily tipped in our favor as the front line of the raiders were equipped with primarily melee weapons, some had no weapons at all. I couldn’t join the battle until I knew my family was safe. The east gate should have still been clear so Dusty’s exodus would still be doable. What ponies that hadn’t already fled the town were now picking up arms and rushing to the defense of the only home they knew. Their fighting spirit was infectious but I had to see Winter and Aurora to safety. I prayed that the town’s defense would hold out long enough for me to join the battle. I was willing to bet that many ponies would feel inspired upon seeing me on the battlefield and that might just give them the edge they needed even if it was an illusion.


The Sky Lounge was empty and there was nopony to be found, including my mother. They already left…they left without Winter and Aurora. The battle must have pushed Dusty into leaving early and he didn’t wait for the rest of my family.

“No…No no no! Dusty Goddessdamn you!”

“Sparks? What happened?”

“He left without you! He took my mother and left! We…we’re out of time…there’s nowhere for you to go…go upstairs. Find a safe place to hide, I’m going outside to try and stop them…I have no other choice.”

“Be careful Sparks…” Winter said somberly, pulling Aurora away with her.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can…or I…” I turned to face them, the look on Aurora’s face was like I was taking everything from her all over again. “Won’t” I finished quietly, running outside to join the conflict. The battle had spread up to the Black Tower, the town behind the raider army slowly being swallowed by fire. I had to find my friends and try and organize some kind of counterattack. Grim was the easiest to find as he was hanging back behind the bulk of the fighting, giving medical attention to anypony who needed it.

“Grim!” I shouted as I got close.

“I’ve been in battles before but never one on this scale.” He said grimly. “I know you’re going to ask for my help Sparks but I’m needed here. I won’t do you much good without my wings anyway. I need to do what I can for these ponies.”

I was already at a disadvantage without Grim but I had to honor his wishes.

“Alright Grim, have you seen Downpour or Summer?”

“Not since the battle started. I’d venture a guess that Downpour is somewhere on the front lines and Summer was on her way to the armory the last time I saw her.”

“Ok, that’s as good a lead as any. Stay safe Grim, I’d better see you at the end of this.”

“I can’t promise anything. If I don’t see you again, I’ll see you on the other side my friend.”

I held out my hoof to which he balled up his claw and bumped it together with my hoof. No more needed to be said and I left him, heading towards the armory.

As I rounded a corner, I saw that there was a group of raiders outside the armory engaged in combat with the PINK-E Bot.

“G-g-get out of the kitcheeen! Theses treatz aren’t fur you, you meaniezz!” Whether the bot knew it was capable of combat or not was unclear considering its choice of words. Regardless of that fact, it was holding its own against five raider ponies. The PINK-E picked one of the raiders up in its hooves and slammed him against another with bone shattering strength.

“Meybeee youz guys just need a h-h-h-hug!” it cried joyfully, wrapping its metal legs around a terrified looking raider’s back. It squeezed with its robot strength, crushing the raider’s spine, practically shearing her in half. The remaining raiders saw the brutality the robot was capable of and fled. I approached the robot carefully, as to not draw its ire. It saw my approach and gleefully bounded over to me.

“I-I remember you! I do-o-ont tink we was introduced tho. My namezzz Pinkie Pie! What’s yerzz?”

“Uhh, my name is Sparks. Have you seen my friend Summer?”

The PINK-E Bot gasped in alarm. “Oh nooo! You lawst yor friend?!”

“Kinda, did you see her? She was with me when we first met, the reddish brown mare?”

“Oh! I saw her! I saw her!” It cried excitedly. “She came and got some toysss out of da ruum I’m sposed to watch. I l-l-l-looked and ther isn’t anyting left inside. Does that m-m-mean I can come out and playyyy now?”

“Actually…” I had an idea. “Do you know where the Sky Lounge is?”

“Zure doo! I hav a full undurstandn of the town layout.”

“Great, there is a filly there. I’d be so thankful if you would go play with her and protect her from any more of those…meanies.”

“You want me-e-e to babysit? Okey dokey loki, after-r-r all, what are friendzz for?” It happily skipped off towards the Sky Lounge. I hope I didn’t make a mistake by sending that thing to protect my family. Although seeing how it killed those three raiders without even knowing it was in danger, perhaps it would be a good protector.

“Oh Shit.” I whispered, I had forgot something important. “Robot…I mean Pinkie!” I called after the machine. “Where did Summer go?”

“Oh yeah.” The robot giggled and snorted. “Almost forgo-t-t-t, she took the toyzz up there.” It pointed to a nearby building about two blocks away from the Black Tower.

I spun towards the building and started galloping towards it. I could hear the PINK-E shout a farewell as I ran. “See you later Alligat-t-t-t crocodile.”

As I approached the building I saw four friendly blips on my EFS. I continued to scale the floors of the building all the way to the roof where I saw Summer and three other town guards all equipped with heavy weapons. There were all perched on the edge of the roof, looking over the battle around the Black Tower. It was an unusual view, hundreds of ponies killing each other amid the oranges glow of scattered fires around the monolithic Black Tower.

“Shouldn’t you be down there Sparks?” Summer asked quietly.

“Yes but I couldn’t fight without knowing the whereabouts of my crew. Downpour’s the last one now. What’s going on up here? Need a hoof?”

“We’ve got this covered, although you might want to stay for this.” Summer motioned for a unicorn guard to take point on the edge. She was holding a miniaturized catapult looking contraption in her magic. She then levitated a strange looking geometrically shaped egg that looked like it was made out of frozen green fire. Looking at it was oddly captivating. Its surface shifted like water running in all directions in a haunting flow of spiral motion.

“What is that?” I asked with wide-eyed awe.

“This my friend, is a balefire egg.” The mare holding the catapult answered. She loaded the egg into the bucket and took aim at the raider army’s backline. The egg was propelled out of the launcher and whistled loudly as it descended into the crowd of raiders. The egg exploded deafeningly, erupting into a two story high mushroom cloud of destructive force. I felt the shockwave push against me as at least thirty raiders were killed in the blast.

“Fire!” Summer commanded as the rest of the ponies, including Summer herself, lifted their weapons and fired missiles into the mass of invaders. The raider army went up in fire as constant explosions racked their forces. They continued to fire for about a minute until they ran out of missiles.

“That should be enough to give us the advantage. C’mon boys let’s get down there and start mopping up. Sparks, I’ll see you down there.” They ditched all their launchers on the roof and hurriedly made their way down and out of the building. I decided to stay on the roof a bit longer as I pulled my sniper rifle off my back and took aim through the scope, steeling myself for what I was about to do. I didn’t have many shots left so I had to make them count. My first target was a stallion who had just pulled the pin out of a grenade with his teeth. I put a bullet into his neck, causing him to drop the grenade where it exploded at his hooves and killed two more raiders. Two shots left. Next I spotted a pony fully enclosed in armor armed with a flamethrower, spraying flaming liquid over crowds of guards killing them and simultaneously slowly burning away what cover they had. I used the aid of SATS to fire a shot into the fuel canister attached underneath the battle saddle it was mounted to. A small geyser of flame shot out of the hole I put into it. Just as the wielder noticed the canister fully ruptured, consuming everypony around him in fire. I was thankful that I was atop this building and could avoid the sickening smell of burning pony flesh. My stomach did a flip, forcing me to look away from the gruesome scene before me. One shot left. Scanning the crowd didn’t offer me another raider I wanted to use my last shot on until, after a few moment of waiting, I found my last target. I saw a huge musclebound stallion smashing his way through the militia with a massive hammer made from a chunk of concrete with rebar sticking out of one side. The stallion was being riddled with bullets but wasn’t slowing down or even reacting to the damage. He must have been drugged up to an unbelievable degree. It was unlikely he would survive whatever was coursing through his body but the longer he was alive the more ponies he could kill. I brought my scope over his head, just because he couldn’t feel the damage didn’t make him immune to it. I pulled the trigger and watched as my shot missed his head and dipped, tearing a huge chunk of flesh out of his neck. The attack forced him to drop the hammer as blood poured out of the large wound. Even that barely slowed the bruiser down. He ditched the hammer and continued to penetrate through the militia. After taking a few more ponies with him he finally succumbed to blood loss and fell over dead. No shots left. I slung the rifle over my back and made my own way back down to the ground.

I made my way back to the fight around the Black Tower and found Downpour exactly where Grim said I would. Happily surrounded by raiders and having the time of her life slaying them with little more than her bare hooves. I ran up to her after she cleared out another group of foes. She was breathing heavily but still smiled at my approach.

“Hey Sparks *pant* did you see that big fuckin’ explosion *pant* a few minutes ago?”

“Yeah I did, I saw from where it was fired from.”

“Nice, I’m up to thirteen kills *pant* how ‘bout you?”

“Umm four? That I can confirm anyway.”

“Ahh come on ‘Harbinger’ *pant* you’re better than that.”

“You know I don’t like being called that.”

“That’s why I said it”

“Downpour listen you and I-”

“You know what you need?” She interrupted. “You need to take out some aggression on these clowns.” She bent down and craned a dead raiders head towards me. “Hey Sparks!” she said in an exaggerated shrill voice while puppeteering the mouth to move. “You should kill some of my friends! They really suck!”

A stray bullet hit her in the left foreleg, causing her to drop her unsettling puppet. “OW! Bitch!” she shouted as she looked behind her, running off to find its source or at the very least get back to fighting. I had to stifle a laugh. Even though I was standing on a battlefield surrounded by bodies. Sick humor notwithstanding, I pulled out my pistol and joined the defense. The front lines were jammed up with tipped wagons and carts serving as cover. Neither side had the strength to charge out and overwhelm the other so the fight, for now, was contained to firing at each other from cover. The biggest advantage thus far was that after Summer’s bombing, the raiders had lost all of their momentum so they were no longer gaining ground but the fires they set were beginning to blaze out of control. The next greatest advantage was that I had something the raiders and even the militia didn’t, SATS. For the sparse seconds that raider heads popped out to shoot at us I was able to line up kill shot after kill shot. The town guards and militia started to notice the new lead and started to press the attack, we needed to finish the fight fast if we were to put out the fires before the town was consumed. We were starting to push the raider army back to the breach in the wall. I thought it would only be a matter of time until the battle was won but my luck worked both ways. A pink blast of energy whizzed past my head and hit a guard directly in the chest, his whole body briefly flashed pink as he disintegrated into a pile glowing pink ash. They were getting desperate, slowly but surely bullets were replaced with lasers, halting our advance completely. Our cover was insufficient to protect us from magical energy weapons, the beams burning through the wood and setting it ablaze. I took a moment to get a good look at the town’s defenders. They were slowly starting to fall back away from the Black Tower. Pink bolts hit ponies in the crowd, burning away and warping flesh into horrific wounds. Every now and then a bright pink glow would emanate from our side, signaling the complete disintegration of another pony. Chestnut must have gone back and got the weapons Red Asphalt sent us to find before ghouls forced us to retreat. That, at the very least, meant that they couldn’t have enough to arm all the raiders, or enough ammo to sustain them for very long. My theory turned out to be correct as a couple minutes later the lasers stopped flying. That was their last ditch effort, they had nothing left. It wasn’t enough to break us. I stood up and faced my allies, magically augmenting my voice so it could be heard by all.

“THEY’RE DONE! THEY’VE GOT NOTHING LEFT! ATTACK! ATTACK NOW!”

“That’s the pony from the radio!” I heard one pony declare.

“The one who killed Red Asphalt?”

“Don’t just stand there! Let’s get ‘em!” Downpour shouted from my side, lobbing a pitchfork into the mass of retreating raiders.

“He’s right, let’s teach these raiders not to fuck with Black Town!” The eyepatch guard mare yelled into the crowd. The crowd yelled back, their voices numerous and angry.

With renewed confidence they charged forward and started the final push of the Battle of Black Town. The raiders were wholly routed. Most turned tail and tried to run and what few stayed were swiftly put down by the Black Town guard and militia. The battle was won. I decided to leave the rest to them and go check on Winter and Aurora. I didn’t see the whole battle but it was improbable that any of the raiders made it this far in. Although a small group did make it all the way to the armory so anything was possible. At the same time the thing that defended the armory was defending my family. After that thought I started to relax. Turned out I didn’t need to send them away with Dusty. When I got to the upper floors of the Sky Lounge I saw just how wrong I was. I only saw one marker on my EFS so I ran to its source with haste. As I opened the door I expected to find Winter or Aurora but instead I saw nopony. Nopony except the broken chassis of the PINK-E surrounded by signs of a struggle. I didn’t understand. If the PINK-E was disabled what was behind the marker I saw?

“S-s-sparks…” I heard the PINK-E whimper.

I looked around and found its decapitated head behind a knocked over table.

“Pinkie? Pinkie what happened!?” I yelled as I picked up the head with my magic. When I rotated it to face me I almost dropped it in surprise. Half of PINK-E’s head had its synthetic skin and paint burned away, revealing the charred metal and skeletal frame exposed.

“I’m sorr-r-ry Sparkzzz…bad poniesss came and t-t-took them.”

“Where did they take them? Did you hear them say anything!?”

“My audio receptors picked up s-s-severul mentions of the Black-k-k Tower after my head was separated from my body.” PINK-E made a noise like it…she was crying. “I couldn’t help your family, I couldn’t help anypony…I’m a terrible friend…Twilight was right.” Its voice slowly faded away and the glow behind its eyes went out. I was unexpectedly saddened by her death. At the end she seemed like she felt guilt about something other than my family and was a real pony. I carefully set her beside her body and thanked her. I braced myself for whatever was waiting for me and galloped back towards the Black Tower. Around the Tower were the town’s survivors trying to clean up the battlefield to make it more easily traveled. Having seen the raider army first breach the wall and by guessing by the number of bodies on the ground, I’d say we killed maybe half of their force. They might try and attack again but it wouldn’t be any time soon. My path to the Tower was thankfully unimpeded by debris or corpses and I climbed the stairs to my room. I ran in and sitting in the middle of the bed was Salted Chestnut. He smiled and hopped off the bed. “That’s him. Put him down.”

In my haste I neglected to notice the two other ponies in the room before it was too late. A grey unicorn mare in the corner lifted me in her telekinesis and before I could counter with magic of my own, a huge dark green earth pony stallion smashed his skull into my face, knocking me unconscious.



I awoke in a daze, tied down to a chair with a magic nullifier on my horn, Chestnut sitting in a chair opposite me on the far side of the room. A cold wind blew through the room, I looked to my right to see that we were on one of the highest floors of the Tower. Half of the room was open to the elements, leading to the ground below.

“Ah you’re awake.”

“Chestnut you son of a bitch! Let my family go!”

“Now why would I do that? No, you and I have some things to talk about.”

“Where are they? I’m not saying anything until I know they’re unharmed.”

“Oh they are unharmed…for now but if it pleases you.” Chestnut nodded to somepony behind me. I twisted to try and see what was there. It was the two ponies from before who ambushed me in my room. The unicorn mare was surrounded by a flash of magical energy and disappeared. Teleportation, that meant they could have been holding them anywhere. She flashed back into the room with Winter and Aurora.

“Sparks!” Winter bawled as she ran to my side and firmly took one of my hooves in hers, Aurora quickly followed behind her, taking my other hoof.

“I would like to thank you Sparks. You did something great today.”

“What is he talking about Sparks?” Winter asked with a look of disbelief.

“Oh you don’t know? Well then, allow me to enlighten you. The raider clans have been gathering our power trying to fill the vacuum from Red Asphalts death. As our number grew we knew we had to find a new home. I proposed the attack on Black Town but our leader was against it. When Sparks killed our leader I was MORE than happy to fill her role and when the clans heard that the hero of Black Town was responsible, they were more than happy to invade. Ironic isn’t it? You tried so hard to prevent this and yet it was you who made it possible.”

“You sent me after your leader on purpose…so you could take her place.”

“Figured it out did you? Hahaha! It was so perfect, saved my own skin and had my rival taken out, all at the same time.”

“This is my fault…” I whispered, now realizing what I had done.

“Don’t listen to him Daddy! It’s not your fault.”

“Oh foolish child. Your ‘Daddy’ could have killed be but he let me go. He made a costly choice and provided me with the leadership I deserve…now I’ll give him what he deserves.” Chestnut stood up from his chair and came to stand beside me, and wrapped a hoof around Winter’s neck.

“Mommy no!!” Aurora cried. She ran at Chestnut and was easily smacked aside. She landed close to the edge of the drop-off, unconscious.

“Leave her alone Chestnut! Your fight is with me!”

“You’re right, it is, but there are worse things than death. An eye for an eye Harbinger.” He said, pressing a gun to Winter’s head with his magic.

“Please…please let me go…” Winter sobbed. “Y-you can’t…I-I’m…”

“What was that sweetheart? I couldn’t hear you.”

“I…I’m pregnant!” I was in shock. Hearing that was supposed to be one of the happiest moments of my life, instead it only brought me panic and horror. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

“You hear that Sparks? You’re a father! Congratulations!”

Winter had tears streaming down her face. And I would never forget the look she gave me.

“Sparky…I-I…Lov-”

*BLAM*

Time slowed down as I watched blood spray out of Winter’s temple. The life had barely left her eyes when Chestnut flung her body off the side of the building.

“NOOOOoooo!” I shrieked, thrashing about trying to get out of my restraints, tipping over my chair and falling over in the process.

“A tragedy really. You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

I couldn’t concentrate. This couldn’t have been real. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be!

“Please…” I whispered. “Do it…kill me.”

“I’m afraid I have more important things to do.” He knelt down and took my face in his hooves, forcing me to face him. “Killing you would be too easy, now breaking you? Hmph. The Wasteland is no place for heroes. How that word must sting you now… hero. Your mercy has brought you pain. Your kindness, sorrow. In this world there are worse things than death…You have to surrender to the Wasteland to survive. I used to be like you Sparks but the greatest lesson I ever learned out here is that you can hang on to your morals and die, or do whatever it takes to survive. Now your failures here will forever remind you of that fact. Slash, Blood Orange, let’s get out of here.” Chestnut and the large stallion placed their hooves on the mare’s shoulder and teleported away.

I…I did this…it was my fault…I failed.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Bringer of Justice – +10% more damage to raiders, slavers, and criminals.

Quest Perk Added: Be Strong! - The small statuette has granted you the determination of Applejack. You're going to need all the strength you can get! - Permanent +1 to Strength.

Chapter Eleven: Hearts Promise

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Chapter Eleven: Heart’s Promise

Wanting to believe the best about ponies doesn’t make it true.

Hey there wastelanders! The name’s Pon3, DJ Pon3. It seems, my little ponies, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A little settlement over in The Baltimare area called Black Town was attacked by an enormous raider army in retaliation for the death of Red Asphalt at the hooves of the Harbinger of Hope. It is currently unknown if the Harbinger made it out of Black Town alive and I think everypony, myself included, hopes that he did. My prayers go out to those ponies who lost their lives, their families and their homes. If any of you traders out there are heading east over the mountains, lend a hoof if you can, as a favor to me. In the meantime to all you ponies over there, stay strong, stick together and keep the good fight alive. This one’s for Black Town, here’s Rarity with ‘Begin Again

Begin again, in the night.

Let’s sway again, tonight.

Your hoof on my shoulder.

Your cheek against mine.

Where can we go.

When will we find that we know.

-

Where can we go.

When will we find that we know.

To let go.

Begin, begin again tonight.

One Month Later

The month after the attack on Black Town was one of the worst of my life. After the battle Summer, Aurora and I recovered what was left of Winter and gave her a proper burial just outside of Stable 63. Black Town had suffered more than I had initially thought. Mayor Slate had been killed in the breach that destroyed the wall and the diminished population was not prepared for anti-fire measures. As a result most of Black Town had burned to a crisp and what remained of the raider army had taken control shortly after the first fight. The monolithic Black Tower now served as a symbol of fear and as a mass grave marker for both the town and myself. For two weeks I tried and find Salted Chestnut and avenge Winter but lead after lead and day after day we found nothing. Most saddening of all was when Grim, unsettled by my lust for vengeance proclaimed that I had lost my way. The next morning I found a note telling me that he was returning to his home In Whinnyapolis. I couldn’t blame him for losing faith in me. Before long I realized I couldn’t keep up the search with a filly to take care of. Afterwards Sunny gave me a story about how killing Chestnut wouldn’t bring her back and that I had to set a better example for Aurora lest I lose her like I lost Grim. Like myself, most of the survivors of the attack decided to make our homes in the Crater. Jack quickly found a use for all of us. Circuit Breaker, the tech I had heard about a few times before had apparently survived and made her way to the Crater as well. Other than myself she was the most technologically apt pony in the town. It was surprisingly comforting to get back to the only kind of work I was ever any good at. Circuit and I spent our time together keeping the Crater intact and reinforcing it where we could and trying to hook up several terminals to the spotlights and turrets systems we’d installed. Mother found a job as Jack’s secretary and tried her best to keep us all together. She also took care of Aurora for me when I had big jobs or if I got carried away with chems. I’m ashamed to say that I began to experiment with chems and alcohol at this time, anything to get my mind off of what happened in Black Town. I had nightmares for weeks, every night I would wake up screaming into the night with tears running down my face. In response, if I wasn’t working or taking care of Aurora, I was either lost in a memory orb from the Lone Wolf or high off my tail alone in my room. I couldn’t run away from what happened forever and the next day it finally came for me.



I awoke to Aurora jumping on my bed. She wore a particularly perturbed look on her face.

“Did you forget what today is dad?” I stared at her blankly, desperately trying to remember what I had forgotten.

“Uhhhhh?” I droned on for about thirty seconds before her piercing glare forced a part of me to recall. “Oh shit.” I said out loud. I was going to have to kick my own ass later. “Of course I didn’t forget princess, happy birthday.”

“You’re such a bad liar dad.” She turned away from me and huffed, clearly upset with me. “You need to stop with all…this.” She waved a hoof about the floor which made me see just how many empty bottles there were on my floor. “She wouldn’t want you poisoning yourself to death.”

“You don’t understand Aurora, I…It…it just helps.” It hurt me to see that look of disappointment in her eyes. I wasn’t the best parental figure for her and I wished I could do better. The poor filly thought the world of me and I was only letting her down. It was what I deserved for fooling myself into thinking I was a hero. She was in the same boat as me. We had just united our family only to have them ripped out of our lives and cast into nothingness. Unlike me though, she only had me to numb her feelings and I was failing her by turning into a fucking junkie…but I would never stop trying. I sat up and nuzzled her gently.

“What can I do to make it up to you?”

Her expression relaxed slightly and she sighed softly. “You can take me with you today so I can spend time with you, instead of staying with aunt Sunny all day.”

It wasn’t quite the request I had expected. All she wanted was to spend the day with me. That alone broke my heart all over again and I couldn’t refuse.

“Sounds like a plan to me. C’mon princess let’s eat some breakfast and get this show on the road.” We sat at our little table and I prepared a small breakfast of mutfruit and Brahmin milk. I didn’t wear my stable suit often anymore so on our way out the door I slipped on a grey Robronco jumpsuit and went to meet Circuit Breaker, Aurora happily trotting beside me.

<------OOOO------>

I chose this memory mostly for the nostalgia, back when Equestria was peaceful and her concerns were the opinions of silly nobleponies like me instead of the protection of our nation.

I was at a lavish looking party in a beautiful garden overlooking the equestrian countryside. It felt nice to be in a host who was so tall, although the moustache was a bit much for me. I was staring at a purple unicorn in front of me wearing a plain yellow dress with a pink ribbon around her neck, tearing up the grass in a ridiculous display of flailing hooves in the guise of a dance. For whatever reason I approached the young mare with a feeling of intrigue.

“Excuse me, might I ask where you acquired your… ensemble?”

“Why yes you may.” She responded with a smile. “A very close friend of mine from Ponyville made it for me.

“Ponyville? You don’t say?” I asked, feeling my brow raise in curiosity.

“I do! Her name is-” Before she could finish a white unicorn mare in a yellow dress and sunhat interrupted us from behind. “Fancy Pants! Come with me I have to show you this…thing…over on the other side of the room”

“In a moment my dear, this lovely filly from Ponyville was just about to tell me who made her charming dress.” As if a beacon had been lit, a large number of party guests surrounded the scene.

“Oh that dress?” The white unicorn continued. “Who cares it’s just a plain old-”

“Oh don’t be so modest Rarity, this dress you made is beautiful.” All at once every guest at the party gasped and collectively dropped their drinks. “We all think so.” As if on cue she was joined by four other mares. A pink one with her face covered in cake, a Pegasus with a rainbow mane and tail, a caramel colored earth pony with a hat, and a soft yellow Pegasus surrounded by birds. I turned to face Rarity.

“You know these ponies?” Rarity turned and started walking away as if to join the well-dressed ponies who had encircled us.

“Yes. Yes, I do know them. They may not be as sophisticated as some of you Canterlot ponies, but they are my best friends. And they are without a doubt the most important ponies I know.”

“Then how about you introduce me to your friends?” I said looking back at the five.

“With pleasure.” Rarity said with a proud smile.

That was the night I had met all of them. How right Rarity was that they were the most important ponies she knew. I don’t think she ever planed for that sentiment to become as real as it did. None of us did. If only I could have done more.

<------OOOO------>

Circuit Breaker was already hard at work with her hooves deep in the open panel of a turret on the wall.

“You know I can do that part better right?” I asked smugly.

“Fuck off Sparks, not all of us have cheat terminals on our legs.” She stood up and dropped the tool she had in her mouth. Her coat was light green and her mane was light blue, tied up into a ponytail so it was out of her face. She wore a simple vest with multiple pockets and a red cap on her head. Her face was smudged with oil here and there, making me smile.

“Hey watch your mouth, I brought my daughter today.”

“Oh?” She walked over to us and gently patted Aurora on her head. “Good to see you kiddo, happy birthday.”

I could feel a strong heat on my face, looking down I saw that Aurora was glaring at me again.

“Circuit didn’t forget.”

“I didn’t forget either!” I tried to defend myself but she wasn’t having any of it.

“C’mon Sparks put your money where your mouth is. Get this thing online and programmed.”

I rubbed the back of my neck and sighed. “Ok, I won’t be long Aurora, don’t wander off too far ok?”

“I know, I know dad.”

Several minutes passed as I hooked up my PipBuck’s adapter plug and set to work on the turrets programming. I smiled as I felt the turret hum to life and start oscillating though the arc its motors would allow. The little light on top was glowing green indicating its passiveness towards us. The sun was directly above us now, behind the cloud cover that is. Aurora was playing with some of Circuit’s tools while she was reinforcing some metal on a nearby walkway. I looked at my PipBuck, the little computer pony that represented my overall health was looking good physically but two little red ticks were showing the negative effects of my recent habits. Suddenly a brilliant idea popped into my head. I had the perfect gift for Aurora.

“Hey Aurora! Let’s go find Sunny. I need her to watch you for a bit.”

“Aww daaaad! But you promised!” She whined, pouting at me with the best puppy eyes she could muster.

“I know, sweetheart but trust me, it’ll all be worth it.”

We said our goodbyes to Circuit Breaker and made our way to the tower that rested in the middle of the crater. If anypony would know where Sunny was it was her former right hoof, Smilin’ Jack. We walked in the door at the base of the tower and approached the secretary’s desk.

“How are you holding up son?” My mother asked from behind her desk.

“Well enough I guess.” I answered flatly.

“Hi Nana.” Aurora greeted, standing up on her hind legs to see over the desk.

“Hello there darling, happy birthday! I have a present for you.” Aurora gasped and smiled.

“You do!?” she started shuffling her hooves in excitement as mom bent down behind her desk and returned with a small box.

“Go ahead dear, open it.” Aurora didn’t need to hear anymore as she tore open the box with glee. Inside was a silver mane pin with a purple gem set into it. Aurora’s eyes lit up like she had found treasure. She looked at me with a pleading expression. Understanding what she wanted, I used my magic to fit the clip into her mane on the right side. Ignoring everypony around, she hopped up on the desk and gave my mother a big hug.

“Thank you so much Nana, I love it.” She dropped back down to the floor and started making her way to the stairs. “I’m going to go show Jack and aunt Sunny ok dad? Thanks again Nana, I love you!” And with that she disappeared up to the next floor above. Mother smiled warmly and turned to me like she expected me to say something. It took me a moment but I understood her meaning.

“That was your family heirloom.” I said, hoping to coax her into saying what was on her mind.

“I don’t need it anymore. I was going to give it to…to Winter when you got married but…now it just reminds me of the stable. At least we get to keep it in the family.” She smiled warmly. “I’m so proud of you for taking that filly in. She needs somepony like you and whether you know it or not, you need her too.”

I heard a faint whisper in the back of my head that said ‘Be Strong’.

“It hasn’t been easy since…since Black Town.” I gently touched the necklace that hung around my neck. “But I will never give up on her. Even if I have to take on the whole wasteland along the way.” I remembered what she said to me this morning about my problem and started to tear up. “I need to be stronger…for her.”

“You’ll do fine darling, just remember to not try and force anything and never give up hope.”

Hope…maybe…maybe it was time.



Hours later as the sun was dipping below the mountains I found myself crouching in the shadows in my home waiting for a certain little filly to return. I had sent her on a menial task to get her out of the house for a bit while I organized the surprise. The door slowly opened revealing the guest of honor.

“I’m back! I gave Ms. Circuit the tape you said to give her…dad?”

“SURPRISE!”

Aurora almost leapt out of her fur as everypony I could get jumped up, flipped the lights on and shouted. She saw what decorations I could whip up and the cluster of snack cakes on the table meant to be a cake. Immediately I saw tears run down her cheeks as she trotted to me and jumped in my hooves. As silly as it seemed, even to me, it was something she needed right now. Hopefully it would help her find a semblance of normality. She blew out the one candle I could find followed by a round of clopping hooves. I wrapped her in a warm hug and levitated a box out from under the table.

“I hope you like it princess.” She opened the box with careful precision revealing the best present I could give. Her very own PipBuck. Honestly I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. Now I had the ID tag so I’d always know where she was, doing wonders for my peace of mind. I got my tools out and fastened the arcano-tech to her foreleg. Before I could show her any of the intricacies of the device I felt a claw on my shoulder.

“Hey Sparks can I talk to you for a minute…in private?” Jack asked.

“Hmm…Aurora go ahead and take a bit to figure it out, if you have any questions ask aunt Sunny, she should be able to help you until I get back.”

“Ok dad, thank you so much. I love you.”

“I love you too Aurora, I’ll be right back.”

Jack led me to the next room, hoping that the noise from the adjacent room would be enough cover.

“Listen, I know this is probably the worst time and I know you’ve been distancing yourself from your past but…I need your help.”

I wrinkled my nose at what he was getting at. I turned my back on him and huffed, annoyed.

“You’re right, you could not have picked a worse time. If you need something…like whatever you’re proposing, why not ask Sunny?”

Jack’s gaze shifted to the floor. “I lost Sunny’s loyalty when I walked out on the Regulators.”

“Why should that matter? You’ve practically had her at your beck and call when it comes to ruffing up anypony.”

“She’s doing it for the people of the Crater, not for me. She trusts YOU Sparks, I can count on her to help you in anything you do. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Maybe she has the right idea. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my daughter’s birthday.”

“This isn’t just about me Sparks. This job might interest you too, just hear me out.”

I had my hoof on the door back to the living room, I thought that there wasn’t any harm in hearing him out, then refusing.

“Alright Jack, just make it quick.”

“Sure. There have been more and more sighting of Bleeders on the roads to the Crater. If the caravans are too afraid to make the journey to the Crater then we will all suffer. Now I’ve been paying attention to the work you’ve been doing around here and I want you to use your technical expertise to go out and secure us a few robots from the Bloomberg Space Center. It’s pretty far to the south west and I hate to say it but you and Sunny are some of the most talented fighters in town.”

I thought it was a good idea, even though my combat prowess was surely exaggerated but I wasn’t in any shape to launch such a lengthy expedition. I had also yet to hear just what was supposed to appeal to me specifically.

“I understand where you’re coming from Jack but why does it have to be me? What’s your angle?”

“An old friend of mine, Sid, and his crew moved into the space center almost a year ago. They have been deterred from most of the facilities and he said that his boss has been dealing with some strange ponies lately. The reason I bring this matter to you is that a certain grey unicorn mare was among them.”

My eyes widened at the mention. I could see her clearly in my mind, with Chestnut touching her shoulder as they teleported away. That was the closest lead I had in the month since Chestnut disappeared. As content as I was to stay in the Crater I only gave up my search to take care of Aurora. Now that she was comfortable here and I had ponies to take care of her for me, I could resume my quest to avenge Winter. I stewed the options over in my mind, considering what was best for myself and for the others. It was unlikely that Summer would come with me as her new job here was too vital to the Crater but I had no doubt in my mind that Sunny would help me with no questions so long as I asked.

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes the description matched the mare you told me about. You go get me some robots and along the way you might find the pony you’re looking for.”

“Give me a day or so to get things figured out. I’ll do it.” I could hear that whisper in my mind again. I shook my head to clear it of the strange presence and composed myself.

“You alright Sparks? Are you sure you’re up to this?” I couldn’t tell if his concern was genuine but at least he wasn’t forcing the issue.

“I’m sure, I will rest a lot easier once I put that bastard in the ground. Who am I looking for?”

“Another griffon, brown fur, kinda small in stature.”

With that I returned to the other room to see that the party was still going strong. Sunny was in the corner speaking with my mother and Aurora was playing a game with Summer. Aurora saw me return and waved at me happily, a gesture which I returned as I approached Sunny.

“You’ve done right by that girl.” Sunny said with a smile. “I’m glad you decided to take her in.” She looked up at the ceiling as if recalling a fond memory.

“Mother if you would excuse us? I have something important to talk to Sunny about.”

“Very well darling. I think I’ll go see how the cake tastes.” She flipped her mane dramatically as she strutted off to the table.

“What is it Sparks?”

“Jack just gave me the best lead on Chestnut we’ve gotten since Black Town.”

“Sparks…you just settled down with Aurora, do you really want to leave her now to chase your revenge?”

I looked over at how much fun Aurora was having and how it was the happiest I’d seen her since Winter was killed. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to banish the cloak of burning hatred that enshrouded my heart.

“Yes…I need this Sunny, and I can’t do it alone.”

Sunny sighed and tipped her hat to cover her eyes. “I will help you Sparks. If this will bring you peace.”

I wondered how she truly felt since Chestnut had been involved in the destruction of Requari and it had been me who convinced her to spare him. She wouldn’t admit it but she needed it just as badly as I, perhaps even more so and it was entirely because of me.

“What’s your plan for the girl?”

“She’ll stay with my mother while we’re gone. There are ponies here that I trust to keep her safe.” It wasn’t a decision I made lightly but I had personally built heavily upon the defenses of this town. With that, Summer and Jack, Aurora was in good hooves until I could return.

“I’d like to leave tomorrow, get whatever you need and meet me at the gate in the morning.”

Sunny nodded and slowly made her exit from the party.

Aurora looked on sadly as she left without a word.

“Where’s aunt Sunny going?” she asked with a frown.

“I’ll tell you after the party. For now let’s say we get a taste of the cake before Nana eats it all.”

Aurora looked to the table to see my mother with chocolate crumbs on her face.

“Nana! Don’t eat it all before I have some.” Aurora squealed as she bolted towards the table. That reaction garnered a small round of laughter from the room as we all gathered around the table for cake.

The evening came to a close with a satisfying conclusion. I caught my mother before she left and informed her of my plan. She didn’t question my decision and was happy to take Aurora for a few days. I closed the door behind her as Aurora trotted up to me with a curious look on her muzzle.

“So why did aunt Sunny leave so early? She missed the cake.” Aurora looked over at the table that held just enough cake left for one. “I saved her some for tomorrow.”

I couldn’t turn around to face her, instead I stayed facing the door as I spoke. “I asked her to leave.”

“What? Why?”

“I need her to be ready for tomorrow.”

“Why? What’s happening tomorrow?”

She didn’t need to know about my motive I thought…Jack’s request would do.

“We are leaving the Crater for a while, Jack has requested something that requires my skills.”

“I understand…” Her expression sagged for a brief second before she faced me with a fire in her eyes. “I’m coming with you.”

“What?” I said, turning to see the determined look on her face. “Aurora no, I need you to stay here where it’s safe…where you’re safe.”

“B-but I can help, I promise I won’t get in the way and…and I’ll-”

“My mind is made up Aurora, you’ll stay here and that’s final.”

“B-but I can help! I want to help! Please don’t leave me!”

I could hear her voice cracking as glistening moisture gathered in the corners of her eyes. Damn you Jack for making me do this on her birthday.

I stood facing the door, suppressing tears of my own. “I’m sorry Aurora. I…I can’t risk your safety. You’re all I have left.”

“And you’re all I have left!” Her defiant look quickly faded into one of lonely misery. “Please…don’t go…”

“I’m sorry.” I whispered, opening the door and stepping outside. I had no choice. I had to leave her behind. It was for her own good, one day she would understand. From the other side of the door I could hear her break down into sobs. Forcing back tears of my own, I set out into town to gather supplies. I looked back one last time and the tears escaped.

<------OOOO------>

I still to this day don’t know what became of the money I lent her but after centuries of searching I think I understood what she meant. It’s a far cry from what she told me but the main issue was time. Perhaps if we had more before the end she really could have saved us all. At least that is what I like to believe.

I could feel a warm wind blowing through my mane. I magically removed my monocle and gently wiped it off. I was standing on a marble balcony somewhere in Canterlot, if the geography I picked up from the last orb was on point. I levitated a pocket watch out from a pocket on my dark suit coat.

“Where is that mare?” I felt a touch of irritation but not more than a moment later I heard the sound of hooves clopping on marble. I turned and did an over the top bow to a lovely, well dressed unicorn mare in a blue dress and matching sunhat.

“My dear Lady Rarity, might I ask what’s so important that you summon me here.”

“I’m sorry I’m late Fancy Pants, I didn’t mean to make you wait.”

“It’s quite alright my dear, you have a great deal to manage. It is no surprise that you might be a tad late.”

Rarity fumbled with a briefcase she was carrying with her as she looked all around as if she if she was expecting somepony else to show up, her horn glowing slightly.

“Forgive me if I seem on edge darling, a body double of mine was assassinated in Whinnyapolis not too long ago.”

“No harm done, take as long as you like to relax yourself. If I might be so bold, just what is it you need my dear?”

“I need funding. I can’t redirect ministry funds to my personal project any longer. I…won’t ask my friends and you have been a generous contributor to the Ministry of Image.”

“To what end my dear? What is this project of yours?” I looked at her with a cocked brow.

“I…I have come into possession of a…unique resource. With it I think I may have possibly found a way to preserve life in Equestria…Indefinitely.”

I could feel my heart beating furiously in my chest. I stepped towards Rarity and placed a hoof on her shoulder.

“Do you truly believe that?”

Rarity look troubled for a moment before pure resolve showed in her eyes.

“Yes. I have to. I cannot fail now.”

Despite the resolve in her eyes she looked conflicted about her decision. I started feeling unsure myself about if I wanted to help her. Yet her piercing gaze never faltered. Regardless of the risk that was worrying her, her conviction stood steadfast and that was all I needed to see.

“Very well Lady Rarity. You shall have my pocket for your ‘project’. Should it bear fruit I trust you shall share your discoveries with me?”

“Of course Fancy Pants, thank you so much for this. You won’t regret it. I trust this shall stay between us?”

“Of course my dear. As I said all those years ago…you were and are, an important pony to know. If you believe this project of yours can stop this damn war, then you can count on my utmost discretion. Worry not, the O.I.A will not hear a word from me.”

“You are a good friend Fancy Pants. Thank you so much for this opportunity.”

“Go home and get everything figured out. When you know what you need from me, let me know and you shall have it.”

<------OOOO------>

The next morning I woke up to an empty house and gathered my belongings. I hefted my stable barding and security armor on for the first time in weeks, and took stock of my inventory. It had been so long since I used my pistol last that I had never noticed that my PipBuck had given it a special designation. The Harbinger. As much as it felt wrong, that realization convinced me that I was making the right decision. According to my PipBuck it was just about ten in the morning as I made my way to the Crater’s gate. There was Sunny, patiently waiting for me, just where I thought I’d find her,

“Just you and me again eh?” she said, not looking at me.

“Looks like. Ready to head out?”

“As ready as I can be.”

We collected ourselves and signaled the guards to raise the gate and not a minute later we were out in the Baltimare Wasteland yet again. A heavy fog was rolling in from Horseshoe bay as we circled the Crater and set off to the southwest towards the Bloomberg Space Center. I had never been this far away from the Baltimare ruins before. I was curious as to what we might encounter, if anything would be different. I took a bottle of apple whiskey out of my bags and started drinking.

“You want any of this Sunny?” I asked, levitating the bottle over to her. She squinted her eyes at me and snatched the bottle out of my grasp and took several large swigs.

“You’re a bad influence on me.” She joked.

“So you keep telling me but I wouldn’t be anything without you Sunny, I hope you know that.”

“Ass kissing won’t save you this time Sparks.”

I could tell that she wasn’t on my side about my decision but she would never let me go alone.

“So…do you know anything about where we are going?”

“No.”

“Nothing at all?”

“Don’t you think if I knew anything about this space center I’ve had already told you?”

“Ok I get it…Are you alright Sunny?”

“I care about you Sparks and I’ll support you no matter what. That doesn’t mean I always have to agree with you.”

“You…you rather I’d stayed behind?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“Seriously Sunny, tell me what’s on your mind.”

Sunny looked away, off into the distance.

“I…see a lot of myself in you Sparks and that’s not always a good thing.”

I knew myself that the decision I made wasn’t the best one but every time I thought about Winter or Chestnut an incredible fury woke in my heart. I couldn’t let them live as long as I had the ability to put an end to them. However something about what she said struck me as odd.

“What are you trying to say?”

Sunny hid behind the brim of her hat again and spoke softly.

“I did the same thing once…”

What did she mean by that? I thought. Wait…did she just…did she have… Suddenly my mind was drowning in questions. As if sensing my intentions Sunny looked out from under her hat. The look in her eyes silenced me completely. If she was to tell me anything more, it would have to be on her terms. Now I think I understood where she was coming from but even if what I was thinking was true, my mind was made up. It was my love who was killed, not hers.

I gave Sunny the space I thought she needed as we walked for an hour or two before the sound of nearby gunfire grabbed my attention. I crouched down low as Sunny and I approached the firefight carefully. As we got closer we saw the source of the commotion. Two Steel Rangers were standing with their backs to a large industrial looking building. The two rangers were firing their weapons into a huge mass of feral ghouls. Judging by the number of corpses to ghouls it wouldn’t be long before they would be overwhelmed. I stood up from my hiding place and fired a lightning bolt into the hoard of zombies, dropping a few of them in a flash. Sunny, following my lead, also stood up and began firing her battle saddle at the mass of rotting flesh. The rangers noticed our arrival and pressed the attack to try and clear a path for us. We galloped through the breach before the ghouls could block us off.

The hoard seemed like it was never going to end as we were being pushed back against the wall of the building. It was as we got closer to the rangers I noticed that there were three or so other corpses that weren’t ghouls. This was their last stand. I turned to judge the door to the building to see if trying to retreat inside was a safer option.

“Cover me! I’m getting us inside!” I jumped behind one of the rangers to safeguard myself from the gnashing teeth and jagged hooves. A wall of ghouls blocked us from the main entrance but thankfully we had been pushed towards a garage bay door of some kind, presumably for deliveries and the like centuries ago. The sound of gunfire and snarling ghouls threatened to swallow my concentration but there was no backing out now. If I couldn’t get this door open it was game over for all of us. I felt a sharp hoof slash my flank before the responsible ghoul had its back broken by the powerful hydraulics of the ranger’s power armor.

“Hurry up local! We’re being overwhelmed!”

“He can do it! Keep them suppressed, give him all the time you can!” Sunny yelled, kicking a grenade into the ghoul’s backline. I followed a wire from the roof’s overhang to a damaged fuse box. I focused as hard as I could to repair it. I could do it, this what I was trained for, minus the threat of death. Sweat was quickly matting the fur on my face as I scraped and salvaged as many redundant and broken wires as I could to replace the line to the opening mechanism. At that moment fear had sprouted forth in my chest. Without even considering my course of action, I recognized that it relied on the door and fuse box being connected to a power supply. I held my breath as I connected the final wire to open the door…and nothing. It wouldn’t open. I started to panic as I had led us all to our deaths. NO! I couldn’t let it end here! I lowered my head and charged my electricity spell. I had never tried to use it to power an isolated connection through a secondary relay. I closed my eyes and prayed as I felt the sparking energy leave my horn. Whether Luna herself was watching over me or I was the luckiest son of a bitch in the wasteland I would never know. An electronic whirring kicked in as the door was retracted along the ceiling, allowing us a way into the garage.

“We’re in! Fall back!” One of the rangers shouted through the speaker in his helmet. The two stood as a barrier between us and the ghouls as we retreated inside. Once they noticed we’d made it through they both turned and ducked through the doorway. As soon as they were clear I hit the red button on the wall, activating the closing mechanism that slowly rolled the door back into place. We kept the bullets flying to make sure no ghouls made it inside. The garage door opening made for an effective choke point as we mowed down all that would dare try and follow us. A few managed to crawl through the shrinking gap between the door and the concrete floor but the industrial strength door easily bisected the ghouls decaying bodies as it closed completely. I was astonished by the wall of red ticks just outside the door. How many had we killed? How many were still out there? The sounds of frenzy outside died down quickly as losing line of sight seemed to pacify the ghouls. They resigned themselves to milling about just outside, waiting for the next unsuspecting passerby.

“Nice work local, outstanding performance.” The ranger stallion commented. I turned to face him, wiping the sweat of my brow as I did.

“A little too close for my liking.” I said between panicked breaths.

“Wait a minute. I recognize you. You’re the pony that recovered Paladin Sureshot’s tags.” The other ranger said. She sat down and fumbled with her helmet a bit, removing it. Her coat was a vibrant green and her mane was a bright red. “Do you remember me? Crusader Freesia of the Steel Rangers.” She held out an armored hoof which I took in my own and shook it.

“I’m glad to see a familiar face…so to speak.” I sighed and relaxed a little.

“Agreed. I honestly thought I’d never see you again. I figured you’d just take the tech we gave you and disappear.”

I still had the device they gave me. I was never able to find a use for it but it was too valuable to throw away or sell. A device that flooded a security system with garbage data was a valuable tool to have.

