I hid behind a maintenance panel in the tunnel wall, holding my breath as the Clicker passed. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest, deafening in the darkness. I needed to escape, get away from this thing. But I couldn’t. The Clicker was right outside my hiding place. I checked my hoofgun for the hundredth time, but it was no less broken than before. As far as I could tell, the plasma spike from that damn Clicker’s rifle had melted through the casing and essentially welded the action closed. I was almost thankful. If the gun hadn’t been there that shot would’ve taken my hoof off.
It did, however, still leave me with the problem of the Clicker outside. Without the hoofgun, I had no way to fight him off. That left me with two options. Make a break for it and try to catch the fucker by surprise, or try and sneak my way out. I decided that I’d wait until he passed in front of me again, and then try to hit him with the door of my hiding spot. While the Clicker recovered, I’d sprint left down the corridor, up the access stairs to the generator level and from there out the same passageway I came in from. I reached up a hoof and pulled my silver crescent moon pendant from the neck of my combat barding and gave it a little kiss. I was going to need all the luck I could get.
I shifted as slowly and silently as I could and placed my rear hooves against the door. I braced my back against the breaker panel behind me, wincing as the sharp metal of a broken switch dug into my already injured wing. I sucked in a breath and held it, gathering my strength, feeling the muscles in my legs tense. There was a moment of absolute silence in the darkness, a split second of calm where even my frantic heart seemed to almost stop.
And that’s when I heard it.
Behind the soft clicks and hisses from the Clicker in front of my hiding place was another sound. It was low, barely audible.
I let out a shuddering breath and gently pulled my rear hooves back, curling up between the switches and the panel, my heart hammering in my throat like a frightened rabbit. In that moment of quiet, what I had heard was dragging steps of another clicker. There was more than one in the passage now, at least two. The face of my combat trainer drifted up in front of me, solid and oaken, blood-red coat and crew cut mane framing the words from one of the multitude of lessons I’d been forced to endure during training.
Clickers hunt in packs.
I mentally kicked myself. Stupid mistakes in the field can get a pony killed. Everypony knew these fucking lizards traveled in packs. How in Celestia’s name could I have forgotten something so freaking simple? I turned and softly twisted myself around so I was lying with my head against the panel. I needed to know exactly how many I was up against. I knew as long as I didn’t make any noise I’d be fine. Clickers are blind. They hunt by smell and hearing alone. I gently pushed open the door and got my first good look at the Enemy.
I could make out three of them in the dim emergency lighting. They stood tall on two legs, rising a few inches higher than even the largest of the earth ponies. They were slender, narrow, and almost skeletal. Their heads were rectangular, tapering and narrowing to a long muzzle. Where their eyes should have been were only indentations covered over in the same sickly grey scaly hide as the rest of them. A ridge of feathers extended back from above where their eyes should have been, down their necks to the join with their shoulders. They had long, S-shaped necks curving down to strong, muscled shoulders. Their torsos were long, wider at the shoulders and hips. Their legs were long and slender, covered in corded, wiry muscle and bent back like an ostrich’s. They ended in wide, four-taloned feet, with three massive hooked claws at the front and one, longer than the others, in the back for balance. Their arms hung low, ending in long-fingered multi-jointed hands. Their tails stretched behind them and dragged on the floor. They wore strange, almost chitinous armor, and their arms cradled short, ugly plasma rifles. Their jaws moved up and down rapidly, teeth clacking menacingly. The smell of rotten meat clung to them like a second skin.
I slowly pulled the panel back into place. I felt bile rising in my throat and fought to contain my revulsion. I had seen pictures. I had watched the videos. I had heard the stories. But nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared me for how stunningly ugly these creatures were. I had never before in my life seen something that absolutely screamed “evil” the way these things did. With a start, I realized that I was trapped.
I curled into a ball and sat in the access box silently, listening to the squeaks and chatters from the corridor outside. I was stuck here until they moved on. I had to hope that would be soon. This was supposed to be a simple supply run, a walk in the park. I was due to check in in half an hour. If I missed my detail assembly, they’d send somepony looking for me. They knew where I was. The problem arose from the fact that they didn’t know there were Clickers in the tunnels under the hospital I had been sent to. If I didn’t find a way to get out of here and back to base to report in, ponies would die trying to find me.
