Fallout Equestria: Ouroboros

by Francium Actinium

First published

Faced with the death of her entire stable, Francium sets out to repair the damage she helped cause, return those who are enslaved to their rightful homes and see if Stable-Tec took Project Nightmare one step too far.

Stable Seventeen. A fish tank in reverse. Safe haven for two hundred and fifty ponies to survive away from the balefire radiation of the Pony-Zebra war.
But when the glass breaks and the water drains in how quickly could you adapt to survive in the equestrian wasteland when nothing is as it should be?
Faced with the death of her entire stable, Francium sets out to repair the damage she helped cause, return those who are enslaved to their rightful homes and see if Stable-Tec took Project Nightmare one step too far.

Inspired by Kkat's 'Fallout Equestria', bolstered by Honey Mead's 'Rolling Bones', and motivated by Relentless's 'Frozen Skies'.

Prologue

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Prologue: Stable Seventeen
“Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria...

When it comes to telling stories I was never very good. I fumbled the words, forgot the jokes and usually missed out key information. So when I found myself having to tell the story of my life I was a little overwhelmed to say the least.

The majority of my life wasn’t exactly dull, things like getting my cutie mark and finding myself in bed with Helix for the first time were definitely highlights, but it wasn’t something that I thought would grip and enthral anyone enough to voluntarily lock themselves into a memory orb. I guess part of this is to do with my child hood, teenage years and young adulthood were spent in what could be described as a glorified fish tank in reverse: Stable Seventeen.

We had been taught little about the exact origins of Stable Seventeen, but there were enough key details to satisfy all but the most stubborn and curious of ponies. The stable was built one hundred and fifty metres below the surface of a giant inland lake. We were told that its source of the river feeding it was hundreds of miles away in the mountains above Canterlot, once the oldest and grandest of all the pony cities, and then wound its way to the sea. Our lake like section of river, and to some extent the final third of the river, was actually a vast underwater scar caused by two ‘tectonic plates’ pulling apart. It was somewhere in this vast underwater chasm that the stable rested, next to several geothermal vents and other natural resources that were a by-product of the huge wound in the planet’s surface.

The stable and another hundred like it had been built all over Equestria during the Pony-Zebra war to preserve as much of the population as possible in the event that either side resorted to launching mega-spells. It was the Zebras that had fired first, annihilating Cloudsdale, decimating Manehatten and vaporising Canterlot into a pink mist.

According to the small number of geologists in Stable Seventeen, the whole structure was built on top of a huge electromagnetic anomaly. What it was exactly was still the subject of debate to this day but one thing was clear. When a mega-spell was detonated it produced a vast amount of magical radiation. If the initial blast did not kill you then the exposure to several thousand rads of radiation would. But the anomaly either neutralised the radiation or stopped it dead in its tracks whilst it permeated everything in the landscape above. The result was a small pocket of habitable water and land beneath the surface, enough to support a fairly diverse food chain and a huge pocket of pure water.

No one truly appreciated what we had. I had done my best to comprehend how lucky we were to be alive but without knowing what life I could have had if the war had not engulfed Equestria, and gaining some kind of perspective, it was like trying to understand what it was like to be the last foal to get your cutie mark when you were the first or what it was like to be a colt if you were a filly; impossible.

Only when I was forced to the surface, to experience the wasteland first hand did I truly understand, but my reaction was not what you would have expected.

I guess the only thing to do now is to introduce myself.

Hello, my name is Francium.

And this is the story of Ouroboros

Act 1 - Chapter 1: Problems

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Chapter 1: Problems
“Ahhhh shoot, we had everything goin’ our way…”

I lay flat on my back inside the thin tube. It was clammy, dark and very cramped. It was made worse by the tight-fitting, thick, yellow PVC environmental suit that encased me and made my entire body sweat profusely. The torch fixed on the helmet of the suit was the only source of light and it was focused against the very tip of my horn which protruded out of the top of the helmet; the airtight seal maintained by a rubber flange.

Stable Seventeen had two main sources of power. A series of turbine blades, mounted in the fast flowing hot water above several nearby geothermal vents, were the primary power source. Several gas vents, dotted in and around the stables various sections, provided the rest. It was inside one of the many gas syphoning tubes that I now found myself.

I clicked on my PipBucks transmitter. “Go silent”, I said to let the head of maintenance know I was starting the repair work. I didn’t want anything to distract my concentration given what I was about to do. Focusing, I cast the first of the two spells I’d need for my task. The repulsion spell formed at the tip of my horn glowing intensely in the darkness, causing a small vacuum to form inside the bubble as the gas in the tube was forced away.

So far, so good.

I now began the spark spell, raising my horn up to the corner of the patching plate. Pinning the plate in place over the microscopic crack with my hooves, I concentrated and increased the power of the spark at the tip of my horn. A high energy arc of magic jumped the short distance from my horn to the patching plate; superheating the plate’s edge, and the tube behind it, on contact. I continued carefully, running my horn around the edge of the plate, fusing it seamlessly to the syphoning tube.

Repairs like this were getting more common which didn’t bode well for me. I was one of maybe a dozen unicorns capable of casting the repulsion spell and the only one that could cast both the repulsion spell and spark spell simultaneously. It usually took two ponies to do the job I was doing, one for each spell. The biggest issue was the size of the tube, which made it an exercise in patience, as two ponies struggled to work together inside a tube filled with highly flammable gas. If there was a stray spark, well the water pressure would be the least of my worries.

I finished the weld, carefully ending the spark spell and then the repulsion spell. ‘Not bad Fran, not bad at all’ I said to myself. I clicked on my PipBucks transmitter again. “Patching complete, Arc. How’s the pressure looking?’

“It’s going back up. Quite rapidly I might add. That damage must’ve been more severe than we thought.” The old voice crackled through the loudspeaker. “Good job. Bring yourself back in. Let’s get you out of that suit.”

“Roger that Arc, heading back now.” I switched on my PipBuck’s radio and clicked through the half a dozen or so channels until I found something that would keep me occupied for the duration; settling for Spline’s Guide To DIY. There were music channels, but Chord, the stables last great composer, had died half my life ago so there was little in the way of new listening material. Concertos and Symphonies begin to lose their charm just like any other music if that’s all you listen to.

“If you remember in episode four hundred and eight we covered the more complex types of wood joints; if you don’t remember, all the episodes are available to download to your PipBuck as a Pipcast. Today are going to cover how to utilise these to maximise the strength of your construction…” I started back.

* * *

After thirty minutes of squirming and wriggling back down the tube, and getting even hotter and sweater in the process, I finally saw stable-light. Manoeuvring into the transfer tube, after checking that I was clear of the door, I signalled Arc to start the transfer process.

A bulkhead dropped down behind me and the tank began to fill with a disinfectant fluid, forcing the gas out the top. The moment the tank brimmed there was a clunk and the liquid began to recede, pulling in stable air. A light flashed on the wall of the tank indicating the process was complete and I pushed open the inner door of the transfer tube and slithered out.

“Welcome back Francium.” Arc clapped his hooves together in approval. “Another fine job. If only you could teach that dual spell technique to everypony, we wouldn’t be up to our necks in busted pipes.”

I pulled off the suit's helmet and dropped it into the maintenance laundry trolley. “You and Inertia would’ve done it faster.” I proceeded to undo the suits many sealing zips. “You were always the best at the tubes.”

The old buck shrugged. “Perhaps, but I am old, decrepit and I need you young fillies and colts to fill in after I am gone. Not to mention it now only takes one filly to do the work of two bucks.”

I pulled a face of mock indignation. “I’m not a filly anymore. I’m a young mare thank you very much.” I tossed the suit in along with the helmet with a playful huff.

Arc grinned, revealing his dwindling collection of teeth. “You could have fooled me. Have you seen the state you’re in? What about how you smell.”

I looked around into a glass cleaning tank and was rather shocked. My usually luscious blue and white mane and tail looked like tangled knots of damp seaweed. I gave my soft blue forehoof a sniff and regretted it. Arc chortled at my expression.

“Perhaps you are right,” I said grimacing. I smelt awful; mainly of plastic and perspiration. I was pretty sure I could smell something else too, but there was no way I was going to check for that in front of the old buck. He’d probably fall off his chair with… well, I couldn’t decide between shock or laughter. “I best go and have myself a shower or two.” I turned to go.

“Three.” Arc snickered, waving his hoof in front of his muzzle. “Then you’ll be all ready for your mare-friend.”

I glanced back quickly. “I don’t have a mare-friend. You know that.”

“I know.” He winked. “But still…” He paused for a second then said, “Either way, make sure you’re on time for Lillypad’s Cutecinera. The little one’ll be really upset if you aren’t there. You know how she gets without you or Helix around; you’re like mothers to her.”

I felt my heart sag slightly. “She had a real mother. We can’t replace her. Helix would never do that to Lillypad.”

“Even so…” Arc paused, his happy expression faltering. “Just be there. For Lillypad.”

I smiled at him. “Always.”

He returned my smile before turning back to his computer. I could not believe how quickly the conversation had turned. I gave the old buck one final glance before turning back and heading out into the corridor, closing the door quietly behind me; ‘I wonder what his mother was like?’ my little pony muttered quietly.

I started to head back to the core of the stable. The gas dome was one of seven sections set away from the core of stable seventeen. Three separate geodesic domes housed Gas Syphoning 1, the Algae Processing Plant and Air Processing & Maintenance with a final heavily reinforced cuboid for the stables apple orchard. The remaining three sections were large hollow rings which each supported a turbine blade over three of the largest geothermal vents surrounding the stable. All of these were linked with each other and the core by tubes which were partially submerged into the seabed for protection; quite a feat of construction one hundred fifty metres down.

I looked out the windows of the tube I was in, seeing the core looming high in the middle above me. A slightly conical tower of steel with inset windows and pipes jutting out at regular intervals, the Core was ten stories tall and contained Habitation, Recreation and the Mess-hall for all two hundred fifty residents of stable seventeen.

I reached the core and joined the throng of ponies making their way to their rooms now that the day was drawing to a close. Some chatted about work, others discussed how they were going to spend their evening and a few moaned about being given evening and night shifts.

“Hey, Francium, you got a moment?” I looked around.

“Hey, Heather.” I squeezed my way over to the medical pony; she was still wearing her work coat and looked slightly frazzled. I moved in next to her in the small alcove created by two of the main support beams that ran up the inside of the core. “Wow, you look like you’ve had a busy day.”

“Yeah. Busy, but good. We have a new filly.” She beamed with happiness. “She was just over a week early, but she’s stable all the same. Helix came over and took the sample so the machines can start the genome mapping.”

“That whole process gives me the creeps.” I shuddered, “The idea that the buck that I mate with is pre-planned by a machine, it’s just odd.”

“But it’s always been this way, and it’s necessary. Otherwise, we would’ve hit the limit of gene diversity years ago.” Heather rolled her eyes at me, “Besides, you don’t have to know whose foal you’re having. You can be artificially inseminated, remember.”

“It’s the ‘not knowing’ bit that I worry about. I’m fine with having the foal; though I’d prefer a daughter, it’s just the feeling I get every time I pass a buck, that he could be my father and I’ll never know. It’s just weird.”

“You’ll probably get a daughter anyway. Helix has been working on improving the biasing injection that your mother developed. The intended ratio is still three to one, but we should get something like seven to three rather than the nine to four we’re currently getting.”

“Heather, I’m a maintenance pony. I’ll have forgotten that by the time I get back to my room.”

“Yeah.” She shrugged, smiling slightly, “But it’s still intriguing, isn’t it?”

“Is there something you need me for specifically?” I asked, “I could really do with a good shower.”

Heather gave a sniff. “Oh, great Celestia.” She backed off slightly, “You do.” She laughed at my expression, “Yeah, I’m afraid that Helix won’t be around again tonight with the new tests to set running. She also has two ponies to inform of their genome results. We’ll have two pregnant mares to care for in nine months.”

“Do you think she can spare five minutes?” I asked, my ears drooping slightly. Another night without Helix. “I was supposed to be cooking for her before we went to Lillypads Cutecinera.”

“I don’t think so I’m afraid. I’d leave her to it personally, she seems a little disturbed.” Heather frowned then checked her Pipbuck. “Right, gotta dash. I’ll see you at the Cutecinera.” She waved goodbye and was swallowed up by the crowd.

“Oh well, best go and freshen up,” I muttered to myself. Suddenly I found myself smiling as I noticed where I was standing. Right here, in this very alcove, almost a year to the day, was when I’d first kissed Helix. My inner pony let out a little squee of delight. I got a few odd looks as I set off; a random maintenance mare, who badly needed a wash, grinning from ear to ear.

* * *

I closed the door to my small room and sighed. I was exhausted, sleepy, slightly annoyed and could sense a familiar feeling disturbing the pit of my stomach. Hunger? Not quite. Thirst? Not that either. Ah, that was it, sexual frustration. I sighed, again. I had planned a nice meal with Helix before we went to see Lillypad, perhaps a quick make-out session too, but now that Helix was stuck working I didn't know what to do.

I settled for feeling frustrated, and besides, I had more immediate problems than my overactive hormones. I was in need of a serious clean and my mane and tail could do with a complete makeover. I also wanted to wash before I turned myself on further with my own scent.

The blast from the shower was heavenly. I could feel my worries, and more importantly, the grime, literally flowing off my body. I picked up a bottle of shampoo and began working it into my two-tone mane and tail with my magic, the water cascading down soaking every part of me and filling me with warmth and contentment that only a hot shower could. Despite its little ups and downs, I thought, my life was good.

There were many in Stable Seventeen that groaned and complained. Some despised the monotony and the menial tasks, the fortnightly cycled menus in the cafeteria: ‘What, apple puree and mushrooms again!’, and the constant hum of the stable lights. That did get me down occasionally; that the lights in the public areas of the stable were constantly lit. Yes, you had your own switches for your room, but you could never escape the eternal hum of the main lighting.

Some got tired of the views out of the stables numerous windows, complaining that it was just an eternal murky blackness and, to a point, they were right, but what we had was something that took time and thought to appreciate fully.

I stood there for a while longer, peering into the gloom watching odd shapes flit through the ray of light emanating from my window. Eventually, I stepped out of the shower and picked up a towel with my horn and began to dry myself. “Clean at last.” I chuckled to myself, drying my cutie mark. I smiled slightly to myself.

~ ~ ~

“Right let’s go over what we know you can do.” Helix sat beside me at the kitchen table with her brand new double helix cutie mark, compete with two test tubes upon her soft purple flank. “You can levitate like every other pony. That’s normal.” She jotted that down on the little notepad. “But, you have greater control than most, that’s not so normal. What else?” She puffed a strand of purple mane out of her eyes.

“I’m good at making models. My mechanical and electrical skills are pretty good.” I said into the desk. I rolled my head over to look up at my best friend “Helix, do we have to go through this again?”

“Yes,” she said firmly, scribbling down ‘superb mechanical and electrical skills’.

“I’m not that good.” I prodded the notepad.

“You can fix almost anything, so long as you know how it works; you don’t even have to hack a terminal, you can just rewire it to get past the security. No one else of our age can do that. So yes, yes you are.”

“I suppose so.” Helix had a very high view of my skills which I didn’t share. Yeah, I was able to do some pretty cool and difficult things given I was a filly, but there were plenty of other ponies in stable seventeen that could do what I did. Except one, “I’m a very good welder.”

“Exceptional welder.” Helix corrected, “That buck with the greying mane in maintenance told me that you did both the spark and repulsion spells the other week. At the same time! Nopony else can do that.”

“He’s called Arc, but I can’t see how that links to my cutie mark?” I moaned, “If my mark was welding or engineering or electronics or maths then I would have it by now, but no…” I looked down at my blank flank, “I am still missing something.”

Helix shrugged sadly, “We’ll just have to keep trying things. Hey, why don’t we give this a break; it’s just stressing you out. What do you want to do instead?”

“I’m rebuilding that model that your mum gave me for my birthday last year; that really difficult one. Oh and I dismantled the Griffon Chaser II for you to have a go at.”

Ten minutes later we’d exchanged moods. I was having fun building ‘Horse Shoe Tower’ in miniature and Helix was getting in a flap over the Griffon Chasers complex flying mechanism. That was the exact reason I loved that kit; it was really fiddly to get all the bits in the right place so that the wings would flap properly.

“Oh, for the love of Celestia.” She cried out, dropping the model with a huff. “I enjoy doing these with you Fran, but this one is just beyond me.”

“What are you struggling with?” I levitated up her model to inspect it.

“I was holding the two halves of the body together while the glue hardened, but they slipped and now they are joined together at completely the wrong angle,” she sulked.

“No biggy.” I focused hard, really hard, harder than usual, with a soft pop the two pieces separated cleanly and I handed them back to her. “There you go problem solved.”

But Helix was suddenly gaping at me.

“What’s wrong? You’ve seen me do that before.”

“Yes,” she stuttered, “but not break a model apart, fuse one together, and levitate lots of things together at the same time. That’s three spells; three very different spells.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve done it,” I told her thinking back.

“Wait there!” She said jumping up. She dashed off and returned a moment later with one of the other models I had given her and two glasses of water.

“Try this.” She said excitedly, “Heat up this glass.” Helix held one glass up for me, I obliged, starting a positive transfer spell. The water began to bubble slightly.

“Freeze this one, but keep heating the other one.” I focused on a negative transfer spell and condensation started gathering on the surface of the glass.

“Now pick up my model and start to break it apart.” I focused. This was hard, but not too bad. The model's individual parts began to separate from the decomposition incantation on the glued lines.

“Now continue building your model.” I looked at her with an ‘are you sure expression’. She just beamed back. ‘Okay...’ I thought to myself. I focused once more levitating the bricks off the table. My horn suddenly flared and I almost dropped everything, but Helix cried, “No, keep going.” I pushed again my horn began to glow brightly again as I started the binding spell. The effort was exhausting, but I began to smile.

I was maintaining five spells simultaneously, five!

“Gimme another. Let’s make it six!’ I called out to Helix even though she was right next to me. Helix dashed out once more and returned with two metal cooking pans. She levitated them up to my horn.

“Weld them.” My smile broadened even further. This I knew I could do, and I was good at it so it was just a question of if I could maintain six spells.

I started the spell and it came fairly easily, but the moment the spell began to manifest itself my horn flared again. I was sweating with the effort. My inner pony was jumping around like mad shouting ‘you’re going to burn out, you’re going to burn out!’ But I didn’t care.

Ever so slowly I brought the spell up, slowing or reducing the intensity of the other spells so that I could mentally, and literally, free up some space in my head. The spark jumped to the pans and, with whatever brain power I had left, I began to weld. It was possibly the worst weld I’ve ever done. Uneven, blotchy, even a couple of holes clean through the pans but it was a weld. Before I could truly appreciate what I was doing my horn flared out again with such ferocity I blacked out.

“Doctor, she is awake!” I stirred, slowly opening my eyes. My mother was peering at me with worry and Helix sat on the end of my bed looking at me with a mixture of glee and concern. “Francium, what in Celestia’s name were you doing!” She held me in a tight hug. “You had me terrified!”

“I was trying to get my cutie mark,” I replied sheepishly.

“And you succeeded.” The doctor came over with a stern look on his face, “ It's really quite rare for some pony of your age to over flare, so whatever you were doing must have been very strenuous. You’ll not be able to do any magic for at least a week and it may take up to a month to regain all your magical strength because of your young age.”

“Wait. I succeeded?” I looked at Helix whose eyes had lit up instantly.

“Yes but...” the doctor started.

I ignored his protests and tore back the bedcovers, wriggling round to look at my flank...

And there it was.

~ ~ ~

I put the towel back on the rack and looked down once more at my cutie mark. Three intersecting flares of magic of red, green and blue with smaller white flares in the centre. Some cutie marks were fairly simple but mine had so many details and swirls and shades of colour in random patterns with highlights and reflections that it looked just like a real horn flare. It was beautiful.

“Feeling nostalgic are we?” A sultry voice snapped me back to my senses. I spun around. Helix was lying on my bed. Lying on my bed looking at me with her big blue beautiful eyes and long eyelashes and… and… wait?

“What’re you doing here?” I exclaimed.

“What’s it look like?” She replied innocently, rolling onto her back and batting her eyelashes.

“It looks like… umm.” I could feel butterflies in my stomach again; damn she looked hot! “Like…” She raised an eyebrow, pouting slightly. “like… wait, Heather just told me that you had work to finish.”

“Well, how else was I going to surprise you?” Then her eyes suddenly dropped. “You’ve forgotten haven’t you?”

Oh no… her birthday? No. My birthday? Definitely not! Hearts and Hooves day? Again, no. I couldn’t think of anything. “I am sorry… I can’t remember.” I looked at her sadly. I had a useless memory for dates. Wait… dates! “I’ve got it!” I literally jumped with glee that I’d remembered. “It’s been a year since we started seeing each other!”

Helix’s eyes softened. “Well done.” She smiled at me again and shuffled slightly looking exceptionally cute. “Well, what are you just standing there for? It’s rude to keep a lady waiting.” I didn’t move. “Well come on,” she beckoned, and I followed.

Sometime later, Helix popped to the bathroom to ‘freshen up’. She left me tied to the bed, unable to see and unable to make a sound. I was in bliss. Part of my head was sending out warning signals, but in this state, I had no way of figuring out what it was warning me about. I turned my head towards my clock, hoping that would jog my memory. Blackness; damn this blindfold. I knew I needed to be somewhere, but I just couldn't put my hoof on it.

“Worried about missing the Cutecinera?” Helix had returned, “Don’t worry it’s just over two hours away.” I felt her breath on my face and made as much noise as I could. “Hmmm, that thing is very effective at keeping you quiet isn’t it?” I scowled at her, or where I thought she was anyway. I heard her giggle. “That’s nothing.”

I felt the side of the bed compress as Helix moved onto it and then on the other side too as she straddled me. She removed the blindfold and my jaw stayed exactly where it was, dropped. If it had been able to move it would have hit the floor.

“You like it?” She looked into my eyes and I nodded slowly. “I thought you might. It took a…”

“Helix, are you in there?” A familiar voice called. Oh Celestia… not him, not now. “It’s Tungsten. I tried your place, but you weren’t there.” He knocked again. “Come on, the Overmare needs to see you.”

Helix looked at me in shock. “What do we do?” she whispered in horror. Then actually smiled slightly, despite the situation, when I raised my eyebrows and grunted around the bit.

“It’s urgent. Francium. Are you there?” he groaned. “The door’s not locked, I am opening the door. You better not be showering or something.”

Oh, dear Goddesses no!

* * *

“We have to talk to him. Explain it. He got it all out of context.”

“How can you get ‘finding your sister and your ex making kinky love’ out of context? This is my fault, I should’ve told him. You’re his sister for Luna’s sake, and now he’s going to think I used him to get to you or something stupid like that.”

“But he knows we’ve always been friends.”

“Exactly, as far as he knows we could’ve been doing this all the time when I was with him. He wasn’t into it, so we just did normal stuff. Now he’s going to be wondering how I satisfied this side of me.” I sat there on the bed for a moment before slamming my hoof down on the bed; which just bounced back. I hit it again and again and again. After about a minute I just stopped, seething that I couldn’t take my frustration out on the bed without tossing it across the room, which I couldn’t bring myself to do.

“Feel any better?” Helix asked.

“No.” I put my head in my hooves. “He’s going to hate me even more now.”

“Why. You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s unusual to like this kind of thing.” She looked at what was left of the black garment she’d been wearing. She’d torn it off in a fit of stress and shock, and it now lay in tattered pieces at her hooves. “But not wrong.”

“But you’re his little sister, that’s why he’ll hate me for this.” Helix looked at me in confusion. Her makeup had run all down her face, but she still looked cute. “In his eyes, I’ve corrupted you and twisted you and messed with you. He might even think I did it to get back at him for something.”

“He isn’t like that, and besides you broke up with him.”

“I know. But he isn’t the same any more. He isn’t the same buck I asked out. He isn’t the same buck I… I…”

“Didn’t catch that last bit.”

“He isn’t the same buck I fell in love with,” I said quickly as if getting it out sooner would make it hurt less. I rolled over and curled up on the bed the guilt now filling my chest. “It wasn’t just what he caught us doing. It’s who I’d been doing it with. He loves you, you’re his sister. And I loved him and he loved me but I broke his heart when I left him. And now it’s like I am breaking it again as I take you away from him.”

“You know that doesn’t really make sense right,” Helix replied cautiously.

“But it’s still true,” I snapped back, making Helix recoil. “I broke his heart when I left him, and now I’m going to break it again because he’s losing you; his sister, to the mare that broke his heart.” I just sat there staring at Helix breathing heavily.

“You don’t know that. As I said, we have to talk to him.” Helix stood up and shook herself, trying to compose her mind.

“Helix, please no… I can’t,” I started.

“Can’t what?” she looked at me sternly. “Face him? Talk to him?”

“He knows things. He knows me; all the bad things about me.”

Helix grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me to look at her. She actually looked cross with me. “I know everything about you too. I can guarantee I know more than him. I’ve known you longer, spent more time with you and shared every secret with you. So unless you’ve been lying to me, you have nothing to worry about. Now get a grip.”

I just nodded and she smiled at me shaking her head.

“So, what do you suggest?” I asked nervously, “How do we get him back to talk?”

“Leave that to me,” Helix got to her hooves and looked at me sternly, “Now you are going to stay here. No running off. Promise? Or do I have to tie you down again?”

“Ummm, I’ll stay. As fun as it would be, I don’t fancy having him come back and still finding me stuck on the bed. I can’t imagine it looking too good.”

“Yeah,” Helix gave me a final encouraging smile before slipping out the door. I went over and determinedly locked it; didn’t want another pony wandering in at random as I tidied up.

I ambled around detaching the hoof locks, picking up the bit gag and what was left of Helix’s outfit before hiding the lot in my saddlebags which were jammed at the back of my cupboard. Then it was just a case of waiting for Helix to return. I was halfway through making myself a cup of tea when there was a knock at the door. For a moment I was tempted to ignore it, but something inside me made me reach out with my magic and unlock the door.

I couldn’t read the expression on Tungsten’s face. A perfect poker face; well I only had the saying to go off, having never played poker in my life. Helix just looked at me with a calming expression and gestured with a hoof to my sofa. I carefully picked up my tea and settled myself down opposite Tungsten, who continued to look at me levely, his face not even twitching. Helix sat down carefully next to me and placed a hoof comfortingly on my leg.

“So,” Tungsten just sat there studying the pair of us with his grey eyes, “How long have you two been together?”

“One year today; well, officially anyway.” Helix looked at him, trying to see through the stoic expression to her elder brother inside. I had to admit, it was hard to hold his gaze; I could only guess at the tumult of emotion that must be writhing inside him at that moment.

“Wow. Kept it quiet didn’t you.” Oh please no; anger and shouting or crying and shock, not this unreadable wall. I knew him well enough to know that when he was like this, he was torn in two with his feelings; Ambivalence.

“I’m sorry, Tun. We’re sorry. I’ll admit we didn’t see it coming, it just kind of ended up happening.” Helix leaned towards him, offering her hoof, but he just pushed it away. “You’ve always known we’ve been close and that we trust each other with everything.” Helix looked at me imploringly; wanting me to say something, but I didn’t know what to do. If I said the wrong words then things could go from bad to worse in an instant.

“So, you expect me to believe that somewhere along the line, one of you said to the other ‘hey, how’d you feel if we slept together and then have a little bit of fun.”

“It didn’t happen like that,” I said defensively.

Tungsten turned his hard gaze on me. “Well, who asked who? How’d it happen then?” He asked coolly.

“Slowly. Just when we were spending time together we just got closer and more comfortable around one another.” I tried to think back to when things had changed; the moment when we became more than just friends, but it was virtually impossible.

“I think it was Hearts and Hooves day.” Helix looked at me. “We sent each other cards like we always did, but it was how we wrote them. Something more than ‘I love you as a friend’ more ‘I truly love you, deeply’...”

“We can’t explain it. The only way for you to truly understand would be to let you experience our memories and feelings.”

“Yeah, like I’d put myself through that,” Tungsten huffed. “But the point still stands, who asked who?” He glared at me.

“What, you think it was me? Actually, why does it matter? Just so you have someone you feel you can blame this on? There’s nothing wrong with us being together, about us being happy, something that obviously isn’t important to you.”

I felt like kicking him, why couldn’t he get it? I loved Helix, there was nothing that was ever going to change that, and yet it seemed we’d have to go the rest of our lives with a disapproving Tungsten breathing down our necks.

My thoughts were interrupted by Helix and I’s PipBucks going ‘Ping’ in unison. I looked down at the message on the screen.

“They want me over in the Labs,” Helix looked confused.

“Apple Blossom wants to see me in the orchard,” I replied, just as confused. “A bit late isn’t it?” Helix just nodded slowly scratching her muzzle.

“That’s what I came to get you about earlier?” Tungsten said flatly, “Fine, go. Have fun fucking when you get back.” Ignoring Helix’s gasp of shock, he leapt to his hooves, jolting the table and sending my tea flying, and stormed out without a backwards look.

Helix watched the door for a moment, then turned to me and cried into my shoulder.

“Why does he have to be like this.” She leant close and I held her, nuzzling into her soft mane. “What is it about us that he despises?”

“I don’t know.” I sat there holding Helix close to me, feeling her heartbeat and listening to her breathing. “You know we need to go don’t you.”

“Yeah,” she sniffed. “Just five more minutes?’ She looked up at me.

All I could do was smile at her. Helix smiled back, squeezed me tightly and pushed in close. All I could think of as I closed my eyes, taking in every little movement she made and how her breath disrupted my coat, was just how much I loved her. My Helix.

* * *

The orchard was a vast rectangular structure connected to the stable by a series of underground tubes. Inside grew around two thousand apple trees of various ages and varieties. It seemed that when Stable-tech had planted the first orchard they had no idea which trees would work best and had just planted a bit of everything, which was odd considering that everything else Stable-tech did was usually planned down to the finest detail.

As I entered I felt a chill hit my coat. The Season Replication System, or SRS, in this area of the orchard were recreating mid-autumn, and the final crop of apples was beginning to ripen. Or to be more precise, they weren’t.

“Tell me if I’m wrong, but aren’t apples meant to be green or red?” I trotted over to Apple Blossom and Morning Bloom in the centre of the orchard, eyeing the very sick looking trees as I went past. Almost every apple was a creepy shade of yellow and covered in little brown spots.

“Yeah,” Apple Blossom muttered absentmindedly, then her head snapped up from the apple she was dissecting. “Oh, hello Francium,” she said, looking flustered. “What took you so long, we sent that message half an hour ago.”

“Dinner with Helix,” I said quickly.

“Ooo, that sounds nice.” Apple Blossom smiled at me, “It’s like you two were made for each other.”

It took a lot of self-control not to gawp at her. “What do you mean?” I recovered.

“That you’ve always been such good friends,” Apple Blossom replied brightly.

“Oh yeah, we have been haven’t we.” Phew. I glanced around the orchard. “So, what do you need me for?”

“We know that you were doing some preventative maintenance on the Season Replication units last week, and you had to replace the external filter in water pump three last month. We’re just wondering if it could’ve caused all this?” she looked around at the trees.

“I really wouldn’t have thought so,” I shrugged, “I am no expert, but this looks like a chemical infection. All the parts we used are cleaned by irradiating them, so there’s literally nothing living on them when we install them. You’d need to talk to Helix about chemistry stuff.”

“Well, their equipment better be more accurate than ours because as far as my PipBuck is concerned there’s nothing wrong.” Morning Bloom, groaned and levitated the remains of an apple into a bucket. It had the words ‘Irradiate Before Disposal’ stuck on the side.

“Maybe you need your Pipbuck checked?” I suggested.

“Nope, same result with mine.” Apple Blossom said dryly, “There’s an anomaly, but it reads as both an unknown liquid and an unknown mineral, which is impossible.”

“That’s definitely Helix’s territory,” I glanced around again. “How widespread is this? Has this happened to all the apples?”

“No, just sector three. The other three areas are fine. We got the water piping plans off Arc this morning. Turns out each section is fed from a different pump, probably for the precise reason of preventing mass contamination.”

Morning Bloom scratched her head thinking, “Where’s this sectors water syphoned from?”

I checked my stable utilities schematic. “Sector threes’ water is taken from a point off to one side of turbine one. Sector ones’ is on top of the core, sector twos’ is by gas intake one, and sector four is set away from the stable. Nearest structure is the geological outpost off turbine 3.” They were all nowhere near one another and I supposed that was the point; if one got contaminated it wouldn’t affect the others at the same time.

“How easy would it be to set up a fifth water syphoning point?”

“Not impossible but a lot of work. I’m not even sure we have the equipment. If we do, then it’s just a case of setting it up outside. The hard bit is running the new pipe and hooking it up to the pumps. Say a week, five days if everything goes smoothly.”

“And if we don’t have the parts?”

“Couldn’t say really, depends what we have to make; could be a week, could be months.” I just shrugged. “Sorry, but are you even sure that changing the water supply will solve the problem. The trees are already contaminated.”

“We don’t have many options. We can’t eat these apples so that’s twenty per cent of our food supply gone. I believe we have three months of reserves but after that, nothing. If you’re right then we’ll have to cut down all these trees and replace all the soil. It’d take months and then growing new trees would take years.”

I gulped slightly; that would not be good. “So, you want to try the easy stuff first before resorting to a full scale tear down.”

“Precisely.”

My inner pony groaned. “I’ll get on to Arc and the head of engineering; let them know what we’re planning. One of you’ll have to talk to the Over’s and get this approved.” They both just nodded. I turned and left them to pick a few more samples. ‘Something tells me you aren’t going to be getting much sleep for the next few weeks’ the little pony in my head chided at me. I told it to sit on my horn and spin.

* * *

I was silently kicking myself as I wandered back to the core. I’d told myself numerous times not to be late to Lillypads Cutecinera and yet somehow the universe had conspired against me. I made my way past the Labs and spotted Helix chatting to Cosmos. Oh, what the heck; I was already late, I turned around and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Fran.” Helix gave me a quick hug and ushered me inside.

I very rarely entered the Genome lab, and I was always left stunned when I did. I was surrounded by numerous machines of all shapes and sizes. There were test tubes in racks on one side and the other usual lap paraphernalia, but many of the items were foreign to me.

“Impressive isn’t it,” Cosmos said proudly, watching me as I examined the contents of the room with a look of awe on my face.

“Looks complicated...” I trotted around looking closely at all the odd objects. I let Helix and Cosmos finish their discussion. All I could pick up was that they were planning to modify one of the analysis machines to try and find out more about the foreign element in the orchard, but most of it was over my head.

A table on the wall drew my eye. It was a floor to ceiling list of every pony on the stable. The table seemed to be colour co-ordinated; green, yellow, red, blue and white. I spotted my name and Heathers with green tabs next to them; Helix had a blue tab. Arc’s was red and Tungstens was yellow.

“Don’t examine that to closely.” Helix placed a hoof on my shoulder and turned me round. “Best not to know the future. Yeah, that’s the breeding outline.” She added judging my expression.

“Why’s yours’ blue?” I asked, pointing, “and why’s Tungstens’ yellow?”

“I... I can’t say.” Helix suddenly looked sad, but she shook herself and smiled back at me reassuringly.

“What do all these machines do?” I asked, changing the subject.

“They’re all part of the Genome mapping process. That’s the centrifuge at the end, which separates the blood for analysis. Then it goes into that big blue tank which breaks it down further and then extracts individual strands of DNA.”

“DNA is tiny though, there’s no way you could physically pick it up, even with magic.”

Helix smiled approvingly, “Quite right, so we use the next machine to take a Unicorns magic and allow them to control it on a microscopic level. Then once we have the strands they go into this,” she pointed at a tiny port on the wall with a handful of buttons.

“I’m guessing that there’s more to it than a hole in the wall.” I said.

“Right again, my love.” Helix pointed through a glass window and I peered in. Inside were banks and banks of little black boxes immersed in a translucent blue liquid.

“What in Equestria is that?” The thing was huge, at least twenty metres squared and three metres tall.

“The stables Gene mapper.”

“So that’s the thing that keeps us living down here. The machine that decides who we mate with?” Helix just nodded. “What don’t you like the idea?”

“I dislike it as much as you do. Something about it that disturbs me. Yeah, because of it we can live down here for almost half a millennium, but I just don’t like it.”

“And you work with it every day. Something you don’t like. Then how did you end up working in here? And your cutie mark, its almost entirely defined by that machine,” then something clicked. “It's because of this machine that Lillypad doesn’t have a family.”

Helix turned looking confused. “She does have a family, you’re part of it, I’m part of it.”

“That’s not family, not really. A family is blood relations, your mother, brothers and sisters. Ponies who share your genes.”

“Then who am I to you?” Why did Helix sound accusing? “Am I not part of your family because I don’t share your bloodline?”

“We’re not family, not yet. We can’t get married cos we’re both mares, though we can be partners, that would make us family.”

“So a piece of paper is more an indication of Family than love, or happiness, or kindness. Is it?” Helix just looked at me coolly.

“Wait... no... that’s not what I meant.” Why was she twisting my words? “It’s not as straightforward as...” But I stopped as Helix began to giggle. “What. What’s so funny?”

“You’re so cute when you get all worked up.” A grin was spreading across her face. “You’re just so easy to wind up.” I didn’t know what to say so I settled for sitting there; looking surprised and confused. “Come on.” Helix placed a hoof around my shoulder. “Let’s go see Lillypad. We’ve delayed long enough.”

* * *

We stepped into the atrium and I was amazed by the level of activity. It seemed almost everypony had come up to celebrate Lillypads Cutecinera. Even ponies that I only knew by face were happily enjoying the festivities.

“Wow, muffins!” Helix zipped over to a collection of tables groaning with food. “I haven’t eaten these since, well I can’t remember.” She levitated one to her muzzle and smelled it, breathing deeply. “Blueberry! I didn’t know we had real blueberries!”

“We didn’t. Punch grew the specially for this day.” A mare piped up who was pouring out apple juice into wine glasses. She waved her horn and the liquid transformed into what looked like white wine. “Have a glass.” She levitated Helix and I a pair.

“Thank you.” I gave it a sniff. “Chenin Blanc?”

“Sauvignon.” She held out a hoof. “Ambrosia.”

“Nice to meet you Sauvignon.” I replied.

“No, the wine is Sauvignon, my name’s Ambrosia.” She rolled her eyes.

Woops. “Sorry. I’m Francium. Or Fran.”

Ambrosia’s eyes widened. “So you’re Francium.” She looked approving.

“You know me?”

“Not really, but Lillypad told asked me to tell her when you and Helix arrived.” She looked at Helix behind me. “Is that her?”

“Yep, that’s my Helix.” I smiled back at Helix who was savouring each bite of her muffin.

“Fran! Helix! You finally came!” I slopped most of my Sauvi... wine all over the table as I was assaulted by a soft green blur. “What took you so long?” I looked down and saw the filly of the hour.

“Lillypad!” I swept her up into a hug. “Look at you, you’ll be a big pony soon!”

She scowled at me, “I am a big pony.” Then was instantly beaming again. “Where’s my other BSBFF?” I nodded and then had to dodge a flying filly as Lillypad leapt from my legs and scampered up to Helix who swept her up again in a tight hug.

It was wonderful to watch Helix and Lillypad together. The epitome of happiness and contentment. I watched as Lillypad took Helix by the hoof and dragged her off to play Pin The Tail On The Pony.

“She’s a wonderful mare isn’t she.” Ambrosia appeared beside me. “You’re very lucky to have Helix.”

“Yeah, I am.” Wait? “How do you know?” I exclaimed, spinning to look at her.

“I may just be a kitchen hoof but I know love when I see it. Even if you’re trying to keep it hidden.” She winked at me. “I’m not the only one, but there’s no benefit in telling everypony so we’ll let it stay secret.”

I felt shocked, “Are we that easy to read?”

“No, it’s hard to spot. Most just see you and Helix as really good friends, and they know about how you spent almost every waking moment of your childhood together. Spotting the love bit is hard.” ‘Well at least our secret relationship isn’t on display,’ I thought.

Speaking of relationships, I saw Tungsten walk in out of the corner of my eye. He looked happy enough, but something about his posture told me that he was cramming his real feelings away while he was in public, ‘which might be an advantage’ my little pony thought.

I picked up a glass of wine and cautiously made my way over to him. Either he didn’t spot me or was ignoring me, as I got all the way up behind him before he turned around.

“What can I do for you.” He said it pleasant enough, but he couldn’t hide the anger in his eyes.

“Sauvignon Blanc?” I offered him the glass.

“Bless you.”

“Wait, what, no that’s the wine,” I said sheepishly.

“Oh,” he took the glass from me but didn’t drink it.

We stood there in a little pool of awkward silence. I didn’t know where to start. Heck, I didn’t even know what I planned to achieve by coming over to talk to him.

“What do you want, Fran?” He looked out calmly at the activity before us but there was a sharp tone to his voice that made me shiver.

“I wanted to say that I... that I’m sorry.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” I faced him. “I’m sorry that I kept you in the dark... about Helix and I, I’m sorry that you had to see us doing what we were, um... doing. And I’m sorry that we didn’t tell you. But... but I am not sorry that I’m with her.”

“Strange apology. You’re not sorry?”

“I am sorry, but I don’t regret it. Why can’t you accept that Helix loves me? Or that I love Helix?” I eyed him as best I could, trying not to sound as though I was pleading with him. That’s hard when you’re secretly having a mental panic attack. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Please, Tun, what...”

“Don’t call me that!” He snapped, causing a few heads to turn. “Just go.”

“Not until I’ve got an answer.”

“To what? Why I’m so cross about you fucking my sister? That’s case in point!”

“You make it sound like I am using her to hurt you. Why would I do that? I don’t hate you! I loved you! I still do... in a way and...” I stopped myself.

“You... you still love me?” He no longer sounded angry; he was just as surprised as I was.

“Yes.. kind of... not romantic like more...”

“Friend than foe?” Helix appeared at my side.

“Yes, friend. When we split I hoped that we could step back to like we were before, but we had changed and weren't the same and you had joined Security and toughened up and... and become withdrawn...” I stuttered into silence.

The three of us just stood there for a moment, looking between each other.

“I’m still angry; very angry.” Tungsten turned to leave. “But you’ve given me something to think about. You know that’s rare.” And without another word, he vanished from the atrium.

“I’m proud of you. Very proud.” Helix gave me strong hug and pecked me on the cheek.

“For what?”

“For standing up to something you feared.”

* * *

The celebration didn’t last much longer. I enjoyed a few rounds of pass the parcel and almost had my head taken off by Poppy, one of Lillypad’s enthusiastic friends, as she tried to take out the Pinata. But eventually, after all the muffins and Sauvignon were gone, Helix and I returned to my room. I rattled off a quick message to the rest of maintenance about the orchard and then we settled down on the bed just holding one another.

“Do you think Tungsten meant what he said?” I asked, “That he’d think about ‘us’ I mean?”

“Yes. Part of him might not like it, but I think, more for me than for you I’m afraid, he’ll come round eventually.”

“I just hope I didn’t screw it up when I let slip that I kind of still liked him.”

“Don’t worry, it’s to be expected. You can’t go for as long as you did without making some very deep feelings for each other. He’ll be with you in some small way forever.”

“You ought to be a physiatrist or a therapist. I could have never gotten that.”

Helix just giggled and pushed her head further into my mane. “So, do you want to continue?” she asked, nibbling up my neck and whispering in my ear.

“You’re kidding right, we just got caught and you want to go again?”

“We only got caught cos I forgot to lock the door when I came in.” I heard a faint click. “No worries this time.” She purred.

“On one condition.”

“Oh, and what would that be?”

She squealed as I quickly rolled over and pinned her down, making sure that she couldn’t escape. “This time you’re the one that gets stuck on the bed.” She made the cutest little eeep I’d ever heard. Nervously, but smiling all the same, she nodded. ‘Now for a taste of your own medicine’ my little pony grinned. Shame part of me knew that it’d be a while before we’d be doing this again.

* * *

The next two weeks were pure chaos from the very first day. It didn’t take long for the stable to work out something big was happening. The changes on their own wouldn’t have sparked suspicion but collectively they signified that something wasn’t right in stable seventeen. Be it the apple recall, the sudden increase of algae-based food in the mess hall, or that orchard three was suddenly off limits, it didn’t matter which; the usually happy atmosphere in the stable slowly became tainted with worry and anxiety.

All of us working on the problem were forbidden to reveal anything about what was happening, which only added to the stress. Engineering and maintenance shifts were extended in an attempt to speed up the pump modification and the pipe reconfiguration. But the biggest issue came when the geologists announced the location for the new pump.

The location that they’d decided upon was up on a ridge above the algae fields; the complete opposite side of the stable to where pump three was currently located. This seemed logical enough; get it as far away from the contaminated site as possible, but it meant that we had to move the pipe sections; each of which was eight metres long, two metres in diameter and weighed about one and a half tonnes, up a steep slope with the manual lifting gear. It took a crew of ten to fit the pipes but eventually, after fifteen days of backbreaking work, we were three pieces from completion.

“I’m glad this is the last time I have to do one of these things,” Jib muttered trying valiantly to work his hind legs into the EVA suit. “They’re far too tight.”

“You get used to them after a while,” I rolled the black rubber up my hind legs with my magic and worked my fore hooves into the front legs of the single piece suit. “At least you don’t have to use them every other day. The maintenance suits are just as difficult.” ‘But not as sexy’ my little pony winked.

“Still doesn’t help me.” Jib pulled at the suit with all his telekinetic strength to no avail.

“Be gentle or you will rip it!” I quickly worked the suit up over the rest of my body, tucking my tail in at the last moment, privately enjoying the way it hugged every part of my coat. I activated the couplings across the spine that made a watertight seal and trotted over to help him.

“Like I told you before, keep your hooves firmly on the ground and roll it rather than pulling. Tuck your tail in, that’s it. Now the same with the front, use your magic to roll it up while you keep your hooves down. There we go.” Jib gave a little wiggle and the last of the suit slipped over his shoulders. “There you go. Now for the seal.”

“The way you act around these things, it’s like they are your children.” Jib eyed me. “You treat your suit with something bordering on love.”

“It's too valuable to damage, so I might as well enjoy looking after it.” I gave him a quick smile before hurrying away. I was never going to let on to anyone, except Helix of course, know exactly how much I ‘liked’ these suits. For some reason the fact they were black made my stomach flutter every time I wore one; ‘I must be a really kinky pony to get a kick out of maintenance gear’ I kept thinking to myself, but I couldn’t help it.

I picked up my helmet and slipped it over my head, using my magic to tuck my mane in at the last moment and slipping my horn through the flange at the top trying not to squirm; that always tickled. Arc came over and slipped a freshly recharged deconstruction talisman into its slot on the suits spine.

“Francium Test, francium test.” He spoke into his Pipbuck.

“Four by Five.” I replied as his voice emitted from the helmets built-in speakers. He made an adjustment on his Pipbuck and repeated. “Five by Five. Perfect.” The old buck tapped the side of my helmet and then went to do the same to Jib.

I entered the airlock with the rest of the fitting crew, ten ponies including Jib and myself. Everypony had been working virtually non-stop for the past two weeks fitting the new pipeline. All of us were experienced in the EVA suits bar Jib. He, with his brother Boom, were the strongest telekinetic’s in the stable. Boom, with his greater strength, had played his part early on in the pipe laying by manoeuvring the massive sections from storage out to the construction site. Now it was over to Jib, who was not as strong as his brother but had far superior magic control. This was key, to get the pieces to line up correctly and to not damage them while they were fitted.

Jib joined the rest of us in the airlock as the final checks were made. The airlock doors shut and I felt the floor shudder as the locking pins slid into place.

“Flooding the tank in three, two, one.” Arc triggered the valves and water was suddenly rising up through the grate below our hooves.

I began to breathe deeply as the water pressed the rubber up against my coat. It made it over my hooves, my knees, I felt it press against my chest and then it began to approach the top of my back.

“Remotely sealing suits.” A light changed from green to blue in my helmet.

This transition point was where things could go wrong. The suit was essentially powered by water, via the deconstruction talisman which provided both oxygen for the user and energy for the suit's systems. Until the talisman was submerged and the suit's systems kicked in, you had to rely on the air that was trapped inside the helmet when it was sealed. It always freaked me out, but I couldn’t remember why.

I watched transfixed as the water made its way up the visor of the helmet, turning the world a murky blue. Then I felt a sudden rush of energy as the suit's systems activated. The pressure of the water on the suit relaxed back as though the water was no longer there. The HUD popped up on the inside of the helmet as the suit linked with my PipBuck showing talisman charge, oxygen flow, exterior pressure and repulsion spell status.

“All suits and systems read as normal.” Arcs voice echoed slightly in my helmet. “Opening outer airlock now.”

We all turned in unison as the door retracted, parting down the middle and opening to reveal the lake bed below. A few small fish darted away as we ambled out of the airlock. The moment we were all clear Jib wrapped us in a telekinetic field and slowly began to guide us to the bottom of the ridge; it seemed to me that this must be what it’s like to fly as a pegasus, only much slower. I’d always wondered why there were no pegasi in stable seventeen, but I had resigned myself years ago as just one of those unknowable mysteries.

Over the next hour, we manoeuvred the first of the final three pieces into place, beginning the pipes rise up the slope to the top of the ridge. As a result, it was going in at almost forty-five degrees which was causing us problems.

“Keep an eye on the top sling, it’s working loose again.” One of the team called. “Down ten. Stop. Jib, pivot the tube around its lowest point, good, stop.” Dozens of fine adjustments followed to get the piece in just right.

“Everyone hold. Francium tac all the support columns. Flange, remove the slings and prepare the next piece” I moved around the tube taking it to the pre-placed support points.

Despite all the planning and calculations, the low tolerances on the parts meant that I was bridging gaps of up to twenty millimetres in some places. It was barn door engineering but once we were done there would be very little to go wrong. I finished the sixth weld; that tube would probably never move again.

Now for the main reason I was out here. Whilst the others prepped the net tube for the lift I wiggled my way into the end of the tube and up to the new joint. I activated my helmet’s torch which illuminated the tip of my horn. The joints between the tubes required watertight seals and the only way to ensure that was with a perfect weld; turns out there was one thing that I was better than anypony else at.

I wiggled back out and moved aside to let Jib and the rest of the team manoeuvre the massive tube into place. It was supported by a pair of air-filled sacks which made it neutrally buoyant, making it easier to position. Glowing in the soft amber magic telekinesis of Jibs spell, the hunk of metal ponderously floated into place.

“Hold and check.” All signalled back clear bar one pony at the high end of the tube. “Flange, what’s the problem?”

“The pre-placed support is a good fifty millimetres to low and the sling has slipped to block the attachment point. Is there room to lower it a little further, before we attach it and remove the sling?”

“I think so. Jib, lower very slowly.”

Millimetre by millimetre the piece dropped into place, tilting the tube back. The sling suddenly slipped off the welding tab. The tough fabric tore instantly. The pipe lurched. Metal ground against metal. The sac shot upwards and the tube lurched sideways. I felt a thump in my chest as the strap of the second sac twanged free. The pipe dropped from Jibs telekinetic grasp.

“Stop it!” I screamed. Every unicorn present lunged out with their magic, but the pipe was too heavy. It tore itself free from our collective grasp and began to roll, building momentum. The whole scene went into slow motion as the pipe tore through the algae fields and straight through the side wall of the stable. A bright flash flared for an instant, illuminating the exterior of the entire stable. Everypony stood frozen in shock.

When the sounds of rending of metal, shattering glass and rushing water had subsided we all just stared. I glanced over the shattered panes. The twisted struts. The warped metal beams. The algae spewing into the water. The flickering lighting in the dome.

Celestia help us.


Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: Diligent worker - Years of difficult and sometimes dangerous work have made you more careful and conscientious of what you are doing when working or repairing. +15 to Repair and +10 to Science skills.
Quest Perk; EVA Suit Level 1: Your Knowledge of the EVA suits inner workings makes the Deconstruction Talisman last 10% longer.

Act 1 - Chapter 2: Exodus

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Chapter 2: Exodus

“Of all the things that could happen, this is thee worst… possible… thing!”

We were in trouble. Celestia tier trouble. Nothing like it had happened in the history of stable seventeen and, by the look of it, it could be the end of the stable itself.

I lay on my bed with Helix stroking my mane gently. I kept thinking to myself ‘was there anything I could have done to prevent this?’. A small part of me kept saying you could have thought of something but, for once, my inner pony was agreeing with me. There was nothing I could have done.

“What’d we lose?” Helix asked me as I rested my head on her chest, listening to her heartbeat; it was like I was trying to remind myself that this was all real. “No one will tell me. Which means it must be bad.”

“The Algae plant and the four adjacent tubes, the capacitors in all the sections adjacent to the plant and the replacement pump.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.” Helix looked at me hopefully, but it vanished when she saw the tears in my eyes.

“We’ve lost twenty per cent of our food production; forty if you count orchard three, and have no spare power. If even one system draws even a few amps more than it should then the stables systems would fail.”

“But I thought that’s what the capacitors were for?” She asked.

“We don’t have any capacitors, weren’t you listening!” I jumped to my hooves shouting. “They’re all burnt out, kaput, gone, dead. We can’t even repair them as we have no graphene to resurface them. We can’t start the pumps to drain the Algae plant as we don’t have the spare power. We can’t get more power because we can’t store it. We’re screwed. All of us, and as much as you keep saying ‘it wasn’t my fault’ I was there, therefore responsible, so quit giving me all this ‘it’s going to be fine’ crap and keep quiet!”

Helix looked at me for a moment, then silent tears began streaming from her eyes. What had I done!

“Oh… no, no, no, Helix… I didn’t mean to shout. I’m sorry my love. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” I dropped to my knees before her and hugged her around her middle, crying into her coat, as she cried silently into my mane. “I’m so, so sorry.”

She didn’t stop, but she did hold me tight. I knew that meant I was forgiven, but I still couldn’t believe that I’d made her cry. I hated myself.

There was a firm knock on the door and Tungsten cautiously poked his head into the room. He looked at me then to Helix. I could see tears brimming, but he held them back.

“If you don’t like what you see, go somewhere else,” I said into Helix’s chest. I couldn’t deal with his rubbish now and nor could Helix.

“No. As much as I may not like it.” He sniffed. “I’m glad you two make each other happy.” He paused looking at us crying on the bed together but seem to decide silence was best. “And I’m afraid…” He began, but couldn’t finish it. He just handed me a sheet of paper, trying to hide the tears welling up in his eyes.

I lifted myself up, wiping my eyes so I could read the sheet “What’s this.” I asked, scanning down the list. I saw my name, Helix’s, Tungsten, a large number of the security staff and every other pony who had been outside during the incident. The end number indicated that there were exactly one hundred ponies on this list.

No… they wouldn’t.

“That is the list of those who are going to have to leave the stable…” Tungsten managed to force out.

Yes… they would.

Helix sniffed and wiped her eyes before she took the list from my trembling hooves and looked it up and down. She seemed to just absorb it like things couldn’t get any worse. “How come we’re all on the list?”

“Apparently, it was random.” Tungsten managed to stop himself from crying and now just looked utterly dejected. “But given that everypony involved with the incident is on the list, I reckon it’s been tweaked. Honestly, I can’t blame them.”

“Why.” I blurted out. “It was an accident. This whole messed up thing was an accident.”

“Maybe so, but everyone’s looking for some pony to blame. You’re blamed for not securing it with your welds, Jib’s blamed for not being able to stop the tube as it rolled and the others are blamed for not fitting the flotation bags properly and-or not checking the alignment of the support columns. And I know that’s probably all bull shit…” He jumped over me as I started to retort. “But it doesn’t matter. I think the Over’s are right. If anyone involved was allowed to stay things could kick off massively.”

“What about me and you?” Helix asked Tungsten.

“I don’t know. I’m probably on their cos I’m one of the better marksmen and given where we’re going I might be needed. You…” He looked at Helix apologetically. “I have no idea.”

I felt hollow. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It’d been almost two hundred years since the war, but we knew nothing of the surface. For all we knew, we were the last tiny bubble of civilisation left in Equestria. And now that bubble had burst. I settled for asking, “When will the others be told? I noticed Boom isn’t on the list. He and Jib are inseparable. He’s not going to like this one bit.”

“He won’t be the only one,” Helix said dryly. “I can see several obvious problems.” Then she gawped. “Dandelion will lose it when she sees this. There’s Nettle, Bramble and oh god, Poppy’s on here. Poppy! She hasn’t even got her cutie mark!”

“What about Lillypad!” I asked quickly. “Please don’t tell me she’s on there.”

Helix scanned the list then gave a small gasp. “Yes.” I kicked out sending my bedside table flying. No. How could they do that!

“The announcement will probably be made tomorrow morning.” Tungsten turned to leave. “Security’s been instructed to enforce a curfew tonight. Helix if you want to get back to your own room you’ve got about half an hour.”

“I will stay here,” Helix said and then glared at Tungsten when he looked slightly pissed off.

“Fine then.” He said shortly. “Best plan what you are going to take. You’ll only be allowed one set of saddlebags each.” The door closed behind him with a clunk.

Helix looked at me her eyes brimming with tears. I wiped them away with a hoof.

“I best start pack-” Helix kissed me.

I kissed her back.

Helix pushed in close to me, but I broke off. She looked into my eyes and smiled in understanding. Not tonight, not under these circumstances. I settled down once more, my head on her chest listening to her heart. At least my Helix was still alive.

* * *

If I could attribute any moment to the end of stable seventeen it would have been when the announcement was made next the morning. Helix and I sat curled up together on my bed waiting for the broadcast our saddle bags resting at the hoof of the bed. From their shared office, the Overs were to read out the list of ponies that would have to leave the stable. The curfew still in effect so most would listen to it on their PipBuck’s radio.

Helix had requested an escort from her brother to and from her room in the early hours so that she could pack her own saddlebags. She’d packed various chemical apparatus, along with her personal collection of chemicals, home-brewed healing potions, home-brewed Rad-away and books on chemistry. Tungsten had given her his old security barding which he had outgrown. That too was folded up inside her saddlebags.

“What did you pack in yours?” She asked, cinching up the buckles on her saddlebags various pouches.

“Same as you mostly. Food, water, bandages, Rad-x, just one healing potion from my first aid box.” I pushed all the items aside checking. “A few books that might be useful, my EVA suit...”

“How’d you get that?”

“Tungsten dropped it off. Yeah, I know, I was surprised too.” Helix had raised her eyebrows. “He even brought some spare deconstruction talismans.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah, this.” I held up a thin black box for Helix to look at. “One of the security guards brought it over. It's from Arc.”

“What is it?” Helix moved in for a closer look.

“I don’t know.” I showed her the note stuck to the front.

Francium
You will need this more than I will. Use it wisely…
Only open it once you are outside!
Arc

“Why would he want you to wait?” Helix asked.

“Don’t know, but I am not going to go against his wishes.” I slid the box in next to my EVA suit and got a slight satisfaction out of how neatly everything slotted in.

Both our PipBucks pinged. The broadcast was about to start. Helix hopped onto my bed and settled herself down. “Come here, my love.” She opened her forelegs and embraced me as I slipped into her grasp. I turned on my radio and prepared to cry my eyes out.

* * *

“That concludes the list.” The Overstallion finished. I could hear pain and anguish in his voice as he turned the mic to the Overmare; he had probably felt worse reading the list out than we had felt listening to it.

“I will now point out that this list is non-negotiable.” The Overmare said firmly, although she too was breaking slightly under the pressure and tension. “No swapping, bargaining or exchanging places. Anyone who tries will be restrained in the hold. Any pony who resists will be shot”

Wow, I thought, that was both raising the bar and lowering it at the same time. Clearly, Helix felt the same as she raised her eyebrows.

“Finally, we have a message from stable-tec. This message was selected automatically after the incident. We have delayed listening to it so that we could all hear it together.” There was a pause, a click and then the most beautiful voice I had ever heard drifted from my PipBuck.

Hello residents of stable seventeen, my name is Sweetie Belle, one of the founding ponies of Stable-Tec. If you are hearing this message then I regret to inform you that a ‘Level Two’ emergency has occurred in your stable.

Part of me wondered what a Level One emergency was if this was level two.

This has resulted in your stable no longer being able to support all or part of its intended population. To save your lives, the stable will now be opened. It has been ‘one hundred and ninety four years’ since the Stable was sealed.

Stable seventeen is unique in being the only stable built underwater and as a result it has its own unique exit preparations. Every pony must gather on the top floor of the core in the observation room. Once there, enable the stable exit by pressing the two-part exit key, which is stored in the Overmare and Overstallion’s office, into the lock marked by a back-lit green panel. Then again at the terminal next to the door itself.

I’m afraid you will have to figure out what to do from here on your own. But don’t panic. You are good ponies, and you can do more than you think if you just put your minds to it. I know you will do just fine.

Good luck, my little ponies.”

Silence.

Helix and I looked at each other. This was definitely the end of stable seventeen.

* * *

Helix walked by my side as we wound our way through the corridors heading for the top level of the core. Around us ponies mumbled and muttered to one another. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but It felt like they were muttering about me. I caught a number of eyes following me only to turn away as I looked around.

“Helix?” A small voice cut through the crowd. “Has anypony seen Helix?”

“Lillypad...” Helix pushed forward and swept up the young unicorn in a tight embrace.

“I’m scared Helix. Really scared,” she whispered.

“It's alright darling. I will look after you.” Helix levitated the filly onto her back so that she rested on the top of her saddlebags. “What do you have in your saddlebags? Did somepony help you pack?”

“Yes, Lavender; one of Heather's’ friends, helped me. I have food, water, a towel, a first aid kit; Lavender said that was really important, and most importantly Smartie Pants.” She lifted a doll, a soft pink pony with a purple mane and tail that had a blue streak running through it, out of a side pouch on her miniature saddlebags. “Where she goes, I go!”

“Do you know who she looks like?” Helix asked. “A very important pony, a long time ago.”

“I dunno. We haven’t done much history in class yet.”

“Then I won’t spoil the surprise.”

We reached the observation deck at the top of the tower; a circular room with three hundred and sixty degree views to the lake outside, lounges and comfy chairs dotted here and there in clusters. In the centre was a column of steel that I had always assumed just supported the roof but now I was guessing that it had more than one purpose. As the room began to fill, the true scale of what was happening could be seen. All one hundred ponies, together in the same place, brought the brutal reality of what was happening home to me.

Home. A home that we were being evicted from. Technically speaking, none of us had a home any longer.

“Hey, you two.” Heather appeared at our side. “Is everything alright, do you need any extra items, I have a few extra Med-x and bandages if you need them.”

“If they are going spare I will take them.” Heather floated the items out and Helix tucked them into her saddlebags.

“So, are you ready?” Heather asked nervously.

“I don’t think any of us are ready, but we don’t really have a choice so...” I mumbled.

“It seems someponies think they do.” Helix cut through, pointing.

Jib and Boom had just come up the stairs with Dandelion and all her children just behind. Jib and Boom looked a little worried but defiant. Dandelion on the other had looked fearful as she kept her children close.

“They wouldn’t arrest Dandelion? Would they?” I asked anxiously. “They threatened to shoot if anypony resisted!”

“I really doubt it’ll come to that,” Heather said, but her voice wavered slightly.

Suddenly a hush began to spread through the assembled ponies. I looked around. It was Smoking Barrel, the head of Security. Tungsten was at his side as they moved forward through the crowd. Hung round Smokings neck were two small metallic rectangles, both on a fine metal chain. The black earth pony buck surveyed the scene through tired eyes.

“He looks like he hasn’t slept since the accident.” Helix whispered in my ear.

Smoking strode over to the steel-walled ring in the centre of the room. As he approached a green light suddenly illuminated an area of the wall in front of him. A small panel popped out from the wall and turned over revealing a pair of slots and a big red button. ‘Always red...’ my inner pony rolled its eyes. Smoking slotted each of the keys into their respective slots and then paused with his hoof over the button.

“Anyone else want the honour?” He asked, his deep voice wavering ever so slightly. No one said a word.

He glanced at Tungsten who just shrugged.

I held my breath as I watched Smoking raise his hoof once more, pause, and then push the button.

There was a very anticlimactic little click then, silence.

“Ok!” I head one of Dandelions children call out. “Who broke the-”

The foal was cut off as the floor began to vibrate rapidly, accompanied by heavy thunks that resonated through the whole tower. Helix and Lillypad squeaked as the main lights went out, replaced by red, low-level emergency lighting. There was a sound like a gigantic switch being thrown and the room was bathed in bright, white light through the glass roof of the core. I squinted upwards into the glare. Through the radiance, I could just barely see a huge black shape-shifting upwards out of the central column. The lights began to pan upwards, pointing into the blackness of the water above. A vast segmented cylindrical tube thrust out of the top of the core, heading straight for the surface.

“Woah...” I head Heather mumble at my side.

“You can say that again...” I muttered back. It was more like a lights show or a theatrical display than an emergency exit.

There was a sudden thump that made every pony stumble sideways. I looked up and noticed that the lights had stopped rising to be replaced with another tighter set that was beginning to rise once more. It must be built in sections that slotted one inside the other, that would be the only way to get over one hundred and fifty metres of tower inside a building that was only thirty or so metres high.

The tower was thrust upwards into the gloom, sending us all lurching each time a segment locked into place. After six more thumps we were suddenly plunged back into darkness as the light on the tower went out but the internal lighting didn’t come back on. I looked through the gloom trying to see what was going on.

“Where’s the exit?” I heard some pony call.

As if in answer a crack of light appeared in the central column. It opened slowly, inch by inch, accompanied by the hum of a hydraulic pump. The gap continued to widen until it was at least three metres in width. Only when it stopped and the humming faded away did the main lighting come back on.

“Why do the lights keep going out?” Helix asked. “Surely that’s not safe.”

“Maybe there isn’t enough power available to do everything at once,” I wondered. “Either that or Stable-Tec just wanted to give us a dramatic exit.” Worryingly, I doubted it was the latter.

“Stop, all of you!” I jumped as the Overmares’ voice barked out of all our PipBucks simultaneously. “Those of you who are NOT on the list; yes, you know who you are, I’m only going to warn you once. Do not leave this stable!”

“Or else what?” Boom called out. “Are you really going to kill us for not leaving?”

“You heard the broadcast same as everyone else.”

“She sidestepped...” Helix whispered in my ear.

“Huh?” I looked at her. “So what?”

“She avoided making a definitive yes or no answer.” I looked at her puzzled. “She doesn’t want to or else she would’ve said so”

“Smoking. Arrest any pony who’s not allowed to leave the stable. Do it now. I will send up a security team to escort them down.”

“No.” Smoking said firmly, staring defiantly up into one of the security cameras.

“Pardon?” The Overmare said surprised.

“No.” Smoking repeated. He deliberately moved to the other side of the doorway, still in view of the camera. “I’m technically outside the stable, so no longer under your jurisdiction. Find someone else.”

“Fine then. Trigger, you are hereby promoted to Head of Security. Get up there and Arrest them! Smoking included.” The Overmare shouted.

Oh crap...

“Everypony.” Smoking looked round at the now very worried crowd. “Time to go.” He eyed Dandelion and Boom. “Yes, that means you as well.”

I was suddenly being shoved by the mass of ponies towards the door. Helix had to use her magic to keep Lillypad on her back as everypony tried to press through the opening into the newly erected tower. It was just a mass of bodies as every pony tried to squeeze their way through the narrow doorway onto the stairway beyond.

Smoking dragged Tungsten out of the throng and passed him a trio of full magazines. “Blue to start with...” He smacked home the clip into his pistol and Tungsten did the same. “Only go silver if you have no other choice.” Tungsten just nodded.

I didn’t know what would happen when Trigger arrived with his branch of security, hopefully it wouldn’t come to metal bullets, but right now things were so tense anything could happen.

“Seafire.” Smoking called. A white mare with spectacular orange and red hair pushed towards the pair. “Take these and head up the front.” He passed her the two keys and she levitated them around her neck.

“Yes, sir.” She replied then she added. “Good luck.” Before pushing her way through the gap.

One hundred and fifty metres was a long way to climb and very soon everybody was panting as they ran up the staircase. Seafire pushed forwards at the front of the crowd up the tightening spiral staircase which slowly coiled inward as we ascended.

Everypony jumped at the sound of gunfire exploding from the base of the stairs, the low thumps echoing up the tower. I looked over the edge towards the bottom. Tungsten was taking cover at one side of the newly formed doorway, firing into the observation room. Smoking was crouched behind the railing of the stairway taking pot shots over the top. The bullets weren’t making a metallic sound as they hit the metal stairs behind them. They laid down fire in turns, preventing Trigger’s team from advancing into the tower.

I yelped as I ran into the back of the pony in front of me and Helix piled into my rump.

“What’s wrong. Keep moving.” I called forward to Seafire.

“Look.” She pointed at a red line painted on the wall off the tower. The words ‘Danger Radiation – End of Anomaly, Danger Radiation – End of Anomaly…’ ran around on the inside of the lines.

“We can’t stay here. We need to keep moving.” Helix encouraged.

Seafire took a breath and then started moving again. As I passed above the line my PipBuck suddenly started clicking gently, so did Helix’s. As each pony moved past the warning sign theirs began to sound. The clicking began to fill the tower. I looked down at the Rad metre which had always been firmly in the green. Now it was wiggling towards the yellow; so the surface was still not completely radiation free.

Below I could still hear Tungsten and Smoking exchanging fire with the advancing security team. I stole a glance down. Tungsten was pinned where Smoking had been before, the black buck had been forced back up the stairs to the level above but couldn’t fire over the edge of the stairs without the risk of taking a shot to the head. The security team was in the tower beginning to move up the stairs. Some fired upwards at those on the staircase above them but the rubber bullets were too slow and heavy to make it almost a hundred metres up.

A sharp crack cut through the air making everypony jump.

I spun round to see Trigger tumbling over the safety railing as his body convulsed, splattering the security team behind him with blood and bits of pony. Tungsten, his face was red with blood, watched shocked as Trigger disappeared from sight into the darkness below. It was a long time before we heard a horribly meaty thud.

‘So that was what a metal bullet does’ my little pony said, but I was in too much shock to pay any real attention. Smoking had turned his gun on the rest of the security team. Gone were their confident grins, to be replaced with shock and fear.

“Don’t make me do it again.” Tungsten’s voice wavered slightly, but his aim remained true.

Slowly the guards backed down the stairs. Tungsten kept his gun trained on them until they had backed out the door into the observation room. He looked up at everypony. It looked like he was pleading with us, to tell him that he had done right, that it had been necessary.

“Keep moving everyone.” Seafire called out. Slowly everyone tore their eyes away from Tungsten and began to ascend. I looked up. It was not far to go now. I could clearly make out the huge gear shaped door at the top, the number seventeen in the centre in faded red lettering. Around the edge ran the words ‘Stable-Tec R&D Project Nightmare: Anomaly Hydro-stable’. Project Nightmare?

“Fran?” Helix gave me a gentle nudge. “We need to keep moving,” she said softly.

“Yeah…” I said only half listening. Nightmare?

When we reached the top of the tower, Seafire ran straight over to a terminal located next to a series of massive hydraulic rams. She pushed the key parts into their slots. The terminal hummed into life filling the top of the tower with a soft, blue glow. Text Flashed up on the screen.

-OVERMARE & OVERSTALLION OVERRIDE KEYS ACCEPTED
-CHECKING AVAILABLE POWER RESERVES
-TOTAL POWER SUFFICIENT
-OPEN STABLE DOOR?
-CAUTION: ACTIVATING DOOR WILL DISABLE ALL STABLE SYSTEMS DUE TO EXTENT OF STABLE DAMAGE
-Y/N?


“What?” Seafire gawped. He looked around at the ponies on the platform. “What do we do?”

“What do you mean?” Dandelion asked.

“The damage to the stable means that if we open the door it will kill all the system’s in the stable. Everyone who has stayed behind will be killed.”

“Why would they design a system like that?” Jib’s normally steady voice cracked as he spoke.

“I don’t think it was intentional. Heck, I don’t even know how this system works.” Seafire looked at me. “Francium, do you know anything about this?”

“No, I don’t, but for an educated guess I would say…” Why did she ask me? “…that the door drains power from all of the stables systems simultaneously. When spread over every sector’s capacitors there is enough power coming in from the turbines to keep each system ticking over…”

I ran everything I knew about the stable through my head, looking for the answers.

“…but since we lost five banks of capacitors, that would usually be there in case of a power failure, there is no longer enough spare power available to open the door. The power has to come from somewhere, so it will come out of the reserves for the other systems causing them to fail.”

Everypony was looking at me in shock. “Have you any idea how much power is required to hold back the force of the water pressing down on this stable? Or maintain surface pressure one hundred and fifty metres down? A lot!”

“And ‘A lot’ is clearly more than we have.” Jip replied.

“Wait. It was all in that message.” Foxglove said. We all looked at her in surprise. “Sweetie Bell said ‘Everyone must gather in the observation room’ she also said that the system was unique. The systems may not have been tested under these conditions. We were all meant to leave.”

“She might be right. Why would Stable-Tec intend for any of us to remain in the stable if something went wrong? They would’ve expected us all to get out in case of another failure. If we open the door…” I swallowed. “Everyone who is still in the stable will probably die.”

“What will happen to them?” A pony asked tentatively.

“Honestly, I have no idea.” I really had no clue.

Everypony looked at everyone else.

“It’s not a hard decision.” A voice said from the back of the crowd. Tungsten and Smoking were pushing their way through to the top. Ponies pressed themselves to get out of their way, or more specifically Tungsten. He had bruises all over him from where the rubber bullets had struck but the worst thing was the blood splattered all over his face and the tip of his gun. “They’re the ones forcing us out.” He looked around at everyone. “They’re probably on their way back up here with live rounds to make sure we leave. They made the choice, not us.”

Helix looked incredulously at her brother “But you are talking about killing one hundred and fifty ponies. One. Hundred. Fifty.” She emphasised every word. “Our friends, even family. How many ponies here have got family down there.”

Tungsten just stood there then hung his head. “Sorry… I…” he began.

“It’s ok.” Helix pulled him into a hug. “You’re just in shock. That’s…”

Helix screamed as a bullet tore across the side of her body leaving a long red line of torn flesh in its wake. Everyone looked down to see the security team advancing up the stairs. Most of them were armed with pistols but one had a rifle, he had been the one to take the long-range shot straight up. Either skill or pure luck had got the bullet through the grating of the platform, I really hoped it was the latter.

Everypony scrambled trying to find cover, but there was none. Very soon the rest of the team would be in range and then we would all be dead. Smoking and Tungsten began taking shots down at the ascending team. They scrambled for cover, but again there was nothing. It was simply a case of who was brave enough or suicidal enough to stand still and take shots.

I pulled open one of Helix’s saddlebags and levitated out a bandage wrapping it around her midriff, trying to stem the flow of blood from the wound. It wasn’t very deep but it was long. If the bullet had been even an inch farther across it would have embedded itself in her stomach.

Other ponies cried out as they took hits. I was showered in blood as the mare next to me took a rifle round clean through the neck. She collapsed gasping for air. I cast a repulsion spell around the hole trying to keep the blood in and help her breath but it was no good. She collapsed, warm blood spewing out of her neck, dripping through the grating below.

“We can’t stay here.” Seafire had pulled out her own pistol and was firing down at the advancing team below. A metal round skimmed her head and she lurched back yelling.

“Argh.” Tungsten dodged too back as the railing in front of him fragmented into shrapnel. “Screw this.” He shouted running for the terminal.

“No don’t.” I cried out.

Too late.

Tungsten hit ‘Y’. There was a clunk, a groan and then the entire tower went dark. I suddenly realised that I could no longer hear any humming; more deafening in its absence than its presence.

Then a tone began, low and deep. It began to rise, building in volume and resonance. A single flashing light came on illuminating the door. There was a groaning sound and slowly the massive gear-like door began to rise up out of its slot. A chink of light appeared around the edge and then it began to lift up and away, tilting back. Another grinding sound was coming from below as a bulkhead dropped over the entrance of the tower from the observation room.

A roaring sound met our ears, spots of water were cascading into the hole as it widened. It was like being under a shower. I looked up as the spots, now turning into lines, began to run down my face like tears. Above me was a grey and black undulating mass of something. It was everywhere, spanning to fill the small window we had to look through. There was a final ominous thunk and the door stopped, the light faded but the humming did not return. All we could do was look up through the gear-shaped hole into the falling water and undulating mass above.

Gunfire started again from below.

“Move everypony, move!” Smoking yelled sprinting up the final few metres of stairs. Everypony scrambled after him. Everypony except Tungsten. He just stood there looking at the terminal which now read,

-STABLE DOOR OPENING SEQUENCE COMPLETE
-WARNING: STABLE CONTROL MANEFRAME RUNNING ON EMERGENCY POWER
-WARNING: MULTIPLE CRITICAL SYSTEMS FAILURE
-AIR FILTRATION SYSTEMS 0% POWER
-WATER PUMP SYSTEMS 0% POWER
-ORCHARD WEATHER CONTROL 1-4 0% POWER
-TURBINE 1 :AMBER
-TURBINE 2 :AMBER
-TURBINE 3 :AMBER
-GAS SYPHONING :AMBER
-SYSTEM RESETTING
-CAUTION: POWER INSUFFICIENT TO RESTORE ALL SYSTEMS
-ENTER OVER-RIDE CODE TO SELECT SELECTIVE STARTUP
-PASSWORD-

“I killed them… all of them.” I just stood there and stared at the screen. “I killed them all!” he slammed his hoof into the screen, shattering the glass. The screen flickered and died.

“We’ve got to move or you will join them.” I hit him on the flank. “Move you stupid buck.”

The pair of us piled up the stairs straight into the heart of a thunderstorm. The water around us writhed and churned. The sky above rolled and squirmed. Lines of rain lashed us from every side carried by vicious spirals and gusts of wind. I put a hoof over my eyes, trying to see where everyone else had gone.

“This way.” Smoking called over the roar of the storm. We sprinted over to him. I spotted Lillypad cowering from the storm between his forelegs. Down a small number of steps was some kind of walkway leading out over the churning water. It was surprisingly stable, though it did rock from side to side a lot. It looked to be made of more grill metal supported on the water with giant floating barrels. Cables ran along each side so ponies didn’t fall in, ‘but given the ferocity of the storm it might not be enough’ I thought.

“Everyone else is making their way across.” Smoking pulled out his pistol and loaded a magazine filled with live rounds. “I will stay here and keep them back. You go on ahead, take the little one.”

“Where is Helix?

“She is being helped across by Seafire.”

I gave a sigh of relief. “Lillypad, come with me, it’s not safe here.” I held a hoof out to the unicorn.

“I figured that out.” The filly said shakily. She took my hoof and we began to make our way across the bridge. Tungsten followed close behind. We heard gunfire as we walked away but it was quickly drowned out by the noise of the storm and the churning of the water.

‘Welcome to the wastelands Francium’ I thought to myself.

* * *

I backed out of the terminal for what felt like the hundredth time. I would have got in by now if the terminal wasn’t built into the wall of the warehouse; it stopped me from simply rewiring part of the system bypassing the security hardware and interface altogether. I kicked the wall in frustration, denting the thin layer of plasterboard that concealed the heavily reinforced concrete shell underneath.

“Take a break,” Helix called over as she finished sorting through the pile of supplies in front of her.

I sighed, backing out of the terminal yet again, and slowly trotted over to Helix, accepting temporary defeat.

“So how much have we got?” I flopped down next to her and began flicking a roll of bandages back and forth in my hooves.

“In short, not much.” Helix scanned down the clipboard in front of her checking her numbers. “Most were sensible enough to pack food and water so we have enough for about five days. Perhaps a week if we ration.”

“What happened to using the lake water? You said you might be able to sterilise it with some of the equipment you brought with you.”

“No chance I’m afraid. The radiation levels are way too high.” Then she whispered. “There is also that same substance that infected orchard three but in much, much higher quantities.” I gulped.

“Anything else?”

“I was just given the medical supplies to count. You will have to ask the others if you want to know more.” I flopped down on the floor again. “Oh go on. Walk, talk. Try and relax. Come back to the terminal once you have mellowed out a bit.”

“I am mellow,” I said, now lying flat in the concrete floor of the warehouse but Helix just gave me the eye. “Fine.” I pulled myself to my hooves and began wandering across the warehouse floor.

The warehouse was big, at least thirty metres in width and fifty in length. When we had first piled in off the walkway it’d been pitch black but, incredibly slowly I have to add, gemstones set into the ceiling had begun to glow. After an hour it was like being back in the core only there were no windows. In fact, the only indication that there was an outside was the large set of double doors that lead back out onto the walkway, and the huge five metre tall and eight metre wide steel bulkhead at the other end; the terminal of which I had been attempting to hack.

I spotted Heather with Lavender, repack their first aid kits. There was a blanket draped over a form on the ground before them. Heather looked like she had been crying.

“What happened?” I asked cautiously. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Only if you can go back in time,” Lavender said coldly.

“Wait, what did I do?” Though I knew what was coming.

“That pipe!” She snapped, slamming the lid of her kit shut. “All of you should have...”

“Lav. Stop,” Heather said sadly. “Just don’t.”

“What happened to him?” I asked quickly, changing the subject.

“Poor buck took a bullet straight up through the bottom of his hoof.” Heather hung her head. “It fragmented, ripped his entire foreleg to shreds. He lost too much blood crossing the walkway and just passed out.”

“Would you have been able to save him if he hadn’t lost all that blood?” I asked.

“I... I don’t know. I mean I’ve read and trained for bullet wounds, but seeing it for real.” She actually shuddered. ”Perhaps, I don’t know...”

“Doesn’t matter now. He’s gone.” Lavender said. Why’d she say it like it was my fault?

‘Because, in a way, it is’ my little pony pointed out. Oh, I did not need that now!

I walked away before Lavender decided to have another go at me. I spotted Tungsten on the other side of the room, sitting alone, staring into space. I knew that someone would have to speak to him sooner or later.

“Do you think someone should go and talk to him?” Foxglove appeared beside me. She was the eldest of Dandelions children. Next were the two young bucks, Nettle and Thistle with Bramble and Poppy bringing up the rear. Bramble was a few years older than Lillypad while Poppy was still a little filly.

“What could anyone say?” I asked sadly. “I know it’s been a horrible day for everyone, but how can you cheer someone up after… after that.” I gestured towards the walkway back to stable seventeen. “Heck, I feel rotten inside and I didn’t kill one hundred fifty ponies.” I put my head in my hooves and sighed. “I don’t understand why I’m not falling apart.” I shook my head. Foxglove just shrugged.

“I got you this by the way.” She showed me a file on her PipBuck. “It’s a complete inventory of everything we have.”

“Why are you giving it to me?” I asked. “I am not going to be leading at all.”

“Maybe not, but you’ve always been level-headed and organised so if anyone can keep track of the equipment of over a hundred ponies, you can.” She smiled gently. “And you get on with almost everyone so if there are any issues you’ll be able to sort it out, no problem.”

“Wow, um thanks.” I accepted the file transfer. “No one’s ever said that before.”

“Hmmm, I’m surprised at that.” Foxglove raised an eyebrow then whispered. “Maybe it’s your taste in sexual fantasies putting everypony off.”

“What!” I gasped blushing furiously. “What do you know about…” But she was smiling.

“Joking,” she levelled her expression. “But seriously, you were closer to Tungsten than anyone else, if anyone can comfort him, it’s you.”

“‘Were’ is the key word in that sentence. It’s not the same anymore.” I said dryly, shaking my head. “Things were different, we were different. And when he became part of Security he changed. A lot.”

“Changed?” Foxglove asked quizzically.

“He became more… I don’t know. He used to be kinder. More diplomatic. Try every other avenue before turning to his dark side. But after he joined Security, he seemed to get bored of the waiting for diplomacy to work out. He found that he could get results quicker by jumping straight to threats and aggression. And not just when he was at work.”

Foxgloves eyes widened, “He didn’t. He wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t what.”

“Hurt you.”

“Oh no. No. He was never like that with me. But he just wasn’t the same anymore. Not the buck I had fallen for so…” My ears drooped sadly.

“But it seems that attitude has just landed him in deep trouble.” Foxglove sighed deeply. “He is very lucky. It could’ve been worse.”

“Worse!” I exclaimed, turning a few dozen heads. I dropped my voice before continuing. “How could it’ve been worse? He just killed more than one hundred ponies.”

“No one up here has family back in the stable. We lost friends, yes. We all had friends, but he hasn’t broken any families.”

“How? The draw was supposed to be random.”

“Well, it’s not impossible, but certainly very unlikely.”

“Unlikely! We are talking millions to one! Possibly Billions!” I knew it was even more than that but I couldn’t be asked to go past twelve zero’s.

“Well, you’re the mathematician out of the two of us.” She sighed. “I just do plants. Fat lot of good that is up here where nothing grows”

“Nothing? Nothing at all?” I asked. “Surely something...” but she waved a yellow hoof.

“Another time Francium. I would bore you stiff with everything I could tell you about plants. Do you know what asexual reproduction is?”

“Nope,” I admitted.

“There you go.” She smiled. “But you need to go and talk to him before he tears himself up from the inside out. Even if he isn’t the same buck you fell in love with.”

“I suppose you are right.” I sighed.

Foxglove patted me on the shoulder. “It’ll be ok, you’ll see.” She smiled one last time and then trotted off to join her family. I couldn’t figure out how she was holding it together after what had happened today, but I was glad that she was staying strong.

I looked back at Tungsten and was surprised to see Helix sitting with him. Well, that saved me a job. ‘For the time being’ my little pony pointed it, ‘You really ought to talk to him at some point’. Yeah, well, that could wait. I was getting tired.

I lifted off my saddlebags and pulled out my blanket. The whole floor was concrete but the blanket should make it a little softer. I settled myself down. My mind wanted to turn towards what had happened, the ponies I’d lost, the ponies I might lose, but I shoved it into the back of my mind. Perhaps Foxglove was right, maybe I was more level-headed than I realised, sturdier, stronger. ‘I just hope you can keep a hold of your marbles long enough to find a way out of this mess’ my little pony poked. “So do I,” I said to myself. I closed my eyes and slept.

* * *

I awoke to the sound of raised voices. I rolled over and bumped straight into Helix. She must have settled herself down next to me after I had fallen asleep. Lillypad was curled up on her other side. She groaned. “Fran, what’s going on?” She yawned sleepily.

“Don’t know. Don’t get up. I’ll sort it out. You need to rest if that wound is going to heal.” I gave her a quick kiss and laid my blanket over her and Lillypad. “Rest.”

I stood up and looked around. The argument was emanating from a group over on the other side of the warehouse. Dandelion was there, so was Smoking. I made my way over. The two of them were facing off against Lavender and some of her friends that had been lucky enough to be kicked out of the stable. My inner pony started going ‘Lucky? Lucky! If the alternative is dead...’ but I ignored it.

“We have to get out there.” Smoking was saying heatedly. “The longer we delay the quicker we will run out of supplies. We have to go searching for more food and water. It’s better to put the energy to good use than just sitting here feeling sorry for ourselves.”

“But we may never find anything. It could be days walk until we find another building let alone a settlement; assuming there is another settlement to find. We can last longer if we conserve what we have.” Lavender argued back, getting nickers of approval from her friends. “The longer we can stay alive the better.”

“That’s just the equivalent of prolonging our suffering. We need to…” Dandelion started to say but she stopped as I approached. “Ah, Francium. Can you talk some sense into these loony-ponies.”

“Loony-ponies.” Lavender scoffed. “You’re the ones…”

“Girls, can we take it down a notch?” I rubbed my eyes. "What’s even going on? All I got was something about us all having long drawn out deaths.”

“We need to get out there and start looking for supplies.” Dandelion said flatly. “You've seen our total inventory Francium. We have enough to last four or five days. Maybe a week if we ration it, but this lot…” She pointed angrily at the others. “…want to just stay here and do nothing.”

“It’s not ‘nothing’, we'd be conserving what supplies we have.”

I face hoofed. “You’re both right,” I said simply. “Can’t you see that?” They all looked at me like I was mad.

“Lavender, you are right about us needing to save our resources and keeping what we have. This building probably contained the walkway until we opened the stable. That would explain why it's so sturdily built; so that after two hundred years we could still actually get out of the stable. Its a perfect base of operations but food and water are just as important. If we stay here we will die. We have to get out there and start looking. The worst case scenario is that we find nothing and we die both here and out there, but at least we can say we tried.”

The others looked between each other. Then Smoking said “But there is one problem with this whole ‘get out there and start looking’ option. The door's still locked.” Oh yeah, bugger. “And I think you're the only one who can get us out without ripping the door off its hinges. Jib and Boom are itching to try out their combined skills on that thing, but for safety's sake I would prefer if we kept the door functional. It may become very useful.”

“I had a look at it yesterday, there isn’t enough power,” I explained glumly. “It draws power from the stable and the stable is dead.”

“Give it a try Fran.” Dandelion said brightly. “If anyone here can reprogram it, it's you.”

But that doesn’t make up for a lack of power, I thought, but I just replied. “Ok, I'll give it another try.” I could see the next few hours being very frustrating.

* * *

It took me a further three hours to hack into the system. There was a load of information about construction dates and when the building was finished. It also turned out that the building had been used for parts storage during the construction of stable seventeen, with logs of when parts were due to arrive and when they were sent underwater for fitting. For whatever reason, Stable-Tec had been very careful about keeping the construction of the stable secret for as long as possible, hiding all the parts inside and passing the building off as some kind of unmanned research station looking into the lakes food chain and its chemical content.

I also managed to get inside the security system which was even tougher. I almost got locked out maybe, one hundred times, before I got the password ‘Pinkamena-Diane-Pie’; seriously, who puts hyphens in a password? There were a series of six exterior camera’s, covering each side of the building and the roof, as well as two interior cameras. When I went looking for them I couldn't see them at all. Either they were hidden with some kind of invisibility spell or I was a very stupid pony. ‘Bet it’s the latter’ my inner pony laughed at me. Facehoof.

But when it came to actually opening the door I was stumped.

“Right do you want the good news or the bad news,” I said to the small group assembled in front of me. No pony replied. “Ok, good news. I got into both the terminal and the security systems so we have access to everything now. We even have exterior cameras if anyone wants a look”

Still nothing.

“The bad news is that there is not enough power to open the door. Plain and simple. The bolts that hold the door shut are hydraulic and they are concealed within the wall.”

“So we are stuck,” Tungsten said. It was the first words he'd spoken since we'd gotten into the warehouse the previous morning.

“Yes.”

“Can we get to the hydraulic pumps?” A voice called. An orange mare walked across to join our group. I recognised her as an engineer, but I couldn’t remember her name. “If we can, we can turn them manually.”

“I don’t know... let me check.” I went over to the terminal and pulled up the building's schematic, slowly scrolling through until I found the right set of plans. “The pipes run... through the wall, down, through a regulator which I can control from here. The pumps themselves...” I turned and pointed. “Are right under that metal sheet.”

I had spotted it when we had come in but not really been able to give it much thought. The plate was three metres square and recessed into the centre of the warehouse floor. We all clustered around it.

“So, what do we do?” Smoking asked again.

“Well, I don't know exactly where the pump is under here and I don’t want to just rip this thing up in case we damage something so we need to be careful.” I thought for a moment.

“Why not cut a small hole and send someone down. Someone small. The smaller the better.” The orange pony suggested.

“Good one, Ripsaw.” Heather piped up. “So who is going to be our small volunteer?’

“Me, me, me.” Lillypad jumped up and down like she was back at school; waving her hoof in the air. “Pleeeeese.”

“You're too young,” Helix said, and the little unicorn immediately went into pout mode.

“Will I do?” Bramble stepped forward.

“Yeah, if it’s ok with your mother.” I looked at Dandelion for approval. She looked a little uncomfortable.

“Please mum. I've done nothing but sit around and get in the way. Let me be of some use.”

“Alright, but be careful.” Dandelion looked worried but seemed happy that her daughter wasn’t afraid to lend a hoof.

“Right. Everyone, get back this is going to be bright.” I lowered my horn to the plate. I brought up a filter spell in front of my eyes and then fired the spark spell. The arc of energy melted the plate on contact. It took a while before I got the tell-tale signs of having cut right through the sheet; it must have been a good five centimetres thick. I then slowly cut out a Bramble sized hole. Just as I finished the cut, Boom caught the piece in his telekinetic grasp and moved it out the way. I quickly ran my horn around the edge of the hole with an abrasion spell to smooth off all the rough edges.

“Ready?” I asked the young unicorn. She nodded, shook off her saddlebags, and Jib carefully picked her off the floor. She gave a little ‘Eeep’ as her hooves left the ground. Jib then carefully guided her through the hole in the floor.

“Left. Down. Right a little. Forward and now straight down.” I heard a little clop as her hooves touched down. “I'm down.” She called back. “Activating my PipBuck’s light now.” There was a pause, we could hear her walking around underneath us. It was rather surreal. Then there was another little “Eeep”.

“Bramble. What’s wrong.” Dandelion called out anxiously. “Talk to me love.”

“You are going to love this.” The disembodied voice called out through the hole. “Coming up.” A bottle bobbed up out of the darkness and I caught it. I turned it around. Part of the label had faded so the words were illegible.

“Sparkle?” I looked at the bottle curiously. It had a yellow pony on the front with wings. A Pegasus? “What’s this? Some kind of weird hydraulic fluid?” I asked.

“Sparkle Cola! No way!” Heather suddenly snatched the bottle from my grasp looking at the little bottle in awe. “This stuff is like legendary. Oh wow!” Her gaze fell upon the yellow Pegasus. “I can’t believe it. It's Fluttershy. The Fluttershy!” She was practically drooling.

“Flutterguy?” I asked. “Who is he?”

“Shy! Flutter-Shy.” Heather said irritably. “How can you not know who Fluttershy is? She is only the most caring pony in the history of equestrian, probably more so than Princess Celestia herself.”

“Wasn’t she the bearer of an element of harmony.” Lavender mused. “Loyalty wasn’t it?”

“No that was Rainbow Dash, the other Pegasus.” Heather was now pretty much stroking the bottle. “Fluttershy bore the element of Kindness.”

“Hang on how come you know all this?” I frowned. “Since when did we cover the ‘Elements of Harmony’ in our lessons?”

“I think it was that month you were sick with the pony-pox and in isolation,” Helix muttered in my ear. Ah, that’s why.

“Hate to break up this little history lesson.” A voice called. “But can someone get me out of here.”

“Woops, sorry Bramble.”

“Hey, no rush.” She called back half sarcastically. “It’s not like I am going to die or anything with maybe, a thousand bottles of this stuff to drink.”

Everyone almost fell over.

“Did you just say a one thousand?” Dandelion called down the hole. “One, zero, zero, zero?”

“Yep.” We all looked at each other.

“We need to get this plate up.” I was smiling from ear to ear.

* * *

After Bramble had given us a little report on what exactly was down there and we were sure that simply ripping up the plate would do no harm, Jib and Boom tore the huge steel plate clean out of its fixtures. Underneath we found the huge hydraulic pump along with two pallets of Sparkle Cola. It turned out that it wasn’t hydraulic fluid and was actually a kind of soft drink, endorsed by the kind yellow Pegasus with a pink and blue butterfly for a cutie mark.

Everyone was in a good mood. Even Tungsten had picked himself up and was joining in our miniature celebration as we sat in a series of circles, each with a bottle of the oddly flavoured but very satisfying drink. Everyone was filling me in on everything I didn’t know about Fluttershy and her friends, and it turned out I had missed a lot.

“There were five ministries under the rule of Princess Luna.”

“No, six.”

“No, five. The MAS, MoT, MoI, MoP and the MoM.”

“You missed the MoA. Rainbow Dash’s ministry. All six of the bearers had a ministry.”

“The Ministry of Awesome? But they never did anything.”

“I heard they were into all sorts of secret stuff.”

“Something called the SPP as well.”

“And that stands for?”

“No idea, but it sounds awesome doesn’t it!”

“Wait? Since when was Luna in charge?

“Since the massacre at Littlehorn. Celestia stepped down and handed power over to her sister.”

My head was spinning with the quantity of information being thrown at it. I was getting a month’s worth of education in a few hours. “Sorry. Probably a stupid question but what do all those letters stand for?” I scratched my head in frustration.

Smoking sighed. “Twilight Sparkle, bearer of the element of Magic, ran the MAS or Ministry of Arcane Science’s. It was also called the Ministry of Magic but that clashed with the Ministry of Morale which was run by Pinky Pie, who bore the element of Laughter.”

“Element of ‘Laughter’?” I muttered. “Who came up with that?”

“Don’t look at me. The elements are as old as Equestria.” Smoking took a swig of Sparkle Cola and continued. “Then there was the MoT, or Ministry of Technology. It ended up being called the Ministry of Wartime Technology but Applejack, who ran it and bore the element of Honesty, hated that name.”

“Then you had the Ministry of Peace run by Fluttershy, the Ministry of Image run by Rarity, bearer of Generosity and finally the ministry of Awesome run by Rainbow Dash.” Helix finished. “There you go, you didn’t miss anything.” She smiled at my bewildered expression.

My inner pony was having a mental breakdown; ‘Ministry of Image, Ministry of Pieces, Ministry of Wartime Science, Ministry of Arcane Technology… too many ministries. Make it stop!’ My inner confusion must have been on my face as Helix said, stroking my mane, “Don’t worry about it, Fran. It’s only vital information about the history of Equestria, you don’t have to remember any of it. It happened two hundred years ago, so don’t relax.”

I scowled at her but she just laughed. I guessed I was going to have to put some time into remembering all this information.

“But there is something else that's bugging me.” I took a swig of my cola, enjoying its odd taste; which from the orange vegetable on the bottle, was carrot. “Why would there be two pallets of soft drink sealed under a fifty millimetre steel plate along with a hydraulic pump? It’s just like, weird.”

“It wasn’t the only thing down there. There was also this.” Bramble held up a white, translucent ball. It looked like it was filled with smoke or perhaps white crystal. “Any idea what it is?” She hoofed it over to me and I caught it in my magic.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

Oh crap. Not good.

I couldn’t move but I could see. No, wait. I was moving, but I didn’t want to. My head turned; why was it turning? I was trotting briskly along a corridor. It was well lit, clean, with posters, all bearing the same gear-like logo, on the walls between the doors. I saw glimpses of ponies pouring over desks in the offices through the windows as I passed but my hooves wouldn’t obey me.

I tried to use my horn to back out of whatever this was, but I couldn’t. Wait. What happened to my horn? I couldn’t feel any magic inside me at all; at least none that I was familiar with. I wanted desperately to reach up and check my forehead but to no avail. Then my wing rubbed an itch on my forehead. Wait, wing?

Ok Fran, just think. Calm down and think your way out of this. It’s what you’re good at.

I could feel feathers, they kept brushing against the flanks of the pony I was in. Feathers meant wings and wings meant only one thing; since I was missing a horn... I was in a Pegasus. She seemed to have magic inside her, but not my normal kind of magic. Hang on was I still as she? I focused and was pleased to notice nothing out of the ordinary. Good, a female Pegasus. Well, at least I had half of me.

My host, for lack of a better word, brushed a few strands of magenta mane out of her eyes with an orange hoof. She was wearing a black business suit of some kind that was very tight fitting and stiff; Somehow I thought it didn’t get much use. She must have had holes cut in it for her wings to poke through. She walked up the door at the end of the corridor and knocked slowly three times.

“One moment.” A voice called from inside. A pause. “Come in.”

My host pushed open the door and walked into a well-lit office. Light streamed in from windows at the other side of the room picking out dust in the air. Proper light. Sunlight. From the goddess herself sunlight! It felt warm on my host's skin, It was amazing, but my host dropped into a seat out of the sunbeams.

I, or the pony I was inside, glanced out the windows taking in the towering buildings of white and grey, a monorail shooting along supported high above the ground. There was a multi-tiered building in the near distance with a massive transmitter in the top. Behind that another one rose even higher, just sticking into the wispy white clouds that floated above. The buildings seemed to go on forever in all directions.

The room was obviously an office. Filing cabinets lined the walls. With a large map of what must have been Equestria on one wall. City names had been highlighted; Fillydelphia, Hoofington, Canterlot, Manehatten. A large circle had also been drawn around a distant lake and a forest next to Ponyville.

There were a few personal touches too. A picture just below the map showed a pale yellow filly and an orange mare wearing a wide-brimmed hat spinning a lasso in her mouth. Another showed three young fillies dressed as what looked like journalists, all with pencils and notepads. The largest one, mounted above a safe in the wall behind the desk, was of the same three mares but as they currently were. Older. Wiser. Tireder. Beneath each was a date of birth, a dash, then the word present. I wondered what would happen when one of them died. Would it change automatically? That thought creeped me out.

Sitting behind the desk in the office was a young but haggard looking light yellow mare with red hair; probably the same one from the pictures. She was scanning over documents in a big bound folder with her pale orange eyes. The words ‘Top Secret’ were stamped in black on the front of the folder. Before I could read the project, the mare closed the folder with a snap, it gave a slight click as it locked. She then slipped it inside a tin of Sugar Apple Bombs, then spun her seat around and slotted it into the safe built into the wall behind her. She shut the door, then pushed a button next to it. The vault suddenly shimmered and disappeared, turning the same colour as the wall accompanied by the sound of heavy, sliding bolts. ‘Neat’, I thought, ‘let’s see a thief find that’! My host clearly agreed as she raised an eyebrow.

The yellow mare spun back around and then dropped her head onto the desk with a thud. “This is getting out of hoof Scoots” She ground her head into the desk. “All this secrecy is driving me nuts.” She banged her head on the desk. “It’s going to kill me one day.” Her voice had a slight country twang to it but it was incredibly subtle.