“If you’re done catching up Freesia, we have a job to do.” The other ranger interrupted.

“Ah of course let us proceed then Brass Tacks.” Freesia put her helmet back on and proceeded out of the room behind her partner. Sunny and I fell in line behind them. It would behoove us to stick with them until we got out of the building that my PipBuck just marked as ‘Rainboom Robotics’.

“So Crusader huh? Got promoted since I saw you last?” I asked, wondering just how the ranger’s command structure worked.

“I was rewarded for my actions with command of my own squad after a particular Op went south. I was able to persevere and complete the mission, albeit with several casualties.”

I knew better than to pursue that subject any further. However the lack of a certain other ranger made me curious.

“What happened to Flint?” I asked following behind her.

“Knight Flint was killed on a reconnaissance mission north west of the city. His squad just disappeared one day and his power armor stopped transmitting. We have yet to recover his remains but he is presumed KIA.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that Freesia.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that. He knew the risks though. Dying in the line of duty is the best death a soldier can hope for.”

The ranger in front, Brass Tacks was his name, kicked down a wooden door that led to a big open room with two staircases that led to the upper floors.

“What are you guys here for?” I asked, hoping to glean a little more about their mission.

“I’m afraid we can’t divulge that information, isn’t that right Crusader.”

“At ease Brass. These ponies are friends to the Rangers.”

“Hmph if you say so boss.” Brass scoffed at us and sped up to scout the room ahead.

“Forgive him, the rangers are his whole life, he lives and bleeds steel.”

“Its fine, I understand. So now can I ask what you’re here for?”

“I can’t tell you everything but we are here for an X-33 guidance chip and two B-S turbopump bearings.”

I wondered for a moment what the Rangers would want with that kind of tech before I remembered their goal of recovering technology. Still we were in a robotics research facility, all the tech here should be valuable to them. So why were they so fixated on those two specifically?

“I suppose asking what they’re for is need to know only?”

“…Affirmative.”

Whatever it was, it had to be important. Regardless of what I personally thought I wanted to stay an ally to the Steel Rangers.

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

“You can split up and help search the area I suppose.”

“How will we know what to look for?” Sunny asked, moving to the other side of Freesia.

“We should be able to find the bearings in this site’s spark generator. As for the guidance chip…we aren’t one hundred percent sure if one is even here. So we should split up and search the area and find out.” Freesia activated the head lamp attached to her helmet and started her search.

“I don’t like this, we shouldn’t split up.” Sunny stated, looking around the room nervously.

Now seemed as good a time as ever. I silently thanked the ponies of Stable 71.

“Here, take this.” I withdrew Overmare Junebug’s PipBuck from my pack and offered it to Sunny. “I took this and a few more from Stable 71. The auto-mapping feature will help us keep track of one another once I record my ID tag in it…and…done. Here.” I motioned for her to give me one of her legs, levitating out the special tool to secure it on.

“If you’ve had these for so long why didn’t you give me one earlier?” Sunny looked at me, annoyed that I could have given her such a helpful tool weeks ago.

“I honestly forgot I had them until…recently.”

“Aurora’s birthday?”

“Yeah.”

“So you did forget.” She smirked.

Sunny didn’t say any more and held out her left foreleg. It didn’t take me long to reset the PipBuck’s OS and secure it to her leg. She took a moment to get used to the advanced systems linking to her biology, giving the device an appraising stare.

“Ok we’re good to go. I’ll check the back rooms. Wanna check the upstairs?” I asked, starting on my way towards the other side of the building.

“Sure.” She said, face buried in her new screen, figuring out the finer workings.

“I’ll patch you guys in to our radio communications. Call in if you need assistance.” Freesia said, noticing that Sunny and I both had PipBucks.

I carefully crept into the back area, taking a moment to feel it out before turning on my PipBuck’s light. I checked the screen for my peace of mind to see that Sunny’s tag was being tracked properly. I zoomed out the map function to check on Aurora only to see that there was no tag in the Crater. We were pretty far from home at this point. PipBuck’s were originally designed for the pre-war elite and Stables so maybe I was just out of range to pick up her tag.

The flickering lights and musty air made exploring this place an uneasy experience. Every now and then I’d come across a door that was bashed down and almost every time I did there were a few destroyed robots surrounding them. Inside the rooms with broken down doors were corpses that couldn’t have been there long judging from their state of decay. After checking another two rooms like that I noticed one thing that connected them. All the corpses I found were zebras.

“Hey guys?” I spoke at my PipBuck. “I found multiple zebra bodies…and they are relatively fresh.”

“Are you in danger?” Freesia asked.

“No but I’m going to keep going. If I find out more I’ll relay it to you.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Be careful Sparks.” Sunny added.

I continued deeper into the building until I finally spotted something that gave me pause. Paw prints…bloody paw prints of recently coagulated blood. I swallowed my fear, pulled my pistol out of its holster and followed the tracks.

“Sparks checking in.” I whispered. “I found some kind of animal tracks and fresh blood. We aren’t alone here.”

“Roger that, heading to you now.”

Instead of following where the tracks were going, I opted to follow where they came from. Eventually they led me through a hole in a wall that led to what I guessed was a room for putting robots together. There were old and rusted machine arms set in increments along conveyor belts littered with parts that were never put together. Towards the front of the room in between two of the conveyor belts along the wall and slightly wedged behind a tool chest was the fresh corpse of a zebra mare. Just as the paw prints indicated she looked to have been mauled to death by some kind of beast.

Upon closer inspection it appeared that two such creatures had attacked her but how could that be? There was only one set of tracks. I gently laid a hoof on the corpse and learned that it still had just a touch of warmth. She couldn’t have been dead for more than a day. I could hear the armored hulks of Freesia and Brass approaching from the hall I came from. Sunny was the first to enter the room where she joined me in standing over the corpse.

“Did you find what we’re looking for?” I asked her.

“Yeah Brass and I found the pump bearings or whatever. We stopped looking for the chip when we heard from you. I see that we might have stumbled into something’s home.” She said upon seeing the wounds on the corpse.

“Any ideas what could have done this?”

“Not really. It’s strange to me that a beast this dangerous would make its home here of all places…unless.”

“Unless what?” The speaker garbled voice of Freesia asked as she and Brass entered the room through the hole in the wall.

“Unless the creature is not acting on its own.”

“So you’re saying that a pony or something is pulling this things leash?” Brass asked with a sarcastic tone.

“Do you have a better explanation Brass Tacks?” Freesia questioned, her newfound authority bleeding into her voice.

“No Ma’am. Sorry Ma’am.”

“If we are going to continue our search I advise we proceed with caution. We will split into two teams with one ranger each. Brass, do you have any objections to partnering with…?” Freesia turned to Sunny, beckoning her to finish her question.”

“Sunny.” She said, locking eyes with the two rangers.

“Crusader, forgive me but you can’t be serious. You want me to partner with one of these wastelanders? How can you expect to them to put the mission first when they aren’t even-”

“That’s enough Brass. You aren’t with the Manehattan contingent anymore. You will check your hostility or I will have you reassigned, understand?”

Brass huffed angrily before standing up straight and giving a weak salute. “Understood Crusader.”

“Alright then let’s move out. Everypony ready?”

Sunny and I both nodded. We separated into the teams and set off following the tracks. Soon we came to a split in the hallway where another zebra corpse laid with the tracks leading down both paths.

“Be on your guard Sunny.” I whispered. “If he tries anything, use your PipBuck to ping me and I’ll come running.”

“I don’t think he will but I’ll be careful. Stay safe.”

Brass tromped up behind Sunny and nodded his head towards one of the set of tracks. She nodded back and they quickly disappeared around a corner. The question now was were there multiple creatures or just one.

“Is Brass Tacks going to be a problem?”

“No, he values his belief in the rangers more than he dislikes ponies like you and your friend.”

“How long have you been a…Crusader?”

“Not long and I imagine not for much longer either.”

“Why?”

“Did you see the rest of my squad?”

I remembered the other bodies I saw at their hooves when we arrived to help. “I’m…sorry for your loss.”

“It isn’t likely the Elder will revoke my rank…but I was thinking of stepping down, I’m not fit for leadership.”

I of all ponies knew how it felt to be the one kicking your own ass for your actions. Not everypony will hold you accountable so it isn’t strange to me for ponies to hold themselves accountable, whether it’s deserved or not.

“If you’re going to make a decision like that make sure it’s what YOU want Freesia. The Elder wouldn’t have given you this position if he thought you couldn’t handle it.”

“Yeah…” She didn’t say anything more as she retreated into herself to think.

We continued on in silence until we reached the end of the hall. At the end was a large ornate door that hopefully held something to aid us behind it. I went to open the door only to learn that it was locked. Suddenly I was missing Grim more than ever. I saw him pick locks often enough that I was willing to give it a try. I levitated out a screwdriver and a few bobby pins and carefully started fiddling with the lock. I had just set the pin in place to lift the tumbler when a metal clad hoof smashed the door off its hinges, sending it cartwheeling across the room, hitting the desk and coming to rest on the floor. I just sat there staring at my tools floating in front of me where the door had just been. I turned slowly to face Freesia. Even with the helmet on I could just feel the shit eating grin on her face underneath it.

“Power Armor has its advantages.” She said in a playful tone.

“That was so unnecessary.” I said, stowing my tools back in my packs as we entered the office. The inside of the room looked like it had been lived in recently. There were small amounts of supplies stocked around the room on shelves or piled in the corners. I started to wonder if I would ever find an office without a terminal in it as I dropped into the chair with a creak. I pressed one button on the terminal before I leaned to look around it to glare at Freesia.

“You gonna knock this one across the room too?”

“Only if it’s more convenient than doing it your way.”

“Hmph, I won’t be long.” She nodded and turned to watch the doorway as I jacked into the terminal to pick apart its security. Getting in was almost child’s play to me now, at least with an encryption this weak. Once I was in, I saw that there were a few logs left by whomever ran this place before the war as well as ones that were added recently, perhaps clues to our mystery beastmaster? I decided to start with the old ones before progressing my way to the ones that would help us…curiosity is a virtue right? The first old one was labeled ‘Finally!’

Finally all of my hard work is paying off! When I named this place after Rainbow Dash I never thought I’d ever do anything for the ministries. The Ministry of Arcane Sciences and the Ministry of Wartime Technology have both commissioned some very specific tech from us. The representatives made me sign some kind of agreement, stating that they didn’t choose a bigger company like Robronco or S.M.I because of confidentiality concerns. Though the full extent of their project wasn’t discussed with me I’m still more than happy to help Equestria however I can. We only have to research and fabricate some specific key components for some kind of vehicle tech I assume based on the notes they gave me. Hopefully this contract will lead to future projects with the Ministries or other private companies. I can’t wait to get started.

I recognized Robronco as the foremost supplier of robots during the war but had no idea to what S.M.I was, another tech company if I had to guess. However the more important thing to note was the project the entry entailed. It was very likely we would find the chip the rangers were after. Next on the way down was an entry that was labeled ‘New Project.”

I got my wish! A few days ago we got a commission from a pony who wishes to remain anonymous. They supplied us with a prototype robot design designated ‘Assualtron’. The designs are quite striking, they look to be very combat proficient without the overwhelming bulk of other robots like sentinels or brain bots. That’s where this commission gets strange. The details asked for us to research and build upon the Assualtron’s designs for something less combat based. I wanted to ask for what purposes but whoever the client was threatened to withdraw the commission if I kept asking questions. It was understandable as whoever the client is clearly has heavy sway on Equestrian industry if they had access to schematics like these. Assualtrons are the most pony-like robot I’ve ever seen. We are to follow our instructions to…to what looks like recreating somepony in robot form. We have been supplied a number of items and data regarding the pony in question. Personally I find the idea very disturbing but the money is good and I don’t want to alienate future clients, so I’m going to grit my teeth and deliver what was requested.

What kind of robot were they making? I’ve never heard of or seen an assualtron but the idea of a metal pony was frightening enough by itself, especially if you couldn’t distinguish one from a flesh and blood pony. I wondered if they finished the robot before the bombs fell. Would we run into a peculiar robot or would we find its unfinished chassis? It wouldn’t do me any good to worry about it, at least not yet. As I moved on to the recent entries I saw that the first one didn’t have a label so I opened it and started reading.

Thank the spirits, I finally found a terminal. At least my problem doesn’t extend to the written word. I probably shouldn’t be documenting my thoughts like this but it’s one thousand times better than keeping them flying around my head. The robots here have been serving as an effective barrier against my former brothers and sisters. On this same terminal I found entries regarding a very special robot. One I’m hoping will be enough to get me out of here and back on my way. I’d hate to lose Boola but eventually I will run out of robots. I hope it won’t come to that. I will begin my search for the bot as soon as the fighting dies down.

So the special order robot was still here? Whether or not that was the case our mystery beastmaster seemed to believe so. That told me that all the zebra corpses were a result of them trying to capture our mystery pony…er zebra, I guess. The fact that the last two corpses we found were killed by ‘Boola’ as I assumed the beast was called, indicated that they had exhausted their supply of robots. Wherever they were now, they had to be extremely desperate. I moved on to the next entry that was entered only a few days ago.

I found it, I fucking found it! I found a secret basement that held the labs and research center. I found the powered down robot they were building. I was hoping that my skills with the other robots would translate to this one but I was dead wrong. This bot is in a league all in its own. Whether that’s due to its rare nature or the special modifications the ponies here made is beyond me. I’m going to move to the basement and see if I can scrap enough components together to get the thing operational. I should have plenty of time to do so, the robots I reprogrammed have been a successful enough deterrent that I don’t think they will get to the basement. Just to be safe though I will be locking down this console. I know that my clan won’t be able to get through it, they won’t even know to look for the hidden release to open the basement tunnel. I should start moving my things down there before the next hunting party gets here.

So there was a secret tunnel somewhere that led to a basement area. That’s where we would fine our zebra friend. More importantly it was probably the place we’d find the guidance chip.

“I got a lead Freesia, call back Brass and Sunny will you?”

She turned away from her watch at the door and nodded. “Sure thing.”

As she radioed the others I remembered our time in the Briddlestar mall when we found that button under a desk. I hopped out of the chair in front of the desk and ducked underneath. No such luck. I should have known it wouldn’t be so easy. Freesia noticed me under the desk and came to stand beside me.

“What are you doing?”

“There’s a secret tunnel to the basement labs and I’m looking for a switch or something.”

No more needed to be said as she too joined me in the search.

“Are you sure it’s in this room?”

“No but if I ran this place I’d want the switch somewhere only I could get to it.”

Our searching became more in depth such as tearing off paneling on the walls and tearing up the carpeting. Just as Sunny and Brass walked into the room I located the switch at the bottom of a plant pot, once I scooped all the dirt out. A hissing sound could be heard as a portion of the floor retracted and led to stairs heading below.

“That’s where were going to find your chip.” I pointed down the stairs hoping one of them would get my meaning. There was no guarantee that the chip was there but at this point we needed to be thorough as well as take care of the zebra. Brass huffed angrily and started first down the stairs, followed by me and Sunny with Freesia watching our flanks. Between our PipBuck lights and headlamps the darkness would be hiding nothing from us. Immediately I noticed the strange smell that permeated the air. We reached the end of the stairs that opened up into another assembly looking room with conveyors and parts all over the place. Before I could take a closer look a ferocious growling followed by Brass being tackled to the floor demanded my attention. Brass had been pounced on by a large two headed dog creature. One head had its jaws clamped on one of the guns on his battle saddle, while the other was biting at the throat area of his armor.

Freesia trotted past Sunny and I, kicked the thing in one of its faces, the strength of which was enough to send it careening over a dirty workstation. The thing whined in pain as it stood up, Freesia ignored this and trained her guns on it, ready to take it out. Then, out of nowhere, a zebra dressed in rags with a bedraggled mane jumped in between Freesia and the dog creature.

“No! No please, do not fire! Boola did not intend to draw your ire!”

“Stand down zebra!” Freesia yelled, sounding genuinely scary.

“Yes of course, please forgive me. You were not the ones I was expecting to see. I’ve been on the run from folk of mine. So the security of this place became my find.”

“If I see your pet’s fangs again I will kill it. Understand?” Freesia lowered her guns and relaxed her stance.

“Yes I understand very well. Boola will listen to what I tell.”

“What are you blind Freesia? That’s a zebra! Kill it!”

“The Steel Rangers have no quarrel with this zebra, as far as I’m concerned he’s just an unarmed civilian.”

“Says you, if you won’t I will!” Brass’ chain gun started to spin but before any bullets fired, Freesia stepped in between the zebra and Brass. She raised a hoof and brought it down on the barrel of the chain gun, knocking it off its battle saddle mount.

“Freesia what the fuck!?”

“Stand down! We do not open fire on civilians without good reason!”

“What more reason do you want!? Look at him! He’s a fucking zebra! It’s because of his kind that we all live in this radioactive hellhole!”

“There’s no war anymore Brass, your prejudice is based on an event that happened two hundred years ago. There will be no unprovoked killing here today.”

Brass was fuming under his helmet. For a moment it looked like he was going to accept Freesia’s orders but hatred can do terrible things to a mind. Brass charged through Freesia intent on killing the zebra but before he could make a move a black and white blur kicked his helmet off his head, then spun midair landing two hooves on the back of his head, knocking him out cold.

“I’m sorry I had to do that to your friend, but it looked like he sought my end.” Now that the tension in the room had eased away I could finally be a part of the conversation.

“What is your name?” I asked, stepping over the unconscious body of Brass.

“Xela was the name given at my birth. Though these days it holds little worth.”

Freesia checked to make sure Brass was alright. She fiddled with some controls under a panel in his armor near his flank.

“While I don’t exactly approve of what just happened, your moves sure did a number on my Knight. Where did you learn to fight like that?”

Xela leaned back slightly with a smug expression.

“I was trained in combat since the day I was born and to its practice I have been sworn.”

I had never met a zebra before. There was plenty I didn’t know about them or their culture. All I knew is that it’s because of them the wasteland is what it is today, or at least that was what I’d been told. Thinking about that lit a flame of anger in my heart. I suddenly empathized with Brass for a brief moment before I remembered what Freesia had just said. Killing him wouldn’t bring life back to the wasteland and I doubted the ponies of Equestria were completely free of blame. If we were to find what we sought then having the guy who had been living here on our side could only help us. Making peace with that for now, something about his mannerisms bothered me. Was it just a zebra thing?

“Why do you talk in rhyme?”

He looked perplexed as if he thought I hadn’t noticed. “A curse from my kind was placed upon me, now my words come out like poetry.”

“A curse that makes you speak in rhyme?”

“It was created back in olden times, to identify those guilty of crimes. Forsaking ones clan could warrant the curse and that is why I must speak in verse.”

“Enough with the pleasantries.” Sunny butted in and pushed her way to the front. “We are searching for a guidance chip. If you mean us no harm then perhaps you could help us.”

Xela looked around the room, thinking hard about something.

“I may know where a chip may be but first you will do something to help me.”

“I knew this wouldn’t be easy, what do you need from us?” I asked, looking to Freesia to try and gauge her reaction.

“There’s a robot here that I have found but on making it work I’ve gained no ground. Some extra hooves might be what I need to make it work and take my leave.”

“So you need our help activating it?” Freesia asked, standing up from Brass’ unconscious form.

“I’m afraid machines are beyond my ken so I’ve kept it safe here in my den.”

“Can you show it to us?”

Xela nodded and said something in a language I didn’t understand. Boola started panting and ran off towards the other side of the room. I heard a loud clunking sound as a portion of the lights set into the roof came to life. Anchored into a workstation on a raised dais was the powered down form of a metal pony. We approached it to get a better look. I recognized it immediately. I levitated out the small statuette I took from the Black Town armory and compared the two. Everything was a perfect match. The coat, the mane, which was made of synthetic hair and the cutie mark. Everything save the cowpony hat on its head. I heard Freesia gasp beside me.

“Is…is that Applejack? What the hell were the ponies here up to?” Freesia sounded very displeased.

“Applejack?” I mirrored, looking at the statuette in a curios light.

“Yes the founder…Applejack, Ministry Mare of the Ministry of Technology.”

In the Stable I had been taught that the ministries were very important in the last days of Equestria’s government. That made this mare one of the most important ponies in Equestria…at least the robotic clone of her. I had to agree with Freesia’s reaction. What in the world would anypony need an Applejack robot for? I suppose since she wasn’t finished before the bombs fell that it no longer mattered. But curiosity was a virtue like I said. Right?

“I don’t like this. This…I don’t know what to think.” Freesia was seriously conflicted with the robot before her. I couldn’t exactly understand what she was thinking, though how would I have felt if it were a robotic clone of say, Celestia or Luna.

“I’m going to see what I can do with it.” I ignored Freesia’s pleas and opened a panel on its chest where I plugged my PipBuck into it. My PipBuck was flooded with data and programs I could barely understand. Personality matrixes and memories with behavioral subroutines and customized speech and voice systems. Technically speaking it was complete but something in its code was keeping it inactive. Whether it was waiting for a specific trigger or command I couldn’t tell. Freesia let me continue fiddling with the robot as she moved on to continue speaking with Xela.

“Where did you acquire your pet? And what is it?

Xela said something in the zebra language and the two headed dog ran up to Freesia and started licking her helmet on both sides.

“An Orthros is what my companion is and vicious licking is a quirk of his.”

“Where did you find it…him?”

“I captured him as a pup in a forest of gloom. By my side he has been, bringing my foes doom. The capture of Boola for me was just fun. Who ever said two heads are better than one?” Xela started petting Boola with strong affection. A strong bond between pony, or zebra, and their pet was worth more than a million bits…caps.

“I think it’s time we got the chip while my friend works on the robot.” Sunny said, forcefully stepping between Freesia and Xela.

“Very well, get your things and follow me. I shall gift you the chip that you seek.”

They disappeared out of my vision to find the chip while I tried to find the trigger the robot was waiting for. I kept digging into its code where I found its combat programming. Despite what the terminal said they apparently didn’t delete or replace the combat subroutines. Rather they just buried them where they could be reactivated at a later date. I couldn’t see any obvious weaponry on the robot which made sense as it seemed to me it was meant to be an infiltrator or assassin? Maybe? It was hard to tell. What was most disturbing of all was how…anatomically correct it was. If it was built to be an infiltrator or something along those lines then…honestly you would have to get very, very close to tell it was a robot. Did whoever it was who commissioned this expect it to…to have sex with somepony? As if thinking about it summoned them, I found the programming for…sexual activity and blank space where more data on the subject could be added. While not for the same reasons, I now understood Freesia’s confliction. Suddenly I could see why some might want an Applejack robot. The thought sent a shudder down my back.

After digging even further I found that it was missing an activation key that I did not possess. I disconnected my PipBuck and closed the panel to search the lab for the key. I followed some wires connected the base that the robot stood on to a terminal with technical readouts on the thing. Nothing helpful there. There were wires upon wires I could follow and hopefully one of them led me to some kind of clue. I carefully followed more wires on the wall, walking past Freesia, Sunny and Xela as I did, not hearing a word they said. Eventually I found another terminal whose screen had been blown out but had a port for holotapes. I carefully fired my lightning spell into it, giving it enough power to eject the tape inside. The tape that came out had no label on it but it was all I had to go on so I opened the holotape port on my PipBuck and inserted it. My screen was replaced by several algorithms, one of which had similar readouts to the robot. With any luck that was our activation key. All I had to do was return to where the robot was docked and find out. It was never that easy unfortunately. As soon as the robot came back into my view I saw Brass standing behind it. Its eyelids opened revealing soft green eyes that began glowing red as it stepped off the platform.

“Combat protocols engaged. Targets confirmed. Engage?” it asked in a mare’s voice.

“Kill them all!” Brass shouted, followed by boisterous laughter.

Two long blades slid out of its forelegs, just above its hooves and in the blink of an eye it disappeared. I was paralyzed with fear for a brief moment before I pulled out my gun and returned to my senses. I tried to call for my allies but as soon as I opened my mouth a sharp blade I couldn’t see slashed across my chest, gliding off my armor but biting into the flesh of my right foreleg. I stumbled forward, unable to stay up on my injured leg, just in time to hear a blade slice through the air where my neck had been one second ago. I rolled onto my back and fired where I thought the thing was. I was rewarded with a few sounds of bullets hitting metal followed by sparks flying off the invisible robot. Brass’ remaining rifle roared as a chunk of floor besides my head was blown away. I tucked my legs in and rolled towards where I had last seen Sunny and the others. New stab marks in the floor were forming behind me as I rolled away. The thundering sound of Freesia’s armor sounded my rescue as she rounded the corner and accidentally slammed into the robot, sending it flying across the room where bits of debris and dust were thrown up by an invisible impact. I heard the sound of angry snarling as the blur that was Xela blew past us and went right at Brass with Boola.

“Attack the pony in the tin can! We shall kill him where he stands!” The dual headed terror that was Boola pounced on Brass while Xela got behind him and started raining down blows with his hooves.

“Sparks what happened!?” Sunny shouted, taking a stance over me, giving me time to get up.

“The robot, brass turned it on somehow, it has stealth technology so keep your guard-” Before I could finish my warning I felt a metal leg collide with my chest, slamming me into the weathered wall. Freesia’s eye slits on her helmet lit up and she started searching for the robot.

“Forgive me founder!” She screamed as she lunged forward and started grappling with the mechanical monster. I was surprised to see that the robot was holding its own against Freesia even with her power armor. I quickly looked to my PipBuck to see if I had anything that would help us. I saw a weapon on my list labeled ‘Hearts Promise’ and a few chems that Circuit Breaker gave me. I used the PipBuck’s built in sorting spell to find and see what the hearts promise was. I had forgotten I had taken his weapon. Levitating in front of me was the pink knife fashioned from the Lone Wolf’s wife’s horn as he described it.

<------OOOO------>

Centuries of life gives one ample time to search for answers. I have no idea how she came across this kind of knowledge but I have enough to move forward on my own, I think. Princesses forgive me for what I’m about to do.

I was inhabiting the body of some unicorn stallion working in front of a terminal. On the screen before me was a very complex looking spell. I had no idea what to make of what I saw but my host clearly knew what he was doing.

“I don’t know, this…this process will be agonizing. It was one thing when we were using a pony’s entire soul but this…cutting the soul into pieces like this…”

My host turned to face another thin, but tall, unicorn stallion. “Mistress Rarity wouldn’t have sent you the spell if she didn’t believe you could do it.”

“Snails you’re looking at the same spell I am right? Do you remember what happened to those prisoners from phase one? The process killed their bodies and almost destroyed their minds. Mistress Rarity wants to split, SPLIT somepony's soul, possibly multiple times. I know she thinks this knowledge can help Equestria but whoever the victim of this new spell-”

“You’re worrying too much. Remember what Rarity always say abouy you?”

“That I’m pleasantly plump?”

“No, the other thing.” The pony known as Snails insisted.

“That I’m the master of magic…and cutting things. Alright Snails, we’re really going to do this eh?”

“You betcha buddy.” Snails thumped me on the shoulder and smiled, until he was interrupted by a ping from his terminal.

“Wait a minute…I just got a new message from Rarity…what are these? More soul jars?”

Snips leaned to look at Snails’ screen which showed illustrations of ponies on statue bases, one of which was like the one I had in my possession and another like the one I saw in the College. So there were six in total huh? Just what were these things?

<------OOOO------>

The knife I held in my magical grasp felt strange. Like it was an extension of my own horn. Unicorn horn was one of the few materials that was naturally a focus for magic. I held it along with the harbinger in my magic as I joined Sunny in trying to help Freesia pin the robot. I heard cries of pain behind us as Brass’ exposed face was getting an absolute beating from Xela. Xela was far more agile than the four legged tank and with only half his firepower at his disposal, he really only had his armor’s protection on his side. Well, that and the killer robot that was currently being grappled by three ponies. I heard the metallic sound of the things blades extending out again and felt one jabbed into my chest. I let go of where I was holding it to try and stop the blade from piercing any further. Hot stinging pain warned me that it had punctured my armor, this things strength was amazing. I brought the horn knife down for a desperate swing, slashing through its synthetic coat and skin on its neck. All of a sudden the blade was pulled out of my armor and it managed to free itself from Freesia and Sunny’s grasp. It reappeared in front of us, its eyes glowing much brighter than a moment ago. A slight clicking from my PipBuck told me that there was a sudden radiation spike in the room. I heard a loud humming coming from the robot as it reared its head back and its eyes turned fully red.

Two large beams of red energy erupted from its eyes, nailing Freesia in her chest, rapidly melting through her armor. The needle on my Geiger counter quickly started to move from the green area of the dial to the yellow as the beam forced Freesia to the floor. Once she was down it didn’t just keep its gaze on Freesia, it spun around forcing Sunny and I to take cover lest we be reduced to ash. Xela however, had no time to react as the eye beams easily killed Boola and even with his speed he could not save one of his legs from being dismembered. Now that Xela had lost his advantage over Brass he instantly took a heavy, metal coated hoof to his face, knocking him through a nearby workstation. We were running out of options. I entered SATS to give myself more time to think as I surveyed the situation. I theorized that the robot would hopefully have to take a moment to vent the incredible amount of heat it built up. Ideally giving us an opportunity to take it out while it was vulnerable. Two panels on its barrel were explosively opened by scalding hot air and steam. Its eyes were already starting to glow red again. It wasn’t going to be exposed for as long as I had hoped. Then I remembered the small cache of chems I had in my bags. I needed all the time I could get as I pulled out an inhaler of Dash. I inhaled the drug and watched in delight as the world slowed down while I was still moving at normal speed.

Freesia’s armor’s built in repair talisman was already filling in the hole in her chest plate while I watched Sunny unload a round of buckshot into the robots side, hitting it enough to stagger it. As it recoiled I saw the weak spot I had opened up earlier on its neck. I galloped at the robot, floating hearts promise into the breach in its plating. Hopefully what I had felt before wasn’t just my imagination. I channeled my lightning spell into the link between myself and the horn I held and watched in slow motion delight as blue streaks of electricity exploded out of the gash in its neck. Its eyes went dark as the sudden surge of energy had crashed its spell matrix. I took advantage of my Dash fueled body and the time I had while it reset itself to throw the panel on its chest open and issue the shutdown command through my PipBuck. I heard the distorted voice of Brass Tacks calling out to Freesia.

The world blurred for a moment as if coming back into focus as time resumed its normal flow. “We couldn’t let him take a robot that advanced.” Brass was saying. “We need to take it back to the Elder.”

Freesia walked up to Brass and draped an armored leg across his back. “You’re absolutely right. Forgive me Knight. I let the mission get in the way of our primary goal.”

“I’m glad you agree, now let’s deal with those two before they-” Freesia’s rifle blasted through Brass’ skull, spraying the floor with blood and bone fragments.

Freesia sighed through her helmet and noticeably slumped down in defeat. Sunny and I trotted to where Xela had landed only to be met with his dead eyes. I closed my eyes for a moment cursing more unnecessary death.

“Why did you do that?” I asked, looking at the still, armored from of Brass Tacks.

“I don’t tolerate traitors. He would have killed me the same as you and brought that robot back alone for the Elder’s favor. Not that he would have got it.” Freesia straightened up and peered towards the powerless robot. “How did he activate it?” Freesia asked the room.

“I think he just powered it up. I was looking for the activation key so it would activate properly. Brass just powered up its base operating systems giving him access to its primary function, combat.”

“He did have some technical training.” She admitted. “I…he was right though. I should take it back to the Elder.”

“Did you get the chip you were looking for?”

“Yes, though I will return alone, I won’t return emptyhoofed.” Freesia lifted the robot on to her back and started her way back up the stairs to the ground floor. I looked to Sunny to see her retrieving the bearings from Brass’ corpse, as well as anything else of value. We made it back to the garage bay where we originally came in.

“This is the second time you’ve stuck your neck out for the Steel Rangers. I’d like you to keep the activation key for this robot and bring it to the Academy as soon as you can. The Elder will want to speak to you after I deliver my report.”

“As soon as I’m done out here I think I’ll be able to do that.”

“Thank you for your assistance Sparks, you too miss Sunny.”

Sunny waved her hoof dismissively. “Don’t mention it, helping ponies is what…I used to do. I’m glad to do it again.”

“I’ll see you back at the Academy in a few days hopefully. Now we have to get past the…what the?”

I was startled for a second when she cut herself off like that, until I looked at my compass. The wall of red was gone. I hit the button on the wall, the metal door retracted into the ceiling revealing the empty lot. Only the bodies of the dead to be seen.

“Where…what happened to all the ghouls?” I asked, dumbfounded by their absence.

“That would be my doing.” A certain flat voice said beside me. “Hello again Sparks.”

“W-watcher!? What…why did?”

“I was asked to lead them away. Speaking of which you’ll never guess who I found.” The floating spritebot rotated and looked in the direction of a crashed sky bus where I saw one yellow blip. Very slowly, a white filly walked out from behind it.

“Umm…H-hi daddy…”



Footnote: Level Up!

New Perk: Robotics Expert – Your work in the Crater has given you a finer understanding of robotics and machinery. You gain 25% damage against robots and are able to hack into them and give them specific commands.

Chapter Twelve: Deception

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Chapter Twelve: Deception

Where must we go, we who wander this Wasteland, in search of our better selves.

I stood there flabbergasted, staring at the white filly staring back at me nervously. This was why I didn’t see her tag in the Crater, I didn’t think to look anywhere else. She was on her way to me, following MY tag. I turned my attention to Watcher and gave him my best murderous glare.

“Don’t look at me, I just happened to find her and when she told me about you… well, I thought I’d lend her my aid.”

I was forgiving enough to believe that Watcher didn’t put her up to this, which left…

“Aurora, What the hell are you doing!? Didn’t I tell you to stay in the Crater with Mother!?”

Immediately I saw her starting to tear up. I slightly relaxed my expression but I couldn’t falter on her being here.

“I…I just wanted to help…”

“I know Aurora but look around you.” I waved a hoof over the killing field of ranger and ghoul corpses. “This is no place for a filly, especially my daughter.”

“I...I don’t want to be left alone anymore…and I don’t want you to be alone Dad. The last time you were…”

She let the implication hang in the air. She didn’t need to say it, I knew what she was referring to. I had to concede she had a point but my thoughts weren’t going to change so easily.

“I’m not alone Aurora, I have Sunny with me.”

“Aunt Sunny would let you jump off a bridge if you asked her not to stop you!”

I turned to look at Sunny to which she responded with a non-committal shrug. Thinking on it, she had a really good point. Sunny herself was with me now because I asked her to help me, even though she objected to my vengeance.

“Aurora, I…I know how you feel…but I don’t-”

“I won’t let you leave me again! I…please don’t leave me daddy, I can’t…I can’t lose my family again.”

It couldn’t have been easy for her. She was by my side every day after the fall of Black Town and she had seen me at my worst. I remembered her crying eyes and panicky sobbing when she found me after I gave up the search for Chestnut. It was the lowest point of my life so far. I was, and in ways, still am depressed about not finding Chestnut. When I gave up my hunt for him I lost my will to live. Neither my Mother nor Aurora could stop me from deciding to put my gun in my mouth. As luck would have it that day, Aurora trotted into our home and found me before I pulled the trigger.

I didn’t want to talk about things after Black Town much but at this point it can’t be ignored, one of you was with me then anyways, I can’t hide it from all of you.

---

I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, looking at my hooves through tear blurred eyes. Every time I closed my eyes all I saw was her lifeless body plummeting to the ground below. That and the smiling face of Salted Chestnut. The rage in my heart would never be quenched until he faced my vengeance but lead after lead that was lost, turned my rage to despair, turning it loose on my own mind. When the inevitability of losing him dawned on me I saw no other recourse. I pulled out my gun and remembered to load it this time. There would be no repeat of the last time I sunk so low. I cried quietly through my teeth as I prayed to the goddesses to let me join Winter as I pressed the barrel in my mouth. In that moment as the tears rolled down my cheeks and I was ready to pull the trigger did my princess throw open my door and see what I was about to do. I don’t exactly remember what she was holding in her mouth but she dropped it as soon as she saw me, her smile turning to horror instantly. The look of shock on her face gave me pause in that moment, the gun falling a little in my magical grasp. Whether she planned what happened next or if it was purely accidental I couldn’t tell as a white blur covered the distance from the door to me in a flash. What came next was a small hoof hitting me in the cheek, causing the gun to fly from my mouth and grasp. Next thing I knew there were legs wrapped around me as Aurora sobbed into my chest, incoherently babbling as she hugged me like she would never hug me again. In a way she was right. A few seconds more and my life would have been lost. All at once life came crashing down on me as I finally saw the filly crying into my chest. She was just like me. We both lost her but she had lost more and I was about to add to her grief. It was then that I dedicated myself to her, her safety, her happiness. My life meant more to her than it did to me and if I had to live in pain to make sure she wouldn’t then that was the price I’d gladly pay.

---

Aurora stared me down, with conviction in her eyes. She wouldn’t leave me alone again, the image of the gun in my mouth etched into her greatest fear.

“Aurora…you…you are a very brave filly.”

“No more leaving me behind ok?! You’ll keep me safe…right?”

We were too far to take her back now, regardless of how much I was against her coming with us, she would just find a way like she did this time.

“With every fiber of my being princess.” I walked to her and gave her a gentle hug, nuzzling her softly. She returned the affection and wiped her tears away. A gesture she repeated on tears of my own. I turned to try and gauge Sunny’s reaction. All I noticed was that Freesia must have left during the spectacle. No matter, I would be seeing her again soon, her and her Elder.

“Good, that ranger left.” Watcher said, a bit of venom bleeding through the bots speaker.

“You don’t like the Steel Rangers?” Sunny asked with a raised brow.

“I don’t like the way they hoard technology, a perversion of what they used…never mind, it’s not important. What is important is what I need to say to you Sparks.”

“Oh? And what might that be?”

“I heard what happened from Grim. He told me everything. You were doing so well.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You were showing promise, making a name for yourself as a beacon of hope. You could have been one. Now…I’m not so sure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? One of what?”

“Not important, not anymore. We will meet again Sparks. Try and find yourself in the meantime. You can still be a good pony. Don’t let the wasteland consume you. Be better, ponykind is something to be surpassed.”

With that final word a burst of static signaled that Watcher had abandoned the spritebot. Evidenced by the annoying music that started to play from its speakers as it aimlessly floated off. Just who was Watcher? His motivations seemed to include me in some way, as well as others as he made it sound. He was collecting ponies? Or using them? For what purpose? Suddenly I wasn’t convinced of his altruism. He wanted something and I didn’t know if it was a bad or good thing. He appeared as an ally every time we’ve met so perhaps he could still be trusted but that nagging feeling in the back of my head would linger for some time.

“Hard to trust somepony who never shows their face.” Sunny said, turning her back on the departing robot.

“Yup. Hey Aurora? Remember what we showed you?” I looked down at her expectantly.

She looked nervous but still pulled a knife out of the little backpack she was wearing.

“I hope you don’t have to use it and I’ll do everything to keep you out of danger but should the worst happen…”

“I know dad.” She said, returning the knife to her pack. “I’ll do my best with what you and aunt Sunny showed me.”

It wasn’t a process I enjoyed, training my daughter for the wasteland but it was something Sunny said we couldn’t ignore. We taught her basic gunplay as well but I didn’t know if I was ready to let her have a gun. Though if I had my way she would never need one.

We continued on towards the mark on my map. My PipBuck started ticking as we approached an enormously large fence made from scavenged metal paneling from vehicles or roofing or anything that would aid in keeping others out. From this distance it was hard to tell what exactly it was I saw through the small gaps in the fence. To my eyes there was nothing that warranted such a wall. It was clear this wall was put up after the war…but why? There was nothing here. Just a dilapidated warehouse and scattered, ratty tents. Even though there was nothing here worth protecting I grew suspicious of the two gun towers I spotted further down the fence at what I assumed was the entrance. As we turned to leave and get away from the radiation I swore out of the corner of my eye I saw a pony shaped figure flee from the fence line. Was somepony watching us? Even though I pushed that thought out of my mind I still picked up the pace away from the fence until it was barely noticeable in the distance. Just like the cruise ship in the bay that was a place to be dealt with later, or not at all.

Minutes turned to hours as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. The landscape around us was slowly turning more desert like which aided us in setting up a camp for the night against a rock wall. The fire before us danced in the wind, casting swaying shadows on the rock wall behind us. As I sat with Aurora at my side I realized I had a theory to test. I levitated Heart’s Promise out of my bags and held it in front of me curiously.

“Is…is that the knife that…?”

“That belonged to Fancy Pants? Err…the Lone Wolf? Yes, yes it is.” I finished for Aurora. It was her who gave it to me in the first place. Were I in her place, I think I’d still feel weird about seeing the knife that almost took my life.

“Why did you keep that?” Sunny asked, genuinely curious.

“It’s made from unicorn horn. I did something with it against that robot and Brass. I wanted to see if it was a fluke or not.”

“You fought a robot!?” Aurora asked, her expression a combination of worry and awe.

“Yep, a very special robot. You’ll get to see it when we go see the Steel Rangers later.” I floated the knife further away from the three of us and began channeling a spell into the connection between myself and the horn knife. A smile formed on my face. Just like before, the spell was cast from the knife as a ball of light appeared on the tip of the blade. I quickly dismissed the spell and brought the knife back to stow in my bag.

“Hope nopony saw that.” I said, over exaggerating a surprised expression. Aurora giggled at my display and rubbed her head wistfully.

“I wish I had a horn. Magic must make everything so easy.”

“For normal everyday stuff sure, but normal days are few and far between in the wasteland. I’ve used my magic for things I never thought I would like…hurting ponies and fighting. I was just a simple repairpony before I left the Stable.”

“You still are a repair pony daddy. Miss Circuit told me you have the magic touch when it comes to her fuse…box... oh jeez dad.”

Sunny spat out a mouthful of Sparkle-Cola she was drinking and looked at me with the funniest astonished expression I’d ever seen on her. Though that didn’t stop my cheeks from burning under my fur. Why would Circuit tell her that!?

“Sparks…did…did you?”

“Either I did or I didn’t.” My voice cracked for a split second, virtually announcing my guilt.

“So we’re not talking about work are we?” Aurora looked on at us, slightly confused though I could tell she had figured it out. I wasn’t proud of it either but when you are exploring options to keep a bullet out of your head you may find yourself in strange positions. All things considered it could have been worse.

I gently ruffled Aurora’s mane and gave her my best disarming smile.

I kept stealing glances at Sunny, trying to gauge her reaction. She huffed in what could have been amusement of annoyance. Like many of my problems, this one would be shelved for later. We took a moment to eat a small dinner of carefully rationed supplies, then we curled up against the rock wall to try and get some sleep. However my curse would continue to follow me.






I stood in the center of the all too familiar void. A small portion of the rock wall I’d been sleeping against behind me. I hadn’t been in one of these nightmares since Black Town. Suddenly I was very terrified of what was to come. To my surprise, I was alone for a fairly long amount of time. No Ribbon Dancer, no Slipknot and no voice in the void. Alone…

“You’re psyche…is very splintered my good sir.”

I looked to my side and saw the well-dressed white unicorn that was Fancy Pants, right out of one of the memory orbs.

“I see you’ve been experimenting with…my wife’s horn.”

“Another specter here to accost me? You’d think there were better things to do for a dead stallion.”

“This isn’t a dream my friend and I am no ghost…well I suppose I am, in a way, but here I am regardless. A piece of me at least.”

“What are you on about? Of course this is a dream. Every time I find myself in this…fucking void I am haunted by ghosts. You are no different.”

“Don’t you find it strange that you recognized it as soon as you arrived here? Unless you intend to claim this is a lucid dream? …I didn’t think so. You saw the memory orbs I left behind. Don’t try to deny it. I used what I learned over the last century to…to put a piece of myself inside her horn. Part of my soul will exist forever as a part of her. No doubt you find that strange…Love can make you do things you never thought you’d do. That’s why I’m here now. I know what you intend to do with your lover’s killer. Killing him won’t bring her back and she wouldn’t want you to dedicate your life to avenging her.”

I scoffed, even if what he was saying was true, his words held little weight. “Like I’m going to take advice on love from a foal killing psycho like you.”

“Hmph I thought you’d say something like that. I can’t blame you…I’m sorry.” He said those last words through a veil of sadness. I turned to look upon his face to see that he was no longer there. Instead of crumbling into the void, the rock wall simply faded away and light began to banish the darkness.






I awoke to the sound of birds flying overhead. It was strange, of all creatures to remain largely un-mutated, it was birds. I wasn’t the only one who heard the birds as Sunny and Aurora started stirring awake. We were about halfway in-between the ocean and the mountain range. If I thought the lack of activity in the Baltimare ruins was disturbing then this was borderline unnerving. I don’t remember the east coast of Equestria having a desert though. An effect from the war? Another day of travel passed before my curiosity demanded to be satiated.

“Hey Sunny? The maps I saw in the Stable didn’t show a desert in this area. Do you know anything about it?”

“Sand storms blow in from the Deadlands sometimes. They’ve been, over the centuries, slowly turning this area barren.”

“The Deadlands?” Aurora asked, peeking up at Sunny from behind her legs.

“The Deadlands are south of Baltimare. It’s a violent land that was torn apart by quakes, the landscape was violently reshaped by something. Most ponies avoid that place due to the quakes that make settling there extremely difficult and the dangerous radiation sand storms that often blow across the region.”

“Have you been there aunt Sunny?”

“No, I’ve only heard stories. Some ponies say there are monsters that live in dark tunnels that are themselves made of shadow.”

Aurora squeaked quietly and tried to hide behind Sunny’s legs. “I hope we never have to go there.”

“I can’t see any reason why we’d have to. Sounds to me like there’s nothing there.” I said, trying to comfort Aurora.

As the sun came to rest right above us I saw two pointed structures aiming towards the sky appear on the horizon. Other than that irradiated warehouse surrounded by the scrap metal fence, this was the only other location of note we’d seen. If I were a betting pony I’d say that was our destination as it lined up with the marker on my compass. I truly wished I understood how the device on my leg worked. How did it know where the space center was when neither Jack nor I did? I doubted I would ever get the answers I desired. I was thankful that I had one and was lucky enough to have some to give to others. Sunny would no doubt get her money’s worth with S.A.T.S alone.

