Suck it up, Buttercup

by David Silver

First published

He marched through the wastes. He was also bright yellow, and had a tail that did not sway much. He was also named Buttercup, not exactly a manly name, but it was his. His friend needed him. What is that? It looks like him, but also very not...

He marched through the wastes. He was also bright yellow, and had a tail that did not sway much. He was also named Buttercup, not exactly a manly name, but it was his. His friend needed him. What is that? It looks like him, but also very not...

She lived in seclusion with her people, avoiding the humans and their many dangers. They had weapons and loved to use them on anything that threatened them. It was very easy to threaten them. Buttercup was her name and scouting was her game. What didn't expect was to see a... sorta horse with a human.

1 - Man and his Horse

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The dirt crunched under their feet, boots and metal hooves carrying them forward. "We should rest," spoke his robotic companion.

"You don't rest." Atomic powered, he was fairly sure his horse would keep on going until after he was long gone, barring being torn apart.

"You do," gently assured the horse, directing a hoof at a larger rock. "I will keep watch while you prepare camp."

"Buttercup, you're too damn nice." He ruffled the little artificial mane on Buttercup's head. "Don't change. Fine, we've walked a lot today. A little break won't kill us."

"The lack of one might kill you." Buttercup was, perhaps, a bit of a mothering presence, despite being male. As male as a robot that had decided it was male was. "You purchased those treats from the last town. I recommend you consume one and save the rest for later rests."

Buttercup let out a little whinny and a snort, quite authentic, just as his label had promised. Leaving his owner and partner to enjoy his break, he turned his head slowly to take in the surroundings and look for trouble.

She slammed herself against the stones, peering across the divide at something on the far end of the canyon. A human! Humans had guns. Humans had knives. Humans had bad attitudes and were ready to use all three on, well... everything, Buttercup had heard. Other humans. Not humans. Things moving. Things not moving.

How had they even survived? She didn't know, but clearly they had. There was a human right there!

He was eating something. Was that a can? She licked her lips. Cans often had tasty things in them, when they didn't have nasty things in them. It was a roll of the dice, but the way the human was chomping down, she could only assume it was a lucky winner.

There was something next to the human. It was yellow, like she was. Rusted, like she wasn't. It had... kind of a horse-like head, sorta. Like some foal somewhere drew a horse, and that was it. It was... looking? around. A robot?

She'd run into a human and a robot?! It was stupid amounts of luck. Good or bad, she was not sure.

Her eyes and the robot's met. Everything seemed to freeze for just a moment. With a squeak, she dived back into complete cover, hoping, somehow, she had not been spotted.

"Unknown mutant detected," informed Buttercup. "Aggression, unknown. Monitoring."

"What?" He stuffed the remainder of his snack in his face, making a mess of it and his fingers in the rush as he tossed the can aside to clatter against the dry stones. "You know most of 'em by now. What'd you see?" He grabbed a longarm he had set down for the break, inspecting that it was loaded and ready for use.

"Mammal, equine."

The man hiked a brow at that. "A horse? A mutant horse? How many heads?" He was looking in the direction Buttercup was, but he saw nothing but the yawning void of the canon, and an outcrop of rocks, but no horses around.

"One." Buttercup inclined their head faintly with a mechanical buzzing. "Size and proportions implies a pony breed. Regulations state I am to avoid contact with wild horses. Mutants are wild, aren't they?"

He flicked one of Buttercup's metal ears with a metallic tink of a noise. "Pretty sure you'd spook a horse if it was wild or not. I'm used to you." He patted the back of his robotic companion. "Is it coming closer, or running away?"


Buttercup's heart thumped wildly in her ears. She was too scared to run away or to peek and see if she had been noticed. She didn't hear footsteps. Maybe if she just stayed hidden, they would get bored and leave?

Running meant she could be seen, and then shot. Not that... Maybe a peek, a careful peek, would be better. She slid against the ground, barely edging out enough to get an eye around the corner. There was the human, holding a gun, damn it all.

The strange horse robot was, of course, looking right at her! "Do not be alarmed," it boomed, its lips unmoving. "I am friendly."

Buttercup blinked softly, had the robot... What?

"What are you doing?" hissed the human.

"You said that you were not scared because you were accustomed to my presence. If I am friendly towards this horse, perhaps they will also grow accustomed to my presence."

Clean robotic logic. He wiped his greasy hand on his pants leg, clearing it of most of the gunk. "Well, did it work? And where is it? I don't see it."

Even Buttercup could barely see it, peeking out from cover as it was. "It is present and monitoring us. Perhaps it is considering if we are a threat?" An idea arrived. "I will attempt to speak its language."

The horse robot began to whicker at her in a surprisingly loud volume. Like its booming words, it was basically shouting at her, in horse. A little whinny and a light snort, all in elevated volumes to cross the distance. What was it trying to do?

Now, well, Buttercup was a pony, a horse herself. Whinnies and such had a meaning, but they weren't words. Words were words! A snort was great like an exclamation point. Or a question mark, or, well, yeah, a modifier to words. They could express emotions, but were not words. The strangest part was that the robot's noises were kinda all over. They were a combination of curious and friendly with spikes of 'What's that?!' and 'Don't surprise me!' that sent her nerves jangling.

"What are you doing, Buttercup?" A set of hooves hit the ground behind her. "What are you looking at?"

Buttercup turned her head sharply to see a friend. "Get down," she hissed, waving him to get lower. "There's a human!"

"We should get out of here then," suggested the winged pony. "Why are you still here?"

"He has a horse robot." Buttercup turned back around. The robot was still watching her. "I think it's not good at being a horse."

The pegasus squinted at the idea. "It's a robot. Seriously, I'm getting out of here, you should do the same." He launched himself off the edge of their rock and his wings carried him off in a glide away quickly. Darn pegasi, cheating with those wings of theirs.

Buttercup considered the situation a moment.

"I'm no expert... But I don't think horses sound like that." He had his hand on his friend's back, gun no longer raised into ready position. "Probably scared it off."

"I am capable of emulating perfectly horse noises and behavior," defended Buttercup in a bit of a pout, not that he was actually pouting. "There they are." The pony had come back into view, peering at him. "I did not scare them away. I should use more horse behavior."

He advanced closer to the cliff's edge, pawing at the ground and sniffing at the air in a dramatic display of equine curiosity. With the grinding of abused and not often used metal joints, he got his mouth moving, slapping up and down his jaws together.

"What are you doing?"

What was that thing doing? It was clearly agitated... curious? Then the clanging. What was... Buttercup drew the rest of herself forward, sitting on her haunches with amazement. Was the metal horse trying to... do the thing foals did when they were in trouble but didn't want older ponies to be too mad?

Foals did not squeak and clang. Foals were not robots. That robot was pretending to be a foal, awkwardly, terribly. But it was trying... "You look silly!" she shouted suddenly, only to go red instantly. She had given herself away! Well, wait, the robot already knew she was there.

Except the human heard her too, and his gun was raising. "Who does?" The human shouted in turn.

"You can talk?" boomed the robot. "This is better. Hello, fellow horse. My name is Buttercup."

Buttercup was knocked dumb a moment. The robot had her name?! "That's my name! You can't have it!" The human's gun was getting better with his aim. She dived for cover with a yelp.

The robotic Buttercup nudged against his friend. "You are menacing our new friend."

"I thought you said it was a mutant?"

"It is a mutant horse that can talk. I would like her to be a friend." Buttercup inclined his head at the human. "Stan, she said her name was also Buttercup."

"Figures..." Stan rubbed behind his head, letting his gun angle towards the ground. "Now I get to deal with two Buttercups."

"She has a protective streak concerning her name. I will assume a new name." His voice raised to his boom, "You can call me Giddyup."