“It’ll be alright Apple Bloom.” My host went round and gave the yellow mare a hug. “It’s getting to me too.”

“You’re not supposed to say that.” Apple Bloom moaned into the desk. “You’re supposed to say that you’re fine. Be strong and bold, like you’ve always been.”

“Then I’d be lying.” My host went and sat back down. “Remember, between crusaders…”

“…there are no secrets.” Apple Bloom finished looking into my host’s eyes. “Scootaloo, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. Well, you and Sweetie Belle.”

Ok, Sweetie Belle. That might also explain, somewhat, why this memory ball, orb, thing, was here. But I couldn’t seem to escape. I kept thinking that I wanted to leave but nothing happened. I hoped I was not going to be stuck in here forever. I seemed to have no choice but to sit here and ride it out. Well if I was going to be stuck here I might as well pay attention.

My host smiled. “You two are my best friends too, Apple Bloom.” Then in a more business-like tone. “So, how can I help you?”

“Sweetie Bell found another location. She’s still under the pretence of going on an explorative holiday with Ditzy Doo. Ditzy’s still researching for her Best Of Equestria book so that’s all fine. But this new site’s going to be exceptionally difficult. It seems to be at the bottom of Eternity Lake.”

Scootaloo raised her eyebrows. “How in Equestria did she detect it? The bottom of that lake’s geologically active. That and it’s over one hundred metres deep.”

“One hundred and ninety-four at its deepest point,” Apple Bloom frowned. “But she was able to detect it easily on the surface. This one’s big. Much bigger than any of the others.” Apple Bloom rifled through a pile of papers on her desk and pulled two out. “Do you remember these?”

She passed the papers to Scootaloo. One was a top-down schematic of a stable, similar to stable seventeen but it had a few more domes, only one gas extractor and no turbines. It was labelled ‘Rapture Hydrostable’. She then looked at the other. It was a picture of a lake from very high up but it had been overlaid with some kind of scan showing the geology and depth of the lake. I could make out what appeared to be a town at one end nestled between two rivers that ran into the lake. I felt my hosts jaw drop. She stared from sheet to sheet for a good minute before replying.

“You want to put a Hydrostable down there? Apple, we looked into those. It’s just too difficult. The resources required would be astronomical. How would we ever keep it secret? It’s bad enough trying to put a research lab down there let alone a whole stable. Not to mention that the ground down there’ll be unstable. I know these pockets could be lifesavers but if we bite off more than we can chew then we may not be able to keep this project a secret”

“You haven’t seen the scan results yet.” Apple Bloom passed over another sheet of paper.

This one was covered in lots of graphs with squiggly lines and a few bar charts. I had no idea what they meant but Scootaloo clearly did, her eyes going wide. She shifted in her seat and looked straight into Apple Bloom’s eyes once more.

“If these are accurate.” She shook the sheet of paper. “We have to do this.”

“I know, Scoots, I know.” Apple Bloom said sadly. She took the papers back and returned them to their folder. “As much as I’d love for you to stay Scoot’s, Applejack should be arriving soon to discuss something, apparently she needs a family favour. If she catches us together she might get suspicious that something is going on, especially since you’re supposed to be in Hoofington at the moment.”

My host sighed and stood up. “We never get a chance to just chat anymore do we.” She said sullenly but Apple Bloom was already engaged in reading another massive folder. Scootaloo turned and began to leave.

<-=======ooO Ooo=======->

“Fran! Fran!”

Somepony was slapping me repeatedly about the face. I opened my eyes. Helix was leaning over me looking terrified, but she relaxed slightly as I smiled at her. “Great Celestia, what happened.” She pulled me into a hug. “I thought I'd lost you. You didn’t move or anything. You just lay there breathing with that ball thing locked to the tip of your horn.”

I sat up. My brain felt like it had been turned around inside a tumble dryer. Everyone was looking at me in concern.

“Well I have no idea what it was, but it wasn’t bad.” I stood up gingerly. “What is that thing?”

“It’s a memory orb.” We all turned to look at Jib. “It is a device used for the storing and viewing memories. What you just witnessed was some pony’s actual memories of an event.”

“Wha?” I scratched my head. “But why would anyone want to record that?”

“Record what?” Lavender asked.

“What seemed to be two old friends having a nervous breakdown. The only thing that might be important was that I think the two ponies were part of the trio that founded Stable-Tec.”

“What colours were they?” Boom asked.

“One was pale yellow with sort of a red mane. The other one, the one I was in, was orange with a purpley-pink mane.”

“Apple Bloom and Scootaloo.” Boom nodded. “Along with Sweetie Belle, they made up the founding members of Stable-Tec.”

“How on earth do you know that?” Smoking asked curiously.

“Because of this.” Boom levitated out an identical white ball from Jib’s saddle bag.

“Hey hang on. How come you are not collapsing and getting sucked into its memory.” I asked.

“You focused on the orb, thus activating it.” Jib replied simply. “If you just grasp them lightly then you don’t set them off. Takes a bit of practice though. Best learnt with a short memory for obvious reasons.”

“So what is in that memory orb then.”

“A lot. This was given to us by our mother. She received it from her mother and so on.” Jib gave a sigh. “We’re the first males in our bloodline. In a way it is quite lucky we are out of the stable as we wouldn’t have been able to pass it on without revealing to our offspring who their father was.”

“It’s an unusual memory. Well, actually it’s not a true memory at all.”

“It is a compilation of memories from various ponies, joined together to form one story.”

“Who’s story does it tell?” Lillypad asked tilting her head curiously.

“Equestria’s story.” Replied Jib and Boom in unison. My mind did a kind of tumble turn in my skull. It seemed I was not the only one.

“Why did you not tell anyone of this in the stable.” Lavender seemed put out. “That information could be one of a kind. Why should you get to keep it.”

“You’ll understand if you see it.” Boom replied gravely.

“It’s not exactly pleasant.” Jib finished darkly. “Also it can only be viewed by Unicorns. Earth ponies and Pegasi require a device called a recollector to view memory orbs.”

“I am guessing that’s in the memory orb to?” Jib just nodded a response.

“So does anyone have any objection if I give it a try?” Lavender asked. There as a general mutter somewhere between ‘we don’t mind’ and ‘well, if you’re mad enough’. Boom passed her the orb. Lavender placed it on the floor, knelt before it and touched her horn to it.

Nothing.

She tried again, making a spark jump between her and the orb. Lavender was violently launched backwards. She rolled over and skidded to a stop on the concrete floor, twenty feet from the orb which hadn’t moved an inch.

“Lavender, are you alright?” Heather rushed to her side.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Lavender picked herself up, scowling at Jib and Boom. “Very funny. A trick memory orb. Yeah, great laugh.” She continued to glare, but Jib and Boom looked just as shocked as everyone else.

“Well, that’s never happened before…” Jib looked at his brother. “Safety feature?”

“Possibly.”

“What kind of a safety feature is that?” Lavender said crossly. “Toss a pony across a room, great idea.”

“Well do you want to try again?” Jib asked.

“No, of course not.”

“Like I said, safety feature.”

“A safety feature against what though? And why?” Smoking scratched his head thinking.

“Who cares.” Lavender scoffed. “At this point in time, I think we should be more concerned about those two opening this door.” She jabbed a hoof at Jib and Boom. “Cos I, for one, am more interested in living than in ancient, attacking memory orb’s.”

* * *

Now that we had access to the pump, it was a simple matter of disconnecting the spark motor and manually turning the pump's shaft to shift the fluid from one side of the cylinder to the other. Turning the pump was hard work, even Jib and Boom got tired, but soon the bolts were retracted. Now to open the door itself. Two feet thick and reinforced with steel struts, the door probably weighed more than two of the pipe section’s combined. But with around three dozen unicorns casting kinetic and levitation spells the door, slowly but surely, swung open.

Tungsten and Smoking covered the widening gap with their pistols in case there happened to be ‘an angry army of zombie ponies waiting to gobble us all up’ standing just outside; we had Nettle to thank for the rather disturbing image.

“All clear. Proceeding outside.” Smoking called. He and Tungsten slowly moved forward through the gap and out of the warehouse. There was a fairly lengthy pause then “Perimeter clear.” We all gave a sigh of relief.

“Awwww, no angry zombie ponies.” Dandelion glared at her son. “What?”

“You can all come out.” Smoking stuck his head around the door. “There is not much to see I’m afraid.”

“You first,” I said to Helix and she cautiously made her way outside. I followed her and felt my jaw drop; so much for not much to see.

I faced a wall of rock so vast that it completely filled my vision. The ground before us started flat and then began to roll upwards like a wave forming on water. I looked up expecting to see the ridgeline at the top but it was lost in the low cloud cover; still a grey-scale mass of undulating vapour. The cliff face continued out of sight to both sides with what remained of a four-lane road winding along the base.

I shivered and noticed how cold I was. Mist floated in the air and a gentle breeze disturbed the hair on my coat. I could feel my mane beginning to dampen and stick to the back of my neck. Glancing down I could see feeble, yellowed blades of grass trying desperately to push through the cracks in the tarmac and grow on the patches of scrubland to either side of the warehouse. I lifted up a hoof and looked at the mud now sticking to it; somehow, above all else, that bothered me the most.

“This is incredible…” Thistle had picked up a piece of rock and was examining it minutely. “Metamorphic rocks. Actual metamorphic rocks!” He looked like a stallion in a sweet shop.

“As opposed to not actual metamorphic rocks.” Nettle tossed a piece of tarmac at his brother’s head. “Get over it egghead, their just rocks.”

Thistle dodged the incoming lump “But, all we had back in seventeen was sedimentary taken from the lake floor. I have only ever seen these in books until now.”

“What books were you reading! Sheesh, next thing you know you will be telling me you started a rock club.” Nettle shook his head over emphatically kicking over more rocks. “Dear, oh dear.”

“Rocks are cool.” Thistle tossed his igneous rock sample back at Nettle scoring a hit on his rump. “Deal with it.” Then he looked at the lump his brother had thrown. “Oh and that’s not a rock, its tarmac.”

“Egghead.” Nettle stuck his tongue out.

“Someone…. Anyone…” I heard Helix say quietly behind me. I dragged my eyes away from the impossibly big wave of rock and walked to her at the corner of the warehouse.

“What’s wrong…” But the words died in my throat.

Bodies. Maybe a dozen or so, bobbing and floating against the bank of the vast lake.

I recognised two of them, a mare and a stallion. They had been with us as we escaped the stable but hadn’t made it to the warehouse. Now I knew why. They all wore the same stable seventeen clothes, so I couldn’t identify any of them without their heads. Torn hides and jagged cuts into the flesh just beneath the cut seemed to indicate that the ponies had been struggling to get free as they had been decapitated. Despite myself, I took a step closer and saw bullet wounds in all of them.

What had happened down there!

“Get the young ones back in the warehouse now.” I heard Smoking say. “No, make that everyone. Back inside now.” I didn’t move, my eyes were locked on the sight before me. I felt a hoof on my shoulder.

“Francium. Come on, back inside.” It was Tungsten. He steered me around and walked me back to the warehouse. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Helix still standing there.

“Get her. I’m ok.” I wasn’t, at all, but I wasn’t going to let Tungsten know that after what he had done.

A thought flashed across my mind. I’d seen a safety video about the EVA suits and what happens if they fail. To my horror, I realised that the bodies bore all the same signs of a suit failure. But with no suits, it could only mean that the bodies had been ejected out of stable seventeen.

What happened after we left the stable? What would make ponies do this to one another? And why was I so determined to get as far away from here as I possibly could?

* * *

We sat inside in silence, waiting, listening. The members of security were outside doing a more thorough investigation of the local area and trying to identify the bodies. A few other ponies had grouped together and were digging graves for the thirteen bodies just outside the warehouse. Dandelion had asked if I would help but I had just sat there. Helix was leaning on Dandelion, eyes unfocused, as the mare stroked her mane gently. No one else had seen the bodies but after Smoking had given a quick explanation of why we had all been ordered back inside, no pony was complaining.

I couldn’t believe what had happened to my life. It seemed so long ago when I had been at Lillypads cutecinera and being caught by Tungsten, bound to my bed with Helix on top of me. What I would give to be able to go back and stop all this from happening. But no. Now I was sitting scared and worried if I would even live through the next twenty-four hours. The only upside I could think of was that the stable was clearly not dead; yet. Had they managed to restart the turbines or get the air filters working again? I knew from my emergency training that if the air filters died we would have about eighteen hours of oxygen left in the stable; after that, there would be too much carbon dioxide to be able to concentrate properly and after twenty-four you would slip into unconsciousness and die. The only explanation I could think of was that they had tried to conserve their remaining oxygen by killing more of the population, but why in Celestia’s name would they decapitate them? I was snapped from my stupor by the return of Smoking and the security guards.

“Everyone. We have explored for about half a mile in either direction along the shore of the lake.” Smoking addressed us as calmly as he could. “No more bodies have been found.”

There was a collective relaxation, be it a small one.

“We have, however,” Smoking continued. “spotted signs of recent travel off to the right of this building.” Muttering began to spread through the assembled ponies. “I believe that going in that direction is our best bet for finding civilisation. I, therefore, ask for a group of volunteers to come with me to investigate. I believe that it would also be wise to send a group in the other direction as well.” He peered around at the now attentive crowd. “Would any pony wishing to volunteer please raise a hoof now.”

I looked around, no pony moved. Smoking sighed sadly. Then a hoof moved. Lavender tentatively raised her hoof, followed slowly by Jib and Boom. A few other hoofs went up. I noticed Clef and Stave, two of the ponies that played in the stable’s octet, standing too. Then Helix raised her hoof. I gaped at her.

“What are you doing!” I hissed at her as quietly as I could.

“Helping.” She said simply. Oh for the love of Celestia. I just stared at her incredulously. She returned my gaze with a firm look. “I may not like it but it’s better than sitting here and doing nothing but wallowing in my own fears.”

In the name of both our benevolent princesses, please let this be the right choice. I slowly raised my own.

Helix looked surprised. “What are you doing?” she replied.

“Following you for doing the right thing and not letting you out of my sight you crazy, but utterly amazing, pony.” She just grinned back at me.



Footnote: Level Up
Wanna-be History Buff: Your lack of historical knowledge leads you to pay more attention to historical books when you read them. Gain two skill points when you read any pre-war book.

Act 1 - Chapter 3: Civilisation

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Chapter 3: Civilisation
“Uncouth, it means uncivil, ya know, bad manners. ‘bruwarp…’ Exactly!”

Dandelion levitated another folded piece of paper out of the bag before her. Around us everypony watched as we were randomly sorted into teams.

“Clef.” The pale brown buck took his place next to Smoking, Seafire and Tungsten. Ripsaw and I had already been drawn together onto their team. Helix was still waiting nervously to be placed in a team. I metaphorically had my fore hooves crossed.

Dandelion levitated a second page “Blue Shell” The rich blue unicorn joined Aramid’s team.

“Jewel”. “Foxglove.” Dandelion watched anxiously as her eldest daughter joined my group.

“Solitaire.” “Bishop” “Stave.” He grinned as he moved to join his best friend.

“Pastel.” “Arkose.” “Helix.” I accidentally let out a little ‘squee’ of delight as she moved to my side.

“Talus” “Umbra.” “That’s it everypony.” Dandelion finished.

“Thank you.” Smoking turned to address the other two teams. “Now I know that you wouldn’t have volunteered to join unless you wanted to go outside, but one team has to stay behind to safeguard everyone else. So Dandelion, if you would please.”

Dandelion presented the bag again to Smoking. He reached in and pulled out another piece of paper. I held it up for us all to see. It read ‘North’. We were going out.

Next Aramid levitated out a scrap. He held it up to reveal the word ‘South’.

“And to prove it wasn’t rigged...’ Smoking commented as Monel reached in. She drew out the final sheet which read ‘Safeguard’.

* * *

While Smoking, Tungsten and Seafire were all checking their weapons and pulling on their security barding, I was reorganising my saddle bags, taking out all of the random items I had brought with me and repacking it with the extra medical supplies and food. I dropped one of the items on my hoof. Cursing I looked down at what had impacted my now throbbing hoof. It was the box that Arc had sent to me. I picked it up curiously yet also feeling heartbroken that the poor old buck had been left to die in the stable.

Well I was definitely outside the stable now. I opened it and gasped. Inside, nestled in a soft foam lining, was another memory orb and what looked not entirely unlike a pistol. It had the same kind of pistol like shape, a mouth grip, a trigger and a slot where I assumed the ammo went. But everything else about it was alien to me. The barrel was split into two tall rectangles with a small gap between them which was filled with angular blue gems. The trigger was just a button and the slot for the ammunition had three small metal contacts on the edges. Where on earth did Arc get something like this?

“Ummm, Fran. What in Equestria is that?” Helix asked, peering over my shoulder. Then she spotted the box. “Is that what Arc gave you?”

“Yeah. And another memory orb too.” I said, floating the box to her. She carefully removed the memory orb and set it aside.

“There is more in here.” She lifted the layer of foam and pulled out three small metal boxes. I spotted the same three contacts along the edge as on the gun and gentle blue glow emanating from three slots in the side of each box that matched the colour of the gems in the barrel. I smiled slightly; ammo.

“What you got there?” Seafire trotted over as she levitated her gun back into her holster.

The main reason I knew Seafire was because every buck wanted to get her as their breeding partner. Big, soft blue eyes, a perfectly white coat and a fiery orange and red mane with a perfectly proportioned horn, she was hot; yeah that is the only word to describe her. My little pony drooled after her everytime she walked past, but she was one of the few mares who didn’t want to take a female partner. As a result she had never been bedded by anyone, so far as I knew. In a way I was kind of glad, I didn’t want to imagine her being taken by some pony, it was like she would be tainted if it ever happened. I liked to imagine her as this perfect being that everyone should look up to, like the princesses in a way. She was kind, caring but she wasn’t afraid to make difficult calls or put her hoof down hard if some pony stepped out of line. Her cutie mark was the head of a white eagle breathing blue fire; beautiful, caring, powerful and dangerous.

Somewhere in that thought pattern I must have stepped out of line as I received a rather hard hit to the head snapping me back to reality. “Hey, my face is over here.” I flushed red as Seafire looked half amused and half resigned to the fact that another pony had joined her very long list of admirers, and flank gazers “Now that we’re back to the present, what’ve you got there?” She looked quizzically at the object in my telekinetic grasp.

“A gun, I think.” I let her take it from me with her own horn. “There are these as well. I think they’re the ammunition. Or power for it; they look more like batteries than bullets.” I passed her one of the three glowing metal cartridges. She examined the whole of the pistol minutely with the occasional ‘hmmm’ or ‘ahhh’.

“Do you mind?” She made to load one of the cartridges into the back of the gun.

I nodded at her. “Go ahead. You know more about this kind of thing than I do.” Seafire slipped home the glowing box and the gun hummed into life. The gems along the barrel area lit up with the same blue glow as the cartridge and some kind of gauge lit up along the top of the gun. The white mare raised her eyebrow and gave an approving ‘hmmm’.

”Do you want to fire it first?” she asked, holding the gun out to me.

“Ummm, no. For one, you’re the arms expert, not me, and two, I’d probably do something wrong.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this ‘gift’.

Seafire aimed into the closest empty corner of the warehouse and sighted up a shot. “Firing in three…” I took a step back. “Two…” I put my hoofs over my ears. “One…” I gulped.

The gun let off a flash of blue light and made a kind of ‘zouch’ noise. A bolt of blue energy shot out from between the two rectangular barrels so quickly I could barely see it. The point on the wall where it impacted glowed electric blue for a fraction of a second before exploding outwards, showering us with tiny pieces of concrete and leaving a good hoof sized hole in the wall. My little pony gave an identical approving ‘Hmmm’ to Seafire

“What was that!” Smoking and Tungsten rushed over. “Seafire, where’d you get that.” Smoking barked.

“It’s mine.” I held up a tentative hoof. Smoking rounded on me.

“And just where did it come from?” He glared at me. The whole room was looking at me now.

“Arc gave it to me.” I floated up the black box.

“Arc?” Smoking suddenly looked confused. “The old buck in maintenance. The one that used to do all the welding and metal repair work?”

“Yes. He had Tungsten bring it over while the curfew was in effect.”

Smoking looked round at him. “What do you know about this?” he asked. Tungsten just shrugged. He turned back to Seafire who, though worried about the fact she had gotten herself and me into trouble, was definitely impressed my new pistol… laser gun… thing. “What made you think it was a good idea to fire it inside.” He asked her shaking his head. “It could have done anything.”

“I took stock of where I was shooting, don’t worry.” Seafire replied waving a hoof. “And it’s only powered by spark batteries.” She hoofed him one. “They are designed for low power pistols and rifles so it wasn’t exactly going to blow a hole through the wall.”

“But it made a good go at it.” Tungsten said, examining the hole. “I can get my whole hoof in here.” He put his eye right up to it. “I think I can see daylight,” he said sarcastically. His mood had picked up dramatically now that he had something to do, I just hoped that he wasn’t bottling up all the worry and shock he had been showing up until this point.

Smoking looked a little put out, but seemed to accept the fact that this was probably going to be the least of his worries once we set off into the wastelands. “Just make sure she knows what she’s doing with it. Give her some basic training and pointers before we go.” He waved his hoof and wandered over to where Heather was helping Lavender pack her saddle bags.

I was still curious to know what was in the memory orb. Why would a gun come with one in the first place? It was definitely meant to go in the box, it all was, almost like it had been gift wrapped or a special edition box set or something.

“Nice little piece.” Seafire hoofed the pistol back to me and I took it as carefully as I could; Smoking was right, I really didn’t want to shoot some pony by accident. “The gauge on the top says that one of those energy cells will give you about fifty shots before you have to replace it which is good, our pistols only have twenty round magazines. By the looks of it, that’s the safety there.” She indicated a small push button on the side. “When it’s green it’s safe. When it’s red...” She pushed the little button making it change colour. “… be careful where you point it.” But I was more concerned with the cross that had just appeared in my vision.

“Did you get a cross like thing in your vision when you held it?” I asked her, carefully eyeing the lines and making myself go cross eyed. I tried to wave them away with a hoof but they seemed to be in my vision, not just in front of it.

“What, you’ve never used SATS before?” She asked surprised. “Well I guess you wouldn’t have needed to in maintenance.”

“No there was never a need to shoot anything whilst welding.” I replied. Hang on, “How do you know I was in maintenance?”

“It’s a bit hard to ignore the young mare in maintenance overalls that used to eye me everytime I walked by.” She whispered, smiling and batting her eyelids, making me blush again. “Don’t worry, it was just you and everypony else. I got used to it after I got my cutie mark. Anyway… SATS.”

She sat down next to me and leaned in to show me her PipBuck.

“SATS stands for Stable-Tec Arcane Targeting Spell. It’s built into every three thousand series PipBuck, as well as some of the later two thousand series models. When you trigger it, time slows to a crawl, well from your perspective anyway, allowing you to aim your gun more accurately.” She triggered her own SATS. I barely noticed it but it was like she was thinking ten times faster than normal. Her eyes shuddered as she rapidly looked around the room. She dropped out of it and continued, “You can lock onto targets and line up a series of shots and the spell will help you make each one. It even gives you a percentage of how likely the shot is to hit, based on your position, gun quality and the target you are shooting.”

My mind was reeling. This realisation that the thing I had locked to my leg was more than just a glorified radio and alarm clock was both a shock and annoying. Why hadn't anyone ever told me.

“There are some limits though.” Seafire continued. “The spell only lasts for a limited time and locking onto targets uses it up faster so make sure you use it wisely. It’ll recharge over time and you’ll get better at minimising the amount you need to make each shot, but just make sure you don’t run out at a critical moment in a fight.”

Okay, so not perfect, but still incredibly useful.

“Anything else this thing can do?” I asked, staring at my PipBuck. I knew about the massive quantity of internal storage, the Rad-metre, the alarm clock, the radio, the voice recorder, the message sender, the calendar, the inbuilt light and now SATS. There couldn’t be that much more in there; it wasn’t like it was that big.

“There’s your EFS, or Eyes Forward Sparkle. It tracks creatures within its scanning radius and tells you if they’re hostile to you or not. It’s also got a transmitter so that if you know someone's PipBuck ID number you can track them wherever they go.” Seafire scratched her head. “And I think that’s about it unless you go onto the attachments.”

“Attachments?” I was now scrolling through my PipBucks inbuilt manual in case there was anything she had missed.

“Yeah, the only ones I know of are the StealthBuck, which turns you invisible for a short while, and the SLR Transmitter. Super-Long-Range.” She added, seeing my bemused expression. “It allows you to transmit signals and messages over hundreds of kilometres without the need for relay towers.”

Wow, and to think all I had on here were a few dozen songs and a small collection of books and manuals. But something else was bugging me.

“Seafire. Just one more question.” I asked slowly.

“Yes?”

“Out of all your admirers how come you remembered one sweaty and grubby unicorn in maintenance overalls that you knew, most likely, only liked you for how you looked and not your personality?” I had expected her to look surprised or cross, but instead she gave a very suggestive look, right into my eyes.

“Because that one sweaty and grubby unicorn in maintenance overalls happened to be rather cute with a good pair of flanks. I may never intend to go to bed with another mare, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire perfection when I see it.”

Gah… but… I…per-what!

I couldn’t think of anything to say as she sauntered away, flicking my flank with her tail as she went, and looking very pleased at the result.

* * *

We waited until the next morning before setting out from the warehouse. Dandelion said a teary goodbye to her eldest daughter and then proceeded to give the rest of us a hug as well. Heather said goodbye to Smoking with a simple hug but when I looked back ten seconds later they were engaged in a very passionate kiss. When they finally broke apart, Smoking looked shocked, but Heather looked both impossibly happy and inconsolably sad at the same time; she had mastered ambivalence perfectly.

Lillypad trotted up to Helix and I. She looked happy enough, glad that we were going to get help, but she still looked like she wanted to cry. She looked at us both for a moment before throwing her forelegs around us in a tight hug.

“I want my BSBFF’s to come back in one piece, do you hear me?” She said tearfully into Helix’s mane. “Oh and Fran, you owe me a dance.”

I felt perplexed despite the tenderness of the moment. “Dance?”

“Yeah, you got to my cutecinera after we turned the dance music off. Oh, and you owe Helix a turn behind you in a conga line.”

I laughed. “You’ll get your dance and Helix will get her chance to stare at my flanks, don’t you worry.” We broke apart. The little unicorn looked at us both with teary eyes, smiling from ear to ear.

“Let’s get moving everyone.” I heard Smoking call. “I would ideally like to find civilisation before nightfall.”

Helix and I gave Lillypad one last hug and then, waving at the other remaining residents of stable seventeen, made our way out the door. We turned right fanning out into a ‘V’ formation, Smoking at the front, Seafire and Tungsten on either side with the rest of us trotting along behind. Every pony looked nervous but it seemed there was also a determination radiating from every member of our little group; to do better, to make the most of a bad situation, and to help what little remained of our old home.

* * *

The road wound along the side of the lake, trapped between the vast expanse of water and the huge wall of rock to our left. There was almost nothing left of the concrete and tarmac in places; sometimes it had been broken apart by lots of stubby plants or been buried entirely under rock that had slipped from the cliff. Smoking had been right; there were quite a few signs of... not civilisation per se, but certainly recent activity. Hoof prints in the mud, wheel and track marks from wagons and; rather disturbingly, bullet casings. Lots of bullet casings. There were no bodies, at least not yet anyway, but just the sight of so many spent shells sent shivers down my spine.

“Check this one out.” Tungsten lifted up the biggest spent casing we had found yet. “I think it’s a shotgun shell.” He inspected it. “Yeah, a twelve gauge.”

“Why would anyone need that much firepower.” Ambrosia asked. She seemed to be handling herself fine but she always had a look of worry on her face. “That would take a ponies head clean off.”

“Getting shot by a shotgun isn’t clean.” Smoking said gravely. “It’s not like a normal bullet. Rather than a single lump it usually contains lots of smaller balls that spread out, called shot. You get chewed up rather than blown apart.”

“Ewww…” Ambrosia shivered. “Why would ponies do that to one another.”

“They wouldn’t, they would do it to Zebra’s” Seafire said knowledgeably. “Twenty years before the balefire bombs fell there were no guns or weapons as such. But with the threat from the Zebra, companies like Ironshod started to produce some small guns and they grew from there. I think the biggest guns ever made were for the Luna, a massive battleship. And most people thought that they would stop after the ones they put on the Celestia.”

“How big were they.” Ripsaw asked, as she kicked a lump of rock sending it splashing into the water..

“The ones on the Celestia were 180mm I think, and then the Luna beat that with 250mm.”

“Is that the length of the bullet or length of the whole thing including the casing?” Clef looked at his fellow musician with bemusement. Stave just shrugged. “What?”

“The measurement defines the diameter of the shell, the total length varies depending on the size of the charge. So yes, they were 250mm across, like the size of your head” Helix and Ambrosia’s jaws dropped. “And are called shells when they get that big. They weighed as much as a pony, probably more, were filled with high explosive and normally enchanted with some kind of spell to make the more effective against certain targets.”

“How accurate were they?” I asked. Now that I had a pistol of my own I was interest to learn as much about them as I could. I could see myself having to get some of my own weapons given the number of ponies in the waste land that seemed to have them.

“The Celestia was capable of precision strikes that could hit a target up to two miles away. The luna was more like three miles. But they could both fire the shells maybe fifty miles if necessary. But that was for like bombardment rather than direct strikes. Levelling an entire town, that kind of thing.”

“Fifty miles! That’s, that’s…” Ambrosia spluttered.

“Excessive?” Foxglove offered.

“Yes… that’ll do, excessive.” Ambrosia seemed to want to say more but couldn’t find the right words.

“Can we pick up the pace, please.” Smoking said, tapping his hoof impatiently.

“Hang on a moment.” Ambrosia trotted down to the water’s edge peering into the shallows. “Hmmm.” She scratched her chin. “I could swear I saw some fish. Hey that would be great if we could get some to cook!”

“What do you mean, fish.” Ripsaw went over to peer to. “The water up here is irradiated, nothing could live in there.”

“Yeah, I guess you are right.” Ambrosia kicked another stone into the water shrugging.

The water jumped. Ambrosia and Ripsaw were tossed high into the air as a massive green jaw lashed out of the shallows. Smoking, Tungsten and Seafire immediately pulled out their pistols and began to fire at the huge monster. The bullets barely seemed to hurt the creature. Ambrosia and Ripsaw landed hard in the shallow water and I heard a definite crack. Ripsaw let out a scream. I could just make out white bone sticking out of her hind leg. The monster snapped round, flicking mud and water everywhere, and with lightning speed lunged for Ambrosia. She scrambled backwards trying desperately to avoid the mass of razor sharp teeth attempting to turn her into minced pony. Ripsaw was trying to drag herself back to land with her broken leg. Helix rushed forward to help her. The monster obviously thought that two ponies were better than one and snapped back to try and munch on Helix and Ripsaw.

My mind was suddenly filled with a horrific vision of Helix being swallowed whole by that vicious monster. ‘No!’ my little pony shouted, ‘You will not hurt my Helix!’.

I whipped out my own gun, took off the safety and slipped into SATS. The whole terrifying scene slowed to a crawl. The monsters jaw was open trying to clamp around Helix’s head. I could see Ambrosia behind the monster, frozen mid-step, running through the shallows away from the creature. I could just make out the stream of bullets being fired by the trio to my left. I locked on three shots right into the creatures open mouth, using up all of my SATs, and hit execute.

Three streaks of blue struck the inside of the monsters mouth. It let out an angry roar, twisting violently to try and get away from the magical onslaught. I kept firing. The skin of the monster boiled and warped under each impact, though I was only hitting with half my shots. The thing was retreating back into the water. The four of us pressed forward driving the thing away before it slunk under the surface and disappeared.

I dropped my gun, shaking. Clef and Stave rushed forward to help Ripsaw with her broken leg. Helix help them lay her on her side before pulling out three metal rods out of her bag.

“This is going to...” Helix started then sharply straightened Ripsaws leg with her magic, causing her to scream with pain. “...hurt.”

Helix then used a magical bandage to bind the metal rods to Ripsaw’s leg, splining it. When she was certain her leg wouldn’t move Helix pulled out two healing potions and helped the poor mare drink both. Ambrosia had picked herself up and was standing in the shallows shaking.

“Ambrosia.” Foxglove rushed to help her. “Are you alright.”

“I’m alright. A bit bruised but…”

The monster lunged out of the water and snapped its jaw around Ambrosia’s head. Her body spasmed and jerked as the monster shook her violently. I heard another horrible crack. ‘No… NO!’. I picked up my gun again and emptied the rest of the cell into the monster as fast as my telekinesis would allow. It let go of Ambrosia sending her flying through the air and landing hard twenty feet away on the road. The monster retreated once more, but the damage was done.

“Ambrosia!” Helix cried pulling out healing potions as she ran. “Ambrosia! Hold on.”

“Stop.” Smoking shouted. “She’s gone.”

“No, she’s not she’s…” But Helix stopped when she reached her body.

Ambrosias neck had been snapped, her head dangling at a very creepy angle. Blood all the way round her throat showed where the teeth of the monster and sliced easily into her skin. Her back leg had also broken when she had landed.

“She was probably dead the moment it whipped around and snapped her neck. Thankfully, she would barely have felt a thing.” Seafire said sadly.

We stood there in silence for a moment before Smoking spoke up, “We need to keep moving. Tungsten can you go through her saddlebags and pull out anything of value. Seafire. Helix. Can you see to Ripsaw and get her ready to move out.”

“What about Ambrosia?” Foxglove was staring at her body. “We can’t just leave her here.”

“I don’t mean to be callous but we don’t have a recycler.” Smoking said simply.

“Well what did we do before we had a recycler? Before the war. We didn’t just leave them where they died.” Foxglove snapped back. “We need to do something.”

“They used to bury them.” Stave said. “With a stone on top with the pony’s name carved into it.”

“Do you have anything to dig a hole with?” Tungsten pointed out. “I know it’s disrespectful, but that thing might be back or something worse.”

“We could burn her?” Clef suggested quietly.

“Burn her!” Seafire shouted outraged. She was still trying to get a third healing potion down Ripsaw’s throat which was hard given that the mare was suddenly shaking like crazy. “Like a diseased animal or contaminated food.”

“I know it’s not how we would like to do it but it’s better than leaving her to rot or get ripped apart by animals.” Helix replied. “And its contaminated food that ultimately put us in this mess. She was trying to help nearly one hundred ponies when she died. We need to do the best we can for her.” Seafire had tears running silently down her white coat. Helix put a hoof over her shoulder and she leaned in to cry into her mane.

When Ripsaw was able to walk once more the nine of us set about trying to find as much flammable material as we could. The scraggly bushes were all there was but Seafire, who seemed more determined than any of us to make the biggest fire possible, disappeared off and returned dragging a small tree. We broke it up and layered it up near the water’s edge. Once we were done Helix and I carefully raised Ambrosia’s body onto the top of the pyre. We stood there in silence as the fire took sending smoke and flames into the darkening sky.

“Night time?” Stave asked.

“Thunderstorm,” replied Smoking.

* * *

It seemed that the rain we had experienced was an exception rather than the rule in the waste land. But this wasn’t a good thing because the rule was even harder and more ferocious than the exception. My little pony was feeling sad that the pyre that we had lit for Ambrosia had probably been drowned out and blown into the lake, but unfortunately that was the least of my worries.

The rain; which was the understatement of the century from Foxglove, was coming down at what looked like sixty degrees off vertical, smashing into me and almost lifting me off the ground. I had tried casting a repulsion spell around myself to keep the rain off but, after half an hour of constant assault from the rain and occasional hail stones, I could sustain it no longer and resigned myself to being miserable and wet. I considered getting out my EVA suit at one point but it would get wet inside as I put it on leaving me like a pickle in a jar; my hoofs were getting positively pruney as it was without adding to the problem. I settled with my maintenance overalls sticking to my skin. At least I had something unlike Clef, Stave and Helix.

Smoking, Tungsten and Seafire were the driest of us in their security barding but the rest of us had no such luxury. Clef and Stave had started to take it in turns to hide behind each other from the rain. When one got fed up of being battered they would swap sides putting the other in the firing line. Ripsaw, Helix and I formed our own moving rain break and Foxglove joined the two musicians’. We were three mini-conga lines in the driving rain. ‘Not quite what you had in mind when Lillypad said you owed Helix a dance’ my little pony poked at me. I threatened it with sticking my hoof somewhere tender and it shut up. And if having arguments with your own subconscious wasn’t enough, the rain was so thick that you could only see about twenty feet before it just turned to grey. After nearly five hours of this I was really getting fed up; and I am a pony who really likes showers.

Thank Celestia for the pony who invented EFS.

“We have got to get out of this.” I heard Seafire shout over the howling wind. “We can’t stay out in this much longer. We will end up with hypothermia.”

“Hydrophobia! You are either scared of water or you aren’t.” Stave yelled back. “You can’t catch it.”

“No. Hy-po-therm-ia.” She turned back to shout at him again but got a face full of water for her trouble. “Where your body temperature drops so low that your organs begin to shut down.”

“Celestia screw hypothermia. I have developed hydrophobia.” I barely heard Ripsaw mutter to herself, head bowed against the onslaught from above.

“Wait.” Smoking held up a hoof to stop up. “Multiple blue bars on my EFS. Can someone confirm?”

“Yep. Same here.” Tungsten called back. “I would say six, maybe eight targets.”

“There blue, they aren’t targets. Just bars.” Seafire pointed out. “It’s only dead if it’s red. Remember?”

“Shut it you two.” Smoking pulled out his pistol. “And give me a five metre spread. The rest of you, stay close.”

The nine of us advanced cautiously. I drew out my own pistol and loaded the second energy cell. I really hoped I wasn’t going to need it, not only because I really didn’t want to have to kill anything but because I only had two cells left. If I was too trigger happy it would very quickly become nothing but an elaborate club. Through the rain we began to see some kind of steel structure, a bridge, a wide bridge, a bridge with a gate in the middle, a bridge with a gate in the middle and six ponies on top of it behind cobbled together barricades. Two had pistols, two had rifles and the other two were behind some massive gun with some kind of belt feed.

“A belt fed shotgun? Wow…” I heard Seafire mutter under her breath. Then I remembered the shell that Tungsten had picked up earlier. Ok, a lot of firepower. Far too much for my maintenance overalls. I’d look like the floor grates back in stable seventeen if I got shot by that thing. One of the guards on the roof suddenly snapped round as he spotted us.

“Stop right there.” He shouted pointing his rifle at us. The others brought their weapons to bare to. But my EFS still indicated that they were non hostile; for now anyway. “What’s your business in Viewpoint.”

“Trade.” Smoking replied simply. I really hoped he knew what he was doing.

“With whom.” Smoking paused a little too long. “I knew it!” The guard cried and cocked his rifle.

“Please.” Seafire rushed forward. “You know what a stable is right?” The guard looked like her like she had asked if you walked on your hooves. “We’ve just escaped our stable, along with nearly one hundred other ponies. We are looking for water, food and shelter. We do have items to trade.”

“Like what?” she had the guards attention now.

“How about eight hundred bottles of sparkle cola?”

The guard’s eyes went wide. He looked at his companions then replied. “You may enter.” The gate began to open slowly, drawn up on gears built into the walkway above. “Oh and since you’re new out here, I’ll give you a piece of advice: if you start trouble here by the time we’re done with you there won’t be enough left to feed a radigator. If someone else starts on you, you may defend yourself, but try to use non-lethal force; we like to deal with troublemakers in our own unique way.” I really hoped I didn’t find out what that unique way was.

We made our way over the bridge, staring into the gloom. Slowly buildings began to emerge through the rain, battered single story houses with gardens filled with junk and scrap, then two story stores and town houses with blown out windows and missing roofs. We could see thick layers of algae and moss growing all over the inner walls of the houses. The road was in atrocious condition, just like the one along the edge of the lake.

The first three story building appeared. This one had clearly been tended to. The walls were a patchwork of the original grey stone and mortar construction and newer red bricks. Sheets of painted metal sealed up any broken windows and fresh concrete plugged any other holes. The roof was made of corrugated metal, probably lifted from some other building. There was a balcony on the second floor with a roof over it. I could see several ponies sitting outside breathing smoke. There was another trio playing a card game, one was in a wheelchair and was missing both his left legs. On the ground floor I could see ponies inside at crowded tables. Some were gambling like the others upstairs, some were just drinking but a few had mares standing in the middle in lurid clothing, posing in very unusual positions to the delight of the bucks that sat around the edge. A small sign over the door read ‘Tabitha’s Treats’ beneath a picture of mare with a deck of cards in one hoof, a bottle of whisky in the other and her back legs spread.

“I think we should stay away from there.” Muttered Seafire. Helix and I nodded in agreement. Annoyingly my little pony seemed interested. I gave it a kick and it gave up reluctantly.

There were various other stores and buildings running other businesses. A store selling clothes and footwear; I spotted a rather interesting tight fitting, black number and had to give my little pony another kick. A small stall with a small pony selling tiny handmade trinkets and another with two bucks offering personal protection packages for expeditions out across the wasteland. We finally spotted what must be the town’s store, a single story structure with random objects filling its windows, from sparkle cola bottles to boxes and boxes of pre-war food. A sign in the window read ‘For display only, No food or drink inside’; well obviously I thought, but then again perhaps some ponies were that desperate in the wasteland. There was a small canvas covered wagon parked outside displaying a silvery earth pony with a geode cutie mark with the name underneath ‘Knick Knack’s’ in big happy letters. The original sign for the store had been reduced to a broken shards sticking off the side of the building and had been replaced by a hand painted sign reading ‘Waterfront Wares’, it was nowhere near as happy as the words on the waggon.

“How should we do this?” Foxglove looked worried. “We don’t know how stuff works round here, they could be ripping us off and we wouldn’t even know it.”

“Do we have much of a choice.” Ripsaw mutter dejectedly. “With one hundred ponies to feed we can’t be picky.”

“But what’s the point if we get food for a hundred ponies if we could have got food for a thousand?” Foxglove argued back. “We need to know what everything is worth.”

“And how do you suggest we find out.” Ripsaw snapped back. “Any pony we ask is just going to rip us off. Its pretty obvious we don’t know what we are doing.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t fake it.” Tungsten said slyly, “How’re they to know we’re clueless unless we let them know.”

“You mean lie?” Foxglove glowered at Tungsten, “Yes a great way to make a first impression.”

“We’re screwed either way round with you. Don’t lie and get screwed over or lie and make a bad impression.” He rolled his eyes sarcastically. “Oh what’re we to do.”

“Cut it out you two.” Helix cut in. “I hate to say it, but I think Tungsten is right, as much as I don’t want to lie. I doubt that this is a place where being honest gets you what you want.”

“Right. I’ll handle this then.” Tungsten shook himself and adopted a pose of power and authority and began to walk purposefully towards the door.

But before he could reach it, two bucks in black armour smashed their way out of the door. They sprawled on the floor briefly with their saddlebags bulging and then scrambled to their feet and started to run off down the street into the pouring rain.

“In the name of unpopped Bubblewrap!” A red coloured blur piled out of the door after them and then did a carbon copy as she too went face first into the mud. She pulled herself out of the brown sludge, saw where they were heading and tried to chase after them once more but she barely got five feet before tripping over in the myre.

But Tungsten had his pistol out in a flash and took aim.

“Don’t…” Seafire started.

Tungsten fired twice into the mist and the running shadows. There were two distinct grunts and the sound of some pony face planting into the mud; again.

“Oh for the love of Celestia…” Seafire rushed into the mist. We all followed rapidly.

Tungsten’s shots had been perfect. Both bucks had taken a round to the back leg sending them both sprawling. Their stolen good were now spilled out all over the ground. A mixture of sparkle cola, boxes of ammunition, Radaway and healing potions. The red pony stopped at our side as we looked down on the would-be thieves. Tungsten was still covering them with his gun.

“Thank you shooty pony” The red mare said to Tungsten, then patted me on the shoulder with a squish “I just don’t know why ponies insist on being mean.” She harrumphed.

Wait… squish? Ponies don’t go squish.

I turned to look and jumped. “Whoa. You’re a.. wait…no, hang on... you’re not...”

“Oh…” The other pony seemed to deflate before me. “I’ll just leave.”

“Wait, what, no…” I spluttered back. “Why?”

“No need to explain.” She said sadly. “Just another ghoul hater.” She bowed her head and began to walk away.

“No… wait…” I started to say but she didn’t turn. “I was just going to say, different.” I said to myself.

Suddenly the red pony stopped and turned. “So you’re not a ghoul hater?” She asked hopefully.

“It would help if I knew what a ghoul was.” I replied.

“Where have you been all your life?” She asked. It seemed like a genuine question.

“In a stable as a matter of fact.” Smoking was dragging the two bucks back to the shop by their mane’s as neither of them could stand.

The red ponies eyes went wide and then she started bouncing up and down in glee. “Squee!” She bounced around in circle’s, splashing me with mud. “Actual stable dwellers! Big case of… Squeeeeee!”

* * *

Fifteen minutes later we were all sitting in the back of Knick Knack’s wagon. The rain was still hammering down outside but we were happy for the shelter; well most of us. After we had handed over the two bucks to the gate guards who had come to investigate; the one that had informed me about unique way looked surprisingly happy, the very red and muddy earth pony had run off into the rain to clean herself off. When she got back, however, she had given us all the fright of our lives. I had thought that she was red underneath all that mud but she wasn’t, well not strictly speaking anyway. Her coat, or what was left of it, was a rich silvery, almost metallic colour; cadmium would be the closest I could think of, but the other half of her skin was simply missing revealing the muscles and reddened raw skin underneath. You could even see bone in some places. Here magenta mane was tattered, grubby and streaked with grey but still held its shape well.

Smoking and Tungsten had managed to limit their reaction to wide eyes. Helix had actually gone ‘Oooo’ with interest and curiosity. Clef and Stave looked pointedly anywhere but at Knick Knack. Ripsaw just stated with a mixture of fear and bemusement; perhaps she was wondering like me how the poor pony was even alive. Foxglove had jumped out of the wagon and into the pouring rain before coming cautiously back five minutes or so later. I personally felt a whole raft of emotions. Shock at just her bizarre and scary appearance, then curiosity as to how she had gotten like she was and why she was still alive. But now I just felt sad. I couldn’t entirely explain why but I guessed it had to do with how she had thought we had reacted back when she had first caught up with us.

When Foxglove had climbed back in, though she was still hiding behind Seafire, Knick Knack had bombarded us with questions about life in the stable. They started reasonably sensible, but got progressively more random, and then some.

“Do you have night time?”

“Do you have grass?”

“How about Daisies?”

“Do you know what cheese is?”

“Do you have bubblewrap?”

“Have you ever made scones?”

“No wait! Do you know what muffins are?”

With each of our answers she scribbled enthusiastically into a notepad that was bulging with extra pieces of paper, newspaper cuttings and battered photographs, getting more and more excited as time passed. When we had said that we knew what muffins were but most of us had never eaten them she had jumped to her hooves, hitting her head on the top of the waggon, insisting that she would run ‘Over to Sugar-cube corner’ to get us some, but then her smile slid from her face before sitting back down making a slightly sad sounding ‘Oh’.

“Do you mind if we ask you some questions Knick Knack?” Seafire asked carefully. The mare looked up.

“Nope, don’t mind.” She said brightly.

Seafire thought for a moment then asked, “Why’re you like you are. You said the word ghoul earlier. Is that what you are? A ghoul?”

Knick Knack scratched her mane momentarily before she said “Yes I am. I’m a ghoul. There are many, many ghouls in the equestrian wastelands.”

“What’s a ghoul?” Foxglove asked tentatively.

Knick Knack thought for a moment. “You know about the bombs, don’t you?” We nodded. “A ghoul is a pony who was close enough to a balefire explosion to be hit by the magical radiation, but far enough away not to be killed by it. The radiation mutated us, and changed us, from ponies into this.” She prodded her own chest and it gave a very creepy squishing sound. “Ghouls can’t die, not like normal ponies anyway. We don’t need to eat or drink very much. If we get injured we can be healed by radiation. Like in the lake.”

“So what’re you here for at the moment?” Foxglove glanced around inside the back off the wagon which had a few wooden crates and cardboard boxes littered around inside it. “What were you doing in the shop.”

“Selling my wares.” The ghoul said proudly. “I sell lots of different things. That’s why I called it ‘Knick Knack’s.”

“You don’t happen to be selling any guns do you?” Smoking leaned in. “How about armour?”

Knick Knack looked slightly shocked. “Oh no, no guns but I do have some lovely pieces of barding. Two fifty each and there is another that I should sell for five hundred but because I am feeling generous today, four-fifty.” She waggled a hoof like she was jangling change.

“Uh, Knick Knack.” Helix said slowly. “We don’t have anything. We had arcane credits back in our stable but no coins or notes. It meant no pony could steal any from anyone else.”

“Coins? Notes? That pre-war stuff?” She cocked her head and smiled. “We have moved to Caps now. Much better.” She grinned happily.

“Caps?” I asked. “What are they.”

“You know…” She said brightly. “Bottle caps.”

“Bottle caps…” Ripsaw said flatly glancing around at us. “Like off the top of a bottle of sparkle cola bottle caps?” She leant back crossing her legs. “She is just messing with us.” She looked suspiciously at the cadmium pony.

“I would never do that.” Knick Knack said with a wounded tone.

“Yeah, I bet.” Ripsaw muttered sarcastically. Seafire gave her a dark look.

Then it hit me. “Knick Knack, how much is a bottle of mint condition sparkle cola worth in caps?”

“Hmmm…” Her eyes crossed again. “Well to me you are looking at twenty five to thirty depending on the mood I am in with you. With others anything from ten to forty.”

“So if we said we had say, two hundred bottles to sell, would you have six thousand caps?” Knick Knack hit the roof again but she had the biggest smile on her face. “I’ll take that as a yes.” I replied smiling back.

Finally it seemed we were getting somewhere.

* * *

After an hour or so more the rain began to stop. In that time we had explained exactly what had happened in stable seventeen as well as everything up to the point of meeting Knick Knack. The ghoul ‘Oooo’d and ‘Ahhh’d as we all talked, filling in details and remembering key points. She looked like she was going to cry when we told her how we thought we had saved Ambrosia. I almost did too.

When the storm had turned more to a drizzle we headed out again into Viewpoint. We were going to divide and conquer. We did have some things on us that we intended to sell, mainly the sparkle cola that was now spare as we had successfully found civilisation; even if it wasn’t quite what we had expected.

Viewpoint was positioned at one end of a vast lake, the same one in which stable seventeen resided. A large map of the local area in the centre of the town, which had been repeatedly repaired and modified over the years, revealed that it was fed by two rivers which ran either side of Viewpoint. One was called the Cantalonian, which I guessed was the one that started above Canterlot, and the other had been renamed ‘The Hoof’. Its original name was lost to the degrading information board. Also marked on the map were numerous ‘areas of interest’. There were several viewpoints dotted around on the surrounding hills, which is how I supposed Viewpoint got its name. A mining museum was at one end of the town located next to Big Gem’s Inc., the once red letters now a watery pink, with a public swimming pool and cinema at the other. All the key buildings at the south west of the town were painted over; they had probably been the delapodated buildings we had glimpsed through the mist as we walked in.

There were also the other locations that we knew of like Tabitha’s Treats and Waterfront Wares; which was actually nowhere near the waterfront. The building on the waterfront had been newly labelled Viewpoint Security and Weapon Sales but it had originally read Arcano Weapons Technologies. Now that I wanted a look at; perhaps they could tell me what my weird gun was.

We split. Knick Knack took Helix, Foxglove and Ripsaw into Waterfront wares to sell the spare Sparkle Cola we had on us in exchange for as much food as possible. Knick Knack had chosen Helix over the rest of us as she thought we would get a better deal if a nice young mare asked rather than some random buck. Tungsten took Clef and Stave with him to Tabitha’s Treats. Apparently Tungsten thought that he might be able to find someone with more information about the surrounding area and what was going on in the wastelands in general. Personally I thought he was horny and wanted to get some release but as long as he came back with something I really didn’t care; he was just oozing bad vibes and if that helped him get over them, all the better. This left Smoking, Seafire and I to go over to Arcano Weapons to check out what they had in the way of guns and ammunition. I was hoping that I’d be able to trade some of the things I had brought with me for some more spark batteries for my gun; and find out how it actually worked.

* * *

Arcano Weapons Technologies was very similar in build to the warehouse at the entrance of stable seventeen. An imposing two story structure of grey concrete with thick glass windows, a corrugated aluminium roof and eight foot security fencing around the outside. The entrance gate was guarded by two earth bucks with belt fed shot guns mounted on either side of them. Attached to the front wall of the building were two turrets fitted with high calibre rifles. They snapped to track us as we got within range.

“Nice battle saddles.” Seafire whistled admiring the shotguns. “I would love to get my hooves on one of those.”

“Hmmm.” Smoking didn’t seem too impressed. “They don’t look like genuine Ironshod weapons. They’re probably cheap knock offs that jam like a bitch.”

“Why don’t you keep insulting them and find out?” One of the bucks approached us but kept enough distance so that the spread of the shotguns would cover all three of us. “If you’re here to just browse then you can get lost. Serious buyers only.” He eyed us warily taking in Smoking and Seafire’s security barding and my rather odd looking pistol. “So are you serious or are you just gawkers?”

“Depends.” Smoking replied casually. “Are those genuine Ironshods or will we be looking at just a load of highly polished junk?” The buck scowled, but Smoking held his poker face.

“Give over Buck Shot.” The other buck replied, stepping forward. “Just look at their barding. That stuff doesn’t look cheap and that lasses pistol.” He eyed my holster. “That looks like a serious piece of kit. Might even be from Flash Industries.”

Buck rolled his eyes. “Yeah, way to undermine my position Fletch.” He glowered at us again for a moment. “You can go in. You have to hand over all ammunition at the door. You’ll get it back, along with anything you have bought when you leave.”

“Come on.” Fletch gestured and we passed through the gate.

When we reached the main entrance we removed all the ammunition from our saddle bags and pushed it through a tiny hole to a surly looking mare behind a thick glass screen. After passing through some kind of magical field, which I guessed did a final check to see if we’d handed over all our ammo, we were lead through the door by Fletch into the building.

The inside of the building reminded me of the apple orchard back in stable seventeen. I got a really odd shiver down my spine that spread right down to my hooves; slightly disturbing. The vast warehouse was mainly taken up with machinery and lit with banks of strip lights dangling from the high ceiling. My mood changed as I recognised a lathe, band-saw, pillar drill, arcane controlled miller; everything we had back in stable seventeen only much bigger. The lathe looked like it could take a piece of metal a good two metres long and thirty centimetres in diameter and the miller was about three metres cubed. I was in familiar territory and I really wanted to try hooves on with those machines. My little pony had dropped onto its rump and gone ‘Oooo’. A few ponies were working at the machines. One was on the lathe, spinning a metre long lump of scrap metal, reducing it down to get to the undamaged metal in the middle. So it wasn’t all brand new.

Seafire had immediately gravitated to the opposite wall where some serious looking weapons sat on individual racks like religious artefacts. There were various pistols, rifles, carbines and what looked like a sniper rifle, but the one that drew my attention the most was the massive black weapon on the end. I trotted over to it. Six barrels arranged in a ring, belt fed from a box on the side with what looked like 10mm rounds, an arcane motor on the inside that spun the six barrels and on the far side a chute for the spent shells. The plaque underneath read,

Iron Shod 10mm ‘Spitfire’ Minigun – Hex Pattern
Rounds Per Minute: 600
Ammunition Capacity: 2000
Max Effective Range: 100m
Custom Designed For Soarin’ of the Wonderbolts

Six hundred rounds per minute… ten rounds a second…. one round every tenth of a second… I gawped at the massive weapon. Who needed that kind of firepower? Well, clearly some buck called Soarin’ needed that much firepower. I then spotted a small label underneath the plaque,

Display Model Only

Phew.

“Good day to you.” An earth buck was coming down some steps from a set of offices above the warehouse floor. His dark green coat and perfectly maintained black mane shone but most of it was covered by a full business suit and shiny black shoes; both of which were looking a little worse for wear but it still got the point across: I’m the boss. “Welcome to Arcano Weapons Technologies.” He looked around at us looking comforted by the clean and undamaged security barding on my friends and then raised his eyebrows at my pistol. “And my oh my, what do we have here?” He quickly manoeuvred over to me and pointed at my pistol. “May I?” I nodded my head and he picked it out and placed it on a nearby workbench.

“I say.” He checked out the firearm from every angle, examining the crystals in the barrel and matching up the slot on the back to some inert cells. “Oooo.” His eyes suddenly widened as he spotted a serial number printed on the underside of the left and barrel. Smoking moved up behind him and gave a polite cough. The buck snapped round still holding my gun. “My apologies Sir. I just had to inspect your friend’s pistol here.” He held it up for Smoking to see then placed it down carefully on the workbench. “How can I help you today?”

“We are interested in buying some replacement pistols for my team.” Smoking replied taking a business like tone. “We will also be in need of ammunition for them as well as more cells for my friends energy weapon.”

The buck jovially put a foreleg around Smoking neck and began leading him over to the racks of weapons. “Certainly. May I ask what your budget is?” He stopped in front a rack of revolvers.

“Our budget is irrelevant at the moment.” Smoking glared at the sales buck making his grin falter slightly. “What matters is the quality of the goods.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” He replied carefully pulling his grin back into place and turning back to the revolvers. “Ironshod’s finest.” He declared picking up a eight round revolver and showing it to Smoking. Seafire stopped drooling over the twin barrelled anti-machine rifle and drifted over to listen. “Eight round, .44 calibre revolver. Extended and rifled barrel for greater accuracy. If you can cock it fast enough it will fire all eight rounds in less than two seconds. Effective range one hundred and fifty metres if you are accurate enough” He glanced at Smoking who didn’t move. “Right, bigger…” He said to himself.

He moved over to the next rack and picked up a black handgun with a leather mouth bit. “The Blackhawk semi-automatic pistol. Sixteen round magazine of 5.56mm rounds which are usually used in assault rifles. Extra thick leather padding on the mouth grip for earth ponies. Can empty a whole clip in four seconds at an effective range of two hundred metres but will decapitate at less than fifty.” Smoking still didn’t look impressed. The buck put the gun back with a slight huff and moved over again. I caught Smoking’s eye for a moment and he grinned at me happily. What? He didn’t care about buying anything, he just wanted to see all the best weapons.

I rolled my eyes and walked over to one of the lathes. I had used machines like these back in seventeen when we had to make replacement parts. This was maybe three times larger than the one I had used, but it showed its age. There were lots of patches and repairs to the support structure. The chuck had cracked and been fused back together with magic and the heat sink for the arcane motor was made up of random fins of metal.

“She’s seen better days.” A earth buck wandered up behind me wearing a white technicians overall. “But she still works as we need her to. Swarf.” He said as he patted the lathe.

I looked at him curiously. “You named the lathe Swarf?”

“No.” He laughed. “That’s my name.”

“Ooops, sorry.” I smile back at him sheepishly. He was rather handsome with his grey eyes and smooth jaw line. His light brown coat and his black hair were just as shiny as the sale bucks but littered with metal chippings and smudged with oil in places. I found myself staring and jogged myself back. “Francium.” I held out a hoof.

“Nice to meet you.” He replied shaking it gently. He glanced round at Smoking and Seafire. “I see your friend is playing hard to please.”

I stuttered slightly. “Is he… I…”

Swarf laughed again; he seemed a happy buck. “Dad’s good at selling to people who know as much as he does or less. Merc’ corporations and slavers but when faced with someone who knows more or can play hard to get he’s completely stumped. Doesn’t know how to read them.”

“Dad?” I asked. “He’s your dad?”

“That’s what I said isn’t it.” He smiled again. “His real name’s Forstner, but most call him Cheque. He’s the odd one out in the family. We have always been engineers, designers, technicians. Anything design orientated, but then he comes along and is all ‘investment’ and ‘profit margins’ and stuff.” Swarf shook his head. “Clever pony but he’s living in the wrong time. No pony does investment, it’s all about profit just without the margins. Any profit will do.”

Wait. Backpedal. “Did you just say slaver’s?” I looked at him cautiously. “As in slavery?”

He looked at me, confused. “Yes.”

“As in force you to work for nothing and keep you chained up until you die.”

“In some cases yes.” Swarf suddenly looked worried.

“And your dad sells weapons to these ponies?” I asked in disbelief.

“We had to in order to keep our business running.” Swarf looked at me sadly. “We’ve almost gone out of business twice in the last year. We can produce the guns, but if no pony’s buying then it’s all for nothing. None of us like it, but dad insisted that it was necessary in order to keep us going.” He shuffled again. “So are you actually buying today or just doing some serious browsing?”

“In an ideal world we’d be buying, but given the quality of the weapons, I doubt it.” I looked longingly at Blackhawk. I may not know much about weapons or like using them but there was something about all that perfectly machined steel that made me giddy. “We just got out of our stable but there are nearly a hundred of us to look after. Limited food, water and almost no weapons.

Swarf eyed me carefully “But you still managed to get your hoofs on an Arcano prototype.” Part of him didn’t believe me. “And you have two suits of perfectly intact security barding.” He indicated Smoking and Seafire who were now being shown their sixth pistol by Cheque.

“All the security ponies in the stable had that barding. Same goes for the pistols, but we only had rubber bullets. Well we did have several boxes of live ammo but we’re almost out.”

“What you been shooting at?”

“Something lunged out of the lake and snapped one of our companion’s neck. A big green thing. Bullets didn’t hurt it but this thing did.” I picked up my pistol. “What is this thing.”

“Big green thing would have been a radigator, vicious creatures. As for your weapon, I believe it is one of the Arcano prototypes. Somewhere between a solid round weapon and an energy weapon.” Swarf went over and started digging in cabinet filled with papers and documents. “One of the very last things they developed. I actually think that they finished it a few months after the balefire bombs were dropped.”

“So you know all about that hu…” I said sadly.

“Yeah.” He tossed a pile of magazines onto the floor. “We have a more complete history of our area than most people do. The nearest attack to us was technically Canterlot but the nearest balefire explosion was all the way over in Fillydelphia. That nearly one hundred miles. Ah here we go.” He pulled out a folder and dropped it on the workbench. “That should answer all your questions.”

The folder was filled with technical schematics and manufacturing process information, but the key information was on a sheet at the front. The Arcano Weapons symbol, three blue crystals set in a triangle with white sparks and electrical arc’s running between them, was at the top of the document which was entitled,

Project LAW: Arcano Linear Arcane Weaponry R&D: Jury Class

The rest of the document outlined the goals, targets and deadlines of the project. Some of the statistic I was unfamiliar with; Critical Hit statistics and SATS point tally, but some I knew; expected rate of fire, range, capacity, reload time, impact force.

“So this is my gun?” I asked looking carefully through the schematics. I looked back at Swarf. “What’s so special about it.”

“Unfortunately I don’t know.” Swarf scratched his mane thinking. “There’s nothing in the file to explain how it works or fires. That’s why we’ve never been able to reproduce it. Unless we know how all the parts function together then we have no way of replicating it. We have tried simply making all the parts and assembling them but no luck. It doesn’t work like a normal gun. Of either type”

“Could you reverse engineer it?” I asked. “From this?”

“Probably.” His eyes lit up. “It might take us awhile, but given enough time almost anything is possible.”

“Chatting up clients Swarf?” Cheque shook his head as he walked over with Smoking and Seafire behind him. “Get back to it.”

“Did you two reach an agreement?” I asked.

“No.” Smoking replied simply, but he looked at me and then mouthed ‘Not enough Caps’ behind Cheques back.

“Well I have an offer.” I said smiling at Cheque. And holing up Jury for them to see; well I couldn’t call it gun forever. “Swarf here tells me that you’ve been having no luck in building this weapon from the schematics.” I Lifted up the folder to show them all. “But he believes that if he had a working one to study that he could figure out where you have been going wrong.”

“Here’s what I want. I’ll loan you the working prototype until such time that you can make your own prototype. From that you’ll be able to produce as many as you like.” Cheque was clearly intrigued. “In exchange I want ten of the Blackhawk pistols, five thousand rounds of ammunition for them and one of your… “I read Seafire’s lips. “…combat shotguns with five hundred rounds to go with that.”

Cheque looked stunned, Smoking surprised, Seafire nervous and Swarf amazed. I raised an eyebrow at Cheque. “Well, what do you say?”

“Five Blackhawks and three thousand rounds. Pump action shotgun and two hundred rounds.” He replied.

“Eight Blackhawks and four thousand rounds. Combat shotgun with four hundred rounds.” I countered.

“Six and three thousand. Pump action and four hundred.” He was beginning to sweat.

“Eight and three thousand, combat and three hundred.” I returned again.

“Six and three thousand. Pump action and four hundred. Final offer.” Cheque straightened himself up to his full height.

I started to reply when Swarf cut across “Dad.” He looked into his eyes. “This could save the business. Our livelihood. They deserve more than that.” He stared right at Cheque. Finally the green buck relaxed.

“Eight Blackhawks with four thousand rounds and one Combat shotgun with four hundred rounds.” He turned to me and held out a hoof.

“Deal.” I shook it happily.

Cheque stood there for a moment, perhaps he was regretting what he had just done, but he replied calmly enough. “I’ll go and get the paperwork.” He scurried off back up stairs. I let out a sigh of relief.

“I didn’t know you could be so persuasive.” Seafire looked down at me grinning. “I am going to have to watch out.”

“That was… impressive.” Smoking couldn’t seem to lose the look of surprise locked onto his face. “Eight Blackhawks…” He muttered to himself then looked down at me curiously. “Why the shotgun?”

“That would be me.” Seafire raised her hoof. “What.” Smoking looked her with an expression somewhere between bemusement and worry. “It’s an amazing weapon.”

“I think you’re forgetting Swarf here.” I turned round to the young stallion and gave him a hug. “Thanks for that.”

“Hey helping a beautiful mare like yourself and getting my hooves on a rare piece of Arcano weapons technology.” He grinned back at me. “What’ve I got to lose.”

I let go of him and smiled again. Perhaps the wasteland wasn’t so bad after all.

* * *

“You managed to get how much!” Helix gawped at us as we gathered under the veranda outside Tabitha’s treats. I hadn’t liked the idea much, but it had started raining just as hard as before but without the heavy, low hanging fog. I looked out into the down pour, the water bouncing a good metre back up off the ground. “You should have been with us. We could only wrangle enough food out of the wares shop keeper to keep us going for another week or so.”

“It’s better than nothing. Gives us another week to track down more food and stuff to sell.” Ripsaw plonked herself down and dropped a glass bottle on the table. “Who’s for a celebratory shot?” She looked around at us.

“What?” Clef and Stave said in unison.

“Shot.” Ripsaw waggled the bottle under their noses. “Whisky shot.”

“Where in equestrian did you get that?” Foxglove stared into the bottle.

“Made it myself.” She replied proudly unscrewing the bottle. She filled the cap three times then emptied each one into her glass in turn.

“Only three.” Tungsten smirked. “Wuss.”

“Fine then if you think you are tougher.” Ripsaw handed him over the bottle and he measured out six into his own glass. “Ready? On three.”

She counted and they both downed their shots simultaneously. Ripsaw screwed her face up making a ‘blaugh’ sound. Tungsten did the same but without a sound. For a moment I thought that was it, but suddenly Tungsten jumped to his hooves and snatched up the jug of water in the middle of the table and downed it in one. He coughed and spluttered as he finished with his tongue hanging out.

“Oh, yeah.” Ripsaw leant back in her chair. “Much tougher.”

I leant in and smelt the bottle and quickly regretted it. It felt like my nose hair had been burnt off.

“What’s in that stuff.” Tungsten gasped. He was now sticking his head out into the downpour to cool off his tongue.

“It’s just normal whisky. Well its brewed in the same way but ‘cos its home made it varies each time. This one happens to be a very potent batch.” She measured out another three and downed it with the same expression and sound. “Got to be about sixty per cent alcohol this one.”

“Nice.” Seafire said flatly, sipping on her sparkle cola. “Take this.” She passed Tungsten a Rad-away. “You will need it after all that water.”

“So do we have a new plan?” Foxglove tapped her hooves together expectantly.

“Well, we got our weapon’s and we got our food. We have things to drink so unless anyone can think of anything else we might need in the meantime…” Smoking glanced around at everypony. “No?”

“I was wanting to go up to the main viewpoint.” Helix replied. “You know; see the reason they named the town like they did.”

“They named it that cos that was probably the most legible sign left when somepony found the place.” Ripsaw cut in. She suddenly slipped and fell on the floor. “Woah, that stuff is waaaaay more potent than usual.” She hiccupped.

“Oh great. Now she’s drunk.” Clef folded his arms staring down at her.

“Noooo, I’m nooot.” She tried to get back on her chair and simply fell off the other side. Tungsten slipped to the floor with a crash.

“You okay?” Helix asked warily.

“No.” Tungsten said before his head dropped onto the table with a loud thunk. He suddenly started snoring.

“Brilliant. Just brilliant.” Clef huffed.

“Will they be alright?’ I asked Helix, as she lifted up Tungsten’s eyelid.

“Yeah. Just the combination of sudden consumption of alcohol and not eating much means it’s gone straight to their heads.” She shook her head. “Powerful stuff.”

“So now what?”

“Well we’re not going anywhere fast, so how about we do that walk to the view point?”

“In this?” I gestured at the downpour. “I’ve been soaked to the skin once today, I don’t fancy it again.”

“Got that covered.” Helix grinned pulling four raincoats from her saddle bags.

“But, what about these two?” Ripsaw still hadn’t gotten up off the floor and Tungsten was still snoring, if a little quieter.

“I’ll stay with them.” Foxglove shifted and sat between them. “You two can go up to the point.”

“I’ll stay to.” Smoking leaned back in his chair, stretching. “I want some time to relax; we haven’t had any time since we left the stable.”

Helix looked at Clef and Stave but they both just shrugged in a ‘not interested’ kind of way. Typical violinists.

“Seafire? Do you want to come with us?” I looked up at the white unicorn.

“I was actually thinking of going in here…” She looked quizzically though the window. Thankfully there were no dancing mares on tables and more bucks playing card games, but still not exactly inviting. “Something different. You know.”

“Ummm, no I don’t.” I looked at her incredulously. “It looks so… uncouth. And that’s the bare minimum. Dangerous would be another word I would use.”

“Well with the barding and a brand new Blackhawk I think I can handle myself.”

I scowled at her. “Just be careful won’t you. We’ve already lost one pony today.”

“Don’t worry.” She smiled at me. “I’ll be back to finish what we started.” She flicked my nose with her tail as she went inside. Clef and Stave followed and went straight over to the band who were playing in the corner. I was still trying to wrap my head round why Seafire kept hitting on me when she knew I was with Helix. And heck, I was virtually certain that her stable door didn’t swing that way.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” Helix asked playfully, but I could detect a serious undertone.

“She thinks I am cute and I am pretty sure she likes to use that to wind me up since I used to fancy her.” I rubbed my cheeks, trying to get them to go back to blue instead of red, and then yanked one of the raincoats over my head. “Come on. Let’s get up to that point.” I very much wanted something to distract me from the images that my little pony was now running through my head, desperately wishing I could banish that little git to some far flung corner of my mind forever.



Footnote: Level Up
New Perk - Gun Nut-Level 1: You are beginning to to understand the appeal of the firearm. You gain an additional five points to Small Guns and Repair skills for each Gun Nut rank.

Act 1 - Chapter 4: Point Of View

View Online

Chapter 4: Point Of View
“I'm not giving him cake! I'm assaulting him with cake!”

Helix and I continued to follow the thin muddy track up the side of the ridge. We were sheltered from the worst of the rain by a forest of large, if rather sickly looking, trees which clung precariously to the rock. Our PipBuck’s clicked gently from the radiation emanating from the trees and the moss growing on rocks and boulders that littered the hillside; I was rather surprised that plants and animals could still grow whilst being flooded constantly with radiation.

Progress was slow. The side of the ridge was exceptionally steep, with no direct route to the summit, so the path meandered back and forth taking the path of least resistance up to the top. It was broken by what would have been streams at regular intervals, but they were now gushing torrents of water rushing down the mountainside. In several places it seemed that the water was spewing directly out of the rocks between different layers of sediment. It was fascinating to see something that we had been taught right in front of us, rather than just a diagram on a page, but the continuously falling rain tended to dampen our high spirits.

“I know I am probably going to jinx us by saying this.” Helix mused as she trotted along in front of me. “But things haven’t been as bad as I expected.” She must have caught my gasp as she quickly continued, “I know losing Ambrosia was… horrible is the only word, but considering everything that we were taught back in seventeen, I just had this vision of it being much worse.”

I pondered that for a minute; in a way she was right. The world above had always been painted as a blasted hell hole with virtually no life whatsoever and what little life did exist was vicious and mutated beyond recognition. We had experienced the mutated life aspect, and I didn’t like that one bit, but I could put down Ambrosia’s death to our inexperience rather than our incompetence. I didn’t like turning some ponies last moments in equestrian into simple logical problems, but given that we had been told that nothing could possibly live in the irradiated water we had simply not seen it coming. ‘But you should’ve,’ my little pony cut in, ‘you should’ve been more careful and observant, had your weapons out ready, gotten her away from the water more quickly.’ I sighed; and yet my inner pony had a very good point.

“What wrong?” Helix turned to look at me, concern all over her face. Then she saw it, “Ambrosia wasn’t your fault. We just weren’t ready or careful enough. It was your crazy weapon that forced it away. The normal bullets didn’t seem to be doing anything.” She stroked my mane looking into my eye. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. You can always think of what you could’ve done with hindsight, but that won’t bring her back. All you can do is make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I nodded slowly and Helix gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I smiled slightly.

“One final push, we aren’t far from the top now anyway.” She turned and continued walking. I stood there a moment, admiring her. She was beautiful, kind, clever; perfect. A wide smile spread across my face again and I trotted after her.

* * *

After another half an hour or so of walking we broke out the top of the tree line. From here we could just make out the top through the haze left behind by the rain which had moved off over the lake below. The ground was covered in a thin layer of grass that looked just as sickly as the trees below, but as our eyes scanned up the side of the ridge the colour slowly changed from the pale yellow to an almost healthy looking green. Crags of rocks jutted out of the grass providing cover for smaller trees and shrubs. A surprising amount of life.

“This place keeps throwing more and more weird things at us.” Helix was investigating a small plant on the edge of the path. Rather than having leaves it looked to be made up of flattened points of plant flesh with small spines along the edges to ward off any potential animals that might try to eat it. “A succulent, here.” She brought her Pipbuck close to it and its click began to double time. “We ought to be drinking Rad-away up here. Every plant has soaked it up.” She waved her foreleg at the hillside. “We might as well be a bath of irradiated water with all the moisture around here.”

I dug out two packs of the orange liquid and passed her one. “I can’t believe that there is so much life. It seems nothing here is willing to just give up and die.” I downed my Rad-away and my Rad indicator dropped back into the green. I can’t see what they were all going on about back in the stable. It all seems…”

I was knocked back by a splat of mud to my face. I thought for a moment that Helix had flung it at me but another hit me and another. My rad-metre was climbing rapidly again. I wiped the sludge away from my eyes and spotted half a dozen flying things, about the size of my head, hovering ten metres or so away firing at us. I flattened myself to the ground to get out of their sight. Helix did the same.

“What the heck are they?” I pulled out my brand new Blackhawk and loaded a magazine. The things were flying towards us, preparing to fire again. I stood up and dropped into SATS. On closer inspection they looked exactly like a pest we had been taught about back in the stable; a parasprite. The same wings and eyes and body structure but these were at least ten times the size. I set one shot onto each on the closest three creatures and dropped out of SATS. The first was turned into vapour by the oversized round, the same with the second, but the third managed to zip away fast enough to avoid the shot.

I dropped back down again and shuffled around to keep away from the flying sludge. I glanced down at my rad-metre and it had gone right back up to where it was before. ‘You stupid creatures cost me a rad-away.” I shouted at them. Maybe they would drop dead from guilt.

Helix and I swung up together. I targeted another two and turned them to vapour but Helix kept missing even though she had the same gun and the same SATS. She muttered in frustration. I took aim again and fired but the final two kept dodging the bullets. ‘How…’ my inner pony was thinking but that didn’t matter; guns were no good now, what else could I use?

Idea!

I stood up taking another hit of sludge and concentrated. The closest bloated parasprite suddenly exploded as I opened a repulsion field around it, the vacuum inside making the creature simply pop like a balloon. The last parasprite seemed to finally twig that it was going to lose this fight and made a break for it but was suddenly blown clean out of the air by a shot that reverberated off the sides of the valley. I looked round at Helix, but she had simply taken to cover. I scanned the area. A green buck with a shotgun suddenly popped out of the undergrowth just a few metres away making me jump. He was wearing a brown hat draped with the grass and moss from the hillside and wore a kind of pull over that was covered in green and brown string that made him blend in almost perfectly with the hillside. He was very lucky I had not shot him.

“It seems there are no alternatives with you two.” He slung his shotgun over his back and walked over to us. “They either get vaporised or they explode.” He picked up the remains of one of the creatures with his hoof. “Looks like bloatsprite is off the menu tonight then.” He shrugged and began to head back down the hill.

Menu?

“Wait.” The buck turned and looked at me with a level stare. “Ummm…” I didn’t know what to say. I settled for, “Who are you?”

“Who wants to know?”

I tilted my head. “We do.” I said simply. Who else?

He face hoofed. “No, I mean who do you work for, who are you, why should I trust you?” He continued to stare at me.

I paused again. “Well, my name is Francium. This is Helix.” She gave a little wave. “We don’t work for anyone and… well I can’t think of any reason for you not to trust us.” I gave him my best winning smile.

The green buck in the strange hat and coat stared at me for a moment more before a half smile curled across his lips. “You have a good point there Miss Francium.” He held out a hoof and I took it. “Name’s Mantis. I am the cook at Tabitha’s. Also your local exterminator; radroaches, parasprites, radigators all taken care of… for a fee of course.”

“Well, as I said I’m Francium and I am a welder and part of maintenance. I also do a little bit of computer programing and reprogramming in my spare time. And Helix is a Biologist and Chemist specialising in reproduction and birth control.”

“Wow.” Mantis looked both impressed and intrigued. “And where did you two lovely young ladies learn skills like that?”

“We…” I looked round at Helix, wondering if she wanted to keep our stable on the down low, but she just shrugged. “We learnt it back in our stable. It’s about fifteen miles down the lake. Or what is left of it anyway.”

Mantis’s brow furrowed. “What’s left of it? What happened to it?”

“Long story.” I said rolling my eyes. “Anyway we were heading to the top to catch the view so we will see you around I guess.”

“I’ll be coming with you if you don’t mind. I need to catch something to serve tonight and you two look like you are in a position to help me.” He unslung his shotgun and gestured up the hill. “Come on. With guns like those you ought to be able to take out a radigator or even a terrorhawk.”

“Terror-hawk?” Helix asked apprehensively.

“Imagine an eagle with a two metre wingspan, claws that can slice clean through leather barding and eyes good enough to spot a bloatsprite from half a mile away.” Mantis pumped his shot gun. “Then you are getting the idea. They are also healed by radiation which is a right pain in the ass.”

Helix and I exchanged a nervous glance then set off again up the path once more after Mantis.

* * *

After another fifteen minutes or so I wished we had headed up without him. The earth buck just could not stop talking to us. It wasn’t that he was annoying, but it seemed that for every story we had he had one better. I had no idea how he stayed quiet when he was hunting.

“I was born in New Appleoosa; about a week’s trot from here in the plains at the base of the mountains.” He chatted to us as we plodded along behind him, keeping half an eye out for any ambitious bloatsprites. “Lived there with my father and older brother. Oh, it was a good life, but it did have a few problems. It’s hard enough hunting in the dusty, orange plains when you are copper like my brother or brown like my old man but when you are a rich green…” He flicked his mane. “…things are much more difficult. I had to be twice as cunning as my brother when we went hunting. My old man was one of the best shots in the wasteland, or so he claimed, and he wanted us to be just like him; great hunter-gatherers all for the greater good and all the stuff that DJ went on about. I made special mods to my rifle here to give me the edge over my brother. He copied me so I had to become stealthier and faster than him. Not too difficult given his bulk but it still was hard. If I had been orange like him with my skills I could have flattened him hooves down each time we went out, but if I had been orange I wouldn’t have been forced to get so good.”

He suddenly held up a hoof and we all stopped. Mantis brought his shotgun up silently scanning the hillside. He paused at a tuft of grass and then fired. There was a squeak and a grunt as something stumbled out of the long grass. Mantis drew a hunting knife and quickly stabbed the throat of the radroach then hung if off his pack and cleaned the knife off on the grass before stowing it away once more. Ok, maybe he was as good as he boasted.

“If you were born in New Appleloosa then how come you now live here in Viewpoint?” Helix asked. She seemed to be weathering his verbal onslaught much better than I was. “What made you move?”

“Ah, now that is an excellent question.” Mantis said with an air of importance. “About six years ago or so, New Appleloosa was attacked randomly by a bunch or raiders. At the time they didn’t have the defences they have now. All the bucks mounted a defence my brother and father included. With our rifles we could stay back and snipe from the town hall. We were doing well until…” His eyes suddenly dropped and he slowed his pace.

“Until what?” I prompted.

“One of the raiders figured out where our shots were coming from. He pulled out a missile launcher and blew the room we were in to pieces. I was blasted out the window into the street but my brother and father were fatally wounded. My brother bled out before I could reach him and my father died… my father died in my arms.” He was crying now but wiped them away forcefully.

I gave him a moment to compose himself then asked. “What happened next?”

“I went mad. The remains of the raiding party retreated and I followed. It took a week to get back to their camp. I’ve no idea why they came so far from their hideout but that’s history now. I came across them one night, in the cave they had made their base. I decided that I was going to kill them all for what they’d done. I tossed two smoke grenades into the cave and retreated. I shot them one by one as they ran out coughing and gasping. No mercy, no hesitation. Bolt, shot, Bolt, shot. Bolt, shot. By the time the smoke had cleared I had killed twelve ponies with eleven shots. Yes eleven…” He repeated as my mouth opened slightly. “Double headshot with a .308 round.”

He shook his head if trying to clear his thoughts. “But when I moved in to loot the bodies I discovered two foals at the back of the cave. The colt had been cut and slashed repeatedly and the filly had been abused in… I don’t even want to say it. I was so preoccupied that I didn’t notice the raider behind me. She had been smart enough to guess what was going on and had stayed in the back of the cave. She put this knife…” He pulled out the hunting knife. “… right through my left foreleg.” He lifted it up revealing a four inch long scar on either side just above his knee. “She was going to kill me with it but it was stuck. It then became a hoof to hoof wrestle in front of the two foals. I eventually managed to knock her out with a rock but I couldn’t kill her for some reason. So I took the two foals and ran.”

He paused at a fork in the track and headed right. “The colt died shortly afterwards, but the filly stayed alive. After a week in pursuit I had almost no supplies, not enough for one pony let alone two.” He sniffed but then a smile broke across his face. “And then we were saved by the most unlikely person imaginable. Back in New Appleloosa was a ghoul pegasus who ran a shop. She was flying over with her delivery waggon and spotted me below with the filly. She gave us a lift to where she was heading; Viewpoint. If it hadn’t been for dear old Ditzy I am certain we would have died out there.”

I smiled at him and he smiled back. “So a happy ending then.”

“Oh it gets better.” He was positively grinning now; wow big change of mood my little pony noted. “The filly had been taken from this very town. Her parents ran the local pub as it was back then. To say thank you for saving their daughter they offered me a place to live here in Viewpoint and a job that would utilise and allow me to hone my skills.”

“And I’m guessing you took it.” Helix was smiling now to.

“Yep.” Mantis beamed. “Now I live my life helping to feed others and help run a successful business. Tabitha has grown up into one heck of a mare if you ask me. Still a little on the young side to be dating but very, very beautiful.”

“Tabitha?” I asked. “As in Tabitha’s Treat’s?”

“Yep.”

“But it looks so… um… dubious.” I said carefully. I didn’t want to insult our new friends business but there was no other word for it.

Mantis frowned slightly. “It may delve into some rather interesting pleasures on occasion, but what the ponies want is what the ponies get. Besides, no one forces the mares; and even bucks, into performing. They get their kicks out of it and we get profit. Win, win.”

I looked at him for a moment before relaxing. He was right. It might not be a kind of right I was used to but still, he was right. ‘And you like delving into interesting pleasures yourself don’t you’ my little pony said in a sultry tone. Kick, buck and wrestle that thought into a deep hole.

“And besides if the lure of Tabitha’s isn’t for you…” He stopped and waved a hoof in the air. “This just might be.”

I looked up and felt my jaw drop.

The rain had lifted, the mist had cleared and the light from the sinking sun was catching the underside of the clouds turning them an infinite number of shades of pink and red. I could see Viewpoint at the foot of the ridgeline we were standing on, laid out like a miniature model set below. I could see Tabitha’s and Arcano weapons, the falling sun reflecting up off their roofs. But what stunned me the most was the lake. I could see all of it; well I thought I could. The gleaming water sparkled and gleamed as it disappeared into the distance where my eyes could no longer focus. The sides of the valley seemed to hug the mass of water like stone arms. I could see the tops of those ridges smattered with patches of trees like the ones below us. More torrents of water spewing out of the near vertical faces of rock, tumbling down into the lake below.

“Wow…” Helix said softly beside me. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah it is.” I leant my head on her shoulder and she reciprocated. It had been a hard day. A long day. So much had happened that I could barely remember it all. We’d set out at the crack of dawn to look for civilisation. We’d lost poor Ambrosia shortly afterwards. Then we’d been blasted with rain for hours on end before finding the entrance to Viewpoint. We’d helped an earth pony ghoul who had, in return, helped us get food for what survived of our stable. I’d found out about the strange gun that Arc had given me and lent it to Swarf and his dad in exchange for weapons and ammunition to help defend us in the wasteland. Watched Tungsten and Ripsaw get rapidly drunk and then collapse in a snoring heap. Forged on up the cliff side in the rain and ran into a stallion that had saved a defenceless filly from a band of raiders.

And now this.

I started crying. Silently at first but slowly the wall of emotion hit me and I broke down completely bawling into Helix’s shoulder. I cried until I ran out of tears and the sun had set, turning the scene into shadows and shades of grey. I cried for Ambrosia who had died so suddenly trying to help her fellow stable dwellers. I cried for Knick Knack who had been transformed into an undying ghoul by no fault of her own. I cried for Mantis’s brother and father who were cruelly taken from him and for the colt that had been tortured by raiders. And I finally cried with happiness for the filly that made it out alive and living long enough to see the sight before me.

“What’s wrong my love?” Helix held me tightly as my tears mixed with the moisture in her mane.

“Nothing’s wrong... it’s just... all this, and what’s happened and how quickly.” I sat up and wiped my eyes with a hoof trying to look at her without my vision being blurred. “Ten hours ago we were leaving the warehouse. Nine hours ago we lost Ambrosia. I watched somepony die today and it’s taken nine hours for me to realise it.”

“But you have realised it, come to terms with it; or at least begun to accept it.” Helix insisted. “You’re like that. You can push through in the moment, stay strong but eventually you have to have your moment of sorrow otherwise you would bottle it all up. And that’s never a good thing.”

“I...you’re right. You are always right.” I smiled at her and then blushed slightly as she kissed me. I caught Mantis out the corner of my eye looking both surprised and slightly disappointed. “Yes we are both taken.” I said to him. “Deal with it.”

“You do know you are probably making a whole bunch of bucks really unhappy keeping such beauty and grace between the two of you.” He shuffled awkwardly but with a nervous grin on his face.

“Yeah, and I don’t care. She’s mine.” I kissed her back wishing with all my heart that I had a camera to capture this moment. After a moment we turned to look back at the lake. “You know we best be getting back down. That path is just going to get harder to navigate in the dark.” I looked at my PipBuck. “This thing has to have a torch or something on here; it does almost everything else.” Suddenly the casing began to glow illuminating the ground around me. “I knew it.” I smiled at my PipBuck.

Helix copied me and the three of us turned to head down the mountain guided by the little pools of light.

“If you like that view there are plenty more like that around these parts. If you follow this ridge along you get to Forks peak. That’s an amazing view but I would go as a group; there are some small time gangs at the other end of the valley.”

“Gangs?”

“Surely you had gangs in your stable. It’s just like the norm among more unruly teen and younger kids these days.” Mantis looked surprised when I looked back at him nonplussed. “Um, ok, gangs. Groups of ponies that band together in ‘common cause’,” Why did he say it like it was a bad thing. “which can be pretty much anything, but its usually just for survival. But a gang gets violent most of the time or intimidates others just for the fun of it.”

“Intimidate ponies for fun.” Helix answered in shocked tones. “But why?”

“Cos they can. Some gangs form for protection as well, but that usually means you end up with two gangs in the same area. So they fight and get in other ponies ways. Those ponies then pick a side and the gangs grow and fight until the original meaning of the fight is lost and both side just have an irrational hatred of one another.”

“That’s just stupid on a whole new level.” This kind of thing would never have happened in a stable; well stable seventeen anyway.

“But is it?” Mantis stopped and we looked at him. “Example. In Hoofington there is a gang made up entirely of burn or explosion victims. And do you know what they use for weapons?” We shook our heads. “Flame throwers and rocket launchers. You would think after what they had been through that they would never touch those weapons again but, from what a trader told me; who probably got this information fifth hoof or something like that, they use them because if they can be strong enough to work with what almost killed them every day, then how can they be afraid of anything else. On their own they would be suicidal; easy pickings for another gang, but together they can help each other cope and have safety in numbers.” He looked at us. “Do you get it now?”

“So you are telling me that… every gang is made up of… suicidal, lonely ponies… that are just looking for a safe, quiet… life?” Helix and I filled in together.

“No. There are loads of gangs that are formed purely to kill and maim cos ponies want to. That’s what’s at the other end of the ridge. Except it’s not just one gang; its three.”

“So how come they haven’t killed each other?” I asked.

“Oh trust me, they have each been trying to wipe the other two out for decades. They just haven’t had any luck. There was a point about three years back when it looked like the Stonethrowers were going to win but then Slate, leader of the Quarrymen, convinced the Pinkstormers to do a joint attack. They almost wiped them out, but before the job was done they turned on each other.” Mantis shook his head. “That’s pointless. That’s stupid.”

“Are there lots of gangs around Equestria?” Helix asked.

“Was Celestia an Alicorn?” Mantis suddenly drew his knife and sliced two bloatsprites clean out of the air. It seemed they had been waiting to ambush the three of us. He picked them up and hung them next to the radroach and continued.

“Most of the wasteland is split up into areas controlled by groups of some form or another. Some are for good, others not so much. There’ve been problems all over since ponies started emerging from the stables as a stable provides a perfect hidden location for a gang to operate from. One month a route can be safe and the next it can be suicide.” He sighed and turned to look at us, a serious expression on his face. “You two have been lucky. Viewpoint is one of the best places in the wastelands to live. We’re isolated, but self-sustaining. Have good protection and defences. No real gangs around that threaten us and little radiation. What you saw on the top of that ridge is one of the few beautiful places in the wasteland. We all do our best to keep it this way. Anyone who threatens it has to go.”

He rubbed his face suddenly looking very tired then sighed again. “Come on, let’s get to the bottom.”

* * *

When we got back down into Viewpoint we headed with Mantis straight to Tabitha’s Treats. Mantis had killed another three bloatsprites and two more radroach’s on the way down. Helix and I had carried them for him but we were still surprised when he told us he was going to turn them into the evening’s menu. When we got to Tabitha’s, there was music filling the street outside, sounding out of the open windows and doors of the establishment. Mantis bid us a pleasant evening before disappearing round the back with his catches.

Helix and I stepped inside the very full building and looked around. To my surprise it was Clef and Stave standing on the small stage in the corner, accompanied by a drummer and vocalist. The young mare wasn’t the best singer, but everyone was enjoying her lyrics more than her tuning. Clef had gotten his hoofs on a double bass and was plucking out a meaty bass line while Stave was at the piano and was providing a funky melody and chord line. Just as I spotted our little group in the opposite corner the song ended resulting in a tumult of applause from the assembled ponies.

“Thank you everypony.” The vocalist called out and getting another cheer in response. “Thank you. We’ll be continuing in just a second, but first let’s give a big round for our two helping musicians, Clef and Stave!” Another cheer. “And of course our ever regular Offbeat,” The drummer raised his sticks with his magic getting a cheer with a few whoops. There was also a cry of ‘hit em’ harder’ to which Offbeat grinned and ran a quick fill on the toms and the snare drum. The mare smiled and then tapped her hoof four times. The band began again striking up another lively tune. I was no musician myself, but I knew a twelve bar blues when I heard one.

“Come ta enjoy the feshtivities.” Foxglove raised a glass of something brown with a white frothy top with a slight hiccup. “And git yourself a glass of... of whatever this is.” She glared at the brown stuff intently for a moment before hiccupping again. “It’s disssgusting.”

“Put it down before you drop it.” Ripsaw said soothingly. “I can’t believe you got drunk off a single pint of beer.”

“I’ve ne’er drunk ‘efore... so gimmie a... gimmie a break.” Foxglove dropped the glass which I caught with my magic before it spilled.

“So it seems you two have decided to do a role reversal.” I plonked myself down next to Seafire who was sipping on one of our Sparkle-colas. “I didn’t know you drank Foxglove.”

“I don’t think she’s ever had alcohol before.” Ripsaw was now trying to keep the poor young mare from slipping off her seat onto the floor; just like earlier. Foxglove simply shook her head. “Typical.” Ripsaw settled for leaning the drunken pony on Smoking shoulder, who just rolled his eyes and took a gulp of his own pint.

Tungsten was at the bar ordering another pint for himself. I wondered if we were going to have any caps left by the time we left Viewpoint. Seafire seemed to judge my expression.

“We have plenty of Caps left over from selling the Sparkle cola. We’ve already sold one of the Blackhawks. We need caps more than we do weapons at the moment.”

“What about your new shotgun?” I asked

Seafire’s face lit up as she went into gun-nut mode; something I didn’t think she had. “It’s amazing! I checked out everything. Bore is perfect and has been nitrided for greater reliability. The breech and bolt have been custom shaped to allow a fast ejection speed without compromising reliability or wasting energy. The block has been milled from a single piece for maximum strength.” She was practically glowing with excitement. “I have no idea where they got a large enough piece. If you had bought it, it would have cost hundreds of caps. Six hundred to be exact.”

“How do you know that?” I asked in surprise.

“My PipBuck told me.” she said opening up her inventory. “Look.”

She was right. The gun had a value in Caps, a weight, condition bar, how much ammunition you had for it and all the different types, a damage value... since when could a PipBuck tell you all that.

“Has it done it for anything else?” I asked opening my own inventory. “Has it catalogued everything?”

“Yes.” Seafire scrolled through the list. “The sparkle cola, the weapons, ammunition, food. Even my barding has a value.” She almost seemed wounded that her PipBuck had the nerve to suggest that she could sell it.

“If you did sell it I doubt you’d be able to find a replacement that would fit as well as that one does.” I scanned her unusual figure. “You’re not exactly normal pony proportions.”

“It’s not like that’s a bad thing.” She winked at me and I rolled my eyes.

I hadn’t really given it much thought back in that stable. Seafire wasn’t the only unusual pony but out here she might be one of a kind. She was a tall mare; a good two hoofs taller than me, but she was also more slender though the legs and neck, and her chest was more rounded and curvaceous. Her head wasn’t normal either with more slender ears and an oval profile rather than a rounded one. Her mouth and nose were also more pronounced, like a bucks, but still had a feminine shape to them. Perhaps that was why she had drawn so much attention back in the stable. The only time I had seen a shape like hers was on the cover of a hefty book in the stable library entitled ‘The Thousand Year Reign Of Princess Celestia; A Reference Guide”.

That was it. Seafire was like a shrunk down Alicorn, but without the wings. She even had bigger hoofs than I did. ‘I wonder what it would be like to get a massage from those’ my little pony piped up. Oh for the love of Celestia.

“What’s for the love of Celestia?” Helix asked. Oops.

“Umm, nothing.” I said quickly, returning to my Pipbuck. “Just my mind making inappropriate suggestions.”

“So perfectly normal then.” She replied laughing.

I groaned again. Changing the subject I asked, “Do we have a plan for where we are staying tonight. We could find an unused building and bunk down in that, so long as it has a roof.”

Helix laughed dryly. “Oh no, I want a proper bed like back in seventeen. They have them here upstairs. I’ve spent too many nights on a concrete floor; my back is killing me.”

“It’s been one night.” Smoking replied flatly.

“Yeah. One night too many.” Helix was rifling through her bags. “How much do you think a room is?”

“Forty caps a night or three nights for one hundred.” Tungsten carefully shuffled the three pint’s on his back onto the table, sat down and then drank half of it in one gulp.

“Have you not learned your lesson already about drinking too much?” I asked, eyeing him as he took another big gulp.

“No.” he replied simply. “Besides this stuff is far better than anything in Seventeen. Not entirely sure what it’s made of, but it’s still damn good.”

“It may be good but it’s still mildly radioactive. We will should probably take a swig Rad-away before the night is out.” Helix was holding her PipBuck to each glass in turn.

“Yes mum.” Tungsten rolled his eyes at a scowling Helix.

“Well somepony has to look after you don’t they.” She snapped back. “Fine you deal with your own health from now on.”

“Fine by me.”

Seafire looked at me curiously. “What’s got him by the tail?” She whispered.

“No idea exactly.” I looked at Tungsten as he finished his first pint and moved on to the second. “I still haven’t talked to him about what happened back in the stable. I know Helix has but… I don’t know what we can do… I know he’ll be beating himself black and blue inside, but unless he opens up we can’t help him. And I’m definitely the wrong pony to get him to speak his mind!”

We listened to the band play for another hour. I caught glimpses of Mantis popping in and out of the door to the kitchens delivering meals to guests. I couldn’t possibly see how those weird creatures could taste any good but the ponies didn’t seem to care at all as the wolfed down the food. Eventually the band wrapped up with an audience participation song; I didn’t have a clue of the words, but I got the gist of it after a while.

And we would trot five thousand miles
And we would trot five thousand more
Just to be the one to trot ten thousand miles to wait at Luna’s door

It was so strange. In the last three days I’d experienced so many emotions and gone through so much it was hard to think I could be happy again but yet, here and now, I was happy and, despite what had happened, I could honestly say to myself that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I had Helix with me, Seafire, it was good that Tungsten was alive and still interacting with us; even after what he had done, and I had gained new friends to. Foxglove, Ripsaw, Smoking. And to top it all, I was sitting here watching two of my stable’s musicians, who had never had such an audience to perform for, making an entire room of strange ponies unite.

When the song finished everypony began to disperse, heading out the door and back to their homes. Some laughing loudly, some still singing, some weaving from side to side trying to reach the door without face planting. The singing mare leapt lightly off the stage and headed to the bar where she started to help clean up. Mantis came out and started pick up the plates and pint glasses, taking them back to the kitchen for washing. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves now.

“Let’s go and find ourselves an empty building.” Smoking said as enthusiastically as he could. “We need to rest up for our walk back tomorrow.”

“What, we're going back tomorrow?” Ripsaw said sadly. “We have only just got here. There’s so much more we could make use of.”

“The task was to go out and find civilisation. I would say we found it.” Smoking looked at her with a stern expression. “We need to get the supplies we’ve bought back to everypony else. After we’ve done that, then we can consider what to do next. If it means coming back here, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Ripsaw gave a sort of grunt of understanding, but still looked disappointed. Clef and Stave wandered over from the stage grinning.

“Did you enjoy it?” Stave asked ecstatically. “I’ve never played like that before. Soooo much fun!” He just couldn’t get the grin off his face.

“It was brilliant!” Seafire put a hoof around his neck and gave it a quick squeeze, much to the buck’s delight. “I’ve never heard you two play like that back in the stable, or did I come to the wrong concerts?”

“Nope, we didn’t have anything like that back in seventeen.” Clef was just as excited as Stave and seemed even more ecstatic when Seafire gave him a quick squeeze as well. “Everything was based off what was in the archives. That was mainly music by Octavia. Then Chord pretty much indoctrinated the stable when he was born with more classical music. There were some books on Jazz and Blues as well as a few recordings but they were slower, even somber. It’s so much livelier than I had thought it was and more fun. You can just mess around with the chord positions, accidentals and rhythm so long as you stick to main chord structure.” He beamed again. “Like Stave says, soooo much fun!” He glanced over at the singing mare. “Tabitha there said that, if the rest of the staff agree with it, we might be able to take up performing here as a full time job!”

“That still doesn’t solve our sleeping problem.” Foxglove groaned up from the table. “Why not just stay here?”

“We can’t afford to waste the caps.” Smoking replied grimly. “As nice as it would be…” He muttered to himself.

“Can I help you?” A voice called over from the bar. It was Tabitha. Then it clicked.

“You’re Tabitha!” I exclaimed. “Tabitha!”

“Yes, I am.” She looked slightly shocked. Then her brow furrowed “What’s it to you?”

“Mantis saved you… It’s you… the one he saved…”

Tabitha suddenly looked shocked. “No… I’m…”

“It’s alright Tabby.” Mantis strolled through the door from the kitchen with calming expression on his face. “I told them. It’s all good.”

Tabitha turned to gawk at Mantis. “You told them all?”