The two structures I saw slowly came into better view as we approached, revealing them as rockets. Its remote location must have protected it from scavengers for a long time. The prospect of an un-scavenged installation like this made my heart start beating in excitement as well as dread. Jack’s friend, Sid, and his crew were most likely the first ponies to discover this place and I feared that they weren’t treating it with the care a place like this needed. As we neared the chain link fence surrounding the facility my PipBuck labeled the location ‘Bloomberg Space Center’. There were unoccupied guard towers at regular intervals behind the fence. We followed the fence until we found the way onto the grounds. I made sure to keep Aurora behind me, just in case anything happened. The complex was very large. The fence ended at an entrance to an old partially crumbled parking structure. We would need to get through it first to get to the space center itself. Sunny and I both had our guards up as we started up the concrete ramp to the parking structure. A few lights here and there inlaid into the ceiling flickered dimly in the dusty air. All around us were old sky carriages and other vehicles left to rot in their parking spots. Did the bombs kill all the ponies here when they hit? Couldn’t have, as far as I knew the closest detonation site was Baltimare. So why were they still here? Did nopony try to go for help? Or did something happen before the bombs hit? Maybe I was thinking too hard on such a simple matter. As I foolishly pondered the nature of the old vehicles I failed to see a trap on the floor. A loud snap sounded as metal teeth bit into my right leg. I yelped in pain as well as surprise as I looked down to see that I had stepped in a bear trap. I used my magic to wrench open the spring trap and throw it across the floor. I didn’t think we’d have to be on the lookout for traps. Jack sure knew how to pick his friends. Were the ponies here expecting trouble? Or were they just protective of their home? Questions for later, first we had to make it through the structure. I carefully wrapped a roll of magical bandages around my leg and steeled myself for what may come.

“Aurora, on my back, I don’t want you to get caught in one of these things.” Without any more encouragement she trotted to my side where I lifted her on my back.

“Are you ok daddy?” She asked, wrapping her hooves around my neck.

“Stings a little…ok it stings a lot but I should be fine. It’ll remind me to be on the lookout for other dangers.”

“Hopefully that pain will keep you alert, the next one might not be as minor as a bear trap.” Sunny said, moving ahead of us, using her refined survival experience to create a path for us.

Now that I was paying attention I was able to avoid most of the more dangerous traps, stopping every so often to levitate a mine out of our path. The way the traps were set up made it look like they weren’t meant to stop a small group like us, rather they appeared to be a defense against a large group of invaders. Just how paranoid were these ponies? Although I couldn’t say that, had I the numbers and ruthlessness, wouldn’t want this place for myself. The combined talents of Sunny and I made the rest of our trip through the trap laden maze go by quickly. In less than twenty minutes we had arrived at the security gate to let us on to the grounds proper. Standing in our way were two armed guards on either side of the gate.

“Hold it right there!” One of them shouted, drawing their weapon on us. “I know you’re not traders, otherwise you wouldn’t have come through this structure. Why are you here?”

I shook my head at Sunny as I saw her about to kick the loader for her battle saddle. “We aren’t looking for trouble. I’m looking…for a friend of mine, his name’s Sid.”

The name drop seemed to put the guards at ease. “You a friend of his? He must be looking for help. Hope you’re better with tech than that lazy bastard. Go on in, you’ll meet with Brick on the main walkway, he’ll let you know the rules of this place. Oh and word of advice, keep your weapons where they are. Sid doesn’t have very many friends after all.” The guard giggled dryly.

With that he motioned us through the gate with his gun, silencing me for now. I would save my questions for Brick anyway. Once through the gate we didn’t walk along the path long before we were stopped by an absolute mountain of a pony. This stallion was easily the size of a Steel Ranger in power armor. Other than his mottled green coat and lack of a cutie mark, it was most interesting to see that this stallion was a Pegasus.

“Who are you? How did you get pass the guards?” His voice was deep and commanding but also calm and reserved. He didn’t move for any weapons, showing that he didn’t view us as threats…yet.

“We’re here to see Sid. A friend of mine said he needed a hoof getting things running here.” I lied through my teeth. I couldn’t help but feel that Jack hadn’t told me enough about the set-up here to know what to say. Rather I decided to keep up the story the guards assumed I was a part of. To ‘play the part’ of a repair pony as it were.

“Hmph good, maybe finally get this place online. Sid is in the workshop, the rocket assembly building.” He pointed to a tall and wide white hangar. “If you need anything or want to do more around here, find either myself or the boss in the homestead.” He said, pointing to a large building just behind him.

“I understand. Umm…do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Perhaps once you’ve done something around here, until then, you are a barely tolerated intruder. You know where I’ll be if you need help with anything.” His wings started flapping and incredibly they began to lift his bulk, carrying him to the homestead as he called it.

Sunny started looking around suspiciously, her expression turning sour.

“The ponies here are raiders.”

“How can you tell? They might just be a budding settlement.”

“Don’t be so naïve, look around you Sparks. None of the land around the fence has been converted to farmland, no animals and I’m willing to be there isn’t much food to be salvaged at a space center long enough to sustain many ponies for long.”

I looked around to see for myself. As we made our way to the workshop I put everything I saw under scrutiny. I came to the same conclusion as Sunny, the ponies who were hanging around or moving between the buildings wore rag-tag armor and had the crazed look and manestyles that I’d associated with their ilk. In hindsight I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jack did say that they had dealings with Chestnut’s crew.

“We should just play our part for now. If all we do is help fix something we can get what we need from the bosses and get the hell out of here.”

“I refuse to believe you’re still so naïve Sparks. We can’t help them if they will go on to hurt more ponies!”

“I know Sunny I know. We can’t just take this whole place down ourselves. We’re inside so let’s take advantage of that and see if we can’t get in with Brick or the boss and go from there.”

Sunny, ever sensing my intent, relented for now. “Don’t let your quest for vengeance make you forget who the bad ponies are.”

I knew how it must have looked to her, staying my hoof on taking these raiders down because otherwise I’d lose my lead on Chestnut. I thought back on what Watcher had said as well, to be better. I couldn’t be better, not yet, not while Chestnut’s crime squatted on my brain, dominating my actions.

As we walked in through the huge hangar doors to the workshop, a nearby sign labeled it rocket assembly, we saw a rather meek looking brown griffin taking a nap at a desk next to a pile of salvage and tools. There were several large lightly rusted metal tubes, each one maybe twenty-five feet in length and fifteen feet high and wide. Each one was slightly curved and hollow. It looked like there were just enough that, if they were all linked together, would make a perfect circle. A strange design for a rocket I thought. We approached the desk where the sleeping griffin was sitting. Hopefully this was Sid, Jack did say he was also a griffin.

I tried to nudge him awake to no avail for a minute or so before somepony lost their patience. Aurora hopped off my back and onto Sid’s desk and started jumping, shaking everything that was laid out on it.

“Hey jerkbird! Wake up! My dad’s trying to talk to you!”

Sid yelled as he jumped awake, tumbling out of his chair and into the nearby pile of junk with a loud crash. Aurora smiled smugly with a little giggle.

“He’s awake now dad.”

“Good work Aurora.” I smiled back, taking an amount of amusement from the scene.

“What the hell’s wrong with you!?” He screeched, popping out of the junk pile. “As if I don’t have enough to worry about, now I gotta worry about little brats scaring me the fuck awake. Who are you? Why are you bothering me?” Almost as soon as he asked his eyes shrunk in fear, coming to his own conclusion.

“Oh shit, she’s finally lost it. P-please don’t kill me! I-I have caps, chems whatever you want!” Before I could say anything he threw himself at my hooves and began fumbling through his bag, throwing out about eight caps and an empty inhaler of Dash.

“Oh fuck, I-I can get more! I’m worth more alive I swear, just please don’t kill me!”

“Easy easy, Sid right? You expecting trouble? If I was here to kill you I wouldn’t have woke you up.”

He fell back into his chair, looking utterly exhausted. A moment or so later and his breathing returned to normal.

“S-sorry about that. I haven’t been the most popular guy around here as of late and your friend there in the hat has a merc look to her. Thought it was finally my time.”

“Who? You said she? Are you expecting somepony to kill you?”

“Yeah…well no…maybe? I don’t know. The boss said I was the Hooks mechanic after our real one was killed in a raid. I barely got the power on when we found this place and the boss has been puttin’ loads of pressure on me to do something or make something useful…or else.”

“I’ve heard about the boss here a few times now. Who is she?”

“Ain’t nobody told you? Then it ain’t gonna be me, I don’t need any more attention from them right now.”

I wasn’t exactly thrilled by Sid’s lack of cooperation but I’d learn about the boss sooner or later, so for now it would be best to start making myself useful.

“I think we got off on the wrong hoof. My name is Sparks. I was sent by…a mutual friend. That big guy at the gate, Brick, thought I would be able to help you. I’m quite the repair pony myself.” I said with a small air of pride. In another life I would have only ever been a repair pony. I wondered what my life could have been If I had never left the stable. But it didn’t do me any good to fantasize about things that were almost a lifetime ago.

“Yeah? Y-you good with machines? Think you could help me with a pet project of mine?”

“That’s why I’m here.” I lied. “What kind of machine is it?”

“It’s a weapon. One I hope will be able to repel a large invasion by itself. We have no intention of letting this place go.”

“How did you find this place?” Aurora asked from behind my legs.

“What’s with the filly? Oh, I get it, you like ‘em young dontcha pal? If you don’t mind sharin’ I have some-”

I refused to let him finish as I threw out a hoof and cracked him in the head. He went down hard back into the pile of junk next to his desk. I could feel rage build up in the back of my mind. I could feel my magic going for my gun when that phantom voice stopped me. ‘Be Strong’ it said, quickly afterwards the fire in my eyes started to fade away. Sunny had dropped into a fighting stance, ready to back me up. I tried to relax my demeanor once I saw the fear in both Sid’s and Aurora’s eyes.

“Don’t you ever talk about my daughter like that again.” My voice came out low and threatening, my body trembling holding back barely restrained violence.

“S-sorry sorry! I just assumed- I mean you don’t look- Please don’t kill me!” Sid’s wings snapped to his body and he was sweating bullets. If Aurora hadn’t been here I might not have been able to hold back, even with the pacifying voice in my head. I waved Sunny down, we wouldn’t be killing anypony today. Jack sure knew how to make friends I thought dismissively.

“You don’t make many friends do you Sid?” I let out a ragged sigh as I tried to let all my feelings go.

“You got that right, I’m used to no one even knowing my name and that was how I liked it. All this pressure is stressing me right the fuck out.”

“He never answered my question dad.” Aurora said, sneering at Sid.

“Answer the girl Sid.” I said with a glare. I was supposed to be a bringer of hope, like both Watcher and I wanted but I had to remember that I was in a den of raiders and so far Sid hadn’t made the best impression.

“Dumb luck mostly, we was just wandering one day and saw the rockets pointing towards the sky. The place was easy to settle into after I managed to get the sub reactor working.”

“Have any of you checked out the rockets on the launch pad?”

“No, no one has tried since the last incident. When I turned the power on I also accidently reactivated some of the security measures. I haven’t been able to figure out how to turn them off without also shutting down the whole grid. Turrets on high mounts and heavy duty robots have kept the rockets pretty protected so we gave up checking them out after the last two who tried were killed.”

“Maybe I can check out the reactor after you show me your project.”

“If that’s what you want man be my guest. Maybe the boss will try and get you to be the new mechanic and I can go back to being unnoticed.”

Sid made it sound like his whole existence within this group was as a nameless body who went by unseen and was content to be a face in the crowd. Now he was pushed into a role where he was expected to contribute in a meaningful way and he didn’t like it. I couldn’t help but feel he was hiding something but what could it be? What kind of secret could an on edge, cowardly griffin be keeping?

He took us all to the far end of the hangar to a detached rocket engine hooked to a fuel canister mounted into the bed of a cargo carriage. Mounted onto the fuel canister were rudimentary controls for the weapon.

“Not bad eh? I call it the Mega-Flamer!” Sid briefly had an air of pride about his words but was quickly brought back to his apprehensive self. “A good concept I thought, but turns out it’s harder to get these things to work.”

Being the professionally trained repair pony that I was, I could see where, in the hooves of an amateur, certain parts were inhibiting the device instead of adding to it.

“If you’re going to help this guy, you mind if I go check some other things out? I won’t be gone long. Promise.” Sunny said, she knew that I knew she wouldn’t be much help with tech.

“Sure, don’t get into any trouble alright?” She could sense my worry, nodding to me with an assuring expression. Hopefully she understood where I was coming from with our discussion from before. I wasn’t much happier than she was about this whole situation. Knowing her though, she was just going to go have a look around and gather some information.

“How long have you been working on this Sid?”

“About a month, maybe. I have a lot of projects I’m working on.”

“Oh? Finish any?”

“…Not exactly. I’m not the best with this kind of stuff but nobody else knows as much as I do. Even if I don’t know much myself. I’m better fixing ponies than machines.”

“So you’d rather be the doctor around here?”

“No not at all. I want to go back to being a nobody in the crowd. Responsibility is no good for a guy like me.”

I could hear it in his voice again. He was definitely hiding something. As much as he protested about contributing to his group, he was feeling guilty about something. Prying now wouldn’t get me anywhere, I would have to be patient.

“Well let me take a look at it.” I tried to steer the conversation back to the flamer under the guise of sympathy.

It didn’t take long to find the weapon's weak spots. Aurora was doing anything she could to make herself useful, running tools back and forth to me and retrieving parts I needed from the pile by the entrance. Sid watched over my shoulder, trying to learn what he could through observation. Although without explanation all he was seeing was me removing and reconnecting parts. I removed a fair amount of redundant parts that drew too much power away from the engine’s ignition and jury rigged some spare wires to strengthen the control’s connection to the power source. I hooked my PipBuck into the control panel and saw that the weapon was reading eighty-seven percent efficiency. That was about as good as it was gonna get without starting all over again. The simple repair pony in my head tried to tell me to test it to see if it was working properly but if I did I would have torched the three of us as well as a portion of the hangar. If what I saw on the launch pad was accurate, three of these engines were supposed to propel a rocket to space. This one would be an absolutely devastating weapon no doubt.

“There, that should do it. You put it together well enough but you installed a lot of unnecessary junk that hampered the startup.”

“So…so it should work now?” Sid’s eyes lit up like I just told him he won the lottery.

“In theory sure, I’d like to test it but I don’t think that’s an option for obvious reasons.”

“Was I helpful dad? Huh? Was I? I told you I could help you if I came.” Aurora beamed at me, smirking at me with the ‘I told you so’ look on her face.

“I still wish you were back home where I know you’d be safe but you sure did make fixing this thing go much faster.”

“Hehe told ya so.”

“Alright, alright don’t get carried away princess. C’mon lets go find Brick and tell him we’ve made some progress.”

Sid stretched out his wings and blocked my path. “You’ll tell them that I helped right? That I had you assist me, not do it for me, right?”

“Sure Sid, I don’t know that I’d want the credit for this thing anyway.” I pushed my way past the amateur mechanic and made my way outside. The path back to the homestead from the workshop was a quick one. Ponies milled about the grounds, not doing a whole lot of anything save for siting around a barrel fire and bullshitting between themselves. At least that was all I saw, I didn’t want to imagine what else was going on behind closed doors in this den of debauchery. Aurora and I made it to the door to the homestead where Aurora cocked her head and read the sign next to the door aloud.

“Operations and Communications Building?” Aurora looked back at me with a puzzled look on her face. I looked towards the launch pads where the two huge rockets stood then back to the homestead. Above us, facing the launch pad, was an observation deck.

“I assume this is where they monitored and observed the rockets before they would launch.” I said with a degree of certainty. Maybe once we were inside I could find out what was happening with the launch pad’s security. We walked inside the homestead, Aurora sticking very close to me, as many eyes turned on us. I didn’t want anypony to get ideas in their heads about us like what Sid thought. So I put on my best intimidating look and swept my eyes over everypony in the room.

“The fuck ya’ll lookin’ at?” All wanting eyes in the room returned to whatever they were doing before as I moved further in unobstructed. Eventually my path led us to an elevator guarded by two ponies in fairly heavy armor with equally heavy guns. As soon as they noticed my approach they stepped forward and blocked us.

“What business do you have with The Hook?” a rough looking mare asked.

“Brick told me to report any good news to him or the boss and I don’t see him anywhere. I just thought they’d like to hear it in person.”

“And what kind of good news is it?”

“I helped Sid get the Mega-Flamer into working condition.”

“Holy shit, Sid actually got something done? Fuck…I guess I owe Bolt ten caps. Go on up and tell it to the boss, she’ll be just as surprised.” The two guards returned to their posts and allowed me access to the elevator. Aurora and I walked inside and the doors closed with a ding. The elevator only had one button on the inside panel, presumably to the observation deck. Aurora shuffled in place anxiously, looking at me with those puppy eyes of hers.

“Can I push the button?” her eagerness got a chuckle out of me as I nodded.

“Sure princess, go ahead.”

She happily bounded forward, jumped in the air, and hit the button with a flourish using her tail. The elevator shook slightly as we began our ascent. It was comforting to see that she didn’t seem too bothered by this place, or perhaps by being so close to me she thought she had nothing to worry about. The doors opened with another ding, revealing the lounge-like observation deck. It was obvious that this floor had been decorated recently by the ponies here. It was one of the most luxurious rooms I had set hoof in in a long time. The carpet on the floor was very well preserved as were a number of amenities that were in the room before it was occupied. Even so a nice, relatively clean bed and several couches had been brought up to make the room more livable only added to the atmosphere. Brick was mid conversation with a brown earth pony mare with blonde mane, who I assumed was the boss, when he broke it off and looked over his shoulder to us emerging from the elevator.

“Ah…it’s you. Do you need something?”

“Who is this? Did you let some stranger in Brick?” the brown mare asked standing up from her seat. When she stood up it became clear to me why the guards called her The Hook. Her left hoof was missing and in its place was a sharpened meat hook. She also had a heavy caliber pistol in a holster on her right shoulder. She took a few steps towards me with an air of smug confidence.

“So to whom do I owe the pleasure of welcoming to my coniferous little haven?”

Coniferous? “Um…my name is Sparks, I…I uh heard there was work to be found here so I thought-”

“Well think again horn head. We don’t need any more lazy ponies gumming up the works here in my magnanimous set up.”

“Hey! Don’t talk to my dad like that!” Aurora barked from beside me.

“Aurora don’t-”

“Well well, don’t we have a bravacious little filly.”

Aurora held her ground and even stuck her tongue out at her.

“Do you have something to say to me? If so then hurry up, I have a raiding party to organize.”

Brick huffed through his nose and left down the elevator. The mare held up her hook as if she were inspecting it.

“Well Brick gave me the go ahead to help out around here. I’m a repair pony by trade and I-”

“Stop right there you rapacious repair pony. I’ve already got a type like you and I don’t need another.”

“I think you do. I helped Sid get his weapon working and then I was hoping to-” She held up her hook to silence me, her eyes widening in surprise.

“The…fuck did he call it? The Mega-Flamer? He’s been working on that thing for weeks. You helped him finish it?”

I nodded, Aurora nodded with me, taking the credit she deserved as well.

“Well why didn’t you say so? That’s the best news I’ve heard since we got the power turned on. Forgive me, where are my manners? I am the leader of this covetous crew, Name’s Copper Coil but you can call me The Hook. Welcome to the Rusty Hooks Sparks.”

The implication made something in the pit of my stomach sink. “Wait a second!” I protested, my eyes widening at the thought. “I didn’t come here to join up!”

“Well maybe you should have thought about that before waltzing into my humble abroad and proving your value. Now you can accept your new role or I can send you on your way.” She had her gun out and in my face before I could say anything in protest. I scowled angrily and backed down.

“That’s a good boy.” She cooed, slipping her gun back into its leg holster. “Your new job is to figure out how to clear the launch pad. There’s a lot of pure alpha over there and I need the security knocked down.” Copper turned her back on me and walked to stand in front of the pane glass window overlooking the distant rockets on their pads. “Report back to me when you have something to show. Don’t make me wait long.” She turned back to me to punctuate the warning with a threatening glare.

I growled through my teeth and retrained myself from pulling my own gun out and killing her where she stood. “Sure boss.” I spat the word out like a mouthful of blood. “I’ll be back.” I counter glared to no avail. I got back in the elevator with Aurora and set out to find Sunny. I was absolutely fuming in the elevator, I was so angry I was trembling. I could hear the mantra of ‘Be Strong’ over and over in my head. Every time I imagined Copper in a state of pain or death the mantra would prevent me from escalating. Goddessdammit I didn’t want to ‘Be strong’ I wanted to take these raiders out of commission! Despite my every protest I had no choice but to play along. Even if I ignored the warnings of my psyche, killing her would have surely resulted in my own death and more importantly, Aurora’s death. I would play the lap dog for now, it seemed all I was fucking good at was pretending.

I felt a comforting hoof pat me on the barrel. I broke through the haze of rage to see Aurora sitting in front of me, looking up into my eyes with a concerned look.

“Are you ok dad?” The look in her own eyes told me everything.

“Maybe having you here isn’t so bad.” I said with a smile, gently patting her on the head. I sighed deeply and relaxed slightly. I had to walk through the devils den in a few seconds and I had to get myself under control before then.

The dinging bell sounded our arrival back to the ground floor. Just as before nopony gave us the time of day, even Brick who was waiting by the entrance only nodded to me and grunted roughly. Once we were back outside I was reminded just how bleak things looked. The oasis of the space center in the middle of nowhere. For the time being, my goals and Copper’s aligned. I was here for info on Chestnut and robots for Jack. I had to be patient, make myself so valuable that no secret would be kept from me. It would pay off, I kept telling myself. I was still a good pony…a good pony.

The rest of that day passed in a flash. Sunny found us hours later as I was investigating the perimeter of the launch pad. She hadn’t learned as much as she’d have liked to and was just as angry as I was at our new predicament. Day after day passed with nothing to show for it. The launch pad’s security was just too tight to get in physically. After questioning Sid, he led me to the sub reactor he fixed when the Rusty Hooks first arrived. The half-assed job showed that it was only running at thirty-five percent efficiency. I was able to convince Copper to postpone her raiding party for a few more days, telling her that what we could get from the launch pad would be worth the wait. Another day or two passed as I acquired the necessary parts to get the reactor’s efficiency as high as I could only to learn that when the power was first turned on, the security kicked on and started running on a separate power grid that I couldn’t get to. According to Sid there were countless lines out there buried under Equestria that still had power, you just needed to know where to look. I was fumbling with a terminal in the basement one day when Sid came to find me.

“Hey can I talk to you for a second?”

“I’m kinda busy Sid.”

Sid twiddled his claws together, looking rather apprehensive. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to thank you for helping me with the flamer that day. Some of the ponies around here have been showing me a bit more respect. I even took some time to look over what you did and learned from it.”

“Glad I could help your self-esteem but look what it got me. I’m stuck in this hell hole working for a lunatic.”

“It’s not going to last forever dad.” Aurora assured me from her corner, her head buried in a technical manual trying to find something to help.

“I feel you Sparks. I didn’t exactly join willingly either. Back when we were the Broken Skulls we were a strange kind of gang. The old boss had the only gun in the camp. One night after a big celebration the old boss turned up dead with Copper waving the gun in everyone’s faces. She declared herself leader and any who disagreed would be killed. I didn’t have the balls to walk out on her then and I’ve been stuck with them ever since.”

“Seriously? Only one gun? What kind of raider gang is that?”

“It worked didn’t it?”

“Yeah I guess so. What happened after that? It doesn’t sound like her grab for power was popular. What stopped everypony from ganging up and removing her?”

“Back then we were always on the move. When Copper found this place, the loyalty of the group was cemented. Then…then Brick came along.”

“Brick? What about him?” Now this was getting interesting. I was getting nowhere with this basic maintenance terminal and was now giving Sid my full attention. I wondered if it would be difficult to stage a coup, especially now when there was more than one gun amongst the rest of the Rusty Hooks.

“Brick…we found him out on a raid one day. He was alone, we thought he’d be easy pickins but that bastard took everything we could dish out and then some before we knocked him out. Copper ordered we take him back here, while I checked him out I saw that he is not a normal pony. His body is…is tougher and he healed his bullet wounds in just a few days. He’s like a…mutant.”

“I’ve never encounter a mutant like him before. I thought balefire radiation just turned ponies into ghouls.” Was this like the Bleeder mystery? Back in the Mortuary we learned that they were not natural monsters. Or did it go deeper? Once I thought about it in more detail, I recalled the encounter with the extremely mutated alicorns. Brick’s body type was similar to theirs. Was there just some mad pony or ponies releasing monsters into the wastes?

“His mutations aren’t a result of radiation exposure. Hell I have no clue what made him. He’s some kind of…super mutant.”

Aurora giggled at the silly name, returning to my side, also interested in what Sid had to say.

“Just what exactly did you do to him when you brought him back? I didn’t immediately think mutant when I first met him. How did you figure that out?”

Sid was starting to sweat nervously, carefully looking around the room before continuing.

“You ever wonder why Brick is so loyal to Copper? He could kill her with his bare hooves as easily as you and I breathe. Copper knew having a slave like him would strengthen her rule through a powerful enforcer.”

I was starting to grow concerned. “Sid…what did you do to Brick?”

“I…I uh…remember how I said I was a better medic than mechanic? Or did you see that strange necklace Copper wears?”

I didn’t really take notice of her jewelry before but I did remember seeing it the last time we spoke. What did it have to do with Brick though?

“What have you done Sid? What did you do to him?” Aurora joined me in staring down the neurotic griffin. We could see him visually breaking down before he confessed his crime.

“I…I put a bomb in him…next to his heart. Copper’s necklace is the trigger. She has complete control over him…because of me.”

For a moment Sid looked truly guilty for what he had done but thanks to his confession I think I finally had a plan.

“Sid…how can I disable that bomb?” I imagined Brick wouldn’t be hard to convince to join us if I freed him from Copper. It would still be a hard fight but Sid said that Brick enforced the rules around here. Brick might as well have been the real boss around here except in name. Maybe some of the Rusty Hooks would follow him if I helped him take Copper out. I was getting ahead of myself as I eagerly awaited Sid’s answer.

“You’d have to get inside and disable the bomb manually. Do you have experience with bombs?”

“…No, no I don’t. Couldn’t you do it if I brought him to you?”

“In theory sure but Copper would never allow that. She deliberately keeps us from interacting, she doesn’t trust me to not say anything.”

“Damn…maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way.” I thought aloud. “We don’t need to disable the bomb if I can get the trigger away from Copper.”

“Are you crazy dad? If that necklace is so important she’ll never let you get that close.” Aurora looked at me like I had just sprouted wings.

“I agree with the kid. It’s a possibility sure but you wouldn’t be able to get near her, she’s too paranoid.”

“We have to do something Sid and you’re going to help me.”

“Whoa slow down a second wouldja? I just found my place around here, I aint helpin’ you take out the boss.”

“Yes you are Sid, you’d still be rotting in obscurity without me and guess what? You told me you’re secret. You’re an accomplice whether you help me or not.”

“Ah fuck…I knew it was a mistake to come down here.”

I took that as a concession and started thinking out a plan. The three of us left the basement and returned topside. Sid and I went our separate ways for now, telling him I’d find him when I had something for him. I had my way out, it was time to take this place. Aurora and I found Sunny where she had felt most useful without being involved too much, on guard duty.

“Hey Boss.” She nodded as we approached. “Anything new to report?”

“Actually yes, I’m going to need my associate for a moment.” I told the other guard she was stationed with. He grunted his acknowledgement and let us steal her away.

“Sunny it’s time. I found a way to stop Copper.”

“Funny you mention that because so did I.”

“Really?” Aurora and I asked simultaneously, equally surprised.

“Sorta, I learned from one of the older members that any of the Rusty Hooks can challenge the leader for the right to rule. It’s a straight hoof to hoof fight, no guns, no weapons, only what you were born with. Here’s the worst part, Copper is allowed to choose a ‘champion’ to fight in her place and if somepony challenged her…”

“She’d no doubt choose Brick.” Hoof to hoof combat against that hulk was a definite no. Still that information helped me with my own plan. Brick was just as much a prisoner here as I was. If I could get that bomb out of his chest then maybe he would want to challenge Copper. It was all starting to come together. I told Sunny about what Sid told me and the options we now had to get out of here. We spent the rest of the day in the workshop figuring out our plan of attack. Right now the concern was that there was no way to get close to Copper without being seen. So the focus now was a distraction.

“Even if we cause some distraction, wouldn’t the guards get Copper anyway?” I asked.

“No.” Sid shook his head fervently. “Copper doesn’t get directly involved with stuff like that. That’s what Brick is for.”

“So if we draw the guards away from the elevator then we should be in the clear right?” Sunny tried to affirm.

“It would take one helluva distraction to get those guards to leave their posts.”

We all sat in a circle pondering how severe a distraction we would need. We might have to kill somepony to get that kind of attention. I was about to voice my thought when I heard a tarp crumple to the floor.

“What about this?” Aurora was standing next to the Mega-Flamer, looking at us questioningly. “This would make a big scene.” She stated factually.

“You haven’t tested it yet have you Sid?” I hoped that that was not the case. As effective a distraction it would be if it worked, think of how intense it would be if it didn’t. It was the first time I wanted a repair of mine to fail. Perhaps we could sabotage it first to ensure it explodes.

“Not yet but I know what you’re thinkin’. I’d rather if we didn’t blow it up. Once Copper is deposed we’ll still need a way to defend ourselves.”

“Then we’ll use it as is.” Sunny said, waving to the flamer, liking the idea of using it against the Rusty Hooks.

“Ok then, I think we have our plan. We’ll wait till night and proceed. Sunny, you’re in with the guards, you rally them to investigate when we set the flamer off. Sid, you and I will move the flamer to where it will cause the most chaos. Then you’ll turn it on as I sneak my way into the observation deck to get that necklace.”

“What about me dad? I can help.” She practically pranced in place, eager to prove her usefulness to me. I didn’t want her anywhere near my plan but if I told her to stay put she’d just find a way to try and be helpful anyway. In this case it might actually be safer for her if she participates.

“Ok Aurora, you can help sell the ruse. Sid, can I trust you with my daughter?” I lit the fire behind my eyes as I asked the question.

“Don’t worry she’ll be ok with me, I might not have much but I promise on my honor.”

I knew enough about griffin honor to know that he would keep it to the best of his ability.

“Ok then, you’ll stay with Sid while he sets off the flamer. Having you there will make it look more like an accident, cementing the deception. Once you secure the area Sunny, bring Aurora back here.”

Everyone nodded, understanding their part in the questionable plan we’d cobbled together.

“Alright we don’t have much time, let’s get everything we might need and meet back here a few hours after dark.” Sunny said, getting up and making her way out of the workshop.

“Ok there’s no going back now. C’mon Sid let’s give the Mega-Flamer another look over before we move it.” I pulled out my tools and led Sid and Aurora to the weapon.

Checking my PipBuck a while later showed it was almost midnight, time to put the plan into action. Sid and I started pushing the wagon the flamer was attached to out of the hangar while Sunny went ahead of us to the homestead. Hopefully this was going to work and she would be able to rally enough of the guards to investigate. We decided that a guard tower would be the best place to start the flamer, that way the collateral wouldn’t be so strong. Once it was in position, I told Sid to wait about five minutes before setting it off, gave Aurora a hug, and started making my own way to the homestead. I was lurking in the dark near the main entrance waiting for my cue. A high pitched whirring started ringing in my ears before a roaring flame glowing in the night started blasting flames onto the legs of a nearby guard tower. It didn’t take long for the metal supports to glow a bright orange and start to bend. I could see that a few heads were being stuck out of doors and windows. Not a minute later the guard tower’s supports fully melted and it fell to the ground with a heavy crash and soon enough, like a kicked beehive, ponies started pouring out of the homestead to investigate with Sunny spearheading the group. Now was my chance. I slipped in behind the last guard and crept through the dark hallways to the elevator. I hoped beyond hope that Copper was sleeping alone. It was amazing to me that, after the doors opened, that she had slept through all that noise. However an empty bottle near where she was laying gave me a good idea why.

I noticed a glow that wasn’t there the last time I was on the observation deck. The panel of terminals just in front of the windows were now flickering with life. I remembered that panel from before but the terminals were powered down. By boosting the reactor’s efficiency I may have brought a few more systems online. This building was for monitoring the launch pad so perhaps these new terminals held the answers I desired for shutting down the security measures. One step at a time I thought as I approached the sleeping form of Copper Coil. She was snoring lightly, legs splayed all over the place, with necklace wrapped tightly around her neck. She snorted loudly and rolled onto her side, facing me directly. I felt my heart jump into my throat and prayed with all my being that she didn’t wake up. I carefully reached out with my magic, daintily pulling the necklace off her neck. Luck is an equal benevolent and cruel mistress. Halfway through removing the necklace the chain got caught in her mane. I tried to shift and shimmy my hold on it to no avail. I swore under my breath, hoping to avoid plan B as it involved more risk but this was my only shot and I had to take it.

I would need to take the utmost care as I levitated a few tools out of my bags. If I couldn’t get the trigger away from her then only one course of action was left, disabling it. This was more in my realm of comfort as opposed to diffusing a bomb. I had to work fast and careful. If I made one mistake I could just as easily set the bomb off or if she woke with me over her with tools I would be caught red hoofed. I was beginning to sweat as I opened the little device’s casing and got a look at its insides. It was a remarkably simple design that wouldn’t take much to disarm. However it was one thing to work on something in front of you on a work bench or countertop, it another entirely to work on something strapped to a sleeping homicidal nut case. Everything about the situation added to the difficulty, every twitch, and every breath or the chance she would just roll over or wake up. All of it was wreaking havoc on my nerves. The adrenaline in my blood wasn’t making matters any easier, causing my own heartbeat and breathing to quicken. I was nearing the climax as I found the trigger’s battery. If I could just…get…to it. YES! I did it! I expertly pulled the tiny battery out of its slot and placed it in my bags. Now all I had to do was get the fuck out of there. I let out a relieved sigh as I made it to the elevator, then I heard hooves hit the floor.

“Is somepony there?” I heard her ask, followed shortly by the sound of a gun cylinder spinning. The inevitable ding of the doors opening sounded as I dashed inside and began mashing the button down. I tried to push as much of myself into the corner, hoping that she wouldn’t recognize me. The elevator doors began closing but not before a bullet whizzed in imbedded itself in the back of the elevator, inches from my head. As the doors closed and the pulleys kicked in I immediately tore the panel off the button control and cut a wire so Copper couldn’t call it back. I heard her screaming angrily from above as the elevator ignored her commands. I wouldn’t have much time when these doors opened again. It wouldn’t have taken long for the guards to figure out what happened and return. When the doors opened I ran to the main entrance but before I could throw the door open, it was opened for me by the guards returning. I swiftly ducked behind the door as they poured in. They mumbled amongst themselves about the flamer and how much damage it did to the tower, as well as how much damage it could do to others.

“Fuckin’ Sid, that was my tower.”

“Hey at least it works, don’t you want to see it in action?”

“Yeah we could torch a whole mess of ponies with that beast.”

The muffled sounds of agreement resonated with the collective. When the last pony trotted in I retreated from behind the door and galloped out into the darkness. Overall the plan worked, unfortunately Copper had caught me. It was unlikely she saw who I was but she was undoubtedly going to take some kind of action, against all of us if she thought it necessary. Now that the commotion was beginning to die down I made my way to the Mega-Flamer and the still glowing pile of slag. I could feel the heat radiating off the nearby molten steel and saw what was left of the guard tower. Sid must have returned to the workshop with Aurora, or at least he better had or there’d be hell to pay. When I walked through the hangar doors I was pounced on by a white blur. Aurora was dangling around my neck by her hooves as she giggled.

“Did you see the fireworks dad? Huh did ya? It was so much fun! I got to press the button!” She gushed, swinging around me giddily.

“Did you get it?” Sid asked, putting a stop to the moment Aurora and I were having.

“Yeah dad, did you get it?” Aurora released her hold on me and plopped to the floor, looking at me expectantly.

“Not exactly. I couldn’t get it without waking her up but I was able to disable it. She won’t be blowing up anything with it now.”

“That’s some pretty delicate work to perform on a sleeping person.”

“Yeah…about that.”

“What? What happened? Did she see you!?” Sid’s eyes shrunk in fear as his wings twitched unconsciously.

“Not exactly, she did wake up as I was leaving but I don’t think she saw who I was.”

“Oh boy, we’re in the shit now. She’s gonna flip her lid on the lot of us.”

“Don’t worry, we have what we need. She doesn’t have a hold of Brick’s leash anymore. He should be easy to recruit to our cause.” Now that I knew there was a terminal in the observation deck that would likely aid my attempts to open the launch pad I had even more incentive to get back in there. Preferably with Brick as the boss.

Sunny sauntered her way through the hangar doors and joined us.

“Well? How’d it go Sparks?”

“I had to go to plan B. I don’t have the trigger but it’s no longer a factor. I disabled it.”

“So what’s next? When do we take our shot at Copper?” Her eyes lit up with determination.

“Tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll be able to approach Brick tonight. Once he knows he’s free of Copper’s bomb he should join us wholeheartedly.”

Everypony in our little group agreed on our course of action when a loud yawn stopped the conversation.

“Tired Princess?” I asked, ruffling her mane slightly.

Aurora nodded sleepily through half-lidded eyes.

“That should be our cue, everypony get some rest. We put an end to this tomorrow.”

Sunny and Sid nodded and retreated to their beds. I had made my own bed here in the workshop. I carried the almost asleep form of Aurora in the white aura of my magic to the corner where I had placed our sleeping bags with whatever pillows I could find or make. I had almost fallen asleep when Aurora rolled over from her bag and snuggled up next to me. I smiled and gently gave her a kiss on the forehead, wrapping my hooves around her. She helped me remember why I was doing this. I’d do it all again, all of it, for her. She looked at me to be her father and for the first time since Winter died, I truly felt like I was filling the role rather than just taking its name. I teared up at those thoughts, brushing a lock of her mane off her sleeping face.

“I love you Aurora Dawn, my little princess.” I closed my eyes holding my daughter, and quickly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.



I was ripped out of my sleep by an ear piercing siren. I jumped up to my hooves, scared out of my mind with my weapon drawn. The siren played once more then ceased but was followed by Copper’s voice booming over the Space Center’s P.A. system.

ATTENTION, EVERYPONY GATHER IN FRONT OF THE HOMESTEAD. I HAVE AN ANNOUNCEMENT TO MAKE!

Feedback bled through the P.A. speakers as the broadcast was terminated.

“What’s going on dad?” Aurora asked, sleepily rubbing her eyes.

“It’s time to finish things.” I said a tad cryptically. I knew what this was about. She was going to try and root me out. I wouldn’t be able to find and tell Brick about the bomb. I cursed myself for the sloppy plan and the way it was executed. I had to improvise. I went to meet Sid to go to the gathering together but he was nowhere to be found. He must have already been awake when the broadcast woke me up. It didn’t matter too much though. He was only helping me because I held the leash on the secret that was no longer a factor. Things were going to come to a head today, for better or worse.

The gathering outside the homestead was slowly filling up as other hooks made their way here from their posts. In less than ten minutes everypony was now in attendance. All thirty plus members of the Rusty Hooks now stood in front of the homestead, waiting for the announcement. There were whisperings amongst the gathering about the reason for the announcement. Many others were talking about the Mega-Flamer incident, thinking that was maybe the reason and in a way it was.

A moment later the door to the homestead was thrown open by Copper, dragging a large black sack behind her.

“Mares and gentlecolts. There is a traitor amongst us. In the chaos caused by the Mega-Flamer somepony snuck onto the observation deck. I almost caught them as they made their daring escape but I do not know what they were after.” Copper drew her pistol with a flourish.

“So I ask, to whomever is guilty of this horridious crime, speak up! Give yourself up and I will make it quick!” she seethed at the crowd. Everypony shifted uneasily, murmuring back and forth about what she was talking about. Losing her patience Copper fired a round into the air, silencing the lot of us.

“Will nopony step forward!?” She was losing all her composure now, screaming and shaking with anger. She screamed in frustration and fired twice into the crowd. Hitting somepony with each shot. I put myself between her and Aurora should a stray shot come our way. I noticed Sunny standing over a mare who was hit in the chest with one of Copper’s bullets. Sunny was holding her hoof as the life left her eyes. She scowled at Copper, unseen from the crowd but her intentions speaking louder above all.

“Fine. I didn’t want to resort to this but you have forced my hoof.” Copper opened the sack and pulled out a badly beaten Sid. One of his eyes was swollen shut and blood ran down his beak and head.

“Now tell me Sid, what happened with that flamer last night? Who put you up to it? I know you don’t have the spine to stand against me. So…who was it!?”

Sid surprisingly held his ground against her, even though he was clearly fighting intense pain as I noticed his wings broken at harsh angles. Copper hissed through her teeth and pistol whipped Sid twice across the face followed by a kick to one of his broken wings. Sid screeched in agony, toppling to the ground on the verge of blacking out. Copper sat him back up and shoved her gun up against his beak.

“You don’t want to die here do you Sid? C’mon tell me what I want and it all stops. Understand?”

Sid closed his eyes and started crying. “I’m sorry.” He said, pointing a claw into the crowd, directly at me.

“I should have known as much, you couldn’t get that thing running yourself after all. Thank you Sid.” Copper showed her appreciation by promptly putting a bullet through his head. His body slumped lifelessly to the ground, Copper grinning while spinning her pistol on her hoof. I felt that flame in my heart ignite with full force. For the first time the ‘Be Strong’ in my head wasn’t trying to stop me, rather it was encouraging me. I gave Aurora a shove towards Sunny as I took a few steps forward. All the ponies close to me spread out leaving me alone in the crowd. I had still yet to see Brick anywhere but my hoof had been forced.

“So Sparks…you dare to-”

“Copper Coil!” I interrupted. Everypony, including Copper seemed surprised by my outburst. “I challenge you for control of the Rusty Hooks!”



Footnote: Level Up!
Skills note: Repair has reached 100%
New Perk: Jury Rigging – You were always handy with a wrench but your time as the Rusty Hooks mechanic has taught you how to work with the bare minimum. You now possess the ability to repair any item with a roughly similar one. Fix a flamer with a blowtorch, a turret with a pistol, or even a spark generator with a battery. How did you acquire this knowledge? Only you know.

Chapter Thirteen: The Lengths We Go

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Chapter Thirteen: The Lengths We Go

Their disharmony is my pain and my pain belongs to them.

Stunned. That was the word that aptly described everypony’s reaction. Even though there was no longer only one gun in the gang, it seemed that nopony ever considered trying to dethrone Copper. Once she recovered from her stunned look, it turned into a smug grin and I remembered why.

“So be it. I call on my champion. BRICK!” she bellowed that last word as if she was playing up for the crowd. Sure enough an amount of cheering and stomping sounded from the gathered masses. The circle of emptiness that surrounded me grew even larger as the mountain of a pony dropped from the sky and hit the ground in front of me, kicking up a cloud of dirt and dust.

“I’m sorry it had to come to this. For what it’s worth I don’t take any joy in this.”

I was going to try and inform him of his safety but before I could even get a syllable out, he flapped his wings hard and shot at me faster than any pony his size had any right to and smashed his enormous hoof into my muzzle. Before I could even open my eyes I could taste the coppery flavor of blood. Thankfully, after a quick prodding, I felt that I still had all my teeth. Before I could feel any kind of happiness at that fact I saw Brick in the air above me, hoof held out to bring down on me. I rolled as fast as I could, narrowly avoiding his hoof caving my skull in. It was a struggle just to get to my hooves as he relentlessly pursued me. I finally managed to get back on all fours and remembered my one advantage, magic. I seized one of his wings in my telekinesis and stopped his next lunge dead, as he jumped forward and veered sharply to the left, face planting into the dirt. I didn’t think I’d have the time to cast any other spells, he was just too fast for a pony his size. If I kept on the move and was able to keep his ability of flight managed I may just have a chance. That is until he gave me zero options. He charged at me again and I was able to sidestep him, though instead of skidding forward a bit he stopped cold just behind me. Seeing no other recourse I pounced on Brick’s back and started hammering my hooves into whatever I could. Every now and then I felt the satisfying thwack of a hoof connecting with his muzzle. Unfortunately for me, my flailing attack caused me to lose focus on my spell, an effect Brick noticed immediately as he hovered in place and turned to face the sky, leaving me lined up horizontally to the ground. All at once he pulled his wings in and crushed me beneath him with all of his weight. I heard something crack and was filled with a burning pain from inside my barrel. I could still draw breath okay so I silently prayed my thanks that it hadn’t punctured a lung. As Brick rolled off of me I could see visible bone protruding from my body. At least two of my ribs had been broken by that body slam. Any attempt at trying to sit up only rewarded me with intense pain. My breathing quickened and my vision began to turn blurry. I tried to croak out any kind of words but I found it hard to draw enough breath to do so. Every breath becoming increasingly shallower as I tried to minimize the pain from my chest expanding. Brick reared back on his hind hooves ready to end it when I was able to get a word out.

“Bomb…” I managed to rasp out.

Brick stopped dead in his tracks. He went back down to all fours and leaned in close to me.

“What did you just say?” his voice was low and it carried a serious edge.

I coughed a few flecks of blood on his face as I tried to continue.

“Bomb…heart…*cough* No…more…I *cough* fix…”

“Are you certain?” He asked his eyes betraying the hope he was feeling. I mustered enough energy to nod and smile.

Brick stood to his full height and announced. “I concede!” Cries of protest immediately erupted from the crowd of onlookers, Copper especially.

“NO NO! You will kill him Brick! I command it!”

Brick smirked and turned to give his full attention to her. “You aren’t in control anymore Copper.”

I could see Copper about to literally pop a gasket as she shook in her fury.

“Aaaaah! Now you die!” She cried, hoofing her necklace with her good hoof. Brick’s smirk grew even more as Copper stood there dumbfounded. She continued to try and set off the bomb to no reward as I heard exactly what I’d hoped for.

“Copper Coil. I challenge you for leadership of the Rusty Hooks!”

After that I simply closed my eyes and let the rest of my plan play out. The crowd was starting to get excited at the spectacle that was about to come.

“Daddy!” Aurora cried, having escaped Sunny and trotted up to my side. She looked at me with terror etched onto her features as she stood in the dirt around me, quickly becoming damp with my blood. “Please…no…don’t die daddy.” She whimpered as a larger shadow fell over me.

“Thank goodness you aren’t dead, watch out Aurora he isn’t going to die today.” I couldn’t find the strength to react, my focus was all diverted to keeping my breathing from causing me more pain. I felt something pressed to my lips, to which I responded by opening my mouth, ready to receive its contents.