Buttercup raised an ear and peeked back around her rock from a new angle. The human wasn't pointing his gun at her, good... good... "Hello, Giddyup." A silly name, that, but it wasn't her name, so that was an improvement. "How ya doing?" she shouted from her hiding spot.

Giddyup pranced in place. "Friendship has commenced." He pointed a hoof at Stan. "This is my friend and partner, Stan." He leaned in, voice lowering, "Say hello, Stan."

Stan chuckled at the absurdity his life had become. "Hey," he called out. "Want to come a little closer? Shouting across the wastes is how you get ambushed."

Buttercup worried her forehooves together. Coming closer meant a lot of risk. She could fight, sure... but that meant a lot less when dealing with a robot and an armed human with a big gun. "Promise you won't hurt me?"

"I give complete assurance." Giddyup turned to face Stan and his gun. "Put that down."

Stan set it down, but not to the ground. It was on its butt, leaned against himself. "You don't survive out here by not being ready." His voice raised. "Come on out. If you don't mess with us, we'll return the favor."

Buttercup smiled nervously. The human was ready to not fight? Was that a thing humans could do? Apparently. Maybe the horse robot was a good influence on them? That was easier to get her mind around. Good robot! If only there had been a lot more such friendly robots around to get the humans to stop being... human. "I'm coming out." She emerged, rising to her full height.

Giddyup let out a happy equine squeal, tossing his bristly mane, eyes on her. Stan patted him lightly. "Easy there. Let her come this way." Not that Buttercup could hear those words in the distance, just see that he was talking to Giddyup, hopefully about something nice?

Buttercup trotted down the incline towards the wall of the canyon, circling around towards the strangers. "I know how to fight," she threatened not terribly threateningly. "So don't try anything funny."

Giddyup trotted right towards her, clopping twice. She could hear his metal hooves striking the ground. She could also hear a clip-clop playing from inside him. The recording was far more like what one would expect from a horse. "Hello, Buttercup. I admit I do not know what horses do with other horses. It is nice to meet you."

Buttercup's ears pinned back on her head, and he just... stopped. She blinked in surprise, forcing her ears back up, which caused him to resume his approach. He could tell she was nervous? "I'm not used to how to act around robots. Robots are usually trouble with a capital T. You seem... nice, for a robot."

"You seem nice, for a horse," countered Giddyup, seeming quite happy with life in general. "Stan, come closer and make friends."

Stan threw up his free hand. "Look, buddy, pal. You know I love you, but I'm used to one crazy horse in my life." He began to approach despite that. "Now we have two, and the other one looks like she's real scared of me."

He wasn't... exactly wrong. "We're all scared of each other." Buttercup smiled despite that. "Maybe if we get to know each other, that will go away?"

2 - Always Those Guys

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Buttercup walked at the head of this strange... herd? Were they a herd? It was perhaps too soon to consider them a family, though Giddyup seemed perfectly happy to accept her as a part of his family. Robots.

"So, Stan?"

The human let out a 'hm'. "Yeah?"

"You ever feel the need to kill something?" She smiled over her shoulder, trying her best to keep her ears upright.

Stan let out a noise that wasn't quite a laugh. "That's a hell of a question, horse. It's a rough world out there. Things want to kill you. What do you do when some rad scorp has its eyes on you?"

"Run, or kick it." Buttercup nodded in complete confidence. "Both is probably a good idea. If friends are around, we might gang up on it."

"Sounds like my murder streak's about as wide as yours." He patted the gun at his side. "I'm just better prepared, 'cause I've had to fight by myself more often then not."

"Poor thing."

"Do not worry," suddenly cut in Giddyup. "I have ended Stan's isolation."

Stan swatted the metal back of his robotic companion. "Not the way I remember it. You were the one that was mighty lonely. Practically begged for someone to 'adopt' you. Wasn't that the word you used?"

If robots could blush. Giddyup snorted instead, throwing his head. "The Giddyup Buttercup unit is designed to play, monitor, and accompany a child."

Buttercup hiked a brow at that. "Pretty sure that isn't a human foal." She was no human expert, but that wasn't a kid... right? "You're not a kid, are you?"

Giddyup advanced as if to protect Stan. "Stan is in good health and is of an appropriate age." That the age was not that of a child, Giddyup casually ignored. "My care has ensured that this continues to be the case."

A loud pop sounded in the distance. A metallic clank echoed as Giddyup whinnied in a shrill cry of surprise. He had been shot, a new hole in his side. "Attack has commended," he reported. "There." He turned to face the enemies.

Stan spat even as he raised his rifle into position. "Fucking bandits." A return bang that sent Buttercup scrambling for safety. "Never can't get rid of the bastards."

Buttercup was holding her ears. Why were human weapons so loud? She peeked out from cover to see Stan was actually a decent shot, injuring distant figures. More humans! She had gone from not seeing any to now... about half a dozen? Coincidence?

Giddyup raised a fore leg, tightening it like a coil. When one of those 'bandits' got close, he let it go, an unleashed spring. The metal crashed into armored flesh without mercy, delivering a firm kick that had the bandit reeling back in pain and shock.

Then he was shot. He was way too close for Stan to miss. The bandit crashed to the ground, coughing and gasping their last bits of breath, but Stan was already focusing elsewhere. They were a team. A fighting team.

And she had thought she could take them in a scrap? Buttercup shook her head in amazement, only to feel something. A human had grabbed her from behind. A mistake many a human has made with many a horse. Buttercup was quick to remind humanity why that was a bad idea. With terror bolting through her, she lashed out her back hooves with all she had, knocking the bandit she hadn't noticed right onto his back.

"And stay gone." With a loud pop, Stan made sure that bandit wasn't getting back up. "Think that's all of them. You two alright?"

Giddyup turned in place in a full circle. "No additional threats detected. Damage sustained, minimal."

"Minimal my ass." Stan went right up to Buttercup, dropping to a knee and getting out curious things. "Stay still and I'll get you patched up."

Buttercup watched with wonder as Stan conducted repairs, getting that hole closed up as best he could. The human wasn't just a fighter... "You care about him."

"What?" Stan patted the spot. "He's my buddy. Only real jerks don't care about their buds."

Giddyup seemed pleased enough at this assessment. "Empathy is a vital skill. Nice kick." The last was directed at Buttercup. "Did you see my kick?"

Buttercup quirked a little smile. That robot was like a kid himself in some ways. "You sure did kick that human good. Can you buck?" She braced her front and lashed out with her hind legs. "Like that?"

"I can not." Giddyup inclined his head. "I am not built for that motion. It would be a danger to my children."

Buttercup raised a hoof, struck silent a moment. "The kick you... did was pretty dangerous." She felt no rush to feel it herself.

"It was not designed," easily agreed Giddyup. "I invented it myself. Because I designed the motion, there are no regulations in its use. Useful for self defense. I would never use it on my rider."

Stan was busy not being a part of the conversation, instead patting down the bandits and taking whatever caught his eye. "They got guns if you want one." He shoved some ammo in his backpack. "Not sure how you'd hold it."

That was equally a mystery for Buttercup. "I'm fine without... Let's get away from here." Being around corpses was not her ideal day... no... "So... um... Giddyup, if I asked you to keep a secret?"

"I would not share a secret." Giddyup nodded firmly, metal jaw squeaking. "Unless the parent of my rider requested the information."

Buttercup considered Stan. "You have parents?"

"Don't we all?" Stan shrugged at that, backpack on his shoulders where it belonged. "Mine's long gone, but they had a good run. Went out clean, relatively speaking."

Buttercup blinked slowly at that. "What does that mean?"

"It means they were middle aged, got sick, and died. Didn't go down to no random bandits. Didn't starve to death. Just ran out of time." He started forward. "We going?"