“No, just these two.” He indicated Helix and I. Tabitha didn’t look impressed “They helped me get the food for this evening. We were just swapping stories and it just came out.” Ummm, no it didn’t.

Tabitha eyed Mantis looking slightly annoyed. “And why might I ask?”

“Because they needed to know what the rest of the wastelands can be like.” He replied simply. “Not just our little safe-ish bubble.” She seemed to accept that as reason but looked put out.

“So you lot must be the new stable dwellers.” She gave us all a quick look over. “Hey.” She pointed at Clef and Stave. “You never said you were from a stable.”

“You never asked.” Stave replied.

Tabitha just rolled her eyes. “Well, what it is it you want?”

“We were just wondering where we can spend the night.” I said.

“We were thinking of just going and finding one of the dryer buildings on the edge of town and settling down in there.” Smoking said, over riding my hint of ‘can we stay here for free?’.

“Security will kick you out I’m afraid.” Tabitha said. “We would offer you rooms here but we’re full.” she glanced at Mantis who nodded. “You might be able to find someone else to stay with but besides that you’d have to move outside the town and find a cave or something.” She shuddered slightly. I couldn’t tell if it was the idea of sleeping in a cave that caused it, or the memories of she experienced in one.

“I’ll do you a deal.” Mantis said suddenly. “You can sleep in here tonight. But you’ll have to help us in the morning.”

“Doing what?” Tungsten asked cautiously.

“Preparing breakfast, bring in supplies, cleaning toilets, floors and windows, emptying bins… get the idea?”

“Sure, I could do that.” I glanced at Helix who nodded approvingly. “What about the rest of you.” There was a general consensus.

“Excellent.” Mantis grinned. He clapped his hooves together in a business like way. “I guess we’ll see you in the morning then. Nice and early, so don’t stay up too late.” He and Tabitha turned and made for the door in the kitchens. As they left Tabitha went quickly over to the bar and tapped on the terminal behind the counter. There was a sudden hum and a blue light began to glow from all the objects behind the bar. “Security field.” Mantis said, spotting our bemused expression. “Touch it and you’ll end up getting a serious jolt. You can never be too careful.” He smiled and they both left.

“Well this is turning out much better than I’d anticipated.” Smoking said to the room. “Why do I get the impression that things are suddenly going to go downhill.”

“Just because you have a run of good luck doesn’t mean you have to balance it out with a spell of bad.” Ripsaw said knowledgeably.

“You say that like it’s a fact.” Tungsten said, with an expression that suggested he had just bitten into a mouldy apple. “You’d be surprised how often the good is followed by the bad.” Why did he look at me when he said that?

“Meah, so what. Enjoy it while it lasts.” Ripsaw pulled her blanket out and laid it on top of a cluster of cushions she’d arranged on the floor.

The rest of us began to follow suit. Helix and I snuggled next to each other on our own bed of cushions; the others on their own little piles around the room.

“Goodnight Helix.” I said happily, nuzzling close to her and enjoying the smell of her coat.

“Goodnight Fran.” She replied, with a quick peck on the top of my head.

Curled up close to Helix; warm next to her body under the blanket, it wasn’t long before I drifted off to sleep.

* * *

To begin with it was confusing and strange and completely real. Ponies I knew and ponies I didn’t. We were all in the atrium of stable seventeen enjoying some ponies cutecinera though it wasn’t clear who’s it was. I wandered past clustered groups, catching brief snatches of conversation. Nothing important. What they had been doing at work, who was dating who, new clothes they had made for themselves, if somepony wanted to go and play tennis the next morning.

Suddenly Tungsten was next to me wearing a black business suit with highly polished black shoes, his mane scraped back with wax looking very much like the boss of some Fillydelphian pony gang. How I knew this I didn’t know. We were looking out of a window into a city, the same city I had seen in Scootaloo’s memory’s; well it had the same buildings at least.

Tungsten turned to look at me, dropped to his knee and asked me to marry him. I accepted, a beautiful diamond studded ring being slipped over the end of my horn, and before I knew it we were making love on our honeymoon, outside on a beach beneath a full moon. Then we were in a hospital and I was having twins. Two beautiful fillies.

We watched as our children played outside our house, under a huge dome that protected us from the contaminated water above. I lay on a bench, my head in Tungstens lap, eyes closed listening to my children laughing and squealing with delight.

But their voices changed, they cried out for me. I sat up just in time to see the dome collapsing as a huge steel pipe shattered that glass. The water tore through the hole ripping and rending the structure apart. I screamed as I saw my daughters lost in the deluge of radioactive water, Tungsten holding me back.

But then they came, pulling themselves out of the torrent towards me. I called out and broke free of Tungstens grip. I was so happy that they were alive! But I stopped as I neared them as I saw what the water had turned them into...

Ghouls.

I just stood there and wept as the dome disintegrated around me, my world turning to black.

~ ~ ~

“Fran! Fran! Get up dam it!”

“No!” I shouted opening my eyes. Tungsten was shaking me awake. I could hear shouts and commanding calls around me.

“Come on, Get up! We are under attack!” He grasped me firmly.

“No! They’re dead and I couldn’t save them! Let me go back!”

“Fran!”

My eyes snapped open.

Something was clearly wrong. Through the open doorway I could see ponies all rushing in the same direction, almost all of them carrying weapons of some kind. Tungsten had a determined look on his face that was tinged with worry.

“What’s going on?” I pulled myself gingerly to my feet.

“Viewpoint is under attack from one of the local gangs. Virtually every resident is going to the walls to defend the town. Mantis wants us on it as well.”

“Did he say which gang it was?” I asked pulling a Blackhawk out of my saddlebags

“The Stonethrowers, now come on.”

They all dashed outside, all except Helix.

“What were you dreaming. You were twitching in your sleep? Do you remember what you shouted when Tungsten tried to wake you up?”

“No...” I said slowly. I was twitching? The dream was fading fast from my mind; I could recall a great sense of shock and fear, but not much else. Helix just looked at me with concern. “Shouldn’t we be going to help?”

“Yes. Good point.”

We sprinted to the western wall, the same one we had entered in the previous day. I could tell it was yesterday as I could just see light beginning to bloom against the sky in the west, back lighting the ridge in that direction. As we got closer to the wall we had to start dodging flying stones the size of my hoof; It seemed the Stonethrowers lived up to their name. I had to leap aside as a rock the size of my head came hurtling over the town’s defensive wall.

I hadn’t seen them when we had arrived due to the thick fog but I was rather surprised at quite how substantial the town’s fortifications were. They seemed to be made of large barrels filled with dirt, stacked one on top of the other like tins of beans and overlapping like bricks. Three barrels deep at the base the wall was about two metres high to the walkway and then another single wall of barrels with bags of dirt packed in the gaps formed a wall at the top which clusters of ponies were firing over and reloading behind. The wall ran on the near side of the river that ran into the lake on the east side of the town and went from ten metres into the lake right along to the cliff edge that Helix and I had been to the top of yesterday evening. I spotted Smoking and Tungsten huddled together, reloading their weapons before they each swung up in unison firing down at our rock flinging enemies.

“Hey guys, what’s going on?” Called a voice. I turned to see Knick Knack sticking her head out of her waggon which she had parked in a rack of other waggons and trailers. “Can’t you keep it down? I’m trying to sleep.”

“For Celestia’s sake girl.” Mantis ran over to her as he pulled out a fresh magazine for a scoped rifle that was slung over his back. “Get over to Tabby’s and stay there.”

“Are we under attack?” Knick Knack said scratching her flaking ear absentmindedly.

“Yes now move!”

“Ooo, ooo, I can help!” She dove back inside her waggon and emerged a moment later with a sack in her mouth. “Use these!” She put her head in the bag and drew out a metal ball. “Gwemades!” she said around the silvery object.

“Wait. You had grenades and you didn’t sell them to us?” Mantis said incredulously.

“I can get a better price for them in High-voltage.” She replied matter-of-factly.

“Whatever it is we will match it.” Mantis grabbed the bag and ran back to the wall.

“We best get up there and help them.” Seafire pulled out her shotgun, looked at it for a moment, then shook her head stowing it away again. “Ah that’s better.” She had drawn out two of our remaining Blackhawks. “Dual-wield!” She spun them with her magic and loaded each of the revolvers cylinders.

“You lot! Get up here!” I turned to see Smoking ducking to avoid the largest rock that had been flung yet; a lump the size of a pony. Ok, scratch that. They were now tossing boulders. The boulder in question landed with a heavy thump right in the middle of the street, embedding a third of itself into the earth.

We didn’t argue. We made our way up one of the ramps to the top of the wall keeping low; they were shooting as well as tossing boulders, just not as much. I pulled out my own Blackhawk and checked the load.

“Hey check out what Mantis gave me.” I had scrunched down next to Ripsaw. She was bouncing one of the grenades with a hoof. “Grenades!”

“You know how to use those right?” Seafire asked dubiously.

“Yeah, pull the pin and throw it.”

“You throw the ball not the pin, remember.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ripsaw took a quick peek over the wall. “There is a group of them trying to get something up to the gate. Mantis said a battering ram and told me to take it out.”

“Well get on with it then.” Seafire swung up over the wall and began to lay down fire with her dual Blackhawks.

Ripsaw took out three grenades and placed them before her, took a deep breath and then swung up over the wall. I watched her as, with the help of SATS, she tossed all three grenades at her target in under five seconds before dropping down again out of the line of fire. There were three heavy cracking sounds that cut through the rest of the battle din. I took my first peek over the wall. There were maybe three dozen ponies on the far side of the narrow river; only ten metres or so across, but it was very fast flowing. The ponies were clustered in groups behind mine carts that they had presumably brought with them. They contained rocks and boulders and were using them as cover. The ponies seemed to be mainly unicorns who were telekinetically tossing the rocks and boulders out of the carts at us. The small number of earth ponies were armed with a selection of bolt action rifles but one had a mini-gun; very much like the one that was in Arcano Technologies and looked to be getting ready to fire.

“Get down!” I heard Smoking yell, along with several other ponies along the wall.

The minigunner opened fire. Now I understood why you might need that much fire power. Bullets zinged and whizzed over our heads, they pinged of the metal barrels and sent clouds of dust blooming out of the barrels and sandbags when bullets made it through. I heard a few cries of pain and curses as ponies got hit through the wall. The barrage of bullets lasted about ten seconds before I heard the belt feed run dry.

“Openfire!” I heard Mantis’s voice call and every pony swung up over the wall.

I dropped into SATs and targeted one of the advancing earth ponies who had taken advantage of the covering fire to advance much closer to our defences. His brains splattered out the far side of his head. I shot another pony that had swung up with 10mm SMG. Her chest was cratered by two of the Blackhawks massive rounds. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the mini-gunner getting ready to fire again. But before he could pull the trigger his right leg was torn clean off by a massive shot of blue light that left an after image in my vision it was so bright. Another shot from the mysterious blue weapon tore him in half and melted the solid block of metal that was the minigun’s firing chamber.

The other attacking ponies scrambled for cover. The blue bolt fired again and turned one of the mine carts that a group of ponies were hiding behind into a wall of shrapnel and flying rubble. Many of the ponies cried out as their hides were savaged by the flying metal and debris. They began to retreat, not even bothering to fire back in the face of this new and vicious weapon.

But something else was happening. I could hear a bell sounding behind us from the far side of the town.

“Bastards.” I heard Mantis yell again. “You five with me!” He pointed at some of the security guards. One was Buck Shot that we had encountered earlier at Arcano. They leapt off the wall and began to gallop, full pelt, down the street.

The rest of us continued to take shots at the retreating Stonethrowers. When they had all left our range, Helix stood up and looked around. There were several ponies on the walkway that were bleeding or groaning from gunshot wounds but Helix jumped down to an amber mare who had fallen off the wall after taking a shot right in her eye; with a slight twist in my stomach I recognised her from the bar last night.

The bullet seemed to have come through at such an oblique angle that it had blown out her ear rather than her brains. The poor unicorn was panting and gasping for breath, her rifle abandoned at her side. Helix immediately pulled out one of our medical kits and wrapped one of the magically enhanced bandages around her head in an attempt to staunch the blood flow.

But my eyes were drawn along the top of the walkway to where Swarf stood holding Jury. He was gazing at the weapon in awe. As I approached I could see he was holding it gingerly and then I noticed that I could see heat radiating away from the barrel of the weapon.

“So that’s what my gun does.” He looked up at me with a mixture of surprise and amazement.

“I had read the stats but I didn’t believe it. It seemed impossible that you could get that much power out of such a small weapon. I guess I was wrong.” He passed me Jury and I took it in my magical grasp. Dam it was hot.

“It didn’t fire like that earlier.” I said looking closely at the Arcano weapon.

“Ah, that’s cos you didn’t have this.” He lifted his leg to reveal a PipBuck now attached to it.

“Hello… got one here.” I said lifting my own.

“Oh, no, no.” He waved a hoof dismissively. “This has a piece of custom software loaded on it that interfaces with a PipBucks SATS spell. When you get the gun it comes with an Instruction manual and while you are watching it, it loads the spell onto your PipBuck. It means you can only use all the guns features after you have seen the safety information.”

“Wait orb?” I pulled out the black case from Arc and opened it. “Like this?” I showed him the memory orb set into the padded lining of the box.

Swarf’s eyes went wide. “Yes!”

“I need some help over here!” Helix shouted. The mare was still bleeding but she seemed to have realised what had happened to her and was panicking, trying to push Helix away. Swarf passed me Jury, we abandoned our conversation and ran over.

“Hold her down.” Helix commanded. I pinned the mare’s front legs and Helix pulled out another healing potion. But rather than her pouring it down her throat, Helix dunked a fresh healing bandage into it and then, when the bandage was sodden, pressed it against the hole in the mares head. She then took a second bandage and pinned the first in place, blocking the hole. Within a minute the blood flow had stopped and the mares breathing had eased slightly but Helix still looked very worried.

“We need to find a proper doctor or better yet a trauma specialist.” She said incinerating the discarded, blood soaked bandages with a flash of her magic.

“This is the wasteland. You will be hard pressed to find a decent plumber, let alone a doctor.” Helix looked at Swarf sternly. “Um, I don’t know. Stitches left for High-voltage a few weeks back to help deal with an outbreak of pony-pox but she hasn’t returned.”

“Does she have an office or a clinic or something. Somewhere with supplies?” Helix asked desperately. “The more stuff we have the better chance I have of being able to save her.”

“She worked out of the first-aid point at the old Gem Mine. But it’s all locked up.”

“With a key or a terminal.” I asked.

“Terminal. Why?” Swarf looked at me for a moment and then his eyes widened in comprehension. “Oh…”

* * *

The mare would make it. Helix had been able to remove the small fragments of bullet and skull that had been left behind and then plugged the gap with some sterilised putty-like stuff. Her head was a mass of bandages that were holding her brains in and the putty against her head as the magic worked to bridge the gap. She rested on a trolley in the mine’s first aid centre, sleeping off the anaesthetic that Helix had given her. Helix was still cross with herself despite the fact that her first field patient was going to survive.

“If I had gotten to her sooner the healing potion would have been able to repair her whole head.” She moaned. “I have seen it before in training videos. If you know what you are doing you can heal pretty much anything.”

“But you were not trained as a doctor or a surgeon. You were taught biology and gene-manipulation.” I insisted. “You used what you knew to the best of your abilities.”

“I know but still…” She looked sadly over at the sleeping unicorn. “I am not even sure she will still have her magic. The hole is right where the neurological link is on the side of the head and it’s all gone. She still has the other side but with no link to half her brain…” She muttered herself into silence then asked, “What did you find out from the terminal? Anything useful?”

“Haven’t had a good look yet.” I moved across and logged into the terminal.

To get into the mine, I had hacked into the terminal at the entrance. One I had finished helping Helix patch up her patient; I had gone back and worked my way into the mines systems. Security and systems control were still not unlocked but I did have access to all the staff and maintenance logs, shipping manifests and a map of the mine. I scrolled through the maintenance logs and picked one at random.

M-12077-63-17:45

Spent all day trying to clear the cutting head of TBM-3, no luck. The whole thing is stuck fast. I don’t want to suggest it to the boss but we might have to blast it out. This is one of the richest seams we have found so far and we can’t waste it because one of the machines gets stuck but we wouldn’t have enough money to replace the machine if we did. Facet is convinced we can free it given a couple more days but she has always been an optimist, I would say a week at least. But the boss only gave us two. Urgh, this is not going to end well.

M-12078-63-17:43
Another day’s slog and a little bit of progress. The cutting head is being pinned from the top by something. We broke two of the magic drills trying to free the upper plate to see what was going on but no success. We will have to take out the internal supports to have a look. It will be dangerous but if we take the right precautions then we should be fine. One day left on the bosses deadline though!

M-12079-63-20:32
As you can see from the time I have worked after hours but not without reason. It’s free! With help from Facet we managed to get what was stopping the head from spinning out. And no wonder it couldn’t turn, it’s the biggest Fire Ruby I have ever seen! Completely flawless too. Then another amazing thing, Facet was so excited about the Ruby, or maybe it was freeing the TBM I don’t know, that she full on kissed me! Me! It was great! She looked slightly embarrassed afterwards but the way she was looking at me. Like she has been waiting to do it… I know this is a maintenance log, but I don’t care. I have to type this somewhere!

I found myself smiling. Lucky buck, or mare; the log didn’t say which, I thought. It seems you found something you weren't quite expecting down that hole. I scrolled on a bit and selected another log.


M-12182-63-17:13
Nothing spectacular to report, TBM-2 and TBM-4 have been fitted with the new prototype cutting heads. Magically reinforced by MAS so we should only have to replace them once a fortnight rather than once a week. (Means I can spend more time with Facet. That mare is amazing.) TBM-1 needs a new belt for the conveyor, will get on with that first thing tomorrow.

M-12193-63-17:19
Still waiting on that dam belt, been almost a fortnight since we mailed Stable-Tec that we needed a new one and we have not had a response. If they want this thing finished on time then they need to provide us with the dam equipment.

Wait? They were building a stable here? I quickly moved over to the schematics of the mining procedure. It looked nothing like stable seventeen; three distinct layers with a large double height tunnel leading into the cliff side. ‘Well, it has been built underground, not underwater’ my little pony pointed out. Good point. I dug a little deeper and found the first shipping manifest of stable parts.

S-13213-A-08:34
Phase:01 Shipment:001
Parts- Stable ‘Cog’ Door - 1

Stable Door Mount Lower - 1

Stable Door Mount Upper - 1

Stable Door Retractor Mechanism - 1

Temporary power generator - 1

Stable Door Control Unit V3 - 1

The list went on over several more pages, covering smaller parts, electrical components lighting and the first set of support beams for the entry tunnel. Hmmm.

“Something interesting?” Helix appeared beside me. I saw her eyes widen as she scanned over the manifest. “A stable? Here? But the sign said it was a mine?”

“It may well have been; mine out gems and cut out a stable at the same time. Save yourself some time and effort.” I went back to the maintenance log.

M-12196-63-17:12
Been exactly a fortnight and finally the belt has turned up. Too late. Boss ordered us to dismantle TBM-1 and put TBM-3 in its place this morning so Stable-Tec can have there dammed belt back. But I really don’t care. My third date with Facet is tonight. Can’t wait!

I moved to the next one but the terminal flashed me an error message. The same with the next three. I looked at the data storage systems and the drive that held those messages was not responding. The next file I could read was over a year later.

M-13211-63-09:32
I have only been in work half an hour and I am already hiding. Everyone seems to know. How? I only asked her last night and suddenly every pony keeps coming up to me and saying congratulations. Facet is probably getting the same treatment, with any luck she is coping better than I am. Wait this is the maintenance log isn’t it. We have finally finished cutting out the profile of the stable and are beginning to move out the TBMs to make way for the first parts of the superstructure. Most of the miners are moving off to other sites but I have been asked to stay and oversee the mounting of the shock plates.Stable-Tec is worried that the tectonic instability at the bottom of the lake will cause earth tremors so the shock plates will stop the forces being transmitted to the stable. They weigh a good ten tons each! Its going to be a job to get them all fitted let alone though the stable door. For some stupid reason, that is going in first.

The next few were about the fitting of the door and then new version of the door control console. But a entry about two weeks later caught my eye. It had a different employee identification number. I checked, number sixty three didn’t appear at all after this entry. I opened it and I could swear I felt my heart curl up in my chest.

M-13226-78-10:30
To all maintenance staff, this is acting head of mine maintenance 78. I am taking over indefinitely for worker 63 after the incident involving worker 103. The funeral for worker 103 or ‘Facet’ is to take place this Wednesday at 1300 hours. Because of this incident, these new safety measures have been put in place.
-All loads to be chain lifted must be fitted with 50% more support cables, bringing the factor of safety to 2.5.
-All loads to be chain lifted must be additionally supported by at least two class two telekinetic unicorns or one class three. If unsure contact a member of health and safety who will advise you on what action must be taken.
-A siren must be sounded at all times during the lift.
In addition, any pony who wishes to talk to a counsellor about this incident may sign up at the entrance.

I felt a tear run down my cheek. I couldn’t understand why I felt so hopelessly sad. These ponies had probably been dead for nearly two hundred years but seeing their relationship played out in just a few minutes rather than a year and understanding what had happened made it feel like it had happened to me. What If I lost Helix? If she had been killed instead of Ambrosia; ‘she almost was’ my little pony said, or been killed back in seventeen. Was this what it would feel like? No, it would be so much worse, I knew that but my chest hurt and ached nonetheless.

Helix gasped beside me as she read. “That’s... that’s... horrible... oh Celestia.” She stared at the screen. I knew she was feeling the same knot build up inside her, the same sorrow. She turned and looked at me. “I don’t know what I would do...” But she stopped.

“If what?” But part of me knew.

“If I lost you...” She flung her forelegs around me and squeezed me with all her strength.

“You won’t lose me.” I hugged her back. “I know I can’t promise, that would be foalish, but I can say that I will never stop loving you.” We looked into each other’s eyes and then we kissed. She made me so, so happy.

“Having fun?” A voice chuckled followed by a hacking cough and a groan. The mare was awake.

“Don’t move.” Helix moved across and examined her head. “Wow, that was fast.” She exclaimed.

“What was.” The mare coughed again.

“Umm, do you remember what happened to you?” Helix asked tentatively.

“I got shot. In the head I think.” She seemed rather calm about it.

“Yes.” Helix gulped. The mare groaned and rolled her one eye.

“Just tell me already.” She muttered. “I can tell that its permanent. The look on your face says so.”

“You have lost your right eye and ear. The synapses and neural connections to your horn have also been heavily damaged. The bullet went through at an angle damaging the side of your skull. The bandages and potions have allowed the bone to re-grow quite rapidly. I don’t know what It looks like though.” Helix gulped again. “I can take off the bandages if you want. They will have to go back on for a few days but at least you will be able to see the damage.”

“Do it.” She replied calmly.

“Are you sure it’s such a good idea?” I muttered to Helix. “She might flip out.”

“Hey I may have lost one ear but my other works fine.” She scowled up at me as best she could. “I will be alright.”

Helix took a deep breath and then removed the pin holding the bandages in place. Slowly she unwrapped the mares head revealing the partially healed wound. The magic had done its job and her head had grown back in the correct shape but the skin was warped and raw in colour. Her eye was now just her eyelid over an empty socket. Her ear was partly restored but it was never going to be the same again.

“Mirror?” Asked the amber mare. Helix helped her sit up and turned the bed she was on so she could look at the mirror that was mounted on the wall. She jumped at her own reflection, her eye widening in shock. She lifted a hoof and prodded the area around the wound gently then made a sharp gasp.

“Is so unnerving, I can feel it. Like my eye is still there but I can’t see anything...” she sounded mildly surprised. “Oh Amber, you used to be so beautiful, now look at yourself.”

“Amber? Is that your name?” I asked. She looked sad rather than shocked at her new appearance.

“Yeah. Amber. Really imaginative of my mother wasn’t it.” she said scanning her hide. “No other scars or injuries?”

‘No, just your eye. Well your back is a little bruised from the fall but that will heal. You ought to spend a week doing nothing and letting everything heal.” Helix pulled out another bandage and a bottle of cleansing fluid. “We best get this wrapped up again. Lie down and let me clean it, this might sting a little.”

Suddenly the door banged open and three ponies piled in. A black buck carrying a grey filly on his back and a teal mare all turned and looked wildly around. When they spotted Amber the mare jumped back in shock.

“For the love of the princesses... Amber what happened!” She exclaimed approaching the three of us cautiously. “Oh no... your eye."

“Teal... calm down... its alright.” Amber started but Teal cut across.

“Its not alright! You have lost half of your head!” Teal exclaimed. “Your eye... oh sis.” She went to hug Amber but Helix grabbed her and pulled her away.

“I need to put the bandages back on. Ten minutes and then you can hug her. Alright.” She looked sternly at Teal who just nodded and backed away.

“Come on you three. Lets leave them to it.” I ushered them out and left Helix to patch up Amber once more. But I had other reasons. I wanted to find that stable.

If it was still functional, if there were still ponies in it then perhaps they would have the parts to get stable seventeen back up and running. The idea filled me with hope and excitement but first I had to get inside and that meant cracking the security systems to lift the lock down. I moved round the corner away from the trio, who had taken a seat outside first aid, and sat down behind the security desk. I popped the cover off the front of the terminal and had a look inside. I smiled, this was going to be a real challenge.


Footnote: Level Up
New Quest Perk: The LAW (1) - You are in possession of the ‘Jury’ Class weapon prototype manufactured by Arcano Technologies. Make sure you stock up on Spark batteries...

Act 1 - Chapter 5: Reality

View Online

Chapter 5: Reality
“At noon... it will be too late.”

“Fran you’re just going to have to leave it.” Helix said irritably. “I know that it could provide a solution to all our problems, as unlikely as it may be, but it’s not going anywhere now is it?”

I was going to retort again but she was right. “Fine, I will be along in a minute.” I put down my multimeter and logged out of the terminal. “I was getting close. I could feel it.” I kicked the terminal in frustration. “This is the first thing I’ve come across that I can’t hack. It’s like it is taunting me.”

“Now you are just being melodramatic; which isn’t like you at all really.” Helix said, looking at me with an odd expression as she reattached the cover to the panel for me.

“Well I’ve never been forced to give up on something due to time constraints before, and the needs of one hundred hungry ponies.” I sighed. I’d spent a whole two hours trying to hack the terminal to no avail. It wasn’t like anything I had worked on before. Boards that I thought were one thing did something completely different, the hardware architecture was all wrong, and the software worked in hexadecimal not the traditional binary which was compounding the problem.

I trotted out after Helix into the morning gloom. It was a near identical day to the morning before when we had left seventeen; clouded with a hint of descending mist. “It better not rain like yesterday.” Helix looked at the slightly ominous sky. “I really don’t want to get soaked for five hours straight again.”

“Was that really only yesterday.” I was surprised. I couldn’t believe how much had happened in such a short space of time.

“Yeah. Almost exactly twenty four hours since…”

“Ambrosia.” I finished her sentence for her, bowing my head. I didn’t want to be the one that told her friends how she’d died. They would be devastated at the very least. “It’s bad enough dying of natural causes, but death by giant alligator isn’t exactly what you want to read in an obituary.”

“Hmmm.” Helix just nodded sadly.

Amber had been taken back to her house by Teal with help from her husband when Helix had deemed that her head had healed sufficiently. We wandered back to Tabitha’s Treats together, watching the townsfolk begin to clean up after the skirmish. The large boulders were being rolled up against the back of the defensive wall by groups of ponies, reinforcing it, while others went round clearing up spent shells and other debris.

“I wonder if they recycle those,” Helix asked, looking at a young colt with a bulging bag of used 10mm cartridges in his mouth. “Can they do that?”

“I think so.”

We reached the others. Tungsten avoided my eye, but everyone else was busying themselves packing and adjusting their saddlebags. It looked like we were moving out already.

“I thought we were helping Mantis?” I asked Foxglove.

“Apparently he said to forget it and we can repay him another time.” She buckled up the two sides of her pack and flipped it up onto her back. “Do you mind?” She sat up and I buckled the strap around her middle with my magic. “That’s better.” She shook the packs slightly. “Nothing digging into my sides like last time.”

“Are we going back to Seventeen”

“Yep.”

“All except Stave and Clef, they’re staying here.” Ripsaw trotted out of Tabitha’s, slipping a fresh bottle of whisky into her saddle bags as she spoke. “Tabitha wants them to start playing right away as the other two musicians have moved on to New Appleloosa. They left this morning.”

Wow, one day out and already we were slotting into the new Equestrian society. Perhaps we should have gotten out of Seventeen a few years back; started mingling and trading. Seventeen could have been a real hub, become wealthy and made a difference in the wasteland. ‘But now it’s gone’ my little pony said mournfully. Did I have to remind myself.

“How long until we go?” I asked.

“Maybe thirty minutes or so.” Foxglove looked at me curiously. “Why.”

“I need to see a buck about a gun.”

* * *

After handing over all my ammunition once more, I telekinetically opened the door to Arcano Technologies and headed straight over to Swarf. The buck was over in the far corner of the deserted warehouse at the shooting range. He was sighting in what must have been his first attempt at copying Jury.

“Swarf.” I called smiling. “What’re you up to?”

“Oh hey Fran.” He tightened several wing nuts on the gig holding the gun in place and then placed a laser on the top of the gun and proceeded to centre it on the target down range. “I am getting ready for the first test firing. Fancy watching?”

“Yeah, sure. You got it working already?” That was quick.

“We had other versions built from earlier tests so I just took one of those and made the necessary modifications.” Swarf did a final tightening of the wingnuts, removed the laser and armed the remote firing mechanism. He ushered me back behind a thick polycarbonate screen and lifted the cover on the fire button.

“Lets start off at the bottom shall we. Ready?” I nodded. “Test firing on lowest setting in three, two, one.”

The centre of the target disappeared in a flurry of metal shards which embedded themselves in the foam blocks positioned directly behind the target. Yet again I had an after image left in my vision from the glow of the crystals.

“Well it fires.” I said brightly.

“Not without a price.” Swarf looked dejected as he examined the prototype. “Its drained almost a quarter of the spark battery.” He indicated the gauge on the top of the gun which has dropped straight into the yellow. “Way more than it should.”

“Why would that be. Mine can fire fifty shots on a single battery.”

“It’ll be a calibration issue, wasting energy somewhere.” Swarf altered something on his PipBuck and reset the remote-fire and came back behind the screen.

“Do you want Jury back then?”

“No, we’ll be alright. We have a working prototype, so you’ve already fulfilled your side of the deal.” His hoof hovered of the fire button. “Ready?” He said with a slight grin.

“For what?”

“This.”

The target exploded in a vast blue fireball. Fragments of metal ricocheted off the protective screen in front of us and the warehouse ceiling. The fireball dissipated rapidly to reveal total devastation, not only to the target but to the gun itself. The spark battery had exploded and was still burning, the floor littered with fragments of blue crystal.

Swarf ran in to extinguish the flames whilst I watched in mild shock.

“Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.” Swarf muttered dousing the gun with the extinguisher.

“What was that?” I exclaimed.

“Half power but at maximum discharge. It fired about four times the amount of energy as the last shot, but I let it pull as much power as it wanted from the spark battery. Clearly that is a very bad move.” He gave the spark battery another quick burst, putting it out before it magically reignited.

“No kidding...” I mumbled. “Are you sure you don’t want Jury back given you have just destroyed your only working prototype?

“I’m sure, its all recorded so I can work from that.” He caught my eye. His expression looked confused for a moment but he turned back to the gun before I could figure out why. “If you get a chance, watch the orb that came with that. You will find it very useful.” He dumped the rest of the canister on the burning prototype. Unperturbed, the battery continued to burn.

“Yeah, health and safety and all that...” I eyed the still burning gun.

“The software has no constraints on it so be careful what setting you use.” Swarf abandoned the gun and trotted back round to join me looking despondent. “But on the upside if you find a setting you like or is good at particular materials you can save it as one of four presets. Its all in the orb.”

“Thank you for all this.” I smiled at him. “With your dad yesterday and with Jury. I hope there are more ponies out there like you.”

He smiled back awkwardly, “You’re welcome.”

I turned to go, weaving my way through the machines. I was almost at the door when movement above made me glance up. Cheque was watching from the window of his office through the blinds. I smiled at him. He didn’t reciprocate.

* * *

Rain was beginning to fall out of the sky again. Great big drops that made the surface of the lake bounce with each strike. There was no way I was going to end up like last time and immediately stopped to unpack my EVA suit. The others all began donning the raincoats that Foxglove had brought the previous day.

“I am so glad I brought this with me.” I called over the wind which was picking up dramatically.

“It’s excessive. I bet you get too hot in it with all your equipment.” Tungsten said scathingly. It was the first thing he had said to me all day.

“I’ll just jump in the lake. That’ll cool me off.”

The rain picked up ferocity over the next few hours and the wind drove it right into our faces as we made it along the valley. I ended up at the front with the others sheltering in a line behind me. The valley was acting like a funnel, channelling the air along at high speed and turning the rain into a wall of water that tried to find every hole in our water proof equipment.

“You know if we end up living on the surface.” Seafire called over the rush of wind and the roar of the rain. “Let’s pick somewhere slightly less damp.”

“Yeah. Somewhere with sunshine.” Ripsaw called back.

“It can’t be far now, can it?” Foxglove asked, trying to stop the hood of her raincoat from flying back off her head.

“No idea, can’t see anything in…” Seafire tripped and stumbled into the back of Smoking sending them both sprawling on the ground in a muddy heap. “Oh great. Perfect timing.”

“You alright?” I asked. “What did you…” Words failed me.

It was Lavender. Or more precisely her body. The poor mare was lying face down in the mud. She was covered in blood. Deep cuts all over her back and flanks ran freely. Her front left hoof had been shot clean through. Her once smooth hide was covered in burn marks. The middle of her spine kinked unnaturally.

Foxglove cried out, screaming. She turned and ran into the mist.

“Foxglove come back!” Seafire sprinted after her.

The rest of us stood horror struck by the view before us.

“Oh dear Celestia… who would do…” Helix began but stopped, staring at the mares hindquarters. I adjusted my position to see and immediate felt bile moving up my throat. The handle of a knife was sticking out from between her legs, blood caking the insides of her flanks. There was a pool of blood beneath her that was flowing with the rainwater making it look like she was the source of a blood red stream. I couldn’t tell if she had been raped but after they’d, whoever they were, had their fun, they’d… they’d…

I turned around and vomited. I couldn’t think. I just stood there shaking as I emptied my stomach. I ended up collapsed on all fours in the mud, gasping. I barely heard the next words from Smoking until he started shouting.

“She is breathing… SHE’S BREATHING!” He immediately dove into his sack for a healing potion and knelt down next to her, trying to get the concoction down her throat. After a few moments she spluttered and coughed.

“Lavender! Look at me.” Smoking tried to tilt her head back further so she could drink the potion. I just stood there, horror coursing through me. “Help me!” He shouted desperately. But I couldn’t... I couldn’t think.

Smoking finally got the healing potion down her throat. Lavender gasped and then started screaming as the pain flooded back to her mind. Helix was examining the knife that was jammed inside her intently. Only her medical training could explain how she was focusing on the sight before her.

“We have to get this out of her before we can give her any more healing potions.” Helix pulled out a box of bandages she had brought and laid it on the ground trying to shield it from the rain. “If we don’t then it will get healed inside her.”

“Don’t” Lavender coughed up blood onto Smoking’s hoof. “The others… attacked… killed…” She coughed again and a trickle of blood ran out the side of her mouth. “Tried to get away… find you… get help…”

“What happened to the other’s” Smoking said slowly, leaning into her.

“Captured… security killed… foals taken… Heather…”

“What about Heather!” He suddenly looked terrified.

“Taken…” She coughed up even more blood.

“We have to get this out of her!” Helix yelled.

“No… go save the… others… I am so sleepy…”

“No, stay with us.” Smoking pulled out a second potion, lifting it to Lavenders lips.

“No… look at Helix… she knows…” Smoking glanced up at Helix. She just looked scared and mouthed ‘I don’t know.’ Seafire appeared beside me with Foxglove who was sobbing uncontrollably.

“If you go now… you can…track them…” Lavender’s head suddenly dropped out of Smoking’s hoofs. “For the little ones.” She stopped, blood now flowing freely from her mouth, her eyes unfocused, staring into space.

We all stood there for a moment in silence.

Klu-klunk.

We all turned. Tungsten had pulled out Seafire’s shotgun. He looked livid. He looked at us each in turn before turning in the driving rain and sprinting off towards stable Seventeen. I did the only thing that felt right. I pulled out Jury, checked the cartridge and began to sprint after him.

* * *

The warehouse loomed out of the mist. Tungsten was flattened against the near side of the building, away from the door. He checked that he had a full magazine before gently slipping it home with a soft click. I pulled in next to him breathing hard.

“What was up with you this morning?” He was asking me now?

“Bad dream.” He frowned at me. “No seriously, a really creepy dream.”

“If anyone should be having bad dreams it’s me.” He said coldly, chambering a slug. “On the plus side, I think I’ve found a way to vent my frustration.”

He moved silently around the corner, shotgun raised. I followed close behind. The huge door to the warehouse was ajar. I could hear voices and sounds coming from inside. Seafire pulled up behind me, two Blackhawks floating beside her.

“Oh Goddesses. Can you hear that?” She whispered. I strained to hear and gulped as I caught the sound of flanks slapping and male grunting.

I felt the fear building inside my chest, twisting my gut. I tried to calm myself. ‘Focus. Breath.’ Take all my negative thoughts and channel them into readying my mind for what was to come. This was wrong. This had to end now. Tungsten looked back briefly mouthed ‘three’ and then nodded, once, twice...

We stormed through the door and then almost stopped dead. There were bodies everywhere. Guts splattered against the walls. Hoofs and heads littered the floor. I spotted a pair of hind legs leaning against a wall. There were eight raiders inside. Four picking over the remains of the stables residents. Two more were sorting their loot, laughing whilst watching the last two pounded a mare from either end. She wasn't moving. Her legs were limp, the two ponies violating her holding her off the floor. Blood poured from the holes in her chest. Dear Goddesses she was dead. She was dead!

The four looting raiders reacted quickly, bringing their weapons to bear. Tungsten didn't slow in his charge as the rounds pinged off his barding. Fire exploded from the barrel of his shotgun as he fired. The closest raider took a full load to the chest, muscle and bone giving way to the lead pellets. The sound of the shotgun ejecting the spent cartridge played counterpoint to the stallion splashing into the blood and gore covering the floor. The second shot tore into the next raider's neck, almost ripping the mare's head from her shoulders, the expression of malice and glee becoming a permanent death mask.

Seafire’s Blackhawks boomed in unison. Two more raiders were rent asunder by the high calibre rounds. They too joined the cadavers on the ground.

I slipped into SATS, took aim and fired. The nearest necrophiliac’s foreleg spun away in a flash of blue crackling energy. I fired again. The energised mass scorched the other raiders face as it passed his muzzle. SATS ran out. I adjusted Jury, trying to aim down the sights. The raider grinned around the grip of his own weapon. The flash of his shot burned away my vision.

“Francium!”

I tried to respond but only managed to choke on the blood filling my muzzle.

With great effort I charged at the raider knocking him over backwards onto the blood slick floor. There was a horrible sound as his stallion hood slipped out of his dead sex toy. My magic flared as I stabbed at him with my horn. I felt my horn punch into his eye and he cried out, firing wildly. The smell of burning meat assaulted me. More rounds hit my chest and I heard a rib crack. A creepy tingle run down my horn as it slipped from his socket. A single bead of blood running down its length, skirting my eye. He rolled on top of me grinning again despite his scorched eye and pointed his pistol at the side of my head.

Blood splattered my face as the raiders neck exploded outwards. His now limp body collapsed on top of me and I shoved him off. I got up quickly, ready for the next raider, but there was no need. Smoking and Ripsaw had entered and blown away the final two raiders whom Tungsten had been duelling with at close range.

I rolled over and looked around; all I saw was blood and bodies. It was terrifying. There was almost no way to tell the difference between the dead raiders and the ponies of stable Seventeen. It was just a massacre.

“Fran.” Helix dropped at my side pulling out her first aid kit. “Look at me. Where are you hit?”

“In the throat but I am alright.” I wheezed sitting up. “Well, almost.”

“Wait, hold still.” Helix leaned in and pulled at my suit with her magic. The intact bullet slipped free of the thick PVC at the neck of my EVA suit “How is that even possible?” Helix whispered to herself. “The suit doesn’t function out of the water.”

Foxglove screamed from the doorway, cutting off my thoughts. Her green coat splattered with gore as she tore across the room. She slipped. There was a sickening splat as she landed on the gore covered floor. Frantically she pulled herself forwards, her face and neck now dripping with fresh blood. She ignored the sounds of snapping bones as she ran. Ignored the blood slicking her coat.

“Mum!” She dropped to her knees beside Dandelion. “Mum, please look at me. It’s ok, its me mum, Foxglove. Oh please mum, please look at me.” She cradled her mothers head in her hooves, pressing her muzzle against her own. “Please mum, speak to me, say something....anything.”

I felt a knot forming in the pit of my stomach.

“Please mum. Say something. You’re really scaring me.” Foxglove whispered as she tentatively stroked Dandelions mane. “We found civilisation. There are other ponies... good ponies. They can help us. We’re going to make it, just look at me.”

Silence. Broken only by the steady trickle of blood.

Foxglove flung herself over her mother's body bursting into uncontrollable sobs. “Come back!” She screamed. “Don’t leave me here!” I tried to ignore the sound of her hooves pounding against her mother's body as she screamed. “Come back... Come back!”

“I’m sorry Foxglove...” Seafire placed a comforting hoof on the younger mares shoulder only to have it slapped aside.

“No! I can’t leave her. She needs me! I need her.” Foxglove continued to scream, desperately clinging to her mother.

Seafire tried to pull Foxglove into a hug but the distraught mare kicked and thrashed. “I won’t... I won’t leave her.”

As Seafire's legs tightened and began to pull her away, Foxglove finally turned in the embrace, beating Seafires white coat with her reddened hooves. Seafire didn't flinch from the assault, pulling her in tighter to her chest until she lost the strength to resist.

“We won’t. I promise.” said Seafire soothingly. Foxglove collapsed into her hooves, silent tears running freely down her cheeks.

I drank the healing potion Helix offered me and got to my hooves. I felt my fractured rib fusing back together and the bruising subsiding in my throat. I massaged my neck; if it hadn't been for my EVA suit I would probably be dead right now. It was a chilling thought.

I glanced up. My eyes washed over the scene before me like it was all a dream. It was horrible to think that just a day ago I had been in almost the same place arguing with Lavender about us surviving. I had, but she hadn’t. Seafire comforted Foxglove in the spot where we had sat drinking our life saving Sparkle Cola, discussing the ministry mares.

How could they let this happen. The best that equestria had to offer, the bearers of the Elements of Harmony. How could they not stop all this. And what hope did we have if they had tried to stop the darkness and failed. I knew they had tried. That Twilight Sparkle had been working on something top secret to end the war. Fluttershy had been given an order by the princess herself to find a way to stop the bloodshed. Even Rainbow Dash had been doing... something. And yet it had all failed. All of it.

“Helix, you best come see this.” Tungsten mumbled from across the otherside room. We stepped cautiously towards him, our eyes following his outstretched hoof to the small shape on the ground.

Smartie Pants.

Helix didn’t cry. She just stopped. Trembling, she stooped to lift the stuffed doll and cradle it in her hooves. She slowly sat down on the blood myred floor, stroking the mane of Lillypads most treasured possession. My love pressed the chest of the doll and a soft, quiet, melody began to fill the room.

Hush now, quiet now its time to lay your sleepy head
Hush now quiet now, its time to go to bed
Drifting off to sleep, leave Celestia’s day behind you
Drifting off to sleep, let the joy of dreamland find you
Hush now, quiet now...

“They took her.” Helix said softly over the lullaby. “They killed everypony and then they took her.” Her voice began to rise. “They murdered everypony and kidnapped a helpless filly. They Murdered and Raped and Violated My Stable And Ripped My Lillypad Away From Me!”

The nearest raider body was slammed mercilessly across the room in a surge of magic. “I hate you!” Helix screamed at the corpse. “And I hate you.” Another landed with a crack of snapping bone.

“You mutilators.” Snap.

“You rapists.” Crunch

“You defilers.” Splat.

“You,” Helix’s magic imploded. I lunged to catch her as he slumped to the ground. The raider body landing right behind me with a sound like a slab of rubber. “...murderers” I held her limp form in my hooves as she shook, sobs wracking her body.

There was a wheezing cough at my back.

Smoking pointed his Blackhawk at the raider that Helix had dropped. He was spitting blood and bleeding profusely from the stump of his leg but he looked around at us with a malicious grin.

“Tell us who you work for and I will end your life swiftly.” Smoking cocked the revolver.

“Go fuck yourself.” the raider spat at Smoking, but only managed to make more blood run out the side of his muzzle.

“We can drag your death out for as long as we like. Tell us and it’ll be quick.”

“No.” Helix whispered her head in my hooves. “If you do you are no better than him.”

“Yeah, listen to the fuck toy. I’d do her...”

The raider let out an involuntary high pitch yelp as I collapsed a repulsion field around his stallion hood. I stood up and leant over him, pure rage flooding through me. I moved until our muzzles were almost touching squeezing him even tighter.

I could just see Seafire and Ripsaw watching shock out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t care. “Take that back.” I whispered venomously.

“You didn’t let me finish.” He said gasped through the pain. “You’ve no need to worry. I would only fuck her if she was dea...”

There was a sickening ‘pop’ as bits of flesh and viscera flew into the air. I took Jury from its holster, ignoring Helix’s pleas and the howl of the raider. I watched as his eyes widened in fear, Jury pointed between his eyes. I pulled the trigger.

“What the hell did you do that for!” Tungsten shouted. “How are we supposed to find them now!”

I walked over to where the raiders dismembered foreleg lay on the ground and lifted it up.

“Francium are you even listening to me? You killed our only lead!”

“You asked how we can find them? The answer is right here.” I showed him the disembodied fore leg. “He had a Pipbuck.”

* * *

“Alright listen up scum, news just in. We got ourselves a fresh stable! Madame wants all of you armed, dangerous and at the usual spot by dawn. Scouts say it’s just south of Viewpoint so we should reach it by noon. After asking around it seems there are about eighty, but only a dozen or so are armed. We can’t capture eighty ponies but don’t kill them all either; thirty will do. As always, don’t kill the colts and fillies and no funny business with them either; no Black Trap not even a little bit, or Madame will have your head. Storm out.”

The last message finished and I tossed the Pipbuck aside. It hadn’t been random. They knew about us. They knew and they had planned it in advance.

Somepony had betrayed us, but as I had no idea who, I felt hollow inside with nowhere to direct my anger. It was the strangest feeling, I couldn’t focus on anything as my mind rushed and spun. Like I was perpetually falling with nothing to grab on to. And yet... and yet everything was so perfectly clear. I could see and feel details that I never noticed before. Every ragged breath that passed my lips. The slightly carroty aftertaste of the cola that clung to my tounge. The bitter scent of my perspiration through the thick smell of blood. Every strand of my blue mane that hung before my eyes. The absolutely horrible sensation filling in my gut.

To make it even worse, my supposed lead had turned up nothing. I had assumed that if you wore a Pipbuck, you knew how to use it; apparently not. The raider had only used the messaging feature and the clock. I had hoped that he would have used the mapping function and that would give us a lead but he hadn’t. There was absolutely nothing.

But that was not the thing that was worrying me most. When I had moved to help clear the bodies, Seafire had held me back and told me to go find a quiet place alone. I had expected Helix to protest but she had ignored me completely. So now I was sitting all alone, in my pit, leaning on the hydraulic pump and sipping on a sole remaining bottle of sparkle cola that had rolled under the machinery. The others, minus Foxglove and Ripsaw who were digging a grave for Dandelion, were carrying all the bodies outside one by one. As much as I hated the idea about burning the bodies we couldn’t just leave them out to rot. It was like Ambrosia but a thousand times worse.

I wanted to help, but the look that Helix had given me before she had stepped outside kept floating to the front of my mind. I could detect hints of shock, fear, anguish and anger. But in my mind there was only one that was worth my attention and it hurt far more than the others ever could. Disappointment.

Not only had I killed, but killed in anger, neither of which I had thought myself capable of. Before it had been in defence but this was just brutal murder. And I knew it. I looked down at my EVA suit. I had been too tired and stressed to care about it before, but now that I looked again my fore hooves and chest were caked and speckled with dried blood, standing out against the matt black material. I looked half raider myself; no wonder Helix had turned away. I pulled frantically at the suit trying desperately to get it off, but all I did was smear the blood around with my hooves. I felt tears brimming in my eyes. I really was a monster.

“Francium.” I looked up at Smoking as he peered down at me in the pit. He opened his mouth, closed it again and then finally said, “We’re ready to light the pyre.” He moved off without looking back for me.

I pulled myself to my hooves, barely paying attention to where I was placing them. I wandered out of the pit and glance around the warehouse. The floor was still awash with blood, but without the bodies it just looked like someone had had an accident with a gigantic bucket of paint. A strong hint of copper caught my tongue and snatched at the back of my throat. It took all my remaining focus not to heave again.

Rain spattered my face and mist began to dampen my coat as I stepped out into the waning light. It couldn’t have been any later than four but with the heavy clouds and the tall cliffs, there was little light penetrating the valley.

The pyre was much smaller than I had envisaged; it seemed that fifty nine dead, raiders included, wasn’t as large a volume as I had thought. The others were grouped around it waiting, not for me, I noticed, but for Foxglove, who was adding the final touch to her mother’s grave; the only growing green plant that she had been able to find.

I made to stand in the line next to Helix, but at a quick glance from Tungsten I stopped. ‘Is she still my love anymore?’ my little pony asked. ‘Is she still my Helix?” I felt a lump in my throat when I realised I couldn’t answer. Sadly I trotted round to the far end, furthest away from my best friend.

After a few minutes of silence, Foxglove stood and took her place next to Helix. I chanced a glance around at the others but we all seemed to be waiting for everyone else. Slowly Smoking stepped forward.

“To all those we have lost this day, may Celestia and Luna welcome and embrace you in the ever after. We cannot undo the atrocity that has occurred but we can make amends for it. With all those here and the princesses above as my witness we will find those who have been taken and we will bring them home.”

He had always been good at finding the right words.

I watched as Seafire moved forwards and took to one knee before the pyre. “With fire we release you. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, accept all and judge none.” Seafire’s horn glowed as she touched it to the ground. Blue magic began to spread from the point of contact, almost like water. It soaked the ground as it flowed, making the ground listen in the magic from Seafire’s horn. The moment the magic ringed the entire pyre a spark jumped from Seafire’s horn and ignited the blue liquid. Slowly but surely the pyre was consumed in an inferno of blue flames and white sparks, licking upwards into the night air.

Despite the moment, I made a mental note to get to know Seafire properly; something more accurate than the idealistic beauty that she currently seemed to be inside my head. In fact, I only really knew two of my companions properly. Now it was more important than ever that I find out exactly who I would be wandering my new world with.

Just as the last of the sunlight disappeared from the horizon, we made our way back inside. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping on a floor covered in blood or in a room where so many had died, but it would be stupid to waste such shelter, even if it was tainted.

I pulled out my blanket, removed my saddlebags and settled myself down next to the pumps once more. It would probably get cold in this sunken pit over night, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of sleeping next to a pool of blood. I hoped that Helix’s head would appear over the rim of the pit and she would come down to join me, but the longer I waited, hearing the others drift off to sleep, the more I knew that I would be sleeping alone tonight.

Unable to sleep, I pulled out the raiders PipBuck for something to do. I double checked the mapping function but nothing, just as before. I tried the messages again to no avail. I got desperate and delved into the messaging details; who had sent the message, what time and date, where the message was going to next.

I blinked.

The message had a macro attached to it that would automatically forward it to the next nearest PipBuck on a preset list. This seemed to allow the message to travel great distances without the need for a long range transmitter; bouncing along the line until every PipBuck tag on the list was ticked off.

Intrigued, I delved a little deeper.

The message from the previous PipBuck had a short string of code at the beginning. I could tell that it was not part of the original coding by the way the PipBuck couldn’t positively identify the sting of digits. It was attempting to assign references to it base upon its regular coding patterns. The first part matched the pattern of a PipBuck serial number. The middle was coming up blank; probably some kind of message identification. The last nine digits were being labeled as grid reference. Curiously I let the PipBuck display the location on its auto-locator. A small square with a diagonal line running through it marked out a location about thirty miles south west.

We had ourselves a lead.

* * *

I woke with a start as I felt my coat brush against another warm body. I backed away only to see Helix lying next to me. I started again when I realised that I wasn’t wearing my EVA suit; had I taken it off or had Helix? When my heart rate had dropped back to where it was supposed to rest, I pulled myself to my hooves and looked over the rim of the pit.

It must be morning, Tungsten and Ripsaw sat together quietly eating some of the pre-war food we’d bought in Viewpoint. I dreaded to think what two hundred year old Sugar Apple-Bombs tasted like, but it can’t have been too bad if Tungsten, with his fussy palate, was able to keep them down. Smoking had begun the unenviable task of going through the remains of the saddlebags from our stable, pulling out all the useful items or things we could sell.

Realising I was also starving, I passed Helix as quietly as I could to reach into my saddle bags. I noticed she was cradling Smartie Pants in her fore hooves. My heart ached wondering where Lillypad was now, and what those horrible raiders were doing to her. The only good thing I could think of, as slight as it may have been, was that Storm; who I guessed was the second in command, had specifically instructed his ponies not to harm the young ones.

I reached carefully into my bags and pulled out a sealed packet. Surprisingly, the label on the front said that I was about to eat an apple turnover. We’d had turnovers back in Seventeen, they were a specially cooked once every few months. The production was limited by the rate at which we could produce flour and butter; which was actually a processed by-product of the algae fields. That didn’t stop them from tasting awesome.

With my magic I opened the packet as quietly as I could. I caught a sickly sweet waft which contrasted sharply with the coppery tinge still hanging in the air.

“So you don’t share now either?” I stopped, muzzle poised over the turnover. Helix cracked open an eye and watched me sleepily for a moment before, “Oh go on then.” Suddenly I didn’t have an appetite.

“No, you take it.” I floated it over and placed it in front of her nose so she could smell the sugar dusting the surface and the mellow tone of the pastry, still present after all these years. “I’m not hungry.” I turned my back to her. I just couldn’t face her anymore.

I felt a gentle pair of hooves on my shoulders, trying to turn me round. Reluctantly I let Helix turn me to face her, but I kept my head low, avoiding her eye. She leaned in and nuzzled my face softly and slowly. Still I didn’t want to look. It had only taken mere moments but I had become a killer and killers didn’t deserve to have somepony as amazing Helix at their side.

My head snapped sideways as Helix slapped me around the face with her hoof.

“What the hay did you do that for?” I massaged my face. “ That really hurt!”

“Well I tried the gentle approach and that didn’t work.” She replied matter-of-factly.

“So you jump from nuzzling to a full on hoof slap just like that.” I glowered.

“I forgot to pack the whip.” I felt myself blush furiously. She seemed to like that. “Finally. Now look at me and listen.” I just nodded in agreement, still rubbing my face.

“What you did yesterday was bad, I won’t lie to you. But in your defence what they did was worse. I am not cross with you and I still love you, but I am disappointed. Very disappointed.” I nodded again. “But there’s something else...” She suddenly seemed very nervous, even afraid. “I’m surprised that you’re not having a go at me.” Her ears drooped as she looked up at me carefully. She was ashamed, even afraid. But of what? “I just couldn’t take it... when I saw Smartie Pants lying there, covered in... I... I lost it. I’m sorry you had to see me like that. I acted foalishly, literally. I should have controlled myself, my emotions but I couldn’t. I behaved like a filly throwing her toys out of the pram.”

I just looked at her in amazement. She had expected me to be cross with her about that, after what I had done.

“You are crazy, you know that right. What you did doesn’t even come close. What were you expecting me to do? Tell you off? Punish you?” I rolled my eyes. “You are amazing Helix.” I leaned in and gave her a tight hug; I just couldn’t help but smile. “Was it you who removed my suit?’ I asked as Helix munched on the turnover.

I had to stifle a giggle as she bit into the snack and and a blob of the filling squeezed out, rolling down her muzzle. Before she could move to wipe it away I leaned in. Slowly I ran my tongue gently up her muzzle, claiming it for myself. I watched her eyes close as a soft shiver ran across her body. I couldn’t help but smile.

After a moment she pulled herself back together. “You’d managed to get half out of it but you had fallen asleep. So I finished the job.”

“Where is it now?” I asked, privately relishing the taste of Helix and apple sauce.

“Seafire took it away. I think she was going to clean it for you.” Her expression faltered. “You know, get rid of all the blood.”

I just nodded, pulling out a second turnover and opening it. I bit into it greedily, savouring the sickly sweetness filling my mouth. ’Not bad for two hundred year old food.’ My little pony noted. I too had the same issue with the sauce though as it oozed out between the layers of pastry. Helix seemed to find my plight rather amusing.

When we had both finished we trotted over to the others; our moment of humour cut short as we picked our way through the pools of blood. Tungsten eyed me for a moment before looking questioningly at his sister. Helix just smiled and he went back to his Apple-Bombs.

With a groan Smoking dumped two saddlebags down in front of us. “They either weren’t interested or they are rubbish scavengers. There left loads of valuable stuff.”

“Such as?” Tungsten leaned forward and started to rummage through the bags.

“Food, water, medical supplies mainly. Then things like books, which are probably less valuable out here.”

“I am not so sure.” I levitated a book up for them to see. “Any of the maintenance handbooks from the stable could be gold dust. Look, it contains all the designs and construction for water filters, pumps, air purifiers. In fact, this is the one we used to build the replacement water pump.”

They all looked at me, confused but Ripsaw understood what I meant.

“She is right. With this book you could cobble together loads of key equipment. A water purifier and pump could save a village, a town, even a city.”

“I don’t get the impression that raiders are interesting in helping others.” Tungsten said dryly.

“Nor do I.” A small voice added.

Foxglove stood in the doorway, pointedly avoiding the blood on the floor and walls. She looked awful. Her mane and tail were ragged, her ears sagged and her eyes were bloodshot; ‘Unsurprisingly’ my little pony mumbled. She moved slowly to us and leant against Seafire, her eyes half closed. My heart sang out for her. She had lost everything. Her home, her family and; although it didn’t hurt as much but would affect her just as greatly, her innocence. She was still young in comparison to the rest of us, yet had stayed strong and pushed through everything that had been thrown at her. But it seemed that this was just one step too far.

“I don’t know if you have talked about this yet but I want to go find them. I want to get them back. My brothers, my sisters. I want to help them.” Her voice was so small, so broken. “I just don’t... I just don’t...”

“Don’t what?” Sefire nudged her encouragingly.

“I don’t know how.” Foxglove wailed. “I’m not strong enough. I’m not trained in weapons, can’t mend equipment, I can’t design or build or... or kill. I am useless out here. I can’t do it alone.”

“But you are not alone.” Ripsaw insisted. “You have us.”

“We can work through this as a group. No one gets left behind.” Seafire said encouragingly.

“But look at us. Its the seven of us against the world.” Foxglove slumped to the ground. “Only three of us have any training in fighting. The rest of us are just making do. And its not like we even have a plan.” Foxglove sobbed. “We have no leads, no goal, no plan. No home.”

“Actually, we do have a lead.” Everyone looked at me in surprise.

“I thought you said that there was nothing on the PipBuck.” Tungsten said skeptically.

“There was, just not where I was expecting it. And there is another bit of good news. The other team headed off south west when we went north east, and guess which direction the signal came from.” I saw their faces brighten. “We might have reinforcements.”

* * *

That hope of reinforcements dwindled with every mile we walked. There was no trace of recent travel as we traveled south. I had half expected to encounter them within the first few hours but as time went by my oddly bright mood sank slowly into a self centred stupor.

We talked little as we picked our way down the heavily degraded road. Foxglove made the occasional hiccup as she fought to contain her feelings. Smoking was unusually withdrawn too. I had spotted him checking the saddlebags as we packed up to leave. I knew that he was searching for signs of Heather. I didn’t know if the lack of a sign indicating what had happened to her was giving him hope or bringing despair.

I stopped. Lifting my hoof I stared down at the small object I had trodden on. I had gotten used to the hard feeling of ravaged concrete so the pliable rubber pellet was almost a surprise when I recognised it.

“What is that?” Smoking asked, his voice tense.

“A rubber bullet.” I floated it up for them to see.

“Let me see that.” Smoking practically ran me over in his desperation to scrutinise the tiny object.

He took it in his hooves and examined it closely. “Its one of ours. Its been fired but it missed.”

“What does that mean?” Seafire asked. Foxglove had immediately rushed to her side and was almost hiding behind her. “Where are the others?”

“I don’t know... I just don’t know...”

Slowly we began to walk again. None of us said a word but I could feel it. We were scared. We were all so scared.

* * *

High-Voltage.

When I had heard the name I didn’t know what to expect but for once the name seemed logical. We approached a checkpoint in the chain link fence surrounding what remained of an old coal power station. Two huge cooling towers dominated the view before us with several skinny red brick chimneys poking up into the low hanging cloud. The towers rose out of a collection of squat industrial buildings mixed with collections of pipes that ran round the site. Light from windows crudely mounted into the face of the cooling towers punched out into the gloom; very much like the core of stable Seventeen. Just not as well built and taller. Much taller.

“Those things are huge.” Ripsaw whistled sounding impressed.

“I wonder how many ponies live here?” Helix mused.

“A lot less than a few weeks ago.”

We had been so preoccupied by the towers that we had almost walked straight into the outer gate of the city. The guards were armed but that was not what made me jump. All eight ponies were wearing yellow biohazard suits with guns mounted in harnessed on either side. The one that had addressed us had stepped forward unclipping a pistol. He didn’t draw it, but I could tell that he was just waiting for them moment we made a wrong move.

“I am sorry but High-Voltage is under quarantine.”

“Quarantine?” Foxglove asked. “From what?”

“The Pony Pox.” The guard sounded very worried. “I have to ask you to keep moving. No pony is going in or out.”

“Why such strong measures?” Helix moved to my side. “Pony Pox is far from lethal if treated correctly.”

The guard seemed to do a double take inside his suit. “What world are you living in, there is no cure for Pony Pox.”

“I am a Chemist and Biologist and I can tell you that there is a cure for Pony Pox.” Helix replied simply.

“In whose world?” The guard skeptically. “Now get moving or do I have to start using force.”

The guard rapidly drew his weapons as Helix magically opened her saddlebags, but relaxed a fraction as he saw her draw out a book.

“Page two, zero, three. Common viruses, their associated antiviral drugs and vaccinations.” Helix floated it over for him to read.

The guard slowly scanned the first few lines his eyes widening as he read. He looked at us all curiously. “Who are you ponies?”

“From what you have said it seems we are the answer to all your problems.”

The guard glanced back at his colleagues. One of them nodded slowly.

“Right, two of you are coming with me, the rest must stay here. We will get opinion from a professional and see how legitimate this cure is. You.” He pointed at Helix. “Who is coming with you?”

“Francium, you are with me on this one.” Helix said imperiously, holding her head high; she seemed to like being the one in charge. ‘But you knew that already didn’t you.’ my inner pony added slyly.

Not now!

The two of us followed the guard into a small wooden hut that been erected at the entrance. Inside were another pair of ponies who were sitting at a desk covered in monitors. One of the ponies was a cream coloured aging mare with a prematurely grey mane and tail, The other a tangerine buck. I was surprised that neither was wearing a bio-suit. The screens seemed to be cycling images from all over High Voltage; the perimeter fence, a collection of shops, public areas, other security rooms. But all the rooms were empty bar one which was up permanently on the largest screen. It seemed to be a gym or sports room, judging by the courts marked out on the floor, but the floor was barely visible through rows and rows of ponies curled up and lying down in lines. Other ponies in suits moved between the lines, handing out water.

As I watched, a commotion in the top corner of the screen drew my gaze. A buck was jerking and shaking violently on the floor. Suited ponies were rushing to his side. I expected them to pull out some potion or injection for him, but all they did was hold him down. The shaking continued for almost a whole minute before he slowly stopped and fell limp.

“Oh no...” Helix gasped.

“What’s wrong? What happened?” I asked.

“He had a seizure. The virus attacks the brainstem and causes total loss of bodily control. In that minute he wouldn’t have breathed once; he would have died of asphyxiation.” Helix said softly. We watched as two ponies in suits carried the poor buck away, his limp body hanging between them.

“But, I’ve had pony pox and its nothing like that... I just got spots and felt very weak.”

“The feeling of weakness is linked to the brainstem damage. The spots are brought on by a loss of hormonal control and the resulting imbalances. We got to you within a few hours of you catching the virus... these ponies...”

“Its been weeks.” The cream pony at the desk turned round. “This is the slowest but most debilitating version of the virus I have ever seen.” The mare stood up and pulled off a muzzle mask. “What are these two here for Clear Shot”

“This one here says she has a cure for pony pox.” Clear Shot pointed a hoof at Helix.

The cream mare’s eyes widened. “A cure? Impossible.”

“Not impossible, just forgotten.” Helix levitated over the book for the mare to see. “Who are you may I ask?”

“Stitches. I’m the doctor from Viewpoint.” She scanned the page, looking more bewildered with every line. “Where did you get this?” She waggled the book.

“I’d rather not say...” Helix said gingerly.

“Hmmm, is that so...” Stitches gave us a level stare. “But in your favour this looks to be real enough. I know most of the ingredients and their general properties. Its a shame getting them is next to impossible.”

“Why? It can’t be that hard... can it?” I could tell immediately from the looks that Helix and Stitches gave me that I didn’t have a clue about what I was commenting on.

“There are a few algaes, so that means going under water. Distillation and concentration of the mixture will be hard. And some fungi... you will be hard pressed to find anything like that in the wastelands.”

“Is there no way to cut corners? What about looking in the medical unit on site here? Surely a place like this has a first aid centre?” I was kind of out of my league here when it came to biology.

“It did have one but its was cleared out decades ago. Good thought though...” Stitches moved over to a filing cabinet in the corner and started rummaging through the draws. She mumbled as she searched. “Clear Shot. Is that observatory still standing?”

“You mean Starfall?” The buck looked shocked. “You’ve gotta be kidding me! You don’t want to go near that place.”

“Why not?” Why was it me asking all the dumb questions?

“You know what a Terrorhawk is?” Clear Shot said, as though I was a filly. “Its their nesting ground. Has been for donkeys years. The last team we sent up their never came back.”

“And why did you send a team up there if you knew it was dangerous.”

“As far as we are aware no one has been up there. Its an untouched resource. The site was so difficult to access that they had their own on site energy and water generation, not to mention all the other scientific equipment. Getting hold of them would be of major benefit to High Voltage. ”

Helix scratched her chin. “Stitches. If we got the ingredients how quickly could you produce a cure? You have the right equipment back in Viewpoint in the Mine’s medical bay. ”

Stitches got up sharply. “What have you been doing breaking into my office?”

“It was an emergency.” I interjected. “Helix saved a mare who had been shot.”

“Why was she shot?” Stitches asked sounding worried.

“The Stonethrowers launched an attack yesterday morning. We were there so we helped out.”

“Hmmm.” Stitches nodded approvingly. “Where had the mare been shot? Nothing too severe I hope.”

“She was shot in the head...” Helix said slowly. Stitches grey eyes widened immediately. “It was a really oblique angle, in through her right eye and out through her ear.”

“You saved a pony who had been shot through the head!” Stitches gawped. Even Clear Shot seemed impressed. “Where did you learn skills like that?”

“Again, I would rather not say.” Helix said sheepishly. I gave her a nudge. “What?”

“The signal came from inside High Voltage. We need to get in there if we are going to be able to follow up the lead.” I whispered, very aware that Clear Shot was trying to eavesdrop. “If we don’t help then the pony who the message was sent to could die before we have a chance to talk.” I thought for a moment, considering our option. “I could go and get the underwater algaes with my EVA suit. I seriously doubt anyone else has the equipment.”

“What would the rest of us do?” Helix asked. “We dare not go up to this observatory... it sounds suicidal! But we can’t help them if we don’t have all the ingredients for the cure...” She looked torn. “But they might not even want our help.” She added.

“We need to talk it over with the others but if we can help here then we can get one step closer to saving our friends. Our family.” I added firmly. “We have to. Its our only option.”

“It wouldn’t be if you hadn’t blown that raiders brains out.” Helix said cooly. I felt my stomach twist. “But if this works then it won’t have been a total loss.

* * *

I stood looking out at the cold, murky, black water. Growing waves splashed and ran up the small, grey beach, whipped up by the strong wind being funneled along the narrowing valley. I shifted slightly, my hooves making shallow imprints in the spoilt sand where I stood. It struck me as odd that I was about to step into the same body of water in which the remains of stable Seventeen resided. Less than thirty miles away, round the curve of the lake, was the place that had once been my home. I had been in this water hundreds of times before, but this time it not only felt but would be a very different experience.

“Come back away from the edge.” I was snapped from my musings by Helix’s sharp voice. I had a sudden image of Ambrosia in my head and quickly backtracked away from the waters edge.

“Come here, I think we can get one more in there...” I wandered up the bank into the sickly looking grass to Helix as she pulled out another orange packet. She firmly pushed the several bags of Rad-away further down the sides of my suit. It was tight enough as it was without her adding more to my frame. With effort, Helix took what must have been the seventh bag of anti-radiation medicine and flattened it against my back. “Zip it up.”

I reached out with my magic and took hold of the zip that rested just above my tail and began drawing it up, closing up the suit. With the help of Helix I finally managed to do up the suit with seven bags of Rad-away pinned under the surface.

“Do all the tubes work?” She asked walking round to face me.

The EVA suits hadn’t designed to stop radiation; I doubted the designers could have foreseen that they would have been used anywhere else than the radiation free bubble around stable seventeen. As a result I would soon be surrounded by irradiated water with no way of stopping the radiation from penetrating my body, and the deeper I went the worse it would get.

To combat this I had to take Rad-away with me in such a way that I could drink it when my suit and helmet were on. The solution, thought up oddly by Foxglove, had been to pack the medicine inside my suit and run tubes up into my helmet so I could suck on the concoction periodically.

“Yep all good.” I responded when I had bit down gently on the valves fitted to the end if the tubes. A quick burst of flavour from each confirmed they were all working. I looked up at Helix reassuringly. “I’ll be fine. I’ve done this dozens of times.”

“I know. Its just...” She bit her lip. “Its always terrified me. Horrible dreams that one time you go out and something happens and there you are trapped underwater, water filling your lungs and you... you...” Her rush of words petered out. Her wide eyes brimmed with tears.

I sighed, pulling her into a tight hug letting her nuzzle close into my coat. Her breath was uneven on the back of my neck as she shuddered in my grasp.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered in her ear. “All this time, why didn’t you say that it frightened you?”

“If I had, I know you would’ve done your best to never go out there again, so that I wouldn’t have to worry anymore.” She sniffed. “I couldn’t replace you either if something ever happened but you were too good, too valuable to the stable. They could never replace your skills. So I put you and the stable first.”

“What about when I went inside the gas tubes?” I asked. “I could have died just as easily in there.”

“They scared me to.” She admitted, letting go to look at me. Her eyes had gone all puffy and her mane had got all messed up where she had been nuzzling me. She looked so cute. “But I didn’t mind so much for some reason. I think it was because I once had the thought that if anything did go wrong in there that the rest of the stable would probably have blown up so quickly that I never would have noticed until I ran into you at dinner with Celestia and Luna.”

‘The gas doesn’t work like that...’ My little pony prodded, but I ignored it; if it softened Helix’s nerves then I wasn’t going to go correcting it.

“You ready yet?” Clear Shot and Stitches appeared out of the long grass at our side. “The others have just set off with two of my team up to Starfall.”

“What about Foxglove? Did she go with them?” I asked nervously.

“What, the green one? No she’s sitting in the cabin still crying her eyes out. I wish she would just get a grip; can’t stand foals.”

Helix rounded on him. “You leave her alone. She’s not a foal, she is a young mare! And for your information she has been through more in the past week than anyone her age should ever have to endure. So you are going to love and tolerate the shit out of her weather you like it or not. Understood?”

“Fine lady. Love and tolerate. Geez.” Clear Shot looked taken aback but quickly recovered. With a quick glance at Stitches he made to leave. “Oh wait, take this.” He pulled a long rod out of his saddle bags. “Harpoon, used for fishing, but I reckon you can use it to fend off any creatures you encounter down there.”

I levitated it to my side, feeling its weight in my telekinetic grasp. “Thanks.” I said surprised. He gave a quick smile and then headed back towards the gate.

“He certainly has an odd personality.” Helix mumbled as he vanished into the distance.

“He has family in High-Voltage.” Stitches said as she pulled a book out of a saddle bag. “He has been rather short with everypony since this whole thing started. He is doing surprisingly well if you ask me.”

“When did you realise what was happening?” Helix asked.

“You mean the virus? I got the message maybe fifteen, sixteen days ago. So maybe twenty days maximum. By the time I got here it was already too late to try and stop the spread.” Stitches started flicking slowly through the book. “I haven't had word if the virus has been detected in any other towns, High-Voltage and Viewpoint are quite separated. Two days walk minimum before you find another settlement.”

“So it could be spreading and we wouldn’t be informed for weeks?” Helix said fearfully. “Why are Viewpoint and High-Voltage so remote?”

“The Platinum mountain range.” Stitches said simply. “It is not the tallest range in equestria but it is the most extensive. if you were to follow the edge of this river you would eventually reach the sea and Hoofington, but that is maybe a months solid trot with no real civilisation. If you go the other way you would reach New Appleloosa, thats two to three weeks trot.”

“A month!” I doubted if anyone that was infected had got out that they would have survived long enough to pass it on. “How far is it?”

“To the Hoof... one hundred and eight miles as a pegasus flies. You could do it in four to five days if it was flat but the elevation and the winding tracks that make that impossible, unless you are a pegasus of course.”

“And to New Appleloosa?”

“First you have to go over Thunderhead pass, thats about five thousand feet of ascent. Then down around six thousand on the other side. From there, its about ten days trot across the Buffalo plains south of Appleloosa, and then another week over the Canterlot mountain range to New Appleloosa.”

“Hang on, Appleloosa and New Appleloosa?” A flag went up in my head. “Mantis, the cook at Tabithas Treats, he said he was from New Appleloosa. So what’s Appleloosa?”

“Now, as far as I know, its a slaver town.” Stitches shuddered. “About six years ago it was just the remains of a pre-war earth pony town but since then its been colonised by slavers. Someone needs to go in there and burn the place to the ground.”

I could feel a wave of questions building up inside me. If anyone would know where the rest of our stable could have been taken it would be other slavers or raiders but something else was bugging me.

“Helix... I know this is thinking along way ahead, but suppose...” I faltered.

“Suppose what?” She said encouragingly.

“What happens when we get everyone back? Say we find everyone; Lillypad, Bramble, Jib, Boom, Heather, what do we do with them once we get them back. We would have nowhere safe to keep forty new ponies. We can barely keep the seven of us safe...”

“So...” She added while I thought.

“So I was thinking. What would we need to get stable Seventeen back up and running? Where could we find parts? Or more importantly, schematics and plans.”

“If you want to know anything about Stable-Tech you would need to go to one of their branches.” Stitches cut in. “Their headquarters were in Fillydelphia but they had other buildings in Manehatten, Hoofington, Canterlot and loads of other cities.”

“How come you know so much?”

“Before I settled down in Viewpoint I was a traveling doctor; you know, food and shelter in exchange for my skills. I have been to many places. Seen many things. Heard rumours.” Her voice was almost conspiratorial. “There are things out there. Things you really are best off not knowing.”

“What? To do with Stable-Tech?” I could feel worry building inside me.

“Stable-Tech. The ministries. The ministry mares. The princesses. They all had secrets.” She spoke like she was being watched. ‘Perhaps we are?’ my little pony thought in a worried tone.

I thought for a moment, contemplating.

“Have you ever heard of Project Nightmare?” I asked.

“Can’t say that I have.” Stitches shrugged.

“Stable-Tech research and development?”

“Nope, fraid not.” But she paused. “But I might know some pony who does.” I felt a grin spread across my face. “Why do you ask?”

“I will tell you when I get back.” Helix just rolled her eyes.

Helix passed me a packet of Rad-X. I quickly chewed and swallowed two pills, ignoring the rather disgusting taste. I turned and looked out once again at the lake. I glanced down at my suit. The sand clung to its matt black surface, glinting slightly in the light. I felt a gentle hoof on my shoulder and I let Helix draw me into a hug once more.

“You be careful down there. Promise me you will be careful.” She took my head in her soft purple hooves and looked deep into my eyes.

“I promise...my love.” I added carefully.

“My love.” She ran a hoof gently across my face and then leant in slowly and kissed my forehead.

Helix levitated up my helmet and began to slide it over my head. She moved out of the way as the lip of the helmet passed in front of my muzzle, cutting her off from me. I felt a tingle run down my body as my horn slipped through the rubber flange, tickling and teasing me. With an firm click the helmet made its seal with the rest of my suit.

“See you soon.” I gave my love one last look before I turned and began to walk into the murky depths of the lake. A lake that had once been my home.



Footnote: Level Up!
New Perk: “What Doesn't Kill You...” - You have finally experienced the horrific nature of the Wasteland first hoof and survived. You are tougher and brutal, if more cynical, for it. +1% damage for every kill in a single round of combat, up to 25%


[Thank you to MusicByOctavia for letting me add that extra level of detail!]

Act 1 - Chapter 6: Hydrogen And Oxygen

View Online

Chapter 6: Hydrogen & Oxygen
“You coming in Dashie? The water’s great, and totally wet and everything”

NARS

Ping...

I had never really seen the benefit of it until now.

Ping...

As I trudged through the growing darkness, descending down the silty slope that was the lake’s floor, I listened closely to the regular Ping’s that the Navigation And Ranging Spell pulsed out from my EVA suit.

Ping...

Much like standard radar technology, the NARS system sent out signals that would return when they struck an object, giving an indication of its size and distance. NARS may have had a much shorter range and was too power-hungry to be fitted to a PipBuck but it was far more accurate and reliable, provided you could interpret the signal properly.

Ping...

But the signal did bring home one disturbing fact. How utterly alone I was. Before we had used it to keep an eye out on each other while working outside the stable; the return signal from an EVA suit being very distinct. Here however I was using it to augment my EFS read out to give me a better chance of spotting anything that was coming to eat me.

Ping...

I kept an eye and an ear fixed on both systems as I trudged through the growing darkness, descending down the silty slope that was the lake’s floor. I was also cross with myself that I had not been using my EFS it ever since Seafire told me about it. It could’ve saved Ambrosia; possibly even Heather, and made dealing with the remaining raiders at the warehouse a cinch. Now I doubted if I would ever turn it off.

Ping...

Under the water however it was less useful. Dozens of tiny dots constantly moved around the fringes of my EFS and I couldn't tell what they were. My NARS was returning dozens of tiny little whispers indicating that they were only about a foot long, probably less, but the shoals so large that they obscured whole quarters of my EFS. If I was unlucky enough to have something larger come in from that direction only NARS would be able to indicate the difference

Ping...

I was so lost in thought that I almost didn't notice the end of the ground before I stepped off the edge.. I flinched back instinctively. The soft silt at my hooves ended abruptly to plunge down into blackness. I took a few deliberate steps back and looked around. It seemed I had come to the edge of some kind of shelf in the rock. Cautiously, I peered over the edge and looked down. I couldn’t see anything besides the rock that formed the precipice of the underwater crevice.

Ping...

I pulled open a pouch on my left hind leg and removed one of my emergency glow-sticks.


Ping...

Snapping the internal glass vial with my magic, I shook it vigorously and then gently tossed it off the edge.

Ping...

My expression went from curious, to concerned, to worried and then on to just plain shocked. The glow-sticks luminescence was swallowed up completely in the blackness below. ‘Don’t want to be falling down there...’ my inner pony noted.

Ping...

I stepped back from the edge and considered my position. It boiled down to left or right. Left lead towards stable seventeen. Right; toward the unknown. ‘No contest’ I thought to myself. A slurp of Rad-away brought my Rad levels back into the green. Taking a deep breath, I turned right.

Ping...

~ ~ ~

“Francium?” I kept my eyes closed and tried to keep my breathing regular. “Francium, time to get up for lessons.” I still didn’t move. It was so warm under the covers, my mattress was so soft, and - I could not hold it any longer as my mother dug her hooves into the sides of my tummy.

“Stop it!” I screamed, rolling from side to side. “That’s… hehehe… that’s not… hahahaha… fair!”

“But I thought you were asleep?” My mum kept rubbing my sides as I wriggled for freedom.

“I was…. eeep… but you were… hehehe… evil and… ahyeee... woke me up!”

Lithium stopped and I was able to extract myself out from under the covers and flop unceremoniously onto the floor. Once I had finally got my breath back, I dragged myself to my hooves and ambled round the bed into my mother’s forearms.

“Morning mum.” I nuzzled into her chest, her familiar perfume filling my nose.

“Morning.” She replied quietly.

“What’s for breakfast?” I asked innocently.

“It’s whatever you want for once.” She let me go and helped me to my hooves. I noticed that she was already wearing her nursing overalls and looked rather flustered. “I have to get over to medical early today so you can have what you like. Nothing too fattening though. We seem to be getting through the Cocoa powder much more quickly than usual. That stuff is rare and you seem to be eating all of it”

“What? I like my hot chocolate.” I looked over at the clock; it was six in the morning. “Why do you have to leave so early?” I asked curiously. “The day cycle is hours away.”

Lithium began levitating the final few things into her saddle bags. “Bracken pulled a muscle in his back doing some lifting so he is taking a few days off. They asked me to help out by filling in his shifts.” With a flourish she flicked the bags onto her back and did up the buckle. “You’re a young mare now so I expect you to be responsible. I’ll probably be home late so you can ask Adenine if Helix can come over and keep you company or something.” She said brightly.

“Ok mum.” I smiled at her.

“See you tonight love,” she said, smiling back.

With a final tight hug; that lasted longer than was strictly necessary, Lithium ruffled my mane and disappeared out the door.

~ ~ ~

Ping...

I had come across a field of what I thought was some kind of kelp at a depth of about eighty feet; the top of the supposed butter zone for finding our precious algae, and I’d expected to find it growing on the undersides of the giant leaves just like Helix had told me. But no matter how many I checked, none showed the tell-tale signs of our life saving algae. My only solution seemed to be to go deeper, but the problem was that the only way to go deeper seemed to be to go off the edge into the crevice. Despite walking for what must have been a mile I couldn’t find a way down.

Ping...

Ping...

Ping...

The kelp wasn’t helping either. An individual strand must have been a foot wide in the trunk and so tall that it left my range of vision. But the kelp weren’t just tall. They grew in thick forests of tightly packed trunks with massive three foot wide leaves extending outward reducing my range of vision to almost nothing. More than once I found myself at the cliff edge and had to calm myself, having nearly taken a step into the abyss.

Ping...

Ping...

Ping...

I took a slurp of Rad-away bringing my radiation levels back into the yellow. I was about to take another when,

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

My NARS returned a signal and I spotted a fast moving red dot on my EFS. I brought the harpoon off my back and aimed using my EFS. I tracked the dot as best I could, but the big leaves and the kelp trunks made it almost impossible to wield the harpoon effectively.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

The dot traveled across my EFS, skimming the edge of its sensing range and then swiftly disappeared.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

I had just finished slinging the harpoon onto my back when the red dot reappeared. No wait; two. They were still not on an intercept trajectory but they were significantly closer judging my the strength of the return signal. I extinguished my helmet light as not to draw attention to myself. Without it I was blind, all I could see was the augmented read out of my EFS.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...


The NARS sounded again. The dots began to bank right, turning towards me. I watched, a knot building in my chest, as they turned and started heading straight for me. I swung the harpoon down again as fast as I could, struggling against the water, and took the trigger in my telekinetic grip using my EFS to aim at the incoming dots.

Ping... ... ... ... Ping...


The shortening return sound indicated the closing distance. About ninety yards... Seventy... Fifty.

Ping... ... ... Ping...

As they got within thirty yards I tensed waiting for whatever it was to come screaming through the water towards me.

Ping... Ping

Ping... ... Ping...

Ping... ... ... ... Ping...

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

The sound faded away, the dot shrank to nothing and finally vanished.

Ping...

I held my breath. The red dots had seemingly passed right through me and off at an even faster rate. Within seconds they had left the range of my EFS all together. I flicked my helmet light back on and the forest of kelp filled my vision once more. Carefully I slung the harpoon round my neck and settled it on my back.

Ping...

‘Just the first of many scares you will be having down here’ my inner pony said in a rather resigned tone. ‘You could have been exploring a mountain with the others or looking after Foxglove with Helix, but oh no you have to be down here giving yourself a heart attack every five minutes!’

‘But I am doing this to help our stable. And not just our stable, High-Voltage as well.’ I retorted.

‘Yeah you keep telling yourself that.’ My innerself turned its back and disappeared into a corner of my mind.

Ping...

~ ~ ~

After my second round of toast and picking through to find the best three or four apples we had in our stocks, I wandered back into my bedroom and started getting ready for school. I opened up my chest of drawers and pulled out my hair brush. Standing in front of the mirror I examined myself closely.

My body was just like any other mare’s my age. I was beginning to curve in all the right places, not as much as I wanted but better than some. My rich blue coast was glossier than most and I didn’t even have to take much care of it. All the individual hairs lay exactly where they should, I rarely had to brush myself down.

My long blue hair was all tangled and tousled from my pillows, the white streak running down the centre lost in a root-like sprawl of ultramarine, and my tail was just all over the place. I was determined to get my mane and tail as long as I could which was beginning to get on my mothers nerves. It took forever to wash, comb and dry but I had my reasons. If I ever made it into the EVA team and maintainance I was going to have to keep my mane and tail short until I retired; if I couldn’t have it long then, it would have to be now.

My eyelashes were beginning to lengthen naturally and grow thicker, highlighting my deep green eyes. I batted them playfully to myself. ‘Cut it out’ my inner self complained. Fine.

I made to start brushing my hair but I stopped. “No.” I said to myself. “Lets do this properly.”

I popped the brush back on the drawers and made for the shower. With a flick of my magic I turned on the water and heard the slight hum of the heating crystal kick into life.

I had always assumed that when we needed water it was simply piped straight to us from the pumping stations, but Arc had shown me the huge tanks towards the top of the core. The water was taken in from the lake, filtered and cleaned in maintenance and then was pumped up to the top of the core. He had told me that the main pumps were so powerful that if you got in the way of the water jet it would knock you out. The tanks allowed for a more easily regulated pressure and meant that when ponies wanted water, they got it without having to wait for the pumps.

When I saw steam beginning to rise from the water I stepped into the shower and savoured the sensation of my hair being soaked and the water running off my coat. I glanced in the mirror at myself, wet and steamy. I had to admit I thought I looked pretty hot, but I had always thought that Helix looked better with wet hair. I levitated up the shampoo and the soap and with practiced care began to wash both my mane and my coat simultaneously. I was determined that I was going to enjoy this while I had the chance.

~ ~ ~

Life is an amazing thing. No matter what you do to it, something always seems to find a way to survive.

The turtles were huge; at least I think they were turtles. The biggest were two metres wide and three metres long, they were like giant swimming pebbles. The turtles I had seen in pictures were more or less green, but this herd were a peculiar mix of blue, metalic grey and yellow. The mottled pattern on their shells made it look like lava but the blue tricked the eye into thinking you could see right through to the water on the other side. Not to mention that the yellow bits also seemed to have some kind of bioluminescence.

It was surreal.

The herd of maybe a dozen, a mix of adults and calves--do you call them that--were grazing on what looked like thick bladed grass that was growing out of the muck on the lake floor. There was not much of it, each little clump only contained maybe ten or so six inch sprouts but the creatures were steadily working their way along the top of the ridge where this plant was growing.

I had been worried at first, would they turn and attack me, crush me or simply just eat me but as I got closer they had just parted to let me through. Now I was waking in the middle of the herd at pace with their munchings, enjoying their company. I could get within a foot or so of one before it would gave a quick flick of its fins and glide away. It seemed that although they trusted me to be with them they still had some reservations about what I was and what I was going to do. I had also taken some trust in them by turning down my NARS. The pinging sound when you are standing in the middle of a herd was enough to give anypony tinnitus.

I walked with them for fifteen minutes or so. Just watching them eat and play with one another. There were two smaller turtles, only about a metre long, that were playing in amongst the adults. They seemed to be playing hide and seek. One would go off somewhere into the herd and hide under or behind one of the larger adults. The the second would flit between the herd, deliberately squeezing through tight spots and turning sharply to avoid leaving the safety of the herd.

One then came and hid on the far side of me. It hovered level with my chest just within a few inches, and kept pace with my walk by gently twitching its fins. I looked down at it and it looked back at me, blinking slowly with its big, deep blue eyes. Suddenly the other turtle appeared right in front of it. The blue eyed turtle let out a resonating noise that flickered with detailed harmonics and suddenly she was seeking. Her friend flitted away and disappeared into the herd and after another glance at me she took of with a wave of her fins.

~ ~ ~

I worked my way through the corridors as fast as I could. It seemed that doing a full mane and tail styling had taken far longer than I had expected and as a result I was now late. I kept hearing calls of ‘Hey’ or ‘Watch it’ as I stepped on someone's hoof, but I didn't care, I needed to get to school as quickly as I could.

I spotted the door to the room and made a beeline for it. Just as I got there a big stallion stepped out in front of me. I tripped over his outstretched hoof and went tumbling through the doorway. I landed on my face with a thump and felt my eyes rolling in my head.

“Hey, need a hoof up?” I looked up from my splayed position on the floor and felt myself blush. Tungsten was standing over me. He looked down with mild amusement and then held out a hoof.

“Thanks.” I mumbled as he helped me up.

“No problem.” He smiled at me again. His black mane swished as he turned back to the rest of the class who were all busy unpacking their stationery and books, jabbering amongst themselves. Thankfully it seemed no one else had seen my tumble. I watched him go when a voice startled me.

“Are you checking out my brother!” I snapped round to see Helix sniggering in the doorway, her saddle bags shaking as she tried not to laugh.

“Ummm, wait... no!” I stammered trying not to blush.

“Oh my gawd!” Helix gasped. “Oh I know what comes next!” She cleared her throat and began singing in a high pitched voice. “Fran and Tungsten at the bottom of the sea! K, i, s, s, i, n...”

“Quit it.” I hissed under my breath at her.

“First comes love. Then comes marriage then...”

“Quit it!”

“Oh, don’t you like the idea of snogging my brother all of a sudden.” She sniggered again. “Well, perhaps you would prefer to kiss me instead?” She puckered her lips and before Helix could react I planted a quick kiss on her lips.

Helix’s eyes shot wide. “Fran, what did you do that for?” She asked half confused, half surprised.

“Well, you asked.” I sniggered back.

“Remind me never to do that again...” She made a drama of wiping her mouth on her foreleg and the wiping that on my coat.

“Well perhaps Tungsten will be more appreciative.”

“Oh so you do like my brother!” Helix was suddenly grinning again.

I just couldn’t win.

“Helix! Francium! what are you doing!” We both jumped as Parchment, our aging teacher, stepped through the door to find us right in her way. “Sit down this instant!”

“Yes Miss P.” We both mumbled in unison.

Helix and I amble over to our seats towards the back of the room. I glanced over at Tungsten who was chatting to a very beautiful young mare called Seafire. I felt a twinge of jealousy

Wait...

Oh no! If I was feeling that then that could only mean...

I fancied Tungsten!

But I hadn’t really given him much thought, had I? But he was always nice to me, ever since I had met him; though that may been cos he knew I was Helix’s best friend, and I liked his black mane and the way it swayed and the trio of deep silver metallic cubes upon his flank and...

And...

I could never let Helix find out!

~ ~ ~

Ping...

Success!

After leaving the turtles to their slow munching, I had traversed maybe another half mile along the top of the ridge and discovered that it was gradually dropping. Eventually, I ended up at one hundred and ten feet below the surface when I came across another kelp forest.To my joy, a quick inspection revealed that there were copious quantities of algae growing on the undersides of the leaves.

Ping...

I levitated a small spatula out of one of my pockets and began to scrape the algae into a selection of vials that Helix had given me from her chemistry apparatus. It was surprisingly viscous, sticking to the spatula which made getting it into the tubes rather difficult. With difficulty I managed to coax the first scoop into the top of the tube and watched with satisfaction as it slipped slowly to the bottom.

Ping...

Ping...

Ping...

After filling that vial I managed to fill another two off the same leaf. I slipped the vials into various pouches on my EVA suit, making sure that they wouldn’t slip out.

Ping...

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

I dropped the spatula with a jolt of my magic, looking up frantically at the lone dot darting in and out of my EFS. I dropped into the oose, searching frantically with my magic and hooves for the precious vial. But the degrading organic gloop made it almost impossible.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

Red flashed twice. And again.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

A shiver built at the top of my spine. I turned slowly in my solitary pool of magical light, watching the marks as they skirted the edge of my EFS. What were they doing?

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

The red appeared again off to my left, two fast moving flashes. My head snapped the other way tracking a trio of red marks on my right. Then more marks; six behind, six in front.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

They were circling.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

Corralling.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

Hunting.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

Me.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

I brought the harpoon off my back, sliding the safety off. More red marks joined the encroaching circle, tightening around me and forcing me to step backward toward the edge.

“I haven’t got all day.” I snarled, more to myself than to the fish. “If you’re going to attack me, get a bloody move on!” Only fifty yards away and still couldn’t see anything. They drew closer and closer to me, growing all the time.

Ping... ... ... ... ... Ping...

I braced myself, the harpoon shaking in my magic.

Ping... ... ... ... Ping...

Sweat stung my eyes as I struggled to keep them open.

Ping... ... ... Ping...

My magical grip tightened on the harpoons trigger.

Ping... ... Ping...

The NARS pings were almost on top of each other

Ping... Ping...

They stopped. Ten yards away from me and yet right on top of me. How could they be right on top...

Ping Ping...

The swarm descended. I dived sideways. A flurry of shimmering black and white metallic glints scythed past before I felt myself squishing into the ooze. I lifted my head and met twenty sets of ferocious fangs set into open jaws. The swarm slammed into my helmet. The helmet light snapped clean off by a heavy impact, plunging the attack into darkness. I felt myself tumbling over backwards in slow motion, landing with another squelch.

Ping... Ping...

I dragged myself to my hooves and ran blindly through the kelp. I couldn't think. Couldn't see. Light. I needed light. Scrunching my eyes I fought to remember the light spell I had used a hundred times before. My horn flared to life. 'Shit!' Digging my hooves into the slit, I slid to a halt a bare foot from the cliff's edge.

Ping... Ping

They were right behind me! I spun to face them. Sharp metallic fangs glistened in the light of my magic. I brought the harpoon up to my face on instinct alone, putting something, anything, between us.

I cowered back, closing my eyes and waiting for the inevitable.

Ping... Ping

Ping... ... ... Ping...

Ping...

My eyes cracked open. They were gone... where'd they go? The last vestiges of movement over head caught my eye, but I couldn't make myself look. My knees gave out and I dropped to the soft mud. Gasping for breath I tried to calm my still beating heart.

A goofy smile pulled at my lips. I was still alive. I was still alive! I wanted to laugh. I had never felt so... well, alive.

Ping... ... ... ... ... ... Ping...

My eyes shot open, my heart contracted in my chest. A single red dot illuminated my EFS.

Ping... ... ... ... Ping...

Ping... ... ... Ping...

Ping... ... Ping...

Ping... Ping...

Ping...

A gigantic black mass ripped through the kelp. Its maw opened revealing rows of razor blades for teeth. The harpoon was up in a beat of my heart and fired in the next. The silver lance took the creature in the back of its mouth, for all the good it did. It slammed into me sending my readouts strobing. My hoof slip off the edge, the world tilted and dropped out from under me.

~ ~ ~

I joined the back of the queue in the mess hall, levitating a tray off the rack and turned back to Helix.

“I told you I don’t know. To be honest I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Does that mean you haven’t because you’re not interested or because you don’t want to think about it?” Helix took her own tray and joined the queue behind me.

“How am I supposed to know that. Whichever it is,” I sighed, “it’s always just seemed weird to me. You can have a husband or wife but you’re not allowed to reproduce with them. Doesn't that like defeat the whole point of it. Arc has been reading some of the old journals from back from the beginning of the stable. Back before they started the mapping program. There’s loads of stuff in there, amazing stuff. Scary stuff too, though. Stuff that could really mess stuff up.”

Helix looked around for a moment then leant to my ear. “Like what?”

“Well in one thing that Arc was reading recently was an open letter to the Overmare and Overstallion at the time suggesting that they step aside and let someone of royal linage take control of the stable.”

Helix gasped, quickly turning it into a cough as several heads turned.

“Wait, you mean like... daughter of Celestia? Or Luna? I never knew that they even had children.”

“No. I think that was a son or daughter of another royal.”

“Another royal?” Helix was finding it hard to contain the shock in her voice. “But there has only ever been Celestia and Luna. Or there only were.” She corrected solemnly.

“That’s what I thought too, but it doesn’t indicate what race they were or who the royal was.”

“Wait hang on. If that is all true, then does that mean that someone in here could be the great, great, great grandchild of some ancient royal pony.”

I shrugged “Its possible.”

“I could be a royal!” Helix squealed. “You could be. Think of what that could mea...”

The lights went out. Instantly I lit my horn; and felt a slight sense of pride that I was the first to do so. Every other unicorn followed suit and quickly the room was bathed in soft multi-coloured light. I scanned round the room, hunting for anypony who seemed to know what was happening.

“What’s going on?” Helix whispered suddenly pressing herself against my side and almost pushing me over.

“How should I know?” I muttered back. “I can still feel the turbines. The repulsion field around the tower is still up or we would have been crushed by now.”

“Repulsion Field?” Helix asked, but before I could answer the lights flickered back to life. At the same time several Pipbucks started beeping madly. In an instant the mares and stallions faces went from bemused to panicked. The buck next to me read his pipbuck and went pale. He shoved us both unceremoniously out the way.I opened up my own PipBuck and began to flick through the radio channels. Nothing was working, they were all static except the last one. The gold channel; emergency broadcasts only.

“... to gas syphoning. Internal gas leak in linking tube GS to AP. All medical staff to stations. Repeat - All maintenance staff to gas syphoning. Internal gas leak in linking tube...”

The whole tower shuddered slowly, the lights flickered and the emergency voice cut out sharply. I lifted a hoof to let Helix up who was trying to hide underneath me. She pulled herself up with a strange expression, somewhere between ‘sorry’ and ‘I am terrified’, on her face.

Then my Pipbuck burst back into life. “Situation contained. Explosion in GS to AP contained by repulsion field. Capacitors down to ten per cent and recharging. Six casualties, one serious. Medical staff GS and AP. Situation under control. Explosion contained. Medical staff GS and AP Repeat. Situation under control. Explosion contained. Medical staff...”

“Explosion?” Helix asked in shock. “How did the gas explode?”

“A spark probably. Or magic if somepony was careless enough.”

Helix looked surprised “You can set off gas with magic?”

“Of course you can. Almost every spell creates some kind of spark when it forms,” I replied. Helix continued to look surprised, and also scared and shocked which admittedly gave her a strange expression.

We both jumped as Parchment appeared in the doorway to the hall and began shouting “All students follow me back to class! Chop chop!”

“Back to class?” one of the other kids whined. “But I didn’t get to eat my pudding.”

“You can have pudding whenever you like,” Parchment said flatly. “Now follow me.”

“Forget pudding, I didn’t even get a starter.” Helix mumbled. I just nodded in agreement.

~ ~ ~

I opened my eyes and was mildly surprised. I could see nothing. I tried again with the same result. ‘OK, Lets try something else, cos that clearly isn’t working.’ I tried to roll over and managed to place one hoof flat on the floor. ‘Success!’ With a great effort I pulled myself to my hooves, but something was not right. With more concentration than it usually took, I managed to bring my horn to a soft glow but almost lost it with a gasp. An angular crack had lanced across my helmets visor.

The half inch thick polycarbonate, enhanced and reinforced with all manner of incantations, had fractured completely from top to bottom. I peered closer and saw that it had propagated diagonally between two bolt holes that fixed it to the unibody of the helmet; stress concentration was a killer.

I took my horn to its full brightness and looked around. The thing that had slammed into me was nowhere to be seen but there was plenty of other life. The floor was entirely covered by what I knew must be starfish but, like the turtles, they were not the colours that I was familiar with. Rather than being rich oranges and reds they were metallic greys and blacks, similar to the turtles, but they were dotted with spots of white. I could even spot a few crabs, again of strange and peculiar colours. I couldn’t even begin to understand the seemingly illogical changes to the creatures colour, but I knew that I had more important problems.

‘Ok Fran...’ I said to myself, ‘you’re, ’ I checked my PipBuck, ‘two hundred feet down. Your suit is damaged. You are running out of Rad-away, but you have,” I checked the vials, “three test tube full of the algae stuff. But how much air do you have left?” I checked my PipBuck again and gulped.

I didn’t know how long I had been out, but between that and the increased energy use to prevent the visor failing completely, I had used over eighty percent of the deconstruction talismans energy giving me just forty more minutes of air if I remained at this depth.

Crap.

I had to start gaining height and fast. The question was how?