“I wish that damn bird was still here, I don’t like resorting to this.” I heard her whisper as I emptied the bottle. All at once my pain disappeared and I felt something moving in my barrel. I managed to sit up and open my eyes just in time to see my bone slink back inside me and presumably back into place. Along with the hole made by my broken rib, every other cut, scratch or scrape was healed within a minute.

“Holy shit, that was some good stuff. What was that?” I asked with a smile, happy to be healthy.

Sunny ignored my question, grabbing my head and forcing me to look around. Was she inspecting me?

“Ok good, no growths…at least where I can see.” Worry evident in her voice.

Growths? What was she talking about? I was about to voice my question when all of a sudden I was back to lying flat on the ground, an ecstatic filly on top of me. She nuzzled me for a good minute before her smile turned to a frown.

“Don’t ever do that to me again! I was so worried.” She squealed, followed by a light smack on the head.

“Ow! What was that for?” I half-joked. I got back up to my hooves only to see Sunny’s concerned expression.

“Sunny what was that? That medicine healed me almost immediately. What did you say about growths?”

Sunny sighed and pointed to the empty bottle at our hooves.

“It’s called Hydra. It increases cell growth, causing rapid regeneration of any injury that’s not fatal. That includes moving bones back into place.”

“That’s amazing! Do we have any more?”

“No and that’s probably for the best. The drug is very dangerous.”

“Dangerous? How?” Aurora asked.

“The rapid cell growth doesn’t always simply heal wounds. It can make them grow too fast and cause disfiguring growths or tumors. I didn’t want to use it at all but…”

But I would have died otherwise with no medical ponies to help me, is what she was going to say. Suddenly I was very worried. She said she didn’t see anything earlier but Luna knows what happened to my insides. A distraction. That’s what I needed to stop me from thinking about it. Fortunately my plan was still in action as I saw Brick and Copper still fighting. Brick was having a hard time landing any hits on Copper as she was devoting all her energy to dodging, trying to wear Brick out. However it wasn’t an effective strategy. Every now and then Brick managed to land a hit on her and Brick was not a weak pony. Every hit slowed her down more and more until she was sprawled out on the ground in front of a very angry mutant Pegasus.

“I’ll see you in hell.” Brick sneered as he brought down all his mass on her chest. I could hear bones snap as blood shot out of her mouth in a thick spray, her insides turned to paste under Brick’s hooves. Brick stood triumphantly over Copper’s corpse, spitting on it as he turned to face the crowd.

“I am in command now! Things are going to change around here, so everypony take this day to celebrate and have fun, for tomorrow you will no longer be Rusty Hook’s! Report back here tomorrow for your new orders. Dismissed!”

As if needing no further encouragement, cheers arose from the crowd as they trotted back and forth ready to celebrate their new leader with gusto. Brick however had other plans as he slowly started making his way towards us.

“Good, you’re not dead. Sorry about before. If I knew the bomb was disarmed…” he trailed off, looking a bit guilty about his actions. Who knows just how much she forced him to do with the threat of death lingering over his head like a guillotine.

“You can apologize by helping me. I didn’t come here looking for a job or a home, I heard you ponies have had dealings with a grey unicorn mare, crimson mane, name was either Slash or Blood Orange.” I stated, hoping something would jog his memory.

“We can talk more about this inside.” He stepped to the side, beckoning us to go inside. I needed to check out the observation deck anyway so I nodded and made my way in. The elevator ride up was an uncomfortable one. Not only because I was standing next to a pony who nearly killed me not ten minutes ago, but also because between Sunny, myself and Brick there was little wiggle room forcing us shoulder to shoulder to fit. The elevator dinged and we might as well have exploded out like an overfilled balloon.

Brick however, unfazed by the situation picked up the conversation where we left it.

“I remember the name. Blood Orange. She was interested in recruiting the Hooks for something, Copper didn’t give me the details but she refused. Said she could be found at the old satellite relay station northeast of here if we changed our minds.”

As he said that, a new mark on my compass popped up in the direction he mentioned. I pulled up the map and saw the mark for the station a few miles away. I really needed to know how this thing actually worked one day.

“If I may ask, why are you seeking her out? If what you said is true then you aren’t the raider type.”

“You’re right about that. Her boss killed my marefriend and I’m going to track him down and-”

“I get the idea, looking for payback. I can understand that.”

“And what about you?” I chuckled. “You also don’t really seem the type.”

“I…I don’t know. Truth be told I can’t remember anything after waking up one day. I get flashes here and there of my life before, of who I was before I became…this.” He looked down at his own body in disgust. “I wasn’t a raider…I was…Arrgh I can’t remember!” he growled in frustration.

I took a step back at the sudden outburst. I could understand his frustration. I would be equally angry if I were in his place, if my only memories started after I left the Stable.

“Sorry, trying to recall my life from before hurts my head.”

I remembered something Sunny told me a long time ago.

“Brick…I was told that all the pegasi live above the clouds. Do you know anything about that? Does that jog any memories?”

“I…I don’t know. I think I knew a mare? …a very important mare… or a stallion? AAgh it hurts!”

I decided that questioning him any further about it would get me nowhere. Brick held his head between his hooves for a moment before he noticed something.

“I don’t remember this terminal being on.” He said, looking at the wall of screens I noticed the night before.

“That was another thing I wanted to talk to you about. When I boosted the reactors output I think I turned on more terminals, hopefully one with a link to the launch pad.”

“Well if you think that’s the case…go ahead and see what you can do. However I know you have no intention of staying with us. What would you ask as payment for opening the launch pad to us?”

“We’ll worry about that later, first let me see if this’ll even work.”

I trotted to one of the terminals and got to searching. The benefit to the terminals being in the observation deck meant they weren’t locked down. Nopony expected that anypony who wasn’t supposed to be up here would ever be up here. A foolish notion for sure but it saved me the effort of hacking government encryption. There were numerous reports of malfunctions and parts of the center that needed maintenance. Among the damage reports I managed to find a few personal journal entries. The scholar in me wanted to find out if the writer of the journal survived the Last Day or at the very least see if there was any pertinent information hidden inside. The first one was logged a few months before the Last Day:

Head technician, Blowtorch: Entry one

I don’t know how those mares expect us to finish this project when they keep diverting funds away from us. The space stations are already in orbit and the both of them are almost fully loaded. However until we can get the funding necessary to launch Star Swirl-12 and Star Swirl-13 they will stay in standby mode as barely powered metal hunks of wasted time. Everypony seems to have forgotten that this next launch was to deliver the targeting systems and crew for the stations. What could be more important that they are redirecting funds from the weapons that will finally destroy the Zebra menace?

The next one was a few weeks later.

Head Technician, Blowtorch: Entry two.

Funding has actually increased a bit in the last few weeks. Just enough to keep the installation operational. Can you believe they wanted us to build a third station once? It’s almost like they want to abandon this project but can’t commit in fear of failing in their other ventures. So here is where I rot with a skeleton crew in a space center with the power barely turned on. I know it’s terrible to think but I hope whatever other project that is siphoning our money away fails. I want the war to end as much as anypony but I hate being kept in the dark like this. At the very least I’d like to transfer to a different installation but my requests have been repeatedly ignored or denied in silence and the goddessdamn guards at the parking structure won’t let me leave. They keep saying for ‘security purposes’ that essential staff are to remain on the premises. It’s incredibly infuriating and frankly I’m not sure the ministries know how to manage their many projects anymore.

The final one didn’t have a date log or stationary label.

They really did it. We felt the earth shake before we got confirmations of Balefire detonations. Equestria was bombarded by megaspells for maybe two hours before the earth finally held still. At least our isolated location saved us from being hit or obliterated by a shockwave. It’s been about a week since we heard anything from the ministries. Yesterday it started raining. At first I thought it was some sign of the pegasi trying to help. Wishful thinking is what they call that. They closed up the sky and I don’t think they have any intention of coming back. The rain that continues to fall outside is black. One of the other eggheads theorized that the rain is being caused by all the radioactive particle debris from the Balefire storm that swallowed my homeland one week ago. Her theory is backed by the impressive reactions we are getting from our instruments. That rain…if there was any hope of survivors out there, this rain will see to them. Animal and plant life will go extinct out there…there is no hope, not anymore. We failed…foolish of us to think we wouldn’t. This is former head technician Blowtorch signing off, I have a rainstorm to walk into.

That was the last log on the terminal. I never gave much thought on how most plant life died out. I assumed it was just radiation or the effect of the blasts. To learn that a radioactive black rain wiped out most life in days was haunting. So much so that a survivor here chose suicide. Disturbing survivors account aside I found what I was looking for. I found blueprints and plans for the space center. I downloaded them onto my PipBuck and gave them a closer look. Sunny and Aurora were peeking over my shoulder, interested in what I was staring at. Eventually I found the specific diagrams for the launch pad area and found a way in. The separate power generator keeping the turrets and bots online was underground beneath the launch pad in the Mission Control Room. A careful examination of various tunnels, fuel lines and water pipes showed me a tunnel that was built to vent launch exhaust away from the space center that led inside the launch pad area itself. Sunny seemed to follow what I was planning as she examined the map along with me. Aurora however was less attentive to the plans. I lowered my PipBuck and looked at Brick.

“I think I found my way to the launch pad.” I told him of the layouts I found and how we could get inside. I deliberately left out the journals of Blowtorch.

He insisted on joining us or sending a few ponies with us but I kept talking him out of it.

“I am the most qualified to work with the tech at the launch pad and mission control.” I informed. “Extra hooves are unnecessary. Sunny and I can get by just fine by ourselves, the fewer ponies to worry about the better in case there is something waiting for us in the tunnel.” I was uncertain if we would actually encounter something dangerous in the tunnel but the opening was beyond the installations perimeter and protective fencing. Goddesses know what could be in there now.

“What about me dad?” Aurora asked, wondering why I left her out of my list of ponies going in the tunnel.

“I want you to sit this one out Aurora. If there are any security measures in the tunnel…It’s too dangerous for you.”

“But you don’t know if there’s even anything in the tunnel!”

“Aurora it’s a safe bet that there is something inside. We can’t-”

“You promised you wouldn’t leave me behind again!” She cried.

“I’m not leaving you behind. I’m just-”

“I’m not a foal dad! I can help! You just have to give me a chance…” She practically whispered her last few words. I could see how let down she was, her eyes drifting to the floor and her ears hanging limply on her head. It was my responsibility as her surrogate father to keep her safe wasn’t it? Then why did she fight me every step of the way? I already had proof of how resourceful she could be when she managed to escape the Crater and make it all the way to the robotics factory. I didn’t want to push her away. A chance huh? …I thought I could give her that much.

I sighed, relenting to the eager filly’s request. “Ok you can come with us.”

Aurora’s expression brightened instantly and she actually hopped with joy for a few seconds.

“BUT.” I continued, stopping her in her tracks. “You do exactly what I or Sunny tell you to do.”

“Ok dad, just you watch I’ll show you-”

“I need you to promise me Aurora. If I tell you to get down or hide you do it. If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to leave me behind and save yourself... you do it. Understand?”

Her joyful expression melted away to be replaced by one of worry. She was coming to an understanding of what I was implying. It was no surprise she was unsettled by the concept of leaving me behind if I told her to but she was stronger than she looked. She steeled her expression into a look of reluctant understanding.

“I promise.” I could tell she was taking this as seriously as she could. That was good enough for me.

“Alright then. Let’s get our things together and head out.”

We returned to the hangar and gathered all our gear and equipment. I made sure to give copies of the maps and layouts to Aurora and Sunny, loading them up on their PipBucks while I explained the route we were taking. There was a maintenance corridor attached to the tunnel that led into the mission control center where, hopefully, I’d be able to turn off the security. I’m sure Brick wouldn’t mind me taking the robots with me once I reprogrammed them. We needed to hurry before Blood Orange learned of Copper’s death and returned to Chestnut. I couldn’t lose the trail now, I had come too far to lose them again. My resolve could not be shaken, I would get the robots for Jack and then find Blood Orange at the satellite relay station marked on my map.

We made our way back out through the parking structure and started searching for the entrance to the vent tunnel. If the map was accurate it should be about one hundred meters from the fence surrounding the space center. I looked up to the sky and was suddenly very thankful for the cloud cover. I don’t know how truly desert-like the area had become but it was hot enough without the sun beating down on us too.

“Why are we still bothering with the launch pad?” Sunny asked. “We have the location to find your mare. What’s to stop us from going there and then coming back?”

“Nothing honestly but I doubt she’s alone. I want to finish things here and snatch a few robots for back up.”

“Yeah I can’t wait to see you work dad.” Aurora chirped.

I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely interested in technology or if she was forcing it because I had the interest. I hoped it was the former, feeling a small amount of pride in her following in my hoofsteps. I wondered what kind of pony she’d grow up to be. Would she take after me or find her own path? I lost myself in those thoughts for a while when I heard something echo to my right. I stowed thoughts about the future away for now and finally saw where the sound came from. I could see the space center above us on a slight incline on the geography with the opening to the tunnel just in front of us. I admit I don’t know how to read blueprints very well and was surprised to see that the tunnel was maybe two and a half ponies tall and 4 wide. I guessed that it had to be big enough to not flood the rest of the complex with the rocket exhaust when they launched. Why didn’t they build the launch pad farther away from the rest of the buildings then? I suppose if this place was supposed to be a secret, they were forced to pack them together.

“Keep your ears on the swivel, we don’t know if anything is in there.” I got nods from Sunny and Aurora as we took our first tentative steps in the tunnel. I was unsure if we would encounter anything in here before when I thought it was smaller, now that I knew how big it truly was the likelihood was greater. I let Sunny take the lead this time. If worst came to worst, I wanted her battle saddle in front of me.

It didn’t take too long to walk most of the length of the tunnel but what we found near the end confirmed my fears. The door to the maintenance corridor was open, hanging crooked on one hinge with a pony skeleton at the bottom of the stairs leading inside. Somepony had tried to get out. Was it a survivor from after the bombs fell? Judging from the notes I read on the observation terminal it sounded like the space center was still livable after the Last Day. Something forced this pony through this door. I levitated Harbinger out of its holster and held it in front of me cautiously.

“What are the chances that there’s still something in there?” I whispered. I heard Aurora gasp when she saw the skeleton and felt her trembling when she put a hoof on my leg.

“…Lets not take any chances.” Was all I got out of Sunny as she kicked the loading lever on her battle saddle. She didn’t want to say in front of Aurora but I could tell she was expecting something.

“Stay close behind us Aurora.” I told her, placing a hoof on her head. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” I said hoping to reassure her, even though I was getting that sinking feeling in my chest. Deep down I knew it wouldn’t be so easy. It never was.

The stale, musty air lingering in the corridor was making it hard to breathe. A constant ticking from my PipBuck informed us that there was radiation here as well, adding to the eerie atmosphere. Every hoofstep echoed off the metal floor, forcing us to move at an unbearably slow pace. We went up some stairs wrapping around to the next floor, presumably putting us back inside the fence’s perimeter. The ticking from our PipBucks got louder and faster, putting the needle on the counter out of the green area and into the yellow one. I used the built in sorting spell to fish out some radiation medication and popped one of the bitter tablets into my mouth, causing the ticking to diminish in its intensity. I floated two out to Sunny and Aurora which they accepted in silence. Judging by how far we had walked I would say we were under the launch pad now. At the end of the hallway in front of us was an open door into a dark room beyond, a corpse laying at the threshold. It was curious to note that unlike the one in the exhaust tunnel, this body hadn’t rotted away. Did radiation have some kind of preserving effect on dead bodies? I chuckled inwardly at a sort of cruel joke, recalling that that was how somepony becomes a…ghoul. Oh shit! Before I could voice a warning, the corpse at the door got to its hooves with a quickness its gaunt body shouldn’t have allowed and let out a low-pitch growl.

“Ferals!” Sunny shouted, unloading a shot into its chest. Numerous red blips popped up on E.F.S as more growling came out of the darkness in the room ahead.

“Fall back!” I didn’t want to get swarmed by ghouls in such tight quarters. Aurora’s eyes had shrunk down in fear as she stared forward into the dark, paralyzed by terror. I gave her a shove back the way we came, forcing her flight instinct into a quick retreat. I fired a few rounds into the black, hearing them hit flesh and spill blood as a dozen zombies piled out of the room.

“Keep going Aurora! Don’t stop!” I could hear the sound of her hooves pounding the metal in front of me as Sunny and I kept firing into the sea of furless, discolored bodies relentlessly chasing us. A few lucky stray shots hit brain matter and bit by bit a few of the hostile markers blinked out. We came to a split in the hallway I hadn’t noticed before, following Aurora as she veered to the right.

“Split!” I yelled to Sunny, hoping we could split the remaining ghouls into manageable numbers to take out. I looked behind me to see that I had four ghouls left on my tail, the distant sound of gunfire signaling that Sunny had taken a few with her. The light from Aurora’s PipBuck ahead of me showed that I was approaching a dead end. I had to end it here and now or else…No! I couldn’t think like that. I had to succeed, I had to protect her. I turned and entered S.A.T.S, targeting the heads of the four ghouls. I let the spell carry out my actions, hitting two of my targets and only nicking the others. I levitated Hearts Promise out of the makeshift sheath on my right leg and magically threw it into the skull of the closest ghoul, piercing into its brain and causing it to crumple to the floor. It was too much to hope that the last one would be tripped up by the body of its brethren. It jumped into the air, my shot missing its mark and punched through its ear instead. Its body weight had enough force to throw me backwards where my back collided with the dead end wall. I heard Aurora scream out when she saw the zombie on top of me, savagely biting at me as I held it away from my face with my forelegs. I was losing ground to the monster as it seemed earth pony strength endured even the necromantic effects of radiation. My hold wavered and a flailing, jagged hoof caught me above my right eye, cutting roughly into my forehead. I couldn’t focus my magic long enough to manage a spell as its hooves continued to barrage me. It all came to a violent crescendo when it leaned down and bit into my shoulder. I cried out in pain as I felt rotten teeth tear the muscle beneath my skin. A new blast of adrenaline into my system gave me enough reprieve to lash out a few hits myself, forcing its mouth away from my body as an uppercut caught the underside of its jaw, knocking out several of its teeth in the process. My new strength was beginning to fade, the gnashing teeth of the ghoul creeping closer to my face.

“Run! Aurora run!” I closed my eyes bracing myself for the next, possibly fatal bite. Suddenly I felt its legs go limp and slack as its body flopped off of me to the side, a knife sticking out of its temple.

I was breathing heavily, looking at the dead body in confusion. I turned to see Aurora breathing just as heavily as I was, a stunned look on her face. Her whole body was trembling and she couldn’t take her eyes off the lifeless ghoul.

“I…I killed it.” She whispered, her voice cracking. I downed a healing potion and let out a heavy sigh as the warmth inside me began stitching my wound closed, leaving behind an ugly scar. I could see my blood staining the teeth of the dead ghoul, bits of my fur stuck in between them.

I stood up and took Aurora into a grateful hug. “Aurora…you saved me. I told you to run.”

“I couldn’t… I…I…” she stammered. Unexpectedly I thought back to when I did something similar to save Sunny from the Bloodwing. Suddenly I knew how she felt when she hit me. I hugged her even tighter as I felt something I hadn’t felt in some time. Happiness. She saved me. My foolish daughter had saved me. I released her and wiped a tear off her face.

“You did good Aurora.” Was all I had to say. Her mouth curled up into a smile as she looked at me through misty eyes. I heard the sound of hooves approaching and looked up to see Sunny trotting towards us.

“You guys alright?” She asked, lending me a hoof and helping me back up to all fours.

“Better.” I said, looking down at Aurora with a soft smile. I magically wrenched her knife from its resting place and returned it to her.

“You might want this.” I teased, guiding it back into her little backpack. “The way should be clear now.” I motioned for Sunny to lead the way onward, Aurora following after her. I took a moment to inspect the corpse of the zombie pony and managed to find a nametag on the tattered remains of its clothing. I guess he got his wish after all these years I thought solemnly. It read Blowtorch. I carefully returned it to where it belonged and then trotted to catch up to Sunny.

A quick climb up a small ladder later, we found ourselves in a darkly lit room, dust littering everything. Somewhere around here was mission control which hopefully contained the main security terminal. If it wasn’t here then I’d have no idea how to shut it down. We passed a set of stairs leading up, presumably to the launch pad based on the small turret mounted to the ceiling. We would have to get by it to explore the other side of the structure. The importance of this space center was shown by what kind of turret it was. Instead of looking down a gun barrel I was looking down a focusing lens with a side mounted gem pack. Suddenly I was remembering the building we found Paladin Sure Shot in. It had also had a compliment of defensive robots as well as magical energy turrets. Perhaps I had a few places to return to in the future.

“Sparks, think you could conjure up a shield for us?” Sunny asked, knowing I possessed the capability to do so.

“I should be able to.” I said with a bit of confidence. The white aura of my magic sparked to life around my horn as I focused the energy to cast the spell. In a flash, a white bubble shield had surrounded me. Ok now step two. I exerted a bit more magic to force the spell away from me, rolling the bubble shape into a flat wall that I could direct. I wiped a bead of sweat off my forehead as I smiled proudly. I wasn’t the most talented unicorn but after creating one accidentally, I slowly figured out how to do them at will. I could have done it much faster if I had a proper teacher but as it stood I was able to figure it out on my own. I maneuvered the wall of magic in front of us as we began crossing the turrets path. Aurora had jumped up on my back and wrapped her hooves around my neck, hanging on tight.

“Ok here we go!” We galloped into its sight, keeping the wall in between it and us. The turret snapped to attention and opened fire on us. Four pink laser blasts hit my shield, causing magical feedback to surge into my horn with every shot. As we made it to the other side, before I dismissed the spell, I saw that it had cracked in a few places but otherwise held up. Maybe I was more capable than I thought.

On the other side of the complex, through a door that had been bashed open, was a large room filled with rows of terminals on desks in front of a wall of display screens. A few of the terminals glowed a soft green, lighting the room with a sickly glow. I took a seat in an old chair in front of what I thought was the main terminal in the front row of desks. The screen was flashing with numerous warnings about being disconnected from certain functions and informing me that there was a security breach, forcing the launch pad to be locked down. I started searching through the code, looking for commands that would allow me to deactivate or reprogram the robots and turrets.

“Is this the right terminal?” Sunny asked, tapping the side of the terminal.

“I think so. Look at all these alerts.” I waved a hoof at the screen. “Why would they be sent to just this terminal otherwise?”

“Are we gonna take the robots?” Aurora asked, excitement evident in her voice.

“Please clear the area. This room is in lockdown.” A slow moving ponitron shambled into the room. “Repeat. Please clear the area. This unit is authorized to use lethal force. Violence will not be tolerated.” Its monotonous synthetic voice was a far cry from the mare sounding brain bots. Sunny trotted up to the bulky robot and put a load of buckshot through its head casing.

“Not that one.” I needed to hurry and find the security controls, the next robot that finds us might actually be a combat model. While I continued to dig through the terminal’s code I found an interesting command. It read; Signal MoA. From what I gleaned this was a joint project by the Ministry of Arcane Sciences and the Ministry of Wartime Technology. Why was the Ministry of Awesome involved? From what information was available in the Stable, I couldn’t exactly figure out why the ministry existed. Rainbow Dash fought on the front lines more often than not and often left her ministry to its own devices. Curiosity got the better of me and I activated the command.

…Nothing.

I should have known better than try and ping a ministry I knew was two hundred years defunct. I continued searching while Sunny and Aurora were attempting to build a barricade with desks from the room around the room. It would hold should another robot shamble by but if it was a Sentinel that found us? It would do little to protect us then. I knew better than to voice this thought though and let them continue. Eventually I found what I was looking for, the remote security override. I used the command and relaxed as the lights turned back on and the red ticks that were approaching on my compass disappeared. Alright, it was time to get topside and see how many bots were up there. We went back to the stairs with the turret that we passed earlier and ascended them to ground level. We walked outside right beneath the gantry holding up one of the rockets. Across the way, under the second rocket’s gantry, was a similar building that presumably led to another part of the underground complex.

“Might as well clear out the whole place right?” I said more for myself than anypony else. Neither Sunny nor Aurora protested so we descended down an identical set of stairs. The symmetrical layout helped in navigating and before long we found a similar room lined with terminals, albeit with more glowing screens and scattered paperwork rotting on the floor. There were old skeletons scattered around where the ponies here after the bombs fell succumbed to hunger or took their own lives. A particular skeleton slumped in a chair with an exit hole in the back of its skull being especially noticeable. Sights of tragedy like this would never get easier to see, every time I did they weighed heavy on my heart. Doubly so that I couldn’t do anything to prevent Aurora from seeing the truth of the world. Although, even for a filly, I think she knew better than most how the Wasteland worked.

With the lights on it was easier to see the full details of the room. On the three walls that made up the room were posters advertising for different ministries. The right wall displayed a grey mare wearing a yellow and pink nurse’s uniform, behind her walked a line of Steel Rangers marching. The poster read ‘You don’t need to be a Steel Ranger to be a hero! Join the Ministry of Peace today!’ On the left wall was another that showed the outline of Canterlot surrounded by a shield as missiles were impacting it, the equestrian flag in the background. In the foreground was the outline of a pony so it could be anypony with the text accompaniment reading ‘The state is a friend of a friend of the state. Support the war efforts’. The third and final bit of pre-war propaganda on the center wall in front of me depicted three pegasi flying towards a group of zebras, riding a wave of rainbow colored light that was clearing the inky cloud that surrounded the zebras to reveal the blue sky behind it. ‘Wipe the Stripes!’ it boldly declared. ‘Join the Equestrian Forces today!’ A secondary glance around the room showed that this was the mission control room, making the one we were just in the security room, which made sense given what I was able to do in it. At the center panel under the row of monitors was a large console with various switches with a terminal screen inlaid into it. There was hope here once. Surrounded by ministry propaganda in the heart of the space center. These ponies were working on something that they truly thought would end the war. Now the space stations they had constructed floated aimlessly in the skies above, still waiting for the equipment and crew they needed to bring them online.

Inside the terminal I found a list that surprised me. It was a current readout of the status of the rockets. Both gantries were still intact and power flowed to the elevator controls, both rockets were adequately fueled and had all their desired cargo on board. The launches had been delayed by a lack of resources and ponypower. The bare minimum maintenance crew couldn’t carry out the tasks that were required. Despite all that, a red alert on Star Swirl-13 showed that whether through time or sabotage that the docking clamp had malfunctioned and needed to be replaced. This discovery was a lot to take in. Floating in orbit were two weapons of mass destruction, I assumed, and the rockets to make them functional were ready to launch and had been for some time. Before I could find out what it would take to launch them or learn about their destinations, I was stopped by a black box on the screen asking for the access codes. I sighed and slumped a little in the chair in front of the mission control terminal. Something inside me was disappointed and relieved at the same time.

“You find something?” Sunny asked, noticing my slump.

“I’m not sure.” I said, looking for more information in the terminal. “These rockets are fully operational and are ready to launch.”

“We’re going to fly these rockets!?” Aurora squeaked in excitement, shooting off her hooves high enough to look me in the eye.

“Not without the access code we’re not.”

“You aren’t seriously going to try and fly one of those things are you?” Sunny was looking at me like I had finally lost it.

“Of course not but aren’t you the slightest bit curious about all this?” I knew she wasn’t always this stoic and I refused to believe that nothing interested her.

“What? About the space stations up in space?” She raised an eyebrow quizzically. So she had been reading everything over my shoulder. “I’m not about to destroy the world again. I doubt anypony alive could fly this thing anyway.” She said, trying to dismiss any more conversation. At least I had gotten my answer. Deny it as she will she had at least given it some thought. As I was about to log out, I found a command to unlock a safe somewhere in the room. A soft click sounded from the base of the console. Aurora also heard the lock disengage, searching the area where the sound had come from. She pried off a fake floor panel, revealing a rather large floor safe.

“Found it!” she called to us.

“Good job Aurora, now let’s see what’s inside.” I bent down and turned the handle on the safe, revealing its contents to us. Inside was a hefty stack of documents, a silenced small caliber pistol and the true treasure, a statuette of a blue pegasus mare with a rainbow mane with a cocky look of victory on her face. I withdrew the one I already had from my bags and set them next to each other. They were clearly part of a set and guessing from the three I had seen that they would all be of the Ministry Mares. I had never seen Rainbow Dash without some kind of armor on but that mane was unmistakable. Just as before, when I picked it up in my magic, I felt a rush of energy flow through my body and come to rest in the back of my mind. I read the inscription on the base ‘Be Awesome!’ some unseen force reading it alongside me.

These statuettes…there is something special about them. Just what are they? I filed that train of thought away for now, wanting to take a look at the many documents inside the safe. Many of them detailed information that came from numerous research facilities and private companies; Maripony, Future-Tec, Silver-Mane Industries and The Dome. Of all those names, one got a reaction from my PipBuck. A map marker had been added, showing the location of The Dome far to the northwest of Baltimare. At the very least I could say I had no lack of things to do should I choose to pursue them. That was as close as I was going to get regarding the space center. It would always be here should I want to return. I stood up from the safe and started to leave.

“We should go let Brick know that we cleared the launch pad. Then we’re going to find Blood Orange.” The amount of hatred in my voice startled even me. It had to be done though, this burden on my heart was changing me and it needed to be freed before I changed forever.

We found Brick where we had left him a few hours ago on the observation deck where I told him everything that happened, well, almost everything.

“I want some of the robots.” I demanded.

“If that is the payment you desire then so be it. Thank you. I think, given a bit of time, that I can reorganize this place into a proper outfit.”

That was good to hear. Their location could provide a valuable stop on trade routes that crossed the mountains, perhaps it would even bring new settlements along with it. They certainly had enough resources to do a fair amount of trading on their own, Brick’s ambitions could become reality very easily.

“I wish you luck with that. If you think you can turn the ponies here then I look forward to returning.” I held out my hoof to him. He returned the gesture and bumped his hoof against mine.

“I won’t waste this opportunity. Thank you for giving me my freedom back. I hope you find the pony you’re looking for.”

I nodded to him, a small smile on my face. Before I knew it I had reprogrammed two robots and we were back outside, wind blowing across the arid landscape, heading to where Brick said Blood Orange was. It was finally time. My vengeance was getting closer to fruition. Aurora couldn’t hide her happiness as she rode on the back of a Sentinel, its wheeled legs not bothered at all by the terrain. Sentinels were built primarily for combat and therefore didn’t speak much. The other robot also had no problem with the terrain, its mounted thruster keeping it aloft above the ground. Of all the robots I knew about the Mr. Series was the oddest looking. They had round bodies with three long eyestalks protruding from the middle of its body, beneath them were three mechanical appendages, two of which were tipped with a different weapon while the third was a basic pincher claw for grabbing things. This particular Mr. Gutsy had a dark green paint scheme with the symbol of Equestria on its front, along with its name painted on the side of its body.

“I can’t wait to wipe those stripes Commander.” It cheerfully said in a slightly gruff voice of a military drill sergeant.

“You don’t have to call me commander Cerberus.” I said, wishing it would use the designation I programmed.

“Nonsense sir! It is only proper that I address you as such, you are my commanding officer of this team and that makes you the Commander!” Why was there programming for identifying individuals if it could just ignore them and call you whatever it wanted?

“Sentinel, please tell me your programming isn’t the same.” I asked the bulky robot.

OF COURSE NOT, COMMANDER.”

I sighed in defeat, I guess I’d just have to accept it as a glitch in their programming. Aurora on the other hoof was getting way to into it.

“Onward my loyal Sentinel! For the Commander!” She cried, pointing forward in the direction we were walking like she was commanding a vehicle. Something inside her head made her frown for a second.

“Hey dad? If you’re a commander, what does that make me?”

“The commander’s daughter.” I said flatly.

“Aww C’mon! I want a title like you!” She whined.

“Fine…you can be the Lieutenant.” I said, having fully given up arguing the point.

“Lou…tenant?” She questioned, her understanding of the new word lacking.

“Congratulations on the promotion Lieutenant.” Cerberus said, one of its eyestalks rotating to affix her with a recognizing stare.

Aurora pumped her hoof in the air in celebration, having understood all she needed to know about the rank from Cerberus’ acknowledgement. I had given Sunny and Aurora administrator access to command the robots the same as I, the only caveat was they couldn’t be against my own, lest Sunny try and stop me from using them for my revenge.

“And Aunt Sunny you get to be the Captain!” Aurora clopped her hooves together, thrilled by the titles being thrown around. Sunny looked up at her from under her hat.

“Cool.” Was all she needed to say to get another round of celebration from the excited filly riding a death machine. Now that I thought about it, the image of a happy filly riding the death dealing metal monster that was a Sentinel was kinda off-putting. At least this one was on my side.

Minutes became hours as we neared the array of three large towers topped with damaged satellite dishes. Even from this distance I could see the rope bridges between the three dishes, connecting them to each other. I could see dark pony shapes walk across every few minutes. I turned my head to the cloud cover above, noticing the edge of the sky alight as if the horizon itself was aflame. We couldn’t risk a camp this close to the satellite towers. We would have to make do with a twilight attack. Thankfully the robots possessed built in E.F.S systems so the dark wouldn’t affect them at all. I unslung my sniper rifle from my back and looked through the scope. It was clear that this was a raider haven, although it couldn’t have been there long judging by the lack of desecrated pony remains as decorations. Or maybe Blood Orange was more subdued than the average raider. She didn’t look the type to enjoy stuff like that. Perhaps she was only an ally to Chestnut, not to his raider army. No! Stop thinking like that! I admonished myself. I couldn’t think that she could be reasoned with. I was going to kill her, only after I got what I needed from her. There wouldn’t be a repeat of what happened at Requari.

“Cerberus, Sentinel, listen up.” I beckoned them closer, it was time for the plan. “Your jobs are simple. We are here for a pony named Blood Orange, she has a grey coat and a deep crimson mane. I need you two to patrol the perimeter and make sure she doesn’t escape. Kill anypony else.” I could hardly believe the words coming out of my mouth. I knew it was what I had to do. What I wanted to do. But now? Now that I was here and I had to act… Sunny had no objections. Whether she admitted it or not she wanted to be here. If she wanted to be here to help me or for a reason of her own I didn’t know, though I hoped it was the former. Aurora…she had to learn sooner or later. There was a reason I didn’t bring her in the first place. She looked apprehensive, scared even.

“Sunny and I are going inside, we need to find her or chase her to you two before she can charge up a teleport.”

“W-what about me dad?” She asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Stay where you are. The robots will protect you no matter what.” I pointed at Cerberus and glared at the floating robot. “Understood?”

“Yes Commander!” The robot did a salute with his pincer arm.

YES COMMANDER.” The sentinel made no attempt at a gesture but I knew it was sincere either way.

“Consider that order as important as the capture of the target. Listen to what she says unless they impair the mission.”

“You mean I get to tell them what to do?” Aurora asked, a spark of emotion flaring past her fear.

“You named yourself Lieutenant didn’t you?” I smirked, pointing at her jokingly. “Do you think you’re up to it?”

She gave a determined expression that made me proud, smirking back at me, giving me her own salute.

“Yes Commander.”

I brought up my PipBuck and used it to help me find and levitate out the pistol I took from the safe in the space center. It was silenced so if she had to use it… I wished I could give her a normal life. A life where you didn’t have to learn to kill before you got your cutie mark. A life where death came at the end of a long, happy existence. I clutched a hoof to my chest, gently touching the 63 embroidered on my armor. I missed my life in the stable...my thoughts drifted to what could have been. Those thoughts started to make me angry. The Wasteland had taken my life from me, my partner from me…I wondered if she would’ve had a filly or a colt…

“Don’t hesitate to use this.” I floated the pistol over to her. “They took Winter from us…and they’re going to pay their debt in full.”

She knew how to use it, I just thought I’d have more time before she needed to.

“Sunny? Do you have anything to add?” Her help was invaluable to me. I wouldn’t be anywhere without her. I just hoped she didn’t think less of me for my decision.

“Don’t lose yourself. Keep your head and remember why you’re here. Remember what’s at stake for you AND me.” She leaned in close and whispered the last one into my ear. “And remember whose watching.”

Sunny walked past me to get a look for herself. Leaving me to face my daughter. I understood what she meant. She was worried I’d lose control, let my anger get the better of me, let the Wasteland control me. I didn’t know if I had the strength to resist when we found her.

Be Strong!

Be Awesome!

All at once I felt my nerves calm, my resolve cemented, my body and mind ready for what I was about to face.

Aurora was holding the pistol pretty clumsily in her mouth, looking at me with piercing eyes. She put up a strong face but I could see through her. She was worried. Worried about me. She was right to be.

“Attack the perimeter.” I ordered the robots. “Sunny, we’re going in.”






The raiders barely had time to react as a missile launched from my sentinel hit one of the suspended catwalks wrapping around the outside of the dish towers, sending an unlucky mare plummeting to her death below. Two more were killed by headshots from my S.A.T.S assisted aim while Sunny and I made our gallop to the entrance of one of the towers. In the periphery of my vision I could see blip after red blip disappear on my E.F.S, the roar of the sentinel’s minigun signaling their deaths. The robots had cleared us a path to the doors that Sunny and I promptly crashed through. There were cabinets and tables all around the circular room. In the center of the room was a tall metal staircase that wrapped around itself to the top where I assumed the controls and exit to the dish were. As we crashed in we saw the staircase was loaded with raiders, half going outside to combat my robots from a distance while the rest looked at us with angry and unsure expressions, wondering if they should continue outside or combat the new threats that burst it. The sound of gunfire signaled that they decided to fight us first, forcing us to rush into cover behind a nearby table, flipping it over to use as a shield. Only a few scarce bullets pierced the table, their poorly repaired weapons lacking the power. On the first wrap of the stairs were three raiders firing on us from behind a piece of sheet metal they’d dragged from somewhere. Further up above were more peppering us with potshots from many angles. We wouldn’t last much longer there under their assault. Then I got an idea.

I wrapped our cover in the white aura of my magic and situated it in front of Sunny with me at the rear to shield her from shots from behind. She picked up on my plan as we started up the stairs. I felt several bullets impact my armor, hitting hard enough to leave bruises but not enough to punch through. As we neared the three I threw the table with all my strength, knocking two of them off to the concrete floor. The third was taken aback, the table disappearing to reveal an angry orange mare with two shotguns. That raider hardly managed a scream before one shot blew his jaw from his head and the other blew a bloody clump out of his chest. We were halfway up the stairs when we faced at least five raiders at the top, all of them bearing down on us. I couldn’t let them pin us down again. I conjured a white wall of protection in front of us as we continued our ascent. Just as we rounded the final turn of the stairs, a missile struck the outside wall behind the raiders, shredding two of them with hard concrete shrapnel and a third was blown over the edge by the blast. The remaining two recoiled from the explosion, leaving them wide open. Sunny put three shots into one, leaving her missing a leg and head. I fired a lightning bolt at the other, causing his muscles to convulse harshly and painfully. While he was incapacitated I simply picked him up with my magic and cast him out of the hole in the wall to the ground below.

I spared a moment to look outside through the hole. Several raiders were still trying to destroy my metal companions from up on the metal walkways and a few from up on the satellite dishes themselves. I had every confidence they would be ok, even with how many hits the sentinel was taking to protect Aurora.

“C’mon Sparks, we can’t let her get away!” Sunny pulled me away from the hole, leading me up to the ladder that led outside. Once we threw open the hatch, we were greeted by the backs of two raiders that were taking cover from the robots. Sunny and I turned and gave them both a hard buck, sending them off the tower. To our left was the smallest of the three towers that had taken an absolute beating from the sentinel’s missile launcher. Several of the walkways had been blasted off, separating the raiders over there from the other two, leaving them easy pickings for the robots. As if on cue a green bolt of magical fire atomized one of the raiders, turning her into a steaming pile of goo.

To our right was the tallest of the three towers with a strange looking effigy made of scrap metal on top of its dish. It was the only place we had to go. We crossed the rope bridge to the other tower, throwing open its hatch to the inside. This one was similar in layout to the one we came in through. However there were no raiders in here. From down below I could hear the sound of frantic typing at a terminal. Behind the glow of the screen was her. Blood Orange. As far as she knew she was under attack by robots so I doubted she knew we were there. I put a hoof to my lips, telling Sunny to move stealthily as I unslung my sniper rifle once again. I carefully braced the rifle on a guardrail and took aim at Blood Orange. Through the scope I could see what she was trying to do with the terminal. If what I read was accurate, she was trying to call in a mortar strike from a nearby pre-war military base. The text on screen read ‘Moving into position’ meaning that the strike was almost ready to fire. Those mortars would destroy my robots and kill…and kill…No I had to stop it now! I moved my crosshairs to the base of her horn and fired. Blood Orange’s horn exploded into shards in a crimson colored explosion. Her blood curdling shriek of pain brought a smile to my face. I slowly made my way down the stairs to the bottom where Blood Orange lay in a heap, poking at her shattered horn.

“Remember me?” I said cruelly, rushing up into her face so she could see. She looked at me like she couldn’t believe what I had done.

“You…you destroyed my horn…

“You killed my love, now stay down. I’ll deal with you in a moment.” As much as I wanted to deliver her a beating now that she was powerless, I had a mortar strike to call off. I stood in front of the terminal and started looking for a ceasefire command or something similar. I could hear Sunny making her way down the stairs to me. Suddenly I heard a primal scream and felt somepony’s hooves grab either side of my head and smash it into the screen. From the corner of my eye I could see the livid form of Blood Orange doing anything she could to hurt me, lost in the frenzy of losing her horn. Sunny came to my rescue and tackled her so hard they both flew into the nearby wall, crushing Blood Orange under Sunny’s weight. Despite the threat of the mortars, I gave in to my anger and abandoned the terminal, galloping to Blood Orange and releasing my grief. She had just opened her eyes in time to see my hoof smash her head against the wall. Blood started running from her nose as I hit her three more times, breaking and splitting her muzzle in the process. Once I felt the sting of bone against my hoof, teeth started flying from her mouth and I switched targets. I pivoted on my hooves and delivered a powerful buck to her underbelly. She gagged hard at the pain, a pink froth spilling from her mouth. Before I could continue, Sunny wrapped her hooves around me and started pulling me away.

“That’s enough Sparks! We need her alive!”

I was breathing so hard, adrenaline blasting through my veins as I looked upon one of the objects of my vengeance. Even though Sunny had stopped me, in a way I was glad. I still had a mortar strike to stop. I wasn’t about to lose my family again. Sunny released her hold on me and I returned to the terminal. As I searched I realized that the sound of gunfire outside had stopped. The robots must have finished clearing out the rest. After realizing that fact I found the order I was looking for and stopped the mortars from firing. Once that was stopped, I fired three rounds from Harbinger into the terminal, blowing bits of glass and parts out the back. Then I got to return my attention to Blood Orange. Sunny stood by her watching passively as I levitated out a healing potion and forced it down her muzzle.

“Don’t go dying on me now, we aren’t done.”

Blood Orange coughed up a mouthful of blood as she regained consciousness. Her body was racked with a coughing fit for a moment as she cleared her lungs of fluid.

“Listen carefully, where can I find your boss? Where can I find Chestnut!?” I screamed in her face, punctuating the question with a slap across her face.

“You won’t kill me…” she rasped. “You hero types are all the same…you don’t have the stomach for it.” She grinned sinisterly at me, another mouthful of blood leaking through her teeth, creating a disturbing image. Every now and then sparks would fly from where her horn used to be as she continued tying to cast spells. That gave me an idea. I pulled Hearts Promise from its sheath on my leg and plunged it into her belly. She cried out in pain again, her tortured wails like music to my ears.

“Here’s the thing about that.” It was my turn to smile sinisterly, my voice an angry whisper. “I never claimed to be a hero.” With that I focused a lightning spell into the horn knife, electrocuting her from the inside out. I purposefully withheld some power from the spell so I didn’t accidentally kill her in the process.

“I’m going to ask again. Where is Chestnut?!” I gave her another shock, her agonized screams muffling themselves through what remained of her teeth, clenched shut by the spell. When I stopped her flesh was starting to burn in a few places, causing sickly sweet smelling trails of smoke to pervade my senses. She wouldn’t last much longer at this rate.

“Think about this.” I lifted her by the chin, forcing her to look at me. “Do you really want to die for him?”

I pulled Hearts Promise out of her and plunged it in again just above the first stab. I sent a stronger blast of lightning through her, contorting her body into a tight ball. Blood flowed pretty steadily from her mouth. Probably bit her tongue during the shock.

“I wonder how many more you can take before your muscles rip themselves apart.”

“Sparks that’s enough.” I felt a hoof on my shoulder.

“No…if she won’t talk she will suffer.”

“Remember what I said.” Sunny’s voice had gotten a little louder.

“Oh? Do you want a turn with her?” I turned around to face her smiling wickedly. Sunny scowled in return and pulled me so close that our muzzles almost touched.

“I told you not to lose yourself!” Her voice came out as a deadly whisper.

Where was this coming from? She watched the whole thing at my side. If she wanted me to stop she could…have… Then I realized what she meant. Behind Sunny, up at the top of the stairs, was the horrified face of Aurora Dawn…my daughter. ‘Remember whose watching’ she had said. I had went too far. No! No she deserved every bit of what I was putting her through! I didn’t want her to see this but I couldn’t stop either. I hoped she would one day forgive me.

“Go back outside Aurora.” I said calmly, a bit of shaking in my voice.

“W-what are you going to do to her?”

“What I have to. Go. Back Outside.”

“B-but daddy I-”

“Go Outside!” I yelled. She jumped at my raised voice and retreated back outside, tears forming in her eyes.

“This is what I was afraid of. You-”

“Shut up Sunny.” I cut her off with a stomp. “You had every opportunity to stop me. Don’t stand there and pretend like you don’t want this as much as I do!” Sunny looked taken aback by my outburst, her expression souring slightly.

“It’s not for me to decide what kind of pony you are.” She said, leveling me with a disapproving glance as she took a step back. “Only you can choose your destiny. I will help you along the way but I cannot, will not interfere.”

“One decision doesn’t decide my fate.” I countered, too angry to see the wisdom in her words.

“No but it makes decisions like this easier down the road. For every piece of yourself you sacrifice the Wasteland will be there to fill in the gaps until nothing of you remains. What then Sparks? Is that the pony you want to be?”