Her ears sagged at that. "Yeah..." Getting sick, that was a thing that happened. Sometimes you just didn't get better... "So you don't... How are you with secrets?"

"Figure I'm decent." He patted Giddyup on the back. "Why do they go after you first?"

"Are they intimidated by me? I am a large and sleek horse." Giddyup, as it turned, was neither of those things.

Buttercup sat, tapping her hooves a moment before she stood up in a new direction. "This way, but this is a secret, alright? A big secret!" The others began to follow her. "I'm not the only pony out here."

Giddyup accelerated to her side with his curious double-step noises. "I will get to make more horse friends? Will they be scared of me like you were?"

"Probably." She turned one ear towards him. "Let me introduce you, and Stan. They'll be scared of both of you. We usually avoid humans, and robots. You two are nice though."

Stan came up on the other side of Buttercup. "They got weapons? Scared things can turn into a fight really quick when they want to."

Buttercup was ready to hotly deny that... But it fizzled. "The guards keep us safe, help fight things that come to attack us... I'd better talk to them before you two get close to them. Please don't hurt them. They're just doing their job."

Giddyup nodded as if with familiarity. "Horse guards are just like human guards. They also protect the members of their community and can react with violence to threats, real and perceived. Do you remember the town before last?"

Stan grunted, clearly remembering. "They put a few new dents in you. Bunch of asses. They didn't even give me a single bottlecap to pay for those repairs either."

Giddyup had no eyes to turn. Wide angle lenses on either side of his head, he could see all around himself. He turned his head mostly for their benefit, so others knew what he was focusing on, and so he looked towards Stan. "Thank you for your assistance. They did apologize."

"Words are cheap," spat Stan with some lingering anger. "We'll keep away from wherever you're taking us until after you give the all clear. I don't need a bunch of mutant horses giving both of us some new lumps to enjoy."

"Hurting a fellow horse would not be enjoyed." Giddyup returned his head to facing forward, trotting along animatedly on his metal hooves. "I hope we can meet them and become friends. Do not direct your firearm in their direction. That is both rude and will increase the chances of violent reaction."

Buttercup accelerated ahead of them. "You two stay here." She pointed behind a large rock. "No peeking. I'll go ahead and explain to them who you are." She sped right up away from them, trusting they would stay still, or things would likely get prickly in a hurry.

"Buttercup!" A pegasus, different from the first, was on a boulder was looking down at her. "I heard you saw a human. You alright?"

"She looks fine." A unicorn, male, nodded towards Buttercup. "Welcome back."

"Hey Watch Out." She closed with him and they tapped foreheads. "I brought something big with me, but I need to make sure you don't totally freak out.

The pegasus whistled sharply. "What'd you do?!" She squinted down at Buttercup. "Did you bring the human here?"

"She would never do something like that," countered Watch Out, shaking his head with a snort.

Oh, shoot. Buttercup laughed nervously. "Well..."

Watch Out brought over a spear, grabbed in his magic and directing it at Buttercup. "Have you gone entirely insane? Are they holding you hostage? Just blink once."

It took quite a bit of willpower to stop from blinking in response. "I'm not being held hostage, promise." She turned in place. "They're waiting like good people for me to give the all clear. They just want to say hi. He has a robot horse who's super nice, and he's been teaching the human to be nice too. Adopted him!"

The pegasus above flopped to her side, gales of laughter echoing across the wastes. "The human was adopted by a robot, who trained them to be nice? Get out! That's amazing."

Buttercup's face was on fire, dark red as she stammered a moment. "It's true!" she squeaked out at last. "His name is Giddyup, and he just wants to meet more horses, like he is."

Watch Out set his spear to lean against their village's wall. "You're not being held hostage, you're just being stupid." He thumped Buttercup right in the center of her chest. "The human is obviously lying to you, to learn where we are. Then they will attack. They will pillage and despoil, it's what humans do."

"Tell us where the human's at and we'll take care of it," promised the pegasus above. "They got a gun?"

"He does, but he only uses it on bad things, like rad scorps, and bad humans." She sat on her haunches with a stubborn expression. "You will not hurt him."

"All humans are bad," sighed out Watch out, rolling his eyes. "Do you remember what happened when Sassafras thought she could tame a rad scorpion? Raised it from an egg, fed it and loved it to pieces."

But scorpions were creatures of instinct in the end... One day that instinct had caught up with Sassafras, then there wasn't a Sassafras anymore. "I remember... This is different. A human isn't a scorpion. He talks. He cares about things."

With a sudden thump, the pegasus joined them, gliding down from her vantage point to get there. "I got a challenge." She went right up to Buttercup, nose to nose. "If you can get the human to give up his gun, he gets a chance. Humans are born with their guns. They won't ever give it up. You say he can be reasoned with? Prove it. Bring back his gun, and we'll check if he has spares. If he comes with no weapons, he gets one chance."

3 - Test of Entry

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And so Buttercup returned to her new friends hiding behind the rock. "Good news and bad news."

Giddyup gave a little whicker. "It is good to see you return safely."

"Thanks." She met Stan's eyes, her head craned upwards to do so. "They said you can have a chance, but there's a very specific requirement."

"If they want me to come as nude as you are, hard pass."

Buttercup blinked at that. "Armor's expensive," she squeaked defensively. "And I'm not a guard." Though since he brought it up, she suddenly realized, that was not a flappy layer of skin. Those were clothes. She felt silly for not realizing that right away. Look, she hadn't seen a lot of humans outside of maybe a picture or two!

"So what's the condition?" Stan picked up his rifle, as if somehow instinctively knowing this involved that.

Humans really were born with their guns. For just a moment Buttercup wondered if he felt through it. "You have to promise not to be mad..." She didn't want an enraged human to deal with. "You can say no, but that means you can't come in."

Stan shrugged at that, but he was still holding his gun. "Go ahead, ask. If it's that bad, we're out of here. Not like we don't have places to be."

Giddyup raised a metal hoof. "We must complete the delivery of--"

"That's more than enough, pal." Stan nodded as Giddyup aborted the report of their tasks. "So what's the requirement already?"

No more delaying. Buttercup pointed at Stan's longarm. "If you come in peace, they want you to not have any guns, or other weapons. We'll take care of them while you're here." A charming smile, she hoped. "Please?"

Stan grunted at the idea. "That was a lot of drama for something so simple." Simple?! "Do the people... mutants inside carry weapons or not?"

Buttercup raised each of her hooves one at a time. "Not more than you see me holding. Only the guards walk around with weapons, usually."

Stan shrugged. "Then that isn't that big of a request. I've had to turn over for some of the snootier cities that forgot what time they're in." He set the gun down, face up. "Do I give it to you?"

Buttercup took a step back. That simple? "Y-yeah. They'll check if you have spares though, they said."

"What about a knife? That allowed?" Stan shrugged softly. "Basic utility blade. Ain't got any blood on it but what we ate."

"I did not eat," assured the atomic powered equine that was Giddyup. "Will eating utensils be provided for Stan while we visit?"

"'Course." Buttercup bobbed her head. "We're not rude. So... for safety sake, the knife too, please." She sat and extended her hooves, ready to accept what was given.

Stan set his longarm across her extended legs. "Can you walk while you're doing that?" He struggled to imagine how that'd play out. "What if I gave it to Buttercup? He's great at holding things, and if he promises, you know he'll hand it over at the gate. It's a gate, right? All towns got gates if they got anything."

"I am Giddyup," he reminded. "She is Buttercup." He pointed to their new, living, pony friend.

Buttercup smirked at that. "Don't you forget it. I was Buttercup first."

But Stan laughed at that. "Doubt that. I really doubt that."

Buttercup fixed her fellow horse with a look. "Tell him! Tell him I was first."

Giddyup was not as certain. "What is the date of your manufacture?"