I turned round and looked up. The cliff rose high above me, disappearing into the gloom. It was far too steep to climb directly but if I was careful I might be able to traverse along it and work my way up like that. The alternative was to walk until it began to rise naturally, however that might not happen for miles, and I just didn't know if I could risk it. I brought up my map and saw how much trouble I was in.

I knew from stable seventeen that strong underwater currents ran down the middle of the lake, caused by the geothermal vents on the lake bed. Somehow, I must have caught one of them on the way down. My map placed me a whole five miles away from where I had entered the water. I’d been swept past High-Voltage and round the first in a series of meanders. If I hadn’t been caught in a small back eddy, which would also explain why there were so many creatures around me, I knew I could have easily been carried half way to Hoofington by the strong central current.

I reactivated NARS and started walking as fast as I could back towards High-Voltage, the repulsion field aiding my movements and allowing me to achieve what on dry land would constitute a slow gait. I knew that if I kept against the left hoof edge of the lake as I waked then eventually I would reach the surface. The only question was, would it be soon enough?

Ping... step, step.

Ping... step, step.

~ ~ ~

“Well that was a slightly more interesting day.” Helix stretched out tossing herself onto her sofa as I shut the door to her families room behind us. “Though not quite in the way I think most of us would have wanted.” She rolled onto her front and looked at me with her big blue eyes. “You’ll know this. How come this stable can survive both the crushing pressure, one hundred metres down, and the force of a gas explosion inside? It just seems impossible. I know unicorn magic is good but is it really that powerful?”

I turned on the kettle and got myself out a mug, tea leaves and the strainer. “I reckon that most ponies thought that when Stable-Tec laid the plans to this place down in front of them. And its not just one hundred metres down, its one hundred and fifty.”

“One hundred and fifty!” Helix mumbled. “Crazy, absolutely crazy. So come on, how do they do it?”

“It’ll be boring,” I warned.

“Come on. It can’t be that bad, surely.”

“It can be that bad. And don’t call me Shirley.” I held my serious face for as long as I could, but it was no use.

Helix shook her head, groaning as I broke into a grin. “That was bad Fran. Even for you,” she sighed. “Well come on. How’d they do it?”

“Right. The stable is basically built in two ways. One way is out of steel rings, which are supported by an inner steel structure. They form the outside of the core the structure for the adjoining tubes. The domes are built out of hundreds of triangles that are shaped in such a way that they form domes. Under the domes are arches of steel that support the triangular panels. Now I want you to picture a tube in your mind, a series of rings one after the other. Now imagine an arc of energy bouncing across the top of each ring, all the way to the end.”

I looked at Helix. Her eyes were closed and she was biting her lip, trying her best to hold the things I was telling her in her minds eye.

“Now imagine that its not just one arc, but millions forming a field of energy around the outside of the tube. Can you see it?”

“Yes.” Helix replied softly.

“That field effect covers every adjoining tube and bounces down the outside of the core as well. The spell it is based on is the same one I use when I do my welding practice.”

“The repulsion spell?”

“Yep, you got it. Now for the domes its a little harder. At the corner of each triangle there is a node, and this network is formed all over the top of the triangles. Here the field jumps from node to node creating the repulsion field required to hold back the water.”

“Yes, I can see that. Helix opened her eyes. “So that is what is holding up the water, not the glass panes?”

“Yep. The force is transferred directly into the steel frame of the stable and into the ground. There is no way, even with all out magic and spells that we could enchant the glass to be able to take such pressure alone. So we don’t, the field does instead.”

“Does that mean there is a small gap of air between the field and the dome itself?” Helix asked. Wow she was really thinking about this.

“That is a really good question, and the answer is no.”

Helix frowned slightly. “How come?”

“The field isn’t perfect. It takes about ninety-five percent of the force, the rest is taken by the glass underneath.”

“So we could still break a glass pane and get flooded?” I just nodded. “So how come the explosion didn’t blow the glass out?”

“The field also works in reverse, well kind of. The explosion would have pushed on the glass, which would have pushed on the water which would then push on the water on the other side of the field which would have been pushing back. And the glass survived the brief vacuum inside the tube, which was caused by the explosion burning away all the oxygen because of the enchantments upon it...” I glanced down again at Helix and was surprised to see her grinning. “What?”

“Its just after all that talk about forces and stress and energy fields, part of it is still solved with good old unicorn magic.” She leant up and kissed my horn.

I immediately felt myself go weak. My knees felt soft, my telekinetic grip faltered and the tea dropped into my lap. Note to self: don’t drop nearly boiling water near or on your reproductive parts cos, like you would expect, it really, bloody hurts.

“Yeaowh!” I spasmed away as the scaling water splashed all over my legs. I sent the cup flying as I tried in vain to rub the hot liquid off my body, all the time going, “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow...”

“Fran!.” Helix leapt up and began to pat down the areas of my hide where I had spilled boiling tea with a damp cloth; she must have whizzed from the kitchen in a second. “I am so sorry. Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

“Its almost boiling water, what do you think.” I said half laughing, half through gritted teeth as I held back tears. That really really hurt!

“I am so sorry, I didn’t know that was going to have such an effect on you.”

“Yeah, there’s a reason we don’t usually touch each others horns.” I took the cloth and held it against a spot on my inner leg that had got hit the worst, the coolness briefly relieving the hazing, hot pain that was beginning to grow. “Do you have a first aid kit?” I hissed through my teeth.

“No, I don’t think so...” Helix magically dunked the cloth in the sink again and then held it to my leg. “Oh, I am so sorry.”

“Its fine. Nothing a little Med-X can’t fix or a swig from a healing potion.”

“Do you want to go to medical?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Ice water and a towel will do for now until your mum gets back. Her magic will do the trick.” I gasped as I felt the hot sensation beginning to override the coolness of the cloth. “Ice. Get ice.”

Nodding, Helix passed me the cloth, got up and went to the sink, lifting out a bowl from a cupboard. After filling it half full of ice from the freezer she went to the sink and turned on the tap.

“That’s odd?”

“What is?” I asked.

“There is no water coming out?”

I couldn’t remember that ever happening before. “Try the other one,” I suggested.

“Nothing. Hang on I’ll go and try in the bathroom.” Helix disappeared into the next room.

I jumped slightly at a knock on the door. “Come in,” I called, unlocking the door with my magic.

The Overmare entered followed by a member of the medical staff that I recognised as working with my mother. They both looked at me lying on the sofa holding the towel to my burnt leg and stomach. The medical mare instantly came over and pointed her horn at my scalded coat. Her horn glowed and I could physically feel the cells in my body rapidly regenerate. Within seconds there was no indication that I had injured myself at all.

“Thank you…” I said, rather surprised.

“You’re welcome,” the other mare replied sadly. Why did she sound upset? I glanced back to the Overmare and she, too, looked shaken.

“None of those work...” Helix came back into the room with the bowl still full of ice. She stopped dead at the sight of the Overmare. “What’s going on?”

“Take a seat Helix,” the Overmare said in a voice of forced calm. Helix settled herself down next to me looking very anxious. The Overmare took a deep breath “I’m guessing you both know about the explosion that happened earlier?” We both nodded. “Well I’m afraid that it had some unforeseen side effects.”

~ ~ ~

I didn’t like waltz’s.

Ping... step, step.

Something about the music sounded slightly drunk-

Ping... step, step.

-and how the dancers never were.

Ping... step, step.

And who invented three-four?

Ping... step, step.

I ought to give them a right good buck.

My assent to the surface had turned into some kind of ridiculous dance, all in the name of trying to keep myself moving. I had gone through so many stupid walking patterns that by the time I figured out what fit I doubt it really mattered any more. What I had ended up with was just plain stupid, but it had been the only one I could think of that matched the EVA suit’s slightly delayed walking style.

The only other consolation was that I could swear that I could see out of the water above me. The cliff edge had been rising slowly and steadily, presumably moulded by the flowing water which I was still pushing slightly against. My PipBuck said that I was one hundred feet down after twenty minutes, so I was half for half, but needed to pick up the pace. I didn’t want to run out of air just metres from the surface.

Ping... step, step.

Ping... step, step.

Ping... step, Ping...

I immediately scanned my EFS and spotted the singular large signature heading straight for me. Damn that thing had closed in fast. I spun, reaching for the harpoon on instinct before realizing that I had lost the damn thing. ‘And you fired it to’ my inner pony added. So I did the one thing I could. I turned and ran. I ran as fast as I could.

Ping... Ping...

My inner pony decided it would be fun to count off the distance as the thing closed.

Ping Ping...

'Thirty meters.'

Pin-Ping...

'Twenty meters.'

Pi-Ping...

I wasn't going to make it... not by a long shot. If this was how it was all going to end than I was at least going to put up a fight. Skidding to a halt I faced my foe. With no real weapons I used the only thing left at my disposal. The glow from my horn filled the area around me with light.

P-Pin...

The thing came bursting into view out of the darkness. Another mass of black, but this time it was glinted with white and much, much bigger. I fired my spark spell. The black, glittering monster deftly spiraled away from my bubbling jet but it got caught in the backwash of the spell and let out an almighty screech that I could feel resonate through the water.

I followed its movements with my EFS as it circled. It charged; I fired. The same thing happened again. It dodged left with a flick of its fins, but not fast enough. It let out another pained screech as the bubbles scorched its scales.

I watched the dot pan round my EFS and then swing in for a third time. I waited and this time fired slightly to the left, into the area that it had dodged in its last two attacks. It worked! The creature swam directly into my spark spell. Its head warped with the impact and it released an ear splitting wail. Glistening hide had peeled away to reveal a blistered and twisted under skin.

Then I realised it wasn’t the spell doing the damage, but the stream of superheated water that it left in its wake. The scales were designed to stop fangs and claws, not eight hundred degree gauts of water and steam.

The monster contorted in pain, twisting broadside. In the dim light from my horn I finally saw its glistening profile. Five metres long, but only half a metre high in the main body, it was more like an underwater snake than a fish. It had trio’s of fins positioned along its length tapering down to a singular deadly looking spike on its tail. A mouth split into three, with rows of razor sharp white fangs lining the inside. Its entire body was covered in black, shiny scales, almost like slivers of overlapping obsidian.

The creature unleashed a sudden burst of speed and opened its maw. I fired off a single shot of boiling water in an attempt to fend it off. The jet went straight down the creatures mouth, but didn’t stop it from slamming into me and grabbing hold of my helmet in its fully extended jaws.

I fired repeatedly into the monsters maw as it swam in all manner of directions, squealing and grunting with every gout of steam that expanded down its throat.

A light flashed up on the inside of my helmet. A light that I had never seen illuminated before but I knew from my training it was bad. The overload indicator. The monster’s bite must have been grabbing hold of part of the repulsion field and the suit was compensating for the increased pressure by pumping more energy into that sector. It was too much. The deconstruction talisman was under too much strain. Any moment now it was going to give out and then it would be a fight between the lack of air, the crushing water pressure and the monster’s jaws over which would kill me first.

I felt myself and the creature slam into the ground. We tumbled and rolled in dirt, kicking up pebbles and rocks. The deconstruction talisman failed. I saw another fracture lance across the my visor. The monsters teeth sunk into my chest. I let out an involuntary bolt of magic. The monster released me but the teeth that had punctured my chest remained. I caught a glimpse of sky, a flash of glistening black and then white.

~ ~ ~

I cried. I cried until all my tears were spent, until my chest hurt, until my eyes were raw. Even then, I couldn’t hold back the tidal wave of grief.

I couldn’t.

All I could see in my mind was the face of my mother as the last breath of air left her lungs and water flooded in. The fear in her eyes as her body gasped for air that wasn’t there. And then the fading light in her eyes as life fled from her body.

It was the gas. The stupid gas. And the stupid repulsion field and the freshwater pipes. The whole thing was stupid. But my mind couldn’t come up with a better way of doing it.

The Overmare and the medical pony that had tried to revive my mother had left hours ago and now it was just Helix, Adenine, and I. Adenine was cooking dinner, now that the stupid water had been turned back on, and I lay on the sofa with my head in Helix’s lap.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to start coming to terms with what had just happened. I didn’t think Helix knew how either. Her mother was just metres away, healthy and alive, but so easily it could have been Adenine that had died, and I could just see, in that way that Helix was staring into space, that’s what was rushing through her mind.

And then it came floating back to me. ‘See you tonight love.’

And I had said nothing in reply. I’d just let her hug me while I thought about what amazing breakfast I was going to conjure up in her absence. I felt the touch of her hooves and her embrace as she held me and loathed my inattentiveness for not savouring every nanosecond of her touch.

The flood of tears returned and suddenly I was on my hooves kicking the ground as hard as I could to vent my anger at my own body. It wasn’t enough. I turned and slammed my forehooves down on the coffee table in front of me. They went clean through, the reconstituted plastic fracturing easily under the shock loading. I beat it again and again until it was in more than a dozen pieces littered all over the floor.

I stood there panting. Silent tears streaming down my face before I slowly fell to my knees amidst the shattered fragments. How could I have been so insensitive to my own mother. I hated myself, I really did and I didn’t know if I could ever forgive myself.

“Fran?” A frightened voice asked. I looked round at Helix, her hoof on my shoulder. She glanced at the remains of the coffee table.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, with practiced ease I began to reassembled all the pieces. A few smaller fragments had pinged across the room or had gone missing under the furniture, but within ten minutes I had ninety percent of the table back together. At least I was good at something.

I looked up at the sound of the door opening. Tungsten slid quietly into the room but stopped at the sight of Helix and I. He looked apprehensively from me to Helix and then to his mother as if asking if he was allowed in. Helix patted the seat next to her and Tungsten took the hint, taking a seat next to his sister.

I glanced up at Tungsten from my position on the floor. He smiled back trying his best to look reassuring and comforting. That in itself was a little lift, but it didn’t change my mood. He glanced around at the little pieces of plastic littering the floor. “What happened?’ he asked casually.

I was about to respond when thankfully Adenine spoke up. “Dinner is ready. Tun, do you want some?”

“Sure mum.” he replied, not taking his eyes off me.

Adenine brought over three bowls of mushroom soup and laid them carefully on the newly repaired table. With a flick of her magic she pulled out three soup cups, salt, ground seaweed and laid it on the table before us. I retook my seat next to Helix and took a bowl in my hooves.

“Make sure you don’t drop that like earlier.” Helix smiled slightly at me.

“That was all your fault remember.” I returned the smile but I didn’t feel it inside.

I levitated the soup cup, filled it and lifted it to my lips. It smelled delicious. Hints of various herbs blended perfectly with the nutty twang of the mushrooms and all of this was being gently floated to my nose by the rising steam. I took a slight sip and felt the warming broth slide down my throat. For an instant I was gripped by a sudden fear that it was going to flood my lungs and I would drown in a room full of air.

“Are you alright?” Adenine intoned. “Not enough salt?”

“No, it’s perfect.” I assured her taking another sip. “It’s perfect.”

~ ~ ~

I drowned. I must have. The huge black monster. It’s white fangs digging into my side. The moment the deconstruction talisman failed. The flash of white.

I opened my eyes.

Stones greeted my vision. No, pebbles. Rounded, smooth, and numerous different muted shades of blue, green and grey. Two cracks ran across the visor of my helmet and taste the orange twang of Rad-away. One of the small valves had come off and the entire contents of the bag had been squeezed into my helmet. I slurped it up; no point in wasting it.

I considered rolling over and eventually came to the conclusion that it couldn’t get much worse. I was so wrong.

The moment I moved I felt the presence of the two fangs digging deep into my chest. I collapsed back onto the shale groaning in pain. I didn’t want to move again, but I knew I had to. Clearly no one was around and no one was coming to help me. I forced myself to sit up so I could see the damage, gasping for breath.

Both perfectly white teeth were buried a good four to five inches into my side. One parted my lowest pair of ribs, while the other stuck into the side of my gut. Both were excruciatingly painful and yet somehow I didn’t seem to care that much. There was a slight smattering of blood on the pebbles were I had lain unconscious, far less than I would have expected. EVA suit’s rubber seemed to be keeping them, stopping me from bleeding to death, however they would have to come out if I was going to get healed.

I brought up my magic and opened up a pouch on my hind leg to pull out the one healing potion I had. But it wasn’t there. I felt down with my hoof and let out a cry of frustration. The glass vial that contained the potion had been shattered in the struggle with the black monster. All that was left was a collection of glass fragments.I panicked for a moment, feeling for the vials of algae. A wave of relief washed over me when I found all three still intact.

Looking around through the fog, trying to see where I was and found myself jumping, then cursing at the resulting stab of pain. Through my watery eyes I saw the black monster, beached on the shale just a few metres away. Blood seeped between the joints in its scales where I had scalded it on the outside, dripping down onto the pebbles. I could see where I had fired shot after shot of boiling liquid into its mouth. The flesh inside its mouth had scrunched up and tuned a horrible sick red colour, leaking a sick yellow pus from the wound.

I began to slowly drag myself away from it; I didn’t want to survive one attack to be done over by another. But had I survived? If I couldn’t heal myself in time I would probably catch an infection or bleed to death internally. No this battle for survival was very much still on.

“Come on Fran. Think! What do you need? What do you have?” I looked around again. “I have nothing that can improve my condition as it stands. No healing potions. I have Rad-away but my rad levels are in the green.” I sat and thought for a moment. “What I need is to get help. By getting myself to it... or bringing it to me. A fire? No, that could bring the wrong kind of attention. What else? Can’t think of anything else.”

I flopped onto my back and lifted up my left hoof to look at my PipBuck. “Where are you in comparison to High-Voltage?” I raised my eyes in surprise. “Wow. Only one and a half miles from the hut.” I looked in the direction of the city and could just make out the two vast towers through the haze. “Right you have a destination. Now you just need to get there.”

The only option I had was to drag myself on my back, using both my fore hooves to pull and my right leg to push. I tried to move my left leg but the pain was excruciating. I suspected that I had broken my leg, possibly in several places. I couldn’t lean forward to apply a splint and I could never risk using my magic as the pain might cause it to judder or jerk and screw it up even more.

No. I was just going to have to drag my badly injured body all the way to High-Voltage.

“Well,” I gritted my teeth, “here goes nothing.”

~ ~ ~

Every event in my life become tortuous. From pulling my limp body out of bed in the morning, to when I slipped asleep on the sofa with my aching head resting on someponies shoulder at night. Helix usually stayed, but sometimes Tungsten would care for me. Daily life around others in the stable was far less soothing. One long perpetual river of pity, flowing in one ear and straight out the other. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the gestures of sympathy and solidarity I received, I just didn’t care. I had too much else to fight through without accepting other ponies sadness as well.

My mother’s funeral had come and gone; the customary ceremonial incineration then scattering of ashes throughout the four sections of the orchard. I had been offered the privilege of being the first to scatter but knew the moment they handed me the ornate titanium urn I would break down in tears. I had let Adenine take my place, it seemed only right as she had been as close to Lithium as I was to Helix; I probably owed my close friendship with Helix to my mother. I wondered for a moment how Adenine felt at this moment having lost her best friend.

I was stirred from my stupor with with a change in the light around me. “Fran?” I looked round and was surprised to see Tungsten. I’d been so lost in my thoughts that he’d had to stand next to me before I had even registered he was there.

Tungsten set a saddle bag down beside me. “May I?” He gestured to the ground. I gave the tiniest nod and then turned back to staring into space.

Tungsten adopted the same position as me; leaning against the warm metal wall of the orchard, hind legs flopped out before him, fore legs falling naturally across his chest. I tilted my head back and let it knock against the metal wall with a slight bump, looking up at the ceiling and the banks of artificial sunlight bulbs set into the roof. Tungsten copied me, just without the bump.

“Fran. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way but you need to look after yourself.”

“How so?” I mumbled back without moving a muscle.

“Helix said that she and mum have been having trouble getting you to eat anything, or even drink.”

“So?”

“So, it’s not good. We know you’re in a lot of pain and you just want to think and be alone, but you need to take care of your own body or you’ll end up in even more pain.”

Was he pleading with me? “And?”

“And we don’t want to see you get hurt even more. I don’t want you to hurt any more.”

I considered for a moment “I can’t hurt any more than I do now.”

“Perhaps you can’t, but those around you can.”

“Like who?”

“Helix for a start. She came home from school today, tears streaming down her face. All because she’s frightened that she’ll lose you. Your pain is spreading and hurting those around you and if you don’t stop you may lose them as well.”

I turned and looked Tungsten right in the eye. “I don’t care,” I said as coldly as I could.

“Really?”

“I told you I don’t care about anypony.” I hissed back viciously.

“Then why are you crying?”

I lifted my hoof and felt the wetness on my cheeks. A single drop ran down and curled under my lip and onto my tongue. The slightly salty taste cut through my blended pallet. Before I knew it I was on top of Tungsten, hooves wrapped tight around him crying like I had never cried before. Then I whispered the only thing that made it through my scrambled and bruised mind.

“Help... me. Please.”

Tungsten held me, his hooves slowly wrapped around me, squeezing gently. If he was surprised at my breakdown he concealed it well. I pressed my muzzle into his rich silvery coat. It was much more coarse and dense than his sister’s, even slightly rough, but I didn’t care in the slightest. He let me hug and cry all I could, gently rocking me in his embrace, until I couldn’t hold on any longer. All my energy gone I rolled off him and collapsed onto the grass, enjoying the coolness against my back. Tungsten pulled himself up, opening his saddlebag. He pulled out a flask and a soup bowl and set it on the grass next to me.

“Mum said that you really enjoyed her mushroom soup so she whipped up another batch.” With care, Tungsten poured out a small amount of soup into the bowl and then helped me up. He set me back against the wall of the orchard and passed me the bowl. I reached out with my magic but found that I couldn’t lift the bowl. I tried again but my horn just wouldn’t work.

“She suspected as much. You’ve become too weak and dehydrated to be able to formulate your magic properly. Here.” He held it out for me and I took it in my hooves. I could smell the rich blend of aromas and suddenly found myself drinking it down as fast as I could. It was a good thing it had cooled, else I’d have scalded myself, again.

Tungsten poured me another bowl and waited until I had finished a second serving before talking again. “This will probably seem a strange question, but what do you feel you need help with?” I looked at him, confused. “Well, why haven’t you been drinking or eating properly?”

“I don’t know. Well, I kind of do but it seems silly.” He just waited patiently for me. “I don’t want to notice that she is gone so I kind of stopped doing everything that made me think of her.”

“And that included eating and drinking?”

“Eating, drinking, waking, walking, sleeping, resting, reading. Everything. So I just came down here and did... nothing.”

“I can’t say I completely understand, but I can see why. It seems... logical.”

“Why is that important?”

Tungsten opened his mouth and then shut it again. Wait, was he blushing.

“Why?” I persisted.

“Because it’s just like you. You’re logical Francium. In everything you do. You think things through and take the sensible and reasoned approach. In this case, pain came from association. Take away the association and you can take away some of the pain.” He gave me a warm rich, even radiant smile. Like he was proud of me.

“But it didn’t work. By doing nothing I had nothing to distract me. And not only that; I caused other people pain, too.” I shyed away only to feel his hoof touch my chin.

I let him guide me back up and I took his gaze. His metallic blue-grey irises caught me and I before I knew it I was kissing him.

It lasted only for a moment. When we broke apart Tungsten was looking at me in shock. He had clearly not seen it coming. In all honesty neither had I, but I wasn’t sorry that I’d done it.

“Fran, I...” He began, but he didn’t seem to know what to say. He thought for a moment more before taking my gaze again, but this time he looked serious. “Fran, its not that I’m not flattered but I just want you to think. I know you are looking for someone to be close to--I would if I had lost my mother--but just be sure that its what you really want and not an act of desperation.” He flushed deeply. “Please don’t take that the wrong way.” He added after a moment.

I nodded slowly. “No, you‘re right... I... I need to think... think everything through. Alone,” I added.

Tungsten nodded back just as slowly. He began to pack his things back up, fumbling slightly. I was going to let him just walk off but I needed to say something.

“Tungsten? he turned. “Thank you for the soup.” he smiled weakly. “And thank you for being logical and rational.” Now that was the smile I liked; the warm radiant one.

Tungsten left me sitting in the orchard, lying on the soft green grass, watching the leaves wave in the downdraft from the SRS and feeling something I hadn’t felt in weeks. Happy

~ ~ ~

There was something terribly monotonous about the way I forced myself across the damp earth, leaving a shallow trail in the mud where my injured leg dangled limply. It was just a case of repeating the same moves over and over and over, every time forcing myself another leg length closer to High-Voltage.

I had managed to halve the distance to the small hut, for all the good it did. I could feel my body tiring rapidly as the light beginning to fade. Before, I’d been running on the remaining adrenaline boost from the monster attack and the motivation of knowing what I needed to do; now, I was running on nothing but willpower. The temptation to just flop down and sleep was so strong, if only my inner pony would let me lay. I was also convinced that I was suffering from severe dehydration, or maybe poison from the black creatures fangs because I was having a very convincing argument... With myself.

“Well, you’ve really done it this time haven’t you, Fran?” I snapped.

“What do you mean, this time?” I thought back.

“You know what you mean. All of this is your fault.” I shoved myself along the floor.

I snorted “Oh please. How is this my fault? I got attacked by a giant multi-jawed black monster!”

“Well, you know how to sidestep a question.” I said darkly

“I chose to help them. Me. High-Voltage. One thousand ponies. Without me they would not stand a chance.” I shouted at myself.

“Again, you’re missing your point.” I replied flatly.

“Ok, so I have two agendas. Help High-Voltage so we can track the signal from the PipBuck.” I admitted.

“Still no.”

I threw up my hooves in dismay and ended up flat on my back. “The tube! There was nothing we could have done. Besides, haven’t we had that argument before?”

“Yes we have, but no, not the tube.”

“Well, then I don’t know. Just tell me.” I snapped back, dragging myself up.

“Well, it all has something to do with you trying to play the hero.” Why did I say ‘Hero’ like it was a bad thing.

“I’m not trying to play the hero here. I’m trying to help. I’m trying to make sure that ponies don’t die.”

“Why are you trying?” I questioned. “No one asked Miss Francium to help. No one said she should. No one wants her to help.”

“That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t”

“No, I’m not saying don’t, I’m just trying to get you to examine why you’re doing this. Look at where it’s landed you? Helping one thousand ponies could well get you killed and at the bare minimum might send you completely fucking loopy! Come on, you’re having an argument with yourself for Celestia’s sake.”

“I can resolve the argument between my ego and superego when I am dead,” I retorted. “I can sit them round a table along with my Id and the four of us can play a few games of poker; really get to the bottom of our personal issues.”

“So which of those am I?” I asked.

“How am I supposed to know. I’m doped up on some kind of venom, seriously dehydrated, and slowly bleeding to death.” I thought back furiously. “You could be an egg in my ovaries that is really cross about probably never getting the chance to become a pony because I prefer mares, for all I know. Or perhaps the pain in my lower left rib incarnate, come to add verbal abuse to the crushing physical pain.”

“No really... who do you think I am?” I asked.

I stopped. My voice barely above a whisper, I asked, "Who am I?"

“Who am I?” I asked again a little louder.

“Who am I?” I repeated louder still.

Then I realised. I didn’t know.

Here I was, half dead, dragging myself across the muddy banks at the shore of the lake that I had once called home, trying to get back so that I could save one pony in one thousand, all so that I could have even a slim chance of being able to save what remained of my former life.

I had lost all grounding on who and what I stood for. In the stable it had been easy. You had a position, expectations and rules to follow. You never bothered breaking the rules, there was no real gain to be had. You did as you were supposed to and got to do what you liked in your free time.

But now there was no pattern, no tangible position of leadership, no logical progression of life... or death.

And with no rules there was no way of knowing how to... well the only phrase that seemed to fit was ‘how to play the game’. You would do something expecting somepony else to reciprocate in a certain way, to the rules you played by, but it wouldn’t come back as you expected as that other pony would play by a different set of rules. So how could you possibly win?

I collapsed, looking up at the darkening sky and the omnipresent clouds. I didn’t know how to live anymore, what my position was, what was expected of me, what the rules were.

A voice came from the back of my mind. It was one I rarely heard but I knew exactly what it was. “You know what that means don’t you Francium.”

“What?” I gasped through the lump in my throat.

“You need to choose how to live. You need to make your position.” the voice whispered slyly.

“And?” I asked. But I knew what was coming.

“Make everypony else play by your rules.”

* * *

I didn’t remember quite how I made it back; It all seemed to just blur together, just dragging myself across the dirt. But what will forever stand out in my mind was the sight of Helix looking over me.

“Move aside!” Some pony ordered. I think it was Clear Shot, but I couldn’t be sure. “Get a stretcher and somepony wake Stitches. Now!”

My vision swam in and out of focus but I could make out Helix’s beautiful soft purple coat; nothing else shone quite like that.

“Helix.” I groaned.

“Don’t talk.” She replied sternly.

There was a clatter as some pony arrived with a stretcher. I felt them slide it up to me and herd them counting as they prepared to move me.

“No... pockets. Algae.” I felt some pony pat me down and felt the vials slip from my pockets. “Enough?” I asked.

I felt a hoof run through my mane with the touch only a lover would use. “Plenty.”

And that was all I needed to hear. I felt like I was back in Stable Seventeen after a hard days work. Letting that thought fill my mind; the sensation of collapsing onto my bed, fully clothed and filthy, I set aside the rough motion of the stretcher, the calls and shouts for help and quickly drifted off to sleep.


Footnote: Level Up!
Quest Perk: I will survive!
After surviving another near death experience you seem to be working out how best not to get yourself killed.
20% Damage Reduction when in combat and HP is below 50%.

Act 1 - Chapter 7: Helix

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Chapter 7: Helix
“How long do I need to lie here? I’ve got things I need to do.”

“The doctor said we could only wait and see what happens.” I sat down on the grubby mattress, taking care not to let my purple tail rub against it. I curled it in, clutching it in my forehooves. “For three days they threw everything they had at her. How can she still be under?”

“They’re nowhere near as well equipt as the stable was but what can you expect out here.” Smoking began to work his way through the cupboards and containers in the small room we had graciously been given by the mayor.

“What about Ripsaw?” Foxglove stood timidly by the window, glancing down through the grimy panes at the town below.

“The doctor says she will be fine in a few days.” I carefully leant back and lay down on the double bed. It was strange to have so much space to lie on. I rolled onto my side with a deep breath, filling my nose with a heavy must from the bedding and a hint of herbs from a bowl on the bed side table.

There was a knock at the door and Seafire popped her head in. “Tungsten has found the guys room, its round the other side of the tower. It’s quite a bit smaller but it seems to be cleaner than this one.”

“I will leave you ladies too it.” Smoking placed his finds on the end table; mainly bottles of alcohol with a few pre-war snacks, and closed the door behind him with a soft click.

I couldn’t contain it any longer. It came slowly at first, just a hint of desperation with long rasping breaths, but it wasn’t long before I was weeping uncontrollably into the pillow, held tight in my hooves.

Seafire knelt down next to me on the floor and cradled my head in her hooves. “It’s ok Helix. Let it out.” She whispered in her soft voice. So I did.

* * *

It was so nice to be back in a warm bed. A smile spread over my face as I stretched and sighed contently. I rolled over and wrapped my hooved around the other warm body in my bed. Francium stirred gently.

“Morning beautiful.” I whispered in her ear. I blew gently and she squirmed slightly in my grasp.

“What are you doing?” She replied, sounding confused.

I slipped a hoof round her middle and began sliding it down. “What does it feel like I am doing.”

“Helix stop it.”

“Aww but why? We haven’t been able to relax like this in weeks.”

“Helix. Stop!”

My eyes opened to a shock of orange mane. I squealed in shock, scrambling back until I fell out of the bed to land hard in a tangle of sheets.

Seafire peered down at me in shock from where I had been groping her only moments before. Foxglove was curled up on the sofa looking at me, eyes wide in confusion. I pulled myself to my hooves as fast as I could. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say.

“What... what were you doing?” Seafire asked.

“I... I... Well. You know full well what I was doing.” I spluttered. “I just... Um.”

“Thought I was Fran?” Seafire raised an eyebrow.

I gulped air for a moment. “Well... Yes. I did.”

“And you didn’t think to check first?”

“Well...” I stammered. “I’ve never been in a bed with anyone else before. I just did what I normally do.”

“What you normally do?” To my surprise Seafire actually grinned slightly. “Well, I think it’s fortunate that you didn’t do something abnormal. But saying that... Don’t do that again.”

“Okay.” I squeaked, my voice barely audible.

After a rather nervous pause we all relaxed. “So. What time is it?” Seafire said pulling the covers back onto the bed before slipping into the bathroom.

“Just gone 8am.” I said checking my PipBuck. “Bee said their would be food waiting for us in the mess hall.”

“It feels wrong just accepting their food.” Foxglove mumbled as she reset the cushions on the sofa.

“I wouldn’t complain.” I replied dryly. “I am not a fan either but it would be more trouble than its worth to say no.”

“Its not just the food, its the rooms and water too. All because we just happened to be with Fran.”

“The clean water isn’t a big deal like it was at Viewpoint. The station had a filter to clean the water going into the coolant tanks.” Seafire called, accompanied by the gentle splashing of water.. “They just re-routed it to the water supply rather than the reactor.”

“But still...” Foxglove muttered.

“Its okay Foxglove. We’ll work something out.” I reassured her.

I stood up to browse a shelf of books on the wall while I waited for Seafire to finish prettifying herself. It was a odd mix of Fiction, non-fiction, tome like volumes and colour rinsed childs books. I pulled out one out at random: Boutique Best of the Best: The Royal Collection

“The best dresses, gowns, evening attire and nightwear from all over Equestria, fit for the Princesses themselves.” I read aloud. I opened the book intrigued but was immediately disappointed to find most of the pages to be faded beyond recognition. The few I could make out did thrill me slightly, even from the little I could see. I could see myself standing atop a gleaming flight of white marble stairs and descending with Fran at my side to the awe of the assembled crowd. Tight fitting White dress with cobalt blue diamonds and lined with ultramarine silk or a flowing green ensemble, with real flowers, petals adorning...

“Done.” Seafire opened the door looking her usual gleaming self. “All yours.”

I grabbed at my fantasy but to no avail. I slipped inside and closed the door with a sigh, making sure Seafire didn’t see the disgruntled look I gave her.

The bathroom was like the rest of the room; battered with ingrained dirt, but all the major surfaces had been well cleaned. The mirror had a hairline crack running diagonally across it but that was all. There were traces of a carpet but that had been ripped up to expose the wooden underfloor which had been stained in an attempt to make it look less worn and thin.

I turned on the taps with my magic, letting the water run until it was warm before putting in the plug. When the basin was full I plunged a threadbare flannel into the water and rubbed it over my face. The warm water felt so refreshing on my dry skin. I looked up through my wet fringe and into the mirror. A worn out mare looked back, her muzzle drawn and her eyes drooping.

“Why do I even try.” I muttered to myself, wiping my face down again. “I had to wash my mane and tail twice, scrub my coat until it actually hurt, have weekly clay masks and spend forever cleaning my face and muzzle and I still never looked as good as Seafire did.”

I threw the flannel back in the basin with a splash, slopping water onto the floor. “She spends five minutes in here,” I looked around angrily at the battered room, “And she comes out looking prettier than the royal sisters backsides!”

I stopped and sighed. “No, I take that back. You were the best of us,” I looked up at the ceiling. “I can’t take your name, or your image, in vain.” I raised a hoof above my head silently, passing my words up to the princesses.

“And its not like she is doing it deliberately.” I said to myself firmly. “Its just how we were born... or made, that machine made a mistake with my genes.” I sighed again then giggled as I realised where I was and what I was doing. I rolled my eyes with a slight smile; I had bigger things to worry about. “I’m still me I guess, and that is why Fran still loves me.”

My stomach suddenly filled with dread. “If she survives.”

“Helix? You ok?” Seafire’s voice called me back to the present.

“Yeah.” I quickly patted my muzzle dry. “Out in a moment.”

I took one final look in the mirror with a sigh, before gripping the door handle with my magic. “Just another day.” I said to myself before swinging the door open.

“What took you so long?” Seafire was waiting on the bed.

“Some of us have to work harder to look presentable.” I smiled back. “Though, do I look presentable?”

“You look like you do everytime I see you with Francium.” Seafire replied. “If she loves you like that, then its good enough for everyone else too.” Well, that was an odd answer.

I just smiled back. “Are you ready Foxglove?” I looked at the young mare with concern.

“Yeah.” She muttered. “I’m hungry.”

“Good cos breakfast is served.”

* * *

This was something I wasn’t going to get used to. I lined up with Foxglove and Seafire in the que leading up to the serving counter in the mess hall, and all I could smell was meat. Radigator, different types of fish, Terrorhawk, some odd looking miniature crustaceans. There were almost no vegetables or fruit in sight. There was some rather sickly looking fried hay and some dandelion salad but that was about it.

“Looks like they have swapped quality for quantity.” Some massive buck was complaining in front of me to his companions. “Gets worse every time.”

“Oh what I’d give for real cactus stew.” Another seemed to drool at the thought.

“Well you can forget that. Appleloosa is going to the fucking dogs, literally.” The other replied. “I heard some diamond dog is trying to muscle his way into the top spot. Thinks he can buy his way in with slave’s and weapons.”

“He’s got no chance. Madame will fry his ass.”

I turned my head, I couldn’t be dealing with this sort of rubbish at the moment.

“What you going to try?” Seafire asked. “I might have a go at stomaching the crustaceans. At least they look like something that we might have had in Seventeen.”

I peered round the buck again. “I think I will try to stomach the fish. Its the only thing that looks like we should be eating it.”

“I’m just going to stick with the hay.” Foxglove muttered.

“Don’t worry. We’ll go shopping. Find some stuff that’s closer to home.” I smiled at her. “Cheer up. It could be worse.”

“Next.” I moved up as the mare finished serving the two massive bucks. “Choose 2 items, no more. Twelves caps.” She eyed me though her wall of jet black mane. “Well, come on.”

“Ummm, I’ll have some of that white fish, and some of those crab things.” I paused, thinking how to phrase the next bit. “But B told us we wouldn’t have to pay.”

The mare stopped mid-slop. A few crabs dropped onto my plate, splashing the sauce on my coat. “Did he now? And what would earn you that treatment.”

“No, its fine. Forget it…” I started to turn away until I felt a firm hoof on my shoulder.

“Because you wouldn’t be here without her. Nor would most of the ponies in this room.” Seafire scowled. She steered me gently back round to face the mare. “She assisted Stitches in creating the cure for the Pony Pox. If that doesn’t get you gratitude then I don’t know what would.’

The mare suddenly looked upset. “Sorry. I didn’t realise. Ummm, what are your names?”

“I’m Helix. That’s Seafire and she is Foxglove.” I gestured.

The mare flicked through a notepad she pulled from the front of her apron. “You’re on the list. Three Items, no charge.” She looked up expectantly. “Well?”

“Same but with hay please.” I kicked myself for taking more of their food but it would be more effort than it was worth to argue.

“There you go.” She passed me the plate with a smile. “And, thank you for what you did.”

I just smiled back as best I could, nodding slowly.

As Foxglove and Seafire took their plates I looked round for a place to sit. The hall was beginning to fill up rapidly as ponies came down after a nights sleep and ended the various night shifts there seemed to be round the city. I didn’t want to be in anypony’s way so I headed off towards a table at the back of the hall.

The white fish turned out to be rather pleasant with a smooth buttery taste; well what passed for butter back in Stable Seventeen. The crustaceans were overcooked making them rubbery, but still palatable. The hay on the other hoof was very bland. I almost wished I had ordered more fish but I couldn’t complain about free food.

“That was far better than I was expecting.” Seafire stretched out happily, a content smile on her face. “That was good.”

Foxglove made an agreeable sound. “Shame about the hay though. Really bland.”

“Excuse me?” I looked up from poking my remaining hay and stopped.

A middle age unicorn mare was waiting patiently at the foot of our table. In her magical grasp was a bowl of what looked like rice topped with a collection of small deep blue berry’s. But I was entirely focused on her bright pink hair. It was so vibrant and rich that only magic could have made it look like that.

Seafire regained her composure first. “Yes?”

“Are you the group from the stable?” she asked cautiously.

“I guess so. I don’t know of anyone else it could be,” Seafire responded.

“Oh good.” The mare seemed to relax and smiled widely at us. It was an odd look when coupled with the hair. “This is for you.” She placed the bowl on the table before us. “To say thank you.” And without another word she was off.

“What is it with ponies.” I stared dejectedly at the desert.

“We did save most of the ponies in this room.” Seafire signed as she watched her go. “Well best not let it go to waste.”

Seafire grabbed her spoon and delicately lifted a portion up to her mouth. She paused looking at me as if to ask ‘Should I?’. I just shrugged. I had no idea what to make of my life as it currently stood.

Seafire put it in her mouth and started to chew.

“Stop! Don’t bite down!” Foxglove shrieked. Seafire stopped dead.

Foxglove was breathing fast. “Spit it out! Carefully. Right now!” She looked terrified.

Seafire did as she was told and dropped the food onto her plate.

“Wash your mouth out.” Foxglove shoved a glass of water over.

“Foxglove what is it?” I asked nervously as seafire spat the water back into the cup.

“I don’t think those are berries...” She said slowly. “Helix, can you use your magic to open one up. Slowly.”

I cautiously picked a berry up in my magic and with a pinch popped the deep blue case. We all leaned in slowly as I peeled back the thin layer of skin.

“That is definitely not a berry.” Seafire whispered in a worried tone.

“It’s Cazadorum.” Foxglove muttered. “I can’t believe it... its Celestia damned Cazador.” I twinged involuntarily.

“What’s a Cazadorum?” I whispered back.

“Not a, just Cazadorum.” Foxglove corrected. “It’s the eggs of the Cazador insect.”

“They look like those Bloatsprite things they were serving at Tabitha’s. Just much smaller?”

“Yes. Well they are a related species, Bloatsprite and Cazador. But this looks like it has mutated in the same way Parasprites became Bloatsprites .” Foxglove finished peeling back the skin on the egg with her hooves.

“Why was she feeding us Cazador eggs?” Seafire asked darkly.

Foxglove faltered “I don’t think I want to know. I could just be an honest mistake or...”

“Or?” I prompted.

“Or she could have been trying to kill us.” We all looked at each other.

“How?” I asked.

“Its something my mother drummed into all of us from a young age, incase it happened in the stable. Lots of insects like to settle in liquid. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be a river, the sea, wine, anything that carries nutrients. There were even reports of some insects settling and growing in the stomachs of cattle and other animals.”

“What happens when they hatch?” I asked, but I knew where this was going.

“Well, quite a lot just fly out. Its unpleasant but it won’t do you much harm. Cazador are different though. They move off and begin to eat the nearest source of food. In the case of it growing inside something, they just eat their way out.”

I gulped.

“But it gets worse,” Foxglove pressed on. “With so much food and nutrients inside an animal, the newly born Cazador would undergo rapid multiplication meaning its numbers would grow exponentially. Within thirty minutes of the first one hatching you could easily have over one hundred insects inside you.”

Seafire looked horrified. “And then you would be eaten alive from the inside out...” Foxglove just nodded.

We sat in stunned silence for quite a long time. We only moved when somepony whisked away our plates and we were ushered out of the hall. We clustered in a small alcove as what seemed like the whole of High-voltage set off to do whatever it was they did.

“What should we do?” I asked quietly. “What if she was trying to kill us?”

“We need to tell the others at the very least.” Seafire thought for a moment. “And if we can, try to eat as much of our own food as possible.”

“What about Ripsaw and Francium.” Foxglove looked at me with her wide eyes. It seemed that was her default state of being these days. “What if someone goes after them?”

“Then one of us needs to sit with them at all times. Twenty four hour watch. Between the five of us it shouldn’t be too hard. There is also that doctor, what’s her name...’

“Typhoon.” I answered for her. “But who is to say we can trust her?”

Seafire bit her lip. “I know its far from foalproof but she did just spend three days and a huge amount of High-Voltage’s medical resources to save both of them. If she wanted to kill them she could have done it and we would never have known.”

I just nodded in acceptance. “What should we do now? Go find Tun and Smoking?”

“Yeah. I am sure they beat us down for breakfast so they may be back in their room or in the hall.”

“I want to check on Fran.” I muttered, more to myself than the others. “Yeah, lets go check on them.”

That was easier said than done. High-Voltage was just one big maze of identical looking corridors. Most of the cities work was done in the low level, sprawling structure that would originally have been the facilities control rooms and numerous monitoring stations. These had all been converted into a range of shops, cafe’s, few hotel type places and various other small businesses. The larger areas like the facilities sports hall had been converted into a hospital of sorts and the tennis courts outside were now shooting ranges and what looked like a runway.

“Why are there so many ponies.” Foxglove asked as we pushed through the throng towards the sports hall. “There have to be more than four thousand.”

“I am still surprised at how effective my cure has been.” I felt myself smile slightly.

Seafire patted me on the back. “You did good Helix. Your mum would be proud of you.” My stomach curdled but I kept my face straight and nodded back.

“Thanks.” I replied, my mouth suddenly dry.

Just set it aside. Don’t think about it. Don’t think.

I stumbled sideways as somepony bumped into my flank. Before I knew it I was sprawled on the ground. Ok, think a little bit.

“Hey, you ok down there?”

I looked up and got a shock. “Mantis.” He held out a hoof and pulled me up. “What are you doing here?” I asked, perplexed.

He just grinned back. “Looking for you lot. Didn’t think I would find you like that though.”

“Nor did I.” I brushed myself down as best I could. Oh great, now I looked even worse next to Seafire.

“So where is the lovely Miss Francium? I thought you two were impossible to separate.”

“She’s… she’s in the hospital.” It was difficult to say. “ We’re going to check that she is getting better.”

Mantis suddenly focused. “Then lets get you there.” He turned and began carving a path through the throng towards the Hospital and my beautiful, injured Francium.

* * *

It pained me so much to see her on that stretcher. I dropped to my haunches at Fran’s side as she lay unconscious in the bed. With the help of Typhoon we checked over her various wounds and bandages. Rewrapping those that needed changing and repositioning her in the bed to help relieve pressure on her battered body.

Ripsaw lay in the next bed, with heavy bandages around her torso and right hind leg. Typhoon had put her to sleep to let the bandages and magic work her to full recovery. She snored gently as she lay under the worn white sheet.

I knew they could all see my wet eyes and the stray tears on my cheeks as I worked, but no pony said anything. I knew it was best to let it out, empty myself and confess all my fears and doubts that I would never speak to my love again, but I couldn’t. It just didn’t seem right.

“Has she made any improvements?” I asked as we, Typhoon and I, finished rebinding her shattered leg.

“Her ribs are almost healed but they are not going to be where they should be.” Typhoon held the end of the bandage in place with her wing tip before deftly removing a safety pin from her white coat and pinning it in place. “We’ve managed to completely flush the Sabrefish poison from her system. It’s her leg I’m still worried about.”

“Can you still not give her any more med’s?” I asked quietly.

“I am very surprised she and your other friend survived the quantity we had to use to stabilise them. I don’t want to push our luck.”

I just nodded. Hold it in, you can let it out when you know one way or the other.

I turned back to Mantis, Seafire and Foxglove who had been quietly observing us both. “I’ll take the first watch. You should go find Tun and Smoking. Tell them what happened.” All three just nodded.

“I’ll see what I can find out. The description doesn’t match anyone I’ve ever heard of, but it’s certainly distinctive.”

“What’s up now?” Typhoon looked between our worried faces.

“I’ll explain in a moment if you’d care to stay.” The pegasus just nodded slowly.

“I’ll get you some food from one of the shops,” Seafire called as she left. “Do you have any preferences?”

“Something I will recognise,” I called back with a half smile.

With a sigh I pulled up a seat and a couple pillows, making myself comfortable at my love’s side. Typhoon sat down on the other side between Fran and Ripsaw and looked at me expectantly.

“So what’s this all about?”

Where to begin...

“Before I say anything more, can I ask you a few questions?” I asked tentatively, stroking Frans limp hoof.

Typhoon just nodded.

“Well, why are you the only pegasus I ‘ve seen down here?”

Typhoon shrugged, “That’s simple enough. I was left for dead by the Enclave when I was shot during a scouting mission below the clouds. There are other pegasi, but we are few and far between down here.”

“The Enclave?”

“You haven’t heard of the Enclave?” Typhoon looked at me in surprise.

“No. I haven’t,” I replied simply.

Understanding dawned on Typhoons face. “Oh, you’re from a Stable aren't you. Well, you must be, I can’t see any other way you wouldn’t know. And the PipBuck is a damned give away now that I think about it.”

I paused for a second but there seemed little point in lying when she had worked it out for herself. “Yes. I am.”

“And the rest of you?”

“Yes, except the green one with that massive hat.”

“Yeah, I figured as much. He’s pretty distinctive.”

“So what is the Enclave?” I asked.

“Well, I guess the simplest way to think of it is martial law. You see as far as most of the pegasi are concerned the wastelands are a blasted hell hole that is completely uninhabitable. The civilian population is continually told that we are all that survive and that the Enclave are there to protect them from the horrors of the wasteland.”

That sounded unpleasant. “Why? Why do they lie?”

“Cos its easier to control them like that. You are not allowed below the cloud layer. Any pony who ventures down is shot by the enclave and then declared dead as a result of radiation poisoning or some animal attack.”

Hang on a moment. “Then what were you doing, going below the cloud layer?” I asked.

“The higher levels of the enclave know all about the cover up. If you don't go along with it you are charged with treason on the spot and then branded, quite literally, a traitor. I was part of a scout group. The Enclave makes regular expeditions below the cloud layer to scavenge for things that they need or can´t produce. They then reprint a load of fake data from the expedition to reinforce the story that it still isn’t safe to go down.”

“And it was on one of these missions you got shot?”

“Yes. A group of raiders attacked us on our return journey. I was laden down with two saddles worth of magical bullets which made evasive maneuvers almost impossible. I actually think I was shot by one of my own party as he pulled out of a strafing run. Took a round right under my left wing.”

“They shot you and your group didn’t help you?” I said in disbelief.

“Our commander ordered the rest of the group to take all my equipment and flee back to base.”

“They just abandoned you.”

“The bullets were worth more than I was. Simple as that. And with me gone it gave them another piece of evidence to say that the world below is still far too dangerous,” Typhoon said it all so matter-of-factly. “Don’t fret. This is all common knowledge as far as High-Voltage goes. All of that is in the past. Now I have a new life, a better life. I help ponies, rather than being forced to ignore the suffering of others.”

“Why did you decide not to return to start with? Surely you had a family?”

“I do have a family,” Typhoon replied sadly, shuffling in her seat. “I think...”

I just looked at her encouragingly. She gave a long sigh as preparing herself.

“I’d just gotten off maternity leave when I was shot down. Harrier was only four months old at the time. I had no idea how I got pregnant. I did sleep around, but I was always careful and took more than one precaution but... it happened.”

I felt my eyes begin to water slightly at the thought. “What would have happened to her? Would she have been adopted?”

“It is surprisingly rare to have an orphaned child above the clouds. I expect one of the higher level families, probably military, will have taken her in. They could just ignore the limits on family size. I could have had her transferred but it didn’t feel right.” She sighed again. “But lets get back to what you wanted to say. I have no wish to relive all of those thoughts again.”

I just nodded understandingly. Well here goes nothing. “This morning we think somepony tried to kill us. It could have been an honest mistake, but we can’t take that chance.”

“Sadly, you are not the first.” Typhoon gave a little nod of understanding, not at all what I was expecting. “ But what am I supposed to do about it?”

“Between the five of us we are going to sit here and watch Francium and Ripsaw twentyfour-seven. But I feel that Foxglove is too young. If someone were to try something I doubt there is much she could do to stop them.”

“Really? You want me to take her place? I have things I have to do. I am the doctor for a whole city. No offence but two lives here against the four thousand or so of High-Voltage just doesn’t add up.” Typhoon stood up and turned to look at me. “I like you lot. I really do. You are a rare breed. You fight for something that goes beyond your own interests but not all of us can think like that.”

“What are we fighting for?” I replied as straight as I could.

“Your stable. Or what’s left of it as far as I hear. Am I right?” How did she know? “Gossip travels. Most wont have worked out who you are as they don’t know who it was that went into the lake but it’s not hard to piece together.”

I slumped in my seat, this was going to hurt. “I am not sure we can do it.” I muttered. “Fran has this drive inside her. She feels responsible for us being out here. That is what pushes her to do stupid things. I want to follow her, I’ve done it all my life, but out here when faced with that kind of task, and carrying what I am carrying...” I just petered off and placed my head in my hooves. “Its going to get us killed.”

I felt a softness wrap around me. I pushed against it and let Typhoon wrap her wing round me. “When she wakes, talk to her, I think you will feel different afterwards.” I looked up at Typhoon with damp eyes. “You need her don’t you. I understand. You feel there is a piece of you missing. When she looks up at you I can guarantee everything will be alright.”

Typhoon had a wing on the door when I remembered. “Typhoon. You said you could have had harrier transferred. What does that mean?”

“Use two medical pods and have the fetus transferred into another mares body. One of the greatest breakthroughs since the war. It was developed solely to save the life of the Enclave leaders unborn child. Since they only had one shot the system was perfected before it was used. As a way of thanks he made it available to every pegasus. It is rarely used but its nice to know that if something goes wrong you and your child can be saved.”

I just nodded politely as she smiled and left. As I held Fran’s hoof tight in my own I knew that was something I needed to remember.

* * *

It was three days before Mantis returned. The six of us were clustered around the circular metal table in The Generator, High-Voltage’s busiest bar. Thanks to the all metal surfaces, metal bar stools and pint mugs, there was enough noise around that, unless you were within a meter, there was no way to hear what anyone was saying. Great for having private conversations.

“No one seems to know who she is but one thing is constant. The pink hair. It was something the Pink Stormers did before they went into battle, so they knew who was on their side.” I slid a pint of cider over to Mantis who downed half in one go before continuing. “It lines with up with what I have seen when I have fought and scouted them so it’s a safe bet that it was a Pink Stormer who gave you the Bloatspawn, but as for why they would target you specifically and so far away from their usual base of operations is a mystery.”

Mantis looked at us all gravely for a moment. “But that said, so far as I see, I don’t think that is what you are all thinking about. I admire your dedication and your drive to get your friends back, but you could all easily end up dead and get your friends killed in the process.

“I am not saying don’t go after them, but if you do, you best be prepared. And this will sound crazy but... there are far worse things than death and slavery in this world.”

I stared into my mug; did I want to know what could be worse?

“What kind of ponies would we be if we didn’t at least try to save them?” Seafire asked fiercely.

“You would be alive for a start.” Mantis sighed heavily taking another swig. “I know it’s tough to let go but have you even considered how much trouble you’ll stirring up by doing this? The lot of you could plunge this whole region into chaos. I’m not saying I like it, but at the moment this balance works. By stealing from Appleloosa, which I am certain is where your friends will be taken, you could bring war to both High-Voltage and Viewpoint when they come back after you.”

Smoking turned up from his own pint and looked coolly towards Mantis “I don’t mean to be blunt, but you sound like you’re trying to stop us.”

“I am not trying to stop you. I just want you to think.” Mantis struggled to find the right words. “I like you all, I really do. I don’t want you all getting killed. That said, I will support how I can, whichever you choose.”

I was surprised when I turned and saw Foxglove with her hoof up. “I want to go. I want to help them but I don’t know of how I will be any use. I’m all my brothers and sisters have left but I’m not a fighter, I’m not a medic or anything useful. I’m just worried I’ll get in the way.”

“Remember, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it weren't for you.” I pointed out.

Foxglove shrugged. “I suppose.”

“It is true that as a group you have a strange skill set, but that is to your advantage.” Mantis said encouragingly. “You’ll be able to play far more varied tactics and strategies than most. There is little diversity in combat in the wastes, mainly because all the raiders employ the same tactics. That time when your opponent doesn’t know how to fight back is when you’ll make the most progress.”

Then I had a sickening thought. “But none of this matters. We can’t do anything until Fran wakes up. She’s the only one of us that can track down the other PipBuck and only she can hack into it to get the information we need.”

“You don’t think she will recover?” Tungsten sounded surprised.

“Of course she will!” She has too.

My brother banged his hoof down. “Then what’s the problem? We get everything ready so the moment she wakes we can get the information from the PipBuck and and head out after them.”

“I agree with Tungsten.” Smoking’s voice resonated. “We get ready. The longer we wait the harder it will be to follow them. Even if Francium doesn’t wake we still need to try. Yes it will be harder but I am not prepared to give up. Not by a long shot.”

“Neither am I.” Seafire nodded in agreement.

“Nor me.” Foxglove added.

I felt a grin slide over my face. “Then lets get to it then.”

Foxglove raised her own still full pint mug and whispered “For stable Seventeen.”

I raised my pint, feeling a lift when I saw Mantis’s green hoof join our amalgamation of shades and sizes, aloft in the centre of our group. “For stable Seventeen.” We chorused.

I drank with the others then settled back, listening to Mantis and Smoking begin to hash out a rough plan. Mantis favoured what he called a bedlam approach; between a variety of diversions, all seeming involving things blowing up or burning down, a small team would go to the cages, eliminate any remaining guards and free every slave. With every slave on the run we would escape with our stable and help as many other slaves as we could to freedom.

“The advantages of that is that if things go to plan it will look like the slaves had planned the whole thing, leaving them with no one culprit. You would be free to do what you wanted once you had escaped and not be on anyones hit list.”

Smoking scratched his muzzle. “Makes sense enough, but I can see that having a high casualty count to both sides. Not that I care much about the slavers.”

“What did you learn back in Seventeen?” Mantis, finished off his second pint and pulled a third towards him.

“To think outside the box.” Smoking pondered for a moment. “Couldn’t we go there and just buy them ourselves. We’ve got caps and lots of them.”

“Your friends will be some of the highest priced there, I can guarantee it. You may be able to buy one or two but never all of them. Also, slavers don’t take too well to new clients they have never heard of before. The would smell a rat instantly.”

Wait...

They looked at me. “Sorry, did I say that out loud?” They just nodded. “Well, what about if we were someone they knew. Or thought they knew.”

“How would you play that line?” Mantis asked, intrigued.

“With the PipBuck codes that Fran used. The pony here was at the end of a long list of slavers who knew about our stable. Surely we could pose as one of them.” I looked at them hopefully. Seafire and Tungsten stopped their own discussion to see what was going on.

“Its not a bad idea.” Mantis muttered, Smoking nodded in agreement. “If they thought you were one of their regulars turning up in person you would get free run of the town, be allowed close to the cages before the auctions and get to bid on any slave that came up.”

“But how would we convince them. We don’t know nearly enough. We would trip up on something and could be dead before we realised it.” Seafire looked around in surprise. “You’re not actually considering this are you?”

“If played right, it would give us the best chance.” Mantis stated. “But if it does go wrong then we can always use the bedlam to help us make our escape.”

“There you are. Hey. Helix.” I turned. Typhoon was pushing her way through the chairs to get to our table. “All of you, they are awake.”

I didn’t need any more than that.

* * *

In my mind it would be a glorious reunion. I would rush in and see Fran sitting up in bed, her mane all a tangle with that look of love and desire she reserved especially for me; not even Seafire got that gaze.

That wasn’t what I got. I felt myself tearing up yet again as Fran looked up at me, her eyes bloodshot, her breath shallow, and even a few strands of mane coming away as I ran my hoof over her head.

“Oh love, what have you done to yourself?” I leant in and kissed her forehead. Fran lifted her hoof to my muzzle and stroked it gently. I nuzzled back relishing her touch.

“I haven’t... done anything.” Fran coughed. “Didn’t... you see... those massive... fangs?” She tried to smile, but it was more a grimace as a lance of pain seemed to shoot through her.

“Shush. Just lie here and get better. It will be alright. You’ll see.”

Fran’s eyes were wide with hope. “I did it then? I cured everypony?”

I just nodded slowly. “Sleep, you have earned it.” I kissed her again as I pulled up her covers. “One of us will be here all the time. Just call if you need anything.”

Fran nodded gently. She settling back and closing her eyes, falling asleep almost instantly.

“She’ll be like this for a while. Don’t be surprised if she just falls asleep mid-conversation.” Typhoon looked up as she finished removing Ripsaw’s bandages. “But I can tell you she’ll pull through-- and just sit still!” She snapped at the orange mare.

I walked round to Typhoon’s side as she checked Ripsaw’s healing wound. It was barely noticeable now, the edge of her cutie mark was slightly twisted. You would never know unless you looked closely but Typhoon was not entirely satisfied.

“You’re going to stay for one more day if I have to drug you again, you got that? I need to make sure that it doesn’t swell up now I have removed the bandages.”

“But it looks fine. I’ll be alright.” Ripsaw was clearly already fed up with being stuck in a bed with nothing to do. “Just let me go, Doc.”

“No. One day more,” Typhoon said flatly. “I will send one of your friends to get a book or something, to keep you occupied.” Ripsaw seemed to finally get the message. She rolled back over and let Typhoon cover her with a blanket. “Now just rest. You’ll be up and about this time tomorrow, so you’ll need your strength. You’ll be surprised at how doing nothing can sap you of energy.”

“Can I get you anything in particular?” I offered as she shifted to get comfortable.

“A book. Something easy going. The fourth Daring Doo would be good, ‘Crusaders Of The Lost Temple.’ The one in the Stable’s archives got corrupted, so I wasn’t able to read it. Drove me nuts as filly.”

“I’ll do my best.” Sadly, I doubted that such a thing would have survived out here, but you could always hope.

“So, who wants to sit here first?’ Tungsten asked as I headed for the door.

“Well since you brought it up, you can start. I’m off to get Ripsaw some reading material.”

Tungsten rolled his eyes. “Fine. Make sure you’re back in six hours. I would try to get some sleep before then, else it’ll be a long night.”

I stepped out into the corridor and slumped against the wall, a smile beginning to climb across my face. She was going to make it. My love was going to be alright. Now she was conscious, Typhoon was convinced that she would be her usual self in a few days time. It might take days more for her to be completely back to normal, but once she was up, we could track down that PipBuck. Track down the rest of our stable, and then head off back to Viewpoint in preparation of making our way over the mountains.

“Are you alright?” I felt a soft hoof rest on my shoulder. “I know you haven’t been showing it, but you must have been so scared you were going to lose her.”

“I was. I thought I was going to lose her forever.” I turned to Seafire. “But now she’s alright. She’s going to make it.” It felt good to say it out loud. To confirm it. To hear it said. Francium was going to make it. “Now, let’s get something for Ripsaw. I don’t know her very well, but she will be climbing the walls if we don’t keep her occupied.”

“There was what looked like a book shop back near The Generator. Why don’t we start there,” Seafire suggested.

It was surprising how much more I noticed, now that my mind wasn’t constantly worrying about Fran. As strange as it was, High-Voltage was actually quite pleasant, even homely. Shops seemed to spill out of their designated rooms and into the double-width corridor, leaving a thin line down the centre of ponies to pursue what was on sale. This particular side corridor was filled with all sorts of trinkets and knick-knacks.

Admittedly, most of it looked like junk; or junk that had been cleaned and hung on a string to make a necklace or good-luck charm, but there were some incredible examples of creativity and artistic flare. An elderly earth stallion worked busily at what was to be another masterpiece. He had a lump of sandstone which he was insetting dozens of small metal shards and pieces of mechanical equipment. The result was a soft, cream cactus like object with silvery spines. He even seemed to have artificially rusted the surface of certain pieces to give an even greater depth to his creation.

“That is beautiful,” Seafire cooed. “And its all just scrap and junk. I am sure Fran would love it.”

“I agree. Shame we don’t have anywhere to put it,” I sighed.

“Yeah. Maybe you could buy a room here. It’s not a bad place and I am sure they would let you after what you did for them.”

I gave Seafire a look. “What, just for the rusty cactus?”

“Sure. Why not.” She grinned back.

All I could do was roll my eyes.

We kept walking past all the strange shops until we hit the main shopping area again. The Generator was still as busy as usual. A pair of very burly bucks in full body armour guarded the entrance to ‘Horseshoe Tower Exchange’. Fake gems on dresses in ‘Sheek & Manifique’ sparkled gently.

“Here we go.” Seafire beckoned me towards a shop further down the, well, it was probably best to call it a street. I followed as she entered the bookshop we had spotted earlier.

The bookshelves were so tall that they seemed to lean in on me as I scanned up and down the books on display. My attention was drawn to the terrible condition of the books, none having escaped unscated from where they had undoubtedly been scavenged. Most seemed water damaged though a few were singed, charred or missing their covers. One that almost made me laugh was a book that looked to be comprised of three or more versions of itself. Unable to find a complete one the owner had taken the best from several and bound them together at the spine.

Running my hooves up and down the shelves I spotted volumes and titles I recognised from stable seventeen. I felt a sadness well up inside me. We had lost more than just life in stable seventeen but knowledge, history and culture too. I picked a book up at random: Supernaturals and began to flick through it with my magic. Sadly, It turned out to be a load of natural remedies and thoughts on curses; a bunch of make believe. I tossed the book back onto the shelf feeling like I’d had my time wasted. I had better things to do.

With a book in mind, I went straight up to the back of the store where a pale brown unicorn buck was repairing a thick, hardback volume with a needle and thread; rebinding the spine to prevent the pages from spilling all over the floor. Sensibly, his Cutiemark was a trio of books.

“Be with you in a sec…” he muttered as he looked through a cracked magnifying glass on an adjustable stand. He cinched up the loop he was on before turning to me. “How can I help you.”

“Hi, I am looking for a book for my friend. Something specific.”

“What is it that you’re after?” He looked at me over his glasses, waiting patiently.

“Daring Doo, Crusaders of the Lost Temple,” I replied hopefully. “The fourth one.”

The buck just snorted. “Yes, yes. Very funny. Now, if you have quite finished, I have work to be doing.”

I looked at him confused. “No, no. I’m serious.”

That got his attention. “You are serious. A Daring Doo book?”

“Yes. My friend has read them all apart from number four, and I want to get it for her. She’s been ill and stuck in bed. It’s too make her happy and keep her occupied, you know.” He continued to look at me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a damaged copy, so long as it’s legible,” I added hoping that’s what he was waiting for, but his expression didn’t change.

“You have them all?” He replied in disbelief. “Every. Single. One?” He looked me up and down, his eyes coming to rest on my PipBuck. “You don’t have the others now do you?” His hooves shifted excitedly.

“Ummm, no, I’m afraid not.” I shrugged sadly. “Well, not as books, I think my other friend has them stored on her PipBuck as a P-Book.”

“I see.” He just nodded standing up and beginning to pace slowly.

“So, do you have a copy?” I asked.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, but I can not sell it to you. It’s priceless. I know of very few copies that have survived. Daring Doo as a series is on the edge of extinction. But,” He snapped to face me, making me jump, “if what you say is true, that your friend possesses digital copies, then we may be able to help each other.”

“How so?” Seafire came over to join us.

“Between you and I, we have the complete set of books. If you let me have digital copies of the other books I will let you digitise the fourth thus completing both our sets.” He was almost dancing in excitement.

I couldn’t see a downside.

* * *

Now that my love was no longer on death’s doorstep, I was actually able to enjoy myself for a few days. High-Voltage was far bigger than it looked from the outside. There were so many different areas and zones to explore beyond the control centre and the cooling towers.

Ponies had taken up residence in the most unlikely places and, yet, managed to carve themselves out a little piece of home. A group had gutted the array of outgoing transformers and turned them into individual rooms before covering the top of the whole area, up to the outer ring of security fencing, in sheets of scrap metal.

My favorite was a family who had cut the end off two vast tubular water tanks. All of the furniture had been welded to the curved walls of the tanks, but even more ingeniously, the beds were mounted on two rings of metal so that they could be spun up to the roof, leaving more space free during the day.

“This is just incredible.” Seafire peered and nosed into every dwelling she could, much to the occasional chagrin of their occupants, but she seemed to be loving the backwards engineering as much as Fran would.

Foxglove stuck close to me as we walked, keeping well away from the ponies that passed us down the narrow street. “It is pretty interesting isn’t it. It’s a shame there are no flowers or plants to be seen. It would really lift the place up. Just a little greenery.”

“I doubt they could spare the water.” I sighed. “When me and Fran went up to the view point in Viewpoint there were loads of succulents but they- what’s so funny?” I turned to Seafire as she sniggered.

“Oh, just viewpoint in Viewpoint. I know it’s not clever, but something about it just tickled me.”

“Right…” I rolled my eyes. “I would have thought that would be below your level of humour.”

Seafire glanced down at me. “Does it matter?”

I just shrugged.

I looked up to see Foxglove turning in circles at the end of path, getting confusing looks from passersby. “Do you two have any idea where we are actually going?”

“We are not really going anywhere, we’re just exploring.” Seafire studied the junction, looking at the houses and buildings. “Left,” She said brightly, and set off.

“Shouldn’t we be preparing rather than admiring the local architecture?” I snapped. “If we are going to fight we are going to need armour. Tun gave me his old barding, but after seeing some of the weapons out here, I don’t think it will be good enough.”

“Armour isn’t armour, Helix.” Seafire replied knowledgeably. “Yes, there is nothing wrong with checking your armour and getting it a better fit, but I personally want to wait to see what we’re up against.”

“How do you mean?”

“My barding is designed to stop or slow solid rounds, but it would be poor against energy weapons like a plasma pistol or worse a plasma rifle. The metal plates would heat up and possibly liquify rather than being dented by a normal bullet.”

“Do you expect slavers to have advanced plasma weapons? If they did, I don’t think it would be the kind of thing they would broadcast.”

Seafire shrugged. “I suppose not. But if we are all going to upgrade then we need some for Foxglove, she doesn't have any barding.”

“No. Don’t worry about me. I am not planning on fighting.” The young mare cut in quickly.

“It’s better to have it and not need it.” Seafire sighed. “This landscape is also perfect for flanking your opponents. They will know the terrain well, so we’ll have to be careful to make sure no one attacks us from behind.”

Foxglove just gulped.

I rounded on Seafire. “Give it a rest. You’re scaring her.”

Seafire looked startled. “You asked, Helix. I am not going to lie to you or her: this will be dangerous.”

“Well, just… I don’t know… tone it down a little, ok.” My ears drooped. “I’m sorry. I shouldn't have snapped.”

To my surprise Seafire leant in and nuzzled me. “Its alright, you’ve been under a lot of stress. Racing to finish a cure while knowing your love is close to death, it couldn’t have been much worse.”

“I suppose.” I twisted my hoof nervously. “Seafire, do you mind if we go and look at armour?”

“No, I don’t.” She smiled down at me. She turned to a passing stallion. “Excuse me. Where can we find an armourer?”

The guys jaw failed to work. It was like he was groping Seafire with his eyes as he looked her up and down. “Ummm…” he began. “You after quality or just basic repairs?”

“Quality.” Seafire replied, batting her eyelashes.

“End of the street, turn left, second right, look for the ghoul working at an anvil.” He gulped, his blush clear against his tan coat.

Seafire smiled at him. “Thank you kindly.”

As we left I glanced back over my shoulder and then wished I hadn’t. The poor buck was desperately trying to conceal a full erection as he stood watching Seafire’s rump disappear round the corner.

* * *

The stallion might have had other things on his mind, but his instructions were perfect. That said we would probably have found either way, the furnace out front along with the anvil and racks of metal were quite the give away. It also seemed that the rest of the tools were set up in the houses living room. The building was made of three shipping crates, two joined together at the bottom and another perched on top with a set of outside stairs leading up. As we approached we spotted the female ghoul straightening out a bent dagger that glowed white hot under her hooves.

“How is she doing that?” Foxglove whispered. “Surely, it must be burning her.”

“No idea.” I muttered back.

“I may only have one ear, but I can still hear you,” the ghoul growled.

The ghoul carried the now orange hot dagger back over to the furnace with her mouth, and placed it at next to the opening before taking a pair of long tongs and carefully lowering it into the fiery coals.

“If you aren’t here for business, move along.” The ghoul eyed the three of us carefully through the patchy curtain of jet black mane on that covered her eyes.

“We’re business,” Seafire replied. “We’re looking for barding for the young one here and possibly some upgrades for my friend’s and my armour.”

“Step forward.” The ghoul beckoned but Foxglove didn’t move. “Come on girl, I haven’t got all day.”

Foxglove stared at me wide-eyed. “Its alright. We are here.” I smiled reassuringly.

With a nervous nod, and looking like she would rather be anywhere else, Foxglove approached and let the ghoul pace round her. She seemed to be an earth pony, one ear missing, an originally white coat giving way to the raw reds and pinks of her muscles and skin underneath. There was a lump on her head where a horn ought to have been but there was no way to tell if that was the case. Her black mane and tail were thin but full length making her look less abnormal.

“You’re a little small for any normal barding, I got some small stuff, but I will need to downsize it.”

“I’m guessing that will cost us,” Seafire noted.

“Yep. But, since she will grow, I can just fold over the fabric to make it fit so it won’t be excessive.”

“Can you give us an estimate?” I asked.

“You want top notch, or just something to do the job?”

“Might as well do it properly if we are spending the caps,” I replied.

“Good choice.” The ghould continued to circle. “Original barding will be around five hundred, modification fee is eighty. I can add a neck armour and foreleg guards if you like, they’re both one hundred each.”

Seafire nodded slowly. “What kinds of round will that stop? Will it cope with plasma weapons?”

The ghoul paused. “I just reeled off seven hundred and eighty caps worth of work and you don’t even bat an eyelid.” She turned to us looking suspicious. “How do stable dwellers like you have those kinds of caps?” She pointed at our PipBucks.

“Stable dwellers?” Seafire played it well. “PipBucks are not hard to get if you can fire a gun.”

“It’s not the hardware; it’s your tone, how you hold yourself. No injuries, almost perfect coat, perfect mane. All of you look as fresh as daisies when there isn’t a single one in the wastelands.” The ghoul watched us closely. “You’re good, I’ll give you that, but your health is a dead give away.”

Seafire held her gaze for a moment before relaxing. “We had a lot of sparkle cola.”

“Is that so.” The ghoul chose not to press the subject. “Anyway, show me these bardings you want ‘upgrading’. And no, the barding I will supply isn’t designed to stop any kind of plasma weapons.”

Seafire nodded, opening her saddlebags and pulling out her barding. “Well this is mine. Her’s is basically the same.”

She handed it to the ghoul who carried it carefully over to a large table just inside her workshop. We followed her in. All over the walls were pieces of barding, examples of work that she could produce it seemed. It was all incredible. Perfectly stitched, fabric laid in the correct direction in relation to movement, joints between armour panels were barely noticeable on some of the best examples.

“In near mint condition. Standard grade bullet resistant fabric. Grade five titanium triangular plates with no overlaps but minimal spacing. No neck, foreleg or stomach plates. Additional magazine pockets for unicorns.” She turned to us looking confused. “What do you think I can improve?”

Seafire shrugged. “You tell us.”

“Well, if you want an upgrade to make it at least plasma resistant its going to be expensive. I can modify the plates to a titanium based ceramic which would be your best bet, but you would be hard pressed to find replacements if they get heavily damaged.” The mare pulled section of barding off the wall and pulled out one of its protective plates and held it up. “The work would be a permanent alteration of your armour. I would take your current plates and combine them with a ceramic sheet. The titanium would keep it exceptionally tough and hard while air holes would help insulate you from the heat.”

“That’s incredible,” Seafire muttered. “You did this?”

“Yep, one of my best breakthroughs.” the ghoul replied with a hint of pride. “Moving on. The easiest upgrades are neck protection, foreleg protection and chest protection.” She looked at us all. “May I ask why it needs to be so heavy duty. Even the stallions that supply escorts don’t armour up to this level.”

“There is no point in settling for anything but the best,” Seafire replied simply.

“No argument there.” The mare when round behind her counter and pulled out a clipboard and pen. “Ok, it’s half the payment up front as deposit, the rest on delivery of goods. You wanted one new set of barding for the young one and what else?”

“Upgrades on all three pieces of barding to plasma resistant, and we may as well add chest foreleg and neck protection while we’re at it.” Seafire paused. “We may return with two more pieces for the same upgrades. Surely you can do us any kind of deal on the price for so much work.” she added hopefully.

“I’m afraid not. I get so little work that anything I do get has to make as much money as I can.” she scribbled down notes on the board.

“How come you don’t get much work?” I asked. “Why are you not set up in the shopping area?”

She glanced at me cooly. “I got forced out.”

“Why? because you’re a ghoul?”

“No. It’s just that holding white hot metal tends to freak ponies out.”

“So they chased you out to your own home?”

“It was all rumour stuff. That I was going feral and losing all feeling in my body before as I lost my mind. Stuff like that.” She continued to scrawl.

“But why? Your work is amazing.”

“I was the best and on my own I was a threat to several businesses. Horseshoe Tower Exchange, The Armoury, Krak & Frag’s. All of them wanted me gone, but B, the mayor, would have kicked them all out if they did anything direct. So they planted the seeds in the rumour mill and drove me out silently.”

I choked slightly. “But couldn’t you stop it? Tell anyone? Get…”

“NO!”

Foxglove ducked behind the nearest bench with a yelp. I jumped as the ghoul slammed the clipboard down on the table. She glared at me viciously as she seethed, her taut skin exaggerating her clenched jaw. “I have had enough of being poked and prodded like some curiosity and answering stupid questions.”

“But… we genuinely don’t know,” Foxglove whispered to herself rather than the ghoul, but she must have heard for she turned to look.

“You’re the one who could barely stand still as I sized you up,” she snapped back.

“I have only ever met one other ghoul before… I am just…”

“Scared of me?” she asked snidely.

“Not scared.” The young mare stood up and looked right into her eyes. “I’m just not used to how you look.”

“Ember? Are these ponies bothering you?” A ghoul buck appeared at the foot of the stairs, his magic gripping a pistol but didn’t pull it from its holster.

“I’m not sure father,” Ember replied.

The stallion let go of the pistol and approached cautiously. He stared right at Foxglove as he passed. To my surprise she stood her ground, even if she looked like she might bolt at any moment. He went and stood at his daughter's side before scanning down the order of our list.

“This is substantial.” He actually sounded impressed. “What made you come to Ember rather than one of the other stores in the main market?”

“We asked a random buck where to go for quality. He directed us here,” I answered quickly.

“What did he look like?”

“Ummm, about my height. Tan coat. Brown mane and tail. Young.”

Ember smiled at her father. “Sounds like Fauxt.”

“He was rather hard to forget. Seafire here had him doing more than just blushing.”

“I feel it would be impolite to say,” She replied with a nervous smile, pawing at the ground.

“I see…” the stallion looked at the three of us with curiosity. “Did they say why the needed such advanced armour?” he asked in a low tone to his daughter.

“They said they wanted the best.” He just nodded slowly in response.

“So… how much does all that come to?” I asked tentatively.

Ember scanned down the clipboard. “For the three pieces here including the new set, coverage mods, resizing and fitting, the ceramic mods where possible… two thousand eight hundred caps.”

“Sounds fine to me.” Seafire pulled open her saddlebag and began rummaging. “Half of it up front wasn’t it.”

If Ember was shocked at Seafires casual response she hid it well. Seafire pulled out several pouches filled with caps and quickly counted them with her magic. “Helix, I only have nine hundred on me. Do you have anything?”

I shook my head. “I’ll go up to Tun and get the rest. You guys stay here.”

“Can’t you use your PipBuck?” Foxglove asked. “The distance is about the same as calling from one side of Seventeen to the other.”

“I don’t know, it might work.” I pulled up Tungsten’s tag number and initiated a call. “Helix to Tungsten, over.” I gave it a moment and repeated. No response.

“Seems not.” Foxglove muttered. “That would have been…”

“Tungsten to Helix.” Tun sounded surprised. “That you sis?”

“Hey. Yeah it’s me. Are you in the room?”

“Yeah.”

“If I asked you to meet me at the exit of the tower with twenty times our monthly allowance would you understand?”

“You mean in caps?”

“Yeah.”

“I can do that. Why so much?”

“We are getting some armour upgrades.”

“Nice.” There was a scuffling in the background. “Any chance they could have a look at mine?”

“Yeah, but you will need to bring more. This will cover my armour, Seafire’s and some new barding for Foxglove.”

“Ok, I will see you down there in fifteen minutes. Oh, and Helix, Fran is up and about. I thought you would like to know. Tungsten out.”

I was out the door before he finished the sentence.

* * *

I dashed along the corridors towards the hospital. After literally running into Tun, and giving him the shortest explanation about where to find the others, I wanted nothing more that to pin Fran to the floor and kiss her until my lips went dry.

My stomach dropped when I saw her. When Tun had said she was up and about, I hadn’t thought that he meant in a wheelchair. I walked in to see Typhoon slip an I.V. drip into her foreleg before hanging the drip off the chair's back.

“Fran.” She looked at me and her expression softened into a state of calm I knew only I could put her in. “Tun said you were up. But why the wheelchair?”

“Leg still isn’t fully healed, but Tungsten told me about you guys getting your armour upgraded and beginning to gather supplies. Gave me a right shock when he called me.” She shook her PipBuck. “It never occurred to me that they would work outside the stable. The range will be much more limited without relays, but I would say that they are good for a mile or so, provided there’s nothing in the way.”

“That will be useful.” I leant over and kissed her softly. “I was hoping you would be walking, but seeing you out of that bed is good enough for now.”

“It will let me get around which is all I need.” Fran began to flick through her PipBuck’s menus so fast that I could barely keep up. “Would you care to push me? I feel its time we tracked down this buck.”

“Oh no no! Fran you can’t! What if he’s dangerous! Or recognises us!” I looked up at Typhoon who just shook her head.

“She was trying to get into the chair when I took over from Smoking. I would prefer that she stay in bed, but so long as she does nothing strenuous she’ll be fine.”

“I’m pretty sure that going after a potentially dangerous and armed individual counts as strenuous.” I looked at my love imploringly. “Just wait a few more days. We can wait.”

“Well, I can’t. I’m fed up of sitting in this bed knowing that the longer I am here is more chance that he could leave HighVoltage. I’ve been keeping an eye on him and he hasn’t moved far since we arrived. We need to find him before he moves on.

“If he leaves, all of this will have been for nothing.” She looked back fiercely. “I am doing this, with or without you.”

“It will have hardly been for nothing. You saved a whole city from death.” I stroked her mane calmingly.

“But we will have lost our stable as a result. This is my fault. Let me fix this Helix, like I fix everything else.”

I just nodded. “Ok… where do we go?”

“It shouldn’t be difficult to navigate there, but one thing before we go.” I heard the click of a magazine and a hum. Fran floated a loaded black hawk to me while tucking Jury under the blanket covering her legs. “Just in case.”

I placed the Blackhawk in the pouch hanging off the back of the wheelchair, making sure I left the pouch open and maneuvered Fran out the door and straight into Tungsten.

“You off already?” He was panting.

“What… why are you out of breath?”

“I worked it out. The moment she,” he pointed at Fran, “was able to get out of that bed she’d be off to track that PipBuck.”

“And you sprinted all the way back here from Embers?”

“Embers? Oh yeah, the ghoul. I sprinted half way there and then all the way back here. I just knew she would get you to help her.”

Fran smiled at him. “Does that mean you are here to help?”

Tungsten nodded his head in agreement, looking like a dog with its tongue hanging out. “When I get my breath back.”

* * *

“Left at the end of the corridor. We are less than sixty metres away.”

We’d left behind the hustle and bustle of the market area, the gentle chatter that occupied the living areas, and were now heading out toward the sparsely used engineering sector. We passed room after room of neglected equipment and machinery. Only the rusted plaques, and brief glimpses through grimey panes gave us any clue as to what each may have been used for. It was really quite creepy.

“Are you sure we should be out here alone, Fran?” I whispered

Tungsten paced behind us, covering with his BlackHawk. “Three of us, even one in a wheelchair, can subdue one buck. I could probably do it alone.”

My love looked back at me reassuringly. “No one is about. You can pull out the Blackhawk but keep the safety on.”

I did so, keeping it concealed behind the wheelchair. We turned the corner.

“Fifty metres. He’s right in front of us.”

“There isn’t fifty metres of building.” Tun pointed out.

“Take me to the window at the end. Maybe he’s hiding outside or in a container. We will be able to look down onto him.”

I slowly wheeled Fran up to the window, but I realised it a moment before she did.

“What’s out there?” Fran tried to lift herself to see out. “What can you see?”

“Oh Celestia… he couldn’t be? Could he?” I gulped. “I don’t think we are going to have to worry about fighting him Fran. But finding might be an issue.”

“Why?” Tun asked as he covered the corridor behind us.

“He has been buried in a mass grave.”

* * *

The stench was horrific. It filled the air like an invisible mist. I gagged with every breath. Fran seemed to be faring better but only as she didn’t seem to have her full sense of smell back yet. The hole was shallow, barely a metre deep, the mound of bodies rose in the centre. Tun was walking round the edge checking the easily visible bodies to no avail.

“How many do you think there are?” Fran asked sadly.

“Five hundred, maybe six.”

“B said that most of the population had survived.”

“Five in six seems to be a pretty good deal considering every single pony here could have been dead. I just can’t believe they didn’t bury them.”

Fran just shook her head. “He’s in there alright. We’re going to have to go in and find him. I don’t like the idea either,” she cut across my gasp. “But after what happened in the warehouse, I have to say this isn’t as bad. At least there won’t be gallons of blood.”

“We need help. We need permission. We can’t just start digging through them.”

Tun came back over with a grim look on his muzzle. “We can’t let anyone find out what we are looking for. We need to just start looking. Be as quick as possible.”

“Tun, these ponies may have families back in the city. How would they feel if they saw you toss their son or daughter's body aside as you looked. This is wrong.”

“Then what should we do?” He snapped back.

“I don’t know. Like I said we should ask.”

Tun turned on me angrily. “And if they say no or someone works out what we are doing or word reaches these slavers then what.”

I shrunk back under his piercing gaze. “We could just be quick.” I replied quietly.

“We will be quick, and as respectful as we can.” She smiled reassuringly. “Lift them with your magic and lay them aside carefully. I will check them for a Pipbuck. Fran can help direct us.”

“Tun…” My lip began to tremble.

“Helix.” He put his forehooves round my neck. I fell into his grasp, tears welling in my eyes. “We have to save them. All of them.”

I just nodded, sniffing into his coarse coat, letting it dig down to my skin and let me know just how tightly my brother was holding me. I could tell he didn’t like it either, as tough a face he put on, his small shivers gave it away, but he was right. It needed to be done.

After a moment he let go of me and rubbed his nose against mine. “Come little healer, help me save the stable one more time.”

* * *

I laid my hundredth body aside. I couldn’t help but count. Tungsten was almost lost in the heart of the pile now and nearing the point that Fran had calculated, with the help of some metal rods pushed into the ground, where the body would be. Darkness would soon prevent us from searching. Tun had suggested we just turn our PipBuck lights on but Fran had rightly pointed out that it would draw attention to us. At least earlier we kind of blended into the grimy, pastel shaded pile.

“Remember, he could be above or below you. This thing will only give me range.” Fran called from the edge, Jury in her magic.

“Helix, could you lift this black buck up here.” I lifted him with my magic so that Tun could check his legs. “No. The patchy mare on my right.” I obliged.

“Wait. I got a PipBuck here.” Those words made me snap to attention. “Bring her to the edge.”

I laid her body down on the edge of the pit. Fran wheeled herself over as Tun pulled himself out of the hole. He stank of death, but I ignored it.

“Is it her?” he asked, trying to scrub some of the grime off his hooves.

“Yeah… It’s her.” Fran immediately looked concerned.

“What’s wrong?”

“Her coat isn’t patchy naturally, or because she has been in that hole for over a week…”

“Then…”

“Its been dyed. The rain has washed a lot of it away, but look,” She pointed to the ground. The mud had turned slightly pink.

“Why would she dye her coat?” Tun muttered.

“Something is going on. I can feel it…” Fran’s brow furrowed further. “Helix, the mare who almost fed you the Cazador eggs. You said she had pink hair right?”

“Yes… unnaturally.” I gulped.

“And Mantis told us about that group, the Pink Stormers.”

“And you think what…”

“I don’t know, that’s what worries me. This may sound stupid but Pink is hardly a common colour in the wasteland it seems.”

“We can talk about his later, Fran.” Tun cut in before she could continue. “Lets get the info we need off the PipBuck and get out of here.”

Fran just nodded in response.

“Helix, while she is doing that help me put the bodies back we will leave a hole near the middle and then we can bury the body back where it was. Fran, how long will that take you?”

“Less than an hour I am sure but that’s all I can give you.” She replied as she use her own PipBuck to tap into the memory of the other. “It will be tricky to trace back the message. I may only get a partial trace too but at least it will be a start.”

“That will be more than enough time to put every pony back.” That made me wince. “And a partial trace is a start.”

“Helix, first body please.”



Footnote: Level Up

New Group Perk - The dark side of right: You can choose to push through hard decisions when the need arises if you believe what you are doing is right… but it may come back to haunt you later.

Act 1 - Chapter 8: Laying Best Plans

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Chapter 8: Laying Best Plans
“Yeah, Tuesday isn't three days from now. Tuesday is tomorrow.”

I still didn’t feel perfect. My leg ached when I walked, my ribs burned as I breathed, my vision wasn’t always square, but I wasn’t going to let any of that stop me. Too long had I been stuck in that bed thinking, planning and scheming about what I was going to do when I found Madame and Storm. Now that I had a point of origin for that signal I was going to make sure that we found them and...

Except I didn’t have a point of origin.

Well, sort of didn’t.

“I have the coordinates of where the message was sent from, but that isn’t the same as its origin, if that makes any sense.” I shuffled on the bed to get more comfortable. “The message was sent from a point here.” I indicated a point up on the old CRT screen that I’d fixed up and linked to my PipBuck. “Thanks to B, who let me scan some of the old region maps into my PipBuck, that signal seems to be coming from...“ I brought up the map over the PipBucks tracking map, “This building here.”

“What is that label next to it?” Smoking moved in and peered intently at the pixelated image.

“Stable Twenty Five.” There was a collective intake of breath. “Yeah, I thought that would be your reaction. And that’s not all.” I panned across to Viewpoint. “When I hacked into the mine terminal after the Stone Throwers’ attack, I found requisition orders for various stable parts, but had no confirmation if there was actually a stable there.” I zoomed in on the marker. “But, according to these maps, that is the site of Stable Twenty Seven.”

“There are two more stables in this region?” Helix asked, perplexed. “Why so many in one area?”

“That’s another thing. The warehouse at the exit of Stable Seventeen is marked here as a Water Analysis Station. The logs from the door terminal suggested as much but here is proof that the real use of the building was being kept secret.”

“So ponies would believe that there were only two stables?” Smoking asked.

“It seems that way.” I zoomed out and used my Pipbuck to highlight the marked roads and paths. “Now, it seems the easiest option open to us to get up to Stable Twenty Five is this road here, the E617B, which snakes its way up the mountain side. These maps are pre-war so I have no idea what state it might be in, but being a B class…”

“Fran, sorry to butt in but I’m afraid large portions of that road have collapsed from the cliff edge.” Mantis shook his head. “The only direct route up that I know of is Thunderhead Pass: a hoofpath. Either that or you would have to go to the view point in Viewpoint, cross the Crescent Viaduct then traverse the top of the ridge around.”

“Hmmm. I thought something like that was going to crop up. Typical.” I scratched my muzzle thinking. “Which paths marked on here do you know of?”

“I know most of them but, so far as I know, Thunderhead Pass and the Platinum Traverse are the only two what are useable.”

“What is this dotted path round on the right of Viewpoint?” Foxglove pointed. “That runs all the way up and joins to the ridge.”

“That is the railway that was built to ferry the gems up to the top of the ridge. There is a big landing pad up at the top.” Mantis replied swiftly.

“Could we use that to get to the top of the ridge then traverse round?” I asked.

“You could. The Viewpoint path is shorter but steeper. It would be up to you.”

“Wait wait.” Tungsten cut in. “I remember one of you saying that the slavers operate out of Apploosa. Why aren't we heading there?”

“You are heading there. With the B road out the hoofpaths are the only way of getting in and out of this valley. To get to Apploosa you have to go through the Platinum tunnel and then go all they way across the planes. Its a good five days to the mouth of the tunnel if you go straight there. Going off the path to Stable Twenty Five will make that eight days.”

“You mean it will take over a week?” Tungsten gawped. “What on earth are slavers going to do with our Stable in a week!”

“Its the ascent. you have to rise five thousand feet to go over the pass, five thousand back down to the Stable and then its a shallow one thousand into the bottom of the valley and the entrance to the PLatinum Tunnel.” Mantis Sighed. “Its a shame that we don’t have a local pegasus.”

I turned to him in confusion. “What about Typhoon?”

“She can’t fly.” Helix said sadly. “She got shot, by her own squad apparently.”

“Oh…” I shuffled, embarrassed. “I didn’t know.”

“Its fine, Fran, don’t worry,” Mantis said calmly. “My fault for bringing it up. Anyway, if it was me, I would go Viewpoint, stock up, Platinum hoofpath, follow the rest of the E617B between the peaks and then take that track off to the stable.”

Helix raised her hoof. “Wait, Stitches said it took three weeks to go to Apploosa?”

“That was before the Platinum tunnel, turned two weeks of hiking over the mountains into two days going underneath them.”

“Why can’t we cut straight off the road and down to the stable.” Seafire pointed out a path with her magic.

“That’s a sheer drop of about five thousand feet.” Mother of Celestia thats was a long drop. “The road takes the natural line down the mountainside across the top of the cliff. I know for a fact that bit is still there, so once you make the pass it will be an easy walk down.”

“Does anyone have any other thoughts?” I scanned round the room. “Ripsaw, you haven’t said anything yet.”

“Yeah…” Her ears dropped. “The thing is that, I don’t think I’ll be following you.”

“What?” we all asked in unison.

“Why?” Helix rested a hoof on her.

She shrugged “I’m just not ready for this.”

“Not ready for this how?” Tungsten gave her a ‘what’ look.

“I… I know its nowhere near as bad as what happened to Francium, but I almost got blown up.” Her eyes widened. “I… I fix things. Mend. Repair. I don’t have the mentality for fighting.

“But what I can do is help High-Voltage. There are so many systems that don’t work that could seriously benefit the ponies living here. Even the water filtering plant needs constant repair. I believe my time would be better spent making their lives better. What good is it if we save them all only for them to die. I have a far better knowledge than anyone else here. Do you understand what I am saying?”

We all nodded slowly.

“Foxglove is coming with us,” Tungsten cut in. “She’s getting on for half your age.”

“No. I am not playing that game with you,” Ripsaw replied bluntly. “I have my reasons. She has hers.”

Tungsten grunted. “Fine.”

I felt like kicking him. “No one will make anyone come if they don’t want to.” I eyed Tungsten. “Got that?” He just shrugged.

“Well, does anypony else want to stay?” We all looked between each other but no one raised a hoof. “Good. Mantis, are you going to come with us?”

“I certainly am.” He grinned.

“Good. That makes seven of us.” I beamed round.

Smoking got to his hooves. “Now that is out the way we need to take stock of what we have. That’s Food, supplies, weapons and ammunition. I would also like to assign tasks to each of you and positions for combat.”

“Combat positions?” Foxglove stammered.

“Yes. I will go into more detail when I know what we have but I won’t put you in a position I don’t think you can handle.” He pondered for a moment. “We should also have a formation that we stick to when we walk. Tungsten and Seafire will understand the advantages of this more than the rest of you but organisation is key.”

Seafire stood determinedly. “Then lets get on it.”

* * *

The others had gone off to discuss more military matters leaving Foxglove, Helix and I to sort through our stuff. I emptied my saddle bags onto the bed. Next to me Helix was doing the same. Foxglove was sorting through her stuff on the table.

“How are you feeling Fran?” my love asked softly. “No more pains?”

“I get the occasional twinge but that’s all,” I replied, shaking my bag to get everything out. “It’s mainly my leg, but a few more days with the pills Typhoon gave me should…” I stopped at a heavy clanking sound.

Helix slid up to me and ran a hoof along my back. “Oh Fran. I didn’t know you’d brought those.” I gulped as I looked down at the two pairs of hoofcuffs that lay before me on top of all my other belongings.

“I… I didn’t think I did.” I could feel a familiar heat rising in me.

“Well I’m glad you did. It’s been awhile hasn’t it…” I stuffed my hoof into my mouth to stifle the moan Helix was coaxing from me. “Perhaps we should have some fun?” I groaned again as my loves magic brushed across my most sensitive area.

“But Foxglove…” I gasped though my shortened breath. “She is so close.” My eyes began to roll back.

“Hmmmm, I guess it’ll have to wait.” Helix sighed. “But so you know… I brought a few things of my own.” The last words she spoke so quietly I almost missed them, yet her breath tickled my ear making my knees weaken.

All I could do in reply was nodd.

With Helix no longer teasing me I continued to sort through our stuff, though I noticed that she took the cuffs with a sensual smile. I still only had one spare energy cell for Jury. We had plenty of ammunition for the Blackhawks, about one hundred rounds each. We still had twenty bottle of Sparkle Cola each, but we were low on prewar food and medical supplies.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to get many healing potions here,” Helix said absent mindedly. “They used most of their stock up on you.”

I neatly packed my sparkle cola into one end of my saddle bag. “What about the shops here?”

“Price will probably be up a bit since the are not as many around. We’ll get a better deal in Viewpoint.”

Somepony rapped on the door.

I took Jury in my magic but kept it hidden behind my bag, then nodded to Helix.

“Enter,” Helix called. “Oh, hey Typhoon.” I looked up to see my ex-doctor, I still found it strange not seeing her from below.

She gave us a polite nod, closing the door softly. “I heard from Smoking and Tungsten that you’re planning to leave soon.”

“Yes, hopefully early tomorrow.” I put Jury down and went over to her. “What brings you all the way up here?”

“I have some things for you.” Typhoon lifted the corner of her lab coat to reveal a saddle bag. “I’ve kept these ever since I was stranded down here. I was hoping to put them to good use, but I‘ve never been able to, and given what I know you’re planning to do, I think you’ll benefit from them more than I will.”

Typhoon upended a pair of paper bags onto the bed and opened a battered metal tin. Inside the bags were a hoofful of syringes, several bandages, a packet of tablets and two inhalers. The tin contained around sixty 5.56mm rounds, with a mix of tip colours, and two energy cells.

“Perfect. I need energy cells.” I picked one up and checked it against Jury. “Yep, it matches. Thank you, Typhoon”

“No problem.” She smiled; she had a beautiful smile. “There’s seven rejuvenation potion’s there, like healing potions but better. Some magical bandages, one packet of Med-X tablets and two Dash inhalers.”

“What’s Dash?” Foxglove asked, picking up the small device.

“Its is a highly addictive hallucinogenic stimulant which gives the illusion that time has slowed down.” I gawped at Typhoon. “It was used as a last resort combat drug during the war. Now though many ponies are addicted to it throughout the wasteland.”

Helix pulled the inhaler from her hooves and put it back on the bed. “What do you mean by ‘last resort’?” She asked tentatively.

“For that moment where you are surrounded by enemies and an inch from death. That kind of last resort.” Typhoon muttered darkly. “Where if you don’t take it the last thing you would do was wish you had.”

“I can’t believe somepony created something like this…” Helix shook her head. “Taking it might even kill you if you were on something else already.”

“It often did,” Typhoon added sadly. “But anyway. Take it, but only use it if you have no other choice.”

I just nodded. “What are all these bullets?” I asked, changing the subject.

“Various different 5.56mm rounds. Should fit in those big pistols you have.”

“The Blackhawks.” Helix pulled out hers and laid it on the bed.

“Yeah, that’s the ones.” Typhoon deftly picked up a round of each colour with her wing. “The red tipped ones are incendiary, purple is armour piercing, yellow are explosive and green are poisoned.”

“Poisoned?” we asked in unison.

“Yeah. For taking down large animals and anyone pumped up on drugs. Contain a vial of fast acting neurotoxin. If you shoot anything with one, it will die in minutes.” Typhoon shook her head. “I really hate guns but they were necessary at the time.”

We stood in silence, thinking.

“Well I best be off.” Typhoon looked at us sadly. “Make sure you drop in and say goodbye.”

“We will,” I assured her, opening the door for her.

“See you soon.” She gave a little wave and I shut the door.

I jumped at a ripping sound. I looked down to see part of Typhoons white coat trapped in the door frame.

“I’m sorry.” I quickly opened the door and gasped.

It was just gone. Typhoon’s eyes swelled up as I stared at the three stubs of bone sticking out of the hole where her right wing should have been. The skin was raw and puffy. A tenuous milky pink layer of tissue. The ends of the bone had been whipped to prevent them from splintering further. They twitched as I watched, tugging on the strained skin.

“Oh my...” Helix held a hoof to her mouth.

“Typhoon…” I stammered. “What happened?”

She didn’t move. The strong, intelligent mare gone replaced by a frightened filly hanging on for dear life. She moved her mouth but nothing came out.

“Quickly.” Helix pulled the torn fabric of her lab coat over the wound and steered her back into the room.

I closed the door as Helix led Typhoon back to the bed, clearing our bags and Typhoons gifts to the floor with a wave of her magic. Carefully, she encouraged Typhoon to remove her coat and saddle bag, which I noticed now was positioned as to fill in the gap, making a lump under the coat like her left wing.

Foxglove just stood there, staring in horror at the wound on the pegasus’ side. I could see it, memories returning, of all the death she had seen.

“Foxglove. Snap out of it.” She jumped at my voice. “Make some tea. Ok?” She just nodded, giving her something to do would keep the memories at bay.

“Typhoon,” Helix whispered softly, “can you tell us what happened?”