Sunny’s life of wasteland experience told me that she had seen ponies fall victim to the wasteland, becoming a part of it instead of fighting it. She didn’t want to see it happen to me too. She wanted to see me be better, better than Blood Orange, better than her. Maybe I could have had I listened to her instead of merely hearing her.

“I’m doing what needs to be done.” I turned to give my attention back to Blood Orange. “You know how to make this stop.” I had to do this, I had to for her. I was doing the right thing…I…I was still a good pony.

I grabbed the handle of Hearts Promise with magic and began to pull it upward, centimeter by centimeter, cutting a red line up her belly.

Be Strong! Be Strong!” I heard ringing in my head, causing me to hesitate for a second.

Goddessdammit I am being strong! Get out of my head! She has to pay! I gave the part of my brain trying to stop me a mental buck to the face and continued pulling up.

“Only so far I can go before your rotten guts spill all over the floor.” I informed her. “Did you know a pony can survive a few minutes after disembowelment?”

“STOP! Stop! I’ll tell you…I don’t wanna die.” Blood Orange was crying heavily, a combination of pain and fear reaching its peak. I levitated out my last healing potion and held it in front of her.

“Good, now where is he?”

“He’s at the Eclipse Complex. It’s…an underground fort in north Baltimare.”

“How do I get there?”

“There’s…an elevator he uses to get to the surface. You won’t be able to use it but there’s another way in. There’s a train that can take you there, you need to go through Moletown to get there.” She motioned her head towards the other end of the room. “In my bag, there’s a keycard. You’ll need it or the train won’t move.”

I trotted over to where her bags were laying and retrieved the card. It was a dark midnight blue with a symbol of a waxing moon with a starburst on it.

I had what I needed. Now to finish it.

“Thank you Blood Orange.” I pulled Hearts Promise out of her and floated the potion over to her where she greedily snatched it out of the air and downed it. She smiled in relief as her wounds started stitching themselves back together.

“What are you going to do with me?” She asked fearfully, trying to push as much of herself as she could against the wall.

“I thought the potion made it obvious.” I put on my best charming smile. She sighed in relief and smiled.

“I thought for sure you were going to kil-”

*BLAM*

Her body slumped down on the wall, her head hanging limply to the side, her eyes frozen in a wide expression of shock as blood started to leak out of the hole below her broken horn. I put Harbinger back in its holster and turned my back on her dead body.

“It was so I could give you a painless death.” I had what I came here for. I knew where he was now. I looked over the corpse of Blood Orange one last time. Chestnut would not get the same luxury. I barely made it one step up the stairs before I wavered and emptied my stomach all over the floor.



Footnote: Level Up!

New Perk: Toughness – Your hide has toughened from the repeated beatings the wasteland has put you through, you receive 10% general damage resistance.

Quest Perk: Be Awesome! – You have found another small statuette, this one imbuing you with the agility of Equestria’s finest flier - Permanent + 1 to Agility!

Chapter Fourteen: Rekindling the Flame

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Chapter Fourteen: Rekindling the Flame.

In every day, find your inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle out.

We weren’t going to make camp that night. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyway. I had given my last potion to Blood Orange, hopefully I’d find more as I picked through the belongings of the many dead bodies we left in our wake. A nice collection of caps and ammo later I was annoyed to see that nopony here carried any medicine, only chems which I took anyway. Sunny didn’t say a word to me as we looted the buildings, I could understand why. While I may have held myself back enough to not brutalize Blood Orange to death, I was still visibly seething in anger. Angry at her for helping Chestnut, angry at Sunny for patronizing me and angry at myself for holding back. She didn’t deserve a merciful death. So why had I given her one? I was still the good pony here…I had to be…so why didn’t I feel like one? As we made our way back outside I remembered why. Siting under the legs of the sentinel was the sniffling form of Aurora, silently crying to herself. What must she think of me now I wondered. I moved to comfort her, to say anything but I couldn’t find the words. Worst of all she pulled away from my touch. I couldn’t blame her. I had told myself she was the most important pony to me and look what I did to her. Would she have seen me any different if I had let her watch the ordeal with Blood Orange? It did me no good to wonder about it now, I had made my decision. Now I would have to live with it or work hard to make up for it. The sentinel rotated its torso and faced me.

COMMANDER, AMMO RESERVES DOWN TO FORTY PERCENT.” It informed me.

If I was to still deliver these robots back to the Crater I would have to return them now. I couldn’t use them for my vendetta if they were to be of any use to Jack. Maybe it was time to return home for now. Aurora probably didn’t want to speak to me anyway. With the spoils from the raiders here we had enough food and water to make it back to the Crater through the desert. With all of our PipBuck lights and the sentinel’s floodlights combined we could make our way through the dark of night. Hopefully the robots would be enough of a deterrent to whatever lurked in the darkness. I could see the pale light of the moon behind the curtain of clouds, saddening me that I would never experience its beauty. Speaking of which…

“Aurora…about what you saw…about what I did.” I started, looking behind me to face her. “I’m sorry you had to see that.” My own words sounded strange to me. I wasn’t sorry that I did it I realized, rather I was sorry I had been seen.

Aurora wouldn’t look me in the eye, her gaze cemented to the ground in her path.

“I understand if you don’t want to talk to me or if you’re mad at me…but…” I couldn’t find the right words. They probably didn’t exist.

Sunny had been staring at me from the corner of her eye since I started talking, the obvious disdain in her expression only made me feel worse.

“I…” Was all I got out after that. I wanted to say I was sorry but truth is…I just wasn’t and I was going to do something like it again. I loved Aurora with all my heart and I would do anything for her sake. I wanted her to understand that, deep down I think she did. Maybe that’s what she was afraid of. I almost didn’t even notice the sun start to rise as I stewed in my thoughts. Aurora had fallen asleep in the metal arms of the sentinel, preferring the warmth of a cold metal killing machine as opposed to mine. Sunny had walked with me through the night and didn’t look any worse for wear. She was made of much hardier stuff than me. I didn’t know if I deserved her as a friend anymore. I had to try and make things right between us.

“Sunny.” I started, getting her attention. “I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you helping me like this. I know that I allowed myself to get carried away with Blood Orange but even then you stayed by my side. I don’t want to lose your friendship. There’s no Silvershine Sparkshower without Sunny Smiles.”

Sunny didn’t say anything back for several long, excruciating minutes.

“You’re name is Silvershine Sparkshower?” She finally said, her voice cracking as she stifled a giggle.

“Well yeah.” I realized this was the first time I’d told her my full name. In fact it may have been the first time I’d said it out loud in years. “Mother picked out Silvershine and Sparkshower was my father’s surname. Sparks was what my father called me before he died and it just stuck I guess.”

“I think I’m gonna stick with Sparks if it’s all the same to you.” Sunny’s sly smile lingered a moment more then faded away. She lowered her head and took a deep breath.

“And you don’t have to apologize Sparks.” She finally said, hiding her eyes under the brim of her hat. “I understand what it’s like to lose your family. I was like you once. An angry pony on a quest for vengeance. It’s why I was so hard on you back there. I don’t want to see you make the same mistakes I did. It was so hard for me to come back after I almost gave myself over to the Wasteland. It can give you strength when you are weak and all it costs is a bit of your soul, bit by bit until you no longer exist, just an empty puppet at the mercy of this vengeful land.”

Even though she was hiding her eyes, I could still see the tears rolling down her face.

“You still have your child Sparks.” She lifted her head, looking at me with her golden, teary eyes. “Don’t lose yourself hunting for revenge. I wasn’t there for my son, you can still be there for her.”

I looked back to Aurora sleeping peacefully in the robots cradle.

“She needs you, just as you need her.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. I was expecting everything but this. Sunny was finally opening her heart to me, a heart that I now knew was broken. She wasn’t just pushing me to be the best parent I could be, but the parent she couldn’t be. Before I could even think of saying anything back I felt tears of my own welling in my eyes. I always looked at Sunny to be my pillar of strength, a slightly stoic rock of a pony. That was not the case. Under the hardened survivor guise was a pony who had lost everything. Thinking on it made me realize that after the destruction of the Regulators I was the only pony left in her life. She was carrying so much pain with her and I still asked her to help me with mine. I didn’t even know what pain was compared to her.

“Sunny…I…I didn’t know. I…” My voice caught in my throat. She was a far stronger mare than I gave her credit for and I already thought highly of her. I could never express what her friendship meant to me. Words wouldn’t do it justice.

Sunny surprised me by stopping and pulling me into a gentle hug. “I’ve been holding it in for so long. I’ve only trusted a pony like you once before. I just want you to be the best pony you can be. Better than me, better than the Wasteland. If we have to kill Chestnut to remove the barriers in your way then I will help you, just don’t get lost along the way, okay?”

I wanted to be better, I wanted to be free from the pain in my heart. Killing Chestnut wouldn’t bring Winter back but I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that her killer still lived. The longer he was out there unchecked, the more families he could destroy like he did mine. If I could save anypony from the pain I felt or the pain Sunny felt, then I would without hesitation. I would stop him not just for me but for everypony. He had a new base of operations and I could only wonder how much his army had grown. With my spirit reinvigorated, I released the hug and wiped my tears away with a smile.

“Thank you for everything Sunny. I’m so happy I met you.”

Sunny smiled back, readjusting the hat on her head. “I’ll always be here for you if I can Sparks. You’re like family to me, I hope you know that.”

“Same to you Sunny.” I gave Aurora’s sleeping face one last grateful look before turning my attention back to the path ahead. “Let’s see if we can get back before morning.”

Sunny nodded and we continued on our way, with new appreciation for each other. This time I wouldn’t leave a silence between us. I just hoped I wouldn’t upset her.

“What was his name?” I asked carefully.

“What?” She said, lifting her head in surprise.

“Your son. What was his name? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to talk about it.” Suddenly I was regretting opening my mouth. She had just opened her heart to me and here I was pulling memories back to the surface.

“His name was Stormy, Stormy Smiles.” She said without missing a beat. She cracked a small smile as she recalled fond memories of the past. “He would have been a bit younger than you this year.”

“Are you sure you’re okay talking about him?”

“Never. No parent should outlive their child. I’ve had years to come to terms with what happened but not a day goes by that he isn’t in my thoughts. Even more so since I met you. You remind me so much of him.”

“I’m sorry.” I said, my ears fell against my head. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to make friends with someone who would remind me of Winter every time I looked at them. So why did she?

“If I remind you of him, why would you stay with me? Why would you torture yourself like that?”

“I…I’m not sure.” She looked off into the distance. “I just felt like it was what I was supposed to do. I suppose, in my mind, helping and protecting you was like making up for what I couldn’t do for my son.”

I was a constant reminder of her failure, so in her own way she was trying to make up for her mistakes. It was admirable to say the least. It would have to take a strong heart to force yourself to stand by a living embodiment of your personal failures, doing whatever you could to make things right. Would that be enough?

“Do you think by helping me this will in some way alleviate your pain?” I asked, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “Sunny…what am I to you?”

“You are my chance to make things right. I don’t think anything will alleviate my pain until my soul finds its resting place. Because the sad truth is time doesn’t heal all wounds. The wounds remain. In time the mind, protecting its own sanity, covers them in scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”

I knew what she meant. As much as I didn’t want to admit it to myself, I knew my quest for vengeance was for me and nopony else. It was my attempt to lessen my own pain. But Sunny was right, the pain would never go away. I gently touched Winter's necklace that I wore around my neck, eager for a time that looking at it would remind me of her rather than Chestnut.

Without stopping to sleep through the night, we made it back to the Crater just as the sun rose into the sky. I gently nudged Aurora awake as we neared the gates. She rubbed her eyes sleepily and let out a little yawn. Once she saw the walls of the Crater though she snapped to full alertness, hopping out of the sentinels metal arms. Just before we crossed the threshold I stopped and turned to the robots.

“Alright you two, wait here outside the gate and wait for further instructions. A griffin named Jack will come collect you, follow his orders as if they were mine, barring the number one rule.”

“Understood Commander!” The gung-ho Mister Gutsy saluted. “It was a privilege to serve under you, we got those stripes good eh?”

The sentinel however, made no verbal communication. Rather it just went into standby mode until Jack came to collect them. Sunny offered to take the bulk of the gear we collected on our excursion to the market to sell them and refresh our own supplies. An offer I accepted because I had a certain griffin to talk to. Sunny seemed to know what I intended to do and took Aurora with her. She didn’t say anything and followed after Sunny in silence. I wondered how long it would be before she would speak to me again. I didn’t think she was upset at me for torturing and killing Blood Orange. Rather she was upset because I forced her to leave me alone. She was just worried about me and I pushed her away after I told her I wouldn’t. She wasn’t afraid of what I was going to do to Blood Orange but what I’d do to myself. She knew me better than I knew myself sometimes. She might have been a filly but she was no foal. She probably knew more than I gave her credit for, perhaps even more than me. It occurred to me that even though we celebrated her birthday last week I didn’t actually know how old she was. Some parent I was.

I certainly wasn’t in a good mood as I walked into the tower that sat in the bottom of the Crater.

“Sparks! Where have you been!?” My mother called from the desk she sat behind. “Aurora disappeared! I haven’t seen her in-”

“It’s alright Mom. I’ve got her.” I lied. “Is Jack upstairs? I need to talk to him.”

She had yet to come to terms about what I had said, still shaken by my casual response about what she thought was my ‘missing’ daughter.

“Err…well yes he is. But can it wait? I would like to talk to you about what happened.”

“It’ll have to wait Mom. What I have to say to him is very important.” I was already halfway up the stairs before I finished speaking, not giving her a chance to interject or protest.

Jack’s office was furnished about as lavishly as I expected it to be. A fairly pristine red carpet lay on the floor flanked by two fake plants. The far wall was mostly glass, allowing an almost panoramic view of the Crater. Dominating the room wasn’t a traditional desk, rather it looked to be along the lines of a control board. Like something pulled right out of the space center we just came from. The connection didn’t seem strange any more now that I knew the kind of company Jack kept. Siting in a faded brown leather chair was Jack, looking over several papers.

“Ah Sparks you’re back! I trust everything went well? Did you find the mare you were looking for?” He asked hopefully, like I wasn’t about to tear into him for sending me to a place he knew was occupied by raiders.

“You knew Sid was a raider didn’t you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

Jack sighed and leaned forward, folding his claws on the desk. “Sid is an old friend of mine who's just had a train of bad luck. Yes I knew he was…involved in less than honest shit. Frankly I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out after you knew they had associated with the mare you were looking for.”

“And just what did you expect to happen by not telling me? Did you think I wouldn’t go?”

“I wanted to protect Sid, If you knew they were raiders would have spared any of them?”

Truth be told if I had known beforehoof things might have been different but deceiving me had gotten Sid killed anyway.

“They kept me hostage for days Jack, do you know what I had to do to get everypony out of there?”

“What does it matter? You got the mare you wanted didn’t you? And the robots we needed. Isn’t that enough for you?”

“You’ll have to ask yourself the same question.” I said flatly.

“What do you mean?” Jack narrowed his eyes.

“Sid was killed trying to help me escape. You sent me into a den of raiders and in order to keep everypony alive I had to make a few decisions I didn’t like. One of them led to Sid’s death.”

“Get out of my office.” Jack’s voice dripped with barely contained anger. Or perhaps it was sadness.

“You’ll find your robots just outside the gate. The next time you deceive me I wouldn’t be surprised what it costs you.” I turned to take my leave and descended down to the ground floor. I doubt that even had he told me the truth Sid would have survived. But I had to make him know what his actions cost him, even if he had the best of intentions. Some of the worst things imaginable had been done with the best of intentions in mind and what I knew from history only corroborated that fact.

“Perhaps now you have a moment to spare for your mother.”

I looked over to where I had left her. She stared crossly back at me before abandoning her seat and approaching me. “I believe you owe me an explanation.”

I owed her that much, but not here not now.

“I suppose I do, but can it wait till this evening? I owe a certain filly an apology and I haven’t slept in a long time.”

“What did you do to Aurora?”

“I’ll tell you later. Come by the house when you can and I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

She didn’t look pleased but she was appeased at the very least. Her dour expression melted away and she closed her eyes in reflection.

“I’m going to hold you to it. Don’t think you will escape me a second time. Go get some rest son, I’ll see you this evening.”

“Thanks mom, I love you.”

“I love you too Sparks, now get going. If you have a daughter to take care of don’t let me keep you.”

I nodded and smiled at her. If anypony knew about what I was going through with a child it was her. I hurriedly made my way through the scrap metal jungle of the Crater to find Aurora and Sunny, doing my best to dodge anypony that would want to talk to me. Yeah I know all two of them but I had no time to waste. While I was just barely running on fumes everypony else was just starting their days. The Crater was bustling with the many ponies that called it home, spending their caps, making some caps. All of it making my job harder. After ten minutes of searching I was suddenly very thankful for Sunny’s bright coloration as I spotted her in the crowd. She had just walked into the resident weapon shop called ‘Lock, Stock & Barrel’. It took me a moment to weave my way past the gathered ponies to slip inside the LSB.

Once inside I spotted Sunny at the counter laying out what weapons we took but Aurora was nowhere to be seen. I trotted up next to her as she started haggling with the older stallion who ran the place.

“A lot of these weapons look like they ain’t gonna work much longer. I hope you’re not expecting anything grand in return. No matter how much trash you bring me it’s still trash.”

“True but they can be stripped for parts. Ponies are always in need of stuff to patch up their gear.”

The old stallion seemed to consider her words carefully, wondering if there was room for profit in the deal. While he thought to himself I coughed to get Sunny’s attention.

“Where did Aurora go?”

“She said she wanted to go home so I let her. Unlike the two of us she got some sleep last night. So I didn’t see the harm in letting her go.”

“Ok Sunny. I’ll see you later. I need to go find her.”

“I understand.” She nodded, knowing what I was going to do. “Go to her and remember what I said. No matter what happens, she needs you.”

“Thanks Sunny.” And in a blink I was back into the crowd, heading to the upper levels to my home. I had no idea what I was going to say to her. I was just hoping she’d be talking to me by the end of the day and then I’d take it from there. When I made it to my front door I just stood there. I went over every scenario I could imagine and tried to formulate what to say for each one. I lost track of how many times I reached for the door only to pull back, adding more worries to my tired mind. If I let this continue much longer I would never go inside. So I sucked in a deep breath and opened the door, ready to take the issue head on.

Before I could even get two steps inside a plastic cup hit me in the muzzle.

“You big stupid jerk!” Was all I heard from somewhere while I continued to be pelted by an assortment of objects. I lifted my left leg, using my PipBuck to shield my face. I tried to peek out from behind my shield whenever I could. Piecing together what I saw from several second long glances, I saw that Aurora had made a…fort out of furniture and whatever she could get her hooves on.

“You promised me!” She shouted as the objects she was throwing got bigger and heavier. I tried to lower my leg to try and say something when her whole backpack thumped me in the head, staggering me a bit.

“You said you’d never be alone again! You liar!”

“But…” Was all I got out before a pillow shut me up.

“Sunny doesn’t count!” She yelled, knowing what I was going to say.

Enough was enough. I let her go on for too long. I had something to say and she was going to listen to me. I focused my magic into a white wall of protection in front of me and started moving forwards. Aurora kept on hurling whatever she could find at me regardless of the futility.

“Aurora…” I said softly.

“No! I don’t want to talk to you!”

“Princess…please…”

“Y-you promised me…” I heard her angry tone falter as she choked up a bit, barely holding back tears.

I finally got a glimpse of her from inside her hiding spot and grabbed her in a levitation field. She tried to scramble away but I had her now. That still didn’t stop her from trying, leaving her running in place in a field of white magic. I turned her around to face me, increasing the power of the spell to prevent her from looking away.

“I would never do anything to hurt you Aurora. You’re the most important pony in the world to me.”

“T-then why did you make me leave? You aren’t supposed to be alone…last time…” She swallowed the frog in her throat, recalling traumatizing memories from when she saw me at my lowest.

“I know…I know. But I’ve learned something since then. Something I should have known from the start.”

Aurora couldn’t move her hooves to wipe away her tears. I was confident she wouldn’t run away so I lowered her to the floor and released her from my hold. She sniffled loudly and wiped her eyes with a hoof, looking at me curiously.

“You need me Aurora. Because of that I will never, ever think about killing myself ever again. You cared about my life more than I did then and when I realized what that would do to you if I went through with it…”

“What?”

“I realized I need you too. If it wasn’t for you I’d have given up. You make me want to be a better pony. I’m not your father Aurora…but I’m glad to be your dad. I love you princess, with all my heart. I want you to know that.”

Despite having just wiped her tears away new ones were quick to replace them. Her lip started to quiver as she closed her eyes and trotted up to me. I lowered myself down to her level as she threw her hooves around me, crying into my chest for the second time in her life.

“I love you too dad!” She blubbered into my fur. What a pair we were. I remembered the day we met, saving her life from a maniac molded by time. It was an interesting comparison. Without me she’d most certainly be dead and without her I’d have shot myself. Sunny was absolutely right, we needed each other, father and daughter. “I never knew my real dad.” She managed to squeak out between sobs. “You’re the only dad I’ve had.” She tightened her grip and nuzzled into my chest.

Now came one of the moments I was dreading, not just as her caretaker but as her dad too. If she was to come with us she had to know how to protect herself and that meant I’d have to teach her how to fight, how to kill. It was one thing to shoot bottles or kill a ghoul but to kill a pony, in defense or otherwise is a difficult hurdle to jump, even for an adult.

I held her for a long while until she stopped crying, though she didn’t let go for a bit longer. She picked up her backpack from the floor and looked around the house with a frown.

“Sorry about the mess dad.” She kicked a bit of trash across the floor glumly.

“It shouldn’t take too long to clean up. If I have some help that is…” I gently booped her on the nose. She smiled softly at that, understanding my meaning. Magic certainly makes cleaning up go a bit faster and in a flash it was like a small angry tornado hadn’t blown through the room. Though the exertion did finally push me over the edge. If I didn’t get some sleep soon I’d fall asleep standing up. After everything we’d been through today I think we deserved a little rest. Aurora left to go see her friends in town while I flumped unceremoniously into my bed, falling asleep almost as soon as I hit the mattress.






I awoke to the sound of an alarm clock blaring. I rolled over in my bed and hit the button on the clock, prompting it to let me sleep for a few more minutes.

“C’mon Sparks get up, we’re going to be late.” Whispered a soothing voice. I opened my eyes to the white furred, blue maned face of my marefriend.

“So it’s finally happened, I died in my sleep and the angels are taking me.”

“Sweet talk won’t get you out of this one. Get up. I’m not going to miss my father’s funeral because you slept in.” Winter swiftly yanked the blanket off of me, hitting me with the pillow for good measure.

“Alright. Alright I’m up.” It took only a moment or two for me to slip into my stable barding and make myself look presentable. We walked out into the stable’s halls together, heading for the incinerator. The halls were unusually empty this morning, although deaths in the stable weren’t usually given so much ceremony they were still days of mourning. Summer and Winter insisted on at least having a small vigil when their father’s body was incinerated. There weren’t many ponies when we arrived at the incinerator room. It was just Winter, Summer, myself and the Overmare. Without a word, Summer nodded to the Overmare and she hit the button on the wall. Through a small window of glass we saw the flames consume his body, soon to be returned to the orchard for the next generation. Suddenly I could hear flames flickering in the room. I turned around to see that the whole room was on fire. All around me were burnt or burning corpses, smoke making my eyes water and choking the air from my lungs.

“Winter!?” I yelled into the cloud of smoke. A hole opened in the smoke, giving me tunnel vision to Winter standing on a ledge. I could see her mouth move but I couldn’t hear her. My own thoughts were drowned out by a gunshot. Gore and bone shot out of Winter’s left temple and she plummeted off the ledge into the void. The flames continued to rage, burning away all my surroundings until it was just me standing alone in the darkness. The putrid smell of burnt flesh wafted in my direction as another gunshot sounded. I turned around for the source of the sound only to find myself face to face with an almost skeletal pony with a deeply charred hide, blood slowly running through cracked and warped skin, stretched beyond its breaking point. Its voice reflected its appearance, coming out in a raspy, guttural growl.

“This is…your fault.” It croaked, pointing to its head. I followed its hoof to its head to see the exit wound of a gunshot. “Could…have prevented this.”

Behind her, the black flowed with color and painted a scene out for me. It showed me talking Sunny out of killing Chestnut. It then twisted into itself, showing me what could have been. I saw Chestnut dead at our hooves, the raider army break apart after the death of its leader and Black Town standing as it was the day I first saw it. I saw an older version of myself, Winter and Aurora. A fourth pony ran around the three of us that was surrounded in a veil of shadow. The child I would never know.

“That could…have been us.” The specter of Winter turned to face the images in the dark. “Your mercy… cost you your future…and cost me everything.” As if to exemplify its point, time seemed to reverse, returning Winter to how she looked before her death only to show me her death again. A scene I saw endlessly in my nightmares.

“You just can’t stop letting ponies close to you die can you?” from the darkness walked a form with brown fur and a yellow mane.

“Why do you torment me Ribbon Dancer?” I tried to walk away into the emptiness but without having to move their hooves my demons followed me.

“We are all here because of you.”

“You could have died anytime in that pen Ribbon Dancer, don’t put that on me.”

“Perhaps but can you say that with certainty? I did die directly at your hooves after all.”

“He’s not wrong kid.” From the darkness another form coalesced, this one a bit more of a weight on my mind.

“You too Slipknot?” I asked, turning to face the new ghost.

“Call me devil’s advocate I guess. I’m not agreeing with the fella but you did kill him. I on the other hoof died trying to help you and that was a choice I made. I’m on your side Sparks but you can’t deny that I’d still be alive if I never met you.”

When I thought about it, he had a point. I left bodies in my wake no matter where I went, at my hooves or otherwise. Even when I tried to do good, I did it through killing. Could I justify it as a byproduct of the world we live in or was I a murderer?

“Do you remember what I told you before the end? That no matter how you justified it, you ARE a murder Sparks.” Voices kept coming at me from the limit of my vision. Shadows swirled around my hooves, flowing back and forth until they took shape in front of me. Red Asphalt smiled smugly at me as his body was formed from the shadows.

“You left me no choice.” I took a few steps back, away from the apparition of the deceased raider boss.

“I recall offering you a place in my home, it was your own choice to reject us and burn it to the ground.” He practically spat the words at me, his anger leaking through.

“Not everypony is ready to give themselves up to the wasteland! I wasn’t going to start killing innocent ponies because it was easier than talking to them or helping them.”

“Nopony is ‘innocent’ Sparks. You don’t survive in this world if you’re innocent. Everypony is guilty of something, some just accept their new identity more fervently than others.”

“That still doesn’t make you right.”

“When order is decided by who has the biggest gun, what is right when chaos is a hair-trigger away?”

“It’s not about forcing your will on others, it’s about standing by them and building them up.”

“All this time and you still understand nothing. You didn’t know the first thing about me Sparks. It was easier for you to vilify me to suit your own ends, to justify murder as ‘the right thing’”

I wasn’t wrong about what I did. Even if he was suggesting that he was evil with good intentions that still didn’t justify his actions.

“The ends justify the means.” I remembered hearing that the day I was supposed to be harvested, the day I left the stable. Overmare Rose Thorn truly believed that saying, using it to make herself the good guy even though her actions bordered on atrocities. Was Red Asphalt any different? Just as I was beginning to second guess everything I knew, two balls of energy shot out of the void and blasted everypony with blinding light. Everypony was reduced to cinders in seconds. In the blink of an eye they were gone. Before I could even react to what had happened, the world around me vanished and I plummeted into the darkness. For a fraction of a second I was able to see a spherical shape illuminated below me.






With a jerk I awoke, thrashing in the air as my head hit the floor. I was breathing heavily and my coat was soaked in a cold sweat. I lifted my PipBuck to see what time it was. I was shocked to see that I had slept for twenty hours. A fact that I was reminded of by the hunger pains and dry mouth. I stumbled my way into the main room of my home and greedily sucked up some water from the sink, ignoring the ticking my PipBuck was making. I kept on chugging until I noticed the two ponies siting at the dining table. Aurora sat with my mother watching me make an animal out of myself. I shut the faucet off and turned to face them.

“Um…thirsty.” Was all that came to mind. Mom just stared at me, looking rather annoyed. “Did I miss your visit mom?” I asked sheepishly.

“Don’t worry dad. I told her what happened.” Aurora said through a mouthful of pre-war Chocolate Frosted Sugar Apple Bombs cereal.

“Indeed she did.” Mother confirmed, standing up from her seat. “And if I’m not mistaken, you intend to leave again to chase somepony?”

“Well…” I rubbed the back of my head, unsure how to approach this conversation.

“Don’t you think this hunt has gone on long enough? Is this what you think she’d want for you? To endanger yourself and Aurora in a wild goose chase?”

“Winter is dead. She doesn’t want anything anymore. I need to do this. I need to get these ghosts out of my head. I can’t let this happen to anypony else and now I know where he is…” I paused to take a breath, unaware of how loud my voice had gotten. “I can end him…end him for good.”

Mother took a few steps back, like she didn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.

“This isn’t who you are Sparks. You don’t have to do this. You aren’t a murderer.”

“No…I’m an avenger.” I had been robbed of everything I fought for since leaving the Stable by Chestnut. He was going to pay for his crimes. He had to die by my hooves. “I’m sorry mom, but I have to do this…for myself.”

“…I understand. Just…just be careful out there darling. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I will mom, it won’t be much of a relief if I die.” She clearly didn’t appreciate my attempt at a joke.

“Don’t worry Nana, I’ll make sure he doesn’t get in too much trouble.” Aurora said, slamming her bowl down with a confident smirk.

“Well at least one of you is responsible.” She said, holding her head up high and looking down her nose at me, a knowing smile plastered on her face. “I leave him in your care Aurora.” She turned to let herself out, giving me a final look that told me everything I needed to know. It was a pleading look, one that begged for my safe return. Behind her expression I could see how worried she was. Worried that I’d never come back, in more ways than one but I knew what was at stake and I would not fail. I brought up my PipBuck to check the map one last time. There were a few map markers that had been added since we left for the space center and only one that we had been to. That however was not what I was interested in today. Rather I was looking at the marker for ‘Moletown’ which was set in the dead center of North Baltimare. This would mark the second time we ventured that far into the ruins. Normally we were content to skirt the city limits or walk the perimeter. There were no pleasant memories of our first foray into Baltimare. We had barely made it a hundred feet before we were almost killed by bloodwings. Those fears would not stop me from going. It was time to put my mind to rest and bury my heart at Stable 63. We weren’t going to leave right away though. Rather, we took a couple days to put Aurora through proper combat training…well as proper as Sunny and I could give…ok it was mostly Sunny considering she taught me the same lessons. No matter how different the world out here was to me, some part of me would never let go of how things were supposed to be. Even though I knew it was kill or be killed out here, it broke a piece of my heart to teach my daughter to be a killer. In the days we took to prepare, Aurora had gotten quite good at using the silenced pistol I gave her. It was small, sleek and best of all, silent. It was a perfect weapon for her. Thinking on what we might need for our journey, I remembered a promise I made to a certain Steel Ranger. Part of me wanted to take a detour away from Moletown to try and convince their Elder to let me borrow the Applejack-bot to help deal with Chestnut. As much as the idea appealed to me and the more I thought about it the more tempting it became, I couldn’t risk Chestnut getting away. He was priority number one, everything else would have to wait.

Then the day came that we would head out. On the way out of town we stopped at Lock, Stock & Barrel and bought some ammunition for Aurora as well as some ballistic fiber we had to jury rig into a vest that fit her. In what seemed like minutes the Crater was already a barely visible dot in the distance. Ahead of us loomed the skyline of the Baltimare Ruins. I had shared my map marker with Sunny and Aurora so they had an idea of where we were going. Despite all its innovations and arcano-tech prowess, it was still annoying that the device did not recognize verticality. I doubted that a place called Moletown was on the surface, especially since Blood Orange had said the Eclipse Complex was an ‘underground’ fort.

“I wish Grim was still here.” Aurora said, kicking a rock as she did.

“Yeah, aerial recon would be pretty helpful right about now.” I agreed. Maybe once we dealt with Chestnut it would be time to go find him. I don’t remember if I ever said it to his face but I considered him a friend. He stuck by me when he had no reason to. He saw potential in me but grew disillusioned when I lost hope in myself and gave up. ‘Try and find yourself out there’ Watcher had said. He was responsible for Grim and I meeting, so he too must have seen something in me. The difference now was that I was ready to find it, ready to move on. Just one more obstacle blocked my path. My list of things to do grew more and more, though the precedence of some were less stressful. Truthfully the majority of them were to sate my own curiosity like what was behind the bypass shield we encountered or what secrets lay hidden in the Dome. Only two weighed on my mind though, finding Grim and meeting with the Steel Rangers.

We walked for a few hours before making it into the ruined streets of Baltimare. Segments of concrete as large as city blocks had collapsed into the ground and into the sewers, leaving watery grave pits of homes and buildings. Which made traversing the area difficult. Many of the sinkholes had become homes and breeding grounds for wasteland creatures. Large and mutated bugs flew around the bogs and in others were large four legged creatures with dark chitinous armor that disappeared under the water at our approach.

“What are those things?” Aurora whispered.

“Those are boglurks, they are very dangerous creatures. They aren’t trying to kill us so they must have fed already. Let’s keep our distance, if any of these pits are nests…”

“They’ll try to defend them.” I finished. It would be best to avoid them for now. I don’t think any of us had weapons powerful enough to pierce their armor except maybe Sunny’s shotguns and my sniper rifle. Though the sound it would make would draw Luna knows what our way so that wasn’t an option. We carefully crept our way out of the collapsed portion of the city, thankful for avoiding any trouble so far. Though we faced no lack of irritation at having to walk around the collapsed section to get back on track. It was still eerie just how silent the ruins could be. Even now after seeing life with my own eyes I could hardly believe it. We were maybe half a mile from our destination when Sunny jerked her head to the side.

“Did you hear that?” Sunny asked in a hushed tone. Sticking out her leg to stop us.

Aurora and I stopped and carefully scrutinized our surroundings, swiveling our ears looking for the sound. After a moment I could hear the slight sound of dirt crunching under hooves…right behind us. I felt a hoof push against my head, slamming Sunny’s head and mine together. In front of us a form materialized from the air in the shape of a pony. A pony wearing light, black armor with an equally black hooded cloak. A black mask hid the face of our attacker.

“Leave this place.” It had the voice of a mare but spoke in a strange accent. “You are not wanted here.”

“I have business here. Get out of my way.” I growled. The mare in front of us sighed and took a more aggressive stance.

“I will do what I must.”

She closed the distance between us almost instantly, driving a hoof into my chin, knocking me off my hooves. She pivoted on her hooves and moved with the grace and precision of somepony who had done this her whole life. She flipped over her front hooves, using her body’s forward momentum to amplify the force of her hind leg that she aimed for my head. I flinched and instinctively conjured a shield to protect myself. Her hoof deflected off, throwing her off balance enough to lose her momentum and let Sunny get a kick in to her ribs. Our attacker grunted in pain and recoiled away from us for a moment, giving me enough time to get back up. She reached into the dark of her cloak and came back with two glowing devices strapped to her hooves.

“This should stop you magic user.” She spoke in a low, threatening tone. She rushed me again, turning broadside and hit my shield with her body. Then she brought her hoof around, the device attached to it was glowing now and when she hit it against my shield an explosive shockwave blew through it, cracking it in many places and sending strong feedback into my horn. She had some kind of energy gauntlets on and my shield wouldn’t protect me for much longer. I dropped the shield and did the only thing I could at this range. I reared back and drove my head into her muzzle. I could feel the warmth of blood on my face followed by an ear piercing wail. The cloaked mare held a hoof to her face, covering her right eye, a stream of blood escaping past her hoof. I must have gotten a lucky stab with my horn. With her other hoof she raised the hood of her cloak over her head and she vanished. Everypony was prepared for a sneak attack at any moment. Every few seconds I could see where a drop of her blood had hit the ground, giving me an idea of her location. An idea that I didn’t have time to take advantage of as her hoof weapon hit me right in the jaw, the shockwave blowing me off my hooves, leaving me on the ground with the loudest ringing in my ears. Sunny didn’t last much longer either as the mare reappeared behind her and kicked her in the back of the leg, causing her to crouch low to the ground where the mare slammed the hoof weapon into the back of Sunny’s head. The force of the blow pushed Sunny’s head into the ground, knocking her unconscious. She disappeared again then reappeared in front of Aurora. Aurora had been hiding behind a rock since the fight started, an action the mare obviously noticed.

“Come with me puella, I will take you to safety.” The mare held out a hoof towards Aurora. I don’t think she expected Aurora to have a gun judging by how wide her eye got when she was suddenly looking down the barrel of Aurora’s pistol. Aurora fired three shots in rapid succession. One tore through the mare’s ear, the second hit one of her hind legs and the third hit her in the chest. She staggered back in shock, flipped her hood back up and disappeared for a final time. I had a hard time getting to my hooves, the hit to my face throwing off my balance. I waved for Aurora to come to me and help me wake up Sunny. It took an amount of doing to wake her up and get her back on all fours.

“Who the hell was that?” Sunny asked, dizzily holding a hoof to her head.

“Somepony who doesn’t like us.” Was the best answer I had for now.

“Those displacer hooves really pack a wallop.” Sunny said, shaking the last of her dizziness away.

“D-do you…think I killed her?” Aurora asked, an unsure inflection in her tone.

“I don’t think so. I feel like we’ll be seeing her again.” I wasn’t entirely sure but she didn’t show up on EFS so it was pretty likely she got away. If the shot had been fatal then there should have been more blood on the ground.

“Maybe somepony in Moletown will know something about her.” Sunny shrugged and continued towards the city in question. We were almost there and I felt like we had passed the last obstacle in our way. As we came around the corner of a destroyed train station we saw what must have been the entrance to Moletown. A wall of metal and concrete blocked up most of the entrance to a metro tunnel with a hole in the center barely large enough to allow a cart to fit through. There were no signs to speak of but after a cursory glance I noticed a couple crudely painted arrows painted on the sidewalk and the sides of nearby buildings, all pointing to the tunnel’s entrance. There were no guards stationed around, making me think there was a secondary entrance in the tunnel itself. Or perhaps they though the location secure enough without needing to post a watch. We walked out into the open and slowly made our way into the tunnel. Once inside almost all light vanished, the only bastions of illumination provided by two metal barrels with fires burning in them. Down the center of the tunnel traveled the metal rails of train tracks, on either side of them were broken bits of concrete from the crumbling foundation of the tunnel. The slope of the tunnel inclined downwards, taking us deeper underground. The dank smell of the tunnel alongside the moist air and scattered debris gave us a sense of dread. It made me wonder what pony in their right mind would wander in here and think this would be the best place for a community. After a few moments of walking and, with the aid of our PipBuck lights, we saw a split in the tunnel. There was a path that continued straight and two that branched off on the right and left. At the mouth of the right split were two guard posts made from scrap metal and wood. Each guard post held two occupants. Three ponies and one griffin altogether. The griffin noticed us before the rest, flying over and landing in front of us.

“Bout time we saw a few more guns in here.” She said. “The left tunnel will take you lot to the town proper, so long as you keep your guns holstered the guards at the door shouldn’t bother you.”

“I think you’ve mistaken us for somepony else.” I said, looking at her inquisitively. She was a bit smaller than other griffins I’d seen, her plumage was the most unique I’d seen so far. The feathers on her wings were brown matching with the fur on the rest of her body and the feathers on her face were white. For all intents and purposes she was a normal colored griffin but that wasn’t what was unique. On her head was an incredible deep blue fringe hanging just in front of her face. It was honestly stunning, if not a bit distracting at first. I had to take a step back because I found myself staring. Aurora however just kept staring.

“Your feathers are pretty.” She said, peeking out from behind me.

“Well... thanks kid.” She looked down at Aurora with a smile. “Sorry about the mix up then, you two look like mercs so I thought you were here to join up with the expedition. The little one should have given away that you weren’t here for that.”

“Expedition?” Sunny asked, taking a step forward, getting the griffins attention.

“Yeah, the leadership of Moletown want to expand further down in one of the tunnels. The few scouts they’ve sent down haven’t returned so they planned a big expedition to go clear out the tunnel. There’s a payment of caps for participating and you can keep whatever you find in terms of salvage and whatnot.”

“Interesting we may check that out after all.” I said, rubbing my chin. We had to find the tunnel that led to the train that would take us to the Eclipse complex anyway. “Can I ask your name miss?”

“Please don't call me 'miss'. My name is Azura.”

“Will you be joining the expedition?”

“I’ve thought about it but I don’t think it’s for me. More than half of the ones who’ve come are in it for the chance to salvage and honestly that’d be what I’d be after. It’s too much competition, most of them came in groups and I’m not up for that kind of race. I’m only one bird after all.”

“You could come with us.” I offered without thinking. I took an instinctive step back, confused at my own words.

“Really? You’d let me come with you?” Her expression brightened for the briefest flicker before doubt crept in to replace it. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch, I-I just think it’d be helpful to have a local show us around while we’re here.” Why couldn’t I stop talking? We could have found our way around without a guide, we weren’t foals.

Before Azura could answer, Aurora stepped out from behind me with a smug grin. “My dad thinks you’re pretty too. He just won’t say it.” Aurora looked up at me with a smug look on her face, bumping my hind legs with her rump.

I flubbed my way through what was supposed to be an objection, instead I just made her claim look more legitimate. I could feel a small blush form on my face, I tried to look away hoping she wouldn’t notice but I kept sneaking glances at her beautiful feathers. Beautiful feathers? What?

“Oh…” The appearance of her own blush told me that she HAD noticed, or maybe the implication was enough. “W-well my shift here ends in a few hours.” She said while looking anywhere but at us. She fidgeted with her claws in front of her, using them as something to focus on. “I usually go right to the bar after my shift so…either I’ll find you or... I won’t.” With that she gave her wings a flap and sped back to her guard post.

“Smooth Sparks.” Was all Sunny said as she moved and started heading down the tunnel that led to Moletown.

Aurora hit me on the leg and smiled up at me deviously. “I got your back dad.” She then scampered off after Sunny, leaving me standing there like a lump on a log. My mind was running at a thousand miles an hour. What…what just happened!? Did Aurora just try to set me up on a date? Oh boy, I hoped I could play this off if we met up again in a few hours. I slowly followed after the other two, thinking carefully on what had just transpired. Truth be told…I did think she was pretty. I really only felt conflicted about it because I felt like I was supposed to. I was on a fucking quest to avenge Winter for Luna’s sake! The whole situation sat poorly with me, my reaction to what Aurora said probably didn’t help things either. I really hoped I could set things straight with her. Suddenly I felt very forlorn. The concept of finding somepony else made me feel…I don’t know…bad. Maybe if I had come here for different reasons I would be more open to it but as it stood it felt wrong, no matter how I actually felt.

Eventually we were able to see light at the end of the tunnel. We came up to a gate closing off a ramp that was built onto the tracks, leading up to a large subway station that Moletown had been built into. There were two armed ponies behind the gate watching our approach.

“Welcome to Moletown.” One said in greeting. They both moved to open the gate, giving us the rules as they did. “Keep your weapons holstered and there won’t be any problems. Don’t steal anything and if you kill somepony, expect to be killed in return. You don’t want to cross Mr. Coal.”

“If you’re here for the expedition, talk with Grizela at the Rusty Talon, just follow the signs and you’ll find it.”

Once they were done, the whole of Moletown was open to us. The layout of the town was rather interesting. It had multiple layers, one on the loading platforms where the bulk of the buildings were put together, another up some broken escalators that looked to hold the residences of the populace and the last above them on the pony traffic walkways that led down from the surface, where I imagined the guard barracks was and maybe the home of this Mr. Coal the gate guards mentioned. At the end of the station, way on the other side were two more tunnel entrances, both of them had also been fitted to serve a purpose for the community. As we came through the gate we had to step out of the way of a wagon loaded with scrap metal, piping and all sorts of materials one could expect to find in the metro lines. Four heavily armed guards followed the wagon, serving as its escort. That was probably what they traded to keep things running down here because I can’t imagine there was anywhere to cultivate food but what did I know? Something had to have appealed to somepony to justify building a community here. As soon as I finished the thought I discovered the answer. Along the far left wall by the end of the station platform was a burst pipeline that sprayed a constant stream of water and presumably had done so since the founding of the town. Judging by the size of the station I had to assume that this was part of the north Baltimare metro station, one of two large metro stations that had lines that both traveled through the city and out of it. On the inner wall on each platform were establishments built into the walls, some of which seemed to have built additions onto them in the form of structures in front of their entrances. Making the actual, old stores the backrooms so to speak.

As the guards stated, it was rather easy to spot a sign and immediately follow it to what was obviously the Rusty Talon. It was one of the stores that had been added on to, its length extending all the way to the end of the platform whereupon a small ramp rose to meet it. As we approached it was easy to tell it was a more rowdy establishment. The raucous laughter and yelling signaling either a good time or…a better time. We ascended the ramp and into the building. There were tables dotted across the floor, each one surrounded by an equal mix of ponies and griffins. On the left and right walls were booth seats for the more private patrons, the ones not interested in such a spirited drinking experience. Right up the middle towards the back was the bar itself, situated just in front of the original storefront where I presumed the owner made their home and stored their goods and belongings. There were two individuals operating behind the bar, a young, very attractive mare wearing a very short yet elegant black dress and an older, more grizzled griffin wearing combat armor. She was like the griffin version of Sunny. It didn’t take a genius to figure out which one was the owner. We approached the bar and sat at the stools in front.

“What’ll you have?” The griffin asked in a deeper, yet still feminine voice. The fur on her body was brown along with the feather on her wings. The feathers on her head, chest and wingtips however were white with a noticeable red tinge to them.

“A shot of Wild Pegasus if you have it.” I said, leaning forward on the bar.

“If I have it? What kind of establishment do you think I’m running here?” She turned around to the shelves behind the bar, grabbing a bottle of brown liquid in the process. She deftly retrieved a slightly dirty shot glass and poured the liquid into it.

“How ‘bout you scars?” She said, looking at Sunny.

“Same thing, make it easy for ya.” She quipped with a knowing smile.

Now that the both of us had a drink in front of us, we had to deal with Aurora.

“Can I get something dad?” She asked, looking at the many bottles on the shelves with a glitter in her eye. Now it was my turn to smile as a devious idea sprouted from the depths of my mind.

“Get her the same thing.”

The griffin raised an eyebrow at me for a second before shrugging and doing as asked.