That was the rule, after all. Nopony gets left behind. Stallion, mare, or foal, it didn’t matter. All of us would risk our lives to save another. Whether we loved them or hated them, nopony gets left behind. But I simply couldn’t allow others to risk their lives to save me. If I died because of a stupid mistake, it would be no less than I deserved. My only choice was to sit and hope they moved on.
So I sat there and I waited.
Finally, it seemed like the coast was clear. There were no more noises from outside. The only sounds to be heard were the dripping of water and my own breathing. I lifted my head and ever so slowly nosed open the hatch. It was almost open wide enough for me to slip through when suddenly the hinges, stiff from disuse, gave a horrible, rusty shriek.
From the right of me came a very distinctive hiss.
I planted my rear hooves against the switchboard behind me and pushed off, slamming open the hatch with my shoulder as I leaped from my hiding place. There was a horrible, resounding crunch as the steel panel connected with the nose of the Clicker.
I hit the ground hard at the same time as the Clicker and didn’t slow down. I stumbled to my hooves and galloped down the corridor as fast as I could. Pipes and walls flashed by, other corridors branching away from the one I was in. From behind me came a sound like a cross between a shout and a hoarse cough. It echoed through the maintenance tunnels bouncing and reflecting off the walls. The Clicker behind me was warning its mates that I was escaping.
Ahead of me the tunnel turned sharply. I knew that around the corner was the staircase that would take me up to my escape route. I was still about fifty feet away when one of the other two Clickers rounded the corner and let loose with his plasma rifle. I skidded to a stop as the hallway filled with garish pink light. The heat seared my coat as the projectiles augered through the air, passing close enough to touch. I twisted and ran back down the way I had come, hugging the wall as plasma bolts slammed into the concrete floor. One lucky shot nailed a pipe in front of me, the metal bubbling and dissolving and unleashing a cloud of steam that burned as I passed through it. On the other side of the cloud, I finally spotted one of the side halls I had passed earlier on my dash through the tunnels. I dove around the corner as a shot from the Clicker burrowed into the concrete where I had just been standing.
My heart hammered faster and my breath came in gasps, but I kept going. Adrenaline and fear can be a potent combination. Everything became utterly clear. I could smell the odors of machine oil, steam, and rotting flesh. I could feel the sweat matting my coat beneath my armor, and every little irregularity in the concrete underhoof. Obstacles came at me at half the speed of life. It was exhilarating, and absolutely, unimaginably terrifying. I slid underneath a low-hanging pipe and slingshotted my way around another corner. I had to find another stairwell up to the next level, but I had no time to stop and read the signs. Still I kept hearing the shrieks and cries from all around, the wicked acoustics of the tunnels making it impossible to tell if I was running away from the hunters or right into their arms.
The tunnel ahead of me turned yet again. It was still some distance away, however. I nearly flew down the corridor, my hooves thundering on the cracked and stained concrete. I spotted a sign hanging above the turn in the tunnel. I squinted and saw that it read “STAIRCASE 3-B”. My heart leapt into my throat yet again. I was almost there! I redoubled my efforts, pushing harder.
A Clicker with a crushed and bloodied snout leapt around the corner, slamming into the wall and bouncing off to face me. It cocked its head, and I swear the fucking thing looked at me. It opened its jaws and hissed, revealing row after row of razor-sharp serrated teeth, like a mouth full of daggers. Time seemed to elongate, stretch like taffy. I saw everything in slow motion. I watched as the monster leveled its rifle, saw the terrible pink glow collecting around the tip. I watched as a bead of saliva collected on one of those ivory blades and slowly dripped to the floor. I couldn’t blink, couldn’t look away. I was about to die. I was beaten. I knew it, and the monster knew it to.
Then it’s head exploded into a bloody mist, flecks of flesh and brains splattering against the wall in a grisly mosaic. For a moment I couldn’t breath. Everything stopped as it toppled to the floor, a sickening gurgle coming from the ruin at the end of its neck.. I stood stunned. Then, as if from a dream, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen stepped around the corner.