Typhoon just curled up on her side, her eyes tight shut.

“Did this happen when you crashed?” The tiniest of movements indicated yes.

“You tore your wing off when you hit the ground?” Helix asked surprised.

No.

“Did you do this to yourself?” A tearful eye cracked open, the pupil fully dilated and filled with fear.

“Yes?” I asked, my heart suddenly thumping.

Typhoon shook her head a fraction. “No, good.”

“Who did this to you Typhoon?” My love asked, caressing Typhoons mane.

“R… r… raid, raiders.” Typhoon wept.

“They cut your whole wing off?”

“No. Their doctor,” she said with as much sarcasm as equinely possible. “was told to remove the bullet.” Helix and I exchanged a fearful glance. “It was in his way.”

“So he…” I didn’t need to finish the sentence. Typhoon rolled away from us, took a pillow tightly in her forehooves and cried. All the three of us could do was stroke her and be with her while she wept.

* * *

Typhoon stayed with us until gone midday. There was little we could do for her but be with her. Eventually Helix escorted her back to her room and left me to pack our saddlebags with Foxglove.

As I finished packing my own bag I glanced over at Helix’s. I knew it was bad of me, but I really wanted to know what Helix had brought with her from the stable. I had no idea when she planned for us to use it, but I couldn’t wait until we could play.

‘Just a little peek’ my inner pony prodded. ‘It’ll be alright.’ I bit my lip. I shouldn’t. Wouldn’t it be better if was all a surprise?

My lebido got the better of me. I opened the left hoof pouch and gently felt around with my magic for anything that might be non-essential. I felt the cuffs at the bottom and left them there, There was a collection of rolled up fabric at the bottom, but I didn’t want to pull it out incase she came back. Could be a dress of some kind.

I quickly closed the pouch and opened the other. Again, I felt around inside but nothing obvious. I few medical supplies it seemed, and what felt like a glow stick. There was also what felt like a muzzle mask down there, and a small hoof pump, probably for helping somepony to breath.

I closed the right side up and checked the end pockets. Ammunition, sparkle cola, bandages, half a box of sugar bombs. Then I felt a pair of thin tubes. They couldn’t be anything to play with nor were they stored with the medical supplies.

I pulled them out of the pocket and suddenly wished I hadn’t. They were pregnancy testers. Why would Helix have pregnancy testers? Unless…

There was a knock at the door. I reset everything as quickly as I could while Foxglove went to the door. Helix had returned with Seafire carrying a stack of Barding

“Ember is done with our barding.” Helix smiled. “They look fantastic!”

“They look like they could stop some serious firepower, that’s more what I’m interested in.” Seafire laid each out on the bed so we could all see. “She only messed up one of the titanium ceramic plates. Smoking has taken the replacement hardened steel plate”

“Which one is mine?” Foxglove ran a hoof over the fabric, feeling the plates beneath.

“This one.” Seafire pointed. “Apparently it’s from an old pegasi air base. You can see where its been adjusted to cover up the wing holes. Should be quite good. The only problem I see is that it’s not as heavy duty as I would like it to be since it needed to be worn in flight. It will protect you, but it’s best not to get hit. If you do you will definitely have a bruise.”

“Yes, because I am always in the line of fire.” Foxglove sighed, draping it over herself.

“Let me give you a hoof.” Seafire reached out with her magic to zip up the barding.

“No, I’ve got it.” Foxglove made sure that the barding was central, then with a thrust of her forehooves stood up on her hind legs. She lined up the zip, pinched the zipper in her hooves and slowly drew it up her body, closing it tight.

“It’s a nice fit.” She shuffed her hind quarters and stretched her legs. It doesn’t even catch on my neck.”

“How did you do that?” Seafire gaped.

“Do what?”

“That. The whole standing up… thing.” Seafire pointed, astounded.

Foxglove shrugged “I have always been able to do that. All of us could.”

“You mean that’s normal for an earth pony to dress like that?” Seafire replied.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Wow.” Thats all Seafire could manage.

“Fran.” Helix placed a hoof on my shoulder. “Not to get at you but you haven’t got any barding. What are you planning to wear?”

“I am glad you brought that up.” I grinned, pulling my EVA suit out of the draws beside me “I think I have quite the solution.”

* * *

While I was delirious on that bed I had been thinking over how I’d even gotten to the lake in the first place. A large part of me agreed; I should have died messily with a hole in my neck back in the warehouse of Stable Seventeen.

But I hadn’t.

“Honestly I am not sure what happened.” I said as I pulled out my remaining energy cell and checked it against the temporary holder I had made. “All I can guess is that the moisture in the air, combined with the rain, charged the suits capacitors which fired automatically as safety feature as it detected the increase in pressure from the bullet.”

“The suit has features like that built in?” Helix asked bemused. “Why?”

“The auto activation is for safety teams. Imagine something went wrong in the stable and it flooded. If you were wearing the suit it would protect you from the initial flood of water long enough for the talisman to kick in and take over. The capacitors are there in case the talisman were to fail, it would give you about 5 minutes of energy to keep the repulsion spell up and there would be enough air in the helmet for you to breathe.”

“So how does all that stop you from needing barding.” Seafire asked.

“Easy, modify the suit so that it no longer runs on the talisman but these instead.” I lifted up the cell as I continued to work. “The capacitors will help smooth out any fluctuations in power from the energy cell and cope with the sudden dump of energy required to stop a bullet.”

Seafire did a double take. “So you are telling me that that suit can stop bullets.”

“Yes. I don’t see why not.” I gave the cell a thump and it snapped neatly into the temporary holder above the deconstruction talisman. “But, so you don’t kill me I want to start with the rubber rounds. I am guessing we have some left?”

“Just one magazine.” Seafire pulled out her old Stable pistol and loaded the magazine. “This thing is so small in comparison to my Blackhawk.” She muttered.

“Yeah, we’ll be getting to that in a moment if this works.” I excitedly wired up the last few connections. “Ideally, I would like to do the modifications properly at Arcano Technologies if Swarf will let me, this will just be a proof of concept.”

I finished the final connection, then began to slip into the suit. I was almost done when I felt a pain as my ribs were compressed. I stifled the grunt of pain and pushed past it. Maybe Typhoon was right, I could do with another few days rest. But I didn’t want to think about that now.

The suits spine sealed with the same satisfying click. I took a personal moment to relax, It was like finding my favourite cuddly toy again in years. The familiarity and sense of home. I loved this suit.

“You ready Fran?” Seafire asked.

“Yep.” I took ten large paces back from Seafire, Foxglove and Helix so I was right up against the wall of the room. I took a deep breath as I activated the suit. There was a hum as the systems started up, everything read green, except that the suit believed the talisman was damaged and needed replacing; shame there were none left anyway. “I’m ready.”

Seafire raised the small pistol, breathed deeply and fired.

The lampshade next to my head imploded in a puff of dust and thin paper. The round had struck the repulsion spell and been deflected at a right angle from the point of impact. The suits capacitors barely fluctuated at all.

“You alright.” Helix asked cautiously.

“Yeah. Didn’t feel a thing.” I readied myself again “Fire until I say stop this time Seafire. About 1 round per second.” The white mare nodded.

“In three, two, one.” She fired. Again. And again.

The capacitive readout dropped with each shot. Rounds deflected all over the room, denting wood and whizzing back over Seafire’s head. The indicator was still green after eight shots at with half the capacity remaining. Seafire Kept firing. The readout jumped to amber on the eleventh shot, indicating current overload, I watched the remaining power drop exponentially until...

Seafire fired the fifteenth round and I took it squarely in the chest as the capacitors gave out. I dropped to the floor coughing and gasping.

“Fran!” Helix bounded over the bed to my side. “Are you alright?” She unclipped the suit and unzipped it to reveal a freshly blooming purple bruise mark. “Dam it Fran. Why didn’t you tell her to stop.”

“Got… distracted.” I wheezed getting to my feet.

My love rolled her eyes. “Distracted?”

“The capacitors can’t cope with the sudden current draws as they get lower down. It could probably stop a 5.56mm round but the strain on the capacitors would be huge.”

“Well its a good job that raider only had a .32 pistol or you would be dead right now.” Seafire ejected the spent magazine. “I hope you found out what you needed, cause the next time we do this it will have to be with live ammunition.”

“I think I did and, more importantly, I think I know how to solve it.” I pulled myself to my feet. “That will have to wait until Viewpoint. The cell has only had around a tenth of its power drained, the capacitors just couldn’t keep up.” I checked my HUD again. “Yeah the capacitors have recharged while we’ve been talking. So, in theory, one of those cells could deflect around one hundred and fifty of those rounds.”

Seafire didn’t seem to be taking to the idea. “But if we are being shot at they may well be using 5.56mm round from assault rifles. They hit around five times harder so you could only survive thirty of those.”

“I am not planning on standing where they can hit me in the same way you aren't planning to,” I retorted. “I still need cover and stuff. I will just last a little longer if I am caught in the open.” Seafire just made an agreeable grunt.

There was a hard knock on the door. “Enter.” Helix called.

Tungsten and Smoking stepped in. “Are you lot ready to...” Smoking began. He spotted the dented walls and the broken light shade then looked to me in my EVA suit. “What is going on here?”

“We were just testing out my EVA suit to see if can deflect bullets,” I said happily.

Smoking and Tungsten gawped. “And can it?”

“To a point it seems,” Seafire cut in.

Smoking just glanced at the lot of us. “Well, are you ready to leave or not? If we don’t go now we won’t reach the warehouse before Nightfall.”

Foxglove took a step back. “We… we are staying there?”

“We have to. Unless you want to sleep outside,” Tungsten added.

Foxglove looked like she would very much take her chances.

With one last quick glance around I sighed. “Yes, I believe we are ready.”

* * *

Leaving High-Voltage left a strange feeling in my stomach. As I watched the towers disappear into a midday mist that was settling down around us, I wondered if anypony would actually remember what I had done. I really didn’t want to be idolised, but I didn’t want them to forget either. If anything, I wanted it to evolve into something almost mythological: the mare in black that entered the lake and saved all of High-Voltage.

That, I could deal with. No face. No name. Just the act.

“We need to press on if we are going to reach the warehouse,” Smoking called back. “Come on Fran, pick up the pace. Mantis is going to be there waiting, fire lit and food ready.”

“Are you alright, my love?” Helix nuzzled me as I turned back to the group.

“Yeah, I suppose.” I looked up at the sky. “It’s going to rain again isn’t it.”

“Probably.” She giggled.

“I am beginning to wonder if we'll ever see the sun.”

Helix, scratched the back of her neck with her magic. “Yeah, about that…”

In the next six hours Helix and the others filled me in on everything I had missed: the Enclave, the pony with the pink hair, the cazadore eggs. We also witnessed the lake get filled to bursting point as the rain came down in a torrent, which really did hammer home that I would never get to see the sun.

We arrived at the warehouse just as the last of the suns rays disappeared. Mantis was waiting for us with his scoped rifle slung over his shoulder. He looked a little grim.

“I’m afraid I need your help doing a little clearing up. A few raiders had taken up residence and didn’t want to budge.”

“More raiders?” Foxglove slowly drifted to hide behind Seafire.

“Only four. They didn’t dress like the others, so not of the same group.”

“You didn’t get hit did you?” Seafire asked.

Mantis laughed. “Nah, this lot only had clubs and knives. No match for a single grenade.”

We cautiously entered the warehouse and then I saw what Mantis meant by clearing up. All four raiders had been decimated by the grenade. The remains of their campfire had been blasted everywhere, including into one raiders eye socket along with what appeared to be stew.

“Got it to land right in their cooking pot.” Mantis said proudly. “None of them wanted to put their hoof in to pull it out.”

I winced. That sounded far from a clean death.

Smoking sighed “Let’s get them outside. I am not planning to sleep with that in the corner of the room.”

The clean up didn’t take long and before long Mantis was cooking on a campfire of our own. The seven of us sat in a circle round it, ‘much like when we’d found the sparkle cola’ my little pony mourned, slowly consuming the stew Mantis brewed. Despite what happened in the warehouse, I was strangely content, listening to the rain lash against the Warehouse roof, a belly full of warm stew, and snuggled up against my love.

“What are you smiling at Fran.” Helix looked down at my head in her lap as she stroked my mane.

I rubbed my muzzle against her tummy. “Just happy, that’s all.”

“Well, how about a little game?” Helix whispered.

Uh oh.

“Lets see how good you are at...” I strained to stifle a gasp as Helix reached inside me with her magic. “Controlling yourself. Just stay where you are and enjoy it.”

“Please don’t…” I groaned. “Please don’t…” She kept pushing at the crucial word.

“Please don’t what?” She smiled seductively down at me, but I couldn’t respond. It took all my effort to control my voice and my urges. “I am waiting my love?” Please don’t what?”

“Please don’t, “Oh to the moon with it… “Please don’t stop.”

And with that my love got to work. Stroking my body with her magic, out of sight of the others. She held aloft her bowl of stew and kept refilling it as to have an excuse to have her horn glowing. Her touch played across all my most sensitive areas and I could feel myself getting very wet. It was crazy. Here I was, mere feet from Tungsten and the others, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Even after what happened before, the thought of being discovered only made my heart beat faster.

Tungsten spun round. “What was that?” He whipped out his Blackhawk and stood up.

“Probably just the wind,” Helix replied, giving my nipples a really hard squeeze, almost making me lose my focus.

“No, it sounded like something crunching or scraping.” He looked at us all. “Do you want a repeat of what happened here before?” He asked in a fierce whisper.

We didn’t need any more motivation.

I was suddenly alert, I whipped out Jury and activated the new battery on the back of my EVA suit.

Tungsten and Seafire moved left to cover the door entrance, Mantis and Smoking hugged the back of the door ready to swing round and surprise anypony that stupidly ran though. I backed off into the shadows along with Helix and Foxglove, keeping my weapon trained on the gap in the huge steel door.

We waited.

And waited.

“Are you sure you heard something?” I heard Seafire whisper.

“Positive.”

Seafire looked over at Smoking for orders. Smoking responded with a series of hoof motions that I couldn’t interpret, but Seafire and Tungsten clearly did. The pair slowly advanced through the gap in the door, and disappeared from sight. We waited.

“Helix, get the medical supplies now!” Tungsten yelled.

My love darted to our saddlebags and began emptying them onto the floor. Tungsten entered first, closely followed by a glowing blue light. Seafire was carrying a pony in her magic, an earth buck by the look of it wearing…

“Great Celestia, Aramid!” Smoking galloped over to him where Helix was already cutting off his barding with a scalpel. “What happened?”

“He is unconscious,” Helix replied quickly, lifting up as to slide his ruined barding to one side. Her horn glowed bright white, enveloping Aramid’s unconscious form. “Severe internal bleeding, all of his ribs are broken, fractured skull and pelvis. All seem to be caused by extreme force from a blunt object.

“He has lost a lot of blood, too.” She looked up at us all. “Who knows what blood type they are?”

No response.

“If I don’t give him some more blood he will never wake up.” Helix said desperately. “He will lapse into a comma, and he will die. If I give him a transfusion now I may be able to prolong his life long enough to repair the damage.”

“All of you prick your leg, I need a small sample from all of you.” Helix rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a few test tubes. “A drop will do. Get it in the vial and wait.”

Helix took one for herself and then held another to a bleeding cut of Aramid’s leg. With a little pain I pricked my leg with a spare scalpel blade and let the bead of blood roll into the vial.

“Isn’t there a spell for this?” Tungsten asked, letting a drop into to his own vial.

“There is but I don’t know it,” Helxi replied quickly. “Each of you hold out your vial, I am going to drip a drop of Aramid’s blood in with yours, just shake it to mix it up and then watch it closely.”

We all swilled out vials as Helix pricked her own hoof and copied us.

“What are we looking.” I asked my love tentatively.

“Any clumping of the blood. If it clumps it bad. Most of you will.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Foxglove asked.

“Then I will need to take some of your blood and give it to Aramid.”

“Oh…” Foxglove gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Helix checked her vial.

“Mine isn’t clumping.” She replied.

Tungsten grunted. “Mine, Smoking and Seafire’s have all clumped up.”

“Mantis?” Helix yanked the vial out of his hoofs. “Dam, clumping. And Fran?” She yanked mine from my magic. “Dam, yours has too.”

“What does this mean?” Foxglove whispered.

“I need you to lie down so I can take some of your blood.” Helix pulled off her barding and opened it out. “Lie on this, it will be more comfortable than the floor.”

Over the next hour I watched as Helix took two pints from Foxglove. She did her best to patch up Aramid’s wounds with her magic and the few healing potions we had. When Foxglove could give no more she fitted a drip to Aramid’s hoof and began to feed the blood into his system.

Helix looked more and more concerned as over half of the blood flowed into Aramid. “Wow. I knew he had probably lost a lot of blood but not this much.”

“What I want to know is what caused all those wounds.” Smoking grunted as he covered the entrance with his BlackHawk. “He looks like he was kicked to death but there are no hoofmarks.”

Aramid suddenly began to cough and twitch. With a groan he opened his eye and looked up at Helix crouched over him.

“Damn, you look pretty.” He wheezed. “I gotta ask, am I dead?”

“No. You are very much alive,” Helix replied fiercely. “And you are going to stay that way.”

Aramid gave a short bark of laughter that turned into a hacking cough. “I seriously doubt that. Besides you look like too much of an angel to be real.”

“Trust me, you're alive.” Gravely Smoking looked down at Aramid.

“Gosh darn it, how did you get into heaven.” Aramid wheezed again grinning.

“I didn’t.” Smoking added with a slight smile. He knelt down to his fellow soldier. “Aramid, you need to tell us, what happened after you left the warehouse.”

Aramid gave a long sigh. I thought he was going to die there and then, but he licked his dry lips and stared into space. “What didn’t happen. About four hours after we left we came across a lone traveller with what looked like a cow that he called a brahmin. We could barely see him through the driving rain. We asked him where we were and he jovially replied that we were inches from death, and I thought he was having a laugh.

“They opened up on us from all sides, maybe six in total from the different weapon sounds. I got a single shot off with my pistol, but I’d loaded it with those dam rubber rounds. The next thing I remember was getting a hoof in the face. This electric blue buck tried to interrogate me, what resources we had, how many of us there were, how we were defended. I told him to stick it where the sun don’t shine, though the sun doesn’t seem to shine around here anyway.

“Another hoof to the face and I blacked out. When I woke again I thought I was flying. I can’t explain it but the way the vehicle we were in lurched and dropped, like nothing I had experienced before. It was the only logical explanation. Blue Shell and Talus were with me, the civies were no where to be seen. That buck was back, big blood red lightning bolt on his flank, I thought he was going to interrogate us, but one by one he pushed us out of the rear hatch of the vehicle into the driving rain.

“I remember falling, a long way and blacking out again. When I opened my eyes I had been washed up on the edge of the lake. I could tell everything was broken, but I wasn’t dead yet. I picked a direction at random and started dragging. I passed out just in front of the warehouse and then woke up to see your ugly muzzles. Not you, though, Helix. You’re hot.”

“Aramid.” Helix soothed, ignoring his comment. “We have been away from here for two weeks. What you have just said can’t have lasted more than three days.”

“That’s what I remember.” Aramid coughed again. “Wait? Two weeks? No, that’s not possible.”

“It is solider.” Smoking shook his head. “Two weeks and a lot has happened to us. Young Francium here saved a whole town, Clef and Stave are living in a town at the other end of this lake.”

Aramid nodded approvingly. “Not bad. Maybe this place ain’t so shit after all.”

“I don’t know about that,” Foxglove muttered.

“Where is everypony else? Did you move to either of these towns?”

We all looked at each other. “Aramid, we’re all that’s left of our stable that we know of,” Helix said cautiously.

The buck just looked confused.

“The day after we left, we came back to find that our stable had been… attacked. Of the seventy or so that were here we found about fifty dead. We believe the others have been taken by slavers.”

Aramid just gulped. “They’re all gone?” All we could do was nod. “Then where are you going now?”

“To get them back,” I said simply.

Aramid just lay there like he had been paralyzed. With an usher from Helix we all left her to look after him as best she could. If I understood what he’d said, it seemed he had been pushed out of some flying vehicle over the lake. If that was the case then he was very lucky not to have drowned or been killed by hitting the water. ‘It may have killed him anyway’ my inner pony pointed out.

After a while, Helix came and joined us by the fire while Seafire went over to keep Aramid company. She looked more forlorn than I had seen for a while.

“He isn’t going to make it. I just don’t have the equipment.” She rubbed her eyes with her hooves. “Even in seventeen it would have been tricky, but out here… all I can do it make his last hours more comfortable.”

“It’s a shame he can’t remember much.” Mantis dropped another pulp brick onto the fire. “Doesn’t he remember anything about what happened in those seven days?”

“He can’t recall anything. It could be head trauma, it could be phycological. But either way, there’s nothing we can do.”

“What about the medical centre at the Mine?” I suggested.

My love threw her her hooves in the air desperately. “Without more blood, moving him would kill him. And I dare not take any more from Foxglove.”

“How long do you think he has?” Tungsten asked dryly.

“Less than a day.” Helix looked like she was going to cry again. I pulled her close to me and stroked her mane slowly and gently. She shuddered slightly in my grasp as she calmed.

“Do you need to talk,” I whispered gently. “You haven’t shaken like this in a long time.”

“I can’t keep up with it.” She hiccuped. “I don’t have time to come to terms with every death before the next is upon me. And I know that sounds really analytical, but I can’t think of any other way to put it. I just can’t keep up any more.”

“What can I do to help you.” I lifted her between my legs and leant her head against my chest so she could lie back on me. “What do you need.” I gave her a gentle kiss on her flopping ears.

“I don’t know.” She shuddered again.

“Are you cold?”

“A little.”

I gently slid us closer to the fire while pulling out the blanket from Helix’s saddlebags. I wrapped it around her, taking care to tuck in the edges so there were no drafts. I leant back against my saddle bags and rested my head on my loves shoulder.

“Comfortable?” Helix gave a content little nod. “Try and get some sleep. I’ve got you.” And with that I let my love rest in my arms and slowly I too drifted off.

* * *

It seemed none of us slept very well that night. When I groggily awoke the next morning, I found myself wrapped in the blanket with Helix stroking my mane. Stretching out in her hooves, my first thought drifted to Aramid.

“Did he make it through the night?’ I asked, but I thought I knew the answer.

“Surprisingly, he did make it.” Well, I was wrong. “But there’s no improvement.”

“Has he remembered anything else?” My love just shook her head.

“Helix!”

We both rushed over to Seafire who was pinning Aramid to the ground as best she could as the buck writhed on the ground, his eyes wide with fear.

“What happened?” Helix asked helping to pin him down.

“I don’t know. One moment he was fine and talking the next he started this.”

“Could be any number of things. Keep him pinned. There is nothing we can do. Fran, push down on his chest, but not to hard. We need to limit his movements so he doesn't harm himself.”

I leant in, but before I could do anything, he stopped moving altogether.

“What happened? Is he dead?” Seafire asked fearfully.

“No, he’s still breathing, but it’s very shallow.”

“Helix.” Aramid’s fearful eyes locked onto hers. “It’s all a lie. Don’t trust her. She gets inside your head. Makes your forget.”

“Forget what?” she asked desperately.

“Everything,” He whispered. “I remember it all now, the whole time. I wasn’t unconscious. I was locked up. In a cage. All of us where. But they couldn’t break us, so they got rid of us. To scare you. So you wouldn’t follow. They expected me to die. She wanted to make an example.”

“But who is she?” Helix never got a reply. Aramid began shaking violently again, coughing up splatters of blood.

“Helix! Help him!” Seafire yelled. But there was nothing that we could do. The convulsions began to slow until his body went limp.

Helix activated her PipBuck light and flashed it over Aramid’s eyes. “No pupil response.” She muttered closing his eyes with her magic.

A while later, Smoking and Mantis came back inside from their watch and spotted the three of us huddled round Aramid’s body.

Smoking came over. “How is he doing?” The mournful look in Helix’s eyes answered his question. Smoking seemed to take a moment to absorb that piece of information. “Did he say anything else before he died?”

“‘It’s all a lie. Don’t trust her. She gets inside your head. Makes your forget.’” Seafire recited slowly. “He also said that in the time he couldn’t remember earlier he was kept in a cage, and it seems the members of security were killed to try and set an example to us.”

None of us said anything. Yet again we were back in this damn warehouse, and another member of our Stable had passed away. And yet I could not shake the feeling that we should have bigger concerns.

“What do you think he meant though,” I muttered to Helix as we packed up our things, preparing to head out. “And who is She. Do you think that She could be Madame? And that buck he described with the blood red thunderbolt, he could easily have been Storm. If that is the case then… we I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry, I reached the same conclusion.” Helix slung her saddle bags over her back and clipped them up. “And I can’t figure out what it all means either.” Helix suddenly spun round. “Where’s Tungsten?”

I scanned round. “Don’t know. Maybe he’s outside.”

“His stuff is still here.” Helix sounded nervous.

“Look, the door to the walkway is open.” I approached it slowly and took a quick peek. A shadow stood at the far end, almost lost in the ever present mist. “He’s out here.” I called to her.

“What in Equestria is he doing.” Helix stormed past me and off into the gloom. “Here we are, in the middle of the wasteland, most of us are dead, and he thinks its a good idea to just wander off!” I raced to follow her.

“You!” Helix shouted making Tungsten jump as she approached. “What the hell do you think you are doing!” Tungsten opened his mouth. “No, I don’t care. You do not go off without telling any of us, understand!” Tungsten just nodded, looking shocked. “Good, cause I’ve lost all of my friends, I’ve almost lost Fran, and I am not planning on losing you. Got that?”

Tungsten just shook his head vigorously. Helix turned with a huff and marched back to the warehouse.

“What was that about?” Tungsten asked, surprised.

“I think you scared her for a moment.”

“Scared her?”

“She loves you, Tun. You’re the only family she has left. And simply walking off and not telling anypony where you have gone is reckless. Nothing is as it seems out here. Nothing is safe. She doesn’t want to lose you.”

We both turned round and looked down into the tower. It was exactly how we had left it. Bullet marks and all.

“Do you think anypony survived when the power went out?” Tungsten asked cautiously.

“I have no idea. I would need to know what the system status was, but you smashed the screen.”

“Couldn’t you hook up your PipBuck? Tap in with that?”

“I suppose so.”

Tungsten and I descended the steps and walked up to the control panel. A faint light still glowed within, even though the screen was totaled. With a flick of my magic I felt for the hidden catch inside the panel’s body that would let me open it. The panel popped open, and I lifted up.

“If I do this right this should bounce what was on the screen to my PipBuck.” I flicked a few of the microswitches on the main board and activated the system’s diagnostic broadcaster. My PipBuck pinged, indicating a new signal and I opened it up.

“Ok, I am inside the diagnostics of the terminal. I can’t control it from here, but I can see what is on the screen.”

“So what does it say?” Tungsten asked, peering in. I showed him the screen.

-STABLE DOOR OPENING SEQUENCE COMPLETE

-WARNING: STABLE CONTROL MANEFRAME RUNNING ON EMERGENCY POWER

-WARNING: MULTIPLE CRITICAL SYSTEMS FAILURE

-AIR FILTRATION SYSTEMS 0% POWER

-WATER PUMP SYSTEMS 0% POWER

-ORCHARD WEATHER CONTROL 1-4 0% POWER

-TURBINE 1 :AMBER

-TURBINE 2 :AMBER

-TURBINE 3 :AMBER

-GAS SYPHONING :AMBER

-SYSTEM RESETTING

-CAUTION: POWER INSUFFICIENT TO RESTORE ALL SYSTEMS

-ENTER OVERRIDE CODE TO SELECT SELECTIVE STARTUP

-PASSWORD-

-NOTE: SYSTEM SWITCHED TO INTERNAL CONTROL

-INCORRECT PASSWORD - 2 ATTEMPTS LEFT

-INCORRECT PASSWORD - 1 ATTEMPT LEFT

-INCORRECT PASSWORD - 0 ATTEMPTS LEFT

-SYSTEM LOCK OUT

-MANUAL MANEFRAME OVERRIDE ACCEPTED

-SELECTIVE STARTUP INITIATED

-AIR FILTRATION SYSTEMS 45% POWER RESTORED

-WATER PUMP SYSTEMS 10% POWER RESTORED

-ORCHARD WEATHER CONTROL 1 100% POWER

-ORCHARD WEATHER CONTROL 2-3 0% POWER

-TURBINE 1 :GREEN

-TURBINE 2 :RED - CAPACITOR FAILURE

-TURBINE 3 :RED - CAPACITOR FAILURE

-GAS SYPHONING :AMBER - SOFTWARE MALFUNCTION - SEEK TECHNICIAN ASSISTANCE

-STABLE IN REPAIRABLE EMERGENCY SITUATION

-SIGNAL DISPATCHED TO STABLE-TEC HQ

-LINE 1: UNRESPONSIVE

-LINE 2: UNRESPONSIVE

-LINE 3: RESPONSIVE - SOS DISPATCHED

-DISH 1: UNRESPONSIVE

-DISH 2: RESPONSIVE - SOS DISPATCHED

-DISH 3: RESPONSIVE - SOS DISPATCHED

-SATELLITE LINK TO STABLE-TECH ESTABLISHED

-NO RESPONSE FROM STABLE-TEC: 13D 4H 9M AND COUNTING

“So what does that all mean?” Tungsten asked, bemused.

“By the look of it, they attempted to restart the systems from the inside. It failed at first without the two keys.” I glanced down to where they stuck out of their respective slots in the panel. “They then managed a manual override and restored a few of the systems. The final part seems to be an automated distress signal to Stable-Tec, but as it says, they got no response.”

“They restored air filtration, water, and one of the orchards.” Tungsten suddenly lit up. “That’s air, food and water! Maybe there are survivors!”

His excitement dies at the look on my face.

“It’s been two weeks. With air filtration only restored to 45% it would have only bought them another day or so. Unless they managed something else that isn’t logged on these systems in that time then…” I decided not to say it out loud.

“What about the orchard, they got one segment up and running.”

“If there were few enough ponies in there for the trees to cope then perhaps.” I didn’t want to give up on them, but with the evidence before me their chances looked slim at best.

“What are you two doing down here?” We looked up to see Smoking and Seafire peering down at us. “We need to leave.”

“Fran hacked into the terminal. It seems that they managed to restore a few systems. They might have–” Tungsten began excitedly, but I jumped over him.

“Enough to buy them a day or two at the most. Not two weeks.” I kicked the console. “I’m sorry, but based on the information before me… they all died. Every. Single. One.”

“Is there any way to know for sure?” Smoking asked. “At all. No matter how crazy.”

“Besides going down there in my EVA suit or cutting through the door? No.”

“If you got down there in your EVA suit and there was no pony alive, could you restore the systems?”

“No. It all comes down to power. Both generation and storage. We would need a portable generator of huge proportions and then a bank of capacitors to deal with that initial current drain.”

Smoking sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I know I am not in charge of this group, none of us are, but I believe we know that there ponies from our Stable out there that need us. That must come before a hunch or guess. Save them first, then come back here and see what we can do.”

We all nodded, though Tungsten didn’t seem to like the idea at all.

“Now come on. We need to go.”

“What about Aramid?” I asked.

“We buried him as best we could next to the others and the fire. He’ll be alright.”

I nodded slowly, recovering the console and packing up my tools.

“What do you think the chances are of us ever being able to get Seventeen up and running again?” Tungsten ask me cautiously.

“If we can find the right equipment, then its possible, but I can’t see how such stuff would have survived nearly one hundred and ninety years.” I gave him a hug. “It’s not your fault Tun. We can fix this.”

“What was that for?” He asked as I let go.

“Because I care about you that’s what. If you don’t like it, deal with it.”

He grinned. “That’s not the only thing I am having to deal with. But what I can say is you are going to be in for it the next time you and Helix are alone. She should have taken more care to conceal your toys.”

It was the strangest sensation. I was dumbfounded that Tungsten had just made that comment. Embarrassed that he knew more about my kink and shocked that the first time I had seen him properly smile since we left the stable was at how I was going to ‘get it’ from his little sister. I would have given a lot to see my face as all Tun could do was smirk then burst out laughing.

* * *

We gave Aramid a quiet ceremony before we left. Nothing spectacular, but from what I could tell he wasn’t the kind of buck that would have wanted more than simple recognition. With a touch of her magic, Seafire lit the soil above his grave in her beautiful blue fire. Its myriad of hue’s disappeared into the mist as we set on our way.

Our Journey to Viewpoint was, thankfully, uneventful; we even remained totally dry. The guards let us in with a nod of appreciation, presumably for our help in the fight against the Stone Throwers. The road through the centre of the town was still a myre of mud and sludge. As we approached Tabitha’s Treats we could hear some very raucous music emanating from within its wall.

The lot of us followed Mantis inside, who promptly went to check on Tabitha at the bar. The five of us settled ourselves down to watch Clef and Stave up on the small stage once more with Offbeat playing some lovely smooth jazz. A well needed pick me up.

“Are we going to spend the night here?” Seafire asked, looking around.

Smoking nodded with a yawn. “I think it’s best. Get a good night sleep. Pick up what we need early on, and then head out. Who wants a drink?”

My love lazily lifted her hoof. “Something alcoholic.” Tungsten and I nodded in agreement.

“Seafire?”

“Same as those two.” She yawned. “Foxglove? What about you? I suggest you steer clear of alcohol though.” But the young mare seemed to tired to do anything, she leant against Seafire and hugged Seafire’s foreleg with her own.

“I’m alright, thank you,” She muttered sleepily.

“So what is it we need to buy besides food?” I asked. “I know I need some more batteries for Jury, and I want to see if Swarf has any capacitor that I can interface with my EVA suit.”

“Mantis suggested we get a tent of some description. It gets very cold up there apparently, and if we get caught in a storm it could be very bad,” Helix replied.

“How many days will it take to get over?” Seafire asked. “None of us have really experienced extreme cold outside of the SRS system in winter and that only went down to freezing point.

“Mantis reckons a single day’s ascent, since the main road is out, then only a few more hours down to the entrance. There is actually the ruins of an old hostel at the pass which should be good enough to sleep in. We would need a fire but that’s all.”

“So what is the tent for?” Tungsten asked.

“That’s is for if we have to head over the top to Apploosa. As you said, Fran, there is a tunnel under the mountain, but we have no idea what state it’s in. It could have collapsed or be infested with creatures.”

“How long will that take?”

“The tunnel is two days. The mountain is at least four if the weather is good.”

“I cant see the weather being good.” Smoking returned, deftly slipping all five pints off his back and onto the table. “After what you said about the pegasi closing up the sky when the bombs fell, it seems the weather will do what it likes, and round here that seems to be torrential rain.

“I’ve booked us all rooms, so you know. It’s split into three, Tungsten and I, Foxglove and Seafire, and then the two love birds.” Tungsten gave me a grin and a sly wink. Did he really know what Helix had? I hoped he was just kidding, but I guess it didn’t matter either way.

The evening we spent drinking, eating and chatting. The rest of the town came for the more lively music later in the evening at which point Seafire carried the sleeping form of Foxglove up to bed. I did wonder if Seafire minded how the young mare seemed to be spending more and more time with her.

“Four portions of stew?” I jumped from my stupor to see Tabitha laying a tray of bowls onto our table.

“Perfect, I am starving.” Tungsten grabbed a bowl and gave it a good sniff. “Smells pretty good.” He shoved a big spoonful into his muzzle. “Whats in it?”

“Bloatsprite, diced succulents, and mixed vegetables.” Tungsten stopped chewing. “Though admittedly there isn’t much of the last one in there. The flavour comes from how we cook the Bloatsprite meat,” Tabitha added happily. “I see you like it.”

“Until I knew what was in it,” He muttered as Tabitha turned away.

Helix and I laughed, taking our own bowls and giving the stew a taste. It was far better than what we’d eaten at High Voltage. The bloatsprite actually had texture and an interesting flavour, even if it was a little chewy. The succulents were good too, but when I hovered my PipBuck over the bowl I winced.

“We really ought to have a Rad-X each before we continue. The succulents are just full of radiation.” I pulled the packet of little orange pills out of my pocket and passed it around. “It’s a shame everything around is so saturated unless you go up high.”

As we finished our bowls, Helix posed an interesting question. “How high up were we when we got above the radiation, when we went to the view point I mean?”

“No idea. Why?”

“Well, surely if you could find somewhere up high that was flat you could build a village or town free from radiation. Ok, it may not be totally free, but low enough that you didn’t need a Rad-X or Rad-Away every meal.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Its just a thought.”

“I can see that being possible, but I have no idea how high up you would need to be. It might be impossibly cold, or too remote to get resources to.”

My love sighed. “Mantis is right. It’s a shame there are not many pegasi around here. But poor Typhoon. That must of been horrible.”

The lot of us nodded in agreement.

Smoking finished his pint and stood up. “I am going to call it a night. You should all do the same.” He added with a stretch.

“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.” Helix pulled on my hoof. “Come on Fran, bedtime.”

“I was going to stay and watch Clef and Stave for a while.”

Helix pulled harder. “Come on, you need your rest, trust me. I know what you get like when you are tired. The word cranky comes to mind.”

“Fine.” I let my love pull me to my hooves. “Let’s go to sleep.”

* * *

Our room was on the top floor that was unoccupied besides us. I pushed the door open to the room and got a pleasant surprise. Unlike in High-Voltage everything looked like it had been carefully tended too. The curtains looked newly sewn, apart from the slightly bedraggled bottom edge. The light blue wall paper was smooth and unmarked. The floor was just bare wood with a few neat rugs in key places. But what I was really focused on was the massive bed. It had posts rising in each corner to support an elaborate wooden top from which thin white fabric hung in drapes. The wood work did look a little battered but overall the effect was very pleasing.

“A four poster bed.” My love’s eyes were wide with glee as she dropped her bags onto the floor next to the chest of draws. “I’ve only ever heard about these.”

“It looks beautiful, I will give you that.” I smiled. “What's with all the decoration?”

“It’s just being elaborate and lavish and excessive. Four posters were popular with the rich as a way to show off their wealth. Showing that even something as simple as a bed could look stunning.” Helix moved and gently ran her hoof over the fabric and the wood. “I’ve always wanted a bed like this. The excess, the size, the height.” She turned to me and pouted her lips. “The privacy.”

Oh my…

My love reached out with her magic and removed my saddlebags for me. She walked towards me slowly, swinging her rump with every step, letting her mane sway sensually.

“You look like you’re in shock,” She whispered as she gently rested her nose against mine, her beautiful eyes looking right into mine.

All I could do was nod.

“Well, I hope this can break you out of it.”

Helix kissed me. She gently pressed her lips against mine, tilting her head. I instinctively responded, tilting, my own and slowly matching my love’s soft movements with my own. We played, each pushing and relaxing our lips as we both let our motions become automatic as to focus on the beautiful and intense sensations from our kiss.

I gasped as Helix lunged with her lips, sucking and biting down on my lower muzzle. I lifted my head letting her move in to nibble and bite along the side of my jaw and onto my neck. Her tongue and breath danced across my cheek, provoking involuntary twitches as lances of pleasure ran down my neck and across my spine.

And then my love did something that she’d never done before. She licked my horn.

My knees collapsed as my mind went empty. Pleasure beyond anything I had ever felt was all that was left as I fell to the floor.

“Fran!” I opened my eyes to see Helix’s shocked face. “I’m sorry… are you alright?”

I was more than alright. “Do that again. Please.”

My love giggled and smiled beautifully as she gazed down at me. “So you liked that, did you?” She asked playfully. I just nodded slowly.

“Ok, I’ll do it again, when you’re lying on the bed.” I jumped to my feet only to find that Helix was blocking my way. “Oh no, you have to get passed me first. And no, pouting will get you nowhere.” She added as I put on my cutest sad puppy face.

And so the game began. I lunged at my love wrapping my hooves round her neck, trying to pull her to the floor. I gave her a quick kiss as she tried to escape my grasp. I knew that if I could pin her to the floor then I could jump off her and onto the bed. But the lack of space in the room was making it trickier than in my own room.

We both tumbled over onto a fake fur rug, but somehow Helix ended up on top. I struggled to free myself as she landed kiss after kiss on my sides making giggle and jerk. She knew just where I was most ticklish. I grabbed her round her middle and pulled her down on top of me, that way she couldn’t kiss me and distract me. I got in a few cheeky ones of my own making her gasp with mock indignation. I tried my best to roll over, to get me on top, but there wasn’t enough space. Helix was struggling to get back to her hooves so I decided to help her.

As she pushed up, I did so too, putting her up on her hind legs like a bipedal. I used my magic to stop her falling over backwards and managed to get up in time before she flopped back down on the rug. I jumped on top of her, admittedly the wrong way round, and then lunged for the bed.

“Made it!” I grinned as my love pulled herself up. I couldn’t help but laugh at her mane– which was a total mess.

“Took you less time than I expected.” She smiled back playfully. “Usually you need all the space of your room to get round me. Now, “ she slowly slid up onto the bed at my side, “your reward.”

I lay down on my side and closed my eyes. I could feel Helix moving around me, her warmth, her breath. Her tongue touched against my neck and I moaned again at her gentle touch. After only a few months, she’d learned what gave me maximum pleasure and she had been using it to her advantage ever since. She nibbled her way up to just beneath my ear and blew gently making me shudder. Another quick bite of my ear sent waves running through me once more.

Then it came. Helix’s tongue touched the base of my horn and slowly run up to the tip. It was incredible. Why had she never done this before? I didn’t bother to contain yet another moan of bliss, relishing in my loves touch.

“You really do love that don’t you.” Helix kissed me again leaving me desperate for more.

I opened my eyes and looked up at my beautiful Helix. I was so happy. It filled every part of me. I could have stared at her for hours. Well, I could have if Helix hadn’t really turned me on. I jumped up to kiss her again, but she pushed me back down.

“Ah ah, you know how this works. Any more of that and I won’t be so nice.” I nodded respectfully, secretly enjoying her authority. “Now there is more than one reason I wanted a four poster, besides its beauty. Can you guess why?” I shook my head. “Because it gives me so many places to attach this.”

My insides tumbled. Helix held up several small bundles of purple rope in her magic that matched her coat perfectly.

“Do you like the colour?” she asked playfully. I nodded vigorously. “I thought you would. Even better you can have any colour you like. A special dye.” With a flash of magic the rope changed to blue, green, yellow, black and then to its natural colour before going back to that ever so beautiful shade of purple.

“Can I ask where you got it from?” I whispered.

“I had plenty of time to gather toys when we were at High-Voltage. Well, once I knew you were going to be alright, I could let my mind wander to doing more naughty things.”

“Tungsten hinted that he might know what was in store for me. He said that I would be ‘In for it’ next time you and I were alone.”

“And he is quite right.” Oh crap. “Now you know what to do, and be quick about it.”

As Helix watched I lay on my back and spread my legs so Helix could bind me to the bed. The rope was very soft, I had no idea how much it had cost her, but I hoped it would last. It was an odd feeling that this was one of the few parts of me that had remained unaltered since leaving Stable seventeen. Even if I could only experience it infrequently it was nice to know that, for the most part, I was still me.

With a final tug Helix hopped off the bed and admired my position. “Are you comfortable?” I nodded slowly. “Good cause you are going to be staying like that for a while.” I opened my mouth to protest and suddenly wished I hadn’t. There was no way I could complain now as Helix buckled it tight. “You should have learnt that trick by now,” she tutted. “Well, we might as well finish your surrender.” She added whipping a blindfold over my eyes.

“Now you stay right there. I’m going to have a bath.”



Footnote: 50% to next level

Act 2 - Chapter 9: Drop

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Chapter 9: Drop
“Let Go. Are you Crazy?!”

“What are you smiling about?” Tungsten prodded me roughly. “You look like you’re high on morphine.”

“Oh, leave her alone. She can be happy if she wants,” Seafire said with a yawn.

“And where’s Helix?” Tungsten grumbled. “She should be down by now. We need to be leaving soon.”

“Tungsten, leave her be.”

I was only half paying attention. The plate of radroach kebabs in front of me was going cold, but I was too happy to care. Despite the chairs stiffness, my mind was resting in a bed of fluffy clouds, doing backstroke and looking up at the sun.

And that’s where my imagination failed me… “What does the sun look like?”

“It’s a giant lightbulb, Fran.” I ignored Tungstens sarcasm. “Surely you can imagine that.”

“It’s a big burning ball of gas, so it’ll be like a huge explosion, radiating heat and light and radiation and… stuff.” I smiled.

“Is she still not thinking straight?” My love’s beautiful voice brought me back to reality. Helix descended the wooden stairs carrying both our saddlebags over her back. She came over to me and gave me a gentle nuzzle. “I packed your bag for you. How are you feeling?”

I replied with a long kiss on her cheek and returned her affection with a nose rub.

“Hehe, that tickles.” I just smiled as she scratched her muzzle.

“What took you so long?” Tungsten asked accusingly. “The rest of us have been up for ages.”

“I was just tidying the room. It was lovely and clean when we found it, and that’s how we should leave it. Poor Tabitha’ll be clearing it up otherwise.”

Tungsten rolled his eyes, letting out a sigh of exasperation. “How much mess did you two make in eight hours?”

Helix glanced at me knowingly. “Enough.”

With an exasperated look at the pair of us, Tungsten went back to his food.

Helix sat down beside me. “Where are Mantis and Smoking?”

“They’ve already gone off to pick our final few supplies,” Seafire said through a mouthful of kebab. “Mainly food and medical stuff.”

“Fran,” Helix rested a hoof on my leg, “Do you need to get anything in particular?”

“I want to get some more energy cells. If we have time, I also want to make some modifications to my suit. Swarf should be able to help me easily enough.”

“So, a trip to Arcano is on the list.” Helix looked around. “Where’s Foxglove?”

“She went back to our room to pack up her things a while ago,” Seafire replied. “She should be back by now. I’ll go see what’s keeping her. The rest of you can head off to Arcano. I’ll catch Smoking and Mantis, and we can all meet up there.”

“Sure.” Helix prodded me. “Come on, up you get. We need to move.”

* * *

As we approached Arcano, I was surprised to see Fletch and Buckshot already waiting out front. It wasn’t even dawn yet: why were they up?

“Oh, it’s you lot again,” Buckshot grumbled. “Store isn’t open yet.”

“It’s alright, I just want to see Swarf.” I smiled, passing my bags to Tungsten and unclipping Jury. “How long til you open? I know its early but…”

“Just wait,” Buckshot cut in. He didn’t sound pleased.

I shrugged, confused. “Ok then.”

So we waited. And waited. Seafire showed up with the others and we were still waiting. Foxglove leaned against Seafire the entire time, the young mare seemed very content for some reason. Perhaps it was just a good nights sleep, or that Seafire was looking after her.

“What’s the hold up?” Smoking asked as they approached.

“It’s not open,” Tungsten muttered.

“How long til we can go in?”

“You can go in now,” Fletch called, taking his hoof away from his earpiece.

An eerily familiar wine caught my ears. I knew that sound, nearly identical to Stable Seventeen's giant turbines; though quite a bit higher pitched, it was muffled by the sloshing of water.

Peering curiously around the building’s side I barely caught sight of a twin hulled boat accelerating off into the minimal dawn light.

I prodded Tungsten. “Hey look.”

Tungsten did a double take. “A boat? Why would these guys have a boat?”

“No idea. Maybe it’s not theirs.”

“Then whose is it?” That was exactly what I was thinking.

With growing trepidation I watched the boat disappear, the whine it made swallowed up by the heavy mist resting on the lake. Something wasn’t right here, that was much was obvious. That I had no idea what it was scared me.

I hooved over Jury and my spare Blackhawk to the ever sullen mare behind the polycarbonate. It’d never occurred to me that ponies could have been using the lake to move around. That ability made the rapid attack on our stable far more plausible. It also might explain how Aramid had ended up in the lake. He thought they were flying, but I doubted it took much magic to give a boat a smooth ride if it had two hulls.

“That boat,” Tungsten whispered to me, “who do you think it belongs to?”

“Not sure,” I replied, closing my saddle bags and placing my sole remaining spark cell on the counter, “but I think I know how the raiders managed such a quick attack.” Tungsten clearly caught my drift, his eyes widening.

“I think you’re right.”

None of the workers were around as we all entered the building, still far to early, but there were raised voices coming from the office upstairs. They were muffled, but I could just make out the words, and they made me stop dead.

“We shouldn’t have agreed. I knew no good would come of it. And how are we supposed to come up with all of this. We haven’t got half the materials, let alone the marepower.” Cheque almost seemed to be talking to himself.

“Forget the list dad, aren't you fed up with living like this! Lying to every pony! Just to keep yourself safe?”

“If it keeps me and my family safe then that is a price I am willing to pay.”

“For Celestia’s sake Dad, look at what we did! We got them all killed!” Wait? What!

“Would you rather I stood back and watched all of Viewpoint burn to the ground?”

“But our decision killed what was left of their stable. Their family and friends!” I could feel my heartbeat beginning to accelerate. No, this couldn’t be.

“Don’t you think I realise that. Death would happen either way. And once they’d finished here they would’ve turned round and murdered them all anyway.”

“But it’s wrong! I know that you see it and yet we continue. They had no way of stopping them!” I could feel myself biting down tightly and knew I wasn’t the only one. Everypony was now looking up at the office with varying expressions of shock and disbelief.

“And we have no way of stopping them! What alternative do we have? With that… that thing they could level the whole town just to prove their point and there would be nothing we could do about it.”

“I… I don’t know.” I could just see Swarf turning away in sadness.

“If you can come up with a better solution I will be happy to listen. As far as I am concerned we chose the lesser of two evils. I never want to be confronted with this kind of choice again but if I am I will be saving my family, my friends, my town.”

With a roar of anger Swarf stormed out of the upstairs offices, slamming the door behind him. He stopped dead when he spotted us all looking up at him in shock.

“It was you?” Tungsten started slowly.

“Me?” Swarf gulped.

“You got our stable killed?” Tungsten advanced.

“Tungsten stop.” Smoking shouted but Tungsten ignored him.

“Wait no! I didn’t say that!”

“I haven’t heard of any other mass killings recently.” Tungsten continued up the stairs, the metal ringing with each stomp. “So you sold us out? You lead them to us?”

“No... you’ve, you’ve... got it all wrong.” He stammered helplessly.

“Tungsten!’ Smoking yelled again.

“Have I now?” Tungsten slowly pulled out his Blackhawk. “How can I get that…”

“Tungsten stop!” We all jumped. Helix had been standing right next to me when she screamed. Tungsten froze, mere feet from the terrified machinist, his pistol pointing right at his chest. “Stop and listen.”

“To what?” Her brother snapped back, still pointing the pistol at Swarf.

“To what he has to say. Don’t make another decision you will regret.” Tungstens glare vanished in an instant, his eye wide with, well somewhere between shock, fear and sadness. Slowly the grey buck slowly holstered his weapon and took a step back from the terrified, and now bemused, Swarf.

“It’s… it’s complicated.” He spluttered still eyeing the pistol with fear. “But I can assure you that we were not responsible for the death of your stable.”

“I really hope you are telling the truth…” Foxglove was glaring at Swarf like she wanted to kill him, but her words sounded like she was begging. What was going through that young mare’s head. “I really, really do.” She whispered fearfully.

Swarf just stood there looking from one to the next. With a final fearful glance at me he lowered his head.

“We supply the Pinkstormers with weapons and in return they don’t kill every single pony in Viewpoint.”

I swallowed hard. Foxglove seemed to bite back a scream. Helix just looked dumbfounded.

“But that’s not all. The Pinkstormers get to pick from all the guns we make; the best, the most powerful, experimental designs. The same day you came in and bought all those weapons, they dropped by later to pick up some new weapons and were very… put-out that the pile was smaller than usual.

Seafire looked over at Foxglove who now looked torn, her eyes once again shining with tears. My own mind was just at a stand still. Part of me was still going ‘He betrayed us? He betrayed us? He betrayed us?’ but the rest seemed broken.

“Eventually we told them about you. We desperately needed the money. Even with the discount you haggled it was still huge. The Pinkstormers didn’t see it our way.”

“You didn’t say who we were did you?” Helix whispered in shock. The stallion shook his head. “Then how did they find us.”

“More than enough ponies in Viewpoint knew that a new stable had emerged. I am certain that they have some informants in the town. Willing or otherwise.”

“You mean the rest of the town have no idea?” my voice was dry and raspy. Swarf shook his head sadly.

“So you’re saying that by selling us the weapons you made us a target?” Smoking seemed incredulous. “Why would anypony go after a whole stable that had just got its hooves on brand new weapons?” That was a good point.

“You don’t know what they’re like. Any organised group is a threat to them. They have so many followers, both willing and unwilling that they would have no problem mustering a force to take down a stable double your size.”

“But we could have offered so much. Knowledge, skills, medicine, technology.” Helix was gesticulating wildly. “And they destroyed it all.”

“Your knowledge, skills, medicine and technology are the exact reason you were attacked.” My inner pony did a ‘Wha?!’ “Its taken me a long time to spot this but somehow the whole region is balanced. No one group, town or clan has much more power than another. The Pinkstormers don't turn our weapons on us because of their fight with the Quarrymen and the Stonethrowers. They are more trouble than we are.

“But when you lot popped up it was only a matter of time before you became a problem, a threat. You are a perfect example Fran. Your skills and knowledge alone could tip the balance of power on its head. Smoking, your tactical knowledge and weapons training would let you take out a whole squad of their men without breaking a sweat. Helix, your medical skills would let ponies return to the fight faster than they could ever hope to match.”

“So… they killed us because we are smarter than they are.” Foxglove muttered slowly.

Swarf gave a ‘sort of’ shrug.

“I still want to know why you told them who you had sold the weapons to.” Tungsten added cooly, still standing feet from Swarf on the stairs. “Surely you could have made up something about a few different ponies coming in. Calling it a busy day?”

“We did that once before when a group from Tenpony Tower came by. They were buying for their internal security or something. We sold them around twenty pistols. Two weeks later Knick Knack, the delivery pony round here, turned up with a box for us. When we opened it we found all the pistols we sold them and four eye balls.”

All seven of us gulped.

“That is nothing. They have done far worse to those who cross them.”

“Then why did they give you a warning?” Smoking noted.

“Because, like it or not, they need our co-operation.”

“But doesn’t that mean you have the advantage?” Seafire asked. “If they rely on you?”

“Thats all good until you have a knife to your throat or a live grenade in your mouth.” Swarf gave an involuntary shudder. “Its easier to give them what they want.”

Something was still getting at me. “Swarf. You said that they could level the whole of Viewpoint… dare I ask how?”

“Have you ever heard of a Vertibuck?” I shook my head but Smoking, Seafire and Tungsten looked like they had all just been slapped.

“They have a Vertibuck?” Seafire muttered, colour somehow managing to drain from her beautiful white muzzle and cheeks.

“They have two, going by the paint schemes. One is a light grey and the other seems to be a deep green.”

Seafire turned to Smoking. “This is a problem. We can’t take on that kind of firepower.”

“Depends on the type of Vertibuck. But we are still not finished here.” Smoking beckoned to Swarf who, with a raised eyebrow from Tungsten, slowly walked to the bottom of the stairs. “I just want to ask one thing. Did you know that the Pinkstormers would attack the stable if the found out about it?”

“I… I don’t know. They would have found out about your stable eventually. But if there is a reason they attacked it this time rather than trying to take it as their own or another reason, I don’t know.”

Smoking looked at the very apprehensive Swarf for a long while.

“Sir?” Seafire whispered cautiously.

“Tell Seafire and Tungsten here everything you know about the Vertibucks. Fran needs some time in the workshop and some more energy cells.” Swarf just nodded.

“What about Cheque?” Helix asked.

“I will go and talk to him.” Smoking began to make his way up the stairs when Swarf called out.

“This isn’t our fault. We didn’t have a choice.”

“You had a choice.”

“You mean the lives of over four hundred friends, our family and our homes against the lives of one hundred strangers.”

“Yes.” Smoking snapped.

Swarf bawlked. “That's not a choice. It would have been murder either way”

Smoking glanced back. “There was a choice there, but if I were in your position, I can’t say I would have done differently.”

* * *

With access to the right tools it wasn’t long before I was able to replace the prototype micro-cell holder with a much more secure and universal power source socket. Swarf picked me out a nice lump of engineering nylon used in pistol mouth grips. By the time I was done the unit interfaced perfectly with the old deconstruction talisman slot but now allowed me to use anything from three microcells right up to a full magic fusion cell. I had no idea what it was, but since the schematic was logged in Arcanos database it was safe to bet that I would find one eventually.

They also had a whole set of capacitors for testing new magical weapons. Despite all of their equipment, Arcano had been forced to stop production of magical weapons as some parts they simply couldn’t make so Swarf let me take what I needed to augment my EVA suit’s capacitors.

With the capacitors stacked along the spine of my EVA suit , I was able to triple the standing capacity and double the maximum current draw without any major modifications. After a tense five minutes where Seafire shot at me with a live 10mm pistol and then a Blackhawk I was confident that the suit could take at least one shot from everything short of an anti-machine rifle; the schematics for those looked terrifying.

But I had one other trick up my sleeve.

“What is this other socket down here Fran?” Swarf asked as he inserted the third microcell. “It looks like an pre-war mains socket.”

“Thats because it is,” I replied with a grin.

Swarf did a double take. “Wait? You want to link this thing up to the mains? The voltage is totally off. It would cook all the spell emitters in seconds.”

“That’s what I thought, so I fitted an old transformer between it and the suit. I think it was intended for a small computer of some kind, but it brings the voltage down to something sensible. That said it is still outside its recommended operating limit.”

“But if it works does that mean…”

“Provided I have power, I can’t see anything being able to get through the repulsion field. If my calculations are right not even an anti-machine rifle could do it. There is, of course, a limit to the capacitors, but unless I got hit by like two grenades just fractions of a second before a 50-cal it won’t budge.”

“Where are you ever going to be in a situation where you will have access to mains power?”

“No idea, but it only took me twenty minutes to add it to the adaptor. It can also allow me to prime the capacitors without the need for an energy cell. So, I could take a few shots even if I didn’t have a cell in at the time.”

“How did you do the calculations?”

“Maximum acceleration of the bullet, weight of the round, material density, and duration of energy dissipation. With all that I can work out how much force is placed on the suit and over what time period. That translates into a nice calculation of the energy required for the field to stop that force.”

Swarf looked at me like I had just kissed him. “You’re mad, you know that right. Totally mad.”

“That’s our Fran. One Mad mad mare.” Tungsten wandered in his saddle bags now bulging slightly. “Fran, the rest of us are ready to go, so we are waiting on you.”

“I’m basically done. All the continuity tests check out, so I am done fine wiring wise. I just need to adjust the suits onboard systems to take into account the increase in power and capacity.”

“Well you can do that on the move. We need to get going. The sun is up now, even though we can’t see that damn thing. But there is a storm coming, and it doesn’t look good.”

“Does it ever?” Tungsten just nodded, looked coolly at Swarf for an instant and left.

“Thank you for your help, Swarf.” I gave him a quick hug.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t worry. We will solve this. All of it. With any luck when we get back our stable we will send Pinkstormers galloping and you wont have to worry about Viewpoint anymore.”

“Let’s hope you are lucky enough.”

I turned to go but stopped at a hoof on my shoulder.

“Francium. I am so sorry. I couldn’t see another way out of it. Me and my father, we almost singlehoofedly killed everyone left of your stable. I’m not foolish enough to ask for your forgiveness cos I know I wont get it, let alone deserve it. I just want to you to know, if I can do anything to help just ask me.”

I turned to face him. “Swarf, as far as I’m concerned, I’m the reason we’re out here in the first place. This whole thing has just been one horrible incident after another. Now we know what we’re doing and where we’re going… I’m not going to look back. And neither should you.”

“What about the others,” Swarf asked sadly. “I was certain Tungsten was going pull the trigger just because he would rather have to deal with that than hearing why I did it. And Foxglove, at moments that young mare looked like she could have snapped my neck, and at others she just wanted to kill herself to escape her torn feelings.”

I found myself smiling. “That sounds like Tungsten. As for Foxglove, she’s seen her mother murdered and knows her brothers and sisters have been taken by slavers. I will be honest, I have no idea how she is coping.”

“Just get them back. Then I wont feel quite so horrible.” Swarf grimaced.

“Don’t worry we will.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I really was wondering if I had inadvertently upset every Pegasi in the Enclave. It was the only logical reason for the torrential downpour that we’d trudged though since leaving Viewpoint. Putting up the tents had been a horrible experience, and I hadn’t been doing anything. The instructions were easy enough to follow, but the wind was so strong that even the combined magic of Seafire Helix and Francium struggled to keep the rouge fabric in check. I had just cowered in my raincoat inside a thin crack in the overhanging rock face under which we were making camp.

An hour after we’d arrived at our campsite for the first evening, I followed Seafire, Francium, and Helix into our four mare tent and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Oh Celestia,” Seafire moaned. “We should’ve wiped of our hooves before we came in. Now our sleeping bags are going to be filthy.”

“I got it.” Helix gave a sudden flash of magic that made my hooves tingle.

I looked down and all the dirt was gone. In fact all the dirt on my coat, mane and hooves had vanished, even my tail was clean. Though there was still some twigs and other things sticking out of it.

“Wow where did you learn…” Francium began but Helix was panting heavily. “Helix?”

“I’m fine, it’s just a hard spell for me to perform at the best of times. And that’s usually just on me, not four ponies. I just need to lie down.”

“Why do you know a cleaning spell?”

“For scrubbing down. I got fed up of doing it the earth pony way so Cosmos offered to teach me. Its not a type of magic I have a natural affinity for but I can do it.

“Good to know.” Fran gave Helix a quick peck on the cheek before opening up their sleeping bags.

“Fran are you really going to sleep in your suit?” Helix lifted a disapproving eye brow.

“Why not?” Fran checked herself. “Its clean.”

“But I bet you aren't inside. Get it off and i will give it and you another pass with my magic. I am not going to bed with a mare that smells of plastic and sweat and I don’t think Foxglove and Seafire do either.”

Fran sighed. “Suppose your right.”

“She is.” Seafire and I said in unison making us all giggle.

“Hey!” Seafire jumped up with a look of glee on her face. “Since its just us girls, do you want to turn this into a kind of sleep-over? We can play games, tell stories… truth or dare.” Well, I was fine with the first two.

“I think we can have some fun for a hour or so.” Helix helped Fran slip her tail out of the EVA suit as she mused. “Can’t stay up too long but yeah, I’m up for that. I have always liked truth or dare.”

“Me too.” With a pop Francium pulled the suit from her hooved and passed it to Helix. A quick flash of magic and the smells of mare, sweat and plastic vanished.

“Can we do everything but truth or dare?” I looked hopefully at Seafire.

Seafire stroked my mane gently and I leant into her touch. “You don’t have to join in with that bit. We ought to have a moderator anyway. Keep us three in check.”

“Well where do you want to start?” I replied happily.

“Well I have a pack of cards somewhere in here.” Fran rolled over and searched through her saddle bags. “And I did grab a few bottles of cider before we left too so if anypony fancies a drink just say.”

Helix folded her hooves dramatically “Do you really think that drinking is such a good idea love?”

“Got to keep the spirits up.” Fran replied. “Got them.” She tossed two packs of playing cards over her shoulder. “And here is the cider.” She procured four bottles and set them aside. “For later.”

“Where should we start?” Seafire used her magic to shuffle one of the decks. “Go fish?’

“Yep, something nice and easy.” Fran curled up next to Helix. “Hey, fancy playing as pairs? You and Foxglove vs me and Helix?”

I glanced at Seafire with a smile. “Sure.”

After nine games of Go Fish, which Helix insisted used to be called Go Graze, Fran decided to open up the cider. I turned down the offer given my past experience with the strange drink, as nice as it tasted, and then had the amusing task of keeping play going as Francium, Helix and Seafire sucumbed to the rather high alcohol content.

“What game are we on now?” Fran asked slowly. “I thought we were doing best of nineteen?”

“I think we were, but I can’t remember either so it doesn’t matter anymore.” Seafire carefully shifted some cards round with her magic. “Francium, do you have any four’s?”

“Go Fish.”

Helix shifted to lay her head on Francium’s chest. “My turn. Seafire do you have any Princesses?”

“Oh you…” Seafire tossed her three Princesses at Helix with a grin. “I should have known it was you.”

I carefully switched my cards around in my hooves. Somepony had been particularly thoughtful to earth ponies and enchanted the cards so that they would gently adhere to a ponies hooves and other cards allowing earth ponies to hold their cards up so dramatically like Unicorns did and move them around with ease. I could only imagine that Pegasi used their wings with great dexterity to achieve the same result.

“Francium, do you have any nine’s.” I asked slowly so her brain could keep up.

“I got one for you. And another it seems.” She passed them to me with her magic.

“Thank you.” I slotted them in. “And that a set!” I snapped it down beside my others. “That’s now six to one in this set.”

“This isn’t fair. One of your players is lucid.” Fran moaned.

“Hey, it was your choice to start drinking.” I giggled. “Ok, we can switch to stories if you like.”

“I agree.” Seafire lazily dropped her cards. “I cant see you two winning anyway. you would have to win all the remaining games after this and we know thats not possible.”

“I want to skip stories and move straight to truth or dare.” Helix was eyeing up Seafire with a slight grin.

Why did that unnerve me slightly. Helix seemed to have gotten carried away with her bottle; well she had finished it, and was was now helping Fran with hers. She wasn’t herself anymore, it was almost scary the way she was looking at Seafire.

“Thats fine with me.” Seafire smiled. “But we all get to ask you first since you seem so keen.”

“Ask away.” Helix nuzzled into Fran wrapping her hooves around her, almost protectively.

“Youngest first.” Seafire smiled, turning to me.

“Ummmm… well, truth or dare Helix?” I said nervously.

“Truth.”

I pondered for a moment. Something easy and nice…. then again. “Have you had a relationship with anyone besides Fran?”

“Nope I haven’t.” Helix smiled proudly. “She is the only one for me.” A quick peck on the cheek from Fran had her blushing.

I couldn’t help but giggle. “Thats cute.” I smiled at the pair of them curled up together like a pair of caterpillars.

“I will go next.” Fran proclaimed dramatically. “Truth or dare.”

Helix thought for a moment. “I will accept a dare from you my love.”

“I dare you to go and bow before me and declare that you agree with Foxglove that you only loving me is the cutest thing in Equestria.”

“But I already agree.” Helix replied looking slightly confused.

“Then this will be easy.”

Helix squiggled forwards before Fran then bowed her head, not that it made much difference since they were both lying down anyway. “I declare,” Helix began. “That I agree with Foxglove that the fact that I love you and only you is the cutest thing in Equestria.” She squealed when Fran gave her a kiss on her horn that made her flop to the ground. “Awww that was evil.”

“But cute.”

Seafire giggled too. “Alright, my turn. Truth or dare Helix?”

“Truth.”

“Which would you rather have if you were pregnant, a filly or a colt?”

Helix’s eyes widened for a mere moment. It was so quick I wasn’t sure I had seen it at all but after I blinked she was pondering once more.

“It has to be a filly. After spending years with Tungsten I would rather know what they are going through than have to deal with all that colt stuff. They are noisy, messy, loud and silly.”

“Seems like things haven’t changed much.” Fran laughed.

“Too true.” Helix rolled her eyes with a sigh. “Ok my turn. Foxglove,” I took a deep breath. “Truth or dare?”

“Ummm… Truth.”

“I will be kind. What is the funniest moment you have ever had in your life?” Helix smiled at me expectantly.

Oh I knew this one, I found myself giggling already. “Alright, but its a little rude. Well it was a day that my brothers were feeling, well naughty. Some of the teenage mares were sunbathing in the summer section of the orchard so Thistle and Nettle decided they were going to peek on them.”

“Ah I think I remember this one.” Seafire snickered.

“They both climbed into one of the trees where they could get a good view of the mare’s sunning themselves. They were struggling to stay on the branches so they tied themselves to the branch. I spotted them, and asked what they were doing, but it was easy to figure out. So I decided to give the rope a little tug. The both fell out of the tree, still tied together. they both ended up hanging upside down from the branch, tangled in the rope with their… their… fully… umm.”

“Their grown stallionhoods on display?” Seafire prompted knowingly.

I just nodded as I doubled over laughing, “The looks of shock on their faces as every pony looked at them, and realised what they had been doing. Mum had them spend the the next month cleaning out the algae processors as a punishment.”

“Oooo, thats a bad one.” Fran waved her hoof in front of her muzzled. “They smell really bad even on the outside.”

I nodded “Well I think its my turn now. Seafire, Truth or dare.”

“Dare.”

I wasn’t sure why but I wanted to steer things to more interesting places, as naughty as it was, but then that was the thrill of it.

“Well, if its ok with Fran and Helix. I dare you to kiss one of them on the cheek.”

Seafire’s eyes widened with surprise. “Are you sure you want to go down this road?” She replied playfully. “We three have much more experience.”

“I want to have fun.” I blushed as my mind took a detour.

“You ok with this?” Seafire asked. Fran and Helix glanced at each other and then nodded together.

“Ok…” Seafire looked at the pair of them for a moment. Then leant in and kissed Helix gently on the cheek.

The purple mare blushed furiously and Fran laughed out loud. “Looks like I have competition.” She grinned.

“Ok now its my turn to have fun.” Seafire rounded on me. “Truth or dare.”

I stared her down with a grin. “Dare.”

“I dare you to let the rest of us tickle you for 1 minute and you can’t try and stop us.”

I bit my lip and nodded, feeling nervous, excited and wild all at the same time, and I hadn’t drunk anything.

“Ready?” Seafire asked.

I nodded… and then realised I was in a tent with three unicorns.

I squealed, yelled, squirmed, tossed, turned, gasped, moaned, jumped, twitched and finally collapsed on my back gasping for my breath.

“Celestia… damn you.” I was almost crying with laughter. “Thats… not funny.” Yeah, it was.

“I think we should leave it there.” Helix smiled down at me as I got my breath back.

“I agree.” I managed to pant out as I flopped out on my back. “We need to do that again some time. That was fun.”

“Oh I am sure we will.” Seafire nuzzled me.”Just be careful what you wish for.”

* * *

I stumbled and slipped on the slick rocks for what felt like the thousandth time, just catching my footing before I went face down into the ooze. Everyone, even Mantis, was struggling as we made our way up the winding path, ascending into the clouds and even worse weather. Back in Viewpoint, when Mantis said he could feel a storm coming I didn’t think he meant quite like this. It had been going on for four days straight!

On a scale of one to ten, the amount of rain coming down was about an eight, but the gusts of wind were recalibrating their own scale with every passing minute. For me, it was even worse. I was being thrown this way and that in the violent storm. The others at least had weight on their side, but as the youngest with the lightest bags I was at the storms mercy.

It had crossed my mind how it could take five days to do just five thousand feet of ascent, but at the rate we were going it was going to take us twice that. The weather coupled with the uneven path and pathetic visibility meant we’d only made it eight hundred feet up in five hours.

The low visibility also meant that when the path split we couldn’t tell which route to take. More than once we had to backtrack due to a landslide or rockfall and take a path that dropped us down one hundred feet before climbing steeply back up to the original path.

“Hold up!” I barely caught Mantis’s voice through the howling gale.

Helix appeared at my side making me jump. “What’s going on,” she yelled, water whipping across her face and dripping down her muzzle.

“No idea,” I yelled back.

“What’s going on?” I heard Seafire call from behind.

“No idea,” we both shouted back.

“Everyone come forward, but be careful.” I heard Mantis call.

The three of us cautiously approached, keeping an eye on our footing. Francium was pinning herself up against the rock face on our left while Smoking, Tungsten, and Mantis were peering cautiously down at something.

“Stop there,” Smoking barked. “Don’t come any closer.”

“What’s up?”

“Another landslip. A huge one. There was a small stream you had to jump in about 30 metres. I think that stream has finally become a waterfall.” Mantis stepped back from the edge, flicked his saddle bags off his back and began searching.

“Where do we go from here? Backwards?” Seafire yelled over the gusting wind, pulling her bedraggled mane from her eyes.

“Not backwards. Up.” Mantis stood up with a massive reel of rope in his mouth. “We’ve got to go up that.”

I turned to look and bawlked. The cliff rose up, up and out of sight and vanished into the thick clouds. What little I could see was jagged and riddled with cracks, tufts of grass and moss sprouting out of the gaps. It also seemed to be a waterfall in itself with spray shooting off every sharp point and running down what flat faces there were.

“Listen up. We’re going to have to ascend up this face. Do any of you know how to belay?” Mantis looked at our blank and confused expressions. “None of you?”

I hesitated before raising my hoof. “I did it when we cut down parts of trees in the stable. I would belay for my Mum and my brothers.”

Mantis dug into his bag and pulled out another length of rope. “That’ll do. I’m afraid you’ll need to strip off.”

I reluctantly pulled off my coat and bags, letting the rain soak me to the skin in moments. Seafire bundled it away before helping Mantis tie a makeshift harness around my small frame.

“I need another one of you to act as an anchor,” the buck added as he checked his knots. “She’s too light to belay me on her own.”

Tungsten pulled off his saddle bags and coat. “I’ll do it.” Helix gathered up his things for him and slung them over her back.

“I’ll climb first, putting in protection as I go up. When I get to the top I’ll lower a rope down and you’ll all climb up. The last one up takes the protection out as they go. Foxglove, do you know how to tie a chest harness?”

“Yeah. I remember. We had proper ones in the stable but we were taught it for emergencies.”

“Good. When I drop the rope down, you’ll need to tie it onto each of them before they go up. When it’s just you and Tungsten left, separate yourselves, tie a harness on him and then I’ll belay you both from the top.”

Fran appeared at my side. “Foxglove. Did you ever use your Pipbuck’s radio?” she shouted over the howling gale.

“Occasionally.” I yelled back.

“Here.” Fran took my hoof and prodded a few keys of my Pipbuck. “Now, just raise your hoof to your mouth and speak, and you will be able to talk to us. I‘ve turned the speaker to maximum so you should be able to hear us over all,” she gestured around, “this.”

I just nodded in response. I could already feel myself shivering in the cold, and it was only going to get worse. Mantis tied a harness on himself, over the top of all his equipment. He adjusted the position of the rifle slung over his back and nodded to me.

This was going to be a long afternoon.

* * *

Three hours later we were battling our way into the wind towards an cave that Mantis assured all of us would keep us dry so we we could continue in the morning. The climb hadn’t been as difficult as I’d expected and I was glad that none of us had been hurt. That said, it had taken such a long time that night had fallen and our view of the skinny hoofpath was illuminated only by our Pipbucks. Francium was doing her best to keep us all dry, but it was slowly taking its toll on her. Occasionally, we would get a face of ice cold water as her spell faltered.

“Hold up everyone.” Smokings voice crackled from my PipBuck. “Mantis says we’re here. He and I are going to check it out.”

I moved up to huddle with the others under Francium’s repulsion spell. “Is everyone ok?”

“Cold, but I think we’re all ok.” Seafire laughed as best she could. The others just nodded.

I jumped as all our PipBucks burst into life. “All clear. Watch your heads as you enter.”

The storms violence was lost as we slowly entered the cave. A short distance in was a rough wooden door barely hanging on to the damp rock faces. The metal door was rusted to the point there were holes clean through the metal.

I ducked my head down below a small cave-in; the rocks had jammed themselves up so there was no danger of collapse. There was quite a lot of rusted tools, buckets and chains hanging from the walls and propped up against ancient box’s. I looked up to see a series of safety signs bolted to the bare rock face. Most were rusted beyond recognition but I could make out ‘Head and hoof protection beyond this point’ and ‘No Smoking or Naked flames’.

“Keep moving, we’re going to sleep in the main chamber.” Mantis beckoned me past. “Watch your step.”

I picked my way over the stones, slipped round outcrops and ducked under roots that had managed to span the gap. At least there was little chance of somepony finding us by accident.

I ducked under another beam and looked up to see the vast main chamber spreading before me. It had to be about half the size of the Orchard in Stable Seventeen, even with the lower ceiling. I recognised the limestone on the wall and awed at the massive stalactites, stalagmites, and columns that stretched the whole height of the chasm.

Towards the back were a trio of tunnels that lead deeper into the mine, each with two miniature railway tracks descending into the darkness. A few wrecked carts sat in a siding filled with rubble and debris. On the left hand side a pair of temporary offices had been erected. They were surprisingly intact, I could only assume from being protected against the elements for two hundred years, but the moisture that hung in the cave had the wooden walls sagging and the steel steps up to them reduced to a rusted skeleton.

“Every pony over here.” Smoking beckoned to the right side of the chamber between two vast columns around a metre thick. “Pick yourself a spot and settle down. Now, we can't light a fire in here for obvious reasons, so keep your barding on and add any extra layers that you can.”

“Great, I have the perfect excuse to not let go of you all night.” Fran gave Helix a tight squeeze and a kiss on the back of the neck making me squirm. I was still struggling to remove Frans moans of ecstasy from my mind. Clearly neither of them new that Seafire and I had been able to distinguish every orgasm they had both had at Tabitha’s; even through the floor and two duvets.

“Do you want to play truth or dare again?” I asked the mares. “We have more space to play with this time.”

“Another night Foxglove.” Seafire unrolled a large ground sheet for us all to lie on. “Aren't you tired?”

“I am I just wanted some more fun.”

“I would save your energy for tomorrow.” Mantis cut in, unrolling his sleeping bag with a flick of his hoof. “Its the last day and the path will be at its steepest. There is nowhere else to stay until we reach the top so we have to make it and I would prefer we made it in the light.”

I shrugged, pulling out my own bag. “Alright. We can get another good nights sleep in.”

“Mantis?” Tungsten called. “Have you ever checked out what is in these offices.”

“No I haven’t. And you shouldn’t either. I know this side of the cavern is stable so can we stick over here.”

“Oh come on, if it can take the weight of these buildings I am not going to make any difference.” With a short run up Tungsten jumped up onto the remains of the steps. They creaked but held his weight.

“Come back over here Tungsten.” Helix called sternly. She and Fran looked nervous.

“I’m just having a peek.” Tungsten slowly pushed the door to the office open. “There is a safe on the opposite wall, a desk, some chairs, a few cabinets in the far corner and for some reason a rusted lunchbox filled with caps.”

“Tungsten, don’t move a muscle!” Mantis galloped over to the office. “Can you see any kind of wires coming from it?”

“Um yeah, its is attached… to a device behind the door.” I could hear his tone drop as he realised what it was.

Mantis leapt up onto the steps and carefully entered behind Tungsten. I watched him crouch down for a moment before standing up and staring at Tungsten.

“You are ridiculously lucky. If that had gone off when you opened the door you would have been shredded.” He picked the box up in his teeth and carried it back over to the group. Tungsten followed.

“What is it?” Tungsten asked slowly as Mantis laid it on the ground before us.

“Its called a Bottlecap mine and they are basically homemade landmines.”

With a knife, mantis prised open the lunch box to reveal the fifty or so bottle caps, the rusted remains of the box’s lid, a smaller metal box and, right at the bottom, a small ball of scrunched up plastic.

“Damn, who ever made this wanted to make sure you were dead.” Mantis gently tipped out all the caps to reveal the other internal parts more clearly. “This is a very good lesson right here. This little box here is a sensor module, contains a variety of different sensors for various applications. That is, or was in this case, wired to this ball of explosives. I have seen ponies just use cherry bombs but this one has been customised with the contents of maybe three cherry bombs packed into this plastic bag.”

I couldn’t help but feel the very cold shiver running down my spine. It was making what I was looking at horribly real.

“When the sensor, in list case the electromagnetic field and accelerometer, is disturbed by the box being moved that triggers the explosives. Also, the manual switch on the sensor has been attached to the inside of the lid. If anypony tried to open it once it was armed it would go off and you would get a muzzle full of shrapnel.”

“Why didn’t it go off when Tungsten opened the door?” Seafire muttered.

“Because the box had rusted through and one of the wires to the explosives had rusted through. In fact, “Mantis carefully pulled the other wire from the explosives and set them aside.”The sensor module is still active. Listen.”

He lifted up the box then tilted it gently. Tungsten flinched hard at the minute click which could easily have killed him only minutes before.

“Now, next time are you going to listen to me?” Mantis glared at Tungsten who just nodded slowly, still in shock.

“Good. Now lets get some sleep. One last push and a week of hard walking will be over.”

* * *

When the path crested, yet again, I was prepared to be disappointed. I looked up expecting to see another steep cliff or impossible path, but instead I dropped down on my haunches in awe.

The sun.

Well, almost.

Just dipping behind the clouds that we had spent the last three hours walking through, it was turning them into a sea of colour. It looked like a lake in a way, but frozen in time. The tops of the clouds rolling like the crests of waves. The innumerable lumps and bumps like the swell on the surface. And all of this was a stunning mix of purples, reds, yellows, and whites.

“Now isn’t that something.” I turned to see Helix rest her head on Francium’s shoulder.

I smiled. I couldn’t help it. Yes, it had been a hard day, but nothing had gone wrong. No one had been hurt, and we’d made it to the top. I was another step closer to finding my brothers and sisters. That was worth all the effort no matter how I viewed it.

“Good, it’s still intact.” I heard Mantis mutter, more to himself than the rest of us. “Follow me everyone. Looks like we do have somewhere to stay tonight.”

I watched the rim of the sun disappear before turning to look, and then wished I had my own tent. The building was far from something I wanted to stay in. The roof on the second story looked intact but every inch of the walls were covered in graffiti. I decided not to check the red scrawls to closely. The stone walls looked sturdy enough, but it just looked like it had been abandoned for a reason.

“We’re staying in that?” I asked, hoping for an alternative as I approached.

“The tents we have won’t survive the winds this high up. You’d find yourself down in the valley very quickly if you slept outside.” Mantis prepped his rifle. With a quick kick the double wooden doors slammed open, and he entered.

“Clear.” He called after a moment.

The others entered after him leaving me standing out in the closing darkness looking up at the scary building. ‘Come on, Foxglove. It’s fine.’

I reluctantly followed the others inside the wind worn structure. The gusts whistling through the pass were cut off as I stepped over the threshold. Mantis was carefully prodding the floorboards in front of him with the tip of his rifle. Occasionally the plank would give way under the pressure.

“Mind your step. Not all of this floor is stable,” He called.

I decided to stick to the edge of the room as the rest of the group began to fan out. The building seemed to have been a hostel of some kind. The first room was large, containing tables and chairs in various states of collapse. In the far corner was a set of stone stairs leading up and around to the top floor. To the left was a pair of doors to something that looked like a living room. I could see the remains of sofas, chairs, a coffee table, and even an old television through the broken windows set into the door.

“Got a body over here.” Smoking was standing behind a counter positioned next to the stairs. “Looks like she got shot in the face by something.” Ok, there was no way I was going to look at that.

“Hey, Foxglove.” I jumped at my name. “You want to come and check out the kitchen with me?” Helix beckoned from across the room.

“Um, yeah. sure.” I picked my way across the room and followed Helix through the door. The kitchen was a total mess, the roof had collapsed in the far corner letting rain and wind destroy the wall paper. The only two things that looked alright were a pair of huge fridge-freezers. I went over to them, took a deep breath, and pulled.

The scream I let out was horrific. The body flopped out knocking me over and pinning me to the floor. I scrambled to get it off as its tongue lolled and its popping eyes stared at me. I scrambled backwards into the cupboards as blue magic tossed the body away, landing with a heavy thud.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the body until Seafire dropped down right in front of me.

“Foxglove, look at me.” I dragged my eyes to her’s. “Good girl. Keep looking at me, keep breathing. Slowly. That’s it.” Seafire didn’t let me stand until my heart beat was back to normal. Why wasn’t I able to control myself like the others. It just made me look more like a child than I already did; why did I have to be so young.

Smoking and Tungsten were examining the body when I looked up again. I think we’d all noticed the extra appendages that could only have been wings once upon a time, but now it was all rotted flesh with not a single feather to be seen.

Tungsten moved round and inspected its flank. “Hey Mantis? What happened to her Cutie mark? Is this normal?” he pointed to the black mark on her flank in the shape of a cloud unleashing a lightning bolt.

The green buck glanced back from emptying the shelves. “She’s a Dashite. Poor thing was probably abandoned down here with nothing. I’d say she climbed into the fridge to escape the cold.” He plonked a few cans on the table top. “Got some extra food here if any pony is interested. And we’re in luck too: four cans of sticky toffee pudding.”

“A Dashite?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“Depends who you ask.” Mantis piled his finds up on the work surfaces in the middle of the room. “Ask ‘The Grand Pegasus Enclave’,” why did he say that with such sarcasm? “and they’ll tell you that a dashite is a traitor to the Pegasi race. Ask a Dashite and it varies. I met one a long time ago, he came by New Apploosa when I was just a colt.”

“Why are they traitors?” Helix asked, surprised. “Typhoon told me all about the Enclave, but she didn’t mention this.”

“That’s cos it’s complicated. I don’t know the origins of the term. All I know is that three days after that Dashite visited, a load of Pegasi in armour turned up intent on killing him.”

“And did they?”

“I don’t know.”

* * *

After exploring the upper floors of the building, and finding enough intact beds for all of us, along with a room filled with dead Radroaches, the seven of us gathered in the living room. We lit a fire in the huge hearth using some of the old sofas and chairs as kindling and bolstering it with some coal that Mantis discovered in the tiny basement. We also used the cupboard doors to plug up the holes left by the broken windows. By the time darkness fell, the room was very warm, and I could almost forget about the raging storm outside.

I pulled out my sleeping bag from my pack and laid it down next to Seafire, who was was tucking into her portion of Sticky Toffee Pudding. She nudged over my portion with her magic. The smell was surprisingly appertising, given that the stuff looked like a bowl of mud.

“Try it.” Seafire lifted it into my hooves. “Its great.”

“Clearly.” I laughed as she finished hers and proceeded to carefully lick up the sauce from the bowl’s bottom with her tongue.

I lifted the bowl to my muzzle and gave it another sniff. It was sickly, like all the canned pre-war food we’d encountered, but there was something about it that I found familiar. Maybe it was the smooth scent of sponge cake hidden under the mound of sticky sauce. I’d never had toffee before, but by the way Seafire had scoffed hers down, I was sure I was going to like it.

As I slowly savoured the delicious pudding, I listened to Mantis explaining where he had positioned a series of tripwires and traps; just incase we were interrupted during the night. By the sounds of it, anypony attempting to enter the building was going to receive either a grenade or shotgun blast as an unwelcome present.

“The final line is a series of shotgun shells that I’ve embedded into every other step on the stairs. I’ll cover them up as we head up for bed and then pick them up in the morning before we head down.” That sounded nasty.

“I was going to put a rake at the top of the stairs,” Tungsten added.

Smoking and Mantis looked at him. “Rake?”

“Yeah, it always worked in the cartoons. Stand on the forks and get a rake in the muzzle. I was going to tie a knife to it at face height just to make sure it did some damage.”

“I am not sure if I should be impressed or worried.” Mantis and Smoking exchanged slightly amused glances.

Seafire looked down at me as I sighed deeply. “What’s up? Don’t like the pudding?” I could tell she knew it wasn’t that.

“I was just thinking. All these traps. Grenades. Shot guns. Even the rake. I just wish it wasn’t necessary.”

Seafire pulled me close to her. “I feel the same way. I’ve never liked the idea of fighting.”

“But then why did you join Stable Security?” I asked confused.

“That was a different kind of of protection and fighting. Everything was precautionary. The worst thing I ever had to deal with back in the stable were hoof fights. Once a pony hit her brother over the head with a metal bar, but they were only teenagers.”

“It wasn’t Tungsten was it?” I asked laughing.

“Ha, no it wasn’t.” Seafire grinned as the image flashed through her mind. “But we were enclosed, safe and had no problems. I knew I may be called to fight, but it was so remote. Other thing is my size. I’ve always been larger than everypony else. I often found myself keeping the peace. I guess it just stuck. When I got my cutie mark that pretty much sealed my position.”

I glanced down at the golden eagle on her flank, its beak open expelling blue flames. Far more interesting than my solitary Digitalis purpurea: the most common of all Foxgloves.

“What does it mean?” I pointed. “Your cutie mark?”

Seafire paused, looking at her own flank. “Well, I see it like this. The eagle is something that is graceful and powerful. It looks after its own without fear or doubt and can be very dangerous when threatened. The fire, that’s different. Fire is usually red which is indicates danger but mine is blue suggesting cooling, calm or cold. I don’t think ponies see me as cold, so I would say it’s my ability to spread calm as I protect.”

Seafire giggled and I realised my mouth was hanging slightly open.

“What about yours? Your Digitalis purpurea?”

“You know its name?” I smiled excitedly. She just nodded gracefully. “Well… um… I’m not that sure. I guess it means I’m like the plant.” I looked at my light green coat and light purple mane and tail which faded to light pink at the tips. “Yeah… I look like a Foxglove.”

“You don’t believe it goes deeper than that?” Seafire prompted.

“Well. I’m good with plants.”

“Anything else?”

I paused. “I don’t know.”

“Would you mind if I gave you my interpretation?” I shrugged. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, but a Foxglove is quite a hardy plant. It’s found in many places, from forests and moorland to rocky mountain slopes. It likes to be out of the sunlight, adding vibrant colour to those damp and murky places. It can even emerge from the ashes of burnt vegetation. Lastly, it’s stem may be thin but it goes tall and strong regardless.”

I could feel my jaw hanging again. I abruptly brought it up as I tried to think of a response. “So. What does all that mean?”

“Well, you, Foxglove, are hardier than you believe yourself to be. Think of everything you’ve been through recently. Most ponies would have crumbled and given up a long time ago, but not you. You’ve weathered it. Perhaps not as well as you would have liked, but you’re still standing. You also don’t seek the spotlight like many ponies. You’re happy to do your part, keeping out the way, and letting your actions speak for themselves. And lastly,” Seafire looked right into my eyes. “You are a beautiful young mare, adding vibrant colour and personality even in the dark and murky places of the wasteland.”

I couldn’t take it. I flung my fore hooves around Seafire’s neck, squeezing her as tightly as I could. I buried my muzzle into her beautifully soft mane, and let tears of happiness dampen my cheeks and the unicorns silky coat.

“Thank you,” I whispered through her orange mane. “Thank you so much.” I squeezed her again. “I don’t know… just… thank you.”

Seafire let me hold onto her until the others decided to call it a night. With her magic, the beautiful mare slid me onto her back and carried me up stairs. All I remember was the glow of her magic as she tucked me inside my sleeping bag on the squeaky mattress.

“Sleep well, my hardy Foxglove.” I felt her soft lips kiss me on the forehead before she climbed into the bed beside me.

“Seafire?”

“Hmmm?”

“I’m sorry. About this morning. I don’t know why I kept thinking about her. I knew it would only lead to tears.”

“No worries. That’s what we’re all here for. Now get some sleep, we have an early start tomorrow.”

Between the warmth from the fire rising up from the room below and the knowledge that I had one of the most loving and caring ponies in the whole wasteland nearby, it wasn't long before the darkness enveloped me, and I drifted off to sleep.

* * *

The first explosion didn’t register fully; I was too deep in my sleep.

With the second, my eyes snapped open looking around.

The scream and flying shrapnel caused by the shotgun shells in the stairs, blowing bits of the adjoining wall into my face, finally forced the connection. We were under attack.

Seafire was already pulling out her Blackhawk and stuffing her sleeping bag roughly into her bags with her magic. Another series of explosions and harrowing screams on the other side of the building made me jump as I pulled myself out of bed.

“Take this.” Seafire tossed me a pistol. “Its mine from the stable and its loaded with live rounds. Remember what I taught you?” I nodded nervously. “Good. Armour on as quick as you can then follow me.”

I clearly took too long as Seafire attached my neck guard and foreleg guards while I was still wrestling with the zip up my tummy. Seafire held up her pistol, flicking out the mouth grip with her magic. I bit down on it, tasting the warm rubber and feeling the cool steel trigger against my tongue. I was so not ready for this.

Seafire whipped open the door checking left and right, before proceeding down the stairs. The covering piece of wood on every other step had been blasted apart. I glanced down at the bodies of two raiders impaled with huge splinters, the skin on the underside of their muzzle pockmarked with bloody holes. Two more ponies near the door– well, I think it was two– indicated who had set off the grenade bouquet above the main door.

Bursts of automatic gunfire sounded from the far side of the building. Seafire dragged me behind the counter and forced me down below the rudimentary cover. “Seafire to Security. In cover with Foxglove. What is your situation.”

More automatic gunfire followed, then three booming thuds from a Blackhawk. “North side. Three raiders down here. No more con-” Automatic fire then a single round snapped from the PipBuck’s small speaker. “Four raiders down and no more contacts.” Tungsten finished.

“Smoking? Francium? Helix? Anypony else.”

“I am upstairs with Fran,” Helix replied, panting. “Fran just took out three raiders on the west side of the building from our window.” She sounded very proud for some reason.

I was showered with splinters as a cacophony of small arms fire blasted the top of the counter apart. Seafire waited for a pause before swinging up with her Blackhawk and firing four deafening shots. It wasn't enough. A massive buck slammed into Seafire, crushing her against the wall. He slashed at her armoured chest with clawed hoof guards, tearing at the fabric and scratching against the new titanium-ceramic plates.

“Foxglove!” Seafire yelled. “Shoot!”

I aimed roughly at the pair of them and pulled the trigger. The bullet impacted the pony in the calf, dropping him to the floor. Seafire stomped down on his head with her forehooves. There was a sickening crunch and the pony went limp.

“You didn’t do as I told you!” Seafire snapped. “Use SATs.” She examined her armour. There were also shallow cuts along her forelegs and even on her muzzle. “Run upstairs and find Fran and Helix. I’ll go meet with Tungsten. Mantis and Smoking’ll be fine on their own for now.”

I just nodded before sprinting up the stairs. Helix was already holding the door open for me, and I slithered inside. Fran was still covering the window with her gun, Jury. I glanced up to where the ceiling had been blasted apart by more bullets.

“What is going on down there?” Fran asked.

I spat the gun out onto the floor. “It looks like all the traps Mantis set up have been triggered. There were four dead ponies in the main room alone.” I continued to gulp down as much air as equinely possible. “Seafire got attacked by a Raider with big claws on his hooves. I shot him in the leg.”

“Where are the others?” Helix asked worriedly.

“Umm, Seafire went to join Tungsten. I’ve heard nothing from the other two.”

Helix just nodded in response. “They’ll know how to handle themselves.”

“What should we do?”

“Wait here. We have a good vantage point from here, and there is only one way into the room.” Fran turned and looked around the room. “Jam that chest of draws in front of the door. If somepony tries to come for us we don't want it to be easy.”

“Francium. Helix.” It was Smoking. “We have movement on EFS to the west. Can you confirm?”

“Yes. Count fourteen marks. Where are you?”

“With Mantis up in the rocks behind the hostel. Good sniping point. We will try and take out as many as we can from here, but you will need to finish them off if there are any left. Seafire, Tungsten did you get that?”

“Roger that. We are on the bottom floor in the kitchen.”

“Ok, let’s take first pick. We will signal you when its time to clean up.”

“Helix? How do you use EFS?” I asked.

“This hotkey button here.” Helix gave it a tap and instantly I had a series of readouts appear in my vision. “Bottom left is your EFS.” I nodded, watching all the little red markers at the bottom of my vision.

A marker suddenly disappeared on my EFS, then another and another. The marks began to scatter. A fourth marker vanished and a fifth.

I jumped at as Smoking’s angry voice sounded again. “Crap. They picked up on our position far quicker than I anticipated.” I could hear ricochets in the background. “Two seem to be focused on us, that leaves you with seven incoming.”

“Roger that,” Tungsten replied. “Fran, hold your fire. When I say so, start firing. And stop when I say so. We are going to make them keep changing their target.”

“Understood.” Fran stepped back from the window.

“How’s your EVA suit coping Fran?” Helix asked cautiously.

“It’s fine. The microcell has enough energy left in it for around thirty 10mm shots I’d say. Let’s just hope they don’t have assault rifles.”

I heard Seafire and Tungsten open fire for a moment, but it didn’t last long.

“Minigun!” Tungsten’s yell distorted in the tiny speaker. “Get down!”

Fran flung herself away from the window. Helix slammed me to the ground. The walls exploded. I covered my eyes as I was pelted with wood, stone, and glass. The roof over our heads creaked ominously and the floor beneath us groaned as bullets tore holes in support beams.

“Minigun reloading. Fire now Fran.”

Fran was up in an instant. She floated up Jury and opened fire. Two marks went out on my EFS; down to five.

“Tungsten. One managed to get right up against the wall. I cant get a shot at... Oh Fuck.”

Fran turned and sprinted across the room as a pair of grenades came through the open window. The double explosion tossed Fran up into the air, showering her with tiny splinters of metal. Helix tossed the bed up in an attempt to block the explosion. The metal fragments shredded the mattress and the wood. I cried out as I felt superheated shards of steel ricochet off my forehooves guards as I covered my eyes.

The floor lurched. Helix and I began to slide. I heard the cracking of floorboards and beams as the floor gave way. Fran had no chance. The floor underneath her unconscious form disappeared in a plume of dust and debris. I scrambled desperately, trying in vain to get purchase on the tilting floor, but it was no good. I disappeared into the hole.

I landed with a hard crunch right on the coffee table in the middle of the living room, the weak wood barely cushioning my fall. Fran was still laying next to me, but I could feel the floor shifting again. The minigunner had torn up the floor while trying to kill Seafire and Tungsten. Between the fractured beams and the extra weight of debris and two ponies it was going the same way as the room above.

I grabbed Fran’s tail in my teeth and began to pull her across the room, trying to get her away from the collapsing floor. My rear legs disappeared from under me. The floorboard snapped, and with sickening rending sound, the beams gave way once more.

I coughed and spluttered through the thick dust, blinking it frantically out of my eyes. I scanned rapidly around the room looking for the way out but there wasn't a single door to be seen. I could still hear the fire fight going on above me. There were a pair of dead computers on one side and a console sticking up from the floor a few feet away with a few glowing buttons.

“Fran! Foxglove!” I looked up. “Helix was dangling by her barding from a beam sticking out from the top floor. “Are you all right?”

I looked down at Francium. “I am. I think Fran is unconscious.”

“Oh, there you are, you little shit.” I watched in horror. A buck approached the helpless Helix carrying a rusty hunting knife in his magical grip. “I'm going to enjoy dissecting you.” He pressed the blade to Helix’s armour and began to cut.

I didn't know how I found Jury amongst the rubble. Nor how I hit the raider in the head with a shot of blue energy. But I did know Helix was still alive. The buck stumbled backwards and fell down into the hole beside me. I was sprayed with blood as his own neck was impaled on a shaft of wood sticking up from the rubble.

I looked up at Helix who was trying desperately to swing herself free from the beam. “Just stay there.” She called wincing and rubbing her throat. “We’ll come and get-”

My stomach lurched, I screamed and the floor disappeared.



Footnote: Francium - Level up: Unfortunately, your choice of perk will have to wait until you regain consciousness.

Foxglove - Under her guidance: Seafire has taken you under her metaphorical wing. You gain +5 skill points for Small Guns and +5 to speech when talking to friends or neutral ponies.

Act 2 - Chapter 10: Rust, Repair, Recover

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Chapter 10: Rust
“Ummm, hello?”

Oww… this really really hurts. ‘What really hurts?’ Me? ‘Can I be more specific?’ Ummm, yes. Me. I rolled my eyes. Hey why can’t I see anything? ‘Cos your eyes are shut.’ Oh yeah.

I cracked open my eyelids without any real pain. There was mainly darkness, but I could see the outline of numerous objects picked out by weak green lights that seemed to come from several points around me.

I moved my left hoof that was trapped underneath my body with an audible grunt, reaching for my other hoof and my PipBuck, before pulling on my right hoof and dragging it up to greet my left. With a tap my PipBuck flared into life, blinding me with its white illumination. I blinked, clearing my vision, a mixture of fear and confusion settling in my gut as my surroundings were brought into contrast; shrapnel and debris, twisted metal punctuating shattered and splintered support beams, and everything covered in a grimy layer of dirt.

I mentally checked my body to see if anything was broken, but thankfully there were no stabs of pain or shifting bones. ‘It’s a worrying thought that you know what you’re searching for.’ My inner pony noted. Yes, because I was getting hurt far more than usual.

I took a breath of dusty air and forced myself to my hooves. More debris clattered off my back, falling to join the pile beneath me. The light from my Pipbuck illuminated close steel walls that were in far better condition than the rusted and grubby floor. There were racks for gears set into the middle of each wall with lights at periodic intervals, though none of them were on. I turned around to find the light sources and suddenly leapt over the the debris.

Foxglove’s frail form lay limp on the rusted chequer plate floor. I shoved as much of the material aside as I could to create a clearing around her. Leaning down, I pressed an ear to her chest. A wave of relief hit me when I heard the reassuring beat of her heart. There was a lot of blood splattered across her face and barding, but there were no immediate signs that it was her own.

“Foxglove?” I coughed through the dust, which continued to fall around us. “Foxglove?” I repeated a little louder giving her a shake. No response.

“Okay. Think positively Fran.” I instructed. “She is alive. You need to get her out of here so you can get her help.” I activated my PipBuck’s Radio. “Francium to Helix, over….” Static. “Francium to Tungsten, over?” Same static. Well, it was worth a try.

I decided to try and work out where we were and what situation we were in. My last, slightly fuzzy memory was of leaping away from a grenade that had been tossed through the window, and that was it. With no window or even building in sight, something had gone seriously wrong. Or right. I wasn’t sure which yet.