“Better pinch your nose sweetie, it ain’t gonna be pretty.” The griffin said, sharing a smile as well.

I slammed my drink back, shuddering a little as it went down, satisfied by the sensation. “I take it this is your bar?” I asked trying to break the ice. The griffin laughed a little and lifted her right claw onto the bar. Her whole arm from just above the elbow down to her talons was made of metal. It was one thing to say one’s talons were sharp as razors, and a whole other if they were straight up razors. She clinked her metal claw on the bar, looking at it fondly.

“What gave it away?” She smirked. “Name’s Grizela and the Rusty Talon is mine. That’ll be six caps by the way.”

I fished out the required caps and set them on the counter. I saw Aurora in the corner of my eyes sniff at the glass in front of her, recoiling with a grimace. I chuckled at her expression before returning my attention to Grizela.

“I was told to talk to you about this expedition that’s supposed to happen.”

“Another mercenary looking to strike it rich huh? Well you came to the right girl. You heard right, I’m the one organizing and leading this expedition. If you’re interested I’ll take all the bodies I can get.”

“We are. When is the expedition?”

“Blarggh!” Aurora almost fell off her stool, spitting out the mouthful of liquor. She stuck out her tongue and wiped it with her hooves, trying to get the taste out of her mouth.

I couldn’t suppress myself and openly laughed at the look on her face. She saw my laughter and pouted, puffing out her cheeks in barely contained anger.

“What the heck dad!?” She practically squealed.

I leaned in close and spoke her own words back to her. “Don’t worry princess, I got your back.”

I could hear Sunny behind me stifle a giggle, causing Aurora’s anger to grow even stronger.

“The expedition leaves the day after tomorrow. So you have time to get a lay of the land, get whatever you might need. Though you won’t find them to be of the highest quality. That’s the tradeoff of living in a hole in the ground.”

“Ok, so on the day of, where should we be?”

“We’ll be meeting just outside my establishment here at noon. Don’t be late, I’d hate to leave any good fighters behind.”

“I don’t know how valuable I’ll be but we’ll be there.”

“Don’t sell yourself short pal, what’s your name?”

“My name is Sparks, this is my partner Sunny and my daughter Aurora Dawn.”

“You don’t really have the disposition of a merc.” Grizela said, leaning in as close to my face as she could with the bar between us. “No…you have some kind of purpose beyond the expedition. If I had to guess I’d say it wasn’t even the expedition that brought you here.”

I couldn’t help but avert my gaze from her, inadvertently confirming her theory.

“Don’t worry I won’t pry, your reasons are your own. But if you plan to succeed, never sell yourself short. You wouldn’t be around if you were helpless.”

A number of ghostly images flashed through my mind’s eye, forcing a shiver out of me. Desperate to think about anything else I changed the subject.

“Do you know Azura?”

“The blue headed bird? Yeah she comes in almost every day. Why?”

“I think she’ll be joining us.” I said motioning to the two other ponies with me. “She said something about too much competition if she went by herself.”

“Hmm wonder what she’s after.” Grizela mumbled to herself more than anypony else.

“Know something we don’t?” Sunny asked, throwing back her drink and slamming her glass on the bar.

“Not for me to say but while you’re waiting for her…” She leaned in closer to the bar. “Wanna make a few caps before the expedition?”

“Maybe. What did you have in mind?”

“I trust you’ve heard about the pony who runs Moletown? Mr. Coal?” I nodded in response, urging her to continue. “Well, I’ve run this bar for almost a decade now and Mr. Coal was running this town well before I got here. The thing is though…nobody has ever seen him. He’s always given orders from behind the scenes. Hell he might not even exist, he may have never existed.”

“So what?” I asked, wondering just what kind of job this would become.

“I want you to…acquire something for me. Rumor has it that Mr. Coal, if he’s real, is looking for something. Something down in the tunnels. Something that he’ll do anything to get his hooves on. I want to know what this expedition really means to him. I’ll pay you eight hundred caps for the job.”

“Give us a moment.” I waved for Sunny to come with me to the other side of the room to discuss it. “What do you think Sunny?”

“I think we could use the caps.”

“Other than that.” I leaned in a little closer, my voice dropping down to a whisper. “Do you think he’s after the Eclipse Complex too?”

“It’s possible.” Sunny relented with an indifferent shrug. “Did you ever consider that the rumors surrounding Mr. Coal are just that? How can we be sure of his intentions if even the locals doubt his existence?”

In a way that kind of made sense but what if I was right? What if I was wrong? What if he was looking for something completely different? Curiosity was like a freaking virus, the more questions I asked myself the more I yearned to uncover the truth for myself, or in this case, for caps. I looked back towards the bar and an idea popped into mind.

“Aurora! Come here!” I yelled across the bar. She hopped off her stool and dashed through the crowd, making it to us in no time. If Aurora was going to be coming with us from now on, I thought I should start getting her input on things like this.

“You were listening right?”

“Yup.” She nodded.

“Well…what do you think? Should we go investigate Mr. Coal?”

“Couldn’t hurt right? I think it’ll be fun, just like the Shrouded Stallion!”

“The Shrouded Stallion huh?” I took a moment to think about it. Weigh my options and what the best course of action was. Sunny said we needed the caps and she wasn’t wrong. Our supplies barely got us back from the space center and we’d had little to trade for more when we returned. Maybe I was overthinking it all, if worse came to worse how bad could it be?

The three of us returned to the bar to face Grizela.

“We’ll do it.”

“Alrighty then. If I were you I’d start at the water shed. Folks say the old stallion there lived here before Moletown sprung up. He might have dealt with him personally.”

“It’s as good a place as any.” I said, ready to get the investigation underway. Just as I got off my stool a thought occurred to me, one about a certain cloaked figure that attacked us on the road.

“Grizela…you wouldn’t happen to know any cloak wearing…vigilantes, I guess…would you?”

“Aha, so you had a run in with her did you? I don’t know much about her other than she grew up here. She came from the gutter down below, the old water treatment facility. Where the rest of her kind dwell…”

“That would explain her hoof-to-hoof ability.” Sunny glared forward, as if she was angry she hadn’t figured it out sooner.

“I…I don’t follow.”

“She was a zebra Sparks.” Sunny stated for me, her expression hardening suddenly. “Some would say they are the best hoof-to-hoof fighters.”

“And the ones who say otherwise ain’t ever faced one. You two look pretty well off for being on the receiving end of a zebra flank-whuppin’…and you said you weren’t a good fighter.”

“Well I guess you could say that. Lucky fighter might be more accurate, I did get one of her eyes after all.”

“Then I would sleep with one eye open if I were you, if you did as you say she’ll be after you.”

I swallowed at the idea, confirming what I had already thought.

“Let’s see if we can learn anymore about her too while we’re out there.” I told Sunny and Aurora, to which they both nodded. “We’ll be back if we learn anything Grizela. If Azura shows up…” The words that were supposed to come next, I couldn’t find them.

“I’ll figure something out, now go on times a wastin’.” Grizela finished for me.

This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when we’d come to Moletown but if the tunnels were as dangerous as they said, then waiting for the expedition would be the easiest way into the Eclipse complex, even if that meant a little competition in the form of Mr. Coal and his associates. Until then we took it upon ourselves to find the secret behind the expedition, its true motives. Though what I would learn would become bigger than I ever imagined.


Footnote: Level Up!

New Perk: Jouster – Unarmed attacks with your horn now have the armor piercing quality.

Chapter Fifteen: Darkest Depths

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Chapter Fifteen: Darkest Depths

Some steps need to be taken alone. It’s the only way to figure out where you need to go and who you need to be.

The bustle of Moletown was unexpected given its relatively secluded location but it seemed just as prosperous as Blacktown or The Crater. How many other settlements like this were hidden in the Baltimare ruins? How many were there across Equestria as a whole? If the other stables did their jobs then ponykind might have a chance. As we left the Rusty Talon we spotted some more haphazard signs and followed them to the water shed. Having seen the water pipe spewing water when we arrived it was easy enough to find even without the signs. However it wasn’t as I had initially thought. The burst pipe was not the main source of water, rather it was merely a part of it. Further down the tunnel beyond the pipe was a small shack built from soggy plywood and aluminum sheets. There was one elderly unicorn stallion working hard at filling a great number of water bottles and containers of all kinds for a younger earth pony mare hooked up to a cart. As the last bottle was filled, caps changed hooves and the mare secured her water and made for the exit of Moletown. Behind the stallion, through the open door of the shack, I could see what remained of an old pumping station. Inside were what looked like three jury-rigged runoff pipes that spilled a small stream of water through a grated drain on the floor. It must have taken some time to run all of those pipes to wherever the water was coming from, a closely guarded secret no doubt that this stallion had worked his whole life for. As soon as the mare was out of sight he switched his attention to us.

“Well howdy there, name’s Whistler. Ya’ll lookin’ to buy some clean water? Only five caps per container.” He said, pointing a hoof to a poorly drawn sign tacked to the side of the shack.

“Actually…” I started, fishing through my bags for any empty containers. “That would be great.” It wasn’t something I thought about very often but I couldn’t recall the last time I had clean water, actual clean and purified water. Most sources were contaminated in some way. Even old sealed beverages from before the war bore slight amounts of balefire radiation. Sunny must have thought something similar as she too withdrew any empty containers she had.

A few filled bottles later we had thirty-five caps worth of clean water, a fact that my PipBuck confirmed as I took a sip.

“You one of them mercs lookin’ t’ strike it rich in the tunnels?” He questioned, looking at us with wary eyes.

“You could say that…I actually have a few questions for you.”

“Ain’t got no time fer questions. It takes a lot t’ keep this pump in workin’ order so if we’re done here.” He turned around to head inside the shack. He wasn’t wrong. From the shack ran even more pipes, the ones that spanned and supplied the whole of Moletown with clean, running water. How many other settlements could claim that?

“Where does this water come from?” Aurora asked, stepping out from behind me. The old stallion must have liked talking about it as he stopped in his tracks and turned to face the filly. Or maybe he had a soft spot for children like most old folks.

“Well youngin’ I don’t rightly know. Back when I was a young buck I ventured down into these here tunnels and found some pipework that somepony else had started, as well as their bones. I continued their work and kept connecting more pipes until I got the flow of water here. After that I sent some folk down t’ find the source and none came back. Eventually word got out ‘bout my water and this town sprung up around me. Since then the danger has only enticed treasure hunters and year after year ponies disappear down these tunnels. Doesn’t matter how many you send, yer fate will be the same.”

“You think the expedition will fail.” I said, looking past him and into one of the tunnels that led out of Moletown.

“Ain’t seen nothing yet to convince me otherwise.” He said with an emphatic shake of his head.

“What makes you so sure?” Sunny asked as she tried to hide a sneaky smirk behind her hoof.

“Weren’t ya’ll listening? Nopony who’s gone down there has ever come back. Not treasure hunters thirty-five years ago and not Mr. Coal’s expedition. Nopony!”

“Mr. Coal?” I asked innocently, preying on the frustration that Sunny’s question had created.

“That’s right, some bigshot ghoul with deep pockets. Moletown was his idea, though if you ask me I think he’s just as interested in the tunnels as everypony else. Though I suppose it weren’t all bad him moving in, gettin’ paid fer my water ain’t so bad.” He smiled a somewhat creepy partially toothless smile.

“So you met him? Mr. Coal I mean.” I said, hoping to squeeze just a bit more info out of the old stallion.

“Ain’t you got nothing better to do than bother an old buck?” He said, turning to retreat into his shack. However Sunny had crept behind him and blocked his way.

“We don’t mean to bother, we just have some questions.” Sunny kicked the door to Whistler’s shack closed with a metallic clang.

“Like say, where one would go to meet Mr. Coal.” I said, rolling my hoof, trying to coax him into an answer.

“Nowhere.” Whistler answered defiantly. “He’s become a bit of a recluse you understand, doesn’t come out t’ mingle with the rabble anymore. Works through mediators.”

“Alright then, where can I find them?”

“Yer already doing a fine job at that.”

“What do you mean?

“Keep asking questions and I’m sure one will find you. Now if you’ll excuse me.” This time he took the initiative and slowly pushed Sunny out of his way, she offered no resistance. Whistler retreated into his shack, leaving us with barely more than we arrived with water withstanding.

“Now what?” Aurora asked, arching an eyebrow at the encounter she’d just witnessed.

“I suppose we keep asking around. Though I think we can safely say that Mr. Coal isn’t an altruist.”

“A what?” Aurora asked, wrinkling her nose at the word.

“Somepony who looks out for the little ponies.” Sunny answered for me, she better fit that bill after all.

After we left the water shed behind we traveled about the rest of Moletown over the next few hours and every time we brought up Mr. Coal older ponies would shy away and act strange like Whistler had. Others of younger generations simply stated that he led the town and nothing more. What secrets was Moletown hiding? Just when we thought our search was going nowhere, just as Whistler said, somepony found us. A pony wearing a hood and mask that covered his face approached us from a dark alley.

“You da ones asking all da questions about Mr. Coal?” He asked in a heavy accent.

“What’s it to you?” I said harshly, trying not to sound too eager.

“Da squeaky wheel get da oil as dey say, him wishes to meet wit you.”

“Well…where do we go from here?” I asked.

“Oh no, you misunderstand me.” In a heartbeat he had thrown some kind of dust into all of our faces. I sputtered for but a second before black flooded my vision and I lost consciousness.



The room I awoke in was the very definition of nondescript. It was a long empty room with no windows, only a set of stairs going up directly opposite me. To my left and right were Sunny and Aurora, tied to their chairs just as I was. In front of us was a bare wooden table with nothing on it, a chair sat in front of it on the opposite side from us. I struggled against my bonds to no avail. Sunny and Aurora were still unconscious when I heard the sound of hoof steps approaching. Slowly cantering down the stairs were two ponies. One in a dark trench coat wearing a fedora hat and the other one was our hood wearing assailant. The one wearing the hat casually tossed it off his head and onto the table, revealing that he was a ghoul.

“Well well.” He started in the rough voice all his kind shared. “My associate here says you’ve been askin’ bout me all over town. Says you even gave ol’ Whistler a pretty good shakedown.”

“Mr. Coal I presume?” I said bitterly, scowling at him.

“In the rotting flesh.” He said with a smile. “The way my associate here tells it, you and your mares are pretty smart ponies. Youre right, I am searching for something in the Baltimare underground.”

“So is that why you have us tied up? Cuz we figured out your plan?”

“Quite the opposite really. I know from your interaction with Grizela that you didn’t come here looking for work or to benefit from the expedition. No something else brought you to my town.” He stood up from his chair and started to circle the table. “But that doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is the reason behind the expedition. I’d like to offer you a job.”

“Are you serious? You foalnapped me and now you want to hire me?”

“If nopony going with the expedition knows what I want then how can I expect them to look for it? I’ve spent too many years searching to be waylaid any longer by subtlety. You have made yourself seem the resourceful type and I’m going to take advantage of that.”

“What makes you think I’m going to consider any job you offer me?” I asked. His intentions were a mystery to me but if I played the situation right then he might spill his secrets.

“Maybe offer was too polite a word. The answer is simple my naïve friend. I’m not giving you a choice. You work for me now and you will do so until I release you.” He looked to his associate and clopped his hooves together.

The other pony nodded and removed his hood, revealing that he was in fact a zebra. He moved towards us and grabbed the chair in which Aurora sat.

“Or I will take your family from you.” Mr. Coal finished in a low, threatening tone. The zebra took Aurora’s chair in his teeth and began dragging it towards the stairs.

“Don’t you dare touch her! You hear me you stripped-” I was interrupted by a hard slap across the face.

“Don’t waste your breath. They’ll be out for at least another two hours.” He continued to circle my chair as he spoke, like a predator toying with its prey. “My associate is quite gifted in zebra alchemy. That powder he carries is rather impressive don’t you think? A small dose can render a full-grown pony unconscious for a few hours, a day or more with a large dose, any more than that though and things start to shut down. What a terrible fate it would be to suffocate while you dream.”

“I…I understand.” I said, fearing his implication.

“Good to see you’ve decided to be more agreeable. As you know I’m searching for something hidden away in the tunnels and the source of the clean water is the key! Not out of curiosity or something so trivial. No…I already know where it comes from. I just can’t find it! Its eluded me for decades, all you fucking wastelanders are too weak or stupid to get through the tunnels without dying!” He shouted at me, losing his composure for a moment. He took a step back and smoothed out his coat and what remained of his mane. “Thus the expedition was born. If I send you in with that mass then surely, regardless of the danger, I’ll find what I’m looking for.”

“Why me?”

“Do you think me a fool? I see that Stable-Tec device on your leg. You’re a stable dweller, you’re just what I need to find it.”

It took me a moment to realize what he meant, the clean water made me think of my stable, because it came from one.

“Y-you’re looking for a Stable.” I managed to spit out, my voice just above a whisper.

“Yes…one I’ve been searching almost forty years for. You’re going to find it for me”

The zebra came back into the room and repeated his process with Sunny’s chair.

“W-wait! I need her, she can help me find the Stable!” I tried to reason with him, but he would hear none of it.

“I only need one PipBuck, besides you’ll be more motivated this way. Call it extra insurance for your cooperation.”

“You…bastard.”

“We all have things we desire.” He continued, ignoring the weak insult I’d sent his way. “Some of us seek to get them using any means necessary. You should be thinking the same thing if you want to see them again.”

He had me right where he wanted me. My only choice was to do what he said and hope he kept his word. Something else began to creep into my mind. Fear. Not just the fear that I’d never see them again but the fear of being alone. I hadn’t been alone in the wasteland since the day I left Stable 63. I always had somepony by my side. Sunny, Grim, Aurora, hell even Dusty. That thought alone shook me to my core, never had I felt so helpless since that first night in Black Town.

“My associate will be accompanying you to ensure you don’t stray too far from the path. He will return you to the streets and bring you back here should you succeed.” He was already on the stairs by the time he finished. I watched the stairs for a few minutes after Mr. Coal left, waiting for his associate to return yet I never saw him. Didn’t mean he wasn’t there though. I felt somepony grab my chair and I was thrown to the floor. Standing over me was the zebra with a sadistic look of glee in his eyes. His expression was enhanced by the many beaded accessories and zebra fetishes in his long mane styled into dreadlocks. He leaned in close and smiled.

“Dey call me Mr. Sunshine…” He said in his heavily accented voice.

I wasn’t given a chance to respond as I felt another cloud of powder hit me in the face where unconsciousness took me once again.



“Do you see what this is costing you? How much will it take until you realize this is wrong?” The sound of Winter’s voice echoed through the hell that was the void in my mind. “When everypony you care about is dead then what will you do!?”

“The same thing I’m doing for you. I’ll avenge them or die trying.”

“No…vengeance only puts you and those around you at risk. You can’t do that to them for my sake.”

“You can’t understand what I’m feeling Winter. I need to do this for my sake as well as yours.”

“I understand well enough, if-”

“No Winter, you don’t understand! You don’t know the pain I feel, the feelings that keep me awake at night or haunt my every waking moment!”

“You don’t think I feel the same way? I know what you’re going through Sparks, better than you might think.”

“No you don’t. You’re dead…and…a-and I’m not.” We both took a step back away from each other, however we continued to glide further and further away. The void put so much distance between us that I could no longer see her.

“You aren’t real…” I whispered. I felt a single tear roll down my cheek and watched it disappear into the darkness below me.






I was jolted awake by a cold liquid being dumped on my head. I was on my hooves in a flash with my gun drawn. I spun in a quick circle to survey my surroundings. When I realized I wasn’t in any danger I sighed and holstered my weapon. In my heart I had hoped that I had dreamt the whole experience but the absence of Sunny and Aurora told me otherwise.

“You got a few hours before da expedition. Better ready yourself.” I heard the deep voice of Mr. Sunshine from every direction at once. I supposed it was too much to hope that he’d be accompanying me in a normal fashion. Confident the zebra that was to be my shadow would follow, I made my way back to the Rusty Talon. I hoped that I’d still be able to find a certain griffin there.

The rowdy nature of the Rusty Talon’s clientele was evident before I even got close. Just like the last time I was here. I headed up the ramp to the entrance and threw open the door, scanning the crowd for a certain blued headed griffin. According to Mr. Sunshine, Mr. Coal had kept me for at least a day so I had missed our scheduling meeting time, that is if she ever intended to show up in the first place. I slowly approached the bar where Grizela was both surprised and relieved to see me.

“Good to see you’re still alive, I’d have hated to leave you behind.”

“Yeah…I wouldn’t miss it.” I said, trying to muster some enthusiasm.

“Did you find anything on Mr. Coal?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe.” I said sarcastically. I felt something metal touch the back of my head. I had to assume Mr. Sunshine had the same kind of stealth cloak that the other zebra that attacked us had. With a gun pressed to my skull I tried to steer the conversation elsewhere.

“I uh…didn’t have enough time to look, Perhaps we can talk about this after the expedition?”

“Confident you’ll be coming back eh? Well we do have a lot of bodies.” Grizela looked around the room. I followed her gaze and saw that there weren’t just the unruly types I had seen before but a large number of rougher looking ponies, griffins and even zebras wearing all varieties of armor and carrying all kinds of weaponry. I hoped we’d be able to clear out whatever awaited us because I didn’t think I’d be finding my way to the Eclipse complex with Mr. Sunshine shadowing me.

“Hey Grizela? Have you seen Azura since I was here last?” I asked, truly hoping I could sway her to come with me.

“She was actually looking for you the other day after you left. I think she’s guarding the east metro tunnel just outside town. If you want to bring her along you’d better go collect her, I’m just about ready to get this show on the road.”

“I think I might just do that, thanks Grizela.” I promptly left the bar and trotted back the way we initially came in. I kept my speed up to try and shake Mr. Sunshine but was instead rewarded with a heavy shove. My body hit the wall and he appeared in front of me, his hoof holding me against the wall.

“What do you tink you’re doing?” He said with an accusing tone.

“I’m recruiting some help since your boss denied me my ally.” I spat back.

“I don’t tink so. You are in Mr. Coal’s employ. Only you may know da truth.”

“I have no intention of telling anypony. Just some extra eyes to cover my back. I can’t count on you for help after all. Think about it, you need my PipBuck. If I die because somepony wasn’t covering me, then what? You slink back to Mr. Coal empty hoofed or meet your fate with me in the tunnels.” He didn’t like the implication at all. He snorted angrily and hit the wall just next to my head, missing it by a hair.

“You dare to imply I am weak? Even if you fail, I will survive. If you fall den your mare will take your place. You are valuable to Mr. Coal but you are also disposable.” He pulled back both his hooves and turned his back on me. “Go find your help but don’t forget, I am watching you. If you reveal the truth…”

“Yeah I understand.” I said dejectedly. I didn’t fear what would happen to me. I feared for my family. I had no idea where they were in this hellhole so I wouldn’t do anything to put them at risk. With my actions permitted I continued on my path to the east tunnel just outside Moletown. Once the guards opened the gate for me I returned to where I had met Azura. The first thing I saw was the blue of her fringe, confirming that it was indeed her. I trotted over to her and got her attention.

“Hey Azura? Can I talk to you for a moment?”

“Hmm?” She turned around and looked at me from her guard post. “O-oh. You’re that guy that…” She seemed a little flustered by my being there. She took a moment to whisper something to the other pony up on the guard post. She unfurled her wings and glided down, landing beside me.

“Still interested in joining me for the expedition?” I asked, perhaps a tad too eagerly. I was desperate for her to come with me. The earlier fear of being alone was starting to creep back to the forefront of my mind. The fear of her rejecting the offer didn’t help the anxiety that was building inside me.

“I-I thought you changed your mind. I couldn’t find you at Grizela’s and…This is so strange, I don’t even know your name.”

“Oh m-my name is Sparks.” I started walking towards what looked like an outhouse, hoping she’d follow me to continue talking.

“Well thank you for the offer Sparks.” She said, following after me slowly. “But I just don’t know…didn’t you have a mare with you before?”

I ignored her question and shoved her into the outhouse, turning on the radio function on my PipBuck and turning up the volume as loud as I could.

“What are you-” she started before I pressed a hoof to her beak to silence her. She didn’t protest any further or try to fight back as she saw the panicked look in my eyes. I pulled my hoof away and leaned in close, practically touching my muzzle to her beak.

“Mr. Coal has my family and I really need your help, please come with me.” I whispered as fast as I could. I saw a small blush on her face from our closeness but after a rapid double take she seemed to understand what I was asking of her “Now follow my lead and I’m sorry.”

“What lead? Sorry for wha-Mmph!” She was silenced as I pressed my lips against her beak. I hated that I had to do this to her but I needed to find some way to convince Mr. Sunshine that I hadn’t told her anything. In response I felt her body tense up, threatening to break the façade. To keep the illusion I threw myself backwards and out of the door, dragging Azura along with me. When we landed she was on top of me and only then did our kiss break. She lifted her head, the blush on her face so bright that it almost gave off light. Not that I was faring any better. From somewhere behind me I heard a long whistle.

“Wooo! Way to go Azura, that’s how you bag a stallion!” The pony from the guard post, whom I now noticed to be an older mare, called out to us. “I can solo the rest of guard duty. You go on and enjoy yourself with your coltfriend.” She gave us a wink and turned back to her duties.

“T-thanks Candy.” Azura barely managed to stutter out. She stood quickly and pulled me to my hooves, shoving me back towards the entrance to Moletown.

As we headed back towards the Rusty Talon in silence, I noticed in more detail what Azura was working with. Her weapons! I meant her weapons…Anyway she seemed to be like me, preferring a pistol as her prime weapon. On her left hip was a heavy looking revolver and on her right was a medium sized curved knife. I supposed that her armament fit her size as she was a bit smaller than the average griffin. As we approached the Rusty Talon we could see the large crowd of everyone gathered just outside with Grizela perched on top of the establishment trying to get all of their attention. She settled for the classic and fired her sawed-off shotgun into the roof.

“Alright you lot listen up!” We all shut up and stood still, our focus drawn to the griffin on the roof. “You are all here to assist Moletown in expanding its borders. Once we get down into the tunnels, don’t wander off. If you do, go in teams of no less than three. If you find any creatures, kill them. If you come across any hazards, report them to the group. Our goal is to push until we reach the next metro station.”

I looked around the crowd and saw that the expedition had drawn at least twenty-six eager treasure hunters or mercenaries. I had mixed feelings rolling around in my gut. On one hoof I was relieved at the number we had. On the other…even Mr. Coal was cautious of what lurked below. I’m not going to lie, I was nervous. Too much was riding on this expedition. Sunny and Aurora, the location of Eclipse, and possibly my life.

“Stick together if possible and remember communication is key. Take these ten minutes to collect yourself and your equipment or to puss out if you don’t have the stones.” Grizela turned away from the crowd and presumably disappeared back into the Rusty Talon. I took her advice and tried to come to grips with what was happening. Could I really trust Azura? She seemed willing to help me at least. She deserved a chance especially considering the alternative. The biggest obstacle was going to be the communication barrier. Since Mr. Sunshine hadn’t intervened I assumed he didn’t hear what I said to Azura in the outhouse. Maybe he wasn’t as skilled as he wanted me to believe. Perhaps we wasn’t even going to follow me into the tunnels. He just wanted me to think that so I wouldn’t stray from the job. Regardless I couldn’t afford to cross him or Mr. Coal…not yet.

I scrolled through my PipBuck’s sorting spell to see that nothing had been taken when Mr. Sunshine captured me. I suppose an unarmed agent wasn’t a very useful one, even with the resourcefulness they claimed I possessed. Grizela threw open the doors to the Rusty Talon ready to go. She had quite the impressive bit of gear. She wore what looked like the metal shell of a salvaged suit of power armor with a mounted battle saddle. On one side was a heavy machine gun and a flamethrower on the other. In addition to her integrated weaponry, she had two holstered sub-machine guns on her hind legs. She made one hell of an impression and I could feel my confidence return a bit with her at the helm.

“You ready partner?” I heard the voice of Azura ask from beside me. I was putting a lot of faith in her even though we hardly knew each other. She didn’t refuse when I asked her for help even though she owed me nothing. With that in mind I found enough resolve to calm my nerves. I smiled and nodded.

“Ready.”

Grizela walked to the front of the expedition and took charge.

“Alright let’s move out!” We fell in line behind her and followed her to the tunnels near Whistler’s shack. When we finally came to stand in front of the tunnel that we were to delve into, we all froze. Nothing about it felt right. Even the air somehow tasted wrong. What in the hell could be down there? Without a hint of fear, Grizela ignored the frightening atmosphere and marched head first into the darkness of the tunnel. I had no choice, I couldn’t back out now and to prove that to myself I forced my hooves to carry me to be the first to follow behind her. Azura quickly followed after me. The tunnel was just wide enough to barely allow the three of us to stand side by side, up ahead the tunnel began to incline downwards. I had my E.F.S up, carefully looking around for any sign of hostiles. I took a risk at trying to explain myself to Azura, if Mr. Sunshine was still following us I had a bit of a window before he could catch up to us.

“Azur-”

“Why did you kiss me before?” She asked before I could finish my sentence.

“Well…I um needed to create a distraction.” I said a little too quickly. “Mr. Coal has graciously provided me an escort and if he thought I was trying to tell you something then…my family.”

“I understand.” She said softly.

“I’m sorry I pulled you into this…and for earlier.” I heard the sound of many bodies filing into the tunnel behind us, whoever had lights turning them on.

“Don’t worry about it, if I was afraid to help you I wouldn’t be here now.”

“I’m glad you said that. I was hoping to catch him somewhere down here and take him out. Can I trust you to have my back?”

Azura scoffed and gave me a cocky grin. “You think I’d be here otherwise?”

That was good enough for me. The air in the tunnel gradually grew thicker with moisture and strange smells of decay. After fifteen minutes of walking we saw that the tunnel itself led into a large circular room that held a number of interconnecting train tracks and rotating platforms for redirecting trains to the proper lines. It was easy to see why nopony had come back alive before once we were inside. All around us were old bodies in many states of decay. With the spectrum widening from full skeletons to a jawless skull shoved into the ribcage of somepony else. Many others had suffered wounds that had either severed through bone or smashed them to bits. Many of us were on edge now seeing the numerous bodies and aged patches of black blood. There was no sign of what had done this to them. Leaving our imaginations to theorize what lurked further in.

“Alright fan out and secure this area!” Grizela shouted. She and the other griffins that came took to the air to have a better look. The rest of us split into groups of three or two to better cover the ground. Azura thankfully opted to stay with me instead of joining the others in the air. As we came to a platform that held a track inlaid into a bridge we saw the first signs of trouble. In the darkness below the platform were three large holes that had been dug up through the concrete floor.

“Something’s dug through the floor over here! Keep an eye out for more!” I shouted to the spread out gathering. I couldn’t tell how long the holes had been there but one thing was certain, this room was a killing floor. It was getting harder and harder to use E.F.S as the number of blips on the compass were starting to overlap each other.

“What do you think made those holes?” Azura asked, pointing at a few more further down the track.

“I have no idea. I haven’t encountered any kind of creature that burrows like that.”

“We should see if any of these exits lead to-” Before she could finish her sentence the sound of gunfire rang out from the other side of the room. What followed was the pinnacle of what the wasteland had to offer. Screams of terror came after the gunshots only to be followed by the cessation of the screaming and the sound of blood hitting the floor. Absurd amounts of blood. Down where the shooting started I could see ponies that had been cut in half fly through the air, hitting the floor with wet smacks.

“Hellhounds!” Somepony yelled as huge monsters leapt out of the floor in clouds of dirt and dust. Many came up directly under somepony, lashing out with their large claws and severing skin, muscle and bone like their armor wasn’t even there. Before even thirty seconds had passed nine members of the expedition had been killed. The griffins in the air circled around raining bullets into the Hellhounds with each pass. I broke into a gallop and made for the platform control station in the center of the room. Azura followed behind me, laying down covering fire in the path behind us. One erupted from the floor in front of me, bearing down on me with its fanged maw and its lethal claws. These creatures were at least double my height, with long arms ending in long clawed hands. They must have used their claws to dig all those holes we found, these things had to be incredibly strong to do such a thing. The realization of how deadly these creatures were froze me in place, the one in front of me getting ready to rake its claws through me. Instinct took control of my body and without thinking my gun floated in front of me and began firing. The rounds from my pistol barely penetrated the Hellhounds hide, only aggravating it more and more. It roared and lunged at me, claw raised to strike. Azura came flying in from the side, using her momentum to carve a line up its face with her knife. The hellhound yelped in pain and brought its claws to its face, trying to keep the blood out of its eyes as it tried to lash out blindly at us. I jumped to the floor, sliding through its hind legs, and continued to the control station. Just as we had reached the door we heard something dreadful. Somepony had fired a rocket and it missed its target, colliding with the ceiling. The concrete roof of the station began to crack and large chunks began falling loose from their rebar frames. One piece fell and smashed the blinded Hellhound with bone crushing force. However the more chunks that fell loose the more the ceiling’s integrity weakened. Soon the whole room was shaking with the threat of a complete collapse.

“Get inside now!” I yelled to anypony who could hear me. Azura and I flung the door open and dove into the control center. To our surprise there was a metal hatch in the floor. Without any other option we unfastened the wheel on the hatch and began climbing down the ladder that was inside. Thankfully I could see a few blips join us on the ladder as we continued our descent. From above we could hear and feel the tremors of the rest of the ceiling giving way and collapsing. All at once every blip on My E.F.S, save the ones on the ladder with me, vanished. We kept on climbing until we reached the bottom. I let go of the ladder and looked around. We were in the start of a single corridor leading forward. There was the orange glow of hazard lights coming from the the roof of the corridor. After the last of the survivors gathered around the ladder I was amazed to see how many were left. Other than Grizela, Azura and I there were four others. That left seven of twenty-six. Two thirds of the expedition had been lost. Some killed by the Hellhounds and others by the collapse.

“I didn’t sign up for no fucking deathtrap!” A purple earth pony mare with orange mane yelled, seeing the corridor that waited before us.

“What the fuck did you think you signed up for then Gunny? Don’t go and lose your shit now.” A rough, grey, earth pony stallion with black mane said back to her.

“Fuck you Basalt! Did you see what was out there?!” She got in his face and pointed up the ladder. “Those were Hellhounds! We’re lucky, beyond lucky to be alive right now so don’t act so fucking casual!”

“Easy now, we can’t go at each other’s throats otherwise we’re all dead.” Grizela stepped in between the two. “No one could have expected Hellhounds. Be thankful that you’re alive and let’s move on.”

The other two, pink unicorn mares, who looked like twins said nothing. With the situation diffused for now Grizela pressed on down the corridor. Her steel spirit was admirable even in the face of what just happened. It was a strength to latch on to as I found myself following behind her almost immediately. I hoped that wherever this corridor led had an exit of some kind. Dying of thirst in an underground tomb was something I wanted to avoid. Even though it killed so many I was a little thankful for the roof caving in. There wasn’t a whole lot of maneuvering room on the ladder so the odds that Mr. Sunshine was killed or at least separated by the collapse were very good, if he even came at all. The corridor came to an end at a large service elevator and by the look of the cables it was capable of both vertical and horizontal transportation.

“Anypony good with machines?” the pony known as Basalt asked.

“Yeah, lemme take a look at it.” I said trotting forward to investigate the elevator. The first thing I noticed was a small console seated on the elevator itself. On the side of the console was a card reader and an idea bloomed in my mind.

“Everypony on the elevator, I have an idea.”

They did as I asked but still looked apprehensive.

“You sure you know what you’re doing?” the mare called Gunny asked.

“Nope.” I retrieved and swiped the card Blood Orange gave me. I stumbled as the elevator jerked to the side, sliding quickly along the track, stopping at regular intervals and shifting direction. Just what kind of underground did the ponies here build? Eventually we were brought to a similar station like the one Moletown was built into sans the stairs and walkways that led to the surface. In fact the only thing here was a single track holding a sleek black train.

“Where did you take us? Weren’t we supposed to go to back up?” One of the twins asked. Her voice betraying the fear she felt. I on the other hoof would not be swayed as I spotted the starburst symbol that was on the access card on the side of the train.

“Then I’m sure you could take it there. I found what I was looking for.” I boldly stepped towards the loading platform and off of the elevator. I stopped halfway to the train and turned around to the gathering still debating amongst each other on the elevator.

“Azura…I would still really appreciate your help.” I asked hoping that for some reason I could sway her to join me.

“Sparks…you took us here on purpose didn’t you? Is this about Mr. Coal?”

I nodded halfheartedly. “Yes and no.” A part of me hoped with all my being that the Eclipse Complex was what Mr. Coal was searching for, otherwise I was about to abandon my family to settle my own vendetta. “I could still use the help though if you’re interested.” I tried to sound as calm as possible but the impending realization that I might have to face Chestnut alone and the dissonance in my heart made my whole body shiver.

“Where does this train lead exactly?” Grizela asked, stepping off the elevator.

“Grizela are you crazy!?” The other pink twin asked. “Everypony is dead and you want to keep going?”

“Gumball, Gumdrop.” She turned, facing the twins. “If we don’t keep moving forward…then what? Do you want all those people to have died for nothing? If we retreat right now then the expedition would have been a costly failure. I won’t go back empty taloned.”

The twins shared a glance between themselves and wordlessly joined Grizela on the loading platform.

“I’m in.” Basalt said, walking off the elevator towards me.

“Basalt are you fucking kidding me right now?! I’m not going with you.” Gunny yelled from the elevator. Basalt scoffed and smiled a suave smile.

“Who’re you kidding Gunny? You wish you could quit me.” He winked at her like he knew what was going to happen. Gunny slowly walked off the elevator and stood by Basalt.

“I knew you wouldn’t leave me.” The smug air radiating from his words was almost comical.

“Fuck you.” Gunny spat back, trying to hide her face from him.

“Only if you’re a good girl.” He smiled back. Grizela needed no convincing and was already halfway across the room, taking a cursory look around the train.

“That just leaves you Azura.” I said, walking back up to the elevator, stopping just in front of it. “Whaddya say? Will you help me?” I gave her a look I haven’t given anypony since Winter died. A look of pleading.

“Not until you tell me what this is all about.” She jabbed me in the chest with an accusatory talon.

I sighed and levitated out the access card. “This train leads to a place called the Eclipse complex. A pony I've been tracking for a month is in there and I’m going to kill him. I took advantage of the expedition to get me this far.” I said, looking back at the others, feeling a little guilty. “Even took advantage of you by bringing you along.” I mumbled.

“What about your family? Doesn’t Mr. Coal have them?”

“He wouldn’t dare do anything to them. He needs me to get what he wants. I’m positive I can find what he’s looking for at the complex.” It was the greatest bluff of my life and I didn’t buy it for one second. I had no choice but to believe my own words. They were all I had to try and abate the new fears that were creeping into my being. I never was a very convincing speaker. “If you want to leave I won’t stop you but I can’t let him get away…not again.” I turned my back on the elevator and started heading towards the train to join Grizela and the others.

“What did she say about Mr. Coal? He has your family? Scars and the filly?” Grizela asked from atop the train.

“Yeah, turns out he didn’t like being asked about. Sorry I didn’t say anything before but he had his enforcer shadowing me and I couldn’t risk saying anything, not while I was still in Moletown.”

“Hmm, we can talk about that once we get out of here. Let’s go get your guy and loot this complex.”

“Sounds good to me.” From behind me I could hear the sound of the elevator moving again. I looked to see one rider ascending back up along the rails before disappearing out of sight. I couldn’t blame her for her decision. I wasn’t exactly as honest as I could have been with her. I might have left too were I in her place.

“Alright guys, load up and let’s get this train moving.” I tapped a panel on the side of the train, opening all the doors to the inside. We all filed in rather quickly, the others taking their seats as I headed for the controls. The whole of the train as well as the control panel itself were in amazing condition. I guess if you dig deep enough even the fallout from the bombs couldn’t reach. The panel glowed with life, eagerly awaiting its next destination. Set in the center of the controls was another card reader. I had more backup than I had expected initially, so why did I still feel alone? Maybe because Sunny supported me unquestionably and without her my own confidence was hard to find. I wasn’t prepared to tackle the Eclipse alone, maybe it was better that way as it was my own demons I was chasing. Even though they wanted to help me however they could, could I really ask them to take that risk solely for my benefit? It didn’t matter now. I had already put us on this path and now they weren’t here, but I was. It was time to put an end to it. I floated the card in my magic and stuck it into the card reader. All at once the train shook, life coursing through its systems in the form of electricity. Without any other directions the train started moving, as if it had made this journey many times before. As we moved along the track, the train came to a stop along regular intervals of closed doors that, after what were presumably authorization checks, opened for us. Whoever built or ran the Eclipse complex really didn’t want any unauthorized entry. Did a ministry build this place? A private company? What kind of secrets did it hold and how was Chestnut abusing them? Did he even know what he had? Questions that would soon see answers as the train pulled into the last stop, the tracks ending here. Off of the boarding platform was a single door that presumably led into the facility proper. Sleeping just in front of the door was one of Chestnut’s raiders. I doubt anypony expected trouble to come from this direction seeing that Blood Orange was the only one to possess the key card required. Everypony got off the train and carefully fanned out to have a look around. That left me staring down at the sleeping raider. I carefully crept up to him, levitating out hearts promise as I neared. Rather than let my thoughts or feelings dictate what I was doing, I simply imagined Chestnut before me and plunged the horn knife into his temple. His eyes shot open for the briefest of seconds before his body registered his death. I wrenched the knife from his head and returned it to its sheath. The door itself had no visible card reader or button to open it, rather it hissed open and retracted into the ceiling when I got close. It seemed that the ponies who built this place were just as sure nopony would get as far as I did without proper clearance but that only made my job easier. I gave a quick whistle to everypony, signaling that the door was open.

“What’s inside exactly?” Grizela asked from beside me.

“I have no idea. The mare who told me about this place didn’t give me much to go on before she died.”

“Pre-war ponies sure did love their secrets didn’t they?”

She was right about that. It seemed like every big project old Equestria was working on was secret even though they could have saved us from devastation. Or maybe nothing could have stopped it. Would revealing the tools of destruction we had really have made a difference? My time was wasted on these thoughts, no matter what I thought of in hindsight the world was already destroyed and there was nothing I could do to change it. I could only adapt to it, to try and survive the result of the mistakes of others.

“Let’s head in but be cautious, we have no idea what’s waiting for us.” I said, taking the first wary step across the threshold. My PipBuck helpfully chimed, marking the Eclipse complex on my map. The hallway the door led to almost reminded me of the inside of a stable. Everything was reasonably clean, all the lights were on and working. The only thing that stood out was the shift in color scheme. While stables were predominantly grey and blue, the hallways of Eclipse were black and red.

“Gumball, Gumdrop scout ahead for us would you?” Grizela whispered behind her. I turned just in time to see them both nod and vanish. Where were all these ponies and zebras getting this stealth technology? Perhaps from the Baltimare ruins as I had only explored the mortuary and the sacked museum of technology thus far. I wondered just how large this complex was as we rounded a corner into another hallway with many doors dotted on either side. A white sign attached to the ceiling at the start of the hallway was labeled ‘Living Quarters’. Before the realization could hit me one of the doors opened and three ponies in raider armor walked out, one stallion and two mares who looked to have just finished a drug fueled roll in the hay. They made it a few steps before they saw us and their eyes went wide. As the stallion made for his weapon, one of the twins became visible behind him and slit his throat with a knife. Blood spurted out of his neck, coating the two mares as they screamed in horror. One of them grabbed the stallion’s weapon and managed to get a shot off before the other twin appeared and bashed her over the head with the butt of her rifle. The one shot ricocheted off the wall before coming to a stop in the last mare’s leg. She fell to the floor and was silenced by one twin while the other jammed her knife through her eye, killing her. One of the twins smiled as she faced us.

“The way is clear boss.”

The victory was short lived as several doors in the hall opened. One pony in particular I recognized. A bulky dark green earth pony stallion. Slash was his name…he was there with Blood Orange that night. He helped create some of the worst days of my life.

“What the fuck is goin’ on out here?” He barked, halfway out the door. To their misfortune the door he came from just happened to be right across from the twins. His eyes went wide and lips curled back in a vicious snarl. He charged the twins, catching them both under their jaws, pushing them all the way until he had them pinned to the adjacent wall. The commotion drew more raides from their rooms and when they took notice of us the guns came out. We had no cover so I threw up a wide shield and positioned it in front of us. Gunny and Grizela clung to both sides of my shield, popping out and firing their weapons when they could. Basalt on the other hoof injected himself with two syringes and let out an almost primal growl of fury. He charged past my shield and dove into the wall of raiders that filed out into the hallway. We couldn’t do anything to save the twins, we might have hit them with stray shots. One of them had managed to wiggle enough to get a clumsy kick to his jaw causing him to drop her. However his hold on the other persisted and was empowered by adding his other hoof to her throat. I moved as fast as I could but the hail of bullets impacting my shield kept my pace slow and my focus occupied. The pinned twin started frothing at the mouth and her eyes were bulging out of her head, Slash’s grip squeezing the life out of her.

“Noooo!” The other twin cried. She stabbed Slash in the barrel over and over again but his hold did not falter. With one final burst of strength, Slash wrenched her head to the side, crushing her throat and breaking her neck with a wet crunch. The rest of us had pushed down far enough into the hallway that we could take cover in the first few rooms to the left and right. Slash was not done with the twins, using his enormous strength he delivered a heavy back hoof to her face, sending her sliding to the foot of the door he came out of. Before Slash could finish her I enveloped her in a bubble shield while simultaneously levitating her dropped knife from the floor and flinging it hard as I could at the back of his head. It failed to penetrate his thick skull but succeeded in getting his attention.

“You.” He hissed, clearly recognizing me. “You should have accepted your fate and stayed out of it.”

“I’ve already killed Blood Orange and now I’m gonna kill you, then your boss is next!” I pulled the surviving twin away from where she lied and into the room were Grizela grabbed her out my telekinesis. Basalt was still tearing through the raiders down the hall from Slash and us. But if I was going to do this, I had to do it myself.

“Grizela, Gunny, go help Basalt. Leave him to me.” I pointed at Slash, narrowing my eyes in anger. All my despair and sadness was turned into rage. Rage at my loss, rage at him, rage that my family wasn’t here and rage at the one behind it all.

“I’d love to see you try, go ahead, go help that doped up idiot. I’m going to kill you and Chestnut isn’t here to stop me this time.”