Moondancer looked at me, her short-cropped silver mane flecked with blue. Her black combat suit contrasted sharply with her startlingly bright white coat, and her horn glowed with a yellow-gold light that matched her eyes as she ejected the spent magical rune from her hoofgun and loaded in another. Her huge amber eyes met mine, and she smiled the most glorious smile I had ever seen. I was flabbergasted, jibbering like a foal. The only coherent thing I got out amounted to:
“Wha... How... Why?!”
Again she smiled. She stepped towards me and looped a hoof around my shoulders, hoisting me to my hooves. Again she looked at me and said softly, “Nopony gets left behind, remember?”
We escaped together. Up the staircase and around to the generator room. I held the grate open for her as we squeezed out into the alley behind Trottingham Hospital. Together we slipped through the streets, past destroyed chariots and wagons, through the piles of bones and the rubble of broken homes.To the east, the shattered, bent, and twisted skyscrapers of downtown Trottingham loomed in menacing silhouette. Above us, the stars glittered softly against the deep blue backdrop, The crescent moon glowing silver in the dark, illuminating our path. Moondancer looked back at me and gave another dazzling smile, lighting up the night far more than any celestial body could hope to. I smiled back, and followed her deeper into the night, back towards the only home I had ever known.
All the while, one thought circled over and over in my mind:
Nopony gets left behind.
It didn’t take long to make it back to home base. I lived in the network of storage tunnels and vaults underneath the Smithponian Museum along with around sixty-five or seventy other ponies. Our colony was the largest in the Trottingham area. Sixty-five ponies trying to make a life worth living in a world that didn’t even belong to our kind anymore.
There’s a depressing thought.
I followed Moondancer around to the back of the building to where the storage entrances were. As we trotted past, I couldn’t help but look at the imposing structure with awe. Built in the style of a Pre-Classical unicorn castle, it rose to nearly ten stories above us. Completed only a year before The Fall, the dark stone facade gave the impression of solidity and safety. To the ponies that had been alive to see the world fall, it was shelter. To me, however, it was a little bit more than that.
It was home.
I was born here, in the first days after The Fall. My mother was a teacher at the University down the street, and my father was... well, I don’t know. Mom didn’t like to talk about him. Any time somepony brought him up, she got this terribly sad look in her eye, as if a part of her was dying. The only thing I had ever gotten out of her was that he was a pegasus. I learned long ago to not question her on painful subjects. The world we inhabit is bleak enough without dragging up the ghosts of the past. To keep going in this world, a pony has to cling to every little scrap of happiness and hope that they can. For the older ponies, that means telling the stories of the days before, of the smiles and wonders of a bright and beautiful Equestria. For the younger ones, the ones like me, that meant finding an interest or a hobby, something that you could look forward to and enjoy. For me, that meant books. History, science, math, fiction, fantasy, it didn’t matter. The written word was my escape. Under my bunk I had boxes and boxes of books of every kind imaginable, and I had read them all.
I was just thinking about how much I couldn’t wait to get back to them when Moondancer spoke up for the first time since leaving the Hospital. “How did you end up stuck down there anyway?” She asked. “I thought you were going to get medical supplies, not machine parts.”
I grimaced, stepping over a chunk of reinforced concrete before turning to look at her. “I got stuck. The door I was supposed to use to get in was locked up tight. I went down to the maintenance level to see if there was a more direct way in. I weaseled my way through the access grate and got to looking. Somehow the lizards snuck up on me. One of em’ managed to get off a shot, and that’s how this happened,” I said, showing her my hoofgun. “Without the gun, I had no choice but to book it deeper in. Somehow I ended up in the sub-basement, and I jumped into one of the switchboxes down there to hide. Three of them pinned me there.” I kicked at a stone and it skittered away over the cracked pavement. “Long story short, I tried to get out, they noticed me, and I ran for it.”
I gave her a grateful smile. “And that’s where you come in, I suppose.” She looked back over her shoulder and gave an easy grin, a twinkle of mirth in her huge yellow-gold eyes.
“Oh, I’m sure you would have figured something out. There’s a reason everypony calls you the smartest in the colony.”
I felt a bit of pride in my chest. For a moment, I felt as if I actually could fly. For once in my life, I actually felt good about myself.