The light was coming from six green glow sticks. I recognised them as standard emergency type from Stable Seventeen, which meant that somepony had dropped them down to us. Looking up, I could only see metal extending up into the blackness.

“An elevator,” I said to myself. “That must be where I am. In some kind of elevator. That explains the racks and lights on the walls.” I turned around. “And that door would confirm I am at the bottom.”

The door was built a little into the wall of the elevator shaft and looked oddly familiar. It was rectangular with rounded top corners, a faded strip of yellow paint down the centre and was made of a very familiar shade of steel alloy.

“This is a stable door,” I said out loud, comforted by my own confidence. “I recognise the colour and the shape. It matches those in the core of Seventeen, right down the the yellow strip and the milling machine marks on the inner edges of the recesses.” I looked to where the control panel should be. It was missing. “Damn it.”

I glanced around and spotted a stump of metal near Foxglove’s head that came up to about shoulder height and had a slanted top. I picked my way over to it and cleared off the dust. It was a simple control panel. Just a few big buttons, no screen at all. the buttons read ‘Up’, ‘Down’ ‘Lock’ and ‘Door‘. “Yep, it’s an elevator.”

I gave the Door button a hopeful prod. Nothing happened. I prodded the Up button with the same result. I then realised that the buttons were made from a translucent plastic and were supposed to be illuminated. no light means no power. I was fine with that.

“Ok Fran,” I said settling down next to Foxglove and prising open the control panel. “Just like old times.”

To my relief, everything was as I was used to. It took only a few minutes to work out that it was just a pair of blown fuses on one of the main control boards. The only problem was, I had nothing to replace them with. I searched through the other boards to find matching fuses that I might be able to pinch.

The issue was, I could only take educated guesses at what the other boards did. So far as I knew, I might need all of them. I plucked two out of what I surmised to be linked to moving the lift up and down. Since we had clearly dropped down the shaft without power; it was a safe bet that the mechanism was either broken in the fall or was so old and rusted it wouldn't move anyway. I also didn’t want that moment where we got half way up the lift for it to suddenly fall again.

I slipped the fuses into place, and instantly the console lit up. “Well that was nice and easy.” I smiled to myself and turned to give the door button a expectant prod once again.

There was a click, a grinding sound, and then a small crack of light appeared behind me. I turned and felt my heart dive again as the door stopped leaving a mere three inch gap between the doors. I thumped the button again, but nothing happened.

“Oh great.”

I felt something rub against my hoof. Foxglove stirred in the sliver of light falling across her body.

I knelt down to the young mare. “Foxglove? Can you hear me?”

“Fran? Is that you?”

I gave a sigh of relief. “Yeah, it’s me. Can you open your eyes.” Her young eyes flickered open, looking up into mine. “Good. Now don't move and just tell me: are you in any pain?”

“Yeah.” She whispered, her voice dry.

“Where, just tell me.” I stroked her mane comfortingly.

“My left fore leg. It aches a lot, and I’m not sure I can feel my own hoof.” Oh, that was not good.

I picked up a particularly sharp splinter with my magic. “I am going to just porod along the bottom of your hoof. Tell me if you can feel it or not. I pushed quite hard into her frogs.

“Yeah, I can feel that.” Foxglove coughed. I moved round a little further, again and again. I was half way up her lower leg when, “Stop. I can’t feel it any more.” I pushed a little harder. “Still no.”

“Well. Ummm, I would say that you have a clean fracture half way up your lower left foreleg, and I think Helix would say the same.”

“Where is she? Why can’t she say it?”

I faltered, trying to stay calm for her. “Foxglove? What is the last thing you remember?”

The young mare closed her eyes, thinking. “You fell, or, we fell through the floor. But we stopped. But then I just remember falling. A long way.”

I bit my lip. I knew this is going to be hard on her but she needed to know. “Foxglove, the others are not here. It’s just us. I am pretty sure we’ve fallen down some kind of elevator shaft. Not sure how.

“I’ve managed to get the controls working but since we just dropped what seems to be a really, really long way, I’m not going to raise us back up.”

Foxgloves eyes took on a desperate look. “But why not. The others could be waiting for us at the top?”

“When I say a really, really long way,“ I took a deep breath of dusty air. “I mean potentially thousands of feet. We were on top a six thousand foot mountain ridge, we could have dropped to the bottom or perhaps even further.”

“Then why are we not dead?” Foxglove snapped, lifting her head. I could hear her fear rising in the tremble of her voice.

“I am not sure.” I cast my mind around for an explanation. “The elevators in Stable Seventeen had all kinds of safety features: electrical, mechanical, and magical. On a lift this tall, I would be willing to bet there were some even more extensive features.”

“Typical.” She dejectedly dropped her muzzle back down into the dirt. “I just wish the wasteland would just get it over with.”

I flinched at her harsh voice. “Get what over with.”

“Me. It’s taken so much already; is my life so difficult for it to manage.”

Oh no, you are not going there!

“No! You are not going to think like that!” I yelled. “We’ve all lost a lot recently, and I will not have some beautiful young mare, one of my friends, wishing death upon herself. Have you got that?”

Foxglove cowered under me, looking up at me with tearing eyes.

“Fran. I didn’t mean…” She stammered desperately.

“Didn’t mean what?” I pressed. I hated myself, but she needed this.

“I just… I meant…” She whimpered.

“You meant?” I knew what was coming.

“I dont want to die!” Foxglove cried out. “I didn’t mean it Fran. I don’t want to die. Please, dont let me die.”

I lay down beside her and took her good hoof in mine, letting her cry herself into silence and her breathing become heavily and regular. I felt bad for scaring her, but I couldn’t have her thinking like that if we were to survive. We had to stay focused. Stay alive.

“I’m here Foxglove. It’s alright. You aren’t alone.” I cooed soothingly over and over, stroking her soft mane until she her features relaxed. She looked so content, almost like she was asleep. It was a beautiful sight. Unfortunately we needed to get out and start trying to find a way back to the others.

“Foxglove. I’m just going to be at the door. I’ve managed to open it a little. I’m going to cut through the rest of it so we can get out.” I carefully stood up, making my way over to the door. It was nowhere near as thick as the doors in Stable Seventeen, only four inches rather than six, so cutting through it wouldn’t take too long.

“Foxglove, keep your eyes closed. This’ll be very bright.” She gave a slight nod in response.

“Fran, before you start. Did you mean what you said?” The young mare looked at me hopefully. “You see us as friends?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle slightly. “Of course, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Foxglove beamed before covering her eyes with her good foreleg. I turned back to the door, bring up a filter spell before my eyes. Light from my horn filled the tunnel, accompanied by the fizzing of paint and crackle of melting metal. The alloy was slightly softer than I’d anticipated, I surmised that Stable Seventeen’s was probably marine grade to resist the water, allowing me to make steady progress. After half an hour I’d chopped one side of the door off, but I left a small tab at the top and bottom to keep it in place until I was ready.

“Foxglove?” She didn’t move. “Foxglove?” I raised my voice.

She twitched slightly and then opened her eyes. “Oh, sorry Fran, I must have nodded off.”

“No problem. I’ve cut through the door, but I need to splint your leg so we can move. This is going to hurt.”

Foxglove just nodded, biting her lip. I picked a pair of sturdy looking planks and snapped them to length, then pulled out a bandage and healing potion from my saddle bags. I paused.

“Foxglove. I can splint your leg and then give you a healing potion, but I am no doctor. It might heal incorrectly.” I looked down at her leg. “What do you want me to do?”

“Could I walk on it when its splinted?” She asked.

I wrinkled my muzzle. “I don’t know. It might cause even more damage.”

“Splint it for now. We can work out what situation we are in and then heal it if necessary,” she replied confidently.

“Alright.” I slid one plank under her broken leg, watching her bite back a hiss of pain. I then carefully grasped either side of the break and straightened it. Foxglove screamed like tearing metal, piercing the air and drowning out the sharp crack of the bone. Damn it, I wish I knew exactly what I was doing. I clamped her leg between the two splints eliciting another high pitched cry before wrapping the bandage tightly, pinning it all together.

“There, we’re all done. No problem.” I grinned, hiding my anguish. Foxglove just nodded back, still gritting her jaw. “I’m going to help you up. You should be able to lean on it.” I used my magic to help Foxglove to her hooves. She hissed again as she applied weight to her broken leg, but she managed to stand.

“Cover your eyes again. I am going to finish cutting through this door.” I then realised what I had said. “Or just turn your back.” Again easier said than done. After helping her turn round, I focused on the door, recasting the filter spell and cut the tabs. I checked once more that I had cut through everything before placing my hooves against the chunk of metal and heaving with all my might.

With the grinding of metal, the chunk of door ever so slowly began to slide on the smooth cut surface. A moment later it slammed down landing with an almighty thud on the steel floor kicking up dirt and flakes of rust in a plume of dust and spray of water. I looked into the room beyond and felt my whole body go cold.

Rust. Rust on every surface, the floor, the walls, the pillars. Drips of water off a perimeter balcony disturbed a near continuous pool of orange stained water. More water ran down the walls leaving lines of green slime and fungi growing on at the base of each leak. A bank of computers on one side had all their screens smashed in, the desk draws ripped out and their contents no more than decomposed mush on rusted floor. I fearfully poked my head out and stepped over the threshold. My PipBuck began to click. I brought up my EFS and the HUD; two rads per second. This was really not good.

I heard a horrified gasp behind me. Foxglove had turned herself round and was now backing away up against the elevator wall. This was not going to be pleasant, but I needed her to focus.

“Foxglove. Stay here. I am going to try to find a way out. Turn on your PipBuck’s radio. I will keep mine on, too, so we can be in constant contact. Do you have a gun?”

“I did. Seafire gave me her old 10mm.”

I searched through the rubble for a moment, before I spotted a glint of metal. I picked up the pistol and checked it, ejecting the magazine and cocking it to expel the loaded bullet. A quick tap cleared it of any dirt, and I passed it to Foxglove. “Still seems to work. There are no marks on my EFS but better safe than sorry. You only have one clip of twelve, so make them count.”

With a stab of anguish I suddenly realised that I didn’t have Jury.

“Foxglove, have you seen Jury?”

“I shot a raider with it before we fell. It must be around here somewhere.”

I frantically searched through the dirt for my precious gun. Eventually, I found her– well I did prefer mares to guys in general– a little scratched but otherwise intact. I fished out four fresh spark batteries, one for Jury and three for my EVA suit. Again, better safe than sorry. I also took a pair of Rad-X tablets, I didn't want to go wasting the Rad-Away if I didn’t have to.

“I’ll only search for ten minutes, then I will come back. So, if I’m not back in say fifteen minutes, then give me a call on the Radio.” I stepped back over the threshold into the rusty room.

I stepped carefully across the floor, incase it was just a layer of iron oxide, but it seemed that whoever had built this used some seriously thick plates. The centre of each plate was concave, creating a puddle in the middle of each one. The level of radiation stayed constant as I moved across the room. It was large, about forty metres square. There was a balcony running around the edge, but it was three times higher than the height of the door I had come out of, around six metres at a guess. I looked up, and up, and up.

The room was vast, vertically anyway, all lit by red emergency lighting that exaggerated the rust engulfed room. Eight balconies stretched up at massive intervals to a roof that was about sixty metres up. I ran the numbers in my head, eight levels at six metre intervals would make it fifty four metres to the roof. Jutting out of each balcony was a small platform with a barrier across the end to prevent any pony from falling. At first glance, there was no sign of a lift. What’s more, the amount of rust reduced the higher up the room you went, fading from a ruddy orange to shining steel, like rough orange spikes clawing up the walls toward the pristine silver ceiling. What on in Equestria was this place.

“What can you see?” Foxgloves nervous voice called.

“It’s a massive room, taller than the core of stable seventeen. It’s just huge.” I looked around almost in awe.

“Any clues as to where we are?” She asked slowly.

There were numerous doors in addition to the one I’d cut through. Stable Seventeen had labels and numbers on every single door, maybe it was the same here. I moved to the nearest one that didn’t look as rusted as the rest. The paint was totally gone but there was no mistaking the outline of the numbers.

“Twenty five. We are in Stable twenty five.” I looked round. “We’ve dropped all they way into Stable twenty five.”

Foxglove seemed to think for a moment. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“I have no idea.” I really didn’t.

The door where I was expecting the doors designation to be. I could just make out the word ‘Maintenance’. My territory. The doors control panel and was surprised to see a hole, with 2 lights underneath it. Both of them were dead. The hole was at just the right high so that if I tilted my head forward I could slide my horn into it. Well here goes nothing.

I slid my horn into the hole and waited. Nothing happened. Drat. I might just have to cut my way through it.

“Maybe it needs your magic or something?” Foxglove called out as pulled out my horn and looked thoughtfully at the minimal controls.

Seemed logical. I slid my horn in again and called upon the most basic spell I knew: illumination. The green light sprang to life and the door started sliding upwards into the ceiling. Brilliant.

I pulled out Jury and stood before the opening door. With a click, the door locked up. I looked down the corridor and gulped again. More rust. Rusted pipes, consoles, trolleys and carts. More doors branched off left and right before the corridor split in a ‘T’ at the end and into darkness. The lights were long spent. I fired up my illumination spell on my horn and held Jury in front of me. My EFS still had no contacts on it.

I turned and looked at Foxglove, just hidden inside the elevator shaft. “Like I said, if I’m not back in fifteen minutes give me a call on your PipBuck.” I smiled reassuringly at her.

“What if you don’t come back?” She replied with a whimper.

“I am coming back.” I said forcefully. I really hoped I was.

With growing trepidation, and trying to keep my fear to a minimum, took a calming breath and walked into the gloom.

* * *

Opening each door I passed revealed nothing worthwhile, racks, rusted spare parts, and caved in metal boxes. I reached the junction and turned left, only to find more storage rooms. Well, I was in maintenance, but Stable Seventeen’s spares were kept in an ESO 4 cleanroom with an automated collection and stacking system. Clearly Stable Seventeen was a special case.

After only a short distance, I found a cross junction. Signs on the roof, now dangling by their power cables, gave me some clue as to where I was. Left was labeled, in rusted steel and cracked red glass, ‘The Rise’ which I assumed was the large area I had been in previously. Straight on was ‘Reactor’ and ‘Power Management’. Back the way I came was labeled ‘Water Plant’ and ‘Environmental Processing’, but to my right was ‘Archive1: Celestia Era Mechanics’. Now that sounded interesting.

Right around the corner, I found the bodies of a pegasi buck and a unicorn mare, judging by their builds, lying on a copious smear of dried blood. They didn’t look like they had been dead long, a month at most. Their stable work clothes clearly emblazoned with the number ‘25’ were still reasonably fresh. It’s a shame the rest of them wasn’t.

The tough fabric of the clothes had only covered their torsos and their flanks with holes for their tails, that were now reduced to torn tufts of ragged hair. All four of their legs ended in bloody torn stumps, and I could only guess that the pegasi had been. What scared me the most was that everything showed signs of teeth marks. I felt my guts squirm at the hoof marks in the dried blood, leading away from the bodies and round the corner towards the reactor.

“Well…” I whispered to myself. “I guess I’m not going that way.” I checked my time, it had only been five minutes, but I had built up a massive one hundred rads. I needed to be faster. A working terminal would save me from searching this place step by step.

The turbines in Seventeen all had a main computer terminal near them, so it seemed logical that the reactor would, too. ‘Ok, maybe you are.’ I turned round again and began to walk cautiously towards the reactor. My Rad counter went berserk. Five rads per second. I kept walking. Six, seven, eight.

I got the message.

Dashing back to the junction to escape the deadly radiation, and the relative safety of two rads per second, I downed a sachet of rad-away as I considered my options. I couldn’t go to the reactor, and I doubted the Water Plant or Environmental Processing would have anything I wanted. Celestia Era Mechanics however sounded very tempting.

A short distance down the corridor, light from my horn and Pipbuck illuminated another heavy door with two large windows set into it. I approached cautiously, looking around for a control panel or a horn lock. Neither were present. Drat. I peered through the grimy glass as best I could, redirecting my illumination spell and broke into a massive grin.

Pedestals. Row after row of pedestals stretched on and on, out my horns light, each topped with a glass box enclosing anything from farming and hoof tools up to basic flint-lock pistols and powder rifles. It was more than that, the room was a link back to a time before war, before hate and death. The technology was so innocent, so simple, and somehow that tugged at me in a way I had never felt before. I’d never liked ‘history’ back in the stable. It was all diplomacy and politics, but this was the kind of history I could get into. I needed to get into!

“Foxglove.” I whispered excitedly to my PipBuck.

“Yes, Fran? Are you alright?” She whispered back.

I laughed. “Oh yeah, I’m good. I’m coming back now, and I’ll tell you what I’ve found.”

I turned around and headed back the way I’d come. I passed the two dead ponies on the floor, feeling my spirits droop slightly: what had gone wrong with the stable, how had they survived, and how had they met such a gruesome end?

Wait...

They didn’t have PipBucks? That didn’t make sense. All Stable ponies had PipBucks, Typhoon had identified my as one without a second thought. I cast around with my horn, the shifting light making the shadows leap and warp as I moved. A glint caught my eye, and I moved in to find a PipBuck still attached to the remains of a deep blue hoof.

I picked it up in my magic and turned the controls to face me. The screen lit up in response to my magic to display a small pony with health bars hovering over each major limb. All read zero. I navigated through the menus comparing it with my own device. The model number was the same as mine, a 3000B, but the OS differed slightly. The user didn’t have root access like I did, though I’d never messed with it to that extent. It also was not NARS capable, which seemed logical since the stable wasn’t underwater. The device also couldn’t broadcast PipBuck to PipBuck without the long range communicator attachment and was limited to emergency transmit and receive on an preset open frequency. Well, this was about as close to an emergency as you could get when you were dead.

“Hello, is anypony receiving me?” I waited a moment. “This is an emergency broadcast, can anypony hear me?” Nothing. Well, I hadn’t really expected anypony to—

“Mulberry! Mulberry, is that you!” A buck’s frantic and desperate voice snapped from the speakers. “Thank Luna you’re alive! I thought you were dead. Where are you? Are you trapped? Did the mutants cut you off from us?”

I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, I think Mulberry is dead.”

“Wait, what?” The buck’s voice was suddenly fearful. “Vortex, is that you? Is Mulberry ok?”

“My name is Francium. I’m standing over the bodies of a deep blue unicorn mare and a light grey pegasi buck. I’m sorry, but they are both dead and have been for some time.”

There was a confused whimper and some burbling. “But, who are you? Why are you using Mulberry’s PipBuck?”

“My own PipBuck wasn’t tuned into the right set of frequencies that your stable uses, but if you give me a moment,” I whizzed through the mare’s PipBuck to find the broadcast frequency, then quickly added it to the list of pre-set’s in my own, labeling it ‘Stable Twenty Five Emergency Frequency’.

“This is Francium. Can you still hear me?”

“Who is this!” Another bucks voice demanded. “Identify yourself.”

“My name is Francium. I’m a wasteland explorer.” Didn’t want to give it all away.

“Says here that you are maintenance engineer at a water testing facility.” What the hell? How did they know that?

“I was.” I said, it was true enough.

“How in Luna’s name did you get in here?” The buck demanded again.

“I fell down an elevator shaft with a companion of mine. She’s injured and needs medical attention.”

“An elevator?” His tone had changed. “Which elevator?”

“It comes out on the ground floor and was behind a sealed door. The other walls each had three doors, the elevators only had one.”

There was a moment's fervent muttering. “What did you do to Mulberry and Vortex?”

Wait? “What did I do? I found them.”

“Found them where?”

“Ummm, ground floor, at a junction in the maintenance area down a corridor from the door far left from the elevator door.” More muttering.

“You said they were dead?”

“Yes. Ummm, excuse the following, but they’ve been eaten.” I decided it couldn't get much worse. “Their legs are missing and their tails have been reduced to stumps.”

A wail began to come from my Pipbuck as somepony started to cry . I could only imagine that it was the buck who’d so desperately answered. His wife, sister or even mother had been eaten, probably alive. It echoed horribly in the abandoned corridor.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t give you good news.”

“How long have you been down here?”

“I am not sure.” I checked the clock on my PipBuck. It was now eight in the morning “Oh my… I would guess we fell down the shaft about three hours ago.” Again, muttering. I jumped at a sudden sound behind me, a clunk of metal. I turned and screamed.

Ghouls. Dozens of them. All looking at me like I was radroach on a stick. Everyone was salivating. Everyone was creeping towards me out of the darkness. Intent on eating me alive.

I ran backwards, firing Jury as fast as I possibly could. Voices were suddenly shouting from my PipBuck, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Ghoul after ghoul fell with missing legs, decimated craniums, or collapsed chests, only to be crushed by the hoard behind them.

They were gaining on me. I had to turn and gallop, but then I would be blind firing. I had no choice, it was turn or die. I careened around the corner towards the door. If I could get enough of a gap then I could shut the door. My legs and lungs stung from the sudden exertion, but it was dulled by huge quantities of a adrenaline.

I had no idea how close they were behind me as I skid, sending flakes of rust and orange water everywhere. I turned and jammed my illuminated horn into the socket. The light turned red. The door began to close.

I crunched down hard on my back as a pair of ravenous ghouls slammed into me, sending the three of us tumbling and splashing through the grime. Two pairs of rotten jaws bit down on my legs. I awaited the excruciating pain but none came. The repulsion spell was preventing the ghouls from biting into me. It didn’t stop them from pulling me apart. A third ghoul grabbed my other hind leg, and the tio began to pull in opposite directions, trying to rip me limb from limb. I screamed as my body was twisted to its natural limit.

Gore splattered everywhere as two bullets blasted the head off the nearest mutated pony. I turned to see Foxglove taking aim from inside the elevator shaft. She fired again, slowly and deliberately, making each shot count as best she could. Five ghouls fell, jabbering frantically. She emptied her clip. Now the hoard was focused on her. I fired Jury blindly into the oncoming mass of ghouls to turn their attention back to me.

“Grenades! Use the grenades!” I yelled out.

I stumbled to my feet, blasting at another ghoul that tried to rip me off my feet. I felt cold as I saw the door. It had closed partial, but at some point a pair of ghouls had got trapped underneath it, one atop the other, leaving more than enough from for the others to squeeze through and continue swarming into the room.

A icon in my EFS flashed urgently.

Jury was out of power.

I scrambled backwards once more, discarding the spent cell and slamming home another. I brought the pistol back only to have a ghoul bite down on the end of the barrel, attempting to rip it in two. I didn’t bother with SATS and fired, sending searing hot bone fragments and brain scattering out in a lethal shower that hit two more ghouls in the face, ripping their muzzles to shreds.

An explosion near the door blasted away a whole group of monsters in a colourful cloud of red blood and orange water. Foxglove tossed another grenade, which scattered long and sent its case ripping into steel and concrete. I had to put three shots right into the neck of one massive ghoul before it stopped chasing me.

With help from SATS, I blasted away six more ghouls that were squeezing their way under the door. My magic ripped the two dead ghouls from under the door, well half of them, but that was all the door needed. The door crashed down on the hooves of desperate ghouls as they reached under the shrinking gap.

Exhausted and gasping for air, I collapsed into the mixture of rust water and gore, Jury falling beside me with a clatter as steam rose up from the glowing gems, boiling the water. I rolled over onto my back, my legs flopping outwards and vaguely saw a yellow shape descending towards me.

“She’s alive. We need a stretcher down here. She’s been bitten.” Bitten? I haven’t been bitten. I looked round slowly and spotted blood leaking out of my EVA suit on my right hind leg. Oh, that’s not good. The yellow figure looked down at me. “It’s alright, we’ve got you. You’re safe now.”

“Foxglove.” I pointed. “Get Foxglove.”

“We are. Just hang on. We need you two live.” Ok, yeah. I’ve been attacked by a giant black fish with three jaws and survived. A pony bite was going to be…

~ ~ ~

‘Oww… this really, really hurts.’ What really hurts? ‘Me?’ Can I be more specific? ‘Ummm, yes. my head.’ Better than last time. ‘Hey, why can’t I see anything?’ Eyelids? ‘Oh yeah.’

I opened my eyes only to snap them shut at the bright white light all around me. I blinked quickly, trying to get used to the intensity. Slowly, the wall of white began to focus into an array of strip lights set into the roof, made of a familiar steel alloy. I did my second mental check of the day for bodily pain. None was to be found except in my head where I had a thumping headache. At least my leg seemed to be healed. The ghouls must have…

It all came back.

I pushed myself up in bed, searching desperately for Foxglove, but she was nowhere to be seen. In fact, no pony was to be seen. I took stock of the room: more beds, some with curtains, glass fronted cabinets, IV stands, medical apparatus, all of which looked brand new. I spotted blue and looked down at the rest of my body. Somepony had removed my EVA suit and replaced it with Stable Twenty Five barding; the same kind I’d seen on the two ghoul gobbled ponies. A horrible image of my own corpse flashed through my mind. No, don’t think about it.

Getting to my hooves, I made my way through the pristine ward towards the door. One thing that stood out was that many of the glass cupboards were empty or running low. Even some of the beds were bare mattresses rather than being covered and ready as they always had been in Stable Seventeen. With a hiss, the door slid up as I approached. I lifted my head to look, and stumbled backwards.

The pegasus buck looked impassive, but his eyes were suspicious, blue-grey and cold, they stood out against his coat which reminded me of an apricot but slightly browner. Well defined muscles moved smoothly underneath his stable barding. His tousled mane looked like it hadn’t seen a comb in months, brown with a hint of orange; the opposite of his coat.

“Are you fit to walk?” His voice was calm enough, but he still seemed cautious.

I nodded quickly. “I am fine. Thanks.”

“Follow.” He turned curtly and was off, flexing his wings gently. I hesitated, caught between the uncertainty of trusting a pony I’d never seen before and being alone inside a strange stable. He disappeared around the corner and I knew instantly: I didn’t want to be alone.

Stable Twenty Five seemed to be very grid like in its layout: every junction was perpendicular, every room squared off. I supposed it was exaggerated by the fact that I’d lived in conical or circular structures for most of my life. We walked, passing storage rooms and rooms filled with banks of glowing computers, back to the The Rise and followed the parameter round to one of the platforms jutting out over the edge. With a flick of his wings, the buck tapped a pair of buttons on either side of the platform and the barrier swung upwards.

After a pause he looked back at me. “Well?”

“Well, what?” I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

“We need to go down two levels. Unless you can levitate yourself I suggest you climb on my back.”

“Don’t you have lifts?”

“Yes, but they don’t work.”

“Oh, right.” I felt stupid for a moment and then realised what I was about to do. “Umm, you don’t mind?”

He turned to face me. “No.” he replied like he was speaking to a very slow foal.

“I just.. It’s not normal where I am from to get so close to another pony, especially a stranger. Unless of course you’re partners.” For a split second, my mind went back a week. I couldn't help but smile, then felt my gut wrench as I wondered here my love was now.

“Are you alright?”

“Ummm, yeah. I’m ok.”

He cocked his eyebrow as if to say ‘really’ but he let it lie. “We wear the barding. It prevents any... embarrassment.” he turned his tail to me again. “Now get on.”

Carefully, I placed my forehooves just in front of his wings, lined myself up before kicking with my hind legs and pulling myself up onto his muscular back. I pulled his tail out from under me with my magic, which made him twitch—probably shouldn’t have done that. I wrapped my hooves round his barrel as best I could, and then put my head next to his neck.

Instantly, his wings snapped out on either side. I could feel whole collections of muscles shifting underneath me like waves during a storm. He took a single step back before pushing forward towards the lip on the platform. Then I realised exactly what was going to happen.

I let out a scream as we dropped, twisting left, turning into a downwards helix. A single flap of the bucks muscular wings propelled us round full circle in a graceful glide. I closed my eyes, knowing how far the drop was beneath us. Then we were down. I heard hooves hit metal and click to a hault. I opened my eyes and saw him looking back at me over his shoulder with confusion.

I quickly slid from his back, taking care not to catch his wings or tail. My heart was still beating fast. I’d never felt anything like that before. His strength and power were one thing but that notion that we had chosen to fall twelve metres was just strange. ‘You have just fallen five thousand feet.’ my inner pony pointed out. ‘Yeah, but I was unconscious!’

“Are you alright.” I jumped and looked at the pegasi.

“Yes. I’m fine. Just a little shocked, that’s all.”

He rolled his eyes and turned down the nearest corridor.

I took a moment to peer over the edge. The dead ghouls still lay down at the bottom, their blood turning the rusted water a pinky-red tone. Some pony would need to get rid of them before they began to decompose, but given that there were more waiting on the other side of the door, I didn’t think it would happen any time soon.

I quickly caught up with the apricot buck. I noted that the corridors were the full six metres high and so were the doors, a pegasi could easily fly above ponies walking below without having to worry about hitting them, which I supposed was the point.

“Hey, when you said the lifts don’t work, do you know why?” I trotted along beside him, trying to be as happy and approachable as I could.

“They’ve been broken since before I was born.” He made a sharp left turn, forcing me to jump out of his way. “Around twenty five years after the stable was closed.”

“How many lifts are there?”

“There were four plus the emergency lift you and your friend fell down.”

“Have you ever tried to fix them?”

He let out a disgruntled snort. “I haven’t personally, but yes, we have.”

“And?”

“We are here.”

I stumbled as he jutted his left wing out in front of me. We’d stopped besides a double width door that was again the full six metres high. With his wings at full extension, he simultaneously tapped a pair of buttons built into the face of the door. The door rose up to reveal a large room containing one giant circular meeting table and around twenty ponies. All them looking very intently at me.

“Fran!” I turned and saw Foxglove sat at the edge of the room flanked by two ponies that I guessed were part of security. She made to get up, but one placed a stern hoof on her shoulder and pushed her back down.

“Hey, leave her alone!”

“We are just taking precautions, my dear.”

I turned to see the pony who had addressed me. At the far end of the meeting table sat an elderly mare, just as old as Arc had been. Her white coat went well with the blue stable barding, and even the grey of her mane and tail had a blue hue to them. I suspected that it had once been a similar shade to mine. Her wings were tucked neatly at her sides, shifting as she breathed.

“Hello there. My name is Gracious Wings, and I am the Overmare of Stable Twenty Five. Please, sit.” Gracious pointed vaguely at a pair of empty chairs across from her. The guards stepped aside allowing Foxglove to come and huddle close to me, her eyes darting from stranger to stranger. “It’s alright little one, we will not harm you.”

I moved with Foxglove to the two seats and we both settled down to complete the circle of ponies. My eyes quickly took in the lot of them. It was a balanced ratio of earth ponies, unicorns and pegasi and an even balance of mares and stallions. It was quite an unusual sight. Most were of Smoking or Mantis’ age, but there was a young white mare who I doubted was even Foxglove’s age.

“Now. A quick question first, have your legs healed fully?” Gracious tilted her head expectantly.

“Yeah, mine feels better than it has in weeks.” Foxglove smiled, if a little nervously.

I looked down and gave my own leg a quick flex. “Um, yes. It seems to be fine. Thank you.”

Gracious gave a dismissive flick of her wing. “It’s nothing dears. We’re all equal here. Though my son did mention that you and your companion are particularly beautiful.” Foxglove and I looked at each other for a moment.

“Um… thank you,” I replied with a confused smile.

“Oh, don’t thank me, thank Mighty Wings here.” She gestured to her side and the buck who had escorted me here. Mighty Wings cleared his throat but otherwise looked impassive. Wow, he had some self control. Any of our group would be blushing like crazy, except Smoking.

“So that you understand,” Gracious continued. “The ponies in this room represent each family name inside Stable Twenty Five. Once you’ve both answered our questions we will decide what to do with you. Please answer truthfully, we will know if you’re lying.” Foxglove and I both nodded slowly. “And now I must ask the difficult questions.” I gulped. “Who are you? Where do you come from, and what do you want?”

Well, this was going to be difficult.

“Where would you like me to start?” I asked.

Gracious smiled politely. “How about your names.”

“Well, my name is Francium Actinium,” I replied clearly.

“And you little one?” Gracious smiled politely at the very nervous mare still clinging to my foreleg.

“Foxglove Purpurea.” she replied, her voice barely audible.

“Both very scientific and complex names for a pair of water analysers.” A mare got to her hooves, her chair screeching as she stood. I was briefly distracted by her intense indigo coat and gloss white mane. It was truly bizarre.

“Ladies, this is Indicia Quarter, our Specialist Equipment Analyst.”

She eyed the pair of us, making Foxgloves grip tighten. “Is that where you come from? Your PipBuck is registered to,” She looked down at his own PipBuck, “a water analysis station at Eternity Lake.”

“Yes, we do.”

“Then where did you get something like this?” Indicia gestured to a unicorn at her side and he levitated my EVA suit onto the table along with Jury. “Our database identifies this suit as an Advanced Submerged Activities Suit or ASA Suit. But it seems there have been several major upgrades and modifications. Your PipBucks are rarely seen 3000-C class, barely off the production line in the last days of the war, and they’ve been modified. As for this, “ She pointed at Jury. “No mouth grip, so for unicorns only and identified as a experimental energy weapon. No name, class or statistics.”

I didn’t know what to say. I would have to set aside this mares astounding knowledge of my equipment and work out what was safe to tell them. I didn’t want to expose Stable Seventeen, since Stable-Tec had gone to such trouble to keep it hidden, and even though it may be lost, it was still my home, in a way. Then again, these ponies were in no position to go after it, and being stable dwellers themselves would most likely sympathise with us. Whether they would believe us was a different matter.

I took a deep breath.

“We come from a stable concealed underneath the water research station, Stable Seventeen.” Close enough to the truth. “Approximately one month ago an accident forced us all to leave the stable. Less than a day later we were attacked. Foxglove and I escaped along with several other ponies, and now we are trying to track down who has taken what remains of our stable and get them back.”

“How did you end up in the emergency lift?” Mighty Wings asked.

“We fell. From the top. I have no idea how we survived, but we have dropped some five or six thousand feet from the top of the mountain range which your stable is built into.”

“The elevator was concealed in the basement of a building.” Foxglove piped up. “We were under attack from Raiders, I think, and we fell into the basement, landed on the elevator platform and then it just dropped.”

“Who are these Raiders?” Gracious asked curiously. “Why were they attacking you.”

Foxglove and I looked at each other nervously. “You know nothing of the Wastelands?” ‘Remember, you knew nothing beside sensor readings back in Seventeen’ my inner pony highlighted: true.

A teal buck cleared his throat. “We have sensor readings from a variety of locations, feeding real time data back to the Stable: radiation levels, wind speed, pressure, humidity, sunlight hours.”

“Well, that’s what we had back in Seventeen, but a Raider isn’t something that you put on a graph or take statistics on.” I thought for a moment. I didn't want what I said to be ignored or dismissed. I couldn’t let it be. “I don’t know where they come from but…” I took a deep breath as images began to come to the surface. The bodies, the blood, the brutality.

“A raider is a pony who has been turned by the wasteland. They’re sadistic to the extreme. They will attack without provocation. They kill, rape, torture, butcher, burn and dismember any pony that is not one of them. And if you’re lucky they will do it in that order.”

The whole room began to murmur. Some looked confused, others shocked and a few looked like they didn’t believe me. I couldn’t let them be ignorant of what was out there. If they were if could be the warehouse all over again.

The young white mare to Gracious’ right suddenly screamed. She toppled from sight as she kicked out with her forelegs, like she was trying to block an invisible assailant. I launched to my hooves and watched the mare, eyes wide with terror, continue to scream. I couldn’t escape the horrible thought that this was how most of my stable had died; on their backs, screaming in fear as some raider rammed a knife into their stomach, or worse…

She screamed louder. Mighty Wings swept over to her and in a display of immense strength picked her up in his wings and cradled her before him. Slowly, she calmed down. At a nod from Gracious, Mighty Wings carried her out of the room and disappeared out of sight.

Foxglove looked from the doorway back to Gracious. “What… what happened to her?”

“She saw something terrible,” the old mare replied.

“What do you mean, she ‘saw’?” I asked confused.

“I would assume, your experiences with these Raiders.”

Foglove and I looked at each other. “I don’t understand.”

“Shade is a seer.”

It took me a moment to put the pieces together, but I couldn’t think of an alternative. “You mean she can, read minds?”

Gracious nodded. “In the most basic sense, yes.”

“But… she’s an earth pony.” Foxglove muttered with confusion. “Surely only a unicorn could do that.”

“She is a unicorn.” I jumped at Mighty Wings voice as walked in behind us. “Technically.”

I made the connection. “She was how you would tell if we were lying or not.”

Gracious spoke next, her voice firm and authoritative, "I feel it is safe to assume that you have been honest enough. However, I believe that it would behoove us to wait for Shade to recover before continuing. Mighty, if you would show our guests to their rooms and return their belongings. I am sure you need time to think.”

I just nodded politely.

Gracious stood as a member of security approached her. He turned and let her place a wing tip on his flank before leading the older pegasus round the table.

“She’s blind,” Foxglove whispered. “Look at her eyes.”

Once Gracious was safely out the door, the other ponies filtered out after her. Some gave us looks of sadness, others curiosity, some just avoided us altogether. Mighty Wings held us back until everypony else had gone.

“Follow me, please.” Mighty beckoned with a wave of his wing. “We’ve set aside a large double room for the pair of you on this level so you do not have to move up and down. The kitchens are here, with a lounge and swimming pool as well. Follow the signs, they will tell you where you need to go.”

“How did your mother lose her sight?” I asked, hoping that I wasn’t intruding. “Ponies in seventeen have never had eye issues, in fact we rarely get sick.”

“Radiation.” Mighty replied curtly.

“Was any other pony affected like her.” I added trying to keep a dialogue going.

“Some, but few remain.”

‘Sounds exactly like us, a few remaining survivors’ my inner pony sighed sadly.

I mentally kicked myself. I did not want to start thinking about that now. I would do that when I was alone and could so what I liked. But I had no idea what happened after I got knocked out. Foxglove would know but I would wait until we could speak privately.

One thing worried me though.

The only way I knew of getting out for the stable was the lift shaft. But with the lift now broken I had no way of getting back up. It was possible one of the pegasi could give me a lift to the top but I seriously doubted that I could persuade them to do that.

Mighty Wings gently lifted a wing. “Here we are.” He prodded a button beside a regular sized door and it slid aside. “I’m afraid both of you will have to sleep in the same bed. The living quarters for unicorns and earth ponies were on the lower levels, and this is one of the few accessible pegasi rooms. It’s not much, but it’s home.”

“It really is home…” I just about managed to gape. “Really, really is.”

“Are you ok?” Mighty waved a wing in front of my eyes, but I wasn't interested.

Only two things were different. The floor was bare metal like the rest of the stable, rather than the blue carpet I was used too. The round windows were square, showing a beautiful meadow glistening with a gathering frost in the waning dusk, seemingly projected onto a surface mounted where the glass ought to be. ‘A far cry from the murky blackness of Lake Eternity’ my inner pony seemed almost stunned. Aside from that, I could have sworn that I was walking into my own bedroom.

The table, chairs, lights, shelves,

“It’s just like…” Foxglove had exactly the same expression of shock and surprise on her face that I did. “It’s just like home,” she muttered.

“Your room looked like this?” I scanned the space again.

“Yeah, it’s near identical, but we had a green carpet and no windows, just lights.” Slowly, Foxglove wandered around the room in daze, examining everything. “Hey Fran, did the sofa in your room have bad stitching on the left arm?”

“Yeah, they all did. A mass manufacture defect.”

Foxglove smirked, stroking the fabric. “It’s the same here.”

“There’s a selection of food in the kitchen and towels in the bathroom. I would say where, but it seems you both know your way around.” Mighty Wings smiled politely.“Shall I leave you both too it?”

“Yes. Thank you, Mighty.”

“My name isn’t Mighty.” I turned to him confused. “That’s just the name my mum uses. It’s kind of a family thing.”

“Then what is it?”

“Minor Wings.” With a tap of his wing, the door closed behind him.

I signed and turned, taking in my familiar surroundings. Even though I knew it wasn’t my room, I felt calm and content in a way that only home could really bring. I stroked the duvet covers with a sweep of my hoof, admired the furniture and fittings that I knew like the bottom of my hoof.

“Fran?” Foxglove asked, staring. I followed her gaze to the windows and the fake meadow on the far side of the glass. “Do you think somewhere in Equestria, places like that still exists?”

I didn’t know what to say. “Ummm, I am sure they do somewhere. Perhaps not as lush and green, but close.”

She sighed. “I hope they do.” She turned to me slowly with a strange look on her muzzle. “Fran, how can we be here. We should be dead.”

I was taken aback by her forwardness. “What do you mean?”

“We fell. A long way. I don’t remember when I blacked out, or why, but somehow we fell five thousand feet and survived. I know I asked back in the lift, but, how do we know we’re alive?” She shuffled nervously. “I’m sorry, Fran. I just… it’s like being home again. Perhaps this is our minds creating a final fantasy of comfort before we die. How do I know I didn’t got shot back at the hostel, that I’m not bleeding to death on the floor. How do…”

“Foxglove!” I yelled. “Please, just stop.” Her blue eyes looked into mine as I flopped onto my rump, trying hard not to cry. If I started, I knew she would too. “I don’t know. I have some ideas why, but we can’t prove it, or disprove it either way. So, let’s just accept it. Ok.”

With a gentle nod, Foxglove moved off to the kitchen area and began to search through the cupboards. I looked longingly at the bed for a moment, then realised what I really wanted. Turning on the shower as I entered, I draped the bath mat on the floor and unwrapped the fresh bar of soap on top of the clean white towels before pulling off my new Stable Twenty Five barding. Dropping it carelessly to the floor, I took a long breath and stepped into the shower.

Five seconds later I was curled up on the floor, crying my eyes out under the ice cold water.

* * *

“Did you sleep well?” I looked up listlessly from my bowl of cereal. Minor Wings had entered our room and I hadn’t even heard him. He stood there smiling for a moment in his barding before his ears dropped at my forlorn expression. “What’s wrong, Francium? Why didn’t you go with Foxglove to the Mess hall? We still manage a hot breakfast every day. Did you have porridge back in your stable. It’s quite tasty, especially with a little salt.” He pricked his ears up again, but they fell again as I just stirred my wheat flakes.

“She was gone by the time I woke up.” I took another spoonful and had it hovering just in front of my lips, but I just wasn’t interested. “And no. No porridge in Stable Seventeen. Apples, algae, berries, mushrooms, grapes and a few other things from time to time. That was it really.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.” Minor Wings cautiously approached the table before slowly pulling out the opposite chair and sitting down. “What’s wrong, Francium? I don’t know what you have been through, but at the moment you are safe and warm, with food, fresh water, and a soft bed. Surely, you should be happy.”

“I think I’m happy. I have every right to be, but...” I dropped the spoon into the bowl with a whimper, rubbing my eyes with my hooves. “Foxglove, she has become so, I don’t know. She constantly thinks about death and dying. She suggested last night that we were bleeding to death on the elevator floor and that this was all some kind of happy fantasy of rescue and last comforts. A young mare like her should be full of joy and life and love and energy but,” I waved a hoof dramatically at the fake meadow behind me, “the wasteland has just broken her. No, not broken just… I don’t know, but it can’t be good for her. I want to help, but I just don’t know what to do.”

Minor Wings smiled hopefully back at me. “I am sure we can talk to her, find some way to help her out. But I will say, you could be over analysing this. Seeing things that aren't there, but,” he quickly changed his tone at my expression, “I’ll see what we can do anyway. Now come, let’s get you some proper food.”

* * *

“Feeling better?” Minor Wings cleared away my plate for me with a sweep of his wing, sliding it onto a passing trolley with practised ease. “So, do you like porridge?”

I looked up at him with a forced smile. “Yeah, I liked it. Salt makes it taste weird in my opinion, but to each their own.” He didn’t buy it. I decided to just steer away from the subject. “Can we go find Foxglove? I want to see her. I need to see her.”

Minor Wings nodded slowly. “Sure. We also have some things we would like you to take a look at. Your skill in engineering and mechanics far outstrip anypony here.”

Minor Wings held the door open for me and we proceeded towards the The Rise. “Yeah, what do you have in mind?”

“The reactor for a start. It’s still producing power, even after the accident, but we need to know what the real damage is. Then there are the lifts. They stopped working about twenty five years after the Stable was closed. No warning. No reason. If you can fix those, then that would be incredible. And finally,” Minor Wings stepped onto the one of the small flying platforms and opened the barrier, “the security cameras for the Stable went off line shortly after the accident. Last thing we have on record is a group of shapes at the main Stable door, and then everything went out.”

I said nothing. None of those sound good, but I was more focused on finding Foxglove and making sure I didn’t fall off Minor’s back as we climbed up to the top level of the stable.

“I think we should start looking in the rec-rooms.” Minor Wings began to lead me round the far side of The Rise. “It’s Sunday, so most of us have the day off.”

“Wow, it’s been a while since I had a proper day off,” I mumbled to myself.

“Can I ask what life has been like since you left your stable?” Minor Wings asked after a considered moment. “Clearly you’ve experienced some horrible things, but it can’t all have been bad, can it?”

I sighed and looked at my hooves tapping lightly against the plate steel floor. My eyes were drawn automatically to every fixture and fitting as I passed, examining them for damage or wear. I noticed a cluster of wall sockets and a badly routed water pipe which really needed seeing to, then I remembered it wasn’t my job to be fixing somepony else’s stable. So what if they had used the wrong bolt sizes and made the pipe double back on itself. So long as it worked it…

I collided head long into something. Dazed, I flopped back on my rump and looked up to see Indicia Quarter dripping with apple juice.

“Watch where you’re… oh it’s you.” She held out a hoof to help me up. “Well, I suppose I can let you off for this first indiscretion.” She did her best to pat herself down, but it didn’t do much other than rub the sticky liquid into her coat and mane.

“Sorry, I was just, thinking.” I curled my tail in, taking a step back.

“It’s fine. Really. I can go one day smelling of apples.” Indicia looked at my stance. “What's wrong mare? I told you not to worry.”

To my relief Minor Wings stepped in. “She isn’t feeling to good. We’re trying to find her companion, the young earth mare.”

“Oh, she’s in the Soft Room with Shade. Well she was when I dropped Indigo off at the playgroup. She may still be there if you’re quick.”

I smiled at her gratefully, still shuffling. “Thanks.”

“This way Francium.” Minor Wings set off and I followed. I couldn’t help but glance back at Indicia, and to my surprise she was doing the same to me.

The Soft Room was exactly what it said on the tin. It probably had a range of functions, from sport and exercise to relaxation, but at the moment the whole place was filled knee deep with soft hoof size balls in a rainbow of colour. The floor, which I couldn’t actually see as I waded through the squidgy rainbow, was soft and pliable. I expected, without the balls, the room would be great for martial arts practice or a game of hoof ball.

Young colts and fillies leapt and ran, scattering balls as they did so. A few mares and stallions stood at the edges keeping an eye on their little ones. In the far corner of the room, I spotted Foxglove sitting opposite Shade. For a moment I felt sad that they were alone, but, as I drew nearer, I saw their expressions. Neither of them were saying a word and yet both of them were smiling ecstatically at one another.

I made it all they way to Foxglove’s side before she looked round at me. “Hey Fran,” Foxglove said cheerfully. “Sleep well?”

“Yeah…” I replied looking between the two of them. “I wanted to talk to you. Serious talk.”

“Oh, what about?” I could tell I’d broken her happy demeanor.

“A range of things, but it can wait if you want.” I looked at Shade who was avoiding my eye. “What were you doing with Shade?”

Foxglove paused for a moment. She exchanged a meaningful glance with Shade before taking a deep breath. “I was showing her Stable Seventeen.”

I blinked. “How?”

“By just thinking about it. My room, the food hall, the Core, the views from the windows.”

“And you can recall it in enough detail for her to understand?” I asked, surprised.

“I can’t remember much, but I don’t need to. Shade can pick up more than just what I can remember.” Foxglove licked her lips, as though to savour her next words. “And even better, she can project it back, she can fill in all the little details. My room, my toys, my brothers, my sisters… my mother. She can bring them back!”

Foxglove smiled like she was the happiest mare alive. ‘That probably isn’t far off,’ my inner pony added but my focus was drawn to Minor Wings’ stunned expression.

“She can project images into your mind?” Shade coward behind Foxglove, peeking over her whither at Minor Wings “What did I say?”

“She’s always been able to do it,” Foxglove said slowly. “She’s just never had anyone worth sharing her life with.” Foxglove looked round to the young mare. “Shade, it’s ok. You dont need to be scared. Oh, you don’t want everyone to know. But they were ok with your mind reading, you don’t need to worry about this.”

“Foxglove, is she talking to you?” I asked cautiously. “Inside your head?”

“Talking… no. Communicating, yes.” She shook her head, as if trying to clear it. “It’s hard to explain.”

Minor Wings cut in. “But why did she cower?”

“Your first thought was the need to tell your mother.” Foxglove replied like she was struggling to read a book, her words slow and steady. “Once she knew, everypony would. She’s afraid of that.”

Minor Wings knelt on one knee to Shade. “You know you can’t hide it forever. Help us understand you. Let us know how we can help.”

Shade nodded and looked at Foxglove for support and was greeted by a gentle hug.

Foxglove held her tightly. “She still doesn’t want everyone to know, but she can see our reasoning. I think the best explanation is ‘In her own time and in her own way’.”

“Why isn’t she talking?” I whispered to Might Wings as Foxglove and Shade reengaged in silent conversation. “She hasn’t said a word since I we got here. ”

“She never talked much, even when she did talk. The last time I heard her talk was with her mother about four years ago.”

“Where is her mother now?” I asked, but I could see where this was going.

“She was killed by ghouls in one our expeditions to the lower levels. I haven’t heard her say a word since.” Minor Wings turned from her and Foxglove. “Come on, let’s go start on the reactor.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to start with the camera’s first?” Minor looked at me curiously. “Then we don’t have to go down there to see what may be wrong, and we can see where the ghouls are.”

Minor Wings nodded approvingly. “Good thinking. We don’t know if they still work, but if it can save us going down there blind every time, that would be great.”

* * *

The monitoring room on the top floor of the stable should have been in good condition. However,twenty years of abandonment had left it in a very shabby state. A plume of dust had risen as I swept the thick layer of dust from the banks of monitors and keyboards that occupied one whole side of the extensive room. I had been sat on the squeaky and stained office chair for over an hour, examining and familiarising myself with the system. Now I was sure I was interpreting all the information correctly I could begin to diagnose the problem. But that was easier said than done.

The deeper I delved into the security cameras last few minutes of operation, the more worried I became. Minor Wings had been watching me politely as I worked at the main console in the monitoring room, occasionally clearing cobwebs with a wave of his wing, but now he was looking at me intently as though he was expecting me to collapse from stress at any moment.

Thankfully, no pony had really touched the system since its sudden shut down, aside from the occasional system diagnostic which I could filter from the logs. After they were removed, I was left with five hundred and twelve video streams that just all blacked out simultaneously, with data loggings of voltage, current, temperature, focus and rotation in two axis which was just a string of numbers.

But it was these numbers that were bothering me. They were all identical. In fact, everything about every camera was identical right down to the incoming data of the blackness they were all supposedly recording.

I glared at the green CRT monitors before me thinking deeply. “Do you have a circuit diagram for the system?” I glanced over my shoulder at Minor wings who shrugged. “Would you mind tracking one down for me. In fact, if you’re looking for that kind of thing, grab the reactor plans and everything to do with the lifts while you’re at it.”

“I can set people on the search, yes. I’ll just pop outside and make the call.”

I waved a hoof as a thank you and considered my options. It was possible that the data storage for the cameras had been fried or corrupted, or that the incoming signals were being misinterpreted by the computer. I still didn’t know where all of the information for the cameras was being stored. The obvious place to look was in the large banks of metal cabinets that made up most of the room.

Getting to my hooves, I moved to the nearest one and carefully unbolted the pressed steel panel from the cabinet. Pulling it aside, I looked in and promptly dropped the panel.

Memory orbs. Banks of memory orbs; well I couldn’t think of what else they could be. Each resting in their own padded recess and connected to the system by arcs of light that lept up to arrays of metal pins on the bottom of the shelf above. The colour of the arcs was exactly like that of a plasma globe. I remembered placing my hooves on the surface of the ball and watching as deep blue energy lanced out and turned red just beneath the glass where my frogs made contact.

But there was something else. I had only ever seen two memory orbs and both had been a crystal like white. These were pure black. So black that they prevented the highly polished surface of the crystal from reflecting back almost any light. It was surreal, like each was its own black hole from which no light could escape.

I wanted to examine the balls more closely, but I knew the arcs were probably high voltage, or at least high energy. I didn’t want to get zapped if I could help it. I did consider just pulling it out with my magic but for all I knew it could conduct through my magic and get to me. After a moment of searching around, I found a tray at the bottom. Pulling it out revealed an array of labelled dip switches. The labels indicated what camera they were linked too, such as ‘Stable Door 01’, ‘Hangar bay 01’, ‘The Rise L1 01’ and so on.

I chose the top left switch, assuming it was linked to the top left orb, and gave it a flick. The energy arcs on the orb petered out, and I carefully pulled out the orb between my hooves. Besides the colour it was exactly the same size and weight as the other orbs I had encountered. To all intensive purposes, it was a normal memory orb.

“I managed to find the circuit diagram you… what is that.” Minor Wings stood in the doorway looking in confusion at the orb in my hooves.

“It looks like a memory orb. Seems to be the storage device for each camera.” I rolled it carefully in my hooves, checking it from every side.

Minor raised his eyebrow. “What’s a memory orb?”

“They’re used for storing memories so that they can be viewed later.” I placed it gently back in the cabinet an reactivated it. “I think they’re only intended for unicorns, but there may be a way for earth ponies and pegasi to view them too.”

Minor Wings shrugged. “So, do you think you can fix it?”

“I have no idea what is wrong.” I reattached the panel and turned to him with a sigh. “The circuit diagram may help, but for now I need to think on it. Let my mind mull it over. Shall we have a look at the lifts?”

“Sure, it’s just a few doors down.”

I turned off all the monitors and followed Minor down the corridor. The camera covering the corridor drew my eye and something occurred to me.

“How do you get the information into the orb?” I stood beneath the camera then carefully unbolted it from the wall before floating it down. “You’re not like the camera’s in Seventeen, that’s for sure. So how do you work.”

“Francium?” Minor Wings appeared next to me. “What are you doing?”

“I am just curious to see what is inside the camera itself.”

I tucked the bolts I removed into a pouch on my new barding. The pan and tilt mechanism was in the camera mount so I popped off the main case and blinked. Three lenses with tiny servos to change the focus, onto a tiny version of a memory orb but this one was the familiar crystalline white. I tipped the orb out onto my hoof to inspect it.

“Is that a normal memory orb?” Minor almost knocked the orb his muzzle was so close and he leant in to examine the tiny object.

“No, a normal orb is about six inches in diameter, this has to be less than two.” Rolling it carefully between my hooves, I gently dropped it back into its hole in the camera.

As I reattached the camera, I knew I was missing something. The cameras in Seventeen were standard electro-magical cameras that I knew were used in buildings all over Equestria, if the stables data base was to be trusted. However, they required a physical connection to the system they were part of to view the image. The fact there were no wires coming into the camera meant they required no power and that they didn’t need power to get the signal out. The only thing entering the camera’s was light which meant…

“The orbs must be linked to the orbs in the storage room… or maybe they were even part of them,” I muttered, ignoring Minor’s confused looks. “Light enters the surface of this orb and is somehow copied to the black orbs. But maybe they’re not supposed to be black. What if they are supposed to be clear. It would be like trying to view a memory when the person is wearing a blindfold. It would be only audio, but these cameras don’t do sound…”

Minor placed a firm hoof on my shoulder and turned me. “Francium. What is it?”

“The cameras still work. They were never broken. It’s like they have just been blindfolded. Somepony knows how to exploit the magic of a memory orb.”

“And what is that exactly?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, but remember when you said that all the camera’s went at the same time and that the last thing you saw on the cameras were a group of ponies at the front entrance.”

“Yes?” Minor prompted.

“Then perhaps one of those ponies was able to somehow infect your system to stop the cameras working. Once they had done that then they could have done whatever they wanted. They could have cut through the door, blown it open and you would never have known.” My mind was racing. If this was all true then the whole stable could be in danger but…

“Minor, when did the accident take place?”

“Maybe twenty years or so ago?” His worried tone made me look at him.

“And in that time nothing else has happened?”

“No.”

“And the cameras failed after the reactor accident?”

“Yes, the next day.”

Ok…

My mind continued to churn. The stable was some kind of storage experiment, why else would it have so many different areas and such a extensive and unique camera system. Perhaps somepony considered the standard equipment to easy to hack into so they devised this new method. If somepony knew about all the equipment stored in the stable then the chances of them trying to gain access to it would be very high. Even some of the most basic technology could give a massive advantage in the wasteland, and I was sure that the stable planners never included raiders in any of their calculations.

“Minor, is there an inventory of everything that is stored in the stable?”

“Yeah, we check it and monitor it constantly. The items we can get at anyway.” A few prods on the keyboard and I was met with the same interface that was used in Stable Seventeen to keep track of spare parts. “You can arrange it by almost anything. Materials, cost, date of manufacture, location of manufacture, type.” He let me take the seat and I began to scroll through the options.

“The areas we can’t get to are all the pre-war Celestia era sections and the vehicle section on the bottom floor. Here,” He arranged the list by date last checked. “All these items we haven’t been able to log and sign off since the accident.”

“Can you add more than one filter?” I asked, “There is still a lot here.”

“Sure, what do you want to add.”

“Get rid of anything you can check, the arrange what is left by cost. If you were going to steal something it would probably be expensive for one reason or another. And then can you arrange it by type alphabetically just to make it a little easier to read.”

“Ok… there you go.” Minor stepped back and let me scroll through. “I am not sure what we have that somepony would want. Most of the interesting and dangerous stuff is on the upper levels; weapons and that kind of thing.”

“Hmmm… “ I replied nothing really listening.

19Y 8M 7D - 30’000’000 - Agriculture - Baler

19Y 8M 7D - 30’000’000 - Agriculture - Combine Harvester

19Y 8M 7D - 30’000’000 - Agriculture - Tractor A - Hydraulic arm

19Y 8M 7D - 30’000’000 - Agriculture - Tractor B - Hydraulic Forks

19Y 8M 7D - 17’000’000 - Business - RAID Array - Blueprints

19Y 8M 7D - 17’000’000 - Business - Computer Array - Blueprints

“Can you remove civilian equipment?” I asked “We still have over three thousand results.”

Minor looked at me cautiously. “What is it, what do you think they have taken?”

“I… I don’t know, just do it, please.”

The screen finished updating and I looked down. The list was much much shorter.

“There you go.” Minor smiled. “Most of the military stuff is on the upper levels. The only things that are down below are the experiments and the vehicles. Fran… Fran are you ok?”

“You said you have vehicles, right?” I mumbled. “Where are they stored?”

“There is a hanger on the bottom floor, through a set of doors. Opposite the lift you fell down.”

“Do you have access to it now?”

“No, the doors sealed during the accident. Why? Fran? Fran?”

Act 2 - Chapter 11: Long Road Down

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Chapter 11: Long Road Down
“Hold on. I’m a comin’”

“Fran! Fran!” I screamed, peering desperately down into the bottomless crater, dust and grit stinging my eyes. “Foxglove! Where are you.”

I could see nothing, just a haze of thick dirt hanging in the stagnant air. Vague shapes, little more than shadows, filled the space, defined by a single weak source of light too distant to identify. I paced round the edge of the hole, looking for a way down, until an ominous creak sent me scuttling back from the edge.

“Fran!” I yelled again, my voice pained. “Where are you!” Desperate to see what was down in the deep dark chasm, I crept back to the edge

“Helix. Where are they? Where are Fran and Foxglove.”

I needed to get into that hole.

“Helix!”

I stopped, my hooves half over the edge.

“Helix?” Seafire’s voice calm, her tone cautious. “ What are you doing?”

Her voice barely registered. I inched forward as far as I dared. “Fran!” My voice was swallowed by the void. “Foxglove!”

“Helix? Where are they? Wait… no.” She muttered in disbelief, her voice hollow. “They’re not.”

I leaned forwards a fraction more, trying to see my love down below. They’d fallen from the floor as Foxglove tried to pull her to safety, slipping out of sight in a shower of splinters and debris. “Fran!” I yelled again, my voice breaking and straining. “Fran!

“Keep back from the edge.” Mantis barked as he and Smoking cautiously approached the hole. “Helix get back” When I didn't move Tun grabbed my tail and dragged me backwards, it hurt but I didn't care.

With Tun still holding me back, Smoking rummaged in his bags and pulled out a trio of the Stable’s emergency glow sticks. Cracking the glass vial between his teeth, he tossed them one-by-one into the hole. The first clattered on a metal floor and went skittering into a corner. The second bounced off a piece of rubble and stopped on the edge of some kind of pit. The third dropped into the pit vanishing into an abyss.

“Where did it go?” I looked wide eyed into the blackness. No one replied. “Maybe… maybe it went under something…”

“We need to get down there.” Mantis shook his head, muttering to himself. “All these years and I’ve never seen this before.”

“You mean this isn’t the cellar where you got the coal?”

Mantis shook his head. “No. It seems to be on the same level, but that cellar is tiny.” Kneeling he examined what little we could see of the room below. “The steps down to the cellar are just behind us. It may have a hidden door or something like that.” He gave the floor a gentle prod. “Make sure you keep back, We don’t want anyone else disappearing.”

“Couldn't one of us be lowered down?” Seafire suggested.

Mantis grimaced “Foxglove still had my rope.”

“Hey.” Tun appeared in the doorway, his saddle bags bulging. “These guys had loads of good gear on them and the mini-gun is still in good condition. Fran might be able to fix it. Why are you all standing around that hole? Wait? Where are Fran and Foxglove?”

We all looked at him. It was heart wrenching to see the realisation appear on his face.

* * *

We went straight to work. The coal cellar was dank and filthy. Within minutes we were all covered in coal dust, jet black streaking our coats, manes and tails, knotting into thick clumps as we worked and strained. I searched and searched, through the coal, the barrels of oil, stacks of discarded machinery, but there was nothing here, no secret switch or hidden button, just junk. Only Seafire stayed back, keeping guard at the top of the steps, combat shotgun and Blackhawk at the ready.

I couldn’t take it any more, it was too much. Without thinking I snatched a hunk of scrap metal and began slamming it against the brickwork. Over and over and over again, I beat the wall as hard as I could, tears streaming down my face. Only after Tungsten took me firmly in his hooves and dragged me away up the stairs did I realise how much of a wreck I must look.

“Stay here.” Tun whispered, taking a cloth to my muzzle. “You’re no good like this. Try and calm yourself, take control. Ok?” He wiped away the streak marks around my eyes. “There that's better.” A quick peck to the top of my head and he disappeared from my sight.

Slowly, I began to clean myself. The spell was designed to quickly sterilise a pony’s mane and coat, not clean off deeply ingrained soot and mud, making it slow going. In time, I was able to curl up against the wall, tail pulled between my legs as I hugged it tight. I vaguely noted how I wouldn't have been able to do this a few weeks ago. My mane and tail were far longer than they ever were in Stable Seventeen. Part of me liked it. The rest just saw it as yet another sign of how far from home I really was.

“It’s not here.” I heard Mantis sigh. “There must be another way in.” He and Smoking slumped against the wall next to Seafire. “Maybe we should just lower one of us in.”

“We could break down the wall?” Tun suggested.

“Let’s mark that as plan ‘Z’.” Mantis countered.

“I’ll go have another look inside.” Smoking tried to wipe the worst of the dirt off his coat with a scrap of fabric that looked like it came from somepony’s armour. “Any suggestions, Mantis?”

“Not really.”

“Can I ask… do most of you think this tunnel links straight to the stable?” Seafire asked, staring down into the cellar.

“That would be my guess.” Mantis looked at her curiously. “Why?”

“Then why would there be controls on the outside?” My ears picked up. “Everything back home was controlled from inside the stable. Exits and all.”

“So?” My brother didn’t sound remotely convinced.

“So, we may be looking for something that doesn't exist,” Seafire reasoned. “Tun is right, it may be easier to break down the wall. Or maybe we could purposely collapse the floor so we can get down, away from the hole.” Smoking and Mantis exchanged a nervous glance. “What? I know its not exactly safe but what other options do we have?”

A short while later all us retreated back found the hostels far corner, away from the coal cellar. Mantis and Smoking had rigged an old copper pan from the kitchen against the wall with a tube of wonder-glue they had found in one of the cupboards. Strapped to that was a bag of liquid explosive Mantis concocted from some of typhoons explosive rounds mixed with the oil in the barrels.

To direct the blast we had packed as much rubble and planks of wood behind it as we could. Mantis had described the setup as a shape charge: when detonated the copper would liquify cut through any metal in the wall as a molten jet,he packing ensured we blew out the wall and not the cellar.

Mantis squatted at the end of the line, a sensor module in his mouth. He gave us a quick nod and bit down the the module. The explosives detonated with a sharp crack, the ground shaking briefly with dirt dropping off the wall above our heads.

“Stay here until I give the all clear.” Mantis cautiously snuck around the corner. There was a lengthy pause before, “Celestia fucking damn it!” Then the sound of a plank of wood being kicked. “Its safe, cos nothing happened.”

I felt my heart sink as I approached the cellar, well what was left of it. The wooden roof had been blasted off, the shrapnel still burning up to ten metres away. The outer walls had concaved into the dirt making the small room look like it was bloated. The wall that we had mounted the copper pan too had been reduced to a pile of rubble but it still wasn't down.

“I don’t know who built this place but whoever they were did damn good.” Mantis moved into examine the metal wall that had been concealed behind the single layer of bricks. “The copper has done absolutely nothing.” Looking closer I could see what he meant. The copper had just splatted against the alloy like a blob of solder. It didn't seem to have made any kind impression at all.

Next to me, Tungsten grunted as if to say ‘on to plan Z’ before disappearing inside the hostel.

“Where do you think he’s going?” Seafire muttered.

“To do something stupid probably,” I remarked dryly. My ears pricked a mechanical click. “What was…”

We both ducked impulsively at the sound of mini-gun fire and the obliteration of wood. The building creaked and groaned. Only when the tinkling of spent rounds ceased did we lift our heads.

“What the hell did he…” I began but I was cut off by an all mighty crash and more dust spilling out the door. “... do?” I finished slowly.

My brother swaggered out the door, mini-gun smoking at his side. “I think I broke the gun, but at least you have a way down.”

Following him back inside it was clear that he had simply shot the floor at close range in a line. The floor beams had been ripped apart by so many rounds the floor had collapsed again, forming a gentle if rickety ramp down into the darkness.

“What the hell did you do that for?” Mantis asked as he and Smoking joined us, staring at Tungsten angrily. “Anything could have happened. You could have brought down the whole building.”

“Yes, but I’d had enough.” Tun replied firmly. “If it makes you feel any better I’ll go down first.” He dropped the still smoking mini-gun unceremoniously on the ground with a heavy clunk. “Unless somepony else wants to go?”

Silence.

“Fine.” My brother slowly approached the ramp, gingerly transferring his weight onto it. A few tense moments passed as he jiggled and then jumped up and down. The wood groaned under him but didn't move. “Seems fine to me.” Turning, he descended into the room below.

Dust and dirt still lingered thick in the air. I spluttered as I inhaled a mouthful, coughing to clear my lungs as I descended into the gloom.

“Fran?” I lit my horn, walking cautiously forwards. “Foxglove?”

The room was sparse. Light from the hole above picked out a computer in one corner, a few rusted cabinets in another. A pile of boxes and barrels were stacked against the far wall. There was a hole in the middle of the floor, too, next to a console, perhaps for pumps like in the warehouse outside Stable Seventeen.

“I can’t believe there was a whole room down here.” Mantis was muttering to himself as he followed behind me. “All this time, right under our hooves.”

I moved closer to the hole in the middle of the room, illuminated from above, and spotted a body impaled through the neck by a shaft of wood. The silhouette was definably a large male. Peering into the hole I tried to see what was inside, edging closer and closer until I could look straight down.

I jumped at a harsh clang. A stone arched off the wall and struck the ceiling, only to fall into the hole, and fall, and fall...

“What the hell did you do that for!” I rounded on Tungsten, livid in an instant. “They are down there you idiot! What the hell are you doing kicking stuff down on top of them? You could have killed them!” I stopped, muzzle-to-muzzle with him.

“Helix.” I snapped to look at Seafire. She cowered at my expression but continued regardless, ”I don’t think it’s reached the bottom.”

It hit me. It was like I’d just dropped down the hole. The light at the end of the tunnel swallowed by a greater darkness. It couldn't end here. It just couldn't. She couldn't be gone. We had our stable to save. Our stable to fix. We had family to care for. She couldn't leave me to do it all on my own.

My rump bumped into the wall, and I slid to the floor as far away from the hole as I could get. Please no. It can’t be true. It just can’t be.

“Helix?” Seafire placed a hoof on my shoulder. “I…” She began but she couldn't continue.

“I had something to tell her… She can’t be gone.”

It was strange. I wasn't angry, or sad, or scared. I wasn't anything. I was just… numb. I couldn't feel anything. My love, my Fran was gone. And so was I. The only thing I could feel was a sickness and nausea growing inside me, but I was getting used to it by now. After a moment it faded to nothing more than a dull ache, leaving me numb once more.

The others milled around, pointing and talking and making noise. I wanted it all to go away. For them to leave me be. For the walls to disappear and the ground to fall from beneath me so I could be alone with nothing to worry me or bother me. Nothing to distract me from remembering my beautiful Francium. The touch of her lips, the scent of her coat, the way her eyes rolled… all of it… lost forever.

And Foxglove. She was gone too. Swallowed by darkness. That poor young mare, her life torn apart in mere moments. The loss of her mother, her brothers and sisters and now…

“Helix?” It was Seafire again. I couldn't work out if she had gone away and come back or if all those thoughts had taken place in mere fractions of a second. Her eyes were shimmering with tears that she fought to contain. “We are going to move upstairs. Take my hoof.”

She pulled me to my hooves and guided my body up into the morning light. She steered me, lowering me onto the dilapidated sofa. My body just toppled and crumpled when she let go. I was uncomfortable, but I didn't care.

“Perhaps we could rappel down the hole?”

Hopeful.

“We could but that thing is so deep we can’t even see the bottom. I never heard that rock hit the ground.”

Despondent.

“We can’t just leave them down there.”

Desperate.

“What would you suggest. That thing could drop to the bottom of the mountain for all we know.”

Angry.

“Then maybe there’s a way in at the bottom.”

Optimistic.

“Perhaps but we would only be going in there to retrieve their bo… oh who am I kidding there would be nothing left after a five thousand foot drop.”

Broken.

I just lay there thinking about… stuff. Nothing in particular came to mind. Thoughts came and went so quickly I never knew what they were. It was like my mind had given up trying to function and was half heartedly tossing memories to the surface. It didn’t care.

I didn't care.

* * *

I followed.

That’s all.

I placed my hooves in the muddy tracks left by the others as I trailed along behind. So long as I didn't have to think, I was ok. One hoof in front of the other, again and again.

It had been decided there was nothing we could do. No way to go down. No way to see them. We had all tried our Pipbucks but no reply on any frequency. We had left the door open so that if they did make it back up they could easily make their way out.

As much as I hated it, I couldn't help but dwell on those last moments before she vanished. Foxglove trying desperately to save her. Was there anything I could have done? I couldn't think of a real way out. I couldn't have stopped it. The mini-gun, which Tun had insisted that we keep and was now slung over his back, had torn up the floor so badly that if it hadn't been Fran landing on it, then it could easily have been somepony else.

My mind had made one choice though. That if they did make it back up they would need a guide, directions. Hidden from the others I had cut off a short length of the special rope before painstakingly tying it into a heart shape and ensuring that its colour matched my coat perfectly. The rope hung from the point of a rock just within sight of the hostel, next to the path we had taken. I was sure that my Francium, with her brilliant mind, could work out what it meant.

While I had been comatose, curled up on the sofa, it seemed the others had looked more closely at the hole. As they packed up, Seafire filled me in on what they had decided and why. It seemed Francium and Foxglove had one chance. Mantis believed, from the console and the racks built into the sides, that the hole was actually a lift that dropped deep into the mountain side. If that was the case then there would be safety measures in place to stop a fatal fall. They may not be able to get back up, but he reasoned that Fran and Foxglove could be alive. Just trapped.

Our only hope, it seemed, was to go to the bottom and see what we could find. So that’s what we were doing.

“At last.”

I looked up slowly to see why Mantis was so relieved.

“If all of this is intact then we should be at the bottom by tonight.”

Though the descending cloud I could see that we had reached a road. An actual road. A road with a safety barrier, signs, markings, and abandoned vehicles. I felt a chill run down my spine. The rusted carcasses seemed to leer at me, their headlamps following me wherever I stood. The blistered and peeling paint made scared faces and terrifying expressions appear across bonnets and boot lids. I slowly walked between the vehicles to the far barrier and looked down.

The skree littered cliff face dropped away sharply. The bottom obscured by a cloud moving in rapidly around us. I stepped firmly away from the edge. I didn’t want to fall all that way. Then again, maybe I did. I would be with Fran so much sooner, and it would be quick once I hit the bottom. Not painless but a better way to go than many of my friends had experienced.

“Helix,” A voice said sharply. I turned to see all of my companions staring at me wide eyed. I looked down to see bit my front hooves resting on the concrete barrier, ready to mount it and topple over the other side.

“Sorry,” I stuttered. “Just investigating the route down. Can’t see anything though.”

They all gave me a curious and worried look. Maybe they knew what I had been considering. I followed again.

Every car was at an angle like it had been stopped in a hurry, a few seemed to have had minor collisions with the vehicle in front. Whole busses and trucks had been left across three lanes. Their windows dust and payloads spilled out across the crumbling tarmac like gutted animals. There were some personal items inside but apparently nothing worth stealing.

“Keep your weapons close.” Mantis drew his long rifle and held it in his mouth. “Great cover for an ambush,” He said around the trigger.

We all silently drew our weapons. Tun checked his Blackhawk before swinging the Mini-gun down. I wasn't sure if it still worked, but it would make an incredible deterrent. I really hoped it worked as advertised. I didn't want to be getting into two fights in one day.

Hour after hour, we walked between the rusty relics, slowly descending the side of the mountain ridge. Some of the more expensive looking vehicles, like a great sweeping saloons with fractured and blistered blue paint, had suitcases and luggage strewn across their interiors. It seemed that, after the cars had been abandoned, ponies had come back and quickly sorted through what was left to find anything of value.

“Why are their no bodies?” Seafire muttered nervously. “They can’t all have just vanished. They would have no where to go.”

“I’ve always wondered the same thing,” Mantis replied, peering briefly into the back of an old truck. “It looks no different from the last time I was here.”

“When was that?” Smoking muttered.

“About two years ago.”

Smoking holstered his Blackhawk and pulled out Seafires shotgun, seemingly for a change of position. “How many different towns have you been to? You were born in New Appleloosa and eventually moved to Viewpoint, and you visit High-Voltage from time to time. Where else have you been?”

“Quite a few places in my time. Tiny settlements like Arbu, some rough places like R-7, even went to Tenpony Tower in Manehatten once on a job. That was a long old haul, and I was flying.”

“Do you have any favourite places?” I asked quietly.

“Yeah, Viewpoint.” Mantis shrugged. “Some places are nice enough. Arbu was tiny and homely with friendly company. Tenpony tower was well kept, but it was just too uptight and upper class. I bet most of the residents thought I was a janitor when I went there.

“Viewpoint is quiet, relatively safe, strong and stable buildings, and at times can be very pretty.”

“So, where are the bodies then?” Seafire asked again, her tone unchanged.

“I don’t know. They could have got out and walked somewhere, thrown themselves off the cliff, been dragged away, been rescued.” Mantis shook his head vigorously. “it doesn’t matter now. Focus on the present. On staying alive. That’s how I live. One day at a time.” He kicked a stone hard with his hoof and it clattered down the road bouncing off two cars and then a truck.

The shockwave rocked the nearby cars as pieces of the truck flew through the air. I instinctively dropped to the ground, curling into a ball as a wave of raw heat and smoke raced between the cars and up into the sky. My mane rippled in the backwash from the explosion.

I could hear nothing but a high ringing tone that seemed to be everywhere. Adrenaline chilled my veins, my heart going like a sledgehammer. Seafire’s frantic waving stretched in my vision. The stallions’ gunfire rippled the air as bullets screamed towards our attackers. Their gleeful faces bursting from the wall of smoke and fire as they charged.

I scrambled forwards, keeping low as I reached Seafire’s side. She primed my Blackhawk for me and I took it from her, pressing my back against the wheel of the vehicle we were hiding behind. Sharp ting’s and snaps of sound began to make their way through the ringing tone. In the glass of a broken wing mirror, I could see the raiders approaching.

There were four of them. Then three as a round from Mantis’ long rifle made one of their heads implode, a shower of blood and grey matter were artfully scattered onto the bonnet of a nearby pick-up.

Tun had abandoned the mini-gun in favour of the shotgun, but Mantis was readying a grenade.

I barely made out ‘Fire in the hole’ on his lips before he pulled the pin, counted one, and tossed the grenade over the car with both fore hooves. The grenade exploded in mid-air right between the remaining raiders, slamming their bodies brutally against vehicles, now pot marked with tiny holes from the fragmented casing. Smoking and Tun moved in rapidly and ended it with three bullets to the head at close range.

My ears continued to ring.

“Where the hell did they come from?” Tun kicked over the carcass of the pony he’d just decapitated, looking at the cuts all over his muzzle and neck. “Damn, do you think he did this to himself?”

“They were smart. Well, slightly smart.” Mantis knelt to examine the other two. “They stayed back out of your EFS range. Then a concussive blast to stun us and they move in to make an easy kill. Probably wanted to eat us.” He shuddered. “Good job I kicked that rock.” He let out a long sigh. “Come on, take anything that looks useful and let’s keep moving.”

“All these weapons are junk.” Tun drop kicked the 9mm Pistol off the edge of the cliff. “Why do they even bother.”

Mantis just shrugged again. “It just seems like the way of the wastes. Some can take it, some can’t.”

“Helix?” Seafire nudged me. “Are you ok? Are you hurt?” I’d been staring at the wing mirror and hadn't even realised.

I shook my head still curled up protectively, my tail in my forehooves. “I’m good. Just a little shocked.” I nodded reassuringly at Seafire. She gave my shoulder a little pat before helping me to my hooves.

A minute or so later we set off again, the burning truck still billowing black smoke into the darkening sky.

* * *

Evening came, along with yet another storm. I used my magic to clean my hooves before I stepped inside the tent. The large gap between mine and Seafires bedrolls sending yet another stab of pain straight to my heart. I was trying to be strong like Fran had been. Yes, she had been stupid and yes, it was perhaps for the wrong reasons, but she had also shown bravery that I didn't know she was capable of. I was so proud of her. I slid myself down into my sleeping bag, shifting slightly closer to Seafire to avoid a rock that was sticking into my rump. That was the problem with pitching your tent on a crumbling road; it wasn't very flat.

I gazed up at the sweep of canvas above me, listening to the rain driven hard against the side of our shelter. I felt it coming. I could recognise it. That in itself was upsetting, but nothing compared to what was coming. I was restless, tossing and turning, trying to stop the feeling from building. I lay motionless, my body tensed, trying to keep myself from reacting to the building wave inside me.

I heard Seafire enter the tent and I opened my eyes to look right up into her beautiful muzzle, her eyes quivering as she looked down at my cowering form.

“Helix?”

I couldn't take it any longer. I wrenched my body over and began to bawl into the soft pillow as if I was trying to scream out my heart as to never feel this pain again. I retched and sobbed and wailed, I grabbed the nearest hoof and clutched it tight to my neck. I felt another slide under my barrel and lift me up into a warm embrace. I curled up like a baby, letting this pony hold me as I emptied my heart.

I clutched at my tummy again. I had to stay safe. I had to stay strong. But how could I when my love was gone from my life. No. I wouldn't believe she was gone until I saw her again. Only when I was clutching her body in my hooves would my mind accept her loss. But if this was the excruciating pain I felt when she was lost to me with a chance she would live, then how I could survive confirmation of her death.

And so the pain redoubled. My wailing renewed, my eyes stinging as they ran themselves dry and my hair becoming a knot as I ran my hooves desperately across my body, trying to find somewhere I didn't hurt.

“Helix?”

I stirred and stretched at the sound of my name. I opened my eyes and looked up at Seafire once more, her eyes were red and swollen like she had been crying. I looked round me. Seafire had pulled me from the tangle of my bedroll and was cradling me in her hooves. The darkness was broken only by light from Seafire’s horn. It must have been hours since the sun had set when I was stepping inside the tent.

‘Seafire,” I muttered, my voice hoarse and brittle. “Are you ok?”

The angelic mare smiled down at me nodding slowly, her lips quivering and her eyes shining again with fresh tears. I lifted my hoof and stroked her cheek. She shuddered at my touch and nuzzled close to me.

“How long was I crying?”

“About an hour.” Seafire sniffed, wiping back a tear. “Then you just lay in my hooves, staring into space before you slowly dropped off to sleep.”

“Oh...” I was both surprised and grateful that she had stayed up specially to make sure I could rest in peace. I nuzzled into her chest, grateful for her in so many ways. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Her tight hug eventually relaxed. She gently lowered me to the ground before lying down on top of her bedroll exhausted, her breath shuddering.

“Do you need anything,” I offered, trying not to let my voice waver.

“No.” she said, her voice uncertain.

“Are you sure?”

“No, I mean yes. I am sure.” She turned her back too me, roughly pulling her pillow close to her. “I’m fine.”

“Seafire, you’re...”

“No!” Her bite was cold. “Just leave me alone.”

For a moment I didn't know what to do, maybe she was fine and I was just annoying her, but something felt wrong. She was like Fran when she was trying to hide something. A feeling, or a worry, or a mistake that she didn't want to burden me with. So I did what I would do to Fran.

“No!” I hadn't even touched her but she had felt it coming. Seafire knocked my caring hoof away with a vicious swipe of her own. “I just… don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

I reeled back. “Seafire, I just…”

“Just what? Of course I am not fine. Of course I am in need” She spat. “But I can’t have it from you so go away.”

“What do you mean… what do you want.”

“Helix. Please just leave it.”

“I’m just trying to h…”

“I don’t need help. Now leave it.”

I clamoured for the right words. “But… you're not fine, I know you're not. What do need? What do you want. Please,” I held her gaze imploringly. “Let me help.”

Seafire gulped. I could see fear and panic mixed in with her anger, but her wide eyes seemed desperate.

“I want to stop feeling so awful for wishing that you didn't have Fran because then I wouldn't feel so horribly alone every time I see you look at each other. I want to stop wishing that you won’t find her so I don’t have to endure watching you love and care for each other. I want some pony to look at me like I am the only thing in the world that means a damn to them. I want to wake up with somepony next to me, feel their warmth, feel safe with them, feel love!”

Seafire rolled to look at me, her eyes streaming silently with more tears than I thought possible. Her anger slipped away as she saw the fear and shock in my eyes. She backed away up against the far wall. She looked, broken. There was no other word for it.

“Please… please don't hate me.” She begged. “Please.”

My heart twisted again. A poor mare, forced to be alone, forced to fear what ponies needed to be truly happy: love and affection.

Seafire was right, she was alone. I may have been jealous of her good looks; ‘And still are’ I reminded myself, and how Fran had a thing for her, even after all these years, but that was exactly her problem. It was also still mine. I knew Seafire would never actively try and take Fran from me but that wasn't to say that she wouldn't take her chances if a gap started to emerge. ‘But she has never show anything beyond flirting’ I argued back, ‘Its been like that for years.’ And as a result it wouldn't look weird of she began to slide her tail little further up Fran’s…

No!

I couldn't afford to think like that. Not now. We had to stay together. I would be able to deal with any worries I had when we had got this crisis out of the way. ‘Which one?’ my inner self added flatly.

For the love of Luna.

I swallowed hard, looking back up into Seafire’s eyes. She was right, I couldn't give her what she needed. But I could let her know that I was here for her and that I could look after her. I couldn't drive her away, not only because I couldn't hurt her like that but because I am sure she could never take the pain. This time, I would let her in.

“Come.” I opened my forehooves and beckoned to the beautiful mare.

Slowly, she slid into my grasp, as if unsure if she was allowed to be there. I wrapped my hooves slowly around her, laying that doubt to rest. I felt her heart beat slow and her breathing relax until the two of us drifted off to sleep.

* * *

Light from the hidden sun woke me early the next morning. I snuggled close to Seafire, her body warmth taking the edge off the sharp coolness of the brisk morning air. I let myself enjoy her touch for a minute or two before gently sliding away, making sure not to wake the sleeping mare. Unzipping the tent as carefully as I could, I slipped outside. It was even colder outside the tent and I quickly donned my barding to add an extra layer against the cold.

“Morning.” Mantis approached me with a bowl of thin soup balanced on his back. “Eat quickly, I want to be moving before six. Is Seafire still asleep?”

“Yeah, she had a rough night, I think.” I took the bowl and gave it a sniff. It was watery but had lots of chunks in it. I wasn't sure what they were, but I am sure Mantis knew what was good to eat in these parts. “I can rouse her if you like.”

“Please.” He turned back to Smoking and Tun who were already packing up the cooking equipment and stowing it once more in their saddlebags. They had been using the tailgate of a truck to get a flat working surface.

Placing my breakfast on a suitably flat part of a nearby car, I poked my head into the tent. Seafire was still asleep. She looked so content and peaceful that I didn't want to bring her back to this ravaged world, but we had to keep moving.

“Seafire?’ I muttered, gently tugging on her bedroll with my magic. “Seafire, we need to get moving.” She stirred and rolled over. “Are you okay with that?” The white mare rolled over to look at me, her rich orange mane spilling like fire across her face and eyes.

“Morning.” She yawned cutely, her sleepy eyes and bed-mane exaggerating the look. “I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute.”

“Sure thing. Mantis has some soup for breakfast. He wants to be moving by six which is in,” I checked my PipBuck. “Fifteen minutes.” Seafire just nodded.

I downed my soup as quickly as I could and began to pack up my things.

Nausea hit me hard, and I nearly dropped the bowl. I desperately scrambled about inside my bags, looking for the small blue box. Founding it, I pulled it out, concealing it behind my saddlebags. I quickly opened it and removed one of the remaining three glass vials with the spring loaded needle inside.

I glanced around to ensure that the others were all occupied before firing the needle into the inside of my left foreleg. Gulping, I felt the injection begin to suppress the turbulence inside me. My heart slowed, and my short breath eased.

I couldn't conceal it much longer. I’d already exceeded the drugs usage duration by triple the standard time. With just two vials left it could be as little as two days before my body used it all up.

‘Don’t think about it.’ I told myself fiercely. ‘Find Fran first, then you can focus on this.’

Bundling everything away, I closed my eyes and breathed deep, biting back the stab of pain at the thought of my lost love. I could do it. Another day. I could make it. I could be strong and find Fran.

Seafire stumbled groggily out of the tent . She took her lukewarm bowl of soup from Mantis and downed it in one go.

I moved in to collapse the tent, knowing she would have a tough day ahead. After what happened last night, I felt I ought to stay with her. She believed that she needed to be strong, after all I had lost Fran and she’d lost nothing. ‘But she has never been loved.’ I reminded myself. ‘I have no idea which is worse. To find yourself alone, or to always be alone.’

“Ok, let’s get moving.” Mantis withered his pack and strapped it tight.

I resumed my method of the previous day, stepping in the same place that Tun did and simply following his hoofsteps. The difference was that despite the pain of losing Fran not receding, I felt more determined, more resilient and stronger than yesterday.

I couldn't explain it. Perhaps it was because I had managed to cry so hard, or that I still had a chance to find her. ‘Or perhaps you are trying to support Seafire by being strong?’ I thought to myself. ‘She is in pain too, and in a way, you caused it.’ But it’s not my fault she feels like that. ‘No, but she can’t help her feelings either. She’s clearly upset about how she feels. She doesn't want to be jealous of your pain but she can’t help it.’ So what can I do? ‘Let her know that you understand, to a point, and want to help her cope with it. But most importantly, let her know she is not alone.’

Yes, I could do that for her.

* * *

“Hold.”

I looked up just in time to avoid walking into Tungsten’s rump. He, Mantis, and Smoking had already dropped lower to the ground. Seafire and I copied, staying low.

“What’s…” Tun began but Mantis shot him a look.

Then I heard it. The clopping of multiple hooves. One light set that sounded like a pony, but they were masked by the heavier and slower strikes of something much larger.

The thick fog of the morning had yet to lift, even as we moved into the mid-afternoon. We had no visuals to go with the sound of the steps that were drawing ever closer. There was also a jangling sound, like keys or pieces of metal, which had me shivering.

I brought up my EFS. I was rubbish at interpreting the interface but it’s all I had. A single large dot was all that came up. Urgh, I needed somepony to talk me through this damn interface.

“Two dots, one large one small. Both non hostile.”

Mantis lowered his rifle but kept it by his side. “Keep it cool.”

A middle aged buck came forwards out of the gloom, one side of his battered barding dangling with all kind of items from necklaces to knives; the source of the jangling. Mounted on the other side was a pair of long barrelled shotguns with a mechanism that linked up to the left of his muzzle.

Following diligently behind him was a very large cow. Well, it looked like a cow, except it was brown all over and…

“It’s got two heads?” I heard Seafire ask herself in confusion.

Well, it wasn't the weirdest thing we’d seen in the wastes. Its skin was lumpy and misshapen, one of its heads seemed to be sleeping, the other munching on a piece of rubber tyre.

“Hello there!” The stallion called out jovially. “Who goes there? Since I’m not being shot at, I assume you’re friendly?”

“Yeah, you can say that.” Mantis slung his rifle onto his back and approached the buck and his bizarre looking pet. “Roving trader?”

“Certainly am.” He whipped off his hat and hooked it over the end of his shotguns. “What are you in need of? What are you looking to get rid of?”

“These for starters.” Tungsten tossed the guns he had picked up from yesterday’s raiders onto bonnet of a nearby car. The trader moved over to inspect them, leaving his cow to munch.

“They are junk to be honest,” Tungsten flinched as the buck gave him a friendly pat on the back, “ but I’ll take them anyway. Might be able to get some spare-parts out of them. He tossed a small bag of caps onto the bonnet and pulled the guns close to him. “Anything else?”

“Ammunition?” Mantis asked. “5.66, 10mm, 5mm. Anything really.”

The trader shook his head “Nope, all out as of yesterday. Group of stable dwellers bought everything I had. Odd looking bunch.” He scratched his muzzle.

I wanted to ask what they’d looked like but something stopped me. Besides not wanting to pry into his business, something about giving away what we were doing seemed a bad idea. Even to a trader heading in the opposite direction. The fewer ponies who knew—even vaguely—where we were going and what we wanted the better.

For a short while longer Smoking bartered for healing potions and bandages. I kept my eyes peeled as the trader rummaged through his numerous boxes, hoping to spot a vial or two but nothing remotely similar appeared. We got more food and Mantis persuaded him to part with a near pristine cooking pot: well, he was the cook of the group.

“Well, a pleasure doing business.” Donning his hat again, the trader turned and lead his Brahmin, not cow, away up the hill. “Have a good day.”

“You too.” Mantis called after him. “Watch out going over…” he stopped, staring in fear at a point just to the right of the trader between two wrecked trucks.

Whipping his rifle off his back, Mantis fired round after round down the gap. I panicked, lunging for my Blackhawk to protect myself against this sudden threat but every pony else was as confused and panic stricken as I was.

“Hold your fire hold your…” The trader yelled but to no avail.

Mantis’s rifle pinged as it ejected the empty cartridge. Then I saw it. A haze slammed into him sending him tumbling to the ground. Mantis yanked out his machete and brought it up blindly in front of him, swinging left and right.

I lumped at a massive shotgun blast and the shredding of steel. Every pony snapped to attention, turning to see the trader, a thin line of smoke rising from his shotgun, a hole ripped through the car door beside him.

“You.” He pointed coolly at Mantis. “Drop the knife.” Mantis complied. “Xyalia. Show.”

There was a pause. Then every one of us gasped.

A pony was standing over Mantis, pinning him to the ground with a hoof mounted blade against his neck. She wore no armour, only a heavy necklace adorned with a single massive green gem below a thick steel collar.Golden hoops adorned her ears and a single line of blue paint ran over her eye down the left of her face. Her mane was black and white, her body the same. Her eyes more heavily defined. She wasn't a pony she was…

“Get off me. Zebra,” Mantis hissed.

Xyalia looked back at the trader and, at a nod, carefully released Mantis. She backed off slowly, standing tall on her rear hooves to keep her hoof mounted knives pointed at us. I stared with a mix of shock and curiosity at the mysterious mare. Her mane and tail were, to my mind unnaturally short, but seemed to be much denser.

She rocked lightly on her back legs as she maintained her stance: her balance incredible. Her strength and power was as obvious as the intense glare in her eyes as she stared Mantis down. She didn't look angry or surprised that, somehow, Mantis had been able to see her. Her expression was one of focus and calm, but I suspected that was taking all her self-control.

The trader tapped his hoof. “Xyalia. Follow. Do not recloak until I tell you. Understand?”

The Zebra didn't move.

“Xyalia. Follow.”

Still nothing.

“Xyalia. Last chance.”

I watched her, transfixed. What was she doing? Why was she waiting? What the hell was going on?

“I… I cannot follow you.” Xyalia’s voice was exotic. That’s all I could say. I had never heard anything like it. This didn't conceal the heavy undercurrent of worry and confusion in her words.

“Why not?”

“Because,” She pointed with a blade tip. “I must follow this one.”

Wait. Mantis? He looked like he could kill her. Like he would like nothing better than to stab her in the neck. I glanced around quickly at the others. None of us had a clue what was going on.

“I told you Zebra. I don’t want you. I never wanted you.” Mantis stood. “Now get lost.”

“No,” Xyalia replied. “My debt must be repaid. It is not my choice, but my—” Xyalia screamed, dropping to the ground, her body writhing. She gasped for air before her body went limp, her eyes wide with fear, her breath shallow.

“Hey, what the…” I looked up. The trader was holding some kind of device in his mouth. He looked meaningfully at Xyalia but the grounded mare simply shook her head. The buck shrugged and bit down on the device. Xyalia screamed once more as her body twitched and jerked. Then I realised. The collar, the button… she was a slave.

“Stop it! Stop it!” Seafire ran to Xyalia, her magic tugging futilely at the heavy collar around her neck. “Stop it you monster.”

Xyalia heaved in her first breath before coughing and spluttering in a heap on the floor.

“What the hell are you doing!” Tungsten yanked Seafire’s shotgun from her pack advancing on the trader. “Stop this. Let her go.”

“Why should I?” he replied matter-of-factly. “She is disobeying me.”

“You sick fuck.” Tungsten smashed the pony in the face with the tip of the shot gun. “You sick…”

“No!” Tungsten tumbled backwards through the air as the double barrelled shotgun hit him square in the chest. His body skidded hard across the tarmac and slammed into the husk of a vehicle.

Two seconds later the trader was desperately prodding at the hole right through his neck. He dropped to the ground blood spurting and spewing from the punctured artery. His Brahmin continued to munch.

* * *

“Tungsten! Tungsten!”

I galloped to his side. The groan told me he was alive. The coughing up of blood meant he was seriously wounded. I carefully checked his armour. The titanium-ceramic plates had done their job, shattering into a powder and absorbing most of the energy, but it hadn't been able to contain all of it. I unzipped his barding and felt across his chest. Tungsten groaned and sputtered. By the movement I could tell that his first two ribs had either snapped on both sides or become disconnected from the rest of his rib cage.

“Bandages, I need bandages now!”

My head scrambled though all my knowledge. How could I fix this. With no scanner to be able to check exactly what happened and with no way of pinning or splinting the bones I would have to rely on compression to align the ribs for the healing process. It was crude and inaccurate but it was better than leaving them free to shift.

“Here.” Seafire dropped a dozen or so clean bandages at my hooves. I ripped off the plastic packaging and began to tightly bind a pair around Tungsten’s chest. Blood was still running freely from his mouth as his head rolled from side-to-side.

“Tungsten!” I yelled, trying to get his attention. “Stay still.” I pointed at his legs and Smoking pinned his hooves to the ground. “Rejuvenation potion.” I yelled, pulling Tun’s mouth open with my magic. He coughed, spraying blood all over my muzzle. Tilting his head as far as I dared, I tried to clear his mouth of blood.

“Here.” Mantis tossed me the potion.

Catching it, I removed the seal and opened Tun’s mouth once more. “You need to hold him as still as you can. Keep the bandages tight. This is going to hurt him.” With a nod from my helpers, I poured the whole potion down Tun’s throat and slammed his mouth shut.

Tun began to groan and stress at the bandages, his legs trying to kick, his chest and neck twitching. I watched, heart pounding, his skin and muscles shifted unnaturally as the potion worked its way through his body. I heard a bone click, Tun’s eyes shot wide with a agonising yell, muffled by my magic.

Two terrifying minutes later, I collapsed exhausted. Tun lay beside me, gasping deeply, his chest moving freely. Smoking and Seafire were both panting from the effort of pinning him down. Mantis simply looked stunned. Tun coughed and looked up at me his eyes barely focusing.

“What the hell happened.”

I rolled my eyes. “You picked a fight with a shotgun and lost.” I wanted to laugh, to feel relief, to laugh off the matter as if it were nothing. But it had been too close. The wasteland had seen fit to take Fran away from me, and now it was trying to take my brother too. We needed to get out of here, back our stable and out of this hell hole.

A shifting shadow made me look up. Xyalia’s eyes were shining with tears. From the pain of her collar or the shock of what had transpired, I couldn't tell. She looked down, taking us all in, covered in dirt, blood, and sweat.

“Why did you do that?” She whispered in her strange voice.

“Do what?” I pulled myself up to face her. She was a little taller than me and much leaner, but strong muscles moved under her striped coat. I noticed the raw skin where the collar chafed and cut into her neck. It could really do with some attention.

“Stop him.” She blinked blankly. “I am not yours to protect. He is allowed to punish an uncooperative slave.”

He was what! I looked the zebra up and down incredulously.

“How is he entitled? No pony is allowed to torture another. We weren't just going to stand by and watch him electrocute you.” I looked at her like she was mad. Perhaps she was. “He doesn't own you, he can’t do that to you.”

Xyalia tilted her head curiously. “I was his property. He was well within his rights. Why shouldn't he?”

“I am more interested in why you were disobeying him in the first place.” Smoking looked from Xyalia to Mantis and back again. “She saw you and stopped, and you were trying to shoot her, but she was invisible. How did you even see her.”

Mantis looked like he was glued to the spot. All of us looked at him, waiting for a response. A pregnant pause passed before his eyes fell, and a deep sigh admitted his resignation. “Helix knows why I live in Viewpoint so she can fill you all in later,” He looked at me hopefully, I nodded to say I would let them know. “When New Apploosa was attacked by Raiders, she was with them. Not by choice but there none the less.”

“Is this true?” Xyalia flinched at my sharp tone. “You helped those raiders attack New Apploosa?” Xyalia nodded, ears down turned. “Why would you do that?”

“To save the little ones.”

Oh my…

“But what happened between you two?” Tun asked bemused. “Why must you follow him and why was it worth risking your life?”

“Because I owe it to him.” Xyalia turned to Mantis and bowed gently. “He saved my life.”

Mantis stomped angrily, all his calm gone in an instant. “I spared it! I didn't save it. There is a difference you know.”

“You had me at gunpoint, pinned by this very necklace to the wall.” Xyalia’s voice wavered, as her mind recalled the moment. “It was more effort for you not to pull the trigger and yet you turned your gun round and knocked me out. When I came too I was chained to the floor inside a train carriage, heading to Apploosa. A slave town.”

“Yes, I didn’t shoot you but that doesn’t mean you owe me anything!” Mantis snapped back his body tensing. “I just couldn't kill a helpless mare who had no choice but to fight. Besides I was more interested in killing the bastard who had murdered my brother and father. You know, priorities and all that.”

“Xyalia?” Seafire looked her up and down slowly. “Why do you feel you need to repay him? You just said yourself that your owner,” She shuddered as she spoke the word. “had the right to do what he wanted, even kill you. Why risk it for Mantis?”

“Because he came first. If were not for him, that trader would not have been my master.” She said it so simply that I didn’t question her, though part of me knew it didn’t quite make sense. I would work that out later.

“Not to kill this conversation, but we need to get moving.” Smoking inspected the trader and his Brahmin. “He will have some good stuff on him and I have no qualms about taking from a dead slaver.”

“What about Xyalia?” Seafire asked, looking at the Zebra. “She’ll have to come with us. We can’t leave her alone out here.”

“I don’t want it following us around.” Mantis practically threw his rifle onto his back. “I don’t own it, I don’t need it.”

“Well I want her to come with us.” Seafire made a firm move to stand right beside Xyalia who looked taken aback at how defensive Seafire was being. “I am not leaving her out here to die.”

I knew where I stood too, joining on Xyalia’s other side. Mantis let out a grunt of contempt as Seafire and I stared him down. Tungsten and Smoking continued to pick through the trader’s supplies and inventory, ignoring our tense social minefield.

“If it does anything, anything suspicious at all, I am putting a bullet in its brain.” Mantis looked at us both in turn. “Got that? You want it? You can have it.” With a kick, the remote for Xyalia’s collar slid to a halt at out hooves.