Which spread the confusion right back on Buttercup. "Manufacture?"

Fortunately, there was Stan to figure out where the two horses had failed in their conversation. "He's a robot. Robots are manufactured. Built." He hiked a thumb at Buttercup. "And you are a mutant, which means you were born, either from your mom like a normal horse, or an egg. Mutants are weird like that."

Giddyup recoiled in apparent shock. "I thought all horses were manufactured."

"Nope," assured Buttercup. When he held out the knife towards her, she snapped it in her teeth. "Anything else? Oh, and I didn't come from any egg. What am I, a radscorp?" A popular day for radscorp consideration. "Uh, oh right. So I was born 19 years ago."

It was Stan's turn to be surprised. "Huh."

"Huh? What's so odd about that?" Buttercup turned awkwardly, starting to shuffle/waddle on her hind legs, the gun laid across her arms, the knife in her mouth. "Why, how old are you? And you! Giddyup, I was first, right?"

Giddyup easily kept up with the encumbered pony. "That is incorrect. I was was manufactured October 2nd, 2077."

Stan burst into a low laugh. "Think he has you beat by at least a few days, missy."

Buttercup began to color. "Just a few..." She was quiet in their march a moment. "If you were first, why'd you give up the name so quick?"

Giddyup lowered his head next to hers, though his voice came more from the center of his chest than from his head directly. "You wanted it, so I gave it to you. That seemed to be the correct thing to do, to make a friend."

"Buttercup!" There was a winged pony, a pegasus perched on an equally large rock as the one they had been hiding on was watching them. "Is that his gun?"

"She did it," breathlessly admitted a horned pony closer to the ground, watching them with wonder. "Let me help." He trotted towards them at a light jog. His horn began to glow, snatching the rifle free of Buttercup, though his eyes were on Stan the entire time.

Giddyup let out a happy little neigh, followed by low nickers. "It is a pleasure to meet you. I am grateful you also speak English. Equine communication is limited, but I would have tried my best."

"He ain't lying." Stan was watching the horse with the floating gun beside it. "Now... That is not normal, just gonna put that out there." Psychic powers were not high on the usual expectations for mutants.

Buttercup gestured with her liberated hooves. "This big guy's Watch Out. He's great at living up to his name." She pounced the unicorn in a warm hug. "Keeps us nice and safe."

Watch Out shoved Buttercup back. "I'm on duty, Buttercup. There's a human right here."

The pegasus landed, gliding down easily. "I'm Sky Eye." She pointed back up at the rock she just descended. "One guess why I got that name." She laughed as she approached, eyeing Stan. "And you're a human. Never got this close to one that was still breathing."

Of the two, Stan figured Sky was a lot less nervous than Watch. Also, she flew. Alarming, perhaps, but so much less worrying than whatever the horned one was doing. He addressed her, "Hey. Stan's the name. This guy's Giddyup. Giddyup Buttercup in its entirety." He patted the metal side of his robotic companion. "We came 'cause she invited us." He nodded towards Buttercup.

Watch Out walked back to the gate he started at, setting the gun aside inside it. "Buttercup gets ideas." He peeked out at the lot of them. "You have one chance, Stan. Stan... What does that even mean?"

Sky snorted softly. "Ignore him. Humans have, what, a dozen languages? You lost track of what your name means, didn't you?"

How one lost track of what one never knew... "It's just a name. I will want that gun back when I go."

"Don't even worry about it." Sky turned for the town and pointed. "We're not thieves. Welcome to the stable. Keep by Buttercup, do as she says, and it'll be a nice trip." She looked over her shoulder at Stan. "In case this wasn't super obvious, don't tell your friends about this, huh? We're not looking to 'make friends', and human friends are risky ones to make in general. One chance, all you get."

"All my worst enemies are humans." Funny how that worked out. "Don't owe them a damn thing. Any obvious rules besides the basics? No starting fights, no taking what ain't yours." The basic rules that governed most societies since there was any such thing.

Watch snorted softly. "You speak those rules, but humans so rarely follow them. If they did, we'd be out of a job."

Buttercup laughed a bit too loud as she trotted to the fore of her group. "Follow me! I have so much to show you." With pride, she led her group into the village of ponies. Beyond the tall gates that kept out the horrors of the waste, they found a small town that was... green. Lush lawns, no, but local plants had been set around, encouraged to grow and thrive. That an earth pony was nibbling on one was a hint that the decorations served more than one purpose.

"Stop grazing off the ground," hissed Buttercup, closing with the stallion and thomping them right on the head. "We aren't wild animals!"

"I was hungry," he grumped, swallowing the last of the greenery he had secured. "And it's right there." He only then noticed Buttercup was not alone. "W-wha?" His eyes went wide. "Is that a robot?"

Stan chuckled softly at the reaction. "Robot rates over a human huh?"

"If you were a threat, the guards would have taken care of you." The stallion nodded with confidence. "But a robot!" He gestured wildly at Giddyup. "Where'd you find one? And it's a horse."

"I am a horse," agreed Giddyup. "Nice to meet you."

"And it talks!" The stallion began to bounce up and down in place. "It talks!"

Buttercup applied a hoof to her face. "Meet Long Stalk. Long Stalk, the robot you're fascinated in also has a name."

"I am Giddyup Buttercup. You may call me Giddyup." He nodded at the flesh horse. "Nice to meet you, Long Stalk."

"Wow." Long rushed up to circle around Giddyup, viewing from all the angles he could manage. "Wow! What were you made for? All robots are made for something, right?"

With a soft click, a marketing promo began to play from Giddyup, not in his voice at all. "The ultimate in equestrian robotics, Giddyup Buttercup is programmed to perfectly emulate the behavior of an actual horse. He neighs, he trots, he'll love you love you lots! And with no need to feed or exercise him, Giddyup Buttercup is perfect for urban environments." A little corporate jingle played to finish it off, one more click as it reached its end.

Buttercup crossed one hoof over the other leg, pointed at Giddyup with a confident smirk. "He's real nice, and he taught Stan, the human, to be nice too!"

"Wow..." Long fell to his haunches. "This is amazing. They made a horse, just to horse? Humans are... They're gods. They do things because they can." He fixed his eyes on Stan. "Will you do something magical like that?"

"That's real unlikely." He gestured back towards where his gun was lost. "I'm real good at making things stop moving, but they took that 'magic staff' away from me. I can keep on ticking when things get rough, but you've managed that good enough so far."

Giddyup stepped towards Long. "We would like to meet more. Will you introduce us to your friends? If they know us, then they will not be alarmed at our presence."

"Huh?" It took Long a moment. "Oh! You have to meet the elders. They will go nuts." He turned to Buttercup. "They're with you? C'mon! The elders gotta see this. They gotta! They'd know what to do, and say, and ask, and all that stuff."

Buttercup turned to her new friends. "Long here is good at taking in the long view. He's already thinking about what to do next, not now. It's how he is. Good thing we love him." She threw an arm over his withers in a hug. "If he says meeting the elders is the right thing to do, he's probably right."

4 - The Elders

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Buttercup had the lead, because she insisted. Long was right alongside her, yammering excitedly, "I wonder if they've seen a robot before. I never had, but there he is!" He waved at Giddyup wildly, not at all slowing his pace. "You are a he, right?"

"Correct." Giddyup emitted a soft equine noise of approval. "A difference between my mechanical line and biological horses."

This only brought more questions to Long Stalk. "Wait, what? Horses come in boys and girls." He wobbled his head left and right as he went over the two sexes he was aware of. "How's a boy the opposite of that?"

"All Giddyup Buttercups are boys when assembled." Giddyup nodded lightly. Everyone knew that, right? "Most horses used for riding or work are girls. I am uncertain why this is the case."

Both ponies turned to look at him over their shoulders. Buttercup cocked a brow. "Humans are weird."