Finally, we rounded the last corner and came to the heavy door leading into the Archive Vaults. A rusted and faded sign on the front reading “AUTHORIZED PONIES ONLY,” hung lopsided from a single peg. The pushbar on the door was painted to look old and rusted stiff, but it was always kept well oiled. It swung open silently when I leaned in to it. We started down the long, narrow stairway to the vault level.
I was still lost in my dreams of respect and adoration when Moondancer spoke up. I shook my head to clear away the daydreams. She turned her head and said, “I have a question, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure. Fire away.”
“Your name. What exactly does it mean? I’ve never heard one like it before.” I gave a little laugh. As the staircase ended and the corridor widened out, I fell into step beside her and began to explain the origins of my name.
“Well, you know I was born in the Archives, right?” She nodded lightly, so I kept going. “My mom had me just after the first group got together, in the last days of the actual war. She had no idea whether I would be a pegasus, like my dad, or a unicorn like her. She had no plans for names when I did show up.” I gave my stunted wings a little flutter. “Obviously I turned out to be a pegasus, so she wanted to give me a pegasus name. Problem being, she didn’t know any.” Ahead of us, the corridor twisted down another level, but this time the staircase was wide enough for the two of us to walk side-by-side. “She couldn’t think of one, and she didn’t want to ask for any help from one of the other pegasi in the group, so she settled on a compromise. She was a science teacher, so she settled on the technical name for a raincloud. She always said my coat made me look like a little raincloud.” I reached up a hoof and loosened the bandana around my neck, breathing a little easier. “That’s how I got my name.”
She turned to look at me and smiled sweetly. “I’ve always thought it was such a nice name. It sounds... magical, almost. Nimbus... I like it.” My heart leapt into my throat and hammered faster than when I was running from the Clickers. She liked my name! She thought I was smart! I suddenly felt an overriding feeling of pure awesome!
Of course, the universe chose that moment to make me trip over my own hooves and tumble down the steps. I crashed down the flight of stairs head first, hit the wall of the landing, and slid down the next flight backwards before coming to a stop at the bottom.
Above me, Moondancer yelped in fear. “OHMYGOSH! Nimbus, are you okay? Can you hear me?” She galloped down the stairs, skidding to a stop at my side and frantically prancing up and down. “Nimbus, can you hear me?” I twisted my body around, pulling my hooves from underneath me and giving my head a shake to try and clear the ringing in my ears before turning to look at her. She looked relieved, and kneeled down next to me.
“Why are there two of you?” I groaned and dropped my head too my hooves. Moondancer just stared. Then, she promptly fell over backwards, laughing hysterically, hoof pressed to her chest as she gasped for breath.
She had finally pulled herself together and was helping me to my hooves when a voice called from down the corridor, “Hey! Who goes there? Answer me!” I had just managed to plant myself upright when a massive rust-colored earth stallion with a long, scraggly grey mane stepped around the corner. “I swear, if it’s any o’ you fuckin’ lizards, I’ll splatter you across this ere’ hallway with my bare hooves!” He stopped when he saw Moondancer and me at the foot of the stairs. He gave a short, barking laugh and stamped his hoof. The action on his hoofgun popped open and ejected the glowing magical stone, which he caught in his mouth and tucked in to the pouch on his other foreleg.. “Well, lookie who we have ere’! If it isn’t Moondancer and little Nimbus! All of us was getting worried about you two, ya know! What took so long, huh?”
My mouth split into a wide grin. “Ironjaw! You big bastard, how are you? I didn’t know you were back from Manehattan yet. When’d you get home?” Moondancer helped me limp my way forwards to clasp forelegs with the huge earth pony. He gave another of his barking laughs as we connected. He nearly lifted me off my hooves, and the back tap he gave me almost knocked the wind out of me again.
When we moved apart, he said, “Me an’ my scavenging crew got home bout’ an hour ago, little Nimbus. We got a very, very good haul from tha’ warehouse you found in tha’ old notebook. Two crates o’ heavy winter gear, one crate o’ old Equestrian army fatigues, a box o’ old army field manuals, a whole heap o’ medical supplies, and some other stuff.” We had reached the door that lead in to the main vault section, and Ironjaw lifted one of his huge hooves and pounded on the heavy steel door. A voice spoke from the intercom above us, and the camera swung around and whirred as it focused in on us.