It was now or never. Just as he finished talking I fired a lightning bolt from my horn, hitting him directly in the chest. He staggered back but did not fall. He picked up the knife dropped by the twin and rushed towards me, barely sidestepping a second lightning bolt. I tried to get my pistol lined up in his path but he got up to me before I could fire. He slapped my pistol out of my magical grasp and slashed the knife across my chest, his strength cutting through my armor and hitting flesh. Searing pain radiated out from the cut all across my body. I grabbed hearts promise in my teeth, barely getting it out in time to deflect an incoming stab and retaliate with one of my own. I was rewarded with the warm splash of blood on my coat. Slash didn’t seem fazed by the wound and shoved me into the wall, knocking the horn knife from my mouth. He grabbed me on either side and prepared to do to me what he did to the twin. My lungs started to burn and my heart was beating rapidly while Slash tightened his grip around my neck. As dots began to form on the edges of my vision I reached out and grabbed hearts promise with magic, levitating it behind him. I drove it into his withers and focused a lightning spell into it. It almost backfired on me as the tightening of muscles forced his grip to tighten even further but it didn’t last long as he collapsed on the floor, struggling to try and stand. I also fell to the floor, drawing in a huge breath giving precious air to my lungs. I looked to Slash on the floor and levitated hearts promise out of his back and plunged it back in again and again. He cried out with every new stab and I didn’t stop until I felt it hit bone. It was clear to me that he wouldn’t be getting to his hooves after an assault like that. Blood flowed from the many stab wounds and his breathing was growing labored.

“Please…” He managed to croak out. “D-don’t kill me.”

“Funny, this scene seems familiar to me.” I struggled to catch my breath as I retrieved my pistol with magic. “But how did it end again?" I paused to take in several deep breaths. "Oh yeah.” I pressed the gun to the side of his head and fired three bullets into his brain. Now only Chestnut remained. I didn’t know how many ponies he had at his disposal after a month but we had this area cleared out for now. I turned my attention down the hall to see Grizela and Gunny trying to get Basalt on his hooves. By the looks of it he really got messed up by those raiders while he was rampaging through them. At least it seemed the drugs had worn off but they were taking their toll in spades. I made my way over to them to get a better look.

“Is he going to make it?” I asked. The answer was obvious given how many wounds he had sustained but if I lost hope then I might as well have stayed in the Crater.

“Unlikely unless this place has an auto-doc.”

Gunny was kneeling down next to him, tears welling up in her eyes.

“You can’t d-die on me now Basalt…who’s going to watch my back? Please don’t die!” She wept at his side. Basalt actually managed to smile and laugh which turned into a hacking cough. Yet his smile never faded.

“You…always did think that…you were the boss…of me…” He chuckled softly one last time and his eyes slowly drifted shut. His marker on my E.F.S blinked out and was gone. Despite her loss Gunny managed to keep her grief restrained to a degree as she collapsed onto his chest and cried quietly. I knew how it felt to lose a loved one. I silently nodded to her and left her to grieve, instead opting to check on the surviving twin...guess I couldn’t call her that anymore. A slow trickle of blood leaked from her mouth and nose but there was no other damage beyond that, she was just unconscious. If I had been concerned before that the ones who came along were solely motivated by self-serving interests, seeing them now put those worries to rest. I gently tried to shake her awake. After a moment her eyes fluttered open, a low moan escaping her lips. Then all at once she remembered what had transpired, snapping upright immediately.

“Gumball!” She screamed. She stood and tried to run out into the hall but she stumbled and returned to the floor. I trotted over to her, laying a hoof on her withers to try and comfort her.

“She’s gone Gumdrop, save your strength.”

She slammed a hoof against the floor and letting out a cry of despair.

“What happened to him? The one who killed her?” She asked, rage building behind her teary eyes.

“I killed him.” I said. I tried to think of something to add that might make her feel a bit better. “It wasn’t painless.” I added.

“Good…thank you.” She carefully got back up and made for the hall. “I need to go to her.”

I nodded in understanding and watched her leave. That left me alone in a room that had certainly belonged to a raider. There were empty inhalers of Dash and empty bullet casing all over the floor. In the corner on a nightstand near the bed I spotted a bottle of apple whiskey. I magically brought it over to me and took a big drink. I felt the satisfying sensation of burning slowly turn to warmth in my core. I was about to make my way back out to join the others when I spotted a twinkle from the corner of my eye. On a dresser along the left wall was a small wooden box full of memory orbs. I levitated the box into my hooves to investigate. There was a piece of tape that had been wrapped around the box with a single word written on it. Spells. I carefully levitated one out, making sure to keep the aura around it and not directed at it. It too had a piece of tape wrapped around it. Before I could read it somepony walked into the room. I couldn’t make out what they had said but it was enough to startle me and make me lose hold of the orb. As it fell to the floor I tried to catch it with magic which, in my haste, sucked me into its contents.

<------OOOO------>

I was standing in a clean environment looking into a mirror. I was in the body of a well-dressed middle-aged unicorn mare. We wore a purple suit that matched well with our blonde mane and white fur. We smiled as soon as we locked eyes with our reflection.

“Hi Maple! Mommy misses you so much! I’m sure your father has already explained that I won’t be making it home for Hearth’s Warming but I’m going to keep my promise and teach you all the spells that I know. Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns has a steep entrance exam and if that’s what you want then I’ll help you as best I can. I know you’d rather I teach you face to face but I think that this can work. You will feel everything I feel and then it will be like you have already cast it.”

An interesting idea for sure. I wondered how many other ponies thought about using memory orbs to teach skills. In fact I found myself a little excited. If it was a spell I didn’t already know then this box could prove quite useful. After that thought I found myself a little sad. It looked like whoever’s memories I was riding never got the chance to send the box of orbs to her daughter since I found them here. The joy my host felt for helping her daughter but my knowing that she ran out of time made the scene heartbreaking.

“Alright we’ll start with something easy…let’s try amplification. Do you remember Princess Luna’s ‘Royal Canterlot Voice’? This is what let her do it. This spell can work on any sensory stimuli. A light.” We looked to the right to a desk with a lit candle sitting on it. “Can become a blinding one.” The feeling of magic pouring from our horn resonated in my mind as the flames brightness grew in intensity. As it got unbearably bright, we closed our eyes and the magic flow from our horn ceased and all was normal.

“A smell.” We returned our gaze to the now smoking wick of the candle. “Can become nauseatingly potent.” The same feeling from before radiated out from us and the slight smell of burning candle quickly became as if we were being suffocated by a hundred of them. The feeling was an interesting one. The flow of magic from this spell left a channel of magic constantly rotating from our horn through our brain, as well as a link to the source of our amplification.

“And lastly.” We looked our reflection in the eye and took a big breath, our horn glowing with an orange aura. “SOUND CAN BECOME LOUDER, UP TO DEAFINING VOLUME!” This time the feeling wasn’t as complex as before. The magic flow was directed to our vocal cords making it as if we were speaking through a megaphone. The shape of the magic even took a similar shape, causing our voice to be magically radiated into the funnel shape essentially reintroducing our voice to the air with more power. The magical aura dissipated and we returned our attention to our self.

“I’ll try to do as many of these as I can whenever I have spare time. I’ll teach you some more complex magic when I think you’ll be ready for it. I hope these help sweetie, if you need to you can view this as many times as you want.” We smiled softly and leaned in, giving our own reflection a kiss. We covered a giggle with a hoof and looked into the mirror for a final time.

“I love you Maple Butter. Please be good for your father okay?” with that I could feel my consciousness being pulled from her body as all faded away.

<------OOOO------>

My eyes snapped open to the sound of gunfire as fresh pain lanced through my left hind leg. I was on the floor behind an upturned table with Grizela, Gunny and Gumdrop occasionally popping up and firing on whatever was shooting at us. I struggled to get to my hooves, holding the injured leg off the floor.

“Good you’re back!” Grizela shouted over the noise. “Sorry about the leg, your limp body made for an easy target!”

Nothing could take you out of a memory orb it seemed. What if I had died? I crouched back down and scrolled through my PipBuck, activating the built in sorting spell. Thankfully I found the box of orbs had made it into my bags. Glad whoever startled me into that memory had seen I wanted them.

“What happened!? Where are we!?” I asked, reloading my pistol and loading a round into the chamber.

“We’re in a cafeteria! There were a few in here and the gunfire kept drawing more, we’re pinned here though now we have you back, so start shooting!”

I quickly popped up to get a lay of the battlefield. Most of our attackers were behind similar table walls with several more in the doorway on other side of the exit on the other end of the room. The sign above the doors read ‘Offices’. Nopony was coming from the other two entrances so our path forward was clear, now we just had to clear it. I ducked down just in time to avoid a hail of bullets and prepared for my next attack. I leaned out from behind the table and entered SATS, queuing up as many shots and lightning bolts as I could. When time resumed my shots found homes in the bodies of others, however my lightning bolt missed and hit the center of one of the doors in the doorway, setting it ablaze. As should happen in a facility in this state of repair, sprinklers descended from the roof and began dousing the cafeteria in water. That gave me just the idea I needed.

“Everypony up on the table!” I yelled, pushing the table we were using for cover back to its proper position.

“Are you crazy!” Gunny yelled, taking a bullet to the shoulder in the process.

“Trust me!” I jumped up on the table and held out a hoof to help the others up. A bullet ricocheted off my armor and another bit into my flank. I clenched my teeth and prepared to enact my plan. Once everypony was on the table I wrapped the table in a bubble shield and closed my eyes. The water rolled off my shield in a soothing manner akin to watching a flowing river. Raiders who had been taking cover before were now slowly walking into the cafeteria.

“Great idea jackass! Your shield won’t mean anything against all these ponies!” Gunny shouted into my ear. I ignored her for now and started channeling my next spell.

“I don’t meant to rush you or anything Sparks but if you have a plan ya better do it now!” Grizela was also starting to panic about the bubble I seemingly trapped us in. All of their worries were silenced when they heard the sound of crackling electricity. My horn was wreathed in sparking magic and my shield began to crack like glass against the concentrated fire of the raiders. All at once I dropped the shield and released my magic at the floor. The lightning bolt fired from my horn with a resounding CRACK! Pushing me backwards and almost off the table if Grizela hadn’t caught me. The lightning bolt hit the floor and spread throughout the layer of water on the floor, electrocuting all the raiders in the room. A number of markers on my EFS blinked out entirely yet some others remained. The pain in my leg intensified from the exertion and I found myself out of breath. Grizela helped me down from the table and we started looking around to the dead and still twitching bodies lying in the water. Gumdrop let out an impressed whistle and gently laid a hoof on my back.

“Gotta teach me how to do that.” She half laughed. The few ponies that had survived were still stunned and incapable of movement. I limped over to one to see that her eyes were wide and darting back and forth, panicking at her body ignoring her commands. The look in her eyes was almost pleading but I had no help to offer. I floated my pistol to her forehead and fired. I repeated the process on two others before the others followed suit. Afterwards we took a moment to dig through their belongings. Gunny found magic bandages for her shoulder and I found a shot of Med-X to dull the pain in my leg. With everything taken care of for now, we continued through the exit that led to the offices. I would have thought that the base would have had an alarm system or cameras or something. Were the ponies who built the place that confident in their anonymity? More likely they couldn’t get into the security offices to set such measures up. Once we had entered the office portion of the complex we saw that from here there were two exits on either side. One to the labs and one to the storage area. The room we were in now stretched off about two hundred feet long by forty feet wide. Each half of the room held a row of cubicles and partitions to isolate each one. Each cubicle contained a functioning terminal atop a desk with a chair in front and a filing cabinet backed against each partition on the inside. Each row was also divided into separate divisions marked by a sign hanging from the roof. There were four divisions in total. Weapons, Ministry Projects, Arcane Technology and Homeland Security. I was drawn to the prospects of the Ministry Projects division. Many of the terminals were locked and not just by a password but by more card readers. Employees must have had personalized identification cards to ensure that unauthorized personnel couldn’t access another divisions terminals. I brought out the one card I had and stuck it into one of the readers. It had worked for me thus far like on the elevator so it was worth a shot. Surprisingly I was greeted with text that appeared on the screen that read ‘Administrator Access, security override engaged.’ The first thing I spotted when the terminal was open to me was a budgetary concern from a Ministry of Arcane Sciences facility. I would have ignored something so trivial and moved on if it weren’t for the facilities location, Baltimare. Hoping to find clues to its location within the city I opened the file.



This is getting out of hoof, if this project is successful it will go a long way to ending the war. So where in Celestia’s name are all my resources and staff going? If you keep moving things around like this then we won’t be able to execute our first scheduled test. I shouldn’t need to remind you that my project has Twilight Sparkle’s full authorization and yet I’m still denied the whereabouts of my promised resources! If my next scheduled shipment is any less than this month’s then I will have no choice but to report this to Ministry leadership. I hope I won’t have to write another message like this and you should too.

-Project Lead P.C



With that I think I had my answer. I remember seeing the name P.C in the place we found Paladin Sureshot and the cloud terminal. I still had no way to get passed it so that path had to remain closed for now. Though while I had the terminal in front of me I decided to learn as much as I could about the project they were running. Unfortunately there wasn’t much regarding the specifics but I was able to find a note written by the terminals old owner with the projects name in the title. Project Outlast. Project Outlast seeks to resolve Equestria’s severe reliance on coal to power its industry and development. The project was designed and submitted by a relatively young unicorn mare who has not been with the ministry for very long yet Twilight Sparkle still gave her the OK and with full funding. However we all know that Twilight herself spends little time in the actual affairs of projects that are not her own. So should funding go missing or be redirected then nopony should be none the wiser. The project bears little significance in the grand scheme seeing as the recent annexation of the badlands has reopened the flow of coal equal to if not greater than it was with the zebra empire. The war won’t be decided by our reliance of specific resources but by the strength of our military and our air superiority. I’ll be redirecting funds from Outlast and moving them to Project Cyclone. Most of the division agrees that this is the best thing to do, though some wanted funds to go to the STAR weapon platforms but the cost it would take to get them where they need to be is too great.

So even the ministries were not free of corruption. The stresses of a nation at war must have weighed heavily on many a pony. Enough for them to disrupt the proper flow of resources and direct them to where bureaucrats thought them more valuable. Also in the terminal was a list of other companies not associated with the ministries that were on the rise. One in particular had covered its tracks so well that they didn’t even know the name of the company. Only that they had purchased a Stable from Stable-Tec for their own use. Once we were done with Chestnut this place would be worth a revisiting. The information in all these terminals could be very valuable. As much as I would have liked to continue everypony else had already looked around the room and were ready to move on. We all agreed that the labs would be the first place we checked before we doubled back if we had to. I wondered just how big this complex actually was as we had left many branching paths unexplored. The corridor to the labs were unremarkably plain, décor clearly wasn’t high on the list when the place was built. As we came to the door to the labs Grizela held out a claw to stop us. She held up the other claw in a gestures for us to be silent. She carefully crept up to the door and peeked through the glass that bordered the door. Even though I wasn’t as close as her I could see pony sized shadows moving in the room beyond. Grizela crept back to us and whispered so quietly that I could barely make out her words.

“At least eight of them in there, I think we can get the drop on them if we play our cards right. Everyone ready?” The rest of us nodded in determination. We all had something to fight for so come hell or high water nopony was going to back down. Grizela threw open the door and we all charged in only to have all of our weapons ripped from our grasps by a strange looking device in the middle of the room.

“Ah here are our guests. I apologize for the interruption Crush but can we continue our discussion another time?” Chestnut sat at a table near the base of the device with a larger than average Pegasus ghoul.

“Don’t take too long Chestnut, my research requires as many subjects as I can get my hooves on.” The ghoul known as Crush quickly excused himself and flew out of the room through an exit on the opposite side. One would think that you couldn’t fly without any feathers on your wings but that didn’t appear to be the case.

Chestnut stood from the table surrounded by armed raiders and turned his attention to us. For a moment he seemed taken aback when he saw my face but then his expression switched to one of joy.

“Well look who it is…the Harbinger of Hope, hero of the wasteland.” The way he lingered on the word hero cut me as deep as it did that day when he took Winter from me.

“You mean that guy from the radio stories a few weeks ago?” Gumdrop asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s you?” She said, giving a curious look in my direction.

Chestnut chuckled to himself, fully standing from his chair. “Well no, not anymore.”

“I’m going to kill you Chestnut. For everything you took from me.” I said in a flat, low tone.

“I’m a little disappointed Sparks, I’d have thought that you would have given up by now. Regardless it should be obvious to you that you won’t be walking out of here.” He waved a hoof to the six ponies around him who all had guns trained on us. “You couldn’t kill me when I attacked your home, what made you think you’d have a chance in mine?” He pointed to the thing that had taken our weapons from our grasp.

“You’re really him aren’t you?” Gunny asked, disbelief evident in her words.

“Yes…” I said quietly. “But don’t call me Harbinger.”

“Shame.” Chestnut said with a shake of his head. “Your tenacity would have proved valuable to me but you burned that bridge a long time ago. Kill them.” Chestnut turned his back on us and began to walk away as his guards leveled their weapons at us and prepared to fire. I closed my eyes and braced myself for what was to follow.

Forgive me Aurora, Sunny. Were my last thoughts before an explosion deafened me.


Footnote: No Level Up.

Chapter Sixteen: Legacy of Hate

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Chapter Sixteen: Legacy of Hate

Stronger than a lover’s love is a lover’s hate. Incurable in each, the wounds they make.

I felt a wave of force and heat hit me. I opened my eyes to see that the device holding all of our weapons had exploded in a ball of fire. I quickly seized our weapons from the air and floated them back to us. One of Chestnuts guards had recovered before we could and had his gun raised to fire but before he could, a curved knife hooked up under his jaw, the tip protruding from the top of his skull.

“Looks like I made it just in time.” Azura ripped her knife from the guard’s skull and fired her pistol at the other guards who were now taking cover now that we were armed.

“NO! Kill them! Kill them now!” Chestnut yelled from behind the burning husk of the machine. Chestnut pulled out a magical energy pistol and began firing at us. I ducked just in time to dodge a pink blast of energy that melted a hole through the door behind us. It was time. I stood to my full height and charged a spell. I conjured a shield around myself and ran through the guards firing line, Chestnut was mine. He saw me coming and turned to run and I followed. Soon the gunfire became like background noise as I chased Chestnut deeper into Eclipse. Every time I’d round a corner we’d have a brief exchange of bullets and magic. I kept up the chase, following him down hall after hall until we came to a large circular room with an elevator in the center. The elevator was on its way up, probably carrying that ghoul Pegasus from before. Regardless Chestnut wouldn’t be getting on it until it came back which would give me all the time I would need.

“Remember when you said breaking me was worse than killing me? Making me live with my own failures only let me focus my rage and who do you think I focused it on?”

“You forget just who the fuck you’re dealing with Sparks.”

“No, I haven't you murderer.”

Chestnut raised his weapon again and fired a volley of deadly energy at me. I rolled out of the way and came to rest behind an old wooden crate, not the best cover but cover nonetheless.

“Have you already forgotten Sparks? This is YOUR fault. Don’t give me that shit about taking everything from you when it was you who took everything from me!”

Two flaming holes appeared in the aged wood of my cover, forcing me to stand and move. Three more blasts whizzed past me, one just barely singeing my tail.

“Like hell I did!” I shouted, diving behind a drum of something. “I put a stop to your sick games when I burned down that stadium.”

“I had nothing to do with those races!”

“You didn’t have anything to do with stopping them either so don’t act like you aren’t guilty!” I took the time to reload my pistol and telekinetically draw hearts promise.

“It’s you who should feel guilty! You got my son killed that day Sparks! Took a bullet from one of your coat wearing vigilantes and where are they now? Oh yeah, I burned their home like you did mine!”

I could hear the faintest sound of Chestnut’s gun firing as well as feel the metal of the drum I was behind become warmer. I made to dash to more cover when I heard the sound of fabric rustling just behind me. I turned to look as the zebra mare who ambushed us on the way into Moletown appeared from the air and landed a hard hit across my face. I hit the floor hard but managed the strength to keep rolling, dodging two more shots from Chestnut.

“Excellent timing Axela, I trust you want to kill him yourself?

Axela barred her teeth and held a hoof to the eyepatch she now wore over her eye. “You should have heeded my warning.” She said softly as she jumped into the air and flew towards me. She landed atop me and began pummeling me with her hooves. Each hit rattled my brain and split my lip against my teeth. I could barely muster a defense, occasionally blocking a hit but she had straddled me so well that I was unable to roll or push her off. Every time I tried to muster a spell the next hit would disrupt my focus, causing it to fizzle out. Chestnut stayed where he was, holstered his weapon and watched in delight as Axela got revenge for her eye. Suddenly Axela let out a shrill cry of pain and her assault on me stopped. She got off of me and struggled a moment to wrench a familiar curved knife from her back. Azura was hovering in the air behind Axela with a smug grin on her face.

“Shall we even the odds?” She said, drawing her pistol and firing in Axela’s direction. Axela dodged to the side and put up her hood, vanishing from sight once again. Which left me and Chestnut staring each other down once again.

“You just don’t know when to give up do you?” Chestnut growled, pulling out his magic pistol.

“I wouldn’t be here otherwise.” I said, also drawing my weapons. I flung hearts promise at him while simultaneously sending a shield spell through the link. The knife became a white sphere and hit Chestnut in the side, staggering him slightly. While he was off balance I fired a few rounds at him, one catching him in the flank. The shot caused his hind leg to buckle under him and he fell to the floor. I brought hearts promise back to me and broke into a full gallop to close the distance between us. I reared back and was about to drive my front hooves into his head when Axela tackled me away from him. She got one more hit in on me before Azura flew in and tackled her off of me, dragging her into the air where they began grappling each other. I couldn’t focus on their battle as Chestnut had recovered enough to fire another beam of energy into my chest, burning away a chunk of my armor. I enveloped myself in a shield just in time to absorb two more shots that would have turned more than my armor into slag. All the while the steel pillar of the elevator in the center of the room had stopped ascending and starting coming back. If Chestnut got to it when it returned he would disappear all over again. I couldn’t let him get there. It had to end here. I projected my shield into a wall in front of me and began rushing Chestnut. He couldn’t bring my shield down in time as it smashed into him and pushed him down to the floor. I dropped the shield and kicked him in the face, forcing him to lose hold of his weapon. While he was vulnerable I wrapped his body in a field of magic and threw him into the crates dotting the floor. Every collision brought a satisfying yell of pain from Chestnut as I prepared to float him to the roof and drop him. Just as I started moving him upward I heard the sound of something metallic landing behind me. I turned to investigate only for my eyes to widen as I recognized what laid before me. A grenade. I dropped Chestnut and conjured a shield around myself. At this proximity my shield took all the force it was able and shattered. What remained was enough to knock the wind out of me and throw me to the floor, dazed and hurt but alive. Across the room I could see Azura and Axela going at it. Neither of them had any weapons per se but Azura’s talons were allowing her to keep up against the hoof-to-hoof specialist. I decided to intervene and called for Azura’s attention. She used her superior strength to throw the zebra back for some space as she looked in my direction.

“CATCH!” I yelled, telekinetically flinging hearts promise in her direction. She caught it in her claw and brought it around just in time to catch Axela across her chest, cutting deep into her flesh. She cried out in pain yet she didn’t back down. She dropped low and leaned forward away from Azura. Then her hind legs exploded out from under her, hitting Azura right on the underside of her beak, knocking her in the air where she recovered. Before I could help any further a plank of wood collided with the back of my head. I whipped my head around and blasted a beam of kinetic energy at my attacker. I missed Chestnut but was lucky enough to hit the board he held in his mouth, reducing it to splinters. Chestnut used the cloud of sawdust and wood to rush me, grabbing my head between his hooves using his body weight to slam it into the floor. The dots floating in my vision and the ringing in my ears dazed me for a second before I resorted to a tried and true attack. I shook my head free and threw it upwards for a head-butt. I was too far below to hit him in the face but that wasn’t my target. My horn went just far enough to pierce into his chest and draw blood. He recoiled off of me, holding a hoof to the hole in his chest.

“I underestimated you…” He growled. “Looks like you have what it takes after all.”

“Nothing in this world…can stop me from killing you.” We were both panting heavily, each of us carrying wounds from the fight. The elevator platform had now come back far enough that we could see it descending from the ceiling. Chestnut and I both did a double take at the elevator before we mustered all of our remaining energy to be the first to get to it. We made half the distance to the elevator when Azura and Alexa’s fight crossed our path. Chestnut, being the one in the lead, held out a leg and clipped Azura’s legs causing her to flip from the air and crash to the floor. Thankfully I was following fairly close to him so when I passed the pair I evened the odds for her this time. As I neared, I held out my leg and hit Axela in the throat. I used my weight to throw her to the floor while I tucked into a roll and was back to my chase all in one motion. The elevator was halfway to the floor now and Chestnut was giving everything he had to get there. I struggled to line up a shot with my pistol while I ran but soon I had my shot and fired. *Click*

Out. I was out of bullets. I slipped into SATS to try and think of something I could do but found nothing. Azura had my knife and even if I could hit him with a lightning bolt I didn’t think it would have enough power to stop him. Then my eyes lingered on the pistol floating beside me in the periphery of my vision. I had what I needed. I came out from SATS and whipped the gun with the last of my magical potency at the back of his head. It hit with a metallic thud, dropping Chestnut just in front of the elevator. In a flash I was standing over him, kicking him in the gut over and over again, his grunts of pain like music to my ears. My hooves found his throat where I applied enough pressure to choke but not enough to strangle. It was there, with the elevator ten feet above us that I noticed an indentation for the elevator to slot into. I pushed Chestnut so that his head was hanging over the edge of the hollow. As he opened his eyes he recognized the situation he was in and started thrashing to try and escape me.

“Axela! Axela help me!” He cried, hoping that the zebra would come to his rescue but she never came.

“Here comes your elevator Chestnut, just like you wanted.” I hissed, a wicked smile forming on my face.

“Let go of me! Let me go now!” He cried, thrashing against my hold.

“I knew somepony who begged you for her life once. She wasn’t involved in the slightest but you still killed her to torture me. I hate you. What makes you think there’s any chance you live through this?” The elevator was inches away from his face and his fear magnified as death was upon him.

“Axela!” He cried one last time. From my left I saw Azura begin to approach me, my bloody knife in her claw.

“I think she’s dead.” She said with a mirthless smile. Chestnuts eyes bugged out of his head as the elevator made contact. Then the screams came. The elevator kept moving like he wasn’t there, shearing through flesh and bone with unabated motion. Then, at the end as it came to rest, a loud crack signaled the crushing of his skull. As the blood burbled out from the neck stump of Chestnut I could feel my smile begin to fade. Then, all at once as if he was all that kept me going, my vision began to blur as darkness encroached in.

“Sparks? You alright?” Someone asked. The last thing I saw was the floor rising up to meet me as all disappeared into the black.



I woke up in a rather comfortable bed and for a few moments I couldn’t find the strength to open my eyes. I began to writhe, rousing whoever was in the room with me as I felt something push on my chest.

“Easy, easy Sparks. You’re safe.”

I recognized the voice of Azura and I calmed myself. “W-what happened?”

“You passed out after you killed that pony. Your body was running on adrenaline and not much else. Once the fight was finished your body gave out. You…you were in pretty rough shape…” She let that last part linger and a feeling of fear and realization awakened in me.

“H-how long…” I whispered.

“What?”

“How long was I out?”

“I don’t know how to tell you this but…you were unconscious for two days.”

Two days?! How hard did I push myself? But more importantly I feared for my family’s safety. I didn’t know how much patience Mr. Coal possessed but I hoped that if he had waited forty years so far that two more days wouldn’t bother him. It was all I could do to keep myself from forcing myself out of bed and I could feel I was in no shape to go anywhere fast. The surge of adrenaline gave me the strength to open my eyes and gaze upon Azura. She smiled slightly when our eyes met and I could see how she had fared in the fight. Her left talon was wrapped in a sling hanging from her shoulder. She also carried a great many bruises and a few bandages here and there.

“I’ve got to find-” I tried to throw my legs off the bed but was silenced when the floor met me halfway. Azura rushed over to me, laying her good claw on my head.

“Don’t push yourself Sparks, you’re in no condition to go anywhere yet.”

I ignored her words and slowly got to my hooves, taking one step on shaky legs before my strength gave way once again. That time I just laid there, panting as if I had just been galloping around the stadium again. I slowly came to accept my limits and Azura helped me back into bed. There was a long silence between us, neither one of us knowing what to say. But my thoughts soon moved away from her and a thought came to mind.

“Did the others make it?” I asked with trepidation. I had abandoned them. I put my revenge on Chestnut above their lives. I closed my eyes as I prepared for the answer. I didn’t know how many more ghosts I could live with.

“They made it through okay. A little roughed up sure but alive. Better shape than you at least.”

I smiled and let out a small laugh at the implication. Did I really look that bad? My smile made its way to Azura’s face as we shared a quick laugh at my expense.

“Where am I right now?” I asked, looking at my unfamiliar surroundings.

“We’re in the medical wing of the complex.”

So we were still in Eclipse. “Were there others?”

“Don’t worry your silver head about them, we had plenty of time to clear the place while you were out. We even found the incinerator to dump the corpses. There were a lot.”

We had a real gem here. The Eclipse Complex was ours. I guess that meant we had stopped whatever Chestnut had been planning…if he had been planning anything at all. The only loose end was that pegasus ghoul. Chestnut had called him Crush and he said something about research subjects. Was he a scientist? Who was he and what was he doing? Either way any thoughts like that had to be curbed for the moment seeing as I couldn’t even walk without smacking my face on the floor.

“Why didn’t we leave? Why keep me here?” Surely taking me to a doctor back in Moletown would have been a better option.

“Oh Gunny is apparently a medical pony. She took care of you better than some clinics will. As for why we stayed well…We couldn’t get the elevator to take us anywhere. The one by the train not the one where we fought.”

Speaking of that I was curious about how her side of things went. “Did you kill that zebra?”

“Yeah. After lending me your knife and knocking her down for me I got her other eye. She was relatively harmless after that but I wasn’t about to leave someone like that to suffer, so I put one through her forehead. Speaking of which…” She reached behind her back and withdrew hearts promise. “Interesting knife you have…what kind of bone is it?”

“It’s…it’s a unicorn horn.”

“Oh that’s…unique.”

“You can say that again. Hey Azura…can I ask you something?”

“Sure. What is it?”

“Why did you come back?”

Her feathers were momentarily ruffled as if she wasn’t expecting the question. “I…I changed my mind. I wanted to be mad at you, mad for using me. The more I thought about it though, the more I thought about what I would do in your position. I know that you did it with the best intentions and because of that I changed my mind. I would do anything for my family and you were just trying to do the same yet I turned my back on you. It would be a stain on my honor to leave you behind like that.”

I wasn’t worth such words. Whether my intentions were good or not I HAD used her. The others too for that matter. On purpose. But I supposed I should just be thankful that they stayed by my side in the end. There’s a good chance I’d be dead otherwise. I reached out a hoof and grabbed ahold of her good claw. “Thank you.”

Her feathers ruffled again and I smiled at the sight. Even though it had only been a few minutes since I woke I was beginning to feel incredibly tired. Azura must have noticed as she turned and made for the door.

“I’ll come back with Gunny to see how you’re doing later okay?”

“I'd like that.” I said, rolling over and pulling the blanket over me.






“Do you feel like you thought you would?”

I opened my eyes to a familiar darkness, a certain mustachioed unicorn standing before me.

“Why do you keep bothering me Fancy Pants? Of all the ponies to haunt me you make the least sense, get out of my head.”

“I’m afraid that you’d have to do something incredibly dangerous to be rid of me now. You joined us the day you channeled magic through the knife.”

As if the world was listening a phantom version of hearts promise appeared before us.

“What does that mean?”

“You haven’t learned yet? Well…perhaps the answers you seek yet lie before you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You saw my memories Sparks…You tell me.” With that his visage disintegrated and the dust was picked up by an invisible breeze. Why were the dreams different when he was there? Something had escaped my notice, he said the knife was the source…there was more to it than I knew.

I was unaware of how much time had passed in the waking world but I was soon to find out as the darkness slowly melted away to reveal the world outside.






This time I was roused awake by my would-be doctor, Gunny. Her orange mane hung loosely over her face as she looked me over.

“Mornin’ Doc.” I said in a raspy, tired voice. She locked eyes with me for a moment and gave a soft smile.

“Good you’re awake.”

“I’m glad you’re okay. Sorry about leaving you before.”

“Heh you’re the one injured in bed and you’re glad I’M ok. You and Basalt would have gotten along.” Her expression took a sad turn as she recalled the name. She took in a deep breath and composed herself. “Anyway about before. After you took off we killed the rest of the guards pretty easily, however the noise drew more ponies so we weren’t able to follow you. Luckily for you Azura flew after you like mad and found you. If she hadn’t you might have died. What could have possessed you to push yourself so hard?” She changed the bandages around my leg and gave me some kind of pill that I swallowed without question.

“Well…The pony I chased after…His name was Salted Chestnut. My friends and I killed his boss and burned down the stadium that was their base of operations.”

“The Stadium…Red Asphalt was his boss yeah? So what Pon3 said on the radio was true. About you I mean.”

“Yeah, though sometimes I wish he hadn’t said anything. Anyway, in retaliation for what happened, he rallied a lot of raider clans and destroyed my friend’s home. Killing most of the Regulators.”

“There goes the last chance for law the Baltimare Wastes had.” She shined a little light in both my eyes then urged me to continue.

“After that, once the rest of the raiders were under his command, he targeted Black Town. After the fight his goons caught me and brought me to him. He…he had gotten to my family first and…and…”

“Stop. You don’t have to tell me.” She said, placing a hoof on mine in sincerity. She lost a loved one here too. She knew what I had felt, what I was feeling. I muscled through the heartache and forced the memory to surface, I needed to say it.

“He…had my pregnant marefriend by the throat. He wanted to break me by forcing me to watch her execution…he left me tied to a chair to contemplate my failures and he got away. I chased him for some time but I had a filly to take care of so I called off the chase. I was content to live my life with my daughter until a friend gave me the chance to find him again. Now he’s dead and Winter is avenged.”

“You don’t have to apologize then. I’d have chased after him too if I were in your place. I’d have liked to see his death…I know it wasn’t him but it’s because of him Basalt’s dead…”

I saw that look in her eyes again and I gave it my all just to sit up. She looked surprised as I carefully got out of the bed. Her look intensified as I pulled her into a hug.

“I’m sorry.” I whispered. “It’s because of me that any of this happened. All this death is my fault. I…my failure killed Winter…my failure killed Basalt. It’s all my fault.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if that apology awoke some kind of resentment towards me from her but what I said was the truth. I could have let Sunny kill Chestnut when we cornered him at Requari. I made the decision to let him go, to give him a chance. Everything after that is as much my fault as it was his. He had wanted me to learn a lesson and now I had, even if it wasn’t the one he intended.

“I forgive you.” Gunny whispered back, tightening her hold on me. That was not the reaction I was expecting. I was prepared for her to hate me. Were I in her place I’d probably hate me. Why didn’t she hate me!? She was a stronger pony than me. Seems I met many ponies stronger than me. She may have forgiven me but I didn’t know if I was ready to forgive myself…not yet.

“Am I interrupting something?” Azura said from the doorway, a curious look on her face. Gunny let me go and looked in her direction.

“Not at all. Just letting it go.” She looked back to me and nodded. She made her way past Azura and disappeared into the halls.

“What was that all about?” Azura asked, walking up to me. I wiped the tears from my eyes and did a poor job of putting on a poker face.

“I told her how all of this was my fault. How Gumball and Basalt’s deaths are because of me. A-and…she forgave me. Why?”

“Because you’re a good pony Sparks and she could see that.”

That was something I had been debating for some time. Was I a good pony? I didn’t feel like it, for all the good I did there was always an equal or greater evil as a result. If I stopped trying to be a good pony then bad things would stop happening to the ponies around me. But that would be tantamount to giving up and if I gave up now then all those deaths would have been for nothing. Even if I never felt like it, deep down I knew that I did everything I could to be the pony I wanted to be. I leaned back on the bed and sighed.

“I don’t deserve it. He became who he was because of me, he was my problem. Even if I put a stop to him that shouldn’t absolve me of what I allowed him to do. I wouldn’t forgive me…”

Azura stood there, unsure of how to respond. And she shouldn’t have to, I knew how Gunny was able to forgive me, I just wished she didn’t. Now that I could stand and move without becoming dizzy it was time to look for the other half of the reason I came here. I wiggled back into my armor and made sure my bags were where they were supposed to be and slowly walked out the door with Azura following. If my PipBuck was accurate then I should’ve been able to find my way back to the offices. Eventually we came to the room where we had found Chestnut originally, the scrapped heap of that strange device still lying where Azura left it. As we crossed the room, knocking bits of machinery out of our way, a familiar feathered head popped up from behind the bulk of it.

“Hey good to see you up and about Sparks, I knew you were a survivor.”

“Grizela…find anything interesting while I was out?”

“Not really. I wish we didn’t have to destroy this thing cuz the papers I found make it sound like it was a prototype. Nopony around has the know-how to put it back together but I’m tryin’ to learn what I can diggin’ through the scraps.”

“Do you really think that’s worth your time?”

“The less people that try and kill each other in my bar is always a good thing. They’d have a much harder time if they didn’t have weapons dontcha think?”

So she was just looking for the sake of the Rusty Talon. I chuckled at loyalty she showed to her business and the simple idea she had for such an interesting piece of pre-war tech.

“Well I hope you find something, I’m going to have a longer look at the terminals in the offices.”

“You know you didn’t strike me as an egghead when I met ya.”

“Well somepony smarter than me once said ‘knowledge is power’ so I think it’s worth a look.”

Azura and I pushed the doors to the hallway that led to the offices. Once we made it back to the rows of terminals, I looked to the signs hanging from the roof and started going through terminals in what I hoped was the right section.

“I know I said thank you already Azura but I want you to know how grateful I am that you came back.”

She came over to the terminal I was working at and placed her good claw on my shoulder. “You still have a family to go back to. I don’t think I’d have been able to sleep at night if I turned my back on you and we left them in the hooves of Mr. Coal.”

Speaking of Mr. Coal, that’s what I was currently looking for. If this place was an old Equestrian government melting pot then hopefully there’d be a reference or record of a stable being built nearby. After another hour of terminal hopping I found something relating to what sounded like a stable. It was a piece of interoffice mail between two co-workers the entry read.

I know the brass said to try and ignore the excavations but Luna damned if I can’t hear the machinery all day. I can’t be the only one who hears it can I? I'm not being a baby about this am I Cloudy? I can’t believe Stable-Tec got the OK to build a stable in the Baltimare underground. There's no way they didn’t know about our facility here. Do you think it’s supposed to be for us? There’s no way it would be easy for the Baltimare populace to get to. Does that mean they expect us to be in a situation where we would need to evacuate? Maybe they’re just covering their bases, at least it seems they care about our safety. I hope they give us more details when it’s finished, I need to know that if worse comes to worse that I can bring my family.

I followed the mail as it was sent back and forth until one of the correspondent’s had an answer to the questions brought up in the first bit I saw.

Hey Cloudy guess what? I heard tell that one of the bosses is supposed to give us a briefing on the stable they were building. So I’m going to sneak into their offices and find the holotape with information about the stable in it. I’m going to take it. I need to know if my family is going to be safe. The cataclysm in the badlands has everypony on edge and I can’t wait for the bureaucrats to parade the stable to the rest of the staff. If you want to hear it with me I’m going to get it during lunch and take it to the train station to listen to it. If I don’t see you I’ll understand but I don’t have time to lose. I need to know now while there are still spaces available in Stable 54.

That was the last bit I found that had to do with stables, at least on the network these division’s terminals were on. That gave me an idea, hopefully the holotape that was mentioned was still where it was and she never got to it. I looked up from the terminal, wondering where the executive offices were.

“Azura? While I was recovering you guys scouted the rest of the facility right?”

“Yeah but there were plenty of doors we couldn’t get through.”

“Can you take me to the executive offices? Were the doors to it locked?” I asked, jumping up from my chair, getting closer to her than I meant to. The importance of that holotape, if it was still there, was so great that I couldn’t control my feelings. Azura smiled nervously and took a step back.

“S-sure and yes but what makes you think you can get the doors open?”

I floated the card from my bags and showed it to her. “Administrator access.”

“O-oh…well follow me then.”

Azura led me out through an exit to the offices I didn’t notice before. We walked down a plain corridor and ascended a small flight of stairs to what looked like a security checkpoint. Fortunately it gave us little trouble as it required a security pony to run it. We walked past the checkpoint until we stopped in front of a large metal door, a card reader on either side of it.

“Ok don’t fail me now.” I whispered as I slid the card into it. After a few seconds I was rewarded with the sound of a mechanical hiss as the middle of the door split and the two halves retracted into the walls. Now I was certain the holotape was still in there somewhere. I don’t know how that pony thought they were going to sneak in here but it was very unlikely they succeeded, provided she even attempted at all. Once inside, I carefully inspected the room looking for nameplates or anything that might tell me where the holotape might be. After several minutes of searching we came to the last office in the line and my heart sank. Shimmering in front of the door labeled ‘Administrator’ was something I’d seen before, a bypass shield. Nowhere in sight was a card reader or control terminal, meaning that they were probably on the inside. I supposed that if you wanted to protect an area a bypass shield made the most sense. It probably only allowed the administrator themself in. Azura walked up behind me and whistled.

“Don’t see that every day.” She said to herself. I on the other hoof was very upset. I kicked the wall in frustration which only made my leg hurt as I let out a growl of anger. It was almost like chasing Chestnut all over again. Just when I thought I had a plan and it was in my reach does the wasteland turn around and kick me in the teeth leaving me where I started.

“You alright? What were you lookin’ for?” Azura asked, taken aback by my outburst.

“The fucking holotape that could have told me where the stable was is in there. Why can’t it ever be easy? What else can it take from me at this point?” I turned my attention to the shield. “You hear me you motherfucker!? What else could you want!?” I lashed out at the shield as if I was striking the wasteland itself. But my hooves didn’t hit the shield. Instead the force of my kick pushed me right through the shield and onto the floor, muzzle first.

“AAHHhh FUCK!” I yelled, slamming a hoof on the floor. I slowly brought myself to a sitting position, holding a hoof to my nose to slow the blood.

“Well…maybe that should be the first thing I try next time.” I said to myself. What are the chances that the only two bypass shields I’ve encountered allowed me to pass?

“Is it just for show?” Azura asked, walking up to the shield and poking it with a claw. “Nope it’s real.”

I stood back up, wiping my bloody hoof on my armor. “Give me a second, I should be able to bring it down.” I walked to the door and it automatically opened as I neared. The inside of the room looked equal parts lounge as well as office. There was a fine wooden desk in the corner with a terminal on it in front of a large window. Through the window was a view of the elevator shaft, presumably so the administrator could see who was coming and going. On the other side of the room was a well lined bookshelf with a white L shaped couch with a coffee table in front of it. On the table were scattered, cracked and ageing magazines. I spared a glance at one of the covers and saw a tan colored earth pony in a stretcher amid a devastated landscape. Tuning what I saw out for the moment I wandered over to the desk and sat in the lovely red velvet chair behind the desk. Considering the level of security in this area it came as no surprise that the terminal had no protection. As soon as I touched anything a small window opened with a bit of text reading ‘Welcome Mr. Silver-Mane.’ Then it vanished, leaving the rest of its contents at my disposal. Finding and powering down the bypass shield was easy enough, allowing Azura to walk in and take in the luxury of the room.

“The more we explore the more I realize that the real treasure is the complex itself. This place was so untouched by the war.” She mused, walking around the room. I barely heard her as I continued to pour through the terminals information. The first thing I noticed after the shield controls were the security protocols and commands for the complex. They had been left on standby. When they evacuated this place they must have really been in a hurry. I plugged my PipBuck into the terminal and reactivated the security, replacing the administrators ID with my PipBuck’s ID tag. Now the Eclipse complex was mine. Azura started flipping through some of the books on the shelf as I continued to alter or change the security commands. I discovered many automated defenses like turrets and the like as well as a small army of robots, unpowered in hollows built into the walls at regular intervals. It would take too long to do reprogram them manually like I did at the Bloomberg Space Center so I had to find another solution. After a few moments of data mining I had what I needed to get the robots under my control. I took a deep breath as I selected the command that brought every robot online at once. I could hear the faint grinding of metal as all the hidden doors in the complex opened at the same time. Before any of the robots could stumble across any of my allies, I quickly pulled the microphone attached to the terminal to my muzzle and held down the button that would broadcast my words through all the loudspeakers.

“Command override. Authorization code Silver-Mane, Sparkling. Access core programming. Reset targeting parameters.” The command forced them to return to their charging pods or docks and after all the changing I did to the security protocols the reset would link their built-in EFS to my PipBuck’s, essentially replacing their targeting systems with how the EFS of my PipBuck would detect life forms. Or at least that was what I hoped would happen. Without thinking I could have killed the ponies who helped me storm this place. Thank the Goddesses above that after a few intense seconds I heard no gunfire or anything indicating that the reset had failed. I let out a calmed sigh as the brief seconds of realization and rashness of my decision became relief.

“What was that?” Azura asked, looking a little nervous as she approached the desk.

“I just took control of this facility.” I said, leaning back in the chair and pulling the drawers of the desk open. I pushed aside useless old papers and other odds and ends, looking for the holotape I hoped beyond hope was still there.

“What do you plan to do with this place?”

“I…I don’t know yet.” I was just taking things as they came at that point. Now that Chestnut was dead the only thing on my mind was getting my family back and that meant finding the stable. Granting myself administrator status within the facility simply removed any barriers between me and what I was looking for. After an amount of digging I found a large envelope that held a square shape inside. I snatched it in my magic and eagerly dumped its contents onto the desk. An instructional note along with a holotape spilled out, to which I picked up the note and began reading.

Greetings Mr. Silver-Mane. We here at Stable-Tec would like to thank you once again for the generous permission and donation to build one of our Stables in the Baltimare underground. Now that construction is complete and the Stable is ready to receive occupants we thought it’d be prudent to give you a briefing on our new Stable, to better facilitate ponies understanding should the worst come to pass. We’ve included a recorded summary from Vice-President Scootaloo that is only for yours and the Overmare’s ears. Thank you again for your continuing support.