"Still here." Stan was, in fact, still there, following with them. "The, uh, 'people' of this town seem calm." For the reaction he got at the gate, the ponies they saw seemed entirely relaxed.

Long snorted, turning back forward. "I already told you why. No alarms, no screaming. We're not under attack. And you're right next to two ponies they know, and we're not freaking out."

"Yeah." Buttercup nodded rapidly. "If we're alright with you, must not be so bad."

It was guilt by association, reversed. "Explains why th' guards said to stay close to you."

"Hey Buttercup." It wasn't the first, nor would be the last. Different ponies were eager to wave and greet Buttercup as she went past, proving she was a reasonably popular sort in that community of horses.

Long Stalk got a lot less hellos. Some, but not as many as Buttercup. "Can I come with you, to see the elders?"

Buttercup perked an ear at Long. "That's up to their guards. You know that. They may not even let me in..." She danced, but only for a moment. "Only one way to find out."

There was only one guard on duty. He watched with a sharp gaze, and slit eyes.

"A fellow robotic equine?" Giddyup accelerated towards the guard. "Greetings. I am unit Giddyup Buttercup. What is your model?"

The guard spread his leathery wings as he reared up, drawing a blade free in the motion. He had hands, mechanical hands. "Stop right there." Giddyup did stop as requested. "Good... Buttercup, the hell's going on?"

Buttercup gestured forward at the cybernetic pony. "This is Skyline. He is a guard of the elders, and he's kinda awesome."

Skyline waved their free hand. "You always say that." The little smile hinted he was not that opposed to being complimented. "Though, seriously, who're your friends and why are they here? For that matter, why are you here? The elders didn't call you."

Stan took in the deep blues of the bipedal pony before him, armed. "We aren't here to cause no trouble. That one." He hiked a thumb at Long Stalk. "He said the elders would want to see us."

Giddyup nodded so firmly his jaw clanked, bouncing open and slapping shut. "I never heard of the Skyline model. Can you neigh and trot?"

Skyline turned his sword on Stan. "You are a human." Not that this was much of a question. "You will stay right there." The sword bobbed in the air as he looked to Buttercup. "Do you do everything Long suggests?"

"Usually?" She shrugged softly. "Why?"

Skyline snorted, falling back to all fours. He didn't let go of the sword, trotting along with a soft clanging of the sword striking the ground lightly with each downward motion of his foreleg. "Stay right there!" And soon he was lost to sight.

"Elders." Skyline poked his head into the round building he was guarding. "Buttercup is outside, with a human and a horse robot."

The other ponies, the elders, one of each major tribe, inclined their heads in unison, though in different directions. The earth pony raised a hoof. "A horse robot? It's friendly?"

"Very." Skyline rolled his eyes. "I think he thinks I'm a robot too. Should I tell them to bugger off?"

The pegasus rose to her hooves, her flowing clothes clicking softly with the beads that ran down her like waterfalls. "Don't be so hasty, Skyline. Escort them in, this human, the robot, and Buttercup."

Skyline took the time to put his sword away properly, leaving it hanging in a loop. "What about Long Stalk?" The elders looked confused. "He's with her, hoping for a peek."

The unicorn elder mare shook her head softly. "Send him home. But tell him we appreciate his efforts. If he is here, he was undoubtedly involved." The others nodded in agreement.

"As you wish." Skyline returned to the others in a soft trot. "You, you, and you." He pointed at each, a thing ponies did not normally do. "With me. You." He pointed at Long. "Go home. The elders say thanks."

Long's ears quivered atop his head. "They do?! Wow..." He walked off with a pleased smile on his face.

"This way." Skyline turned right back towards the building. "Don't disrespect the elders. They watch over us, and they have the years to know which way is up." Skyline turned an ear back at the others. For however mechanical his hands and the ends of his forelegs were, the rest of him was entirely organic, to his fuzzy lightly tufted ears to the lighter blue that made up his mane and tail.

"Of course," blurted Buttercup with a faint blush as she followed.

Stan rapped a knuckle against Giddyup's side as he whispered, "Think he's calmed. The sword's put away."

"You are good at reading horse behavior," complimented Giddyup, not that sword use was typical of horse behavior. "Have I provided useful examples?"

"Sure have, bud." He patted his mechanical friend on the back as they headed inside.

The three elders were sitting up, expecting them. The earth pony nodded towards them, his beard wafting lazily slower than the rest of his head. "Just as reported. Are you a Giddyup?"

Giddyup recoiled. "You are aware of my model? You are the first in a very long time that I have not personally informed."

He reached up, running a hoof along his wispy beard. "It's been passed down. Once, the Giddyups were our nannies." The other two elders made soft noises of agreement.

Stan put up his hands. "Alright, hold up. Break that down fer me, real slow like."

Giddyup looked as proud as he could look without facial muscles. "We are designed to perfectly emulate horse noises and behavior. Well enough to raise living horses." Though his features were impassive, his voice was clearly proud and excited. "Where are the units that accomplished this?"

The unicorn inclined her head, beads rattling in the motion. "Gone, left behind when we left the nest." A little smile offered. "The vault would hold us no longer. Humans, like him." She directed her horn at Stan. "They were coming, and would find us. They would not be pleased... Has this changed?" She met Stan's eyes directly. "Would humanity accept us now? Speak the truth of it."

Stan waved his hands across one another in a strong negative. "I am not gonna lie like that. People trust me because I'm a straight shot, both meanings of the word. Yer all kinda strange." He shrugged. "But not, like, offensive or nothin'."

Buttercup waved at Giddyup. "Stan was adopted by Giddyup and learned how to be nice and good."

Giddyup shook his head at that. "Technically, Stan adopted me."

The pegasus spread her wings. "And still, good impressions were made. Giddyups, you are good robots, built with pure hearts. But most of humanity is without this influence... We will remain hidden." She looked to Stan with new focus despite the faint fogging of her older eyes. "That you are accompanied by one speaks well for you. Skyline, you are still here?"

"Of course, elder." Skyline dipped his head at the older pegasus. "Do you have need of me?"

The elder gestured at Skyline. "For most of us, sapience was the end goal. One we met. We would like to know the rest of the story. Human Stan, do you know how to operate a computer?"

Buttercup tilted her head. "Computer?"

That was more the reaction Stan expected from what seemed to be tribal mutants. Still, the elder clearly knew what they were. "Sure, just enough to not make trouble fer myself. Why?"

"Fortunes smile upon us today, praise harmony."

"Praise harmony," echoed the other two.

The unicorn nodded lightly. "We left our original stable some time ago. If you can enter it and discover all there is to be discovered... Bring it back to us, weave together the tattered fabric of our past."

Stan squinted a little. "I'm not an expert on mutant horses or nothin', but..." He gestured a bit lamely at the unicorn's horn. "The one outside with that could grab things. So what do you need me for?"

The unicorn elder shook her head softly. "We, the elders, know what a computer is, and what it contains, but even we do not know how to make them give us what we want. It is also some distance, across human lands." A little smirk. "Though most lands are human lands. Your people spread far and fast."

"One of our specialties... Shoulda seen it before the bombs dropped." Though that was mythology at that point even for Stan. "Wall to wall people. Anyway, that's a hell of a chore you're throwing down on me. The hell are you payin'?"

The earth pony elder nodded towards Giddyup. "Perhaps, if fortune and harmony smiles this day, you may find one of his peers."

Giddyup thumped against Stan with a burst of excitement. "We must go! I have not met another Giddyup. I would like to very very much. Please?" He trotted in place, his speaker issuing the odd echoed clopping. "Please. Just think of it, giddyup units that succeeded in raising horses. I have so many questions for them."