“Damn it, Ironjaw, what is it now? I just let you outta here, for Celestia’s sake!” Ironjaw opened his mouth to fire back a retort, but I pushed past him and spoke up myself before he could.
“Sun Ray, is that you? It’s me, Nimbus. I have a very important report to make to Spell Glow, so I’d appreciate it if you would let us in.” I stamped my hoof for emphasis. The camera swiveled in my direction as Ironjaw muttered something about “obstinate mares”, under his breath.
“Oh, look who it is. Nim-busted. How’s the wings, cripple? Done any flying lately?” Her laugh was high-pitched and yipping, almost hyena-esque. I felt a stab of anger in my chest, but it wasn’t alone. Burning shame followed close behind. I’d done more for this colony than she could possibly imagine, and she still mocked me. She wasn’t the only one, either. Plenty of the other ponies made fun of me. I was the butt of jokes from every single other pegasus in the Archives. It wasn’t my fault that I was born with stunted wings. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t manage more than a short glide. Why couldn’t they understand that?
Before I could reply, Moondancer shoved me aside and stormed towards where the camera hung from the ceiling. “Now you listen here, you harpy! We were almost killed by lizards not three hours ago, and I’m in no mood for your crap! Now, you let us in to speak to Spell Glow, or I swear by Celestia’s bones, I’ll batter down this door and shove it up your tailhole!” She blew a puff of air from her nose and glared at the camera, as if daring it to argue.
Sun Ray was silent for a moment. Then the heavy steel door gave a series of clicks, a whirr, and a heavy thunk before the clamps released and it slid up in to the ceiling. As we trotted into the airlock, Moondancer gave a flick of her tail at the camera. “See you later, sis.”
The door slid closed once again. There was a hiss of air as the pressure equalized, and my ears popped. In front of us the second door slid open, and soft yellow light filled the airlock, accompanied by the heady aroma of fresh baking bread and woody smell of newly split logs. I breathed deep, and a feeling of immense relief washed over me. I suddenly felt very, very tired. I must have sagged a little bit, because the next thing I knew, Ironjaw was walking next to me, supporting some of my weight. I gave a grateful smile and leaned into his massive shoulder. Moondancer came up on my other side and whispered softly, “Don’t worry, Nimbus. We’ve got your back. Just rest, okay? You’ve earned it.” She smiled gently. “I’ve gotta go and find my parents before we make our report, let them know I’m home safe. I’ll meet you in the council room in half an hour, okay?” I nodded, too tired to speak. All I wanted now was something to eat and a nap. Sadly, that would have to wait until after I reported to Spell Glow and the council.
As we stepped through the door into the main vault of the Archives, I couldn’t help but admire the place and the ponies that had made it into a home. When the first band of survivors had collected here nearly nineteen years ago, there had been nothing even resembling living spaces, just massive shelving units stacked with huge shipping containers, almost all of them totally empty, and their contents having already been moved to the museum above. Ponies are incredibly resourceful creatures, so it wasn’t long before all those empty containers were repurposed. The ponies cut up the shelving units in the back and turned the metal tubing into huge, multi-level ladders. They cut holes for windows and doors in the shipping containers and turned each one into an individual room with a cot and a magical space heater. Each one was connected to the one next to it by a retractable walkway and the one above by a foldable ladder. When you looked up at the shelves, you could see the pastel colors of ponies swarming up and down among the units. The scent of wood smoke filled the air from the kitchens in the back, along with the smells of cooking and the chatter of happy voices.
Right now, I wanted to join them more than anything in the world. I wanted a hunk of bread, a cold glass of carrot juice, and the biggest bowl of celery stew I could get from Stew Pot. I caught myself starting to drift in that direction when Ironjaw spoke up.