I picked up the device and examined it closely. A sealed box with no seams that I could see, a dial and four buttons, one of which was covered by a latched translucent cover and was simply marked with a skull. I shuddered from head to hoof.

“Here, you take it.” I held it out to Xyalia for her to take. “You are in control now.”

Xyalia stepped back, head down. “I’m afraid I can’t. If I touch it the collar will electrocute me. A simple safeguard to stop a Slave being able to tamper with the device.”

“Can’t we just remove the collar?” Seafire asked, inspecting it. “There must be a way.”

Xyalia just shook her head sadly. “There is, I’ve seen it done, but I don’t know how.”

I carefully placed a comforting hoof on the Zebras shoulder. “Xyalia, we are looking for two of our party we lost two days ago. One of them is very skilled in engineering, mechanics, and has a good grasp of electronics. If anyone can get you out, she can.” I smiled at her, trying to give her a positive, hopeful vibe.

“Here.” Tungsten came over with the traders old saddlebags draped over his back, atop the battle saddle he had acquired from his dead body. “What, he doesn't need it any more.” He said defensively. He carefully transferred the packs onto Xyalia’s back. “You have some water and food in there and a few bandages. Since you’re a hoof fighter, we decided to keep it light.” His smile faltered as Xyalia nodded blankly.

“Let’s get a move on!” Mantis had already started walking without us and was beginning to vanish into the thick mass of cars. He would have been a fool to do so if the fog wasn't lifting.

Seafire began to lead Xyalia away, trying with difficulty to strike up a conversation with her.

“Hold up,” Smoking called. He huddled in close to my brother and I. “I am happy to have her with us, but she can’t stay forever, and I am not sure how much I trust her. Her life as a slave will have probably engrained some very strict behaviour into her but that’s not to say she isn't dangerous. Keep an eye out and be mindful. Helix, you can hold the remote.” I took it gingerly in my magic. “I think it will make her feel safer if one of the mares who defended her has it, rather than another buck.”

I just nodded my reply. Looking down at the small metal device in front of me I felt a wave of shame roll over me. How could we invent something as horrible as this...

* * *

What little sunlight was able to make its way through the dense clouds above was rapidly diminishing when we reached the thin single track road that would take us to the entrance of Stable Twenty Five. Mantis, still pointedly keeping as much distance between himself and Xyalia as possible, found an area tucked against the sheer rock face where we could pitch our tents. The only way anypony would see the light from our fire was if they were on the road above us, which was very unlikely.

However, none of us could settle. Sitting silently in a ring around the crackling flames and drinking down the soup Seafire had concocted, we kept shifting and looking at each other. All I could think about was how close to Fran I was and what could yet be in the way. If Stable Twenty Five really was some kind of Slaver or Raider base, then we could have easily come all this way for nothing. Not only would Fran and Foxglove probably be dead, but if we tried to rescue them, we would die too.

Mantis rose firmly to his hooves, slinging his rifle over his back. “I am going to take a look. See what we will face in the morning.”

“Same.” Tungsten pulled his Blackhawk from its holster.

I rose firmly. “I want to come too.”

Mantis shook his head. “No. Too many of us will be easy to spot, and you are not familiar with how to keep a low profile.”

“Can you go and check it out first? Then summon us if its safe? Please.” I just had to know what we were all up against.

He considered for a moment. “Ok, but both of you stay ten meters behind me. If I drop, you drop, only come and join me when I tell you. Oh, and bring a Blackhawk, just in case.”

Thirty minutes of cautious walking later, picking our way across shallow streams and through thick underbrush as quietly as we could, we reached a bank of earth which was backlit in a strong yellow light. Tun and I lay on our bellies as Mantis shuffled forwards to the banks apex. He carefully peeked over the brow of the bank taking a long look at what was on the other side. With a gentle wave of his hoof, he motioned Tun and I cautiously up to his side.

“Before you take a peek, there are quite a few guards on patrol, nothing major, but if they look in our direction stay perfectly still. The lighting is great when you are in it, but everything outside of it becomes one black haze. If you are still then you will be harder to spot.” Tun and I both nodded. “Ok, ears down and peek.”

As one we all raised our heads up to peer over the mound and almost instantly, I regretted it.

Razorwire topped a rugged looking fence that looked to be made from pieces of sheet metal and wood, tied, bolted or welded to form one continuous ring around the mouth of a cave about eighty meters away. The ground leading up to our mound had been flattened and was slowly patrolled by searchlights that shone down from three towers just inside the wall. A bus with extra steel panels attached to one side blocked the one entrance hole in the fence. Inside I could just make out maybe a dozen ponies with weapons who stood in groups chatting or sorting supplies.

“Take a look, back left,” Tungsten muttered.

I followed his gaze to a tanker that was parked up next to another machine that was covered in a net of some kind, probably to conceal its shape and profile from prying eyes like ours. Despite the net, it was easily as long as the tanker and twice as wide. Enough to fit another small vehicle inside. It seemed to have five distinct protrusions on it that made up the majority of its bizarre profile.

“What do you think it could be?” Tun asked dropping back down behind the mound, his hooves tapping on his Blackhawk. “Mobile artillery? Armoured truck? It could even be a light tank.”

“No, it would need to be something more mobile.” Mantis replied, still peeking over edge. “Something that could easily get to Viewpoint.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Smoking mentioned that Swarf and Cheque had some kind of deal. Something that resulted in the attack on your stable but stopped an attack on Viewpoint. They were scared of something. Something that could level the town to the ground. Something that no pony could stop.” Mantis shook his head, thinking hard. “Land is out, you could travel by water but I would put my caps on air. Some kind of flying machine. It could be a Griffon Chaser MK7, that would be big enough. But those had no weapons. Unless they’ve added things to it. Skytank is bigger than that. Perhaps something the Pegasi had.”

“We can dwell on this later. But I think we need to get back and get some sleep.” He looked gravely at the both of us. “We are going to need it.”

* * *

“So. How bad is it?” Seafire relaxed as she watched the three of us return to our small clearing.

Mantis sighed heavily. “It could be worse, but it’s not great.”

“Do we even know what it is we are trying to do?” Tungsten pointed out as he unclipped his holster. “We have no idea if Fran and Foxglove are in there. How are we going to find that out?”

Mantis just shrugged. “Don’t know. That will be a problem for tomorrow. But for now we need sleep.” He nodded at us each in turn, except for Xyalia whom he ignored, before slipping into the bucks tent to join Smoking.

“I am going to turn in too.” Tun stretched out for a long moment, yawning widely. “Remember to put the fire out before you turn in.” He smiled at me before nodding politely to Seafire and Xyalia. The buzzing of a zip later and it was just the mares out in the cool night air.

I shuffled in closer to the crackling fire, its warmth helping to distract me from the dark thoughts beginning to form and grow in the back of my mind. I looked up at Seafire, watching the fire dance in her eyes. She caught my gaze and smiled. I smiled back automatically but worry and dread rose inside me. I needed to talk to Fran. I needed to know if she was alive. Normal radio communications didn't seem to work, so I needed to find another way.

I sat up and began to look through the dozens of lists on my PipBucks interface until I found one called Communications & Transmissions. Opening it, I found several basic options on sending and receiving signals as well as setting up an emergency signal and creating custom signals.

“Helix? What are you doing?” Seafire moved over to my side.

“I am going to try and set up one of those bouncing messages. The same type Fran discovered to lead us here.” I scrolled through the twenty or so settings on a custom signal. Most of them were over my head but I knew the basics. “I don’t think a PipBuck’s signal is strong enough to reach underground. If any of the ponies in that encampment have a PipBuck then perhaps I can get the signal to her by bouncing it.”

Seafire looked at my excited, hopeful expression with worry. “We have no idea where she is, or if she is even alive. And if only Foxglove survived she would never be able to reply. She doesn't know enough.” The white unicorn shook her head, sending her mane scattering like flames. “I just don’t think you should get your hopes up, I am not saying don’t try, just…” She didn't seem able to find the right words.

“This Fran. She means a lot to you doesn’t she.” Xyalia was staring into the fire, her eyes sad, ears down. “Hold onto hope, but do not cling to it, else you will find it harder to let go.” She turned away from us both, settling down onto the gravelly earth.

The firelight highlighted her toned body and strong muscles. The heavy collar around her neck looked very out of place. I hadn’t noticed while we had been walking but there were a large number of small cuts to the back her right flank, working their way down her leg and several just behind her ear and up her neck close into her cropped mane. They looked too thin to be knife cuts, a whip perhaps?

Shaking the thought from my mind, I continued to set up my signal. The final option was the message. I knew I couldn’t risk an open message. I needed something that Fran would recognise but would sound scrambled to anyone else.

A genuine smile spread across my face. I knew exactly what to send.

With a final tap the message was away. Well, I hoped so anyway.

“You going to sleep?” I just nodded to Seafire. “Good, I can put the fire out.”

Seafire scattered a mound of dirt onto the fire with her magic. In the light from our horns we picked our way over to our tent and slipped inside. I quickly unrolled my pack and settled down on top of it.

“What is Xyalia going to sleep on?” Seafire asked. “Actually, is she still outside?”

“Yeah. One moment, I will go get her.” I slipped out again and looked around. Xyalia was no where to be seen. “Xyalia?” I called out softly. I jumped a mile as she appeared out of thin air right in front of me.

“You need something?” She asked, ignoring my reaction.

“No, I just wanted to know if you were joining us or not?”

The zebra looked perplexed. “In the tent?” She asked, unsure if that was what I meant.

“Of course. You can borrow Fran’s bedroll. There is plenty of space.”

She still seemed confused. “Why are you letting me sleep inside? To keep an eye on me?”

“Of course not. It’s just going to get very cold and the tent will keep you warm and dry and…” I worked it out. “You mean that trader made you sleep out in the cold every night?” Xyalia nodded slowly, as if it were me who was being silly. “No matter the weather?”

“We zebra’s are from a place where the weather was not tamed like it was here. We are naturally more resilient and able to weather far greater extremes than ponies.”

“But surely you were not outside during those storms that we had over the last few weeks? I was soaked to the skin in minutes, even in barding and a raincoat, and the hail too.”

Xyalia nodded again. “There were occasions where it was dangerous, but I was not allowed inside, so I persevered.”

I was in disbelief. An anger and hatred was building inside me towards that supposedly friendly trader. He looked just like anypony else and yet he had made this poor mare endure night after night of horrific weather when she could easily have died from hypothermia or been attacked by wild animals. I felt a sudden rush of appreciation for our magically reinforced tents, there fabric cast with sound dampening and light filtering spells.

“Xyalia I want you to sleep in the tent. With us. Where its safe, and warm.” I found my voice stuttering. A combination of anger and shock at what the poor mare had endured. “After you.” I stepped aside and pointed to the entrance.

Xyalia seemed to take a deep breath, like she was about to break some unbreakable rule. ‘Well, it was an unbreakable rule for her earlier today.’ With cautious steps she slipped inside the tent and I followed, zipping the door up behind me.

Seafire had shuffled across to give Xyalia a larger spot. Fran’s bed roll was laid out for her. With trepidation the mare carefully stepped onto the roll, as if expecting it to explode. When it did not she turned around and slowly lowered herself onto it.

“You can get inside it.” I showed her the zip and lifted the corner.

“I am happy like this,” she replied simply.

I just nodded and slipped into my own roll. Even being able to sit on something soft was going to be a considerable improvement for her so I decided to let her do what she was comfortable with, even if I felt that she was still holding back. ‘In time. Give her time,’ I thought to myself. She will realise she can do what she likes now.

I let my horn fade and curled up in my bedroll, Savoring its plush stuffing and silky soft fabric against my skin. I twitched slightly at a touch. Seafire was lying to face me, her hoof extended. I reciprocated letting my hoof rest on hers. After last night, I could tell she still felt fragile and if this contact was what she needed to feel safe and not be alone then I would give it to her. ‘And when Fran comes back?’ I asked myself.

That was a problem for another day.

Act 2 - Chapter 12: Hour of the Wolf

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Chapter 12: Hour of the Wolf
"And just when the other pony thought she was safe...”

I tossed again, feeling the frustration building inside me. Next to me, Foxglove slept like newborn filly. I was glad that she’d managed to find some kind of peace in all of this chaos. She had spent most of the day with Shade. Neither of them said anything, but both seemed content, so I wasn’t going to interrupt.

Rolling onto my back, I tested sticking my legs straight up underneath the covers. Definitely not the most comfortable position, but I’d tried everything else.

I couldn’t believe it. It was just insane. If slavers had managed to get into the stable and take it as their own, well, it was bad news for everyone they could reach. That had to be what Swarf and Cheque were arguing about, and I couldn’t blame them for being sacred. Viewpoint was no match for that kind of fire-power. Even Highvoltage didn’t have any weapons capable to taking out such a machine. Maybe, by sheer volume of fire, they could, but, by the time they, did hundreds would be dead and the city would be in ruins.

Who thought it was a good idea to store one of those in a stable?

The only upside I could think of was that there were no logs of ammunition in the stable’s database. Having the vehicle was one thing, but actually being able to arm it was another. ‘But given how easy Swarf and Cheque were able to make weapons, I am sure it wouldn’t be hard for them to make missiles or rockets.

I shuddered at the thought.

Giving up, I slipped quietly from the bed. I tip-hoofed my way to the door and grabbed Jury on the way out. I knew I wasn’t going to need it, but somehow it made me feel more secure. The door slid open with far more noise than I would have liked. A glance over my shoulder confirmed that Foxglove was still deep in her sleep, muzzle and mane picked out in the shaft of light from the corridor.

My mane blew gently in the artificial breeze that flowed down from the air vent above my head. I breathed deeply, trying to clear my mind and relax my body, listening to my hooves echo against the plate metal floor. With nopony around and no tasks to perform, I could really appreciate the work that had gone into Stable Twenty Five.

The construction style was similar to Stable Seventeen. Modular sections, that I guessed were assembled on a production line and shipped to site, made up the majority of the corridors. Certain intersections seemed to be custom or modified to accept different angles or different volumes of utilities. I examined a few of the light fittings and noticed the same flow lines and stress concentrations in the plastic where it had cooled. The wall panels were a low grade pressed steel with interlocking features on each face, but given they didn’t see much wear and tear, that seemed sensible enough.

The floor was one thing I was puzzled about. Made up of heavy meter square panels of solid steel, each one must have weighed seventy or eighty kilograms. Why would you need such a heavy duty floor? ‘Perhaps they were expecting a very heavy hoof fall or wear as things were moved around, my inner pony suggested. Perhaps. It felt very stiff and unforgiving compared to the perforated stainless steel floor that lined most of Stable Seventeen. Large sections of the Core had carpet or vinyl laid down which had some give to it.

I sighed, writing it off as one of life’s little mysteries.

Deciding to try to burn some of my energy, I steered myself towards the Soft Room. I wasn’t sure why I felt so pent up but perhaps letting go a little might help. Perhaps I could try hoofball or practice my play wrestling skills for Helix. A silent grin spread across my face as the memory of my last night in Viewpoint drifted back.

The doors drifted open to an empty room. All of the balls were away, somewhere, revealing the padded blue floor of the Soft room. There were markings on the floor for a variety of games. I didn’t know what they were, but that didn’t matter right now. Laying Jury down in one corner, I took a deep steadying breath.

What should I do?

I broke into a sharp gallop, dodging this way and that at random, as though avoiding walls or posts, glancing away from them at the last instant. Reaching the far side of the room, I maintained momentum by using both my left legs to steer myself into a hard right and bouncing off the wall.

Pitching myself into an experimental sideways roll, I tried to see if I could continue my gallop without breaking stride. On the fourth attempt I nailed it, and just in time too as I almost barreled headlong into the wall. A quick flick of my hips and I landed all four hooves sideways on the wall before pressing off and continuing to barrel aimlessly around the room like a bouncy ball.

Knowing I was unlikely to get hurt, I was flinging myself harder and harder into crazy manoeuvres I would have never dared to try anywhere else. Full forward roll, followed by wall run, into four hoof slide. I was letting go of all my worries, bounding and free running wherever I wanted. My heart raced openly, not out of fear or panic but out of enjoyment and enthusiasm. If felt great to be free.

Panting hard, I skidded to a halt in the middle of the room. My legs collapsed from under me, and I dropped to the ground, rolling over to look up at the lights over head. I felt a happy irony wash over me as I realised they were the same type of fitting used in Stable Seventeen’s orchards.

A pinging sound caught my ear, emanating from my PipBuck. Looking down at the screen, I was surprised to read the words ‘Incoming Signal’. Perplexed, I opened up the details tab and had a quick look. The signal was a short audio file, just five seconds long. What I was most intrigued about was its starting date, it was only an hour old, and was being broadcast on a familiar wavelength, Stable Seventeen’s Gold frequency.

Accepting the file, I wondered what it could be? A distress signal from Stable Seventeen somehow? Helix sending me a message? Could it be somepony in Stable Twenty Five trying to talk to me? Or perhaps it was just another desperate soul who just happened to be broadcasting on the same frequency.

I pushed the button.

I hit replay, listening to it again as tears and laughter fell in equal measure. I rolled over and over, elation gripping every muscle in my body. She’d found me! My Helix was out there, close by, alive, and searching for me. I could only guess that everypony else was alright too, but the knowledge that she was still alive was all that really mattered.

I thought back to when I last saw her. The look of terror as I lunged away from the grenade. I don’t even remembered hitting the floor, or how Foxglove and I had ended up in the elevator shaft. She must have thought me dead, but she still held out a hope, and now I could let her know that it was not in vain.

Quickly checking the details of the signal, I set up my own new reply for her with my short audio response. If Helix had sent me that message so I would know it was her, then I would respond in kind. I tapped my hooves together to make my message and set it on its way.

I swear I saw the signal scattering through the air as it tried to make its way to my love. Everypony else who bothered to listen to the signal would get nothing from it. If we needed to talk to each other it would get trickier, but that was a problem for later.

I had to tell Foxglove right now! That we were not alone and that everything was going to be alright!

* * *

“Wait, let me listen to it again?”

I played it again for the eighth time as she paced slowly back and forth at the hoof of the bed.

She’d been so startled when I jumped onto her bed that she toppled off the far side in a tangle of cotton bedding. In hindsight, that probably hadn’t the best way of waking her, but I just felt so energetic! There was no way I was going to be sleeping tonight.

“It just sounds like a bunch of taps.” Foxglove was looking at me with a slightly worried expression. “It could be anything. Don’t take this the wrong way but, you’re sure you’re not clutching at straws?”

“It came in on Stable Seventeen’s gold frequency, and it was sent literally about ninety minutes ago.” I showed her the message details. “I am guessing that they’ve made it to the bottom of the mountain and are a short distance outside the cave, only they can’t get in. They must be in range of a PipBuck that can bounce the signal into the stable.”

“Like where?”

“Ah.” I’d deliberately not told her about the possible hoard of slavers and raiders that could be occupying a room full of advanced vehicles less than two hundred meters away. I knew I would have to at some point, but I wanted to wait until I knew for certain.

“Well, if there are any Pipbucks on the ground floor or in the areas we can’t get to that are nearer the door, then the signal should have been able to bounce from one to the next to make its way to me.”

“Does that mean that the signal is being sent to every PipBuck in range of Helix’s PipBuck, and then to everyone in range of those, and those, and the ones after that?”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

“And does that mean that everypony else can hear our messages.”

“Probably, but there is no way the could know what it means.”

“Yeah.” She stopped and looked at me curiously. “What does it mean exactly?”

“When we were fillies, Helix and I would occasionally sneak out to each other’s rooms or meet in the orchards. We had little signals that we used to make sure we weren’t caught and to tell if it was one of us hiding around the next corner. The one she sent was her identifier. I replied with mine.”

“There is nothing wrong with going to the orchards at night.”

“Tell that to our parents.” I flopped back onto the bed giggling to myself. “Helix is probably asleep now so we’ll have to wait until morning to see if we will get a reply.”

“And are you going to stay up all night?” She folded her forelegs dramatically. “Because I am still exhausted.” She suddenly yawned involuntarily as though to emphasise the point.

“I’m not sure. I just…” I sat up again to look at her. “My mind wouldn’t turn off earlier because I was worried about her and what we would all be facing when we left the stable. Now it won’t turn off because I know she is out there.”

“But there’s nothing you can do about it at the moment.” She clasped her hooves together. “Please, try to sleep. I’ll go on the sofa if you need the space, but just try and get some sleep. We all need you thinking straight and at your best if we are going to get back together so…” She dropped into pout mode, her ears sagging just to exaggerate the look.

“Ok, ok,” I said before she could lay it on any thicker. “I will try.” Rolling back over to my side of the bed, Foxglove grabbed herself a glass of water before clambering up beside me and sliding under the covers. “Night, Foxglove.”

“Night, Fran.” She rolled over with her back to me and switched off the lights.

Within fifteen minutes Foxglove was asleep again. I just stared up at the strangely familiar ceiling unable to settle my mind. I wasn’t thinking about anything specific, just quick bursts of ideas and memories racing across my mind faster than I could really process them. I could feel my eyes droop, settling closed, but still my mind raced. The blackened memory orbs, the ghouls chasing me under the closing door, the last piece of camera footage, the sensation of falling as Minor Wings carried me about the stable.

My ears pricked up at a rushing sound. Looking around the room I saw nothing. Foxglove continued to snooze beside me peacefully. Wait, there it was again.

Was it wind? Could the air-con be on the fritz? Was just it water? I slipped out of bed again and moved quietly to the door to press me ear to the cold steel. It was like it was just outside.... I opened the door.

Water crashed down on me, sweeping me away through the corridors. My body slammed hard into walls and pipes like a ragdoll as the vicious torrent whipped me away through the corridors. I fought my way to the surface, only to be forced down again by the undercurrents, leaving me coughing and spluttering, desperate for air.

All the noise stopped as I was pinned hard against a door, the water spewed through an inch wide gap into the corridor beyond.

I couldn’t get anymore air. The whole tunnel was filling up with water and my tiny bubble was going, going… gone.

I couldn’t believe it. This was how I was going to die. I would never see my daughter again. The excruciating pain of her loss overpowered the agony in my lungs as they flooded with water. The pain in my chest was horrific, but nothing compared to the sensation I felt as my heartbeat began to slow. Each thump weaker than the last.

My vision turned to grey, my lungs stopped hurting, my heart stopped beating.

~ ~ ~

I screamed.

I screamed to know I was alive. To know that my lungs weren’t flooded with water. That I wasn’t drowning.

I rolled over and slammed into the floor coughing and spluttering, emptying my lungs of everything before sucking in fresh air. But somehow I was still screaming.

No, that wasn’t me.

Her voice was breaking. Her cry: horrific. Her fear and grief: total. Foxglove’s scream gouged into my mind. I couldn’t even begin to describe how it was burrowing inside me. I forced myself up from the floor to Foxglove’s side.

“Foxglove! Foxglove!” I yanked her hooves away from her eyes. “Look at me!”

“They killed her... So much blood… everywhere! Get it off me… monsters! They Killed her. Too much blood… get-it-off-get-it-off-get-it-off!”

She wasn’t with me. She was in shock. Was she even awake?

“Everywhere, they got her everywhere, and not just her but all of us! So much blood get it off!” Foxglove began to scream louder, reaching a fever pitch.

Foxglove snapped to as I splashed her glass of water across her face. Her eyes shot open darting around the room, her breathing heavy and rapid.

“Foxglove!”

“Fran. What...?” She gasped fearfully.

“Shush.” I clutched her to me, feeling her ragged breathing ease. “It was just a bad dream. It’s alright. You’re not the only one. It’s alright.”

“What?” Foxglove muttered.

“I was having one too.”

Foxglove squeezed me tighter. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

“It was just so sudden. We were all asleep, then… then all I remember is blood, and gunfire, and… and…” She whimpered. “She’s dead isn’t she, my mum?”

I just nodded slowly.

“And our stable?”

I shook my head. “Most, but not all.” Slowly her breath began to ease as she clung to me. “Do you remember what you were doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“You were screaming and yelling. I had to use your glass of water to snap you out of it.” Foxglove just shook her head sadly, her wet mane clinging to her muzzle.

“Good job I woke you up, else it might have lasted longer.”

Foxglove looked up at me tentatively. “What was your nightmare about?”

“I… I was just walking around Stable Twenty Five.” Hazy images drifted to the fore of my mind. “Then water. A torrent of water, and it was like I was back in Seventeen.”

“What happened?”

“I drowned and then I woke up.”

“I died too” I felt her shudder. “It’s strange.”

“How do you mean?”

“We both were having a normal dream, then die at the same time.”

“And we were both dreaming about our mums,” I added thoughtfully.

“It was terrible,” she said with a shiver, “seeing it through her eyes.”

“How do you mean?”

Foxglove seemed to stop. She sat up and looked out of the fake windows to the moonlit meadow.

“In my dream, I was my mum.” She bit her bottom lip tentatively. “I could see her hooves, her mane in front of her face and… and everything that happened after that.” She looked back at me. “I felt everything as if I were her. Everypony has had vivid dreams but this was, something else.”

“Foxglove, do you think…” I hesitated. I didn’t want to accuse her, but I couldn’t help but to suspect her. “Do you think Shade could have done this?”

Foxglove made to argue back, but like me, she stopped. She didn’t like the idea either, but she clearly knew that nopony else was capable.

“But why would she?” Foxglove eventually replied. “And, she hasn’t hurt us as such… just really, really scared,” she finished dryly.

I sighed and then yawned. “Do you think you can sleep? It’s five AM and it’s not like we’ve had a good night.”

“Yeah…” Foxglove nodded nervously. “I think I can.”

The both of us slipped back under the covers, back to back. I don’t know how long I lay awake just reliving the remaining flashes of the dream in my mind, but eventually my sleepless night got the better of me. My last memory was of the panic in my mum’s mind before we both left the waking world.

* * *

Bang, bang, bang.

“Woah, what.” I rolled over groggily, groping for the light switch.

Bang, bang, bang.

“Francium. Foxglove.” Yeah, yeah I am getting there, as soon as my brain wakes up.

I caught the light switch and immediately regretted it. Fumbling around, half blind from the sudden burst of light, I managed to get to my hooves and meander to the door.

Bang, bang.

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” The door slid open to reveal a very concerned looking Indicia. “What up?”

“It’s Shade. She won’t open her door,” Indicia clamoured. She looked over my shoulder. “I need you and Foxglove to come with me, right now.”

“Ok.” Leaving Indicia pacing in the doorway I roused Foxglove, giving her a gentle shake. “Hey, get up.”

“Wait, what?” She looked at me confused, her mane all a tangle.

“Shade needs you.”

Foxglove looked taken aback. “What? Why?” She flipped herself out of bed and was at the door in moments, far more coordinated than I was with an early morning wake up.

“She’s locked herself in her room and won’t come out, aaaargh.” Indicia stumbled sideways, clutching at her head. I managing to grab her before she toppled to the floor.

I helped her back to her hooves. “You okay? What was that?” ‘Yeah, what was that?!’

Indicia steadied herself on the door frame, her brow furrowed in pain “Yes, I’m alright. And that, we are pretty sure, was Shade.”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Foxglove asked cautiously. “She is hurting you with her mind?”

“Its not just me, its everypony.” Indicia strained, rubbing her brow. “Let’s just get up there. I’ll explain it all on the way.”

I grabbed Jury and we bolted out the door. A group of pegasi gave us a lift down a floor before we clattered on long towards the earth pony sleeping section.

Occasionally Indicia would stumble as if suddenly she had no control over her body. I found myself tensing when it happened, expecting Foxglove and myself to go tumbling to the ground but thankfully it never happened.

“Why isn’t it happening to us?” Foxglove asked, clearing thinking the same thing as we passed a group of ponies lying against a wall all seeming unable to stand. “Why… why would she do this…”

“I don’t know.” I couldn’t think of anything comforting. “But I the sooner we get there the sooner we will find out.”

We arrived at Shade’s room. Apparently, she had small room just off a cluster of family rooms so that they could keep an eye on her. Ponies were standing around the door as a couple of maintenance ponies tried to get the door open. A plasma cutter lay abandoned nearby.

“Clear the way,” Indicia called as we rushed up.

“What’s going on?” I asked the gathered ponies.

“We have no idea, but occasionally everypony in the stable keeps getting these flashes,” one of them replied. She had a yellow box adorned with a pink butterfly strapped to her side. Her grey coat and light pink air was an odd combination, but it kind of worked.

“Flashes?” I asked. “Of what? Foxglove and I haven’t been hit… yet.”

“The worst memory of your life.” I exchanged a very worried glance with Foxglove. “It varies in intensity from pony to pony but some have been intense enough to knock ponies out cold.”

I gulped. “And you think this is coming from Shade?”

“Who else could it be?” another pony shot back from his place on the floor.

I didn’t have another answer, reluctantly I just nodded. “What do you need me for?”

“Mighty Wings said that you cut through the door at the bottom of the shaft in order to enter the stable.” One of the maintenance ponies piped up. “As you can see we’ve tried and failed.” He indicated the abandoned plasma cutter. “We want you to use your magic to cut through the door.”

“The alloys that stable tech use are excellent thermal conductors, making them highly resistant to fire and thermal cutting methods. We had to use cold saws when we need to cut things back in my stable.” I placed my hooves experimentally against the door. The cutter had heated the door up significantly but there was no way they would be cutting through it any time soon. “Wait, don’t you want me to try overriding the controls first?”

“They’re burnt out. I have no idea how. We were going to start trying a rewire and replacement board.” He stepped aside to let me examine the controls. “Yeah, exactly my reaction.” He added as I took one look at the board and promptly abandoned it.

“Ok, turn your backs.” I said preparing my horn. “How thick are these doors?”

“No more than two inches of alloy but there is an insulation gap between them.”

“No problem.” I covered my eyes with the filter spell and got to work.

* * *

“On three. One. Two. Three.”

With a heave, the impromptu waterpipe-battering ram lurched forwards, driving the cut out section to the floor. The ponies carrying it promptly dropped it and peeled the rest back to let us all look inside.

The room looked normal. A chest of drawers, a few toys scattered on the floor next to a open chest, a mirror in one corner and the usual fake window to the luscious meadow.

“You go first,” Indicia said to Foxglove quietly. “You get along better with her than anypony else.”

Foxglove just nodded. “Shade? It’s me, Foxglove.” She took a step forwards. “Where are you.”

Indicia and I cautiously followed a few lengths behind, glancing around with every step. Shade was nowhere to be seen. Now that I could see the whole room, I noticed bedcovers tossed to the floor along with several boxes of crayons and pencils, most of which were reduced to stubs.

“Shade?” Foxglove called again. “Please come out.”

We all jumped as Shade appeared calmly from her bathroom. “I’m sorry everypony,.” She whispered. “I’m so sorry, but I had to finish. She kept trying to stop me.”

Indicia gasped. “She spoke…”

“Finish what?” Foxglove asked, going to her and taking her hoof.

Shade pointed behind us. “That.”

We all turned together, and I took an involuntary step back.

The mural was huge, covering the whole wall from ceiling to floor, and near photorealistic if not for the limited range of colours. The accuracy to depth perception was incredible. But that was only half the story. I had no idea where this place was, but, wherever it was, it was huge.

The whole cavernous room seemed to glisten and shine, as if it were made from coloured glass. Vibrant veins of amethyst purple and blood red were scattered through the off white crystal walls. But the walls were not walls. The crystal wrapped its way round is one unbroken sphere of refracting light. The light in question only seemed to be coming from a few focal points before being scattered.

The foreground of the image was obscured by some kind of rim, but it was still part of the image, as if it been taken from inside a box. There was a sturdy hinge bottom-centre and a set of indicator lights. Outside of this enclosure, the left was occupied by a tall bank of monitors, flat screens though, not the usual CRT’s. The right showed thick tubes leading away and down, out of sight.

“What is this thing?” I heard the grey and pink mare ask in awe.

“It’s a geode. It’s a gigantic geode,” Foxglove muttered, taking a step towards the mural. “A Celestine geode. There are a few impurity veins at various points but, its still incedible” Touching her hoof to the wall, she smiled slightly. ”And I said that Thistle’s love of rocks would never wear off on me.”

“What is the structure down the centre?” Indicia asked.

I followed her hoof. I hadn’t been looking before but she was right. The monitors and the pipes and the thing the image seemed to be looking out of, were all on a giant platform that was linked to a pair of doors at the far end by walkway.

“Looks like some kind of bridge.” I stepped back further, trying to get a better overview. “There’s a pair of doors at the other end. So it’s only a few meters wide if those doors are of a standard size. But that would mean this geode is a good,” I roughed the maths. “One hundred metres in diameter. Possibly one-twenty.”

“But where are we looking from?” The pink mare asked again.

“Shade, why did you draw this?” Foxglove went back to her side. “Why did you lock us out?”

“They were projecting out, so I moved in,” she replied slowly. “This is what I saw.”

“Who was ‘projecting out’?”

Shade rubbed her hooves together nervously. “I… I don’t know.”

Wait? “You mean there is another mindreading pony. Another Seer,” I asked in confusion.

Shade nodded slowly. “They are powerful. Very powerful. But it doesn’t feel natural to me.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that. ‘Who the hell would?’ my inner pony added, just as stumped.

Indicia came to her senses first, calling out, “Aria.”. A moment later the grey mare from earlier stepped into the room. “I think we ought to move Shade into the medical area so we can monitor her. Has anyone else had a flash since we started cutting down the door?” Aria just shook her head as she guided Shade out of the hole in the door. “Right then, panic over. For now at any rate.” She turned back to me. “Fran, see how she locked the door? She shouldn't have been able to do that.”

Everypony began wandering away, some still looking very shocked and confused, leaving Foxglove and I standing alone in Shade’s room. Foxglove was still examining the mural, touching the crayon marks and following its patterns.

“There’s more to this than we can see,” she remarked, stepping back to my side. “I don’t just mean in the mural.”

“Do you remember what Aramid said just before he died?” I replied. Foxglove shook her head. “It’s all a lie. Don’t trust her. She gets inside your head. Makes your forget. At the time I didn’t know what to make of it. Now, I still don’t know what to make of it, but this, “I flicked my hoof absentmindedly at the mural, “this is something else.”

“Fran. I’m scared.” Foxglove was staring at the wall, her eyes wide, expression neutral. “Not a ‘scream out loud’ scared, a ‘I have no idea what I’m facing and I have no idea how to stop it’ scared, and that is much, much more frightening.”

I looked down at the young mare beside me. “You know what?” I asked.

“What?”

“So am I, but…”

Foxglove glanced at me. “But what?”

“I have a plan.”

* * *

Four hours later I was back in the security office with the banks of void-black memory orbs. Minor Wings watched me work furiously, bringing me cups of tea as I tore the main server apart. He’d seemed content enough to sit back and watch, until I had told him what I planned to do next.

“You want to what?”

The muscular pegasi gave me a weird look, like he thought I was joking. Ignoring that, I pressed on.“I just need, like, three ponies to watch my back while I work.” I stuck my head back inside the server cabinet and continued with the rewiring.

“You have seen what ghouls do to the ponies they catch, haven’t you?” His tone went from confused to shocked. He finally understood I was serious.

“Yes. Yes, I have.” I tossed aside a burnt out APU crystal array and bridged the gap with a PipBuck interface so I could access the system directly.

Minors level of incredulity took on a new level. “And that doesn’t put you off.”

“If this works the way I hope, then we’ll be hitting two nails with one hammer.”

He gave me a disbelieving look. “Just wait and see.” I pushed myself upright and closed the cabinet “So, will you give me a lift?”

Minor dragged a hoof down his face. “It’d be brilliant if you could get the lifts working again, but going down there is suicide.”

“That’s nothing in comparison to what I have planned next.”

Minor stopped at my manic grin. “What do you mean?” He asked cautiously.

“Even if I get the lifts to unlock and the doors open, they still have no power. I need to go down to the reactor and reboot the system.” I got the exact ‘what the hell’ look I was expecting. “Once that’s done I can redistribute power to the right parts of the stable and get the doors open.”

“And what will getting the doors open allow us to do?”

“It’ll allow us to get rid of this lot.” I punched the return key on the computer beside me and watched as the bank of screens sprang into life.

Minor Wings was lost for words.

“How… you got it all working. How did you do that?” He peered closer to the monitors. “That’s the mess hall, and the soft room. They’re all working. You fixed them all? How?”

“They were never broken.” He looked puzzled. “Just being over-ridden.” I opened up the nearest orb bank for him to look inside. “You remember how these were all black?”

“And somehow you have made them all white…” He added nonplussed.

“They’d been filled with a memory, a false memory, of pure blackness.” He still looked confused. “All I needed to do was to find the end of the loop. It couldn’t go on forever, so I told the system to search for a pattern inside the incoming video signal. The darkness isn't perfect, it’s a clip lasting around four seconds.”

“So how did you stop it looping?”

“Good question. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that it was going to work at all.” I opened the stable’s database and navigated to the section they had on memory orbs. “The system is based on memory orb technology, which has a few fundamental principles to it, on of which is the ending of a memory. Specifically how to make the memory end and let a viewer exit.

“At the end of a memory, the orb waits for an electrical signal, if it doesn’t get one it loops. Now, unicorn magic does this subconsciously, you can’t exit at will, but as the memory begins to fade, a unicorn subconsciously sends this signal out, similar to the kind that lets you know you are in a dream and allows you to force yourself awake.”

“You mean you went into every single one of these orbs and sent this signal?” I knew Minor wasn't keeping up, nor was I really, but the key bit that I understood was up next.

“Nope. Didn’t need to. Thanks to this.” I scrolled down to let him see.

“A Recolector.” He read aloud. “A device worn on a ponies head which simulates the magic used by Unicorn to allow the viewing of memory orbs. Created by Stable-Tec in…” He mumbled to himself as he finished the paragraph. “So, you used one of these?”

“In essence, yes. The database contains the draft magic and electro-magical coding used in the recolector. I took the part of the code that simulated the ending signal and sent it as a control signal to all the cameras. The cameras then relayed this to their respective orbs and hey-presto, they all ended the memory and went back to showing the signal from the cameras.”

I beamed at the utterly stunned pegasus. “Now you can see what is going on everywhere in the stable.”

“Bring up the vault door camera, now,” Minor barked, taking me by surprise. “I want to know exactly what’s happening on the other side of that door.” I quickly button mashed and brought up the video feed. I spread it across nine of the monitors.

“There.” I studied the image for a moment, confused. “There doesn’t seem to be any change from the last clip I had seen from the camera.” For the sake of comparison and to sate my curiosity, I brought up the original video beside it. “Huh, it looks exactly the same.” I was certain that there would have been something different from any slaver activity or raiders, but it looked identical, like they hadn’t even bothered to try and get in.

“Wait.” Minor barked again making me jump. “Look there.”

Something was moving. Something heavy. Somthing metal. Something that was getting bigger with every moment. It seemed to be sliding— or perhaps rolling across the rough floor of the tunnel, grinding along at an agonizingly slow pace. As far as I could see, the front of the object was a wedge of metal with a pair of lights on either side.

“How is that thing moving?” Minor asked. “Is it being pushed?”

“I am more concerned about what it is.” I mashed on the keyboard again, starting a visual analysis on the oncoming feed, letting the computer analyse the object and search through its vast database. “Look.” I pointed at the space above it. “It’s slung from the ceiling, not rolling. You can see the straps.”

“Still haven’t seen any pony yet,” Minor muttered nervously.

It continued to creep further into view, a sloped glass window at the prow slowly revealing the machine’s interior. A pair harnesses and bank consoles swept across the cockpit.

“It’s got guns.” Minor pointed out a multi-barreled gun sliding into view, mounted on its side. As soon as the magazine and breach came into view one of the monitors changed. “And we have a match on the weapon. An Iron-Shod 10mm Long barreled Minigun - Pent Pattern.”

“And we have a vehicle class match.” I pointed at another screen. “A Vertibuck, but it hasn’t identified the type.”

“Ponies,” Minor called. A line of ponies was hauling on a line that was looped around the leading wing of the aircraft. “Wow, they look so small in comparison.”

“Minimum width for a Vertibuck fuselage is three meters but this one is… Oh shit.”

“Whats wr…” Minors voice just stopped.

We both examined the read out on the screen.

“Can you get this footage onto something so we can show the others?” Minor asked after a long silence. I nodded. “Good. Meet me in the meeting room in twenty minutes. I’ll gather up the council, and bring that datasheet with you.”

* * *

In the time it took me to find a projector and return to copy the footage, the Vertibuck completed its journey into the hanger.

Everypony was silent as the footage played, all eyes locked on the fully functional Vertibuck.The recording ended, and the silence followed on its heels.

Foxglove and I shrunk back from the round table in the meeting room as the whole room began to shout louder and louder. And I hadn’t even told them what I planned to do next.

“We can’t fight. They’ll kill us all!”

“They’ll come through the door sooner or later, let’s attack while they aren’t expecting it.”

“We shouldn’t be going out there at all! The stables were closed for a reason!”

“But we could get everything working again! Go find what we need to fix the stable.”

“You can’t fix all the damage. We need to find a new place to live, away from these raiders and free from mutants.”

“Hey! Those mutants were us, remember.”

“We need too…”

The distinct sound of a door opening drew my eye toward the entrance, a wave of silence falling as everypony took notice. Gracious Wings stepped inside, escorted by her son. Taking her seat, she looked around the room with her milky eyes. She may not have been able to hold eye contact but her strength of will was clear.

“We now stand at a crossroads. And I fear that they all lead to the same destination.” She paused, considering her next words with care. “After hearing of what awaits us on the other side of the door, I am just as afraid as anypony else, perhaps even more so.

“Ultimately, we must leave this stable. It is unlikely that they will leave us alone forever and if they ever need more resources, they have them right on their doorstep. If they wanted to take this stable, I doubt we could stop them.”

“But if we go out there we’ll…” A pony blurted out, but Gracious silenced him with a wave of her hoof.

“We all die sooner or later, we may only choose the manner of our departure.If we stay here, we will be trapped by those ponies until we die. We are better than that. We have a chance to eliminate these killers, these murderers. If I am to choose how I depart this world, I would see it done standing for a cause, not cowering in a hole.”

“And how do you propose we do that?” Indicia rose to her hooves, throwing her glare around the table. “As grand and noble as you make that sound, the fact is that we will lose. Even if we have the advantage in numbers, we have neither the weapons, nor the training to face down any hardened wasteland killers.”

“Which is why we won’t, at least not initially.”

Indicia crossed her hooves expectantly. “How?”

“We open the doors and let them in,” she replied simply.

“What kind of plan is that!” Indicia scoffed.

“Tell me Indicia, what prevents us going down to the lower levels?”

“The radiation,” Indicia began, “and the mutants.”

“Exactly.”

“Of course!” I shouted, more to myself than the others but everypony was looking at me. “If we open all the doors on the bottom level we can use the mutants to clear out the slavers and raiders. Let our enemies kill each other!”

Gracious nodded.



“Hold on just a minute. You want to use the ghouls as cannon fodder?” Indicia gasped. “That’s… that’s, horrible!”

“Honestly, Indicia, I don’t like the idea much either but, hey are not ponies any more. They eat each other alive. They ate our friends and family! They are no longer Equine. They need to be put down, and if this way they at least serve some purpose.”

Indicia continued to glare across the table for few seconds before letting out a disgruntled whinny and dropping back to her seat.

“Ummm, can I say something?” Foxglove stood up, glancing nervously around the circle. “Why don’t we just leave? There are plenty of pegasi in this stable. Why not just lift everypony out? You could walk down to Viewpoint and settle there. You could take some of the equipment with you, and you needn’t abandon the stable entirely. You can keep it secret but still use it to grow food, repair things and build things.”

There was a general consensus around the table.

“See Gracious.” Indicia pointed firmly at Foxglove. “She is right. There’s no need to fight.”

“And when those raiders decide to expand and discover all the stable has to offer? You would have us flee, only to grant them unimpeeded access to all of this?.” Gracious sighed heavily. “It’s not an easy decision, but we can’t miss this opportunity, not only for ourselves, but for the wasteland too.”

“We will now hold a vote,” Minor called out. “Connect your PipBucks into the system and vote. Yes is in favour of acting to take out the aggressors on our doorstep and use the ghouls below us to help us do that. No is in favour of finding an alternate solution that either involves no combat or another way of taking out the aggressors. Abstaining will reduce the number in the final calculation. A seventy five percent majority is required to win in either direction. Voting will continue until a decision is reached. There will be ten minute discussions between votes.”

A projector flickered into life, beaming an image onto the wall behind Gracious at the far end of the table. Three empty columns labeled ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Abstain’ flickered on the wall. Foxglove and I watched as the twenty six ponies of the council cast their vote. My heart sank slightly.

“Ten yes, ten no, six abstain.” Minor called out. “First discussion, please raise your hoof to issue a point.”

Foxglove tapped me on the shoulder. “Do you want to leave them to it. This’ll probably take a while.”

I nodded. “Yeah, and after what you said, I have some packing to do.”

* * *

“Fran, what are you doing?”

I ignored Foxglove as I moved round the room, gathering up all of my things. Only when she got in my way did I answer. Stepping around her, I said, “Packing. What does it look like?”

“But why?”

I dropped everythings on the bed and started stuffing my saddlebags. “Because I can get out of here. We can get out of here.”

“What do you mean?”

Part way through trying to jam all my equipment back into my bag, I realised it wasn't going to fit in like that. Reluctantly, I upended my saddlebags and began to neatly fold everything again.

“Fran!”

“What?” I snapped back, trying to decide if I ought to pack my healing potions on the outside for easy access, or on the inside to protect them.

“What do you mean ‘you can get out of here’?”

“I mean that you’re right. There’s a way out of here.”

“The lift?” Foxglove stomped a hoof. “That was just a last resort, I didn’t mean ‘go now’. If they decide to launch this attack then they’re going to need us here to make it happen. You can’t leave them now.”

“I’m not abandoning them. I will come back.” Buckling my bags closed, I cinched them tight around my waist. “But if we’re going to do this, then we are going to need some help.”

“What do you mean?” I was yanked round to face Foxglove. “Please,” She begged desperately. “What’re you thinking? What’s going on?”

“I’m going to join up with the others. I considered it before, but I doubted I could convince them without evidence. Now I am certain somepony will be willing to take me to where Helix and the others are outside the stable. We are going to need a distraction so we can cut through the doors. With the number of ghouls in the reactor room there is no way I can get in and fix it, even temporarily.”

Foxglove still looked bewildered, but I knew what I was doing.

“Trust me, this is going to work. Now, just let me set something up on your PipBuck.” Reluctantly, Foxglove obliged. “I’m setting up an encrypted signal between our PipBucks so we can communicate freely. When I’m outside, I’ll be able to let you know so you can tell the others.”

“But this is all assuming that they vote to attack in the first place.”

“They will, even if I have to make them. I am not going to let this chance to do so much good slip through my hooves.”

Foxglove stopped. “What do you mean ‘make them’?”

“Rig the vote.”

“No.” Foxglove backed away. “Just no.”

“Huh?” I looked at her confused. “If they won't, then we have to make them.”

“No.” She repeated angrily. “I won’t let you.”

“But look at what we achieve! Viewpoint, High-Voltage, even Seventeen would be safe. If we take them out then we will never have to worry again.”

“It’s not them I’m worried about,” Foxglove muttered a little too loudly.

I stopped. “What do you mean?”

“You, I’m worried about you.”

I stared at her surprised. “Why are you worried about me? I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not!” I flinched at the stomp of her hoof and the anger in her eyes, but her expression, was she afraid of me? “You… you’re taking risks, doing things you’d never have done before. Helix was worried about you and rightly so.”

I glared at her. “How do you know how she feels? How do you know she’s worried about me?” Since when did Foxglove take an interest in my relationships? Since when did Helix start confiding in her?

“What do you mean? Can’t you see it! Every time she glanced at you on the way up that mountain or when we slept in the tent at night!” Foxglove cried incredulously. “You tore her apart when you dragged yourself out of lake Eternity, bleeding and stabbed and scarred. And when you shot that Raider at point blank range! What about you forcing yourself out of bed to go and look for that PipBuck?”

I stared back at her, lost for words.

“She’s afraid. She’s afraid she’s losing you. We all are. I’m not saying I knew what you were like before we left the stable, but what I do know is that you’re no longer the Francium I knew from Stable Seventeen.”

I glanced back at Foxglove, my brain only capable of one thing...

“I’m sorry!” I wailed, my anger gone, my eyes flooded with tears as I bawled like a baby. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I rubbed my face into the carpet, trying to stem the flood from my eyes. I vaguely noted that at some point I decided to collapse to the floor, but that wasn’t important right now. I had to let Foxglove know I was never, ever going to be that stupid or rash or blatantly idiotic ever again.

By the time I ran out of tears, it seemed that it had been long enough for me to become extremely hungry. At a carpet muffled plea, Foxglove left my side and went into the kitchen to make us a snack. Dragging myself into the bed, I couldn’t help but think about Helix and how I’d been breaking her heart without even realising it.

“Hey.” Foxglove muttered as she placed a bowl of soup on the dresser next to me. “Eat it, you’ll feel better.”

Pulling myself up, I leant back against the wall. I hiccupped occasionally as I slowly sipped on the warm liquid. Foxglove had done a good job—not too thin, but with a rich flavour despite the sub standard ingredients.

“We ought to let you cook more often.” I chuckled lightly, thinking of some of the bad meals Mantis had concocted. “Mantis’ food may have met all dietary requirements, but it left the taste buds…”

“...a little worse for wear?” Foxglove offered with a smile.

I snickered and accidently sent soup running down my chin. Cursing, I mopped myself with a spare towel I hadn’t packed yet. “You can’t take me anywhere nice can you.”

“Fran?” Foxglove inquired cautiously. “Did you really mean it?”

“Mean what?” I asked apprehensively.

“That you’d rig the vote?”

I sighed and glanced at Foxglove, her look light yet firm. It wasn’t only me who had changed in the last few weeks. I needed them to fight. It put us one step closer to saving our stable. It put me one step closer to redeeming myself, in my own eyes and in the eyes of every other pony I had ever known.

“Fran?”

“Honestly? Yes, but now, I don’t know.” I shrugged. “If they don’t fight then I’ll just get Minor to give us both a lift to the top of the shaft. Perhaps to the bottom of the cliff if we’re lucky.”

Foxglove didn’t look satisfied. “Did we even have a plan of action for when we arrived at the Stable?”

“Not really.” I shrugged again. “My plan was to find the next PipBuck in the chain, but with the information from Mantis and Swarf, we could just slide on by and head straight for Apploosa.”

“But we can’t now, can we?” Foxglove mumbled, shaking her head. “The slavers and raiders based here would kill us all when we came back… if we came back,” She corrected herself.

“If they fight it’s not only better for them in the long run but good for us too… and the wasteland in general,” I replied firmly. “I think Gracious has already made up her mind. That’ll probably sway the others eventually. She is their leader after all.”

Foxglove leant against me, grabbing my leg for comfort. “As much as I don’t want to be in a battle… I hope they decide to fight.”

* * *

A knock at the door snapped me out of my dream. It’d been a weird mix of pink unicorns, rainbows, and dancing, so I wasn't sad to see it go. The knocking continued, becoming more urgent with each strike. Dragging myself out of Foxgloves grip, still clinging to my arm, I ambled to the door. A rather unceremonious thunk of my hoof on the button later and the slide of the door revealed a haggard and stressed Minor Wings.

“We’re fighting.”

“That’s great news!” I beamed at him.

“Let me elaborate on that.” He looked at me for a moment, nervously. “We are fighting. You, Foxglove, and the rest of your group, are not.”

“What!” I gaped. “Why?”

“Some of the Council thought it would make the attack… personal. They wanted to leave that element out of the equation. They think that you might want to take revenge somehow, make a rash decision that could put the attack at risk.” Minor shrugged sympathetically. “I don’t agree, it’s personnel already so far as I can see. They could well be responsible for the reactor failure.” Minor scratched his neck shaking his head. “I’m not entirely sure why, but this doesn’t seem fair on you two.”

I beckoned him inside and we sat down on the sofa. Yawning, Foxglove joined us and offered Minor the last of the soup which he took gratefully. With a wry smile, I noticed that we sat in exactly the same configuration as when Helix and I told Tungsten about our relationship. Everything was the same, right down to the sofa layout and the mass produced table between us.

“Why would it be unfair?” I asked. “This is your stable after all.”

“Well maybe unfair is the wrong word but, if it weren't for your Fran, we would have never got the cameras working again.” Minor set his bowl down and flopped back on the sofa. “And given your knowledge, I am sure you’ll be able to fix the lifts soon enough. In fact, you’ll have to if our plan is to work.

“And if it weren’t for you, we would never have been able to get into Shade’s room. Well, no where near as quickly.” He looked over at me curiously. “How do you do that anyway? We had our most powerful torch on it for thirty minutes and it did nothing.”

“The stable alloys are great at transferring heat, one of the extra little fire safety things to prevent structural damage but spreading the heat out. Not that there is much to burn in a Stable. As an example, the carpet we had in Seventeen was self extinguishing.”

“But how do you cut through them?” Minor sat up, he seemed surprisingly keen.

“I use a repulsion spell to prevent the heat from spreading. Its not perfect but there becomes a point where the alloy liquefies then I can put a field between the solid and liquid metal. After that its like driving a molten pool like you might in welding, but I use the field to prevent the alloy for joining back together behind me.” I cocked my head. “Was that too much detail?”

“No, I get it… I think. Not that it matters too much. You can do it and thats the main point.” Minor got to his hooves, pacing before us. “There are details to be sorted out, but we do have a plan. I’d like you both to be involved. I know you don’t know much about the Slavers, but you know more than us.”

“Anything we can do,” I replied happily. “This is going to be a step towards saving our own stable as well as yours. Though how they are going to stop us from being in the fight I have no idea.”

“They want you both out of the stable.” Ah. “We’re going to give you a lift to the top of the shaft once you’ve fixed the lifts and cut through the door to the hanger.”

“Then what?”

“Gracious was hoping you would get your friends to make some kind of distraction to draw them away from the door. We cut through, release the ghouls and watch the massacre unfold…” All three of us squirmed at the thought.

“This is going to be messy.” Foxglove shook her head sadly.

* * *

The lifts were even easier to fix than I’d anticipated. A quick poke around in the software revealed a bios based timer that was set to scramble the port configurations on the timing chip. Once that happened the system would fall over, and with no way of re-syncing all the systems, it would never start up again… unless you reset the clock.

“I just set the timer to zero.” I snapped the panel over the computer shut and turned back to Minor and Chip, the stables resident tech-buff. “It’ll die again in fifty years, but all you have to do is reflash it from the other Bios chip and you’re good to go again.”

“I can’t believe it was that simple!” Chip said, his poofy brown mane shaking like a bowl of jelly; in fact the young stallion looked very much like a chocolate chip, with his dappled brown and black coat. “If I’d known, we could’ve been zippin’ up and down years ago.”

I laughed as he waved his fore hooves up and down exuberantly. “The only reason I found it was because my PipBuck can get root access. You guys were doomed from the start, unless you manually replaced the chip that is, but I best nopony would have thought of that.”

“Fran, you ready to move straight onto the door?” Minor looked at his PipBuck. “My mother’s just sent through the schedule for this plan. It’s rapid.”

“How rapid?” I joined him on the balcony outside the electronics room, avoiding the large puddles of rusty water.

“Door gets blown in just under eightteen hours.”

Wow, that was quick. “Do you think you’ll all be ready in time?” I asked, pulling myself on to his back. “What do you need to get ready?”

“Quite a lot, but I think my mother wants to get this over with. And, I pointed out that while that vertibuck is still underground it’s not going to be very effective. Taking that out of the equation makes our lives much easier.”

I gripped Minor Wings flanks with my rear legs and put my hooves round his neck. A pause, then we were spiraling down to the bottom floor. Getting off, I could see just how quickly things could change when you have eight hundred ponies working together.

The doors to the other areas of the stable had been tacked shut with small welds so that the ponies down there could work safely. Even so, there were around two dozen guards armed with a mixture of shotguns and high calibre pistols. A trio of hefty barricades on casters were being welded together from scrap. With two firing levels, forward facing spikes and a fixed, early era machine gun each, there were serious pieces of kit.

“These’ll be at the sides when we release the ghouls. Once we’ve released them, we’ll roll them forward and lock them down. This will be our first line of defence in case things go wrong and the slavers start fighting back.”

Minor went over and inspected one of the early machine guns. It was nothing like the ones I’d seen at Arcano. With eight barrels and a hoof crank, it looked like something out an old Western-Equestrian film, harking back to the rougher days on the edges of Celestial territory.

“It’s a shame these should see war again after so many years.” Minor stroked the barrels affectionately. He caught my bemused expression. “Yeah, I am stroking it. I spent my entire life looking after and maintaining so many of the items in this stable that I developed a few favorites.”

I gave him a reassuring smile “Don’t worry. I understand. It’s the same with my EVA suit.”

“Indicia assures me it’s called an ASA Suit.”

“I guess it doesn't matter. Though I’d always wondered since an EVA suit was the name for what the first Celanaughts wore in our few decades of space exploration.”

Minor did a double take. “We were sending ponies into space?”

Ok, apparently that wasn’t common knowledge.

I told Minor I’d fill him in later, so he showed me to the door. The plan was to cut most of the way through the door and then use a concussive charge to break the remaining material and ‘open’ it. The blast was also intended to get the ghouls attention.

Three hours of careful cutting later and the door was only held in place by a thin wall of material on the far side. I went as close as I dared. I didn't want the cut showing through on the other side, but neither did I want it so thick that the concussive charge wouldn’t easily break down the door. I had also made sure that the bottom of the door would break clean so that the moveable barricades wouldn’t be hindered by scrap, allowing them to advance their position.

Now that the lifts were working again, the next few hours were taken up by creating strategic defensive points and barricades all over the balconies in the Core. More old guns and devices were being pulled out of their glass cases to make all manner of offensive and defensive weapons. There was one rather nasty looking device that shot a net made of razorwire, intended to capture a flying pegasus, and another that shot spiked stars of metal that could cut a ponies hoof clean off.

This was going to be messy one way or another.

With the timer I’d set on my PipBuck reading six hours to go, I dragged my dirty, sweaty body into the shower. Foxglove was packing the last few things into her saddle bags, getting ready for the big lift. Minor and another pegasus, Soaring Sparks, would lift us both up to the top of the shaft then, weather permitting, would drop us off at the bottom of the cliff. In the remaining four hours or so, I’d have to convince the others to create some kind of distraction, and then implement it on cue. This was not going to be an easy night.

“Why are we doing—“ Foxglove yawned widely, “doing this so late at night? I mean, fighting at two a.m. can’t be good for you.”

“The council seems to be banking on the raiders being both tired from being woken up and confused by the distraction. Minor has concocted a load of different attack methods. I knew it was his job to study the machines, but I didn't realise he also studied the tactics of their use.” I turned off the shower and began to pat myself dry. “With any luck, between the ghouls and the distraction, we should be able to do this with minimum casualties on our side.”

“There’s one good thing though.”

I peered around the bathroom door as I combed my mane. “What is that?”

“The look Helix is going to have on her face when she sees you.”

* * *

Three hours later I was standing with Foxglove, Minor and the new addition Sparks in the core ready to depart, saying our goodbyes to the small gathering beside us.

Even though we were not leaving them for long, or even going very far away, I couldn’t help but cry into Gracious’ mane. I didn’t even know anypony very well, besides Minor, but leaving just hours before a fight left me feeling hollow and sad. I realised then that I may never see some of them again. If they died, that would be it.

“You all stay safe now, you hear?” My voice was muffled by the Overmare’s long grey mane. “I want to be able to thank you all when I get back.”

“You will dear,” Gracious replied earnestly, stroking my mane.

I released Gracious and found Indicia next in line. She was surprisingly tearful too. I gave her a bleary smile and a quick hug.

“Bring that suit back, I still want to examine it some more.” She gave my black coated chest a playful prod. “Wouldn’t mind giving it a try some time too. I‘m pretty sure I can get into shape by the time you guys come back from saving your Stable.”

“If you’re good, I’m sure we can arrange something.” I poked her back.

After Foxglove finished her silent goodbye with Shade, she and I stepped onto the platform and mounted our respective carriers. Minor for me, Sparks for Foxglove. I clipped myself to the harness Minor was wearing and readied myself. A last look over my shoulder at the gathered farewell party before Minor took to the air, spiralled down to the rusty floor below. I expected them both to stop but Minor just leveled out, yelling at me to ‘Hold on tight.’ before rolling into the lift and spiraling upwards. Behind me, Foxglove shrieked as Sparks did the same.

Up we soared, our path lit by my Pipbuck and the occasional functional wall light. I quickly reset the altimeter on my PipBuck, I was curious to know just how far we had dropped. Beneath me I could feel Minor’s wings working furiously. Every muscle movement, every correction, I felt as we climbed.

“What should I expect at the top?” Minor yelled at me over the wind noise. “Do you think there could be hostiles? Do you think your friends will still be around.”

“Both are unlikely, but I guess anything’s possible. We didn’t exactly plan on falling down the shaft.” Minor chuckled at my response.

Minor spurred himself on. We passed three thousand foot and kept climbing. Behind us I could hear the occasional ‘woop’ of enjoyment from Foxglove, followed the the occasional ‘eeep’ as we dodged protrusions from the side of the tunnel.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be using this lift again,” Minor called back to me. “Hey, look up. Daylight.”

He was right. A tiny dot was growing larger and larger above us. I quickly glanced at my Pipbuck. “Damn, it’s been almost six thousand feet!”

Minor turned round and yelled down to his fellow pegasus, while still climbing. “Sparks, hang back a little. We have no idea what we will find up there.”

“Roger.” Sparks began to ease off as Minor and I began to accelerate.

“How far do you think we have above the hole?” Minor asked, the opening now only a few hundred feet away.

“Sixteen feet perhaps? Twenty max,” I yelled back.

“Should be able to make it then.”

I hesitated. “Make what?” I asked, my hoof over my eyes for the rich orange light reflecting down the shaft.

“This.”

We shot out of the elevator shaft, and I screamed. Minor pitched hard into an upside down roll, ducking under a fallen beam and crashing through the remains of the rear doors. With one final squeal as I narrowly avoided the sofa, we soared up into the light.

I looked around, my eyes adjusting to the bright, orange, ambient light from the setting sun as it scattered through the clouds. Minor circled to watch Sparks and Foxglove make a far more sensible exit from the tunnel and glide up to join us in the sky.

Nopony said anything as we circled above the hostel in the darkening twilight, Minor and Sparks taking in the world around them. From above, I could see the bodies of the dead raiders that had attacked us, and the path we’d ascended to reach the saddle in the mountain range.

“So, this is what the wasteland looks like,” Minor stated simply. “Well, I can’t say I was expecting this. I thought there would be more, death, more destruction.”

“Sadly, it’s out there.” I sighed. “That path over there is where we came up, so turn right and let’s see if we can’t pick up the road that Mantis was going to lead us down.”

“Can you reach into that side pocket with your magic?” Minor asked as we scythed through the darkening sky. “Pass me what you find in there.”

I obliged, opening up the pouch and pulling out a pair of black goggles. It looked like a pair of binoculars with a head strap. Minor pulled the things over his head and flicked a switch on the side.

“Brilliant, they are working better than I’d expected.” He looked around with the goggles on.

“What are they?”

“Night-vision goggles. Prototype ones. They contain light amplification crystals and also highlight sources of infrared.” He banked left as we spotted the road beneath us. “Between the two you can see in more detail than you can in daylight. Though they don’t like clouds for some reason. Everything just goes fuzzy. I was going to just follow the road down, unless you had a better plan.”

I pulled up the area map on my PipBuck. “We can do that but it will take a while. We should be safe just dropping down the cliff face until we hit the road at the bottom, though I hope not literally.”

“Ok, you tell me where to go, just keep your PipBuck light off. Let’s try to keep this as stealthy as possible. Give me a tap every five hundred feet so I know when to ease off. I don’t fancy hitting the road either so the more information the better.”

The four of us swooped over the edge of the road, leaving the trail of rusted vehicles behind us, and spiraled slowly downwards. Minor and Sparks barely flapped their wings, riding thermals that were forced up by the steep incline beside us. Four ponies gliding silently through the night.

At five hundred feet to go before we got down to the same level as Stable Twenty Five, I gave Minor the tap and switched on my EFS. I wanted to spot any hostiles long before they spotted us, and keep an eye out for any friendly, yellow dots.

My head slammed into Minor’s neck, his wings snapping out to their fullest. I heard Minor cry out and I caught a uncomfortably close glimpse at the side of a lorry as Minor heaved back up into the air. Minor finally stopped cursing long enough to shout at me.

“I said five hundred not one hundred.” He didn’t sound that upset, more shocked. “Damn that was close. It’s a good job I got Sparks to hang back, I didn’t realise that cloud could get that low. I thought there was nothing there and then it just appeared in front of us.” He continued to jabber insults at his seemingly pointless goggles, all I caught was something about them definitely being prototypes.

Suddenly we dropped. I could feel Minor’s wings straining underneath me. No longer the smooth rhythm I was used to but shuddering and forceful lunges at the air.

“Are you alright? Did you sprain something?”

“No, I’m just getting tired.” I felt us wobble. “I have never flown this far before. And pulling maneuvers like that with your weight on my back doesn’t help matters.”

“Are you saying I’m fat?” I asked with a stern tone.

“Maybe.” Minor laughed. “No, like I said I have never flown this far. I have carried more weight but only for short runs.”

“Set us down. I reckon we are going to need you soon enough so lets rest.” I patted his shoulder reassuringly.

With the clatter of hooves, Minor and Sparks touched down beside an overturned military truck. I strapped myself and then went to help Foxglove who was struggling to find all the clips. Casting my eye around through the gloom, the wasteland looked exactly how I remembered it. The same gloomy light, the same perishing relics of machines and pre-war life, the same smell of decay and rust.

“So, which way do you think they went?” Foxglove asked, peering around through the darkness. “Why did we have to do this at night, we can’t see anything. We might have been able to track them if it were daylight.”

By the map, we were about three miles short of Stable Twenty Five’s entrance. “Let’s try this first.” I activated my PipBuck’s short range radio. “Francium to Helix, Francum to Helix, over.” Static. “Francium to Tungsten, Francium to Tungsten, over.” More static. “I don’t think we are close enough yet. If we just head back towards the Stable we I should be able to contact them eventually.”

“What is the range on your PipBuck?” Sparks asked curiously. “Ours aren’t capable of independent transmission.”

“They can do up to a mile if there’s nothing in the way. Ours are C class Three Thousand series, you guys just have A class.” I lifted up Sparks PipBuck leg and had a quick poke through the system. “Yeah, EFS is a little slower to react, older HUD version, less storage space, only basic signal decryption… well, that’s annoying.”

“What’s annoying?”

“I could have encrypted the signals I was sending to Helix from inside the stable and it would have taken months for the PipBucks they relayed off to decrypt the signal. We could have arranged this whole thing without leaving the stable.” I rolled my eyes. “Oh well, at least we know now.”

“So, who wants to take point?” Minor asked, rather tentatively.

I whipped out Jury, slapping home a new cell as I did so. “I got it. Minor Youre back and left of me, Foxglove go behind me and Sparks can you take the rear?” The electric blue pegasus nodded cautiously. “Come on guys. The EFS is clear, you can relax. There might be a lot of bad stuff in the wastes, but thankfully it tends to sleep like the rest of us.” I knew that wasn’t very comforting, but it was better than nothing.

With one final check on Jury, I lead us off into the night.

* * *

I held up my hoof firmly, dropping to my knees as I motioned for the others to do the same. “I got myself a yellow.” I looked round. “You all got the same?” Foxglove nodded, but Minor and Sparks shook their heads. I put it down to the PipBuck model, less range on the older versions.

“Do you want to try the radio again?” Foxglove whispered. “They can’t be so far away.”

“Francium to Helix over.” I waited. “Francium to Tungsten over?” Still nothing.

Foxglove looked worried. “They could be asleep?”

I just shrugged.

“Let’s advance a little further.” Minor began to crawl forward. “I wonder what…”

The branch snapped like a gunshot. I had to bite my hoof to stop myself yelling at Minor for not being careful, but that meant I couldn’t yell out as the flashbang came flying through the air.

Stumbling around, my ears ringing and eyes burning, I fell over onto my back. When I eyes cleared, I was staring bleary eyed down the very shiny barrel of a scoped rifle. I tried to yell ‘Don’t shoot’, but all that came out was ‘Do-bluragh-yooot’ as I sneezed, almost poking my own eye out on the muzzle. But it seemed I’d got the point across.

“Fran?”

Mantis slung his rifle back over his shoulder, holding out his hoof to pull me back up. He examined me, almost like he didn’t quite believe that I was in front of him. He turned to look at Foxglove who was cowering with her hooves over her ears.

“How did you...” Mantis started, but his rifle was back out in an instant as Minor and Sparks landed. It seemed they managed to gain enough altitude to avoid most of the flashbangs concussive blast.

“Fran?” Mantis swung his rifle back and forth between the two pegasi, eyeing them cautiously. “What’re you doing with two Dashites?”

“They're not… bleaugh, Dashites,” I managed to splutter. “They’re stable dwellers.”

Mantis’s eyes widened. “You mean, they’re from Stable Twenty Five?”

I just nodded, pulling Foxglove to her hooves. Damn those flashbangs had some bite. “Mantis, meet Minor Wings and Soaring Sparks of Stable Twenty Five.” I pointed. “Minor, Sparks, this is Mantis from Viewpoint. A small town on the other side of this mountain range..”

“Pleasure.” Minor held out his hoof. Mantis hesitated but shook it with a firm hoof. “Fran has mentioned you quite frequently since we met. I hear you’re a crack shot with that rifle. That’ll be useful in the coming hours.”

For a moment I wondered where the fairly relaxed and casual Minor had disappeared to, then I remembered that the Overmare’s son was going to be well versed in diplomatic conversation, even if he didn’t always show it.

“Yeah, I am.” Mantis grinned. “But first, I think we ought to have a reunion. This will be something to watch.”

* * *

Helix and Seafire were lying peacefully next to a zebra, which threw me for a moment despite a cryptic warning from Mantis, when I quietly unzipped the tent. She looked just as beautiful as the last time I had seen her, and so cute, curled in her sleeping bag, ears twitching occasionally.

So that’s where I started. Helix shifted in her sleep, stretching her hooves out and nuzzling into her pillow as I gently worked her ear between my teeth. I stepped it up by kissing her forehead, then her nose, before engaging in an upside down kiss.

Slowly, Helix raised her head, chasing my lips with her own. The moment mine left her own her eyes fluttered open and I looked into her beautiful eyes.

“Fran?” She whispered, confused.

I responded with another passionate kiss.

“Fran?” She muttered in exactly the same hazy tone.

I kissed her again.

“Is that you?”

Ok, clearly being subtle wasn’t working.

I lept on her, twisting round so that I could grab her tightly in my hooves whilst kissing and licking and nibbling every part of her head I could reach. Helix squealed in the most adorable tone I’d ever heard, fighting my loving assault at first before launching into a passionate counter attack.

Her moaning and gasping was electrifying. Neither of us could stop. Helix shoved her way out of her sleeping bag and rolled me forcefully onto my back.

“FRAN!” Helix yelled, squealed, and jabbered, all in the same word. “Celestia, you’re, you’re, squeee!”

At that point her extravagant squealing was interrupted by a rather disgruntled white unicorn.

“Helix, what in Celestia’s name is going?” Seafire spotted me lying next to her with Helix pinning me to the ground. “Oh,” Seafire deadpanned. “Well, I can’t say I shouldn’t have seen this coming.” For the briefest of moments her stern face held, but it was too much. “Oh go on. I think you have been apart long enough, although Xyalia seems to be looking a little worse for ware.”

“Who?” I asked. Seafire pointed.

Helix’s sleeping bag was dangling off the head off the very surprised looking zebra. The mare shook the bag off her head and after examining Helix and I for a moment, turned to Seafire.

“I take it this is alright?” She pointed at me. I was still trying to wrap my brain around her weird name when I spotted that what I’d assumed earlier were two PipBucks were actually a pair of sheathed blades attached to the backside of each foreleg.

“Oh, yeah, it’s cool.” Helix grinned.

Xyalia looked confused. “Is the temperature relevant?” Helix, Seafire, and I all exchanged ‘did she really just say that?’ looks. “That was a joke,” she added. Ok, zebra humour is… weird.

“I didn’t know you had a sense of humour?” Tungsten said as he stuck his head into the tent. “You two done being marefriends yet?” He smirked at me. Tungsten regretted the quip when Helix and I tackled him to the ground in a twin flying tackle. The three of us rolled in the dirt and dust. “Great to have you back Fran.” He grinned, ruffling my mane.

I sat up and gazed around. Smoking and Mantis were watching all of this unfold with great amusement. Seafire and Foxglove were clinging to each other, crying their eyes out. Minor and Sparks were hovering nervously on the edge of the camp, I beckoned them in and sat myself down on one of the logs that had been arranged around the small firepit in the centre.

With Helix on my left and Minor on my right, Foxglove and I began to regale our detour to the group. It turned out that we weren’t the only ones who’d had an interesting time. Xyalia was the first zebra any of us had ever met. Minor and Sparks took to her well, so did Foxglove. Personally, I was glad that we had somepony… some-zebra, I corrected myself, with her amazing skills on our side. We were going to need them.

“As amazing as all this is guys…” I scratched the back of my head awkwardly. “I’m afraid that our return comes with a catch.”

Everypony stopped.

“What do you mean?” My love asked. Damn, it felt so good to hear her voice, but her worried tone very much marred that sensation.

“Four hours from now at two in the morning, Stable Twenty Five is going to launch an attack from inside the Stable. In order for the plan to work effectively we must create a large enough distraction about five minutes to the hour.” I looked firmly around the group. “I assured their Overmare that we would be able to do that. We are preparing for a fight. A fight that may very well change the whole region.”

“What kind of diversion?” Smoking asked.

I found myself chuckling slightly. ”Something big. The bigger, the better.”

Mantis and Smoking exchanged glances, Mantis grinning slyly. “I am sure we can arrange that.”

“From inside the stable we guessed there were around one hundred slavers in the hanger. We didn’t know how many outside.” Foxglove shuffled nervously next to Seafire.

“Hmmm.” More glances as Mantis schemed. “We’ve not seen a hanger from the outside but there must be tenting for at least another hundred ponies outside. So, assuming no overlap, that makes two hundred tangos. What kind of numbers and weapons are we talking on the Stable side?”

Mantis, Smoking, Seafire and Tungsten payed close attention as Minor and I filled them in on the plans and formations that we'd left behind. Judging by their expressions, it wasn't good, but I sensed that Mantis was cooking up something that might just even the odds.

“When do you reckon they were moving the Vertibuck?” Mantis inquired, breaking the silence that had descended over the group.

“Not sure, early afternoon,” Minor replied. “Why?”

“There’s another large something in their base. A vertibuck might fit its profile. But that one hasn’t moved all day. We’ve been keeping an eye on their comings and goings. Believe it or not, at one point we were considering breaking in to try and find those two.” He gestured to Foxglove and myself. “Good job we didn’t, but that would indicate that they have at least two vehicles.” Mantis relaxed for a moment, prodding at the fire with a stick. “I have some ideas, but they all involve trusting her.” He pointed roughly at Xyalia. “As much as I don’t like the idea, she is the only one who can really pull this off.”

I ignored the very dark and aggressive tones Mantis was directing towards the zebra, who pointedly ignored his comments, and decided to focus on the task at hoof.

“So. What is the plan?” Smoking sat forward intently. “I have a few ideas of my own.”

* * *

The plan was simple enough. Simple and yet insane. No doubt this was going to significantly even the odds if everything went to plan. With help from Mantis, I jury-rigged together four energy cells in a recycling loop. I theorised it back in Seventeen, and Mantis assured me from personal experience, that this would make one heck of an explosion. Add on what we were planning to do with it and the effect was going to be catastrophic to anything that got in the way.

“Right. Now whatever you do, do not pull out this tab.” Mantis glared at Xyalia as he strapped the device to her back. “If you do, you will be incinerated. Fix the device as close as you can to the main tank and attach the end of the string to this blasting cap. In fact…”

Mantis took out another blasting cap and wired its terminals across the speaker terminals inside an old electo-magical clock that he’d scavenged. Setting the alarm to time plus one minute, he placed the device on a nearby rock. Less than a minute later Mantis had a satisfied grin on his muzzle as the blasting cap detonated on cue.

“Perfect.”

“Is that it. Is everything ready?” Xyalia asked patiently.

“Just set the clock and you’re good to go,” Mantis replied happily, only for his expression and tone to turn dark. “But back-stab us and I’ll detonate that collar myself.”

I waited until Xyalia was out of earshot before rounding on Mantis. “What the hay is your problem with her?” I barked at him. “Why do you treat her like dirt? The war is long on over you know.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” He shot back cooly. “Ask Helix, or any of the others. They all know.”

“Right then. I will.” I stormed off to find Helix, leaving Mantis to begin cleaning and preparing his rifle.

I didn’t find Helix, but I did find Foxglove and Seafire packing up our tents with Xyalia sitting patiently on one of the logs near the fire. If everything went to plan, we’d be leaving the moment the battle ended with help from some of Stable Twenty Fives pegasi, giving us a lift across the valley to the mouth of the Platinum Tunnel.

“Hey, Seafire, can I ask you something?” I whispered to her so Xyalia wouldn’t hear..

“Sure,” she replied lightly as she held a pole bag open for Foxglove.

“Why is Mantis so horrible to Xyalia?”

Her expression faltered as she explained their history.

“Oh,” was all I could think to say.

“Hey, are you all ready?” Smoking and Tungsten appeared out of the gloom, returning from spying on the slaver base. “We need to be moving out soon.”

“Yeah. We’re good to go,” Seafire replied as Foxglove tucked the last folds of tent into her saddle bags. “Helix is good to go, I think. She popped off for a moment. Probably the little fillies room.”

Smoking just nodded. “The pegasi have shot back off to the Stable. We’re all packed up. Once we are all here, I think we are all ready to go.”

A few minutes later, Mantis trotted out of the darkness and joined us in the light of the sole remaining lamp set on the remains of the extinguished fire. I kept tapping my hooves as I waited for Helix, but she didn't appear.

Tungsten rolled his eyes. “How long does it take that mare to go?”

“Do you think she’s ok?” Foxglove asked tentatively. “Should we go look?”

Tungsten waved a hoof dismissively “We would have heard if there was a problem, she’s loud when she wants to be.”

Almost on cue there was the crunching of gravel and Helix stumbled out of the gloom.

“Sorry every pony.” Helix shook herself down with a grimace on her face. “Something I ate.”

“You alright?” I asked her, concerned.

Helix smiled back at me, glowing like every picture of the sun I had ever seen. “Yeah, I’m good.”

‘Yeah,’ I said to myself even though I knew what was coming, ‘today is a good day.’



Footnote: Level Up!

New Perk: “Until death do us part” - Your time away from Helix and subsequent return has shown just how much you need her. In her presence you gain +1 Intelligence and +1 Luck. If you actively know she is in danger you suffer -1 to Charisma and -1 to Perception.

Act 2 - Chapter 13: Red Dawn

View Online

Chapter 13 - Red Dawn
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see their world turned upside down.”

Seafire and I lay low on our stomachs at the crest of a slight mound in the terrain, peering down into the slaver compound below. We could just see over the rag-tag collection of fencing and fortification to the network of crude buildings, rusting huts and makeshift tents inside.

Hearing a rustle behind me, I spun round with Jury raised and ready. When Xyalia crept out of the darkness, I let myself relax. If she noticed, she made no show of it and settled beside me looking down into the compound.

“It is planted,” she said before I even asked, “attached to the fuel truck.”

“Will anypony find it?” I asked.

“It is hidden inside the engine compartment. I doubt it.”

“What took you so long to get back?” I asked, checking my PipBucks clock. “Heck, that thing is going to blow in ten minutes.”

“I got stuck between a pair of tents with a group of ponies at either end. I had to wait until one moved aside, and I could slip by.”

The three of us returned to watching the camp, waiting. I wondered just how big the explosion would be. Would it be enough to destroy whatever was under the tarpaulin? Would it kill enough ponies to let the ghouls even the odds?

“Where did you get that necklace?” Seafire asked Xyalia as we watched the compound. “I wouldn’t have thought it something you typically find in the wasteland.”

“I found it inside an overturned truck while traveling. The padded case it’d been locked inside had rusted, allowing me to kick it open.”

“So, you found it by luck?” I asked.

“In short, yes. The convoy of vehicles looked to be of military origin. They tend to contain the best loot. A pair of hovering robots guarded it, with the corpses of many would-be salvagers as testament to their skill.”

“And you got past them?” Seafire asked, amazed.

“By taking my time. I eventually got up on top of a vehicle and was able to jump onto one robot and rip out its power unit. The other robot tried to kill me with its arm saw, but I was able to dodge its attacks and take out the jet that allowed it to hover.”

“Hang on, you were able to dodge a robot?” I asked, my eyebrow raising with doubt.

“Yes.”

“How?”

Xyalia gestured at the necklace. “The pendant of course. I believe the necklace was for use by special operatives who performed covert infiltration missions within Equestrian borders.”

“So,” I tapped my hooves together, “how does it work?”

“The gem is enchanted with an invisibility spell, the necklace allows that effect to be transferred to the wearer. I simply touch the gem, and,” with a hoof tap Xyalia vanished, “I simply disappear.” After a moment she reappeared, a slightly disturbed expression on her muzzle.

“What is it that makes ponies act this way?” she mused, gazing down into the compound.

“Huh?” I replied, caught off guard by the Zebra’s rather sudden topic change. “How do you mean?”

“The history of this war isn’t something I am particularly knowledgeable of but…” She paused, perhaps searching for the right wording. “We, as in all of Equus were at harmony for a millennium and probably long before that, but now we die in droves, war and hate consuming every aspect of our existence.” I found myself struggling to respond, a look at Seafire suggests she was just as bemused by Xyalias musings as I am.

“Perhaps in time things will go back to the way they were,” she continued, “but from what I have seen, I doubt it.”

Completely clueless as to how to respond, I simply let her be. I considered my own knowledge of the war to be reasonable, given my stable upbringing, but after being in Twenty-Five it was clear that not every stable was privy to the same level of information as Seventeen; ‘That’s because it was technically not a stable,’ my inner pony reminded me.

“Equus?” Seafire’s quiet voice broke the silence. “What is Equus?”

“I have been told it is the name of our planet,” Xyalia replied softly. “I have never heard another name given to it, but I suppose it’s logical. We may all be different, but at our core most of the creatures in this world are Equine. There are exceptions, but before the war most lands were Equine controlled, be it Equestria, Saddle Arabia or my ancestors own homelands.

“Do you know much about your homeland?” Seafire asked. “What is its name?”

“I’m afraid that is one thing I have yet to discover,” the mare replied solemnly. “I have never heard ponies speak of it directly, it is understandably a sore topic in this land. But it’s only a matter of…”

Xyalia stopped abruptly, her body tensing up, eyes staring.

“Look!”

All our eyes snapped to follow her hoof. I slammed down the talk button. “All radios, this is Francium. They are moving the fuel tanker. I repeat, they are moving the fuel tanker.” I whispered frantically, wishing I could give them more information.

Twenty or so ponies were attaching ropes to the front of the truck, while one climbed into the drivers seat. They all quickly looped themselves into their harnesses and began to drag the tanker though the compound.

“Shit, shit shit.” I heard Tungsten grumble over the radio. “What do we do?”

“Everyone stay put,” Smoking commanded. “This just means that we will need another way of taking out whatever is under the tarp. Detonation is in one minute.”

“Wait, where are they taking the tanker?” I asked slowly. “There isn't another vehicle in the compound.”

I heard anxious voices before Smoking responded. “From our position it looks like they are heading into the stable’s tunnel stable. Fran, you know the most about the stable’s structure. Will it be able to survive the blast?”

“I haven’t got a clue,” I replied hurriedly. “It could bring the whole tunnel down. Shit, detonation in thirty seconds” All of us watched from our vantage points as the trail of ponies disappeared inside the mouth of the tunnel and out of sight, but then my gaze was drawn back to the object under the tarp. It wasn’t going to be under it much longer.

“They’re uncovering it.” I barked into my PipBuck. “They’re—”

BOOM.

The ground shook from the force of the enclosed detonation. Everything in line with the tunnel mouth; ponies, crates, tents, barrels and building were sent flying by the shockwave of air that blasted out of the tunnel. The wall of air was followed by a wall of blue fire roaring from the tunnel, ripping the entrance into a million lethal fragments of concrete and rebar. A deathly silence, then the void imploded, a sonic boom shattering the air as everything seemed to be sucked back into the tunnel.

All of this passed in mere seconds. When I’d blinked away the white afterburn that filled my vision and my ears had stopped ringing, I was able to take in what was left. Hell.

Everything before the tunnel mouth was ablaze with blue fire. Ponies ran screaming as they burned alive. In the seconds that followed, barrels and boxes filled with ammunition detonated, sending shrapnel flying. Blue fire turned to yellow as it consumed the fabric tents in a growing inferno.

I watched in horror as the compound was consumed by fire.

An urgent voice broke over my radio. “Minor to Francium, Minor to Francium.”

“I’m here.” I replied quickly.

“What in the hay happened? The door to the hangar has just been blasted into the sta—” Minor cut off, overcome by a hacking cough.

“Is everypony ok?” I asked hurriedly.

“Yeah, but whatever you just did killed half the ghouls that were gathered in the core. They—” he was cut off by an terrifying, earsplitting wail. “They’re charging.” I heard him yell over the death siren. “Every last one of them.”

* * *

It was not pretty to watch. Ponies, bleeding and dying, armour smouldering and torn, stumbled out of the smoking tunnel entrance only to be rundown and eaten alive by packs of ravenous ghouls. Occasionally, a pony would be left alive by the pack, limbs missing, blood oozing from their bodies, abandoned to die a messy agonising death.

Some of the slavers fought back, gunning ghouls down in frenzied blazes of automatic fire. But it was only a matter of time before they ran out of ammunition or were simply overrun. A few groups of slavers took cover in hastily formed rings of bodies and debris, able to hold their own against the hoard. When they moved out of cover to help their friends Mantis and Smoking put them down with precise sniper fire.

“This is horribly clinical.” I heard Seafire mutter next to me.

“How do you mean?” I asked, unable to pull my gaze away from the bloody show.

“It’s a balancing act, isn’t it.” She peered down her Monocular. “We have to kill the slavers but not leave any ghouls behind either. Having a bunch of ravenous ghouls roaming the wastelands is almost as bad as a group of slavers.”

“Minor to Francium. Minor to Francium.”

“Go ahead.”

“Is it safe for us to start our attack. We’re just waiting on your signal.”

“One moment.” I switched channels. “Smoking, the stable is ready to start its attack. Do you reckon the numbers are right?”

“Yep, should be an easy clean up.” Smoking replied dryly, a hint of disgust in his voice. ‘So even the trained soldier isn’t enjoying the view.’

“You are good to go Minor. You can start your attack.” Then I added, “Good luck.”

“Thanks, Francium, Minor Out”

Inside my head I could see Minor and the other residents of Stable Twenty-Five gunning down the surviving Slavers and Ghouls in a hail of mixed gunfire. I wondered what the pressure wave from the explosion had done to the ponies in the hangar and what it had done to all the vehicles still parked inside. With nowhere to go, the wall of air thrust before the explosion would have been strong enough to toss ponies through the air like ragdolls, rupture arteries and probably compress a ponies chest so far it would break their ribs. ‘Seems you forgot about the clean-up’ my inner pony mentioned glumly.

“Francium! Francium! We need help in here! Shit!” I was startled out of my stupor by Minors panicked voice. “There are survivors, lots of them. They’re—” An explosion cut off Minors words before he simply yelled. “Fall back! Everypony fall back! Fall—” The transmission cut out in with a blast of distortion.

Shit!

“Everyone! The stable is in trouble. Did you hear that?” I launched myself over our little ridge and began to barrel towards the compound. Seafire and Xyalia were right on my tail. “Smoking, they need help.”

“We’re on our way.” Was all he said but it sounded like he was sprinting.

With nopony guarding the compound it wasn’t hard to find a pony sized gap in the rough metal construction to slip though. Holding Jury before me, I made my way cautiously through the wreck of the compounds tents and supplies. There were a few survivors, of sorts. They were alive but badly burned, lacerated or missing limbs.

A pair of ghouls were ravaging their way through the stomach of a raider who was impaled on a pile of scrap metal. To my horror I saw the buck coughing up blood and viscera as his lower intestines were devoured by the creatures.

Xyalia wasted no time, ending their lives with a swift motion of her bladed hooves into the back of their skulls, and didn’t even flinch as she drove both home into the heart of the dying raider. ‘If a mercy killing was ever appropriate, now would be the time...’

The area that had been burned by the blue fire crunched under hoof as we galloped across it. The fire had been so hot that it had turned any sand into little lumps of glass that cracked the moment you stood on them. Bodies were everywhere, the stench of burnt skin and scorched hair was overpowering, forcing me to breathe through my mouth to try and stop the smell. When I realised I was probably breathing flakes and particles of barbecued pony, I tried to stop breathing altogether.

“Did Mantis tell you the bomb was going to do this?” Seafire coughed as we ran. “I know they were slavers, but this is just horrible. I don’t know which is worse, this or the warehouse.”

‘Its a good job he didn’t, else I would have pulped his stallionhood.’ I fumed. “Right now we need to get inside the stable,” I replied fiercely, ignoring my inner ponies angry outburst. “I just hope the tunnel hasn’t collapsed.”

It hadn’t. Whoever had built it, probably Stable-Tec, had done a superb job. The entrance looked like a regular cave or tunnel, but it was just a façade hiding a combination of cast concrete panels with one inch rebar and steel support rings that, despite twisting and warping in the blast, were able to hold aloft the shattered and fractured roof.

There was nothing left of the tanker. The biggest piece I could see was the engine block. which was embedded up to the third row of cylinders of its V10 configuration in the concrete wall. The fuel container was nothing but rolls of twisted metal. Drive shafts were twisted back on themselves and there was no sign of the chassis at all except a network of melted silvery lines.

“Celestia buck me!” For a moment I was torn between which was more surprising. The lack of a vehicle or that Seafire had sworn. “It’s just gone.”

“Let’s keep moving.” I galloped through the debris to the edge of the stable door.

Shaped like a massive gear, the door had two hydraulic pistons to push it into its matching hole in the wall before being rolled sideways by a massive top mounted pinion. It was at least twice the diameter of Stable Seventeen’s door, perhaps more. Inspite of the massive explosion that had occurred just a few meters away, the door and its mechanism had little more than charing to show for the inferno that had enveloped it, a testament to Stable-Tec’s serious overengineering.

My PipBuck began to click. With the door now down, radiation was beginning to seep out of the stable, one rad per second wasn’t to dangerous, but I quickly chomped down on a RadX tablet to be on the safe side.

Crouched at either side, the three of us waited for the bucks to join us. It was hard to ignore the yells and sounds of gunfire from inside the stable but I knew the three of us would be easy targets if we just charged in. Looking around, I spotted the lone security camera Minor and I had been looking through less than twelve hours ago. It was charred but didn’t look broken, much like everything else around the door like the door control console which was covered in a thin crust of black soot.

Shuffling along towards it, I wiped away the grime from the controls to get a proper look. It was hard to tell, but if I was interpreting the mass of mangled wires looping out of the main compartment correctly, the door had been hot wired so that it would open. Somepony out there was good. Very good. As good as me, even. I tracked what wires I could to see what components had been bridged, checking the board configuration.

“They hacked the door,” I whispered to Seafire and Xyalia. “They tricked the door into thinking it had received an override from within the stable.”

“Does that help us at all?” Seafire asked, clutching her shotgun close to her chest.

“Not really. It’s just amazing that they found somepony with the skills.”

“Could they have done it by trial and error?” Xyalia asked.

“It’s possible but… what are you doing?” Xyalia was running the edges of her blades against the spine of the other over and over again, the short blades ringing with each strike.

“Sharpening them.”

“Friendly.” I turned to see Mantis, Smoking and Tungsten galloping as quietly as they could towards us. We all huddled on either side of the massive doorway listening to the carnage inside.

“Everyone check your weapons. Make sure you have at least two more reloads on hoof.” Smoking barked as he loaded a double barreled shotgun. “Security, have your backups ready too. We’ll split into two teams, one heads left, the other right. How we are split now is fine. Seafire and I are leads. We will be alternating our shots so fire when we reload and reload when we fire.”

“What about Xyalia?” Seafire asked fervently. “She is C-Q.”

“Stick with me,” He instructed the Zebra. “Take out anything that gets to close. Just make sure you don’t get hit.” Xyalia nodded then vanished with a hoof tap.

“Fran, Seafire take these.” Smoking tossed Seafire a bag from which she pulled six grenades. “Three each. Throw them all together with some scatter. Hit as many as you can.”

“I ought to stay back. My rifle is better at long range,” Mantis cut in.

“Fine, but keep up. Target the heavies. Alright, everypony on three.” Smoking slung the acquired shotgun on to his back and took his Blackhawk in his muzzle. “One. Two. Three.”

We broke cover. Smoking pressed forwards before me, heading to the close remains of a decimated chariot. Tossed up on its side by the explosion it was perfect cover for us both with Tungsten and with his battle saddle close behind. Breathing fast I snuck a look round the edge of cover at the battlefield.

Bodies were scattered everywhere, slaver, raider and ghoul alike. Scorched vehicles tossed from their pedestals mixed with shrapnel from the tanker left shards of razor sharp metal all across the floor. My eyes were drawn, however, to a massive craft that was piled up on top of the crushed carcass of a luxury limousine. The Military Vertibuck. Its paint smoldering, the windscreen obliterated, and the nearest corner shredded by shrapnel, it looked like its life was over. ‘Good thing too’ my inner pony added firmly.

Combat was concentrated around the door at the room's far end. Slavers crouched behind makeshift cover, and behind a substantial piles of ghoul cadavers, took pot shots through the doorway at the residents of Stable Twenty-Five. There had to be around two dozen survivors. Not many but more than enough to be giving Minor and his companions trouble. With no real training it was only a matter of time before they made a mistake. ‘You have no training either’ my inner pony cut in. ‘You just make it up as you go.’

Why did I have to remind myself?

Seafire caught my gaze and I pulled out my three grenades. Three nods later I breathed deep, tossed myself out of cover and engaged SATS. The meyhem froze, I acquired the three highest percentage targets in my field of view and let the grenades fly.

Ponies cried out as two grenades landed in prime positioned and promptly detonated. A mare in leather barding and toting a bolt action rifle, who’d begun a desperate leap to safety, was literally ripped limb from limb as the grenade exploded right beneath her. Her rifle flew through the air as her body was turned into a pink and red pulp in a fraction of a second.

Target two fared only marginally better as his heavily armoured body, some kind of power suit perhaps that supported twin automatic shotguns , deflected most of the blast. Stupidly the buck wasn’t wearing a helmet. His muzzle was torn off by the searing fragments leaving him clutching at his upper jaw, blood pouring from his exposed throat.

Seafire’s targets all exploded at the same time, their bodies convulsing as they were ripped apart by the shock wave and the wall of tiny frags that radiated out from each explosion. Five down in less than three seconds.

My third grenade missed its intended target of a crouching unicorn, wielding dual revolvers that were painted blood red to go with her blood red mohawk—I really doubted it was actually paint. The grenade bounced off and over her wagon-based cover and detonated in the middle of the doorway.

All gunfire stopped for a fraction of a second as everypony tumbled backwards to avoid the blast. In the confusion two heads exploded from high calibre rifle rounds before the slavers worked out they had more company.

I felt rounds ricochet off the field around my EVA suit before I managed to take cover again. Dust hung in the air from stray rounds as Smoking and Tungsten began to fire back but they couldn’t get off more than two shots before returning fire forced them back into cover.

“Fran, can that suit take a direct hit?” Smoking slammed home a new magazine. “You need to fire first. We can’t break cover otherwise.”

“What do I shoot at?”

“Anything, just make then get down. Surely that gun of yours has a suppression setting. Low power, high volume.”

I jumped straight into the options for Jury. Swarf was right, I had a ton of options. The presets were self explanatory, but none seemed to indicate they were any good at suppression. But one seemed it might be just as good, ‘Cover Breaker: High Energy, High Speed Shot, Slow Detonation with a delay to encourage detonation inside the target. Effective on metals and masonry.”

“Let me give this a try.” I checked the charge on Jury, breathed deep and swung up out of cover.

SATS locked the scene before me again. The Slavers had changed cover, moving closer to us and putting themselves out of sight of the doorway. Even in the chaos of battle the Slavers were good enough shots to be hitting our cover nine times out of ten. I set up four shots into the cover of three ponies and the prospective cover of another pair dashing through the open. The chances were all around the sixty percent mark but it was the best I could do. One final check, and I opened fire.

Two hits resulted in their targets scrambling for better cover, one miss sent up a plume of concrete fragments, the other hit a charging pony in the rump of her armour sending her spinning across the floor, injured but still dangerous.

Tungsten stood up and let fly with his battle saddle, the spray of fire was impressive but he was well out of effective range. Smoking got three good hits on a Slaver in a rusty power suit, but the rounds didn't even have him stumbling. Across from us, Seafire was now joined by Mantis who was firing shot after shot as fast as he could but only a few of the rounds found their targets. Xyalia was no where to be seen. That was until a pair of ponies that had been closing in on Seafire’s position to her left were suddenly slammed to the ground as an invisible force grabbed them by their necks. Xyalia must have moved on as both were left to bleed out messily from their throats.

“We need to get closer,” Smoking yelled as we continued to fire. “Fran, on your right!” I entered SATS and turned the flimsy cover of an overturned desk into splinters forcing the Slaver to rush back. “Good shot, damn.” Smoking toppled backwards with a face full of splinters as a round decimated the ornamental arm of the chariot. “These guys are good.”

“Seafire, give us covering fire. We’re going to advance.” Smoking commanded. “On three again. One. Two. Three.”

Our trio dashed out, aiming for the next vehicle. I blind fired Jury as I ran for my life. Rounds struck my suits shield. I stumbled and tripped, landing hard. Then my world turned upside down. The grenade tossed me forwards, end over end before I slammed into the cover I had been charging towards. My PipBuck went crazy when the suits shield failed. My head spun as I tried to pull myself the right way up. Smoking made the cover but barely, his left hind leg bleeding badly from numerous shrapnel wounds. Tungsten was no where to be seen.

“Fran! Fran, are you alright?” Smoking was groaning in pain but he didn’t seem to care. “You dropped Jury.” He kicked my gun towards me with his good leg. “Fran, answer me damn it!”

“I’m ok, but the repulsion field failed and isn’t charging. I’m not even getting a reading from the energy cell.” I turned back to look at the cell and groaned. My hard landing had bent my modified mount The cell was still in place, but it was no longer linking with the original deconstruction talisman socket. “Celestia buck me!”

“Can I help?” Smoking asked as he downed a healing potion. I watched the blood flow from his leg slow to a trickle before he bound it with a magical bandage. “If you cover me, I’ll try and get it back in place.”

I picked up Jury and turned my back to Smoking. Jury was fine despite having gained a few more scuffs and served me well by letting me lay down a stream of blind fire shots from my cover as Smoking tried to force the socket back into place.

“Thats it.” I yelled as the readings from the EVA suit sprang into life. “Still got enough charge to- Fuck!”

A pair of Slavers appeared right before me with their pistols pointed straight at my head. Both fired simultaneously, my head snapped backwards hard and was sprayed with blood as a pair of blades punched through the necks of both ponies. By the time I pulled myself up again, the Slavers were lying on the floor in a growing pool of blood and Xyalia was gone one again.

“That mare may be a Zebra, but damn she’s good.” Smoking added, “Your neck alright?”

“Yeah, just stiff.” I massaged it with a hoof trying to work some motion back into. Damn that hurt.

Smoking and Seafire began to lay down heavy altering fire, not giving the salvers a chance to raise their heads. With the cover this provided, Mantis moved up to join Seafire and was able to take his time lining up rifle shots, getting good hits on several slavers, but not being able to take them out of the fight entirely. Their training was giving the edge over our more numerous assailants but they wouldn’t be able to keep it up forever. I joined in with Smoking when I could, but with that initial rush over, we were now engaged in a tight fire fight and it would only be a matter of time before someone made a mistake.

“Tungsten,” I called on my PipBuck. “Can you hear me? Where are you?” If I could get to him, help him begin fighting again, it would help us all.

Relief broke over me at his voice but it didn't last long “Keep fighting Fran. I’m fine. I’m in cover.” He didn't sound fine at all. More like he was gritting his teeth in agony.

“Tun, where are you?”I was becoming more desperate. I brought up my EFS. A lone dot was off in the direction of a what looked like a combine harvester.

“Tucked in next to some big yellow vehicle. I told you, I’m fine. Just finish the fucking fight!” He gave a horrible groan and his transmission ended.

“Tun!” I snapped. “Damn it.”

“He’ll be all right Fran!” Smoking yelled. “He can handle himself.” I bucking well hoped he could.

“How is your leg holding up?” I yelled to him.

“I’m good. Bandage is doing its job. Can you get Minor on the radio, we need him to draw some fire. Try and get the slavers to turn…”

A massive explosion cut Smoking short, more concussive than a fireball. The ground lurched, and dust fell from the ceiling above us. The steel girders were holding out well, but I wondered how long it would be before something failed. With the repulsion spell back to full strength, I swung up out of cover again and made four wild shots before slipping into SATS. Only one of my manual shots hit home, but that wasn't what I was interested in.