Stan let out a weary noise between a chuckle and an outright laugh. "Bribin' my partner? That's cold. Look, vaults are dangerous, one thing that tends to define 'em if there aren't people already living in 'em, and those people usually don't want you around, which makes 'em dangerous anyway."

"We will not send you alone." The pegasus looked to Skyline. "You will go with them."

Skyline's ears danced. "Your grace? Who will watch over you?"

The pegasus pointed past, the the outside. "We have other guards. You are a capable warrior. Do you refuse this task?"

"No!" squeaked Skyline. "Never." He shook his head quickly. "If you want me to go with them, I will." He dropped his head low in deference to the elders.

"About that..." Stan gestured at the strange... somehow even stranger pony that had bat wings and predator eyes and mechanical hands instead of forehooves. "Gonna explain all this?"

"They are blessed," spoke the earth pony.

"Cursed," argued the unicorn with equal gravity. "We would like to learn more, but that is locked in the same vault. The metal that makes him... clearly human design. Why? We don't know. Find out. Why has he not aged in so long? Find this out."

Wait... "If he's as old as you're implyin', why isn't he an elder, instead of a guard?"

"I'm not old," cut in Skyline, scowling at Stan. "I'm still young in body and thought. I won't take an elder's position without a single wrinkle to my name."

The earth pony sat up. "He is also of some... other tribe. The others would be nervous, to have him here... Not earth, nor pegasi, nor unicorn, but something... else."

Stan leveled a finger at the set of elders. "Gonna want a reward besides a happy Giddyup. Scrape together something actually worth somethin'" He turned for the exit. "Got a map to where this place is?"

"You're not leaving me behind." Buttercup hopped in front of Stan. "I want to see this vault. I'll help!"

5 - Crossing Threshold

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They moved in a loose unit towards the gate that had let them in. "I don't see no fence," noted Stan in a sweeping circle. "Why don't people just go whatever direction they feel like?"

Skyline rolled his eyes at the idea. "We have other defenses against sight and detection, formations of the land, and tracks coming and going from them would be another hint we don't need to give."

"One set of prints," agreed Buttercup. "We all use the gate." And so it was that they had a gate, with no fence attached to it.

But they were also talking horse mutants, so the gate was actually kinda low on the reasons to call it an odd thing. Stan hiked a thumb. "So once we're free, we hike a sharp left, right?"

"That is correct." Giddyup let out a little excited nicker. "The directions given imply the journey will take four days at a safe pace."

"And if we skip lunch?" Stan nudged his affronted mechanical friend. "Time spent in the wastes is never safe time."

"While this is true, you require balanced nutritional input for optimum growth." Giddyup nodded sagely, secure in his logic.

Buttercup did not share in that. "He's still getting bigger?!"

"One thing that's bothered me off an' on fer years now." Stan leveled a finger at Giddyup as they went. "Why do you talk so fancy if'n you were built fer kids?"

Buttercup inclined her head. "That's a good question."

Skyline advanced to speak with the gate guards, not participating in their chat.

Giddyup pointed at himself with a metal hoof, the only kind he had. "My instructions say to not speak around children. My speech was designed for communication with adults, largely for upkeep purposes, or for setting parameters for the play I engage with children with." He nodded firmly enough for his jaw to clap shut. "Knowing the allergens and other health concerns of my children is extremely important.

Buttercup's features became that of a grandly smug grin. "So which is Stan, your child to not talk around and care for, or the adult you talk to about the children with?"

"Stan is an adult child--"

"--Hey," cut in Stan with a fresh frown. "Now that's jus' rude."

"I did not mean it in an offensive manner. Your permissions are tailored specifically to you as I cannot give you the default of either a child or an adult and had to assign some of either."

Skyline returned to them. "We have to head ten minutes out before we make our turn." He gestured with a toss of his head. "Let's go. We're leaving the stable, so keep your eyes and ears open for trouble. Stan, collect your gun."

"Now tha's a quality idea." Stan fetched his longarm, inspecting it for any defects that sprang up while it was out of his view, but they did not pause, marching onwards. "None of you have any." His eyes went to Skyline. "You good wit' those swords?"

"G'luck," called Sky Eye from above, waving at them as they passed into the wasteland proper. "We'll keep an eye on this place."

Skyline chuckled softly as they walked. "I remember when she was a little filly, always wanting to play guard before she was near big enough to do it right."

Buttercup's ears danced. "She's not much older than me..."

Skyline colored faintly and dropped the topic dead.

Not that Buttercup allowed it, circling in closer to the cybernetic pony. "How old are you?"

"Older than the rest of you," he grumbled. "Not that it matters. I'm not an elder, just an adult, like you, or Stan."

"Beats bein' an' Adult Child." Stan gave Giddyup a look, though it lacked true teeth.

"Permission category renamed to: Special."

Stan chuckled at that. "Not sure how better that is. Ah'm an Adult Child, or Special. Buddy, good thing ah like ya." He patted Giddyup, mussing his bristly mane. Unlike the living horses, his was bottle wire stiff rather than flowing things that could be confused with human hair.

"Here." Skyline directed with a finger that ponies should not have had. "Now we turn." He started in the new direction. "You confuse me."

Though Skyline hadn't turned, Stan picked up what was being put down. "What's the problem?"

"You are a human." He looked over his shoulder. "Surrounded by ponies, living and not. That is not typical human behavior."

"I accept blame." Giddyup sounded quite happy about that.

"Well, it was his idea that we came here, and that we're huntin' for the other Giddyups. That's the problem wit' having friends. They drag you into strange shit sometimes."

Skyline kept his ears turned, but his eyes swept across the horizon as he walked. "You are not doing this for him."

"Hey. He's my bud, whatever else. He wants to run into some of his family? Ah'm plenty fine with that." He adjusted the strap of his gun to his shoulder. "You ever been this far from your little town?"

"I was born away from this town." Skyline's ears turned forward. "Not that I remember much of that. The elders seem convinced you can find out more. You didn't sound very convinced yourself... Watch out for humans--other humans."

"I have located one, friendly. Name: Stan."

"I said others," grumped out Skyline. "Why are you even here?" He glared aside at Buttercup. "I know you haven't been as far as we're going. You don't know what trouble's out here."

"That's reason enough." Buttercup skipped her hooves in a little hop. "I brought them, I wanna see where they go. You don't think I can handle it?"

"I know you can't handle it." Skyline rolled his eyes. "You have no weapons. You're not that good at fighting with your hooves. You have no practical skills for this kind of thing. Why would you think this is a good idea?"

Giddyup's hoof came down between Skyline and Buttercup, startling both of them. "She has friends that will protect her."

Stan chuckled at that. "Volunteerin' me again? Bad habit ah yers." Still, he didn't say he wouldn't do it, or complain exactly. He drew out a thick paper, unfolding it out and again, a map it became clear to be as he got it deployed. "We're... here'sh." He tapped at the map with a finger. "Ya ever hear of a Pip Boy?"

All the horses, metal or not, shook their heads.

"Figures." He trailed that finger along a line. "We're close to a road. Good for smooth travel."

"Bandit likelihood increases," warned Giddyup.

Skyline huffed softly. "Even not-bandits, we're not trying to run into other humans. Advertising we exist isn't the idea." He lifted a few inches, just to flop back to the ground. Like Sky Eye, it seemed his wings wouldn't bring him up easily. "I didn't know you had that. What a treasure. May I see it?"

Buttercup stuck her head up on the other side of Stan, peering at the strange marks. "What is that?" Glancing aside at Skyline and back to it. "Is it really treasure?"

Giddyup nodded with sage certainty. "Humans do not have navigation systems with 100% accuracy."

"Sure don't." Stan began folding the map back up. "That's a map, a drawing of where we are if you were, what..." He hiked a thumb upwards. "Like a mile that way, looking down."