I turned to look at the door in front of us. It was a small, unimposing wooden door, marked only by a small brass plaque reading, “MEETING ROOM”. This was where the council held session. The council was the elected body of leaders chosen by the colony. Twelve ponies, plus the Head Councilmare, it was their job to make the decisions regarding the survival of the colony. They handled the training, food rationing, supply, and all the other important choices in the colony. Elections were held every two years, with Head Councilmare elections being held every four. The Archives were a bastion of civilization and equinity in the world after The Fall, and the council was the heart.
Ironjaw stepped to the side as I trotted up and knocked. A guard in equestrian Military Police barding opened the door. His mane hung in a long braid, in the northern style. He gave me an appraising look and stepped to the side, nodding at me to come in. Ironjaw nudged my shoulder and said, “I’m gonna go an’ get some grub. Lemme know ‘ow it goes, eh?”
“Sure thing. Catcha later, big red.” I stepped past the guard, who closed and bolted the door again. Ahead of me, the hallway stretched out, lit only by small electric torches spaced every few feet. A haze of dust hung suspended in the air, giving the space a musty smell. The carpeting rustled softly, muting the sound of my hooves as I walked towards the door at the opposite end. I reached the door and raised my hoof to knock, but hesitated when I heard voices from the other side of the door. I let my hoof drop and pressed my ear to the dark wood. The voices were too muffled and indistinct to make out what was said, so I stepped back and knocked. Almost immediately the door swung open to reveal the face of the colony commandant, a lean cut grey earth pony, bald, except for his great big bushy beard. That beard was legendary among the surviving colonies in Equestria. He went by Sergeant, but because of that beard he was more commonly called Bristles. Bristles gave me a glaring once over before snapping,
“You’re late. We’ve heard some disturbing rumors about your run. We need a full account, and we need it twenty minutes ago.” Around the table, the other councilponies were nodding in agreement. I swallowed hard. I’d never had to do anything like this before. I stepped into the room and took a place at the head of the table. Across from me, Spell Glow sat at the other end of the table, with the other councilponies taking the seats at the side.
I talked for the next twenty minutes, describing my encounter with the Clickers beneath Trottingham General. About halfway through the debriefing, Moondancer slipped through the door, closing it with a gently click. She gave me a wink and a smile before taking a spot on the wall behind me. Finally, I finished my story and sat back. The councilponies were wearing looks ranging from nervous to downright afraid.
Spell Glow shifted uncomfortably. She was an older mare, well in to her forties, but pretty in her own way. Her coat was a pale cream, with a tuft of hair just a bit longer than the rest on her chest. Her mane and tail grew long, and a single lock of hair hung down in her face, so brown it was almost black. Her eyes were a dark green, flecked with gold. She cleared her throat and spoke for the first time since the meeting started. “There were three of them, you say?”
“Yes”, I said. “At least as far as I know. There could have been more that I didn’t see.” She nodded.
“Alright. I suppose you should know why we’re so worried. This is the first time we’ve had any reports of Clickers this close to the Archives. They’re moving in.” She stood up and trotted around the table to where I sat. “Which is why I’m sending you, Moondancer, and Ironjaw on a scouting trip.”
Moondancer raised a hoof. “But ma’am, wouldn’t it-” Spell Glow cut her off.
“No buts. We need to know what’s going on. You’ve been asking for more responsibility in the colony. Now you’re gonna get it. We’ve had reports of Clicker hunting packs coming from the sewers. As best we can figure, they’ve got some kind of nest down there. You three are going in to Trottingham proper. It shouldn’t be too dangerous. You’ll be moving by the rooftops, and the Clickers like to stick to ground level or below.”
Bristles spoke up, his hoarse voice contrasting sharply with Spell Glow’s gentle tones. “If there’s a Clicker nest down there, we need to know about it. If there is, we’re gonna rip it apart.”
Spell Glow nodded briskly. “That’s right. We’ve been cowering in this hole for far too long. The situation has changed, Gentlecolts. The motherships are gone. The Walkers have disappeared, along with the Squids. Nopony has seen them in almost ten years. If your recon is successful, then all this sitting and waiting to die is done. We’re going to take back our world from these things that stole it from us. We’re going to teach them that they cannot do what they have done.” She turned and looked at me, her dark eyes shining with determination. “Pack your bags, you three. You leave in two days. I’ll brief the three of you on the route you’ll be taking and your primary objectives.”
“We’re going to war.”