- Sweetie Belle, Director of Public Relations, Stable-Tec

So the stable had been built in the underground because the pony in charge here allowed it. From the sound of it though, it seems he was unaware of its true nature. The fact that the note and holotape were still in the envelope proved that fact. I would be the first pony to hear the contents of the tape. Hopefully somewhere inside there would be a clue to its location and a means of entering. I carefully inserted the holotape into the tape player.

Hello, this is Vice-President Scootaloo of Stable-Tec. Given the short amount of time we had during construction it was hard to find a purpose for this Stable. Thankfully we came up with something. The prime directive of this Stable is the preservation of the brightest minds Equestria has to offer. To this effect we have installed top of the line cryo-stasis pods to preserve the ponies inside. There they will wait until the toxicity sensors indicate that it is safe to go outside. We will provide a small staff of scientists and technicians to ensure the pods keep running at 100% efficiency over the years before they go into stasis as well. Should times become so dire that we need to use the Stable then Equestria will have the greatest minds of the time ready to help rebuild. Stable 50’s access code is CMC-SSM-7319.

I was about to lose my temper when there was no clue to its location when a familiar soft pinging from my PipBuck added a map marker. I opened my map and smiled, not too far from where the main elevator led was the entrance to Stable 50. Now I had enough to go on and return to Mr. Coal.

“H-hey Sparks? You should come take a look at this.” Azura sounded as if she had just seen a ghost. I stood up from the desk and joined her standing over the coffee table. She was pointing a talon to the magazine I noticed earlier. I picked it up in my magic and gave it a closer look. As I saw the tan colored earth pony in the stretcher again I noticed something familiar about him. Then I saw the name of the article and I understood Azura’s shock. ‘Only pony to survive Cataclysm, Flint Coal speaks about experience’ I almost dropped the magazine in surprise. When I saw that Mr. Coal was a ghoul I never even considered that he lived through the war. The magazine however didn’t contain anything all that enlightening about the experience and then I remembered where I was. I went back to the administrator’s terminal and started looking if there was anything about the Cataclysm or Mr. Coal…or Flint Coal as we learned was his name. A few moments later I found enough to answer most of my questions. The first thing I found was a report on the event that would be remembered as the Cataclysm.

After months of tension between the Changeling insurgency and the Equestrian military, the insurgency, with aid from Zebra infiltrators, finally managed to force Equestria to withdraw. Much of the Changeling population resisted the annexation of the Badlands but Equestria’s need for coal forced our hooves. Since the trade agreement was made official we had been fighting a war on two sides, the Zebra invading from the sea and the domestic acts of sabotage from the Insurgency. We never thought things would escalate as they did. In an attack that was carefully crafted and executed, Changeling spies and Zebra infiltrators managed to sneak in to many installations across the Badlands. At 09:00 that morning, Megaspells all across the nation were detonated in their underground launching silos, splitting the earth, cracking and twisting the landscape, and obliterating the coal within. Massive earthquakes followed that swallowed the Ministry of Morale hub and Dustwall base. Much of the onsite personnel are still missing and many are presumed dead after twenty-four hours of ground zero megaspell detonation exposure. How desperate they must have been to commit such an atrocity. The war threatened their supply of food and so they acted to put a stop to it…at too high a cost. Queen Chrysalis was killed when the land opened and swallowed entire cities. As far as we know, no other Queens or Changelings capable of breeding survived which would make the lucky Changelings who weren’t in the Badlands the last of their kind. We knew war was capable of annihilating us all…but to actually see it with a nation that wanted nothing to do with it…We trapped them between our armies in a war they wanted no part of. We forced them to act. We should learn this lesson well of the consequences war brings. Luna forgive us for what we’ve done.

- General Hoofridge

The next bit of relevant information was a simple statement made by Flint Coal regarding his experience. He was found near the Equestrian border of the Badlands in a near-death condition. After being treated at the nearest hospital Flint Coal refused to talk about what he had seen and what had become of survivors he claimed were still trapped inside. He was to be kept in intensive care until a time that he could return to field operations and hopefully give them more information regarding the incident. Other mentions of Flint Coal said that after his recovery he was used as a rallying cry of Equestria’s survival against all odds. The General in the report I’d read wanted them to learn from the experience but in the end it was used as pro war propaganda and a call to arms against the Zebra. Now I was even more curious why he was after whatever was in that Stable. I had plenty of information to bring back to Mr. Coal now, only this time the scales would be tipped in my favor.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Resilient Horn. – You possess an exceptional reserve of magical energy compared to most. Even if you lack the energy at the end of your turn you may expend the rest of your action points and cast a spell anyway.

Chapter Seventeen: From Ashes

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Chapter Seventeen: From Ashes

After all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.

Determination. That’s what I felt as I rode the unbearably slow elevator back to the surface. Azura stood by my side, ready to accompany me back to Moletown to confront Mr. Coal. I had left Gunny, Grizela and Gumdrop behind in Eclipse, each of them busy with their own projects. Besides, I trusted them to watch the place for me while I was gone. I looked at the edge of the elevator platform and smirked at the sight of Chestnut’s blood still caked to it. Of all the blood and gore that was cleaned up while I was out I’m glad his wasn’t. A darker part of me was satisfied at the sight where his flame was extinguished at my hooves. Azura had saw me staring and bumped me with her elbow.

“He’s dead Sparks, you can’t kill him again so stop staring.”

I licked my lips and looked her dead in the eye. “I wish I could do it again.”

She gave me a strange look before returning her gaze forward. The words that escaped my mouth were not mine. At the same time though, it wasn’t a lie. I wondered just how much of myself I had lost since the day I was forced out of the stable. My home. A home that now laid abandoned in the earth, its twisted goals never coming to fruition. I shook the thought of a home I could never return to from my head as the elevator came to a stop inside an old metal walled…garage? We stepped off the platform and made our way outside. We were at what looked like an old farm. We had just walked out of the garage attached to the farmhouse that sat opposite a field with a large barn at its center. To the south I could see the edge of the Baltimare ruins where the entrance to Moletown was. After a moment the wind started to pick up, bringing with it loud clicks from my Geiger counter. I looked to the northeast where the wind came from to see an enormous swath of land near the coast that had been obliterated.

“That’s Balefire’s Wake. One of the bombs that was meant to hit Baltimare that just missed the city.”

“One of the bombs?” I asked. I had thought only one megaspell had detonated near the city. In a way I was glad to see its aftermath. However the dark clouds in the sky above the blast site continued to assault us with radiation tainted air.

“Let’s check out the barn real quick and get out of here before our skin falls off.” I said, pushing my curiosity aside. I picked up the pace to a brisk trot to follow after Azura as she flew over to the barn, pushing the barn door open just in time for me to run inside and shut it behind us. It did little to dissuade the ticking from my PipBuck but it was reduced to a manageable level provided we moved quickly.

“Why exactly did we come in here? Hoping to find something?”

“Let’s say I have a hunch. Judging by how much stuff was in the complex I think there is a cargo ramp somewhere in here.”

Sure enough after a few minutes of looking I found what I was looking for. It must have recognized me as the new administrator as it started opening when my PipBuck got close.

“Is it everything you hoped for?” Azura said in a bored tone.

“It’s good to know these kind of things. Useful to know that nopony but me can get it to open.” At least I hoped so. I doubted that the old administrator was personally involved with the receiving of cargo and resources so other means of getting it to open must have existed. Though I was confident that such things wouldn’t be resurfacing and even if they did, I had all of Eclipse’s security to deter such attempts.

“If you’re done satisfying your curiosity we have places to be don’t we?”

Rhetorical questions aside she was right. I had a lot to bargain with, more than I imagined I would, so now it was time to get my family back. Celestia above if he had hurt them in any way…

“Lead the way Azura. I’ll follow as closely as I can.”

She nodded and shoved the barn door open and launched out into the air. She slowly drifted further and further away from me but with my EFS I could follow her long after she left my sight. At fairly regular intervals I caught up to her hovering in the air and we would repeat the process. During one of my catch ups I figured I would give a listen to the radio. I levitated the ear-bloom to my ear and switched it to DJ-Pon3’s broadcast. I tuned in to the middle of the news segment.

-nd that’s why you should always carry a weapon of some kind if you’re in that area. Now let’s move on the east side of the mountains. In a bit of news that even I’m glad to hear, somepony recently spotted the Harbinger of Hope as he’s been called, alive and well in a little place called Moletown. Finally we have the answer to if he survived the battle that destroyed Black Town about a month ago. Though we might be subject to the same kind of suspense. My source in the area said that he was taking part in a large expedition to expand the underground city’s borders. Not long after everypony departed an enormous crashing was heard from the tunnels and so far nopony has returned. That was almost three days ago. Here’s hoping that somepony, anypony makes it out of there. Now I’ll shut up for a bit while you lovely ponies get an earful of Sapphire Shores-

I pulled the bloom from my ear and was reminded of the same questions I had when I first heard a broadcast about me. Where was he getting all this information? Why was he so interested in me? A part of me began to suspect his motives and wondered if he and Watcher were connected in some way. Perhaps the wasteland was making me a tad cynical. Was it so hard to believe that he just wanted to bring truth and hope back to Equestria? I supposed not.

Hours passed and the familiar train tunnel that was the entrance to Moletown came into view. Azura was hovering just in front of it talking to a trader stallion hauling a cart. She turned her head and smiled when she saw me, pointing her good claw at me. The light blue earth pony stallion also smiled when he saw me, though a bit more forlornly. They made their way over to me and the stallion was the first to speak.

“Been a bit since I’ve seen you Sparks, how the hell’ve you been?” His voice was tired yet…familiar.

“Rain Drop? Is that you?”

“Heh, I’m not surprised you don’t recognize me.” He said, brushing a bit of his purple mane off his face. “I’ve definitely seen better days.”

“It’s good to see a familiar face.” I took a peek at the contents of his cart and wasn’t surprised to see many containers of water. “I’ve made a home in the Crater, do you still make it there often?”

“Not really, I mostly just move water these days. It’s easy enough and it keeps me busy.”

“Where’s Sandy? I thought you two did everything together.”

Rain Drop closed his eyes and recoiled like I was going to hit him. I took a step back to give him a bit of space and maybe ease off whatever was bothering him.

“She…she’s dead, Sparks. Not long after we went our separate ways in the Crater…in her grief over Blood Orange she…couldn’t bear the truth. She overdosed on some kind of drug that she got from somepony while I was out one day.”

Something he said almost stopped my heart. “B-Blood Orange?” I asked, a slight crack in my voice.

“Our daughter, the one who went missing that we were looking for. We wanted to hope that she was still alive somewhere but we both knew the reality of it. Sandy just…dealt with it in her own way.”

I could feel my legs turning to jelly. It took a lot of my strength to keep from falling back on my flank. All this time I thought they were looking for a filly. Somepony small like Aurora not a full grown mare. Back then I didn’t know Chestnut had survived what happened at the stadium, I didn’t let them finish their story before I shut it down with that fact. They never had the chance to tell me her name. Sandy died for nothing…and I- I killed…

“Chestnut.” I managed to spit out.

Rain Drop’s ears perked up at the mention of the name. “What?”

“H-he did survive and…and I tracked him down.”

“Was Blood Orange with him!?” He grabbed my armor and shook me slightly, a look of desperation in his eyes.

I couldn’t tell him the truth. It would ruin him. I did what I could to try to ignore his question and keep talking. “I found him, just a few days ago…and I killed him. I killed him with my own hooves.”

“Sparks, don’t ignore me. I’m glad he’s dead but was Blood Orange with him?”

“I…ask Azura. I was unconscious after the fight with Chestnut.” I diverted his gaze from me to her, knowing that she didn’t know what he was talking about. I knew that she would unwittingly create the truth he needed to hear, even though it was a false one.

Azura landed next to Rain Drop and he gave her Blood Orange’s description.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t see anyone like that, alive or dead.”

Rain Drop’s whole body slumped and all the energy left his eyes. He was finally accepting the fact that both of his children were dead. He turned to me and gave me a tear-filled look. I placed my hoof on his shoulder, holding back tears of my own as the words fell out of my mouth.

“I lost a child too Rain Drop…I know how you feel a-and I’m sorry…sorry for-”

Rain Drop gently pushed my hoof away, giving me that teary eyed look again.

“I...I failed as a parent. T-this is my fault, Sandy...I'm sorry.” He whispered, his voice heavy with grief. Without another word he returned to his cart, hitched himself to it and soon disappeared into the ruins in silence. I watched him go until he was out of sight, releasing a weary sigh, choking on all the anxiety I was feeling. Azura approached me, looking worried at the expression I wore.

“Sparks…what is it? What’s bothering you?”

I felt the words form on my tongue but they never came out. I took a wobbly step forward and ungracefully fell back on my flank, holding my hooves to my head, the fresh realization wracking my whole body.

“It was me.” I said quietly, my voice shaky and distant.

“What was you?”

I felt like I was going to puke. I had ended Blood Orange’s life and I had enjoyed it. I enjoyed causing her pain, I enjoyed watching her suffer. For being associated with the stallion I loathed I subjected her to agonizing mutilation and torture. What did the Wasteland do to me? What the fuck was I becoming?

“I…I killed her.”

I know what it means to care for a child. I remember forcing my daughter away before I tortured Blood Orange. Then I did terrible things to somepony else’s daughter. It’s easy to ignore the consequences of such acts and what they could do to families when they’re not your own. Even Chestnut had been motivated by family to do what he did. That realization only made me feel worse. How many corpses did I leave in my wake in my quest for vengeance? How many families did I destroy?

“I killed Blood Orange…tortured her…made her suffer and I lied…l-lied right to his face.”

Azura took a step away from me. Every time I thought we were making progress as friends she learned something new about me that pushed her away.

“D-did you know?”

“No…I had no idea.” I could have used that as an excuse to ease my conscious but this was something to be remembered, something to hold onto. I’m not a bad pony. I’m not going to let the Wasteland turn me into a monster.

I got back up to my hooves and started heading towards the tunnel entrance. I didn’t want to think on the subject any further.

“Sparks…if you want to talk about it-”

“I don’t.” I interrupted her before she could finish her sentence. If I thought about it any longer I might start to regret what I did. And that’s the worst part. I should be sorry but if I thought that way now then every action I had taken since leaving the Crater would be shrouded with doubt and guilt. Everything I did to get to Chestnut I did for her. I wouldn’t let her memory be stained with regret for what I had to do to avenge her. Even with everything I knew now I would do it again. Now I could take it all and move on, learn from actions that begot suffering, reflect on the crimes I committed in the name of vengeance.

“Not now…not ever.” I finished. Pushing ahead to the gates of Moletown. As we made it through Azura jumped into the air with a loud wing beat, spinning a moment to face me.

“I’ll be back, don’t go too far ok?”

I simply waved my acknowledgment to her as she sped off to wherever she needed to be. I took advantage of the solitude and deftly stuck a syringe of painkiller into my leg. I didn’t know if emotional pain was a priority when the drug was developed but it did help control my nerves. I would need my body strong and my mind clear if I wanted to confront Mr. Coal. I wandered the paths of Moletown aimlessly for a time, trying to block out my encounter with Rain Drop. Just as I was beginning to find my drive to action I felt a tap on my flank.

“So you still walk do you parvulus?” A deep, accented voice said from behind me. I froze on the spot, refusing to face him in fear of succumbing to his knock out dust again. “How did you survive da collapse?”

“That’s my business Sunshine.” I said slowly, averse to mentioning Eclipse in any way. “I’m ready to talk to Mr. Coal. Care to take me there pal?”

“You are far too confident in yourself asinus.”

He kept peppering in words in the zebra language in what I could only assume were less than flattering names.

“Follow me and do not stray.”

“Not going to knock me out this time?”

“Der is too much at stake for you. You will obey or suffer da consequences.”

I didn’t intend to try anything with that same thought in mind. I had to stay my hoof and tongue while they still had Sunny and Aurora captive. We ducked and weaved through the small crowds, heading to wherever we were to meet Mr. Coal. That was when I remembered that this street worked both ways. I wouldn’t try anything for fear of what would happen to my family and they needed me to get inside the stable. All the threats from Mr. Sunshine were empty, he wouldn’t dare rob Mr. Coal of his only chance to get what he sought. So with that in mind I turned the table and started tormenting the large zebra.

“Did you know a zebra mare named Axela?”

“Where did you hear that name?” He whipped his head back to face me.

“I heard it from a pony she was either working for or with. So…do you know her?”

“She is my nepti…my niece. What is da purpose of dese questions?”

“I just thought that I’d like to be the one to tell you that she’s dead.” In less than a blink a hoof hit me across the face and just like last time he grabbed me and pinned me to a nearby wall.

“You lie! Axela would never fall to an invalidum such as you!” He hit me again, in the gut this time, releasing his hold on me as I crumpled to the ground. I wheezed the breath from my lungs, finding it difficult to draw breath for a moment.

“Wasn’t…me that killed…” I wasn’t allowed to finish as a firm kick to my chest cut me off. The force of the kick sent me rolling across the street, startling several ponies as I came to a stop. Sunshine was quick to chase after me, pressing a hoof to my throat when he stood over me.

“Then perhaps you could be persuaded into telling me who?” A cruel smile grew on his face as he applied more and more pressure to my throat. He was used to being Mr. Coal’s enforcer, meaning that he likely never expected his prey to fight back or retaliate in any way. Knowing that roughing me up was the worst he could do made what came next all the sweeter. I flipped my hind legs up towards my chest and launched Sunshine off of me and into the air. I had just got to my hooves when he recovered and went on the attack. The first hit came in fast and erratic, striking me in the foreleg at the knee which almost made me fall on my face if it wasn’t for the swift uppercut that rose to greet it. Stars exploded in my vision and I could taste the blood trickling from my mouth as I gave my now loose teeth a careful prod with my tongue. Soon a familiar sight was above me, grabbing me by the neck and holding me up to meet his striped face.

“You are lucky Mr. Coal needs you alive.” He growled. His threat gave me all the vindication I needed for what came next. I threw my head forward for all I was worth and slammed my skull into his muzzle. He dropped me to the ground and reeled back, holding a hoof to his bloody nose.

The look in his eyes after that was one of indignant fury. He roared loudly causing many of the passerby’s to flee as he made to charge me. As I scrambled to stand up again he leapt into the air, ready to drive his hooves down upon me. I reacted just fast enough to catch him mid-air in my telekinesis, stopping all his momentum. I got to my hooves and released my hold, hitting him with a shoulder charge before his hooves touched the ground. He hit the ground in such a way that his rolls threw him perfectly back on all fours. He ran at me again but this time when he jumped he did a missile dive, tucking his legs into his body and slamming all four hooves into me when he got close. I rolled backwards head over tail until the back of my head hit the wall of a nearby structure. I could see my vision getting blurry and the sounds around me became distorted. Sunshine had taken a position in front of me and was preparing another running strike, one that would surely put me out of the fight. He bared his teeth and began charging my way and in a brief moment of clarity between blurry spells I grabbed his hind legs with my magic and gave them a hard push away from me. The force of which whipped his body towards the ground where his head collided with the concrete. After a brief moment of nothing we both slowly rose to our hooves glaring at each other.

“Were you not a unicorn a swift victory would have been mine.”

“That’s your opinion.” I responded, spitting out a mouthful of blood.

Sunshine chuckled and wiped the rest of the blood from his nose before turning around to continue taking me to Mr. Coal.

“It seems I underestimated you. I hope you stay on Mr. Coal’s good side. I wonder what you would be capable of if you weren’t holding back.”

“I could say the same thing about you Sunshine.” I’d definitely pushed my luck with him, if it had come down to a real fight I doubt I’d be the one standing.

We kept moving deeper into the heart of Moletown until we reached a decently large ramshackle building made of sheet metal. Mr. Sunshine stood in front of the closest door and motioned towards it for me to go first. I did as he wanted and was surprised to see that he didn’t follow me inside. The room I stood in was mostly dark but even without the light I could see that I was not alone thanks to my EFS. All at once a light dangling from the roof lit up, revealing Mr. Coal seated at the end of a table, sitting in a chair as if he was expecting me.

“Sparks…I see you have returned. Have something for me?”

I took a seat opposite him and smiled. “I think I found your stable.”

“You think?” He said quickly, his eyes narrowing.

“Forgive me, I found it. However I haven’t tracked down its exact location yet.”

“So you’re back because?”

“Because I want my family back before we proceed. I have everything you need in my PipBuck and we both know you won’t be able to bypass its biometric lock if you kill me.”

“You aren’t as stupid as I hoped you’d be. Very well you shall have them back.”

“Oh and one more thing.”

Mr. Coal looked at me with a raised eyebrow, suspicious of my motives. “Name it.”

“We will be accompanying you to Stable 50.”

“And what makes you think you can command me?”

“Because I know who you really are, Flint Coal. You aren’t just a ghoul, you’re a pre-war ghoul. You’re searching for something in that Stable that goes beyond petty wealth or weaponry. What are you really after?”

“That my friend, is none of your concern, however if you insist on accompanying me then I have no choice but to agree to your terms.” Mr. Coal whistled loudly to somepony else in the building and before long the unconscious forms of Aurora and Sunny were brought before me. They were still tied to chairs which made me wonder if they had eaten anything since I had last seen them. Mr. Coal seemed to pick up on my distress as he calmly addressed the situation.

“Don’t worry, they were fed and properly hydrated. Dead hostages are useless hostages after all.” He said with a smug smile, flipping his hat on his head with a flourish. He stood from his chair and walked over to the pony who had brought Aurora and Sunny to me, who I noticed was a unicorn mare. “Bring Mr. Sunshine with you on your way out.” He pointed firmly in my direction. “I’ll meet you outside.” With that they both vanished in a pink sparkle of magic. I wanted to complain that I could not use such a spell when I remembered the ponies in the chairs before me. I cut the ropes that were binding them and gently tried to shake Aurora awake.

“Aurora, Aurora wake up.” I poked her in the tummy and got a slight reaction. I levitated her out of the chair and onto my back. I did a little hop and that had the desired effect. Aurora jerked herself awake at the jolt and almost fell off my back. She dove forward and wrapped her legs around my neck to center herself. It took her a moment to realize where she was judging by the look of confusion on her face. When our eyes met though, they lit up like a Hearths Warming tree.

“Dad? Dad!” She squeezed my neck tighter and nuzzled into me making me stifle a tickled laugh.

“Are you alright princess?”

“I…I think so.” She lightened her grip on me and she had a far off expression. Something was bothering her.

“What do you remember?”

“I…remember the alley with the guy in the cloak. I remember waking up in a closet with Aunt Sunny. After a while they brought us food, I remember the smell but I don’t remember eating it or falling asleep again. Cold…I remember the cold and dark. B-but now you’re here and everything’s going to be okay. Right?”

“Right.” I nodded. Sunny was still slumped over in her chair and that’s when I noticed something about her. They had stripped her of her leather duster. Her hat and coat were on the floor next to her. I walked around her and did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. I leaned in closer to her and got a good hard look at a part of her I never thought I’d see. I had to resist an urge to touch it, pulling my hoof back to stop myself.

“W-what are you doing Dad?” Aurora asked quietly, her cheeks were rosy and she tried to hide her expression. I gave her a questioning look, wondering what she meant when I realized how this must look.

“Oh no no no, I was looking at her cutie mark Aurora. Just her cutie mark.” Speaking of which it was the first time I had seen it and I could see why she would want to hide it. A pair of masks, comedy and tragedy. However unlike the traditional symbol, both masks appeared to be crying. Now I was even more curious at what happened to her to make a mark like this. On a surface level though I could see what they represented. Her split personalities, Sunny and Downpour. Grim had said that something extremely traumatic must have happened to her if it split her mind in two. Before I could think about it any longer, Sunny herself awoke with a jump, falling out of her chair. She quickly got back to her hooves and once she realized she wasn’t wearing her coat, her tail curled in to block her cutie mark, her face sporting a small blush.

“Sunny…I-” I started but she turned away from me, practically diving into her duster on the floor.

“Don’t look at me.” She said, frantically throwing her coat over her body. She was hiding more than her cutie mark under her duster. Sunny bore many scars on her body from a lifetime of fighting, each one holding a story of survival. Sunny’s tragic past left many marks on her, both mental and physical.

“Sunny.” I tried again. “It doesn’t matter to me what you look like or what your mark means.”

Sunny wouldn’t face me but she seemed to have been calmed by my words a bit. “I…I know Sparks.”

She had her own demons to fight but she wasn’t ready to let me help her, not yet. This wasn’t the first time she hinted to something from her past that sat heavily on her soul. I remember something she said in Stable 71 about somepony she knew who could have foalnapped the stables population. She took another moment or two to get her belongings together, all the while trying to hide from me under her hat.

“What happened while I was out?” She asked, peeking at me from under her hats brim.

The way she said it made me think that she could and probably had guessed what had transpired.

“Mr. Coal forced me to work for him while you were his hostages. When I delved into the tunnels beneath Moletown for him I found the Eclipse Complex.”

“And Chestnut?” She said like she was accusing me of something.

“Dead…I killed him myself.”

“And? Do you feel as you thought you would?”

I’d been thinking about that since I watched him die. The fire in my heart had finally let up since his death but I didn’t feel like I hoped I would. I don’t know how I thought I’d feel but it wasn’t what I was feeling now. Did I really think that all the pain I felt from Winter’s death would just vanish once I killed him? That was something I still couldn’t answer. It had to mean something. How could it not?

“I…I don’t know.” My eyes fell to the floor, knowing what kind of reaction I was going to get from her. But nothing came. She just gave me a look that spoke more to me than words could. Understanding. She knew what I was feeling, perhaps better than anypony and because of that she said nothing. She just nodded and waved a hoof towards Aurora.

“C’mon kiddo, let’s go get something to eat.”

“Ok Aunt Sunny, coming Dad?” She was already halfway out the door before turning back to ask me.

“Yeah…lead the way.”

We passed Mr. Sunshine on our way out. Aurora looked at him with a confused looked while Sunny simply glared at him. They continued on their way into town while I took a moment to hang back with Mr. Sunshine.

“Mr. Coal teleported outside. We are all going to this Stable of his. We’ll meet you once I’ve made sure they’re okay.” I nodded ahead to my family.

“Very well. Do not dally for long.”

“It’ll take as long as it takes. You’ll be going nowhere without me.”

“You tink a bit too much of yourself. Don’t forget who’s in charge here.”

I turned around to say more but there was nopony there. I huffed in annoyance at the zebra’s arrogance, turning away from where he had been to follow the others.

“There you are!” I heard from above me. Azura came in fast and landed in front of me looking at me with a hint of concern. “Did you get in a fight?”

“Sort of, I found Mr. Sunshine and we came to blows.” I said, going out of my way to exaggerate the cut in my mouth.

“And that was all he did to you?”

“I’m precious cargo remember? He held back.” As much as I didn’t want to admit it all of his strikes had been nonlethal. I wasn’t so cocky that I thought I was his better in hoof-to-hoof combat. The result of our spat proved that much as the only hits I got on him were assisted by my magic.

“It sounds like you should learn to keep a lower profile.” Azura gave me a sly smirk, unsure of what she was implying.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Have you seen yourself lately? You stick out like a Minotaur. Just look at your armor.” She jabbed a talon into my chest, my gaze following her claw to my armor. I saw the enormous gash where my chest plate had once been, its remains still black and charred from Chestnuts magical energy pistol. After that I took a more extensive look of all the parts I could see. When was the last time I cleaned this thing? I thought, looking at the dark stains of blood. Whether it was mine or somepony else’s was unclear and the bullet holes didn’t help matters. Despite my reluctance it just might be time to replace it. My expression dipped as I came to that realization.

“Something wrong?” She asked, like she was trying to lead me. I sighed and touched a hoof to my chest, feeling the nasty scar in the armor.

“No…no. It’s just that this is one of the last reminders of my old home.” It probably wasn’t smart to get sentimental about something that was supposed to save your life. Sadly Stable 63 wasn’t my home anymore. Back when I first left it was like a constant symbol of my motivation to return. A reminder of what was at stake…Now? Now it was a relic that was beginning to fail its purpose. I wasn’t sure how much more it could take before becoming completely useless but with my nostalgia regarding what it once represented gone…

I took a solemn moment to carefully take the armor off, leaving me in my old stable utility barding. It too was bearing its share of scars but it wasn’t going to lose its purpose anytime soon.

“I guess I can see what I can get for it.” I said dejectedly, floating it beside me as I walked past Azura.

“H-hey wait up!” She called after me, flying up and landing in front of me again. “I wasn’t trying to make you get rid of it.” She said a little sadly. “I just wanted to give you this.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a black cloak. “It’s a zebra stealth cloak. I thought it would help you get around without being seen.”

I took it from her grasp and inspected it, noting that it was woven from a fine, thick fabric. The gemstone set into the clasp was also interesting to note. “Like those invisibility cloaks?” I said, remembering what both Axela and Sunshine had.

“Yeah, I took this one from the zebra I killed in Eclipse. I’m pretty sneaky when I want to be so I wanted you to have it.”

I was speechless, this was an incredibly valuable piece of equipment. It was like being gifted a set of power armor. I slung it over my neck and secured the clasp, giving myself a quick inspection.

“Azura…I-I don’t know what to say. Thank you.” I surprised her by pulling her into a gentle hug, she let out a startled squeak as I did. After a few seconds she sheepishly squirmed out of my grasp, a light tinge to her cheeks.

“I-I’m glad you like it. They are…ya know, incredibly rare so try to take care of it.”

“How do I use it?” I spun in a quick circle, flipping the cape around with a flourish.

“Put the hood up.” She pointed to the hood, laying down on the back of my neck. I levitated it up and over my head. All at once my whole body vanished from sight. I waved a hoof in front of my face and couldn’t see a thing.

“This is incredible.” I said in amazement. The only thing I could see of myself were the slight impressions of where my hooves were.

“The zebra’s response to power armor.” She pointed out, looking roughly where she thought my face was. “It’s also supposed to muffle any sounds you might make as well as hide your scent.”

I could see why Equestria and the zebra nation were so evenly matched. I wondered just how many of these existed in Equestria. Especially if this was their response to power armor, which meant that they didn’t just give them to every soldier. It was likely that the few that I knew of were not recovered by the Equestrian military, rather they were passed down the line of zebra survivors. Either way I was incredibly grateful for the gift. Then a fun idea formed in my mind and I carefully crept behind Azura. After a moment or so of silence Azura started to look confused.

“Sparks? You uhh…you still here?” She spun in a circle, claw held out as if to touch me. I crouched just in time to dodge it and prepared my attack. Once her back was to me my trap was sprung.

“Stealth hug!” I yelled, springing into the air and landing on Azura’s back.

“Aaahhh!” She cried, her wings pumping overtime and taking us into the air. After a few seconds of adrenaline fueled panic she stopped trying to shake me off and leveled out. “That’s not funny Sparks.” As expected, I spotted a blush on her face. It was nice to know that I was still capable of some good-natured teasing considering the last few days I’d had. Although I was aware of the emotional dissonance of my behavior. Just a little while ago I was on the verge of a breakdown because of the truth about Blood Orange and now here I was playing invisible grab ass with a griffin I barely knew. The sheer one eighty of it almost made my mind and body retaliate violently. It was only by the grace of the one holding me aloft that I didn’t show the turmoil I was feeling. In fact I may have been because of her that I was acting this way... With those thoughts in mind, my smile vanished and she brought us back to the ground.

“Sorry.” I said, trotting ahead of her to find the others, stopping a moment to toss my ruined armor into a nearby dumpster. Azura’s head tilted to one side in confusion as she followed after me.

“Sparks…” She started gently. “About what you said earlier…to that trader-”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it.” It took a lot of my willpower not to pick up my pace and get some distance between us.

“You said you lost a child too…” She continued, though still as gentle.

“Don’t.” I said sternly, barely able to keep my voice from cracking. I wiped a solitary tear from my face and kept moving. If Azura had said anything else I didn’t hear it. All the bandages I’d wrapped around my heart were painfully ripped away at the mention of the child that was taken with Winter. Pain that was just as strong as the night they were killed. Chestnut’s death hadn’t been the cure I was hoping for. My pain was still there, strong as ever.

“Hey Daddy!” Aurora shouted, startling me away from my thoughts to see that I’d wandered into the market. She dashed to my side and ran one lap around me before she noticed Azura.

“Oh h-hello.” She said timidly. “I remember you.”

“I remember you too little one.” Azura said with a calm smile. “I’m glad to see that you’re alright.”

Sunny made a noise between a scoff and a sigh, getting our attention. “So you replaced us while we were gone?” She gave me an accusing glare.

“Umm I uhh…sort of?”

Sunny only narrowed her gaze and diverted it to Azura. “And? Is she coming with us?”

“I…I uhh I’m not sure.” I turned to give Azura a curious look. “Is she?”

Azura looked around, taking in the sights of her home before sighing and closing her eyes. “Yes…yes she is.” She let her words hang for a moment before opening her eyes, looking confused. “That’s alright isn’t it?”

“I’m okay with it. Aunt Sunny?” Aurora turned an apprehensive look towards Sunny. Sunny held a neutral expression regarding the griffin but didn’t speak out against her. After a few long seconds she smirked and nodded her agreement.

“I guess that’s that. Welcome to the crew Azura.” I said, extending a hoof to her expectantly. After a brief moment of hesitation she made a fist with her claw and bumped it against my hoof.

“Alright alright that’s enough. Everypony get something to eat while you can. We aren’t finished here just yet.” Sunny went to take a bite of her food but froze like she just realized something. “Sparks what happened to your armor?”

“It- it uh…was due to be replaced.” I said, touching the gemstone clasp of my new cloak.

“And where is it?”

“Dumpster.”

“Uh-huh.” Sunny looked at me like a foal. Eyebrow raised, disappointed stare and everything. “Hopefully, for your sake we won’t run into anything we can’t handle. And you, Blue, I trust you can handle yourself?”

“I like to think so.” Azura drew her revolver and knife, giving them each a flourish. “Good enough to save this guy anyway.” She holstered her weapons and looked at me like as if I were a foal with their hoof stuck in the cookie jar.

“What’s that mean?” I said, perhaps a tad too defensively.

“Alright, good enough.” Sunny said, failing to hide a smile at my expense. “We’ll see for ourselves sooner or later. Now you better eat something.” Sunny ended her verbal joust with a warm smile and an offer of food, something that almost seemed foreign coming from her. I supposed her maternal instincts were hard to ignore, especially since we kept a filly around.

We took about thirty minutes to finish eating and retrieve whatever Azura needed from her home. Then we met with Mr. Coal and Mr. Sunshine just outside the tunnel entrance.

“There you are, took you long enough eh?” Mr. Coal said casually, leaning against the metal pole of an old sign.

“I told you dey’d do dis.” Mr. Sunshine said, appearing beside his boss.

“Don’t worry about it my striped friend. Lead the way Sparks.” Mr. Coal beckoned me to the front of the group. I looked at my map and retraced my steps to where we came out of Eclipse, careful to not pass through the farm directly. As we skirted the edge of the farm, it occurred to me that I wasn’t entirely sure what we were looking for. Stable 63 was connected to a small cave that ran to the surface and Stable 71 was at the bottom of a mall hidden behind a secret door. The gambit that the entrances seemed to run left the possibilities almost endless. After a 10 minute jaunt from the farm, we arrived at the mark on my map where the Stable was supposed to be. I lifted my head up from my PipBuck and saw where we ended up. In front of us was a medium sized concrete building that appeared to be a garage of some kind.

“So what are we looking for kid?” Mr. Coal stepped forward where his hooves sunk slightly in mud. “The fuck?” was all he managed to get out before a gunshot echoed out around us.

“Come no further if you want yer brains to stay in yer skulls.” An older brown mare said from the roof of the garage. She had a good sized rifle mounted to her battle saddle and had it aimed at Mr. Coal.

“Whoa take it easy. We aren’t interested in fighting.”

“Pardon me if ah don’t believe the gang of five armed trespassers.” Her aim never faltered and her expression stayed cold.

“Fine, if that’s what will assuage you.” Mr. Coal started by taking his weapon by the barrel and flinging it into the garage. He then turned to us with an expectant look. His meaning was clear to read so everypony else did the same with their weapons. Everypony except Aurora that is. I heard the zipper on her backpack start to unzip when I stopped her from opening it all the way with a tug of magic. Aurora must have deduced what I wanted her to do because she stopped pulling the zipper and pretended to adjust it. I also saw a curious look from Mr. Coal out of the corner of my eye. Once our weapons were gone the mare on the roof lowered her rifle.

“Thank ya kindly fer the donation now git the hell off muh property.”

“No, I don’t think so. We have no intention of leaving. There is something nearby I desire and I believe your…home will provide the answers I seek.” Mr. Coal took several brave steps forward, giving his best disarming look.

The mare on the roof was obviously thinking very hard about something, her face wrinkled with concentration.

“Alright but stay where yer at!” She quickly turned around and after a moment was on the ground floor of the garage, picking up all our weapons. “Once Ah’ve taken care o’ these we can discuss a trade fer what ya’ll are lookin’ fer.”

Mr. Coal snorted angrily and readjusted his hat. “Very well.”

Once she had taken our weapons away she waved us into the garage. It was apparent from the start that the garage was well lived in. All over the concrete floor were bit and baubles ranging from old bits of tech to old bleached bones.

“Ah don’t git many visitors out here an’ that’s the way ah like it. So hurry up an’ speak yer piece. What is it ya’ll want?”

I leaned forward to speak our ‘piece’ but Mr. Coal held out a hoof to stop me. “Do you mind if we just have a look around first? Under your watch of course.” He bowed his head, acquiescing to our less than graceful host. She gave us all a suspicious look and kicked the safety off her rifle.

“Alright but don’t try anythin' funny.”

In the next few moments we all fanned out looking for what we hoped would be obvious clues to the stables entrance, terminals, hidden switches and the like. Aurora was the only one other than Mr. Coal to try and break the ice by talking to the mare.

“Hi, my names Aurora. What’s yours?”

She looked startled by the sudden appearance of a filly, as if she hadn’t noticed her at all until now. I was thankful for what she was trying to do, a foal’s innocence could tear down some of the roughest walls around a pony’s heart.

“Oh hello darlin’, muh name’s Fallow Mire.”

“Why do you live all alone?”

Fallow relaxed her posture a bit and let out a small sigh. “It’s how ah have always lived. When muh Pa died he left me this garage and Ah have been here ever since.”

“Didn’t you want a family?”

“Naw…Ah didn’t. Pa taught me t' never rely on others, survival of the fittest. If Ah wasn’t strong enough t' survive on muh own then Ah didn’t deserve t’ live. A family only adds weakness, Ah don’t need anypony t’ lean on. Ah’m strong enough t’ stand on muh own hooves.”

“Hmm…” I hummed to myself. How easily could I have become like her? My strength came from my family and friends around me. They lent me strength when I thought I had no more to give. That kind of love will save ponykind not condemn it. However it was clear that Fallow had chosen her own path and there was nothing we could do or say to change her mind.

Aurora walked away from Fallow dejectedly, leaning against the far wall. The rest of the search went on in silence until Aurora spoke up. “Umm I think I found something dad.”

Mr. Coal was the first to reach her, gently nudging her out of the way. “Excuse me child. Hmm… Sparks would you come here please. I think I’ve found it.”

We all gathered near the wall around a strange looking hole in the wall. It didn’t take me long to figure out what it was, taking the peripheral plug from my PipBuck and inserting it into the wall. Once the connection was made I was greeted by a text box asking for the access code. It took a moment to input the code using only my PipBuck, CMC-SSM-7319. Once it was entered the sound of old motors and gears began grinding noisily and a section of the floor retracted away, revealing a set of stairs down into a dirty old corridor. My heart was starting to race with excitement. This was what I was here for. Inside that Stable were some of the greatest minds the old world had and with their help we could make significant progress towards restoring the Wasteland. First I had to make sure Mr. Coal wasn’t up to anything that would be a detriment to that. His motives were still a mystery but if he had been waiting as long as he claimed then surely his intentions were worth something. At least I hoped so but that was the other reason I was here.

“What the hell is this?” Fallow pushed her way to the front of the group, looking down the stairs in disbelief.

“This is what I came for.” Mr. Coal said softly, making his way down the stairs.

“Naw, Ah don’t think so. This is still muh property and Ah get first pick.”

“Excuse me? You were content to fester in your swamp, a bitter old mare living on scraps in a decaying husk before we came along! Don’t presume to take ownership of something you didn’t know was there just on the principle that sometimes you unknowingly slept next to it!” Mr. Coal barked indignantly.

“Let’s not fer’get who has the gun here, now here’s how this is goin’ t’ play out. Ah'm going t’ explore whatever’s down there and ya’ll are gonna help me, or Ah’ll kill the lot of ya.” Her voice and expression returned to how they were when she was on the roof, leveling her rifle in our direction. We had no choice but to go along with it for now. We had no idea where she had hidden our weapons and if I tried to use magic or go invisible she would likely fire into the group and I wasn’t about to risk anypony like that. I saw Azura ball her good claw in anger, like me she was never truly unarmed. However the same factor stayed her talons and my magic. I didn’t have any spells fast enough to stop her before she could get a shot off and Azura was in the middle of the group, she wouldn’t be able to get close enough to slash her before she killed one of us.

“Is this really how you want to play this?” Mr. Coal said, his voice low and threatening.

“Yup now follow me, we got work t' do.” Fallow slowly turned away from us and started down the stairs. In that brief second I remembered that Aurora still had her pistol. I had just started to search for it with my magic when a soft sound of something streaking through the air followed by the sound of a wet splat. I returned my gaze to the front of the group where I saw Aurora’s pistol in Mr. Coal’s mouth. Fallow Mire had a hole blown through the back of her head and her body collapsed, tumbling down the rest of the stairs like a rag doll. Aurora screamed at the sight and everypony else looked shocked.

“Flint what did you do?” I asked, unable to pull my eyes off the body at the bottom of the stairs. The only downside to looking out for yourself was you had nopony to watch your back.

“I removed the last obstacle.” He turned to Aurora and returned her pistol to her shaking grasp. “Thank you my dear and thank you Sparks for the opportunity.”

“No…don’t put this on me.” I took a step back up the stairs, my eyes wide.

“I saw when you stopped the filly from surrendering her weapon. For what purpose did you do that if not for something like this?”

“You did what?” Azura stepped forward, grabbing me by the shoulders and forcing me to face her. “You let her keep it? Do you realize the danger that put us in?”

“I…this isn’t what I wanted.”

“Then what did you want?”

“I wanted us to have an option! To not be helpless if things went bad! How was I supposed to know he’d take it?” I found it hard to believe I had to explain it to her. Were we supposed to let the old mare lead us around until she decided to kill us? It undoubtedly would have come to this once she knew what it was she had under her home.

“Take it easy on the guy. It was pretty smart thinking on his part.” Mr. Coal said casually.

“I don’t like what happened but I agree.” Sunny spoke up from behind. “We can’t do anything about it now so why don’t we go find our weapons and get on with it?”

“Fine.” Azura relented, releasing her hold on me. It didn’t take long to find and recover all our gear, especially without the watchful eye of a trigger happy mare to worry about. We all gathered at the bottom of the stairs where an opening to a natural cave awaited us.

“Are you alright daddy?” Aurora tugged on my tail to get my attention.

“Yeah…yeah I’m fine princess. It’s just…been a long day for me.” The murder of Fallow Mire was only the most recent crime to assault my psyche. That on top of the realization I received from Rain Drop and the beating I took from Mr. Sunshine was making today especially taxing in every way.

“I’m sorry.” Her ears fell against her head and a frown formed on her face.

“Don’t be. I made the decision to hide your gun. I gave him the opportunity to kill her. You didn’t do anything wrong.” I lowered myself to look her in the eyes. “Don’t blame yourself because it was your gun. You were only doing what I wanted you to. If you want to blame somepony, blame me.” I couldn’t force myself to admit that I had fully intended to do what Mr. Coal had done...he simply beat me to it.

Being raised in a Stable gave me a different outlook on many things. My life wasn’t molded by a lifetime of scavenging, stealing, and killing. Though now I was beginning to question if that was a good thing anymore.

Mr. Coal and Mr. Sunshine started heading down into the cave and the rest of us followed. Things were beginning to become reminiscent to my Stable now that we were underground in a more traditional sense. The stale air was heavy with moisture, resulting in an oppressive, humid atmosphere. Those of us that had lights turned them on and saw the giant steel door of the Stable a bit further in the cave.

“You never did tell us what we are doing here exactly.” Sunny said, standing before the yellow 50 emblazoned on the gear-shaped door.

“Yeah I thought we were done with Mr. Coal once we got your family back.” Azura added

“There are things of incredible value inside. I know that he knows what’s inside and I want to know what he’s after.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll see soon enough. Now let’s proceed.” Mr. Coal hit a button on the door control pad and the familiar alarms began to blare as the terrible sound of metal grinding on metal screeched as the arm pulled the door back, then rolled it to the side. The entrance floor was dirty and rusted, as if the door had been opened before we arrived but that wasn’t possible. Mr. Coal took one look at the state of the Stable and began to shake.

“No…no…No! No! NOOO!!!” He screamed at the top of his lungs, galloping inside and into the depths of Stable 50.

“Flint wait!” Mr. Sunshine called after him as he too vanished inside the Stable.

My reaction wasn’t much better. I walked to the center of the entrance room and spun in a circle, taking in the state of disrepair. What hope there was in my heart evaporated in that moment. What could have happened here? I understood Mr. Coal’s reaction all too well now.

“What was that all about?” Azura asked, joining me in the center of the room. She was clearly not surprised by the state of the Stable but she didn’t know what I did.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“What do you mean?” Aurora asked, her and Sunny coming to stand beside me.

“It was supposed to be untouched. It was supposed to be still functional like mine was.”

“So what was the treasure inside?” Sunny asked, moving ahead into the hall Flint and Sunshine ran down.

“There were supposed to be ponies here. Some of the smartest ponies Equestria had to offer…in cryo stasis pods.”

“It’s a little early to give up isn’t it? They could still be safe in the pods for all we know. Just cuz it’s a bit dirty and rusty in here doesn’t mean they aren’t still alive.” Azura said, moving to follow after Sunny.

I looked to the ceiling and saw that the lights were on which meant the spark generator was still functional. Maybe hope wasn’t lost.

“C’mon dad we’re gonna get left behind.” Aurora was facing me, walking backwards into the hall. I followed after them, the hallway leading to the atrium. Though it wasn’t like the one in my Stable. The room was comparatively small with the floor sunk in a few inches and all around the walls were backup spark generators. About half of them weren’t in working