Buttercup's eyes widened at the idea. "Not even the best pegasus has ever gotten that high, and they drew that?! Amazing!"

"Ain't sure it works exactly like that." He tried to stuff the map away, just to discover a fuzzy snout in the way. Skyline had positioned his head right in the wrong place. "Hey."

"Hey yourself." Skyline pointed a metal finger at the map. "If you're done with that, let me have a look."

"You even know how to read a map?" Stan did not sound very confident in the idea.

"It's just a drawing of the area. What's to figure out? I want to see the terrain." He sat on his haunches and crossed his arms, metal finger tapping at his furry arms. "I'll give it back."

"When we camp." With the snout moved, he was able to stuff his map away properly. "Either way, we're headed that way." He pointed off across the way. "Stay close. Man walking with horses, that's 'just' a merchant. Bunch of horses wanderin' 'bout, questions start bein' raised."

Skyline moved in walking just alongside Stan. "That's a clever idea. I like it. Let's keep our mouths shut. You're used to horses that don't talk, right?"

"Yer pickin' up what I'm laying down." Stan nodded with satisfaction. "Except you, Giddyup. Yer a robot. Robots talk."

"I am a robot," agreed Giddyup. "And a horse. I am glad that the human permission hierarchy allows me to retain robot speaking permissions when horses would be denied the same."

"Yer temptin' that," laughed out Stan as they crunched across the broken ground. "Now, 'bout those bandits. They haunt the road, which we're avoidin', but they're around here. Lower chance ain't no chance, so be on yer guard. As fer wild critters, ain't too many to worry 'bout in this specific neck. Maybe a molerat if we get unlucky."

Buttercup twitched the closer ear at Stan. "Molerats are super mean. Get really mad if you're on their turf."

"Humans detected." Tension grew instantly. "Three. Bovine detected. Wheeled transportation."

Stan relaxed. "Merchant. Caravan. If we're going fer four days each way, might be good to trade."

Skyline said nothing. "Good, you too." Stan tapped Buttercup atop her head. "Just two mutant horses ah mine."

The caravan came into view, pushing slowly along the dirt. Stan raised a hand towards them. "Hey. Got some trade?" Being loud and obvious was usually the way to go with caravans. They needed to see you and know what you wanted right from the get go.

There were three humans, just as Giddyup had detected. Two of them had longarms much like Stan, out and ready. The one who wasn't immediately armed stepped forward. "We avoided the road, infested these days, and still we run into business? What are the odds?"

"Roads are as much trouble as not these days," agreed Stan as he offered a hand, soon met with a clap and a firm shake. "Got some good caps if you got food n' supplies."

The whiskered merchant rubbed at his goatee. "Sure sure, we can do that. Now, 'xcuse me, but I just gotta ask."

Stan sighed as if he could see what was coming. "Do we have to? I got caps, you got food."

"Yeah yeah." He waved and one of the guards got to fetching the supplies to trade, showing each box and bag before they were added to a pile. "How much are we talking?"

"Need a bit over a week, for me and the horses here." Stan waved off to either side where the ponies stood quietly, watching. "Water too, can't ever be sure there's a source of that safe to put your lips on."

"Won't argue that." The merchant reached back, grabbing a big bottle of water off the cart and thrusting it at Stan. "Here. This one's on the house. Think of it like a group discount, a bulk order bennie."

"Appreciate that." Stan worked it onto a loop at his belt line where it wouldn't jostle too badly. "Giddyup, get the rest. How many caps we talking?"


Stan raised a brow at that. "You testing me? You get 30 and celebrate the day."

"30?! Like there's someone else you're going to pull up to and offer that to." The merchant crossed his arms. "A lot of them wouldn't do business with you to start."

"Insulting your customers is how you roll? 35 and stop laughin' on the inside you're rippin' me off that bad."

The merchant held out a hand, and caps were dropped into it. "Pleasure doing business. You keep safe from the psychos. Oh, heard there were a few supers nearby, made a camp for themselves. You don't want none of that."

"Sure don't." Stan made sure Giddyup had gathered up what they had just purchased. "Stay safe, alright? You fix your prices, maybe we'll trade again."

"Don't count on it!" And off he went, leaving the curious caravan of Stan behind.

6 - On the Way

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"Thanks." Buttercup was walking along at Stan's side. He wasn't in a huge rush, so a walk was about the right pace to keep up. "For getting us food like that. Humans trade all the time? What did you give him? It sounded metal." Her ears danced, eyes glimmering with questions and curiosity.

Skyline snorted gently. "The tales of humans being murder machines is only somewhat an exaggeration. Among themselves they can, usually, avoid making a mess."

"Usually," agreed Stan. "Unless we're talking a bandit. Could argue they ain't human, but that ain't bein' nice."

"That is correct." Giddyup nodded as he walked. "That is not nice. You are to be commended. Your behavior was even more horse-like than normal. I would know." For he was programmed with how to act in horse-like ways with complete authenticity!

"Good job." Stan hiked a thumb back at the humans long out of sight. "They barely cared about you, well, you." He nodded towards Buttercup. "You they glanced at." He looked to Skyline. "Can't rightly blame 'em. You're showin' metal."

"I half-closed my eyes," noted Skyline, sounding perhaps a bit proud of that. "Made it harder to see... that."

Buttercup leaned around Stan. "About that. Why are your eyes like that? They're kinda cool, but also odd."

"You wouldn't normally dare ask." Skyline scowled at Buttercup. "What gives you courage now?"

"We're on a mission, together." Buttercup nodded with utter confidence in this logic. "We're partners, so I can ask questions."

Skyline grumbled softly. "Giddyup. That food, how much of it can we eat?"

"You should be able to ingest any food." Giddyup sounded confused at the very question. "Do you have specific dietary needs?"

Skyline quirked an ear at the metal equine. "You claim to know a lot about horses. We're vegetarians; is that in there?"

There was a moment of quiet. "Oh." As if he had just found that file. "Are horses obligate herbivores? I was assigned and programmed for human dietary needs." Giddyup suddenly turned his head at Stan. "Another reason I want to meet my peers. They were programmed for horse care and growth."

Stan casually shoved Giddyup's face away, confident it wouldn't harm his mechanical buddy. "We're on the way, aren't we? We could get there faster, but..."

"It is a good time for lunch," agreed Giddyup in a roundabout way. "Let's perform a survey of what food is within tolerance of our new companions."

Buttercup looked around before accelerating into a trot over to a few rocks. "This looks nice." She perched right on one. "Yeah, weight off the hooves."

Stan caught up at his usual walk. "Now, ah thought horses stood up most of their life. Not an expert or nothin'. Giddyup never has to sit, but he's a robot."

"I am a robot," agreed Giddyup, no argument for the fact provided.

Skyline had risen to his hind hooves, casually reaching into Giddyup's saddlebags and starting to pull out the supplies they had secured. "You have to be careful. Human food is not pony food." Slowly, two piles began to form as he tossed things into one or the other. The water he left right where it started. Water was water, thankfully.

Buttercup leaned to the side for a better view of the growing piles. "Which of those is the 'go ahead and eat it' pile?"

Skyline kicked back a hoof at one of the piles. "That one." He had to lean on Giddyup for that split second, his weight wobbling in the motion, but he recovered quickly enough. "We may want to forage. About half the food is meat."

Stan whistled. "Huh, only half? Maybe that merchant wasn't rippin' me off half as bad as ah thought. Pass some meat this way an ah'll make it go away."

"Right." Skyline starting putting things back, meat on one side of Giddyup, pony-safe vittles on the other. With a toss, he sent a package flying at Buttercup.

She squeaked, dodging it rather than catching it. The packet landed in the dust, flying partially open. "What'd you do that for?!"