Through the clarity of SATS, I watched a dozen Stable Twenty-Five ponies pressing through the door en-masse. The slavers had been forced to fight on two fronts and were scrambling for cover behind the combine harvester… where Tungsten was hiding.

“Shit.” Smoking realised at exactly the same moment I did. “Shit, shit, shit!”

My PipBuck snapped into life and I felt my blood run cold.

“If you don’t want your friends brains to be splattered all over the floor of this warehouse you are going to call off your stable friends!” The incoming male voice was from Tungsten’s PipBuck, but was definitely not his voice.

“Shit.” Smoking kicked the ground. Before getting back on his radio. “You kill him and we will slaughter every last one of you. He is only any use to you alive.” I watched on my EFS as a swarm of blue dots charged towards the red ones. “You don’t kill him and we don’t kill you.”

“You’re right, he is.” The buck replied. “Doesn't mean I can't…” Tungsten screamed as I heard the sound of snapping bone… “hurt—”

The other buck was cut short by what sounded like a hard hoof to the face before Tungsten’s panicked voice yelled over the radio.

“Kill him, kill them all! It’s him! The one Aramid told us about! It’s Storm. Electric blue, Red lightning b...urgh!” Tungsten grunted as some pony winded him. “Fuck you.”

“Shut up!” Storm barked. “Keep your fucking muzzle shut or I’ll break it off.” We heard Tungsten groan again, coughing and spluttering. “So then, what’s it going to be?”

Smoking and I exchanged a worried glance.

“Fran. Tell Minor to cease fire,” Smoking commanded. “Do it before I change my mind.”

I nodded, my mind empty. “Francium to Minor, cease fire, I repeat, cease fire.”

Slowly the cacophony of gunfire subsided to be replaced by the groaning of dying ponies and the trickle of blood.

“Good choice,” Storm’s voice announced with an air of smugness. “Now, what are you going to do next?”

Smoking slammed his hoof into the ground. “Fuck, what are we supposed to do! We can’t let him escape. We can’t!”

“He’ll kill Tungsten!” I snapped. “He slaughtered everypony else without a second thought. If we don’t let him go, he will kill Tun.”

“He’s one pony Fran. One pony against the rest of our stable.” Smoking glared at me determinedly. “I know he’d rather die than let this chance slip through our hooves.”

“Chance for what?” I shot back. “Storm won’t tell us anything. We need Tun more than we need him, and Tun would never want to die like this.”

“You haven’t spoken to him properly for weeks. You have no idea how he feels! This stopped being a formal mission a long time ago for him. It’s personal now.”

“What do you mean ‘personal’?” I asked, confused. “This is about our stable, our friends, our family. When was it not personal!”

“I’m waiting,” Storm’s magically amplified voice barked viciously. “Or do I have to help things along?” I heard Tungsten scream as another bone snapped.

“Kill him!” Tungsten yelled, his voice barely holding together. “Just kill him!”

“I told you to shut -Smack- Up! -Thump-” Storm yelled, his voice echoing in the now silent hall.

“Smoking, please!” I begged. “We need to help him. I don’t want him to die.”

“And you think I do?” Smoking replied fiercely. “If we let him go we lose any chance of knowing for certain where everypony is and how to get them back.”

“Trick him, stall him, anything. Just don’t let him kill Tungsten!”

Smoking stared at me for a moment, the internal turmoil visible on his face. I could tell he was out of his depth. All his training and all his experience in the stable was just too controlled, too safe in comparison to the real thing. And if he was out of his depth, the rest of us certainly were.

“Wait.”

Jury whipped round only to be pointing right at Xyalia’s muzzle. “Damn it, can you give me a warning?” I whispered sharply.

“Not really.” Xyalia replied, slightly confused as to what I was asking. “Its purpose is to surprise.”

“Fine. Wait, you said Wait? Why?”

“I believe I can free your friend. Just give me time to get in close. Draw them into the open. I can take them out. Be ready. Make sure you hit your targets.”

Before Smoking or I could respond, Xyalia vanished once more. I still couldn’t get over how perfect the invisibility was. In the movies there was always a little shimmer in the air or a slightly odd refraction that let the heroes defeat the evil monster. Thankfully, the metaphorical evil monster was on our side.

“Well?” I prompted. “Weapons down?”

After a long moment Smoking shook his head with a sigh. “I don’t want to, but I can’t see any alternative. We will just have to trust that she can pull it off.”

“Everyone, weapons down!” Smoking ordered. “Lower your weapons.”

He tossed his Blackhawk to the ground angrily, before stepping out into the open. I holstered Jury and nervously followed. Looking back as I did so, Minor and the rest of Stable Twenty-Five were still holding position behind the barricades just beyond the door. Minor gave me a ‘what are you doing?’ look, but I had to ignore him.

“Good choice,” Storm remarked coolly. “Now, come out slowly. If I see a single horn glowing… well, you get the idea.”

Slowly, Smoking and I moved out of over. A rough looking earth buck stood at the front, touting a twin rifle battle-saddle, followed closely by a pegasus mare in a suit of very menacing but rusted armour with an articulated stinger covering her tail. Seafire and Mantis walked over slowly, their movements tracked by the battle-saddle buck. I glanced at Seafire and just got a serious stare in return. They kept us all covered as Tungsten was dragged into view by the back of his security barding. A trail of blood followed from his legs that were lying limp and twisted, his whimpers and cries of pain drilling into my skull. How could I have let this happen?

Then he came. Storm. As tall and imposing as an earth pony could possibly be, his electric blue coat contrasted sharply with his battle scarred barding, the bolt on his flank the same red as the blood dripping from Tungsten’s smashed forelegs. His battle saddle seemed to be for some kind of energy weapon with the near side taken up with a trio of energy cells and what looked like a radiator with two large fans.

There was something else too, something off. The way he walked, how he stood, how the skin of his neck seemed a little too tight and how his muscles shifted unevenly.

Storm huffed dismissively at Smoking and I before turning his attention to Seafire and Mantis, the rest of the surviving slavers gathering around him. I counted just eight left, but there was no way that Xyalia could take them all down in one go. I should have told her to take down Storm first; too late now.

“Stop where you are.” Storm raised a hoof emphasise the command; too far for a charge but close enough that any weapons fire would hit its mark. He smirked at us, his snide expression a mixture of anger, smugness, and satisfaction. He looked arrogant. “I never realised that taking a few ponies could cause so much trouble.” He gave a crude laugh. “Seems you’re different from the usual breed of stable wimps. Very different. Laying waste to an entire compound, slaughtering over a hundred ponies, destroying ancient Equestrian artifacts. Are you sure you aren’t Zebras in disguise?”

No pony replied. Smoking was silently seething, the tension in his body growing as he forcibly kept his anger in check. Seafire’s glare was such that it was like she was willing Storm to spontaneously combust. Mantis just looked bitter, perhaps he was used to stand offs like this given his history. I, on the other hoof, had been distracted by his choice of words. Where was Xyalia?

“What do you want?” Smoking asked, his voice filled with a venom I’d never heard before. “Going to make us slaves as well?”

To my total astonishment, Storm’s laugh was filled with mirth.

“Ha! Are you serious? After everything you have done? I might as well be setting you free.” He shook his head with a humoured grin, somehow making me even angrier. “I doubt I’d make it a week before one of you took it upon yourselves to kill me and die a martyr for your cause. Not that I’d blame you, but needs must when the devil calls. You may have actually given me pause for thought. Maybe stables are too much trouble… then again…”

My eyes widened as as the gun at his side crackled into life, first in fear and then in shock. The barrel may have been triangular and the crystals emerald rather than sapphire, but there was no mistaking the design.

“Where did you get that!” I blurted out, taking everyone by surprise but I didn’t care “Tell me!”

“Oh, this old thing?” Storm smiled, as if we were talking over tea and biscuits. “Just something I picked up in my travels. She’s nice, fairly light weight, good rate of fire and ever so good at blowing apart anything that gets in my way. And even better, she has a name.”

“A name?”

“Oh, yes. Her name is Judge.” Storm laughed, his voice now sinister and malevolent. “And she, like everypony else here,” I took a step back as every other slaver readies their weapons, all aimed straight at us. “Is about to bring the hammer dow—”

Storm let out a blood-curdling scream. A crimson soaked blade pierced right through his neck. Two more ponies fell from strategically placed knife wounds before any pony reacted. I wrenched Jury out and dropped into SATS. Three shots screamed towards their targets caving in two heads and sending the third flying across the concrete floor.

Xyalia reappeared with a scream, her pendants chain breaking free, as one of Storms guards flailed wildly with his hoof mounted mace, catching her across the face. She slashed out with her hooves, cutting deeply into her assailants fore leg, bringing him down on top of herself. The four remaining slavers unleashed hell.

Driven backwards by the hail of fire from three assault rifles, my suit’s upgraded capacitors dropped like stones. I lurched backwards, out of the lead rain just in time. Smoking leaned out of cover and bit down on my tail, pulling me to safety only for both of us to be blown off our hooves by a deafening blue flash and a hail of concrete and dust.

“Storm’s back on his hooves!” Smoking yelled as he dragged himself back up. “How the fuck?”

Head bowed to avoid the ricochets and chunks of concrete whizzing over our heads, I slammed home another energy cell into Jury. ‘Think!’ I told myself. ‘Think! How can you end this?’

“Seafire, How you doing for ammunition?” I heard Smoking shout into his PipBuck. ‘Think!’

“Blackhawk is almost gone. A dozen rounds left for the Combat Shotgun.” Was the hurried reply. ‘Come on, something.’

‘Anything.’

“Cover me!” I yelled into my own radio. “I’m going to try something.”

“Like what?”

“This!”

I leapt out from behind the concrete plinth. Slipping into SATS, I sent one shot straight into Storm’s leg making him fire his own LAW weapon straight into the ground and blasting yet another crater in the floor, another four sent his henchmares scattering as I deliberately aimed at the ground beneath their hooves. This brought me the time to focus my horn and pull a vacuum around each of their heads.

I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want the one spell I was good at to become a weapon. But I didn’t have a choice. In that moment, it was such an obvious course that it seemed ridiculous that I’d never viewed magic as a goto tactic before.

Rather than their heads exploding, all four ponies gagged and gasped for air, their lungs collapsing inside their chests, before toppling to the ground, clutching at their ears. I pressed forward, flinging their weapons away with magic before they could regain their composure. Storm looked up from the ground, his bloodshot eyes narrowing to focus on the barrel of Jury, mere inches from the bridge of his muzzle.

“Move, and I will end you!” I hissed. To make my point I dialed Jury up to maximum, making the gems glow and spark with energy. “Don’t think I won’t.”

Seafire, Smoking and Mantis closed in behind me. Three swift rifle buts to the head had all Storm’s remaining backup out for the count. Xyalia finished off the buck lying on top of her by breaking his neck with her bare hooves, the crunch of bone echoing in the silence as we stood over Storm.

“Seafire, cuff him,” Smoking ordered, keeping his gun trained on Storms head. “We will talk again soon.” He shot derisively at the buck. “But first, we have wounded to attend to.”

* * *

In the early hours of the morning, I found myself sitting outside, atop the remains of the stables tunnel entrance, watching the clouds turn blood red as the sun roze behind the Platinum ridge line; a red dawn for all the blood spilled that night.

When Helix had burst into Stable Twenty-Five’s infirmary, she stopped dead at the sight of her brother. “Wh-what happened?” She’d stammered as she looked down at her brother’s smashed body. “How?”

“Helix, this isn't the time,” Smoking pressed, trying to get her to focus. “He has three broken knees, shrapnel wounds to his left leg and some broken ribs.”

With a gulp, Helix had nodded slowly and got to work. We watched as she and Foxglove carefully cut away each piece of Tungstens barding. All the while Tungsten grunted and groaned, trying in vain to hide his agony.

My EVA suit lay beside me as I stretched out on my saddlebags, looking down on the smouldering wreck of the Slaver compound. At some point, this whole mess would have to be cleared up, the wall probably consolidated and shrunk to make a proper defensive fortification. ‘Something without holes’ my inner pony suggested dully. We could probably count on Swarf and his dad to help us set up some decent defensive weapons to replace the ancient machine guns and single flame thrower overlooking the main gate.

But all that was some time away. Right now, Helix was still working to save Tungsten. Surprisingly, keeping him alive wasn’t difficult, but giving him back his life was.

“Storm bucked his legs so hard he shattered each metacarpus, both his front radiuses, and turned his campus into splinters,” Helix had sobbed uncontrollably into my shoulder just outside the infirmary. “It’s a miracle he didn’t bleed out internally there and then.”

“But he’s alive. You have time to make sure he can fully recover. He’s going to live.”

“I can’t fix them!”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t fix the bones!” Helix wailed. “They’re in too many pieces. Maybe I can heal his rear leg but his front ones are just…” She couldn’t finish. She’d collapsed against the wall and slipped down into a ball, crying silently.

The only upside I could think of was that Storm was going to pay for what he’d done. I’d argued at first, when Mantis and Smoking had wanted to torture him for information. It was one of the few things that made us different from Raiders and Slavers. But, eventually, I decided it was the lesser evil. The information he could give us could save not only our stable but many other ponies in the region. It was one life against many. Quite what they had in mind, I didn’t really know, then again, I’m not sure I could stand knowing exactly what they had planned.

Taking a long steadying breath, I decided to check out my newest weapon. When I’d first picked it up my PipBuck had identified Storm’s weapon as Judge, just as he’d said, probably thanks to the software from Jury’s memory orb. How that twisted buck had gotten his hooves on the thing, I had no idea, but now it was in mine. I was sure I could make better use of it than he could.

Getting to my hooves, I slipped the main harness around my tummy and buckled it in place. There were additional straps that went up to my neck to distribute any backlash across my shoulders and a strap that went between my hind and back up to the end of my spine to stop the weapon rolling from side to side. For now, I let them dangle as I lifted the weapon off the ground and clipped each part into its respective mount.

The main gun looked like a scaled up, tri-barreled version of Jury. The rail of gems was almost as long as I was, going from my cutie mark all the way to my forelegs. I suspected that this thing had a substantial range, even if it was intended as a shotgun. Along the main body of the gun barrel, there were several copper blocks linked by heavy-duty braided piping, similar to various hydraulic units back in Stable Seventeen. All these linked to a large block at the back of the gun were there was space for not one, but five energy cells. Lastly more heavy-duty flexible conduits ran over my back and to a unit on the other side. Here were three additional energy cells and a pair of radiators that looked like they had been taken directly from a Stable-Tec computer.

“Quite a weapon that.” Smoking settled himself down on a nearby lump of concrete, looking up at the sky with the same saddened and exhausted expression I supposed I had done. “I thought I should let you know, Helix has done all she can for Tungsten, but it doesn’t look good.”

“I know. She said she was worried if he would ever walk again,” I mumbled back. “Is that still the case?” Smoking just nodded. “Where is she?”

“Just scrubbing down I think. I said we’d all meet outside in about half an hour to discuss our next move.” Smoking sighed deeply, his eyes closed, feeling the growing warmth on our skins. “Looks like today will be a good day. No rain, no wind, and what little sun can make it through.”

Neither of us spoke for a few minutes, trying to enjoy the weather without thinking about everything that had happened.

“Francium, why did you split up with Tungsten... back in the Stable, I mean?” Startled, my head snapped towards Smoking. “I mean, I know his side of the story but I want to know what you felt.”

“I think that’s private,” I managed to reply, still surprised that Smoking had asked the question.

“And I think that you need to talk to Tungsten about it, because he is in a right mess over you and Helix. And not for the reasons you might think.”

“What do you mean?” Ice washed through my veinsvains. “We talked about it when he found out about us, I mean not very well but…”

“You call him storming out on the both of you a ‘talk’?” Smoking replied with a raised eye.

“No but…”

“Fran. Just go talk to him.” Smokings tone caught me off guard. Was he begging? “Trust me, it’ll do you both some good.” He sighed again, staring at the muted sunrise. A few minutes of slightly awkward silence passed before he spoke up again. “How’s your new weapon?”

“Ummm.” My mind had drifted completely and it took a moment for me to corral my thoughts back into a coherent mass. “It’s a serious step up, I know that. Its got eight energy cells, five for the weapon and three for what I assume is the cooling system.” I turned around, showing Smoking the gun and all the fans. “I’d like to fit something to protect the radiators if I can. They’re very vulnerable on the side here.”

“Won’t the repulsion field from your EVA suit protect them?”

“I’m not sure I’d want to wear this and my EVA suit. It’s quite heavy, despite what he said,” I just couldn’t mention his name. “I wouldn’t be able to wear my saddle bags either.”

“I’m sure you could rig something up.” Smoking smiled. “Although have you seen what was under that tarp that we were going to blow up?”

“No.”

“Well it’s a good job we didn’t blow it to pieces.” Smoking stood. “Come on, Pass me your bags and I’ll show you.”

After crunching our way across the glassy and blacked compound’ Smoking dropped my bags from his back onto one of the few intact crates, took the tarp in his teeth and pulled. I felt my eyes widen and a massive grin spread across my face.”

“I have no idea what shape she is in.” Smoking added as he stepped back from the Vertibuck. “But I’m sure you and the ponies of Stable Twenty-Five can get her flying again.” We grinned at each other. “If she flies then she’ll make our lives a lot easier.”

“The stable inventory listed two Vertibucks.” I moved in to examine the machine. “And Swarf mentioned they had another in a different colour too. This must be a civilian machine, designed for VIP’s and dignitaries or some such. Heavily armoured with no armament but far more agile. This would be so much better than hoofing it everywhere. I bet the military one is a write off, good thing too. It’s best that nopony has that kind of firepower.”

“That it would.” Smoking’s laugh felt forced, but his smile seemed genuine enough.

“It looks like it’s in good shape.” I wandered around the exterior of the ship, taking in the unusual mix of top-of-the-line engineering and historical styling. “All the control surfaces look like they’re free of dirt and debris. I’m surprised how stumpy the wings are though.” I looked round at Smoking who was running a hoof over one of the two port thrusters. “Do you think it could be VTOL?”

“So far as I know, I don’t think we ever made a craft that wasn’t.”

“Do you know much about aircraft?”

“I used to love reading about it when I was a foal. Had all the die-cast models I could get my hooves on. But yeah, my knowledge is pretty good. If memory serves me right, each of these thrusters produces around one hundred kilonewtons of thrust. It varies slightly depending on the strength of the pegasi in control. I’m sure this thing could lose two of these engines and still stay airborne. It’d handle like a pig, but you could land safely.”

“It looks like this one’ll need some work,” I called from the other side. “The thruster on its front, starboard side, yeah, starboard. Anyways, looks like it’s taken some shots from something pretty big. Damn.” I bent down to look into the hole. “It goes all the way through… wait… There are no blades in here.”

For a second I expected Smoking to come storming round and examine the clearly broken engine, but all I got was an amused chuckle.

“Fran, these don’t use jet engines. They use storm clouds.”

‘They use what now?’

Smoking chuckled again at my stunned silence.

“Early on, most flying vehicles relied on spreading a pegasus’ natural flying magic through some kind of frame they pulled along behind them. This, however, meant that you were limited by the innate magic of a pegasi as to how much you could lift. In effect, it did little more than just make it easier to carry things rather than actually enhancing their magical ability.

“This was until some bright pony decided to use a pegasus’ ability to manipulate cloud to create the thrust for a vehicle rather than using their flying magic. By using gems to power storm clusters contained within magical field of a pegasus’ cloud manipulation magic, they found they could get ten or more times the power to weight ratio than they had before. From that point, it was just a case of refining the designs to make them more efficient so that the gems would last longer.”

All I could think to do was shrug. “And I thought my mother was joking when she said that.”

Getting back round to the cockpit again, I decided to head inside. Carefully I opened the door which swung up to leave a tight but pony sized hole. Just before I was about to leap up into the cabin, a small set of steps slid down from the sill of the craft, allowing me to easily ascend inside. ‘Neat’ my inner pony nodded.

The interior of the Vertibuck was not what I was expecting. It looked so, dated. All the lights were incandescent, not LED’s, the heavy tubed glass only surviving this long due to its over engineered thickness and massive filaments hanging low on their wires. The styling looked like the stuff that was made at the very beginning of Equestria’s technological boom, lots of style for styles sake, almost lavish. Chrome plated buttons and switches, lots of elongated rectangular profiles, symmetry and patterns even when it actually made things take an awkward layout. It also looked like the pony who had designed many of the light profiles and toggles had a fascination with rockets.Many of the fixtures looked like they might shoot off the dashboard at any moment. It was a real contrast to the outside.

“Damn…” Smoking exclaimed. “This is… extravagant.”

“Yeah…” I could only nod in agreement. “Not what I was expecting at all. The outside is so simple, even refined.”

“Private vehicle I suppose. Discrete exterior and a ‘personal’ interior,” he said it like he disapproved. “Anyway, let’s get back inside, we can check this out in more detail later. Gracious called a Stable meeting, we best be there.”

* * *

The six of us gathered around the circular table in Stable Twenty-Five. I remembered my last visit here, under very different circumstances. Helix and I sat close together, with Seafire and Foxglove to our left and Smoking and Mantis to our right. Across from us, Gracious sat with her son. I noticed that, of the ponies that made up the council, there were a few missing. Of those present, some supported bandages or small cuts. Indicia had a substantial wrapping on her lower leg, her mane singed at the ends along with many other ponies.

“I’d like to begin by thanking our new friends.” Gracious’ smile was warm and genuine, if still slightly pained. “It has been a difficult night for all. We have suffered both pain and loss…” She paused a moment, a conscious decision to reflect or an unconscious stray thought, I couldn’t tell, but, after a moment, she resumed with confidence. “But we have gained friends, freedom, and removed a menace from our new world. I can tell many of you are angry at tonight's events, wishing we had done nothing, but I genuinely we believe we did the right thing.”

“Here, here,” Indicia called, her support for Gracious raising a quiet consensus and even a few mumbled apologies.

I squirmed, the discussion around me taking a back seat in my mind, uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t put my hoof on. Perhaps because we’d had our own motivations for freeing Stable Twenty-Five. Not that our goals were complete opposites, but it wasn’t like we’d done it entirely out of the goodness of our hearts. Then again, the fact that we’d helped complete strangers was probably enough.

Thinking hurts.

Letting out a long sigh, half sad, half sleepy, I felt Helix resting a comforting hoof on my shoulder and nuzzled it affectionately. Well, it wasn’t all bad right now. I had my Helix back, my friends were all alive, and, with Storm and his slavers pretty much annihilated, we’d not only helped Stable Twenty-Five, but Viewpoint, High-Voltage and the region as a whole. Swarf and his father wouldn’t have to live in fear any more.

But…

Tungsten.

I stared at my hooves on the table, pondering the swirling enigma of my emotions. It was a mess. He was a mess. Our whole relationship seemed to exist solely to cause us pain in one way or another. I couldn’t say it was all my fault—that’d be silly—but, perhaps, if I’d considered my actions, or my choice of words, our tenuous friendship wouldn’t feel like it was held together with bandages and plasters, covering up both figurative and literal wounds.

“Fran?”

“Hmmm?”

“Francium.”

I started, quickly looking up. Everyone seemed to be expecting me to say something.

“Well?” Indicia prompted. “Will you help us fix the Vertibuck?”

“Oh! Yeah, yeah, of course.” I waved my hoof casually, trying to cover my inattentiveness. “Smoking and I gave it a quick look over earlier, and it looked alright.”

My mind slipped again as the room resumed its discussion. Right now, despite our massive success, I couldn’t help but feel like we were in way over our heads. And this was just the beginning. We’d have to do this again, or come up with some other brilliant plan. We couldn’t rely on a convenient horde of ghouls to wipe out the slavers and raiders. Next time we’d be in their territory, under their noses, and under their guns. and we would be further from any kind of help than before, possibly even more outnumbered and cold and tired and sleepy and…

That’s a lot of “and”s.

When the meeting ended, it took me a moment to even realise everypony else had left. Only our little group stayed behind, probably waiting for me to move from my spot.

“Fran?” I heard my love ask cautiously. “Are you alright?”

For a moment I was tempted to say ‘yes,’ but given it would be obvious I was lying, I opted to shrug noncommittally; at least this way it wasn’t a yes or an actual answer. A slow glance up revealed that that wasn’t going to cut it. Helix was looking concerned but patient, Smoking and Mantis looked pensive, while Seafire and Foxglove looked just as exhausted. Only Xyalia seemed unphased, standing patiently by the door.

If the residents of Stable Twenty-Five were shocked by the presence of a Zebra they’d concealed it well. They hadn’t batted an eye since she entered. Either they genuinely didn’t mind her being there or they were pointedly and perfectly ignoring her; I really hoped it was the former. Come to think of it, with a Zebra now seemingly permanently in our group for reasons I had yet to find out, things could get a little trickier, or better.. or… I had no idea; I’d only known her for all of eight hours.

“Fran?”

“Huh?” I lurched in response, my tangential thought train derailed. “Yeah?”

“Are you even paying attention?” Helix asked with a tone that wouldn’t be out of place talking to a filly caught with her hoof on the cookie jar.

“I don’t know… what did you ask?”

“Are you alright?” Helix repeated soothingly.

“Hmmm, I suppose.” ‘I’m alive and relatively unscathed, but I have no home and have just been involved the mass slaughter of ponies, even if they were bad ponies… it’s a mixed bag.’

“Come on. Let’s get some rest.” Helix used her magic to heave me out of my seat, forcing me to support my own weight lest I simply crumple to the floor. “In fact, how long have you been up?”

I thought for a moment. “Ummm, I can’t remember. I was up all night, I slept really badly last night, combine that with Shade’s thing, whatever that was, and spending all day working on getting the stable ready and…”

“Too long.”

My love cut across my gabbling and began to guide me out of the room. Huh, it seemed I was so tired that I hadn’t even realised I was tired, or maybe so focused on what we’d done that I’d completely forgotten I was a living, breathing pony that needed sleep in order to function.

A glance at the bedside clock informed me that it was approaching midday, angry red numbers bright and glaring. I ignored it, spun it around as I flopped into my bed and scooched up under the familiar feeling covers, finally able to let my body relax. Helix slipped in next to me. Her hooves slid around me and pulled me close, her body heat and her slow breathing kissing the back of my neck helped me slip quickly into my deepest sleep in weeks.

* * *

I was awoken by a sound I couldn’t place. It was almost like a hiccup mixed with a groan. Perplexed, I waited a moment incase it happened again, trying to pinpoint its location without moving. There is was again. I began to turn over to see of Helix had been woken by it too, but she wasn’t there.

Sitting up, I glanced at the clock and did a double take. Four AM. I’d slept for sixteen hours. Setting that fact aside, I slipped out from under the covers, looking around.

“Helix?” I called.

There was a sudden clunk from the bathroom.

“Helix?” I repeated cautiously. “Is that you?”

“Hmmhmm.” It sounded like Helix, but she sounded… off. “I… I’m in here,” she called after a pause.

Entering the bathroom, my heart tried to take off at a gallop and stop cold all at once. Helix was leant up against the wall next to the toilet, clutching her stomach. A glance into the bowl revealed she had been sick, bile and half digested food splattered all over the bowl. Wiping the spit from her mouth with the back of her hoof, she turned her eyes to mine, her breath ragged, tears staining her muzzle, and eyes red and puffy.

But through all that, she smiled when she saw me, a genuine, loving, caring, ecstatic smile.

“Francium, I… I’m pregnant.”

My brain stopped. My heart stopped. Everything stopped.

“Pardon?” I said, more to give my brain time to think than because I didn’t hear, or maybe I did hear incorrectly. What did she say?

“I’m pregnant, Fran. I have been for some time.” My love’s voice was level and calm, if a little laboured. Her eyes stared straight into mine. “I… I know that I shouldn’t have hidden it, but when we were forced out of the Stable, part of me thought we would be dead in a week anyway… but as things rolled on and became more and more difficult and more dangerous I… I didn’t want to burden everypony, or worry them, or you… so I kept quiet. The medication your mum developed to stave off morning sickness was all that was keeping me going. But I ran out last night and now… well…”

Helix lay there, her chest rising gently, methodically, but breathing for two.

“Why…” was all I could muster.

“I don’t know why I hid it… well, I do, but I can explain why I did the stupid thing and concealed…”

I waved my hoof dismissively. “No no… I get it… I understand… sort of... I just… when did this happen?”

“You mean when did I get inseminated?”

“Ummm, I don’t know.” I stared at Helix, still trying to work out what she was trying to convey. “I suppose so.”

A few days after we began work on the new piping the gene mapper spat my name out, it took a few days to collect the sample from the father and then it happened.”

“You got pregnant?” I asked again, just to make sure I wasn’t hearing things.

Helix nodded, concern growing on her face. “Well… of course.”

I nodded slowly, my mind going a mile a minute but coming up with nothing. Eventually, I settled for, “Do you know who the father is?”

Helix slowly shook her head. “No, the mapper sent the results to Cosmos. I chose not to know.” She suddenly clutched at her tummy, looking like she was going to throw up again, I rushed to her side and pulled her close.

“I’m here. I’m here for you.” I clung to her as tightly as I could, but always conscious of avoiding her stomach. “Whatever you need, I’m here.”

“A… a glass of water would be nice.” Helix smiled. “And painkillers, if you some. Nothing too strong though.”

Reluctantly, I broke my grip to find what Helix needed. The water was easy, the painkillers a little harder. Eventually, I had to dig to the bottom of my own bags where they seemed to have fallen out of the first aid kit. As I propped the bag back up, I noticed several new holes, seemingly torn by shrapnel. I wondered how they’d been caused and just how close I’d come to having my side sliced apart by shrapnel. I was thankful Helix had not been in that battle, if something had happened I would have been… broken. And now that I knew she was pregnant, it just made me both more thankful and far more worried.

I pushed the thought aside and returned to my love. Like any informed medical professional, Helix drank the water slowly and swallowed the two ibuprofen pills with care.

“Was this morning sickness?” I asked quietly, still not quite believing what I had just heard, as if more infomation would make it more realistic.

Helix nodded. “I knew my mum was pretty bad with it and it seems I’m just like her. I ran out of anything to throw up very quickly, so I’ve been dry heaving for almost half an hour… I’m surprised you didn’t hear me.”

“I think I did, eventually,” I replied, the response being rather automatic. “Is this going to happen every day? And at this time?”

“It shouldn’t, but I’ll have no way of predicting it... so it would be safer to assume it will.”

“But it will pass right?” I asked, my voice taking on a desperate tone. “You can’t be like this all the time.”

“I won’t be, it will ease off, should be over in a few more weeks.” Helix placed a caring hoof on my cheek. “I’m alright Fran, not perfect, but alright. I promise you. So you can stop looking as bad as I do.” I looked into the mirror and laughed at the pale, worried face that I saw there. Helix was right, I looked just as bad as she did, and I didn’t have a foal inside me.

“Ok… I’ll stop worrying, for now.” I leant down and kissed her on the forehead. “But first, let me clean you up. Run a bath and I will be back in a moment to help you wash.” Helix looked like she was going to protest but shut her mouth and simply nodded, smiling gently.

In the kitchen, I set about making us both a light breakfast—there was no way I would be getting back to sleep now—taking my time and making sure everything was nicely presented and well made. Toast with some kind of jam—the jar didn’t specify what—two cups of fresh tea, and a packet of dried peaches to go on the side: it wasn’t brilliant, but it was good enough.

Helix was adding some bubble bath liquid to the gently steaming water when I returned. She seemed to not notice me right away, eyes focused on the bloom of bubbles spreading from where the falling jet hit the surface of the water. Taking a quiet moment, I watched my love more closely. I hadn’t seen her much in the past five days, what with dropping down an elevator shaft and… everything else, but, now that I was able to look at her, it was clear she wasn’t quite the Helix I was used to seeing.

Her barrel was definitely larger than normal, her coat slightly stretched, revealing the darker tone of her skin underneath, with her back curving down a fraction further from the additional weight building inside her. I was surprised how subtle it was. I wondered how I hadn’t noticed before but considering we were usually wearing our barding and saddle bags I could see why I had missed these changes. Things would have moved on in the last five days too since I last got a good look at her so, thankfully, I agreed with myself that it was fine that I hadn’t spotted it sooner.

“What are you looking at?” My eyes snapped to Helix’s, a slight twist of worry on her face. “Is something wrong?”

I sighed and smiled. “No, nothing, just admiring you.” I leaned in and gave her a gentle kiss which she returned lovingly, a murmur of happiness escaping her lips. “I brought us some breakfast. I thought I could feed it to you while you relaxed.”

Helix nodded approvingly. “Mmmm, I’d like that. I would say it’s a little early for breakfast but I can’t see either of us getting back to sleep.”

After a quick temperature test with her hoof, Helix turned off the taps and climbed slowly into the steaming, bubbly water. Once she was comfortable, she carefully rolled over to lay her back, her head and hooves poking out of the water, and her mane and tail floating gently to the surface amongst the sea of bubbles. I took a small jug in my magic, filled it with hot water from the bath and began to carefully pour it over Helix’s head, wetting her mane while making sure it didn’t run into her eyes.

“Assuming it will be a filly.” Helix breathed contently as I slowly massaged and worked the familiar smelling Stable-Tec shampoo into her mane and scalp. “What would you like to call her?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really given that kind of thing any thought,” I said, enjoying the smile and gentle murmurs of pleasure I was coaxing from Helix as I worked. “I suppose it comes down to if you consider her yours or ours.”

“Of course she’s ours,” Helix answered resolutely. “You’ll be there for her just as much as I will. She may not be related to you biologically, but I saw Lillypad as my daughter until…”

‘Until she was kidnapped amongst a mass murder and carted off to be a slave.’ my inner pony filled in. Shut up, I thought back. It took Helix a moment to compose herself before she continued.

“She was still the closest thing I had, and she will be again when we get her back.”

“What did you have in mind then?” I asked, trying to move the conversation away from that hiccup. “Her race might have an influence, and you won’t know that until she is born.”

“I could find out if I was able to get under a Stable-Tec scanner, both gender and race, but that won’t be for another twelve weeks at the earliest, fourteen realistically. But I don’t really want that to influence me too much, unless it’s a real miss match.” Helix pondered for a moment as I washed the shampoo from her mane which was now knot free and as glossy as silk. “What other elements are there you could use, both you and your mother were named after alkali metals, maybe there is another in that list that could work.”

“Well, it goes Lithium, Sodium, Potassium, Rubidium, Caesium, Francium. Lithium is the least reactive and Francium is the most. All react when exposed to water, anything below Rubidium reacts explosively.”

“Good job you didn’t get in the bath then isn’t it.” My love jibed, eliciting a giggle from me. “Rubidium sounds nice though. Hmm, what else could we use?”

“There are ninety-eight known elements, and a further twenty theorised, take your pick.” I laughed. “What about something biological to match her mother?”

“I have been thinking ever since Cosmos told me I was next, but I haven’t been able to come up with anything I really liked.” Helix sighed as I instructed her to turn round onto her hooves so I could wash her tail and begin to scrub her back. “The fun ones or the important ones are usually too hard to say, and I don’t want to have ponies struggle to even say my daughters name. That could be cruel.”

“What are those four things that make up DNA?” I asked, gently working out a particularly tight knot in Helix’s tail.

“You mean the nucleotides, like my mum was named after?”

“Ummmmm… no idea, well, yeah, I remember Adenine.”

Helix nodded quietly. “Well the others are Guanine, Thymine, and Cytosine, none of which are really suitable names.”

“No, they’re not. Umm, how about something more traditional? I mean, we’re no longer living in a scientific stable, perhaps it would be nice to choose something more historical?”

“You mean like Twilight or Celestia?” Helix laughed. “I think that might be a little presumptuous.”

“Well, kind of, though not that high profile.” I giggled. “Something more low key or obscure perhaps, but still important.”

I pondered for a while, enjoying the pleasurable murmurs from Helix and the tranquility that was slowly taking hold of both of us. As strange as it was, I was happy now. Yes, this threw up huge complications, but right now, I didn’t care. With only the gentle splashing of water to be heard, Helix and I both ate our toast and drank our tea before I had fun feeding Helix the dried peaches one at a time, floating them before her so she could nibble on them.

“On a more difficult note,” I grimaced slightly, “when are you going to tell the others?”

“I’ve already told Tungsten.” My love rolled gently onto her back again, her hooves just visible above the waterline. “Though I may have to tell him again. He was rather high on anti-pain medication when I told him. I suppose in a way that’s why I told him, because I wasn’t sure if he would remember, like practice.”

“And the others?”

Helix’s ears drooped. “If I tell them, they aren’t going to let me leave this stable. They might want me to return to Viewpoint, but they would never let me come with you.”

“I… think...” ‘I think I need to think things through before I say anything.’

“You think…?” Helix prompted.

“The last thing I want is you getting hurt. Ever. I would choose you over the foal any day, without hesitation. But I want to be by your side, and I don’t want you to be left behind.” I tapped my hooves together nervously.

“Those don’t all sound like mutual goals.” To my surprise Helix giggled.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing, you just look cute when you worry.”

Helix squealed as I splashed water at her.

“But yeah, I know, I can’t have all of that.”

“You could stay here with me. Help fix up Stable Twenty-Five, get the barricades sorted, fix the reactor…”

“Yeah, I know, but I feel I should be out there helping get our stable back.”

“But it’s not your fault, we have been through this before.” Helix’s voice was very firm and resolute, as if daring me to object. “None of you who were out there responsible. Accidents happen.”

“I… I know…” I knew she was right but… “I just can’t get rid of that feeling like I messed up somewhere. I was the last pony to work on Pump Three. What if I made a mistake? What if I let the orchard get infected? What if…”

Helix pressed a damp hoof to my lips, silencing me. “If that’s the case then it doesn’t matter anyway. You can’t change what’s happened any more than I can go back and not get pregnant. Do. Not. Worry. About. It.” Helix held my gaze with a firm, dominant stare. “I mean it. I won’t have you worrying about what could or couldn't have happened, or how things might have panned out. It’s in the past. It can’t be changed. For me Fran, accept it and move on, Please.”

After a moment I simply nodded. “Ok… you win.”

Helix settled herself back in the bath, a slightly smug look on her face. “Yeah, I always win.” She winked.

I considered protesting, but found myself grinning reluctantly instead. “Yeah, you do.”

Helix giggled again then slipped her head under the water, emerging after a moment, her mane clinging to the contours of her shoulders and framing her face. Perching her chin on the side of the bath she stared at me. “I love you Fran.” She whispered after a moment, batting her eyelashes.

“You know what.” I leaned in, resting my nose against hers, looking deep into her beautiful eyes. “I love you too.” Getting to hooves I caressed her muzzle before turning to head out the door.

“Hey, where are you going?” Helix asked, pouting.

“I just need a minute.” I smiled back. “Nothing to worry about.”

Arriving back in the bedroom I collapsed back onto the tangled mass of sheets, gazing unseeingly up at the ceiling. I knew I had just had a very long conversation about it, talked about names, talked about what we would do next, but the reality of it all was only just beginning to dawn on me.

“Helix is pregnant.” I said to myself. “Helix… Is… Pregnant. With a foal. Here in Stable Twenty-Five. She is…” I leapt from the bed, galloped to the bathroom and slammed the door open? Helix looked at me bewildered, but I had only one thing on my mind.

“You’re pregnant!"


Footnote: Level Up!

Act 2 - Chapter 14: Towers & Tunnels

View Online

Chapter 14: Towers & Tunnels
“If you want to banish me and then lock me in a cage in the place you banished me to then that’s what I deserve.”

Sky. Such a simple word for something so complex. One word that combined so many things. Sky was light. It was night. It was storms, rain, wind and sun. Well, yes technically each of those was made up of a myriad of other effects but combined they made up something that had such an impact on the lives of ponies in the wasteland.

And somepony had decided to reduce all that to a three letter word.

Shifting in the reclined and plushly padded chair, I turned from my port side window to look around the luxurious, if very outdated, cabin of the Vertibuck. Situated at the back of the cabin, Foxglove and Seafire were playing a game of checkers on a glass and hardwood coffee table in the center of a semicircular sofa; finished in a very deep red fabric that I assumed was velour. In front of me, Mantis snored loudly, his head lolling back in a fully reclined leather chair just like mine. Smoking stared out of a window as he leant against a small minibar, complete with fridge and mini-stove, finished in the same glass and hardwood as the coffee table, watching the wasteland wizz by below us. Xyalia stood placidly watching Foxglove and Seafire play, her lithe zebra physique absorbing the occasional bump or jolt of turbulence with ease. Lastly, I glanced to my left at Helix, curled up and sleeping peacefully on a wide shezlong type affair which was cantilevered off the wall of the cabin and finished in the same red fabric as the sofa. At this angle, her distended tummy was well pronounced and filled me with a strong pang of guilt.

I knew she shouldn’t be with us, I knew she should be back at Stable Twenty-Five, probably looking after Tungsten and taking it easy, but here she was. I still wasn’t sure how she had convinced me to let her come and not to hoof cuff her to the bed. Something about making sure she stayed out of harm's way, being needed as the best doctor or physician in the whole wasteland, and how she couldn’t sit by and not help us save our stable.

Tearing my eyes away, I examined the rest of the cabin interior. Finished in a mix of hardwoods and brushed metal accents, the retro styling it was very comfy and luxurious. It was a shame it was probably going to get ruined with mud and scratched by weapons, but we needed it.

Getting up from my seat, I wandered past Smoking toward the flight room at the front of the craft and slipped inside. This was very different. Everything here looked like it had been lifted straight from the military version of the vehicle. Heavy duty buttons and switches, all large and chunky so that they could be easily hit with a hoof or a wing. They even had small raised dots on every one so that a unicorn could feel and identify switches in the dark. But there was only one way to make the machine fly, and that was with a pegasus.

Minor Wings was strapped into the mechanical harness, gently beating his wings to control the aircraft, flying us through the sky. We were only fifty meters or so off the ground, nowhere near the maximum height the machine could achieve judging by the altimeter, but it was high enough to avoid obstacles and immediate gunfire and low enough to land quickly if there was a problem. This was less about problems with the Vertibuck and more about Minor getting used to flying.

“Hey.” I announced in a low voice, closing the sliding door behind me with a soft click. Minor just nodded, keeping his attention on the controls and world outside. Standing the co-pilots zone I observed the wasteland beneath us passing by, tapping my hoof slowly. “So. How are thing going?”

“Fine.” Minor replied, still focusing on the horizon.

“Good.” I nodded glancing around at the dials. “Need any help?”

“No. Thank you. I’m good.”

“Need any food.”

“No.”

“Anything to drink?”

“N—yes actually.” Minor paused. “There is a sparkle cola in my bags there on the floor.”

“Sure.” I smiled, glad for something to do.

“How are things in the back?” Minor asked as I pulled out the bottle, popping the cap and slipping the newly minted currency into his bag. “It’s very quiet.”

I nodded, floating up the bottle with a piece of medical tube to act as a straw. “I think that's partly because the bulkhead and door are enchanted to reduce noise, just like our tents were, and because there isn’t much happening. Mantis and Helix are asleep. Smoking is silently watching the world go by, Seafire and Foxglove are playing a game of checkers at the back and Xyalia is watching them. But I bet they will all need to sleep again soon enough.”

“What about you?” Minor asked between sips. “How are you after last night?”

I shrugged “I am ok. I suppose. Just sorry we had to leave Tungsten behind.”

“But he’ll recover sooner at Twenty-Five.” Minor added brightly.

“If he recovers at all,” I replied glumly.

Minor didn’t seem to have an answer, or he was too focused on flying to respond. So we both stood quietly in the cabin watching the world roll beneath us. Since leaving Twenty-Five we had passed quickly over an area of mixed shrubland, but that had petered out into a dusty and desolate expanse of earth with no vegetation in sight but the occasional tumbleweed. I didn’t know much about geography, but I was surprised there could be a vast lake one side of a mountain range and what could easily be describe as a desert on the other. It didn’t look like it had rained here in years.

We’d been flying at a considerable pace for eight hours now, and it had just been mile after mile of arid, cracked dirt. At least it meant we were unlikely to be attacked as we flew as there was nowhere for ponies to hide and no reason for them to be out this far. I was glad we had the Vertibuck, unable to imagine how we would have coped spending seven days trekking across this terrain.

“Hey.” Minor’s curious voice brought me back to reality.

“What?” I asked, immediately following Minor’s outstretched hoof and got rather a surprise. In the distance a tower, or more precisely, a spire stuck out of the desert floor, surrounded by a few dozen smaller lumps. “What the heck is that?”

“I have no idea. Look, there are more buildings around it.”

“How far away is that?” I asked, leaning forwards to get a better look.

“Less than two miles now, and closing. We’ll be over it in just under five minutes.” Minor glanced at me for the first time since I’d entered. “Do you want me to stop?”

“I’ll go rouse Mantis, maybe he knows this place.”

Slipping into the rear compartment, I prodded the sleeping green lump awake.

“Hey, Mantis. Wake up.”

“Huh.. what.. uh.” He sat up, his hat falling off his head as he looked up at me. “Yeah, what?”

“We’ve spotted what looks like a church or spire sticking out of the dirt.”

“Wow, are we there already?” Mantis pulled himself up and made his way into the cockpit and stared out at the approaching obelisk and the collection of what was now quite clearly smaller buildings spreading out from its base. “Yeah, this was the place I was going to suggest we stay on our third night. Don’t know its real name, I just know it as Dirtville.”

“Dirtville?” I dead panned. “Imaginative.”

“Yeah, Dirtville.” Mantis rubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned back to the cabin. “It’ll be getting dark in a few hours, so I suggest we set down and make for the spire. We won’t be needing the tents.”

“Is it safe to land?” Minor asked cautiously. “What if we land above another building and it collapses or something.”

Mantis just shrugged. “Well, I’ve never had that problem so… just be ready to take off again.”

Mantis and I moved back into the rear area and began to kit up.

“What’s going on?” Seafire asked. “Something wrong?”

“No, we’re just close to the place Mantis had planned for us to sleep, so we’re going to set down, scout it out before setting up camp.” I replied, slipping into my ASA suit.

“Their should be no one around, it’s been deserted every time I’ve stayed there.” Mantis slung his sniper rifle over his back and pulled on his hat. “But it’s best to be prepared.”

As Seafire helped Foxglove prepare herself, I moved over to rouse Helix. “Hey,” I whispered in her ear, my hoof stroking her mane. “Hey, wake up.” My love's eyes fluttered open. “Hey sleepy.” I kissed her on the forehead. “You need to armour up. We’re about to set down and set up camp for the night, but we need to be cautious.”

Helix smiled at me and returned my kiss. “Sure.” I passed her Tun’s old barding and helped her into it. “I’ll stay at the back, out of the way.”

“Good idea.” I smiled, relieved she’d offered without my needing to prompt her.

Minor tilted into a gentle bank and orbited our intended landing zone, allowing Mantis and Smoking to get a clear look out the windows at the half-buried town below.

“All clear from the outside, looks like nopony's home,” Mantis called. “But be on your guard, we’ll move over to the chapel, check it out and then call you over if it’s safe. Make sure you have torches at the ready.”

“We all have our PipBuck lights,” Smoking replied in his low voice. “That won’t be an issue.”

“Ok, moving in to touchdown,” Minor called out from the cockpit. “Step back from the door. I’ll open it as we pull in.”

I grabbed hold of one of the hoof grips over our heads as we swung in smooth and low, the Vertibucks storm engines kicking up a plume of dust around the craft. The door began to open, air tumbling around the cabin before we touched down with a slight jolt. Mantis and Smoking leapt out first, rushing straight to the bell tower. Pushing through the churning dust, they pressed themselves up against the wall and ran a quick sweep of the area with their guns before beckoning Seafire and I to follow.

The unsettled dust shimmered in Jury’s sapphire glow as we galloped to the steeple. Mantis pulled back a slatted panel that covered part of the arched peak of the church and stepped through into the tower. After he gave the all clear, Smoking, Seafire, and I followed him carefully inside. I was met with a thick darkness, lit only by the soft glow of our PipBucks. Dust clung to every surface inside the tower, the floor creaked as we moved and spiders scuttles away from the invading light as we entered. A giant copper bell occupied most of the space with ropes from a pull mechanism leading away into the darkness. I followed the ropes with my eyes and took an involuntary step back seeing the ropes descend into a dark abyss that occupied the center of the tower, our small platform topping a tight spiral staircase that descended into the gloom.

Flicking on a torch strapped to the underside of his rifle to light the way, Mantis started down the rickety wooden staircase, testing each step before putting his weight on it. His sweeping beam highlighted broken beams, detritus, and loose cables blocking our way, while our PipBucks illuminated everything in a gentle, yellow glow, casting twisted shadows with the overlapping light.

The walls were inscribed with graffiti, centuries old now, faded and flaking, and occasionally gave way to relieve stained glass windows whose panes were backed by solid walls of dirt. It was hard to pick out what the windows were depicting through the grime, but many seemed to show a large sun-like motif while others showed something that bore resemblance to a moon.

Reaching the bottom, we all passed through a narrow stone archway and entered into a cavernous space so large our PipBucks couldn’t illuminate the whole space fully, only show weak and vague outlines of beams and trusses far above our heads. Shouldering his weapon, Mantis broke off and headed towards another nearby alcove. I heard several large clanks a grunt, and then felt the wood beneath my hooves begin to vibrate ever so slightly. Above us, ancient incandescent bulbs began to flicker to life, their filaments slow to warm, casting a sickly yellow-green glow that began to fill the room.

“Oh my…” Seafire put a hoof to her muzzle in awe. “Where… where are we?”

“We are in the the central hall of The Church of the Two Sisters.” Mantis replied, stepping up onto a dais that sat at the intersection of what seemed to be four wings that made up the church. “Impressive, isn’t it.”

That it was. Sweeping, heavy wooden beams held aloft a vast and ornate roof high above our heads. Arched windows on every side held more stained glass depictions of ponies of every colour and race. Wooden benches ran in rows towards the end of the longest wing, leaving a central passageway that lead up to another raised plinth at the other end, on top of which sat a great stone sun carved out of stone, and behind that was a vast stained glass depiction of a huge, pure-white Alicorn, her wings spread wide, her image backed by a giant yellow and orange sun emblem, the same one I had seen earlier.

“It's all so well preserved…” Smoking noted, running a hoof over the curved armrest of the nearest bench. “No wood rot, no corrosion, no mould, nothing.”

“Probably some kind of magically imbued spell,” I offered; it was the only thing I knew of that might explain it. “But it would’ve been a huge effort to enchant everything in the building.”

Seafire nodded. “Agreed, but given the obvious cultural and religious significance of the place, I am sure that the ponies who built it considered protecting everything from damage the very least they could do to honor Celestia and Luna.”

Helix, Foxglove and Xyalia appeared beside me from out of the archway. “Minor is wondering what he should do with the Vertibu-” Helix’s question was cut short as her eyes cast over the sight before us. “Oh wow….” She muttered in awe, sounding exactly like Seafire. “This is…”

“Incredible…” Foxglove finished in disbelief. “I never knew that ponies could build something so, beautiful, so intricate, so…”

“Pretty.” All of us turned to look at Xyalia. “It is very pretty, isn’t it?”

I found myself chuckling. “Yes, I suppose it is pretty.” I patted her casually on the shoulder and decided to ignore her slight flinch, making a mental note not to do that again.

“I used to use one of the smaller rooms off to the side but given there is a group of us, we may as well set up in the Luna wing.” Mantis began to shove the pews aside, clearing a central space for us all to gather. “Set up the stove in the center, I’ll go up and tell Minor where to stick the Vertibuck.”

Tossing down my saddlebags, I found myself wandering to and fro between the columns and pews, examining the wall carving, tapestries, statues, and paintings. The variety of art was incredible, and slightly bizarre. Certain pieces looked truly ancient, the wooden frames turned grey as the colour had washed from the surface, while others looked modern, even contemporary. I paused before a particularly large-framed depiction of what looked to be a city hanging from the side of a mountain. ‘Canterlot - The City of Celestia’ read the brass plaque underneath. Wow… so that is what Canterlot looked like.

I was about to return to the others when a glint caught my eye. Turning, I saw the polished door handles to a pair of double doors set back and away from the main wing of the church, a heavy chain looping through the handles and sealed with a hefty steel padlock.

What on earth? It was totally out of position in such an open and religious place.

The double doors looked carved from single pieces of dark, solid oak and depicted six symbols, none of which matched any of the other motifs I had seen. A trio of apples, trio of butterflies, a trio of balloons - really? - a trio of diamonds, a rain cloud unleashing a rainbow lightening bolt and finally, in the centre of the door, a six pointed star with five smaller stars around it. Casting my eyes up, I read the words arching over the door.

“Sanctum of the Elements.” I spun around at the voice to see Mantis standing right behind me. “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump, but yeah… the Sanctum of the Elements.”

“What’s inside?” I asked, turning back to the locked door.

“No idea. Never been able to open it.”

I reached out experimentally with my magic, gently taking the lock in my grasp. When nothing bad happened I began to probe the lock, feeling the tumblers with my magic. It was very hard to do and almost impossible to feel if I was moving anything correctly.

“I’ve never been able to pick it.” Mantis piped up as I dropped the lock with a sigh. “Tried cutting it a few times too, but no luck. It’s enchanted, just like everything else.”

“What did you try?”

“Hack saw, file, even had a small grinder on me one time, one of those little electro-magical ones.” Mantis shrugged. “It's probably not worth it, it’s a church, not a military bunker, so it's probably just got a bunch of old statues behind it. Come on, dinner is on the go.”

I turned to follow before an idea popped into my head.

“Hold it.” Returning to the door, I leaned forwards and placed the tip of my horn against the chain. “Cover your eyes.” I gave Mantis a moment, shielding my own eyes with the filter spell, then brought the welding spell down, full force onto the chain. Magical sparks spewed from the point of contact, the chain and handles beginning to glow first red then white hot in mere moments. It seemed to be having no effect on the chain whatsoever, except to bring it and everything around it almost to the melting point. Wood smoke began to sting my nose, the oak charing in the wake of the immense localised heat; it seemed the protective spells only went so far.

But two minutes later, all I had managed to achieve was give my mane the rather pleasant aroma of burnished oak. Giving up, I stood back, rather sorry I’d damaged the beautiful door. “Yep, enchanted.” Was all I said before turning my back on the smouldering door.

Clunk.

“Well.” Mantis grinned as we looked back at the door, now minus its handle and locking mechanism. “Looks like it opened afterall.”

The doors let out low, eerie moans as I forced them open, the unenchanted rivets that held on the door handles dropping onto the floor with a tinkle. Darkness enveloped the room, only vague shapes revealed by the light from the hall behind us, two long pony-shaped shadows cast on the intricate tiled floor. I cautiously stepped over the threshold, illuminating my PipBuck and horn. Seven tall statues stood in a semi-circle around a central dais which held aloft a dry fountain. Dark drapes backed each statue, enclosing it in its own small alcove of fabric.

I peered at the nearest statue. “Applejack - Bearer of the Element of Honesty and head of the Ministry of Technology.” I cast my eyes up the wooden statue of a mare in a smart business suit, a heavy raincoat and a stetson. Her stern yet hopeful expression was a strange sight; perhaps the carpenter had been going for another emotion but had...

“Gah…” I jumped as the lights flicked on, illuminating the whole room. I gave Mantis a glare as he stood bemused next to the switches. He gave an apologetic shrug then turned back to the statue next to him.

“Spike - Loyal Assistant of Twilight Sparkle and the Ministry of Arcane Sciences,” he read aloud. “A dragon? Huh… never heard of him before. Who you got over there?”

“Applejack and Fluttershy.” I paused before the statue of an aging pegasus mare in a sweeping formal dress, a wreath of flowers resting on her long flowing mane. “Bearer of the Element of Kindness and Head of the Ministry of Peace.”

Mantis laughed behind me. “Check this out. Pinkie Pie, Bearer of the element of Laugher and Head of the Ministry of Morale. Who has balloons for their cutie mark? Her mane is mental too, it's like a pink cloud.”

“Rarity, Bearer of the Element of Generosity and Head of the Ministry of Image.” I looked up and found myself rather lost for words. Despite her age, Rarity was still incredibly beautiful. I had no idea if the carpenter had taken a little artistic licence with these pieces, but even if they had, she still might have been the most beautiful mare I had ever seen, ‘Besides Helix’ my inner pony corrected. I rolled my eyes and examined her lovingly crafted mane and tail, swirled in such a graceful manner as to make her look majestic. The tight fitting dress she wore didn’t help matters either, part of me thinking her curves were maybe a little too much for a place of worship.

The last, central statue of the seven, was of a dorkishly cute, unicorn mare with a tri-toned mane and tail and a cutie mark with a complexity that rivaled my own; five small stars around a central six pointed star, all of which were cheerfully angled and shaped to look as if they were twinkling upon the mare's flank. ‘Twilight Sparkle - Bearer of the Element of Magic and leader of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences,’ the plaque proclaimed. ‘I wonder what level of magic a pony can achieve when her special talent is magic?’ my inner pony mused.

I felt a small smile creep across my face; something about this place just felt uplifting.

When I turned to the last statue, my smile vanished. Now I think I knew why the room had been locked.

Unlike all the other statues, bar the dragon, who stood on all fours, this statue depicted its subject rearing up energetically. I recognised the armour this pegasus mare wore; I had seen it back in Stable Twenty-Five. Sculpted from an almost onyx black wood, the articulated and insectoid like armour went from her neck to the tip of her tail, which was made of six different shades of wood, the same six shades used to depict her multicolored mane. However, it was the blood red paint splattered all over the statue and the single word that had somehow been engraved into the magically enchanted surface that made my blood run cold.

‘TRAITOR’

“So this is Rainbow Dash,” Mantis murmured after a long pause, his humour of a moment ago none-existent.

“Why would some pony do this?” I asked, hoof over my mouth. “If she was worthy of such a shrine, then why would somepony desecrate it like this?”

“Uh, guys, dinner is… oh my…” Mantis and I looked round. Seafire and Helix stood in the doorway, Seafire’s voice stolen from her. “Who would do such a thing.”

“Somepony clearly thought she deserved it for running away.” Mantis shook his head with a wry grimace. “Though, that would mean this took place after the bombs fell.”

“Running Away?” Helix asked, unable to tear her eyes from the form of Rainbow Dash.

“It's just a story, but it's said that, on the day the bombs fell, Rainbow Dash fled Equestria, abandoning her fellow pegasi to the radiation of the mega-spells: the bearer of the Element of Loyalty, abandoning her own kind in their darkest hour.” A glance down the small brass plaque confirmed his information.

“Going by the statue, I would say that story was true.”

* * *

The next morning I sat on the dusty tiles of the church trying to break into the churches Lost and Found hoof locker Mantis said he’d found it on a previous visit to Dirtville and secretly stashed it away under a set of busted floor boards behind the church's colossal pipe organ. His original attempts at picking, then trying to break off the padlock were clear, but he’d never managed it. I was equally stumped when my cutting spell simply bounced off the lock - damn these ponies and their need to imbue everything in the damn building.

Well, almost everything, it turned out the locker itself wasn’t protected, so I just cut the end off. Gently tilting it on its side, the rather heavy contents of the locker slid onto the dusty tiles and we began examining our finds. Inside was a early generation PipBuck, a battered but mostly intact pre-war briefcase, a rather nice hat complete with fake flowers and ribbons, a couple of wallets filled with some prewar coins and notes, a switchblade - which I guessed was confiscated rather than lost - , a battered book entitled Zebra Infiltration Tactics and a sturdy yellow steel box with three pink butterflies on it. Knelt on the floor, I began sifting through our find.

“Not a bad haul,” Mantis mused, though sounding rather disappointed. “I was hoping for guns or ammo.”

“In a church?” Wiping the sleep dust from my eyes; I hadn’t slept well despite the quiet surroundings, or maybe that was the problem. “I don’t think this place was close to the front lines, and clearly wasn’t important enough to get a missile of its own. I highly doubt we’ll find anything like that.”

“Well, we should get something decent out of this.” He pulled the yellow, butterfly marked box towards him and opened it up. “Huh, lock was broken. But, dang... check this out!” He happily placed two super strength restoration positions on the floor. “And a good selection of bandages and painkillers too.”

“Doesn’t look like that kit was ever used for anything more than knee scrapes.” Helix appeared over my shoulder, levitating up the small cache of medical supplies. “That's probably a nearly complete MoP emergency kit.” My love rested her chin on my head. “What’s in the brief case?

I pulled it towards me and then tried to open it.

“Locked, two four-digit combination clasps.” I sighed. “But…” I turned it around. “Nothing to stop me from…” I brought up my filter spell and quickly cut through the two hinges on the bottom of the case.

“Hmmm.” Mantis smirked. “I can see that spell being very useful. Screw having to pick locks, you can just cut everything open.”

“Well, if it's too thick I risk incinerating whatever is in the box as I cut through,” I reminded him, opening the case backwards. “These are fine, but a proper safe I may struggle with.

Turning my attention back to the contents of the case, I was greeted with a selection of cardboard folders on the left side, a small built in communicator, and another smaller lock box.

“Anything interesting?” Helix asked as I began rifling through the folders.

“All looks to be Stable-Tec documents.” I passed up the second folder to her. “I’ve got invoices, memo’s, some kind of draft speech, a time table...” I set the first folder aside. “A bunch of concept sketches for the ‘Fillydelphia Stable-Tec Hub’. Damn thats a big building.” I set the third aside and looked down at the final folder at the the bottom of the pile. “Ah, now that is more like it.”

- Stable-Tec - Top Secret -
- Authorised Personnel Only -
- Warning: Enclosed Documents Enchanted With Anti-copy Countermeasures -

Well, it didn’t say anything about anti-unauthorised personnel countermeasures.

Cautiously, I flipped open the folder and slipped out the documents, or document as it turned out. A single ring bound book, in comparatively poor condition compared to everything else. This was either a lot older than all the other documents or got used on a far more regular basis. With a slight intake of breath, I opened the book.

Nothing.

Every single page was blank. I flipped back and forth through the entire book three times before I accepting that there was nothing to be seen.

“What the hell?”

“Hmmm?” Helix was too busy packing the medical supplies into her saddlebags to notice my plight. “Something wrong?”

“It’s blank,” I replied, irritably “It's totally blank.” I passed her the book. “Look.”

Helix flicked casually through the folder before passing it back to me. “Well, it is supposed to be top secret.” She reminded me playfully. “You must not have what it needs to be legible.”

With a reluctant sigh, I set the book back in its folder and set it aside, turning my attention back to the brief case and the small lock box. The keyhole was more elaborate than any I had seen previously, seemingly needing a triangular shaped key of some kind. I probed it experimentally with my magic but might as well have been prodding it with an oven mitt for all the feedback I received; picking locks wasn’t my forte to start, let alone something of this calibre.

“Fran? Have you read this?!”

Looking up from the safe, Seafire was holding open the top secret book, her expression stunned. She was flicking back and forth through it as if her life depended on it.

“Read what?” I asked surprised. “It’s blank; well to me anyway. I can’t read it.”

“You can’t?” She looked at me quizzically. “What about Helix?” My love shook her head, looking just as surprised as me.

“But you can?” Mantis inquired, bewildered.

Seafire nodded vigorously.

“Well, what does it say?”

“It's a list, must be of addresses.” Seafire flicked back to the first page of the document. “Stable-Tec Hub, Pommel Street, Bloom Business Park, Fillydelphia. Ministry of Technology, Ministry Row, Castle District, Canterlot. Sweet Apple Farm, Sweet Apple Lane, Sweet Apple Acres, Ponyville… that's a lot of Sweet Apples… Zebra Town Square, Zebra Town, Ridge District, Canterlot. Substation 4, Canterlot Line 4, Twilight Suburb, Canterlot. Substation 5, Canterlot Line 5, Twilight Suburb, Canterlot.” Seafire was rattling off the addresses faster and faster, making my mind reel with every word. “Number six through sixteen only have descriptions, no locations… Water Processing Station 1, Blue Moon Lane, Eternity Lake, Eternity Valley…”

Seafire stopped. We all stared.

“It's a list of stable addresses,” I muttered, astonished. The four of us exchanged looks, no wonder it was top secret. “How… how many are there?” I asked, more to break the silence than out of any real curiosity.

Seafire flicked to the last page with her magic. “Assuming they haven’t skipped any… one hundred and one.” She sounded as numb as I felt. At least my body felt numb. My mind was churning like one of the whisks in an alge processor.

We had a list of stables. Not only a list but exact addresses. And on top of that, we had the address of what I could only assume was Stable-Tec’s headquarters in Fillydelphia; where else would you build your first stable, your prototype? Perhaps that was the city I’d seen in the memory orb. Fillydelphia. It explained a few things, for one why the orb had been at Seventeen; even if it didn’t explain why it’d been left behind. But more importantly, I now knew two things, where to get the construction plans for Stable Seventeen and, perhaps more critically, where I might be able to get spare parts.

“Seafire?” Helix asked. “What does it say the address of Stable Twenty-Five is?”

“It says…” Seafire flicked through the file. “Hu… no address given, just ‘The Platinum Range’ and what must be GPS co-ordinates.”

“And what about Stable Twenty-Seven?” I asked.

“Tunnel 1, Big Gem’s Inc, Bluemoon, Eternity Lake, Eternity Valley.”

‘Bluemoon, so that was Viewpoint’s real name’ my inner pony noted. Eh, I prefer Viewpoint.

* * *

When the folder had said ‘Enchanted With Anti-copy Countermeasures’ I worried Seafire would find herself unable to speak or perhap collapse from a magical shock unleashed from the book, but it seemed reading the information out loud so somepony else could copy it down wasn’t something the magic was able to stop. So that’s how we spent the next hour sitting in the back of the flying Vertibuck, Seafire reciting while I copied all the information into my PipBuck manually.

“Stable Ninety-Eight, grid reference is 898,762,922.” Seafire waited as I slowly typed in the data. ”Stable Ninety-Nine, Hoofington. Hmmm… that's all we get for that one. Stable One Hundred has no information. Stable one hundred and one, ‘Castle’, huh, it's in apostrophes.”

“Maybe it’s not actually a castle. Maybe a rock formation or a local name.” I suggested as I typed. “So, Stable one hundred and one, ‘Castle’...”

“Everfree Forest. Grid reference 084, 254, 192. And that’s all of them.”

“Hmmmm. That is a lot of Stables. It’s a shame the list doesn’t say what is in them.” I scrolled back up through the long list. “This could be really useful.”

“How so?” Seafire asked, tucking the book away in her saddle bags.

“Some of them must have equipment we can use to repair Seventeen. Even if it’s not perfect, we could substitute in parts, fit it all up again.”

Glancing up, I expected Seafire to be looking hopeful, or at least excited, but what I got was… pity?

Seafire’s shoulders slumped, her sad blue eyes looking into mine. “Fran. Seventeen is gone. We’ll get back who we can from those… monsters… and then, then I’m going to find somewhere else to live.”

Out the corner of my eye, I saw Helix, Foxglove and Xyalia, who were spending some quiet time fixing our various pieces of barding, glance nervously in our direction. Mantis and Smoking were up front with Minor and I was glad they couldn’t hear where this might be going.

“Why wouldn’t you want to go home?”

“I…” Seafire started. “I… I can’t put it into words. I just get the feeling it’s always going to broken, no matter how well we fix it up. We have no idea what went on down there once the doors closed. Those bodies on the surface, Tungsten mentioned they’d managed to restore some internal power, but that was over three weeks ago… and to be honest I’m not sure the rest of our Stable will even be alive after all this time.”

Seafire curled up on the velour sofa, her eyes downcast and body slumping.

I didn’t know what to say. I looked back to the others who were all dumfounded. Well, Helix and Foxglove, Xyalia just looked confused. The sad thing was, she was right. They could all be dead, or have been sold onto other slavers, or reduced to nothing but skin and bone locked in some rusty cages. We just didn’t know.

I felt a tail brush against my leg. Foxglove had set down her needle and thread and moved over to Seafire. Settling herself down next to the white unicorn, she nuzzled her mane gently, a hoof stroking her long orange mane. Seafire looked up, surprised at the touch, but upon seeing who was caring for her, she began to relax and her expression slipped from worried, to bemused to content.

Quietly rising, I took the space where Foxglove had been working and resumed her work on what turned out to be Seafire’s barding.

“Is the green one her daughter?”

I looked up at Xyalia, who was still looking curiously at Seafire and Foxglove.

“No… why?”

“Strange, it should be so. I can feel it.”

“Feel what?” Helix asked.

“Their love for each other.” Replied the Zebra simply. “It's not the kind of love you and Helix share but it is equally as strong, and it's growing.”

* * *

Everything was going smoothly until we reached the far side of the dust plains that afternoon. Either the weather had turned or the heat from the plains was causing some kind of atmospheric disturbance. Either way, everyone on board was taken completely off guard when the Vertibuck dropped like a stone, then was thrust back up again in a howl of wind and groaning of metal.

“What that…” I managed to utter before the Vertibuck pitched again, this time as if hit upwards from the side, pitching the whole aircraft onto its side before dropping back to the level again.

“What the hell is this?” I heard Smoking yell at Minor from up front.

“Updrafts!” Minor yelled back as the vehicle pitched again. “And downdrafts and shit…” All of us were slammed forwards and the Vertibuck hit something before pirouetting away.

Multiple alarms sounded as I dragged myself over to Helix and clipped her into one of the reclining chairs with my magic, then moved on to helping Seafire with Foxglove. Xyalia, meanwhile, had somehow braced herself with all four hooves between the minibar and the central table. Up front there was a shouting match taking place.

“Get us away from the cliff!”

“I’m trying!”

“Well, try harder… ouch!”

“I am! It’s not… ugh…. easy.”

“Can you land?”

“No ide-agh…”

The Vertibuck lurched again as something grazed the underside with a terrible rending sound. I grabbed my chair and clung on for my life. My stomach was left behind as we spiraled upwards again before everything went light as if there was suddenly no gravity. I felt like I was going to throw up. Then it all stopped. I looked out of the windows, but all I could see was grey. Bright greyness on all sides.

“What was that?” Seafire asked next to me. “Where are we?”

“Minor?” Smoking asked. “Where are we.”

“Ummmmm… clouds. Must be in the clouds. Altimeter says four thousand feet. Top of the ridge line perhaps.”

“Get us on the ground. We need to check for damage.” Minor ordered then stuck his head round the door. “Everyone alright back there?”

“Yeah… think so,” Seafire called back. “Helix?”

“I’m ok, though this strap is digging into my shoulders,” She replied, tugging at the three point harness.

“Well, stay strapped in just in case it happens again.”

“You sure you’re ok?” I asked Helix, reaching across to take her hoof.

She nodded. “Yeah, just my shoulders.”

“I think I’ve found somewhere flat enough,” Minor called back. “Can’t see a thing though.”

A moment later there was a slight thud as we touched down. The vertibuck settled on a slight incline to the right but it was flat enough for the time being. We all unclipped and got gingerly to our hooves, all except Xyalia who just relaxed her brace position. Zebra’s were weird.

Stumbling out the door, I couldn’t see the other end of the Vertibuck the fog was so dense. Minor fluttered down from the cockpit door followed by Smoking, a bruise beginning to form on the side of his head. Seemly, this was the only injury, which I was thankful for.

“Everyone activate your EFS,” Smoking said. “We don’t want anyone getting lost in this. Seafire, can you look round the back of the ship, see if we took a hit on the rear, and Fran, I think we scraped the bottom too, so if you could have a look.”

“Got it.”

The ground was mainly rock, covered in small tufts of moss and lichen, so no need to worry about getting muddy. I wriggled my way under the craft and illuminated my horn. A minute later, I found a long shallow scratch near the front of the aircraft. I had no idea how we’d managed to hit the underside, but it seemed we’d clipped some kind of rocky outcrop. Feeling out with my magic I was relieved to discover the armoured hull was just bent but still intact. I made a few quick welds with my horn to stiffen the plates up again as best I could before wriggling my way out again.

“Fran. Over here.”

I followed Minors voice round to the prow of the Vertibuck and winced. A sizable hole had been torn in the pilot's side quarter, breaching the first layer of armour, the offending piece of granite still embedded in the metal.

“Can you fix that?” he asked, as I took a closer look.

“Hmmm, yeah. Could do with some basic tools. Lump hammer if we have one, and a crow bar…”

“Yellow contact, due north,” I heard Smoking whisper sharply over my Pipbuck at exactly the same time I noticed it on my own EFS, before a second and third appeared.

I motioned to Minor to get back on board, pulling out Jury. The three contacts were heading straight for us, but with the thick fog there was no way either group could see the other to gauge intent. I scilently ushered Helix and Foxglove back aboards the Vertibuck, the rest of us clambering back aboard as quickly and quietly as we could. Until…

Pffft. Pffft. Pffft. Oww.

I looked down and sighed. ‘Oh look. An anesthetic dart.’ My inner pony noted sarcastically. ‘Ohhhh, great…’ I would have retorted but sleep seemed so much more inviting.

* * *

“So, who are they?”

“Steel Rangers. Got to be Steel Rangers. Nopony else has armour like that.”

“But they don’t look the same as those old pre-war posters. They were all grey, not black.”

“And their armour doesn’t cover their whole body. I am pretty sure that Steel Ranger armour covered everything.”

“You’re all forgetting. Steel Rangers were mainly earth ponies.”

“And?”

“Have you guys seen a single one of them without wings?”

“...”

“Good point.”

I cracked open my eyes.

The world was sideways, but my companions weren’t. In my immediate field of view were Helix, Smoking and Foxglove, all lying on their side, their hooves bound together with thick plastic zip cuffs. I tried to look down at my own legs but I couldn’t move my body at all.

“Hmmmm?” I grunted with confusion.

“Fran!” Helix called out with relief, trying and utterly failing to wriggle towards me. “You’re finally awake.”

“Hmmm. Hmmm.” I grunted back agreeably. “Whmmmm… Whammm… What ha…”

“We got shot with stun darts.” Smoking clearly guessed my question. “But you got hit by two.”

“Hmm.” I rolled my eyes. “Is.. Is… Every…” My drowsy response was interrupted by the clanging of metal behind me.

“Hey, get your hooves off me,” I head Mantis snap. Clearly this had no effect as he continued to yell and resist whatever was going on.

“Hey! Where are you taking him,” Seafire ask sleepily.

All of this was ignored as Mantis’ angry voice faded to nothing as he was taken away. I exchanged a worried glance with Smoking and Helix.

“So… so… whooo are they.” I managed to ask with the articulation of a pony who had downed half a bottle of whisky. “Not Steeeeeeel Wrangers?”

Smoking sighed, thinking. “They are Pegasi, so probably Enclave. But from what we know of them, I can’t see why they would have been on the top of that mountain.” He huffed. “We still don’t know enough about this world.”

“Perhaps we were high enough up to be considered a threat,” Helix offered, trying to pull off her hoof cuffs. “Owww… these are too tight. I’m beginning to lose feeling.”

“Use your magic,” I suggested.

“Fran… think about what you just said.” My love teased, but she wasn’t able to hide the pained expression on her face.

“We’ve tried that. They’re enchanted. Magic just slides off. And if you bite them you get a magical shock… that really hurts,” Smoking babbled, but I was more concerned with Helix.

“Hey. Stop moving, you’ll only make it worse.” I tried again to shuffle over to Helix, but my progress was pathetic. I could see tears welling up in Helix’s eyes as she began to panic; she really wasn’t used to being bound. “Hey!” I called out. “We need help in here.” I tried to squirm upright, and managed to flop over so I lay on my other side, now facing the bars of our cell. I could see two sets of hooves, one deep blue, the other a lovely shade of dark purple that were both clad in shiny metallic black armour. “Hey! I’m talking to you.” I kicked the cell bars and recoiled as I received a painful electro-magical shock. At least that got the guards attention.

Squinting up into the brightness from the overhead lights, I could see two seemingly regular ponies. It was hard to make out their features as the top half of their heads were covered by their armour and their eyes obscured by visors, probably fitted with EFS displays

“You have done up her hoof cuffs up too tight. The mare behind me. She needs help.”

Both ponies glanced from me, to Helix and then turned around again.

“Fran…” Helix whimpered. “I can’t feel my hooves. I can’t feel…”

“Hey!” I yelled again. “You are hurting her.” They continued to ignore me. “For Celestia’s sake. Listen to me! She’s pregnant!” That seemed to get their attention.

There was a clang behind me as the cell door was opened. I wriggled to flop back over onto my other side. The mare approached Helix and pointed her hoof right at her stomach. A small light appeared at the end of her hoof and began to grow in intensity, as if it was charging up. “Hey! What are you doing!” I shot fearfully at the mare, trying in vain to escape my bonds. “Whatever you’re doing, stop! Don’t you dare hurt her!” I lashed out with my telekinesis, trying to knock her hoof away. The spell collapsed and I received a harsh shock from both sets of cuffs.

“No!”

Helix convulsed as the light suddenly flashed, a bolt of energy hitting her in the stomach, before spreading over her whole body. For an instant, Helix glowed, then the light retraced its path, back into a small point of intense light and back into the mare's hoof.

Helix’s eyes were still wide with fear and shock but besides that she seemed totally unharmed.

“I’m… I’m fine.” She assured me, still sounding shocked herself. “It just made me tingle.”

“What did you do!” I writhed on the ground.

The mare ignored me, instead bending down to Helix’s hooves and… completely releasing her? To our combined amazement, a gentle prod of a wing encouraged Helix to her hooves before she was lead out of the cell and sat down on one of the guards own seats, a guard positioned opposite her with battle saddle pointed at her. ‘Well, I suppose it’s an improvement.’ My inner pony commented.

“Hey.” I called up to the mare. She looked at me, her sagging power armour indicating she wondered what the heck I wanted now. “I’m not sure of you understand me but… Thank you.” After a pauses she gave a slight nod before raising her weapon, relocking the cell and resuming her duty of guarding us.

Who were these ponies?

* * *

Despite this kind gesture, I wasn’t sure if I should’ve felt safe just yet. After around twenty minutes, Smoking was dragged away just like Mantis, but Mantis wasn’t returned. This practice continued until just Foxglove and I remained in the cell, Helix having also been lead away. At least she had been allowed to walk, unlike the others.

Eventually, I heard the clang of the door behind me, and I was hoisted to my hooves. I gave Foglove a reassuring look before I was dragged out of sight through a heavy stainless steel door. The corridor beyond was hune straight out of the rock and lit above by bare yellow tinted bulbs that hung from the damp ceiling. At the end, the corridor split into a ‘t’ junction but I was marched into an ancient looking elevator directly opposite. Upon our exit, the walls were the same stone but now of a much smoother and pleasant finish with the light coming from recessed pure white bulbs behind frosted glass.

Passing through another stainless steel door, my eyes widened in surprise. We had entered what looked like a huge underground office filled with terminals, each in their own little booths, with filing cabinets and chairs. Most of the stalls were empty, but occasionally, I caught a glimpse of a pony sitting behind a glowing terminal, tapping away. None of these ponies were wearing armour, but robes. That wasn’t what was odd about them, though. Almost all of them were black, or a dark green, blue, red or purple. Their manes were very dark toned too, yet shimmered in the low light as if they were slightly bioluminescent. However in the gloom of the room I couldn’t make out much else, but it left me feeling apprehensive.

Reaching an office on the opposite side of the room, I was carried through a frosted glass door. The door had a symbol engraved on the surface of the glass: a moon surrounded by six pairs of long triangular arrows, side-by-side and evenly spaced. It was very similar to the moon symbols I had seen at the Church of the Two Sisters, however the double pointed arrows made it look like the moon had teeth.

My restraints were suddenly cut and was dumped into a surprisingly comfy wooden chair before a long hardwood table. The feeling of comfort was then immediately quashed as magical straps wrapped themselves around my hooves and pulled tight, pinning me to the chair. I gave my hooves a gentle pull. Nope, stuck.

I forgot entirely about my restraints the moment I looked up. The hovering, multi-limbed robot off to one side was one level of strange, but the pegasus mare before me; except she wasn’t a pegasi, at least not like any I’d ever seen and was downright unsettling.

Although basically pony in shape, there were some clear differences. Her ears were taller and thinner, her pupils vertical slits, her mane was a deep, shimmering, almost metallic, blue bordering on black, and most disturbingly, two fangs protruded from between her lips on either side of her muzzle where a ponies normal canine teeth would be. She wasn’t just a pony, it was like she was a dragon pony. No, it was more like she was part pony, part bat.

“Gooood morning to you!” I was shaken from my stunned gawping by a cheery, pompous, metallic voice erupting to my left. The hovering-spider-bot-thing was addressing me? “May I introduce myself? My name is Mr. Squeaky, and I will be acting as your interpreter today.” Interpreter?

“Now, down to business.” Mr. Squeaky boomed enthusiastically. “I have some questions for you, young Miss, please answer honesty, else I will be forced to incinerate you.” He let loose a small burst of flame from an arm mounted flame thrower. I started making a concerted effort to get out of the chair. “I jest, I jest!” The robot boomed again. “Though it seems my humour capacitor has yet to fully recharge, so I suspect that came out a little more aggressively than intended.”

The mare sighed.

“Anyway, questions! What is your name, young Miss, and where have you come from?”

I considered for a moment. It was clear that by doing all the interviews separately we would have no chance to converse and potentially lie. It also meant I had to decide if I wanted to lie, hoping that the others had chosen to withhold information, or if they had simply told the truth. Either way, if our stories contradicted at all, they would know.

I really only had one option that was safe.

“My name is Francium Actinium. I come from Stable Seventeen,” I replied, watching the mare closely. She gazed at me levely and calmly with her vertically slitted eyes, which were a rather entrancing shade of violet.

“Where is your Stable?”

“Under a water research facility on the edge of Eternity lake.”

“How did you come to be outside the Stable.”

“An accident forced two fifths of the Stable to be evacuated.”

“Where are you heading now?”

“Appleloosa.”

“Why are you heading there?”

“To rescue some of our stable who were taken captive.”

“How were you planning to get there?”

“By Vertibuck, over the mountains.”

The mare held up a hoof, before Mr. Squeaky could ask the next question. She opened her muzzle to speak, but rather than a voice, she emitted a complex series of very high pitched squeeks and titters, so high in fact, I’m sure some of it extended beyond my range of hearing.

“The Paladin asks if you are aware of just how impossible your task is?” I glanced at Mr. Squeeky as he hovered patiently, waiting for my answer. The mare continued to watch me calmly.

“Well…” I paused, considering my response. “Does the Paladin know about the successes we have had since leaving our Stable?”

The Paladin squeaked some more. I briefly wondered how the robot was talking to her as it wasn’t making any squeaks of its own, until I spotted a small ear bloom protruding from the Paladins left ear. Was she going deaf?

“We are well aware of your group's exploits since leaving Stable Seventeen,” Mr. Squeaky answered imperiously, as if I had insulted him somehow; maybe I had. “However, the Luna Guard are in possession of far more information regarding Appleloosa than you are, and we believe that we can come to an arrangement.”

“An arrangement?” I cocked my eyebrow curiously at the Paladin. “What kind of… wait.” I looked to Mr. Squeeky. “Luna Guard? You’re not Steel Rangers?”

For the first time, the Paladin showed some kind of emotion, annoyance, directed at Mr. Squeeky with a sideways glance.

“Ah…” The robot mumbled. “I believe I will be cleaning the lavatories for a week now I have said that.”

I could help but chuckle.

Collecting herself, the Paladin had a brief, high pitched conversation with Mr. Squeaky. I looked around, seeing the two armoured Luna Guard who had escorted me standing just outside the door, energy weapons at the ready.

We weren’t seemingly in any danger, but I couldn’t help but think that we wouldn’t be getting out of this any time soon, which was bad enough as it was. Every day that passed was another twenty-four hours for the happenings at Stable Twenty-Five to reach Appleloosa, allowing them to bolster their defences, or simply kill the rest of our stable as retribution… or probably just petty spite knowing slavers. Looking back at the Luna Guard Paladin, I examined her more closely. Her mane did actually contain several greying hairs, which were hard to spot against the rest of her sparkling mane. Her elaborate armoured helmet rested on a table behind her along with a long articulated piece that looked rather like a tail shield. Both looked complicated but not particularly well armoured, made from multiple overlapping pieces rather than hune from a single billet. The armour seemed designed as much for intimidation as it was for protection, even compromising on the latter to look as imposing and threatening as possible.

“Miss Actinium,” Mr. Squeaky brought me back to the present situation as politely as he could. “Paladin Mango Smoothie wishes to know why you have a pregnant mare with you if you are intending to go into combat?”

I opened my mouth to respond, and then promptly shut it again. I knew the reasons why Helix was with us, but they did defy all rational sense. I’d planned to make her stay back once we reached the outskirts of Appleloosa, acting as our medical back up should it be needed, but even so, I had my reservations about her even being out here.

“I… I don’t really know.” I said eventually. “We tried to talk her out of it, but…” I groaned into my hooves, knowing that Helixs presence was definitely against my better judgement. “She might possibly be the best doctor or physician in the wastelands. Given that injuries are basically certain, and that when we reach Appleloosa we’ll need to get as many slaves ready to run in the shortest time possible, she will be invaluable.”

“So you intend to rescue all the slaves you find, not just the ponies from your own stable?” the hovering robot asked, surprised.

“Well, I… yes, of course. Why not?” I’d never considered it, but now that Mr. Squeaky mentioned it, I supposed I had always intended to rescue every pony we found. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Mr. Squeaky seemed to ponder my answer, or was simply relaying it to Mango Smoothie. It might have been my imagination, but I could have sworn that I saw a nod of approval come from the Paladin while she was considering her response. But there was no reply, instead she simply waved her hoof at the two guards. The chair released me and I was ushered out of the room under my own power. Guided a few doors down, past more booths and meeting rooms, I was directed inside and felt a wave of relief hit me.

“Are you alright?’ Seafire asked the moment the guards shut the door on the room where everyone was seemingly being held after their interrogation. Everypony was fine, if a little nervous, relaxing around an identical wooden table. I nodded to Seafire, but I had a more pressing thought on my mind.

“Her name is Mango Smoothie?!”

* * *

“Hello again!”

Mr. Squeaky gazed around at all of us as he hovered next to Paladin Mango Smoothie. The old mare had taken a seat at the head of our table, flanked again by guards. The setup was much like it had been in our interrogation, only we were all back together and not clamped to the chairs. Helix kept absentmindedly rubbing her fetlocks where the ties had been digging into her skin, but it seemed everyone else was unharmed, if a little drowsy from the sedative we had all been darted with.

“Our Paladin wishes for this briefing to be, well, brief.” The robot left everypony hanging, as if that were meant to be a joke. When no pony made a sound he pressed on. “Firstly, I regret to inform you that you are prisoners of the Luna Guard. However…” Mr. Squeaky raised his voice as Smoking and Mantis began to stand. “Our gracious Paladin wishes to make you an offer, after which, if you complete the assigned task, you will be set free.”

Glancing around I could see that everypony was less than agreeable with that notion; Smoking and Mantis especially so, but with two armed guards in the room, and two more outside, and a flamethrower equipped robot at the other end of the table, everypony was keeping quiet.

Paladin Mango Smoothie waved a hoof and Mr. Squeaky continued. “You are to accompany several members of the Luna Guard to acquire supplies. You will take your Vertibuck and head to the pick-up point. Your job is to help guard the supplies until they can be loaded and then you will be escorted back here. Once the supplies have been confirmed, you will be free to leave.”

“What kind of supplies?” Smoking asked curtly, eyeing Mango with suspicion.

“Nothing dangerous, explosive or immoral,” The robot replied.

“So what is the cargo?” Smoking pressed. “And why can’t you get it yourself. You said you were just picking it up.”

“You are just picking it up.” The robot responded jovially. “We can’t go because we are not on very good terms with those who have what we need, but there should be no need for violence if all goes to plan.”

“If you aren’t on good terms, do you really think a bunch of wastelanders like ourselves will fare any better.”

“Yes!” Mr. Squeaky replied again, sounding a little to happy. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t dangerous. But everything has been considered and contingencies planned.”

“And if we refuse?” Seafire asked, cautiously.

“Then you will be held until such time that you agree to our demands.” For a moment I thought Mr. Squeaky’s voice unit had broken, but then I realised. Mango Smoothie was standing, her hooves on the table looking far more intimidating than a pony had any right to. Her bat wings flared, eyes contracted to vertical slits and her fanged teeth exposed, Mango hissed at us like a snake. “And to make sure you come back,” Mango continued, her voice ringing so high it made me want to cover my ears. She thrust out a hoof and pointed at Helix. “She will be staying here.”

Act 2 - Chapter 15: A Sky Full Of Scars

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Chapter 15: A Sky Full Of Scars

“Not funny Rainbow!”

Insane.

The plan was insane. There was no other word for it. Not only was it insane, it went against everything I believed.

The rising sun of the breaking dawn illuminated the top of the cloud layer, making it look like a frozen sea burning from the inside-out, and making the snow shimmer and gleam around me. Team A: consisting of myself, Smoking, Xyalia and three Luna Guard, snuck through the dawn shadows towards a tall mesh fence running the perimeter of a mountain top Enclave compound which we knew to be an aircraft storage and restoration facility. Further down the snowy mountain ridgeline, three more Luna Guard accompanied by Seafire, Mantis and Minor formed team B, and would soon be striking at a food storage warehouse.

Lying in the snow I tried to ignore the barding leaving traces of blood on the crisp white ground. I’d been bedecked in a gruesome set of ex-raider armour. Blood caked the edges of the raw leather draped over my back and tipped the metal spikes that ran along my spine and forelegs. The stench was horrific, but thankfully, the Elder had permitted me to keep on my ASA suit underneath, so at least I didn’t have to endure the rank fabric touching my skin. I did however have to try and ignore the axle grease that had been smeared on my muzzle in an attempt to imitate warpaint.

The others weren’t so lucky. Smoking was grimacing at his own raider gear; which we were all certain wasn’t made from cowhide, but at least his wasn’t covered in so much blood. The rusted spikes that adorned his armour were his only real worry, positioned in such a way that it seemed its previous owner had delighted in hugging its victims to death. Xyalia was whom I felt most sorry for. Rather than hide her stripes, the Luna Guard decided to accentuate them using blood. It had taken several bloodpacks to do the job but now Xyalia looked terrifying, as if she had just forced her way through the chest of a pony and burst out the other side. Lying prone on the ground she was leaving a pink trail wherever she went.

The three Luna Guard,however, weren’t being subjected to anything nearly so disgusting. Their only concession to the ruse was wearing slightly less pretty versions of their power armour with a dents, scratches, a bit of rust, and a few of the less important plates missing. They looked like wrecks, true, they were a far cry from the horror show we had to wear.

Crawling on our bellies, we reached the edge of a ridge line and peered over the top. The two meter high fence was topped with razor wire, running the perimeter of a imposing red brick warehouse set back slightly on a hill. A trench filled with piles of rusty, jagged metal surrounded it like a moat. The only clear way through by hoof was a dual layered gate, flanked by a pair of guard towers. Even at this distance I could make out the Enclave soldiers patrolling behind the fence and the teams manning the various machine guns that topped the two guard towers. There were only a dozen guards on duty, but given we were outnumbered two to one, it seemed like very tall odds.

I felt a firm hoof grab my shoulder.

“Do you remember your instructions?” a low, synthesized voice growled.

Staring coldly back at the Luna Guard, Maelstrom Meringue if I remembered right, I gave a slow, reluctant nod. “Swing wide, target the guard tower. Once they’re dead, use grenades to blow a hole in the gate.”

Maelstrom didn’t even respond to my tonless reply and simply vanished.

Crawling left, I pulled the old sniper rifle I had been issued off my back and loaded the magazine with the massive .50 calibre rounds. The rifle had seen better days, but it was equipped with a SATS assisted module that linked with my Pipbuck. Crawling forwards and poking the barrel over the crest, I closed an eye and peered down the scope. Four ponies were in each tower: two with plasma-saddles, one sat next to a control console, and one covering the entrance with a pintle mounted gatling laser.

I grit my teeth. ‘No survivors’ they’d said. That’d been the condition for Helix and Foxgloves safe return. The idea was to make this attack and the separate attack on the food silo to the north look like the actions of mindless raiders. That meant death, blood and mutilation.

The buck on the communication console turned and spoke to the mare controlling the gatling gun. She responded with a laugh and a smile. It was just another day to them. Another day of boredom. Elder Smoothie had chosen this base specifically because it hadn’t been attacked in over ten years. The guards were complacent and casual. High up in their mountain fortress, they figured no pony could touch them and that no pony would be stupid enough to try. One buck wearing a plasma saddle punched the console operator in the shoulder with a hearty laugh. I gulped.

Any second now, Smoking would start shooting the guards inside the compound, drawing their attention behind them so I that when I started on the towers, they would be too caught up in the confusion to return fire. Once that was done, the three Luna Guard would swoop in and begin killing the remaining guards while Xyalia scaled the fence and made sure the guards in the tower were truly dead. It would be bloody. It would be brutal. I could see no way out of it. And then it began.

Bullets felled two guards further inside the compound, instantly drawing everyponies attention. The guards simply stood there in surprise, until another bark of gunfire ripped into then, dropping felling another two. The sharp crack of Smoking’s rifle broke the pristine dawn. I watched in horror as the round puncturing the guards volatile weapon, engulfing the entire watchtower in a vicious blue fireball. Burning ponies tumbled out of the burning structure, into the trench, becoming impaled on the debris within.

Tears streamed down my face as I tried to line up the gatling gun mare in my sight, her wing speared through by a piece of debris and her mane burning freely. My magic wavered on the trigger. ‘Don’t do it… please don’t do it.’ my inner pony begged. ‘There must be another way?’ But I couldn’t see it. The mare died with a hole clean through her skull, SATS ensuring my aim was true. I turned the gun on my next target, wiping tears from my eyes, and pulled the trigger once more.

- - -Seafire - - -

My soul burned. My eyes were blotched with tears and my body sagged with despair. In my hooves, the family of four beamed happily up at me while the father lay beside me his eyes gazing blankly into the void.

“Seafire?” A gentle but metallic voice coaxed. “Come on, we’ve got to move. We can’t get behind time.”

“He… he… he had a family,” I croaked. “Look at them.”

“Seafire…”

“Look at them!” I yelled shoving the picture in the Luna Guards visored face. “He had a family… and we killed him! We killed…” I couldn’t speak as the sobs overtook me again.

This wasn’t me. I didn’t want this to be me. I hadn’t fired a single shot since we’d started our attack, just using my magic to topple boxes and slam doors, trying to knock out or disable the enclave ponies who worked at the food storage facility. But it’d done no good. The Luna Guard had spared no pony. At least Fruit Wing had tried to disable his targets rather than kill, but the other two had simply gunned them down, worker or guard alike.

I let Fruit Wing pull me to my hooves. I wiped the tears from my eyes with my hoof, doing my best to avoid touching the filthy raiderfied boiler suit that I’d been forced to wear. Nearby, Mantis and Minor were reloading their weapons, Minor looking as if he was going to be sick, while Mantis just looked grim. Their own raider armour was just as filthy as mine, covered in blood and scrawled profanities.

Solar Decay; the Luna Guard who was incharge of our little group, gruffly reloaded his twin assault rifle battle saddle and stomped over to us. “Quit bitching and focus on the job.” He snapped, his own synthesized voice having a very rough and unpleasant edge. “Unless you want your friends to die.”

I shot him a glare of pure loathing; something I had never felt myself capable of back in Seventeen, but out here, right now… it came as naturally as breathing.

Solar Decay sneered, heading through a set of double doors and into the main storage warehouse. WIth encouragement from Fruit Wing, I followed, keeping the rusty—but fully functional—assault rifle floating before me; not that I had any intention of firing it.

The warehouse was similar in size to the one outside of Seventeen, but this was compartmentalised by walls of old, cracked bricks. We had yet to see any cloud architecture like I had hoped, but given the facility was built on a mountain top, I guessed they didn’t need to bother. The closest we’d come were the cloud locks on the doors and the cloud touchpads on the computers. Each section was filled with different kinds of fruits and vegetables in clear, hermetically sealed cubes about a metre along each side. In the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling, was a huge tank like device linked to each compartment by a series of conveyors. Also linked to this machine were an array of stainless steel tanks, labeled with the words ‘Danger - High Pressure LN2 - Do Not Touch’.

“Here,” Solar Decay called from the far end of the warehouse. “Brandy Butter, Fruit Wing. Get those forklifts over here. Move the food in front of the shutters,” He indicated a set of rolling shutters that lead out to a landing strip at the back of the complex. “We have eight minutes left on the Enclaves best emergency response time. With any luck they will go to the Vertibuck store first, and we will be long gone by the time they make it here. You three,” he pointed at Mantis, Minor and myself, “cover that entrance. If you don’t shoot back, you will die and then your friends will die; so I advise you pull your triggers.”

Taking up a covered position on one side of the double doors, I gritted my teeth and glanced at Minor. The poor buck had been with us less than three days and already he had been forced to kill innocent ponies. Sure, the Enclave were far from innocent. Their actions in the late stages of the war and since they closed off they sky were proof, but that didn’t mean they deserved to die, and certainly not some buck with family who was just doing his job.

I felt another tear begin to run from my eye.

- - -Francium - - -

With the guards at the fence dealt with, we’d moved swiftly up to the main building; a single imposing structure of red brick and mortar with a veranda running around the perimeter. Following the Luna Guard I cantered up towards a set of large frosted glass doors - which surprisingly was intact - checking the windows to the left and right. A strange whirring sound caught my ear. I glanced up then dived hard to the right as the turret mounted machine gun opened fire. The Luna Guard were far slower to react, and judging by the number of bullets they took before making it to cover, this hadn’t been part of the plan. I scrambled to a stout pillar that supported the veranda just before the concrete at my hooves exploded from the stream of bullets.

Pausing to catch my breath, I saw across from me Smoking and Solar were pinned behind a similar pillar that had fallen to the ground, with no way to bring their weapons to bear. There blips were there on my EFS but I couldn’t see where Xyalia nor the other Luna Guard were taking cover: I guess it was up to me for this one. I switched over to Jury selecting a low speed and high energy setting, hoping to take out the turrets with a single well placed shot. I glanced at my spark-battery level, breathed deep, then swung out taking aim at the nearest turret.

Only two shots made their target before my SATS spell was interrupted by the hail of fire that slammed into me. I scrambled back behind the pillar, but not before I felt a lance of pain run up my leg making me scream. Tears swelling in my eyes, I glanced down at my leg. Two bullets had made it through the shield, ripping into both my suit and the meat of my thigh. I gritted my teeth at the pain, testing if I could stand. The answer seemed to be yes, albeit with considerable discomfort. On the upside, the sound of bullets seemed to have lessened, a look at my EFS confirmed there was one less bar; at least my attack had been successful.

A deafening blast shook the windows around us, and a second blip dropped out of my EFS. One turret to go.

I peeked out from behind my pillar again. The remaining turret was now torn between shooting at Smoking and Solar behind their pillar and the other Luna Guard who’d managed to advance up the wall, outside the turrets range of motion. However they couldn’t move out now to get a shot without totally exposing themselves and had effectively got themselves pinned.

I gritted my teeth against the pain in my leg, swinging out once more and taking aim, only to come face to face with a hail of bullets. I flattened myself against the pillar, red brick dust scattering around me, gunfire tearing the pillar to shreds. My face pressed to the bricks I watched in horror as the pillar wall began to creep towards me, bullets slowly eating away at my barrier like a invisible roaring monster. Any second now I was going to run out of cover or the pillar would collapse on top of me.

The hail of gunfire suddenly span away, bullets shattering windows and concrete as the turret flailed wildly before exploding of the wall with a almost comical popping sound. I took a moment, breathing deeply before I peered round what remained of my pillar. Xyalia hung from the wall of the building where the turret used to be, one of her bladed hooves piercing the targeting gem embedded in the turrets gimbal.

My panic lapsed, allowing me to catch my breath and for the guilt to come crashing down once more. They were dead. They were all dead. I’d tried, I’d tried so hard just to wound them. I might even have succeeded if a member of the Luna Guard hadn’t let fly with a flamethrower.

I was never going to get their screams out of my head.

‘How am I going to face her…’ my inner pony sobbed. ‘How do I justify all this? Is it even possible. Her life over another’s? Many others!’

“Francium.” My head jerked up to look at Smoking. Judging by his expression, that hadn’t been the first time he’d called my name. “We need to move. Time is ticking… you’re hit…” Before I could tell him I was fine, Smoking knelt beside me and began wrapping a regular bandage around my upper leg and thigh.

“This isn’t right,” I stated dryly, letting Smoking bind up my leg. “But I can’t see a way out. All these ponies lives against just two? They’ve done nothing wrong and we’re just…”

“You’d rather Helix and Foxglove died?” Smoking asked, deftly securing the bandage with a safety pin.

“Of course not!” I snapped, regretting it instantly when he flinched, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to vent. “I’d rather no pony died and we all lived in a world of sunshine and rainbows but we don’t, and we are here right now, and I am choosing the life of two friends over those of some strangers descended from ponies who abandoned Equestria—”

The rifle butt caught me hard in the head, sending me sprawling.

“Shut up and get up,” a metallic voice growled.

I glared up at a rather burly mare, spitting dirt out of my mouth. Smoking shot her a filthy look but she ignored us and moved back to the door leading into the warehouse.

The main storage warehouse for the Vertibucks stood resolute in red brickwork before us. There were no large exterior doors that I could see, only a small personnel door that had all too recently been guarded by an automated minigun, an occasional spark spitting from its mount. We had considered blasting our way through the walls but there was too much risk of collateral damage making us miss the rendezvous with the o