Skyline tossed another to Stan, who caught it. "Passing out the food." He approached, his own packet held firmly in his metal fingers. "If yours has dirt in it, your fault."

"Meanie." She nosed into her food, nostrils twitching. "Mmm." And soon it was all forgotten as she got into chomping away happily.

Stan ripped the top off his box. "My favorite brand." He got a box of cereal, and was happily munching into the sugary rings. "Look, so far, we're off to a decent start. Jus' remember, alright? A human around, stick close, shut up."

"And don't stare at them," added Skyline. "Staring makes them want to stare back." He lifted his food. "I have to admit, not bad." He took a big bite of what looked sort of like a well-cooked yam of some sort. "Mmm. Humans are good for some things."

Lunch was devoured. Bellies sated, they resumed their trek. "Now, look, it's relatively quiet around here." Stan glanced aside at his living pony friends. "Which might be your fault, come to think. You hunt the hostile animals 'round here?"

Skyline shrugged softly. "We don't like them anymore than you do, I would think."

"So, yes. That'd explain it. Anything too dangerous, you'd do something about it. Either way, we're leaving that. So expect things to get more dangerous. We're headed away from all the settlements I know about. You head out into the wilderness, it just gets more dangerous; the way it works."

Skyline nodded slowly, his metal fingers digging into the ground in one step. "I am prepared. It is for our benefit that we do this." A moment of quiet. "It's not too late. You could run back home from here."

Buttercup grunted out a suffering sigh. "Ugh, really? No! I'm here and you can't get rid of me, so too bad." She thumped sidelong into Giddyup. "My name brother will protect me."

Giddyup angled his head. "Name brother?"

"We had the same name." She wobbled a hoof between herself and Giddyup. "It has to mean something. So name brother." She angled the hoof back at herself. "I'd be a name sister."

"Logical," conceded Giddyup. "Very well, I accept a reason to celebrate in our shared identification. It is good to be your name brother."

With relationships settled, things grew quiet, but only for a moment. "Ya never answered my question."

"What question?" Skyline peered up at their human companion.

"Are you any actual good at those swords you got?" He waggled a finger at the dangling blades. "Or are they more for show?"

"Good enough to make good the promise they make." Skyline's eyes turned back forward. "I'm not helpless, like Buttercup."

"Hey!" But he did not respond to her offended cry. "Be that way... I'll help, promise. I may not be a guard, but I'm not a lump."

Stan turned his gun in his hand, inspecting it as they walked. "Somethin' botherin' me way more than the extra. If someone was comin' to yer vault, they'd set up shop there. Don't know many that wouldn't, if it was in good order, which it was, right? You were there?"

Skyline's nostrils flared in a silent gust. "That's how the stories go. I was a bit young."

"I thought you stopped agin'?" Stan let his gun dangle from its strap. "You are full of as many questions as the tin can we're visitin'. Either way, if they moved in, there'd be a patch of activity around it. That kinda thing is usually not much a secret. But, see, I ain't heard a damn thing about no vault in that area. What's that tell you?"

"I also have not heard any rumors or discussion concerning the location we are approaching."

Skyline responded before Giddyup could complete their thought, "It means they didn't stay."

"Which then leads right on," continued Stan, "To why. Way ah see it, only could be two things." He thrust out one finger. "There wasn't nothin' there for 'em. The vault's busted and dark and who the hell needs a fancy hole in the ground?" Another finger extended. "Two! There was somethin' keeping them from doing it. Something nasty likely that scared 'em off, or killed 'em. Can't say both is impossible."

Skyline's jawline tensed. "That is the danger we approach. Still, your thoughts are not without merit. It means, probably, we aren't going to face people as our problem. People, as you said, would make noise to other people. You'd have heard of something in the area. No rumors, probably no people. Are humans also herd animals?"

Stan burst into a rough laughter. "You just had a profound moment. Yeah, we hate admitting it, but we're even worse than horses, in the end. We look for leaders and we follow them."

"I don't do that," merrily chimed Buttercup, walking along with a spritely bounce to her steps.

Skyline rolled his eyes and looked to Giddyup. "I'll let you prove her wrong."

"How kind of you." Giddyup looked to Buttercup. "Your leaders are your elders. You follow their instructions. They take the role of 'parent.'"

Buttercup squinted in defiance at the idea. "Well, sure, they know what they're doing... but..." She went quiet, grumbling with defiance. "They didn't tell me to go out and find you two!"

"I am thankful that you were a naughty child in this instance. Do not do that again." A curious thing to be thanked but also be told to not do a thing. "You could have been hurt."

"I knew he'd get it." Skyline smirked in vicious enjoyment of Giddyup's words. "You shouldn't have been there. You should have run when you saw a human. You should not be striking up random conversations with them."

"And if I did all that, we wouldn't be here." She kicked a rock away to bounce and roll. "So good thing I didn't."

Stan raised his longarm, squinting down the sight as if it had a magnifying sight, which it did not. "We should go around."

Skyline scowled, looking ahead in the same direction Stan was focusing. "What do you see? Giddyup?"

"Mutant. Classification: FEV." Giddyup pawed at the ground. "Avoidance is advised."

"What ah just said." He kept the gun trained, but started off to the left. "Hopefully it didn't see us. The hell is a centaur doin' out here?"

Buttercup went where he led, though still not spying what the other two had apparently spied. Neither of the ponies could spy the trouble. Humans just had better distance vision than equines, it seemed. Both deferred to the warnings of their companions, the entire party diverting to avoid the unseen enemy.

Skyline let out a ragged breath. "It was wise that they waited until you were here before trying this. I didn't realize just how sharp the vision of a human was."

"You're going to ask that and not what a 'centaur' is?" Buttercup nudged against Stan with a hopeful smile. "What is it?! Tell me, please."

"Ah'll try." Apparently far enough away from the threat that he lowered his gun into a more idle position, Stan considered how to word it. "Start with a big thing. Two heads. One's a dog, ever see a dog?"

Skyline raised a hoof. "I've encountered a few dogs."

"One of those heads is a dog, mean, sharp teeth. The other's a human. Both are mean as hell. Once it's on you, the sharp teeth tend to be a problem, as teeth do. From afar, you got something with a human's eyes and--"

"--potential cruelty," finished Skyline with a frown. "That is not a creature I look forward to encountering. Thank you for helping us avoid it. With any amount of luck, that one is the only one."

Stan chuckled sourly. "Or, with my luck, the entire vault is swarming with the bastards, waiting to take a bite out of all of us."

They would only find out when they got there.

7 - Hole In The Ground

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Stan angled the map left and right in his hands. "The hell..."

Skyline circled in place, looking for something. "What's wrong? Are we going the right way?"

"Maps are great." He began folding it back up. "But things change, and they don't. The road--" He nodded up ahead. "Busted, like a great big landslide tore it right off. And it's right where we want to be. Wouldn't say it's that bit of a deal if it was just that."

Giddyup considered the path ahead. "It is not unusual for roads to be in poor repair."

Buttercup let out a sigh. "Let me guess. That's where the old stable was?"

"Yeah." Stan shoved the map away. "We should be able to see it, instead, rocks, lots of rocks. That explains it though."

Skyline perked. "Ah, yes. Humans never spread rumors because they didn't find it. Hm..."

"So we never had to leave it?" Buttercup advanced towards the rubble-strewn road. "Coulda stayed all nice and cozy?"

"Doubt that." Skyline accelerated to her side. "The only thing worse than being buried, is being buried with no way out. Whatever caused this could have damaged the vault too."

"Yeah." Stan frowned as he stalked forward. "That's what I was thinking. The elders, they said they left cause they saw danger comin', but I'm starting to think it wasn't human danger in the first place."

Giddyup's stance shifted as much the others did. He had to start climbing over rocks, one hoof at a time. "If I had treads, this would be impossible."

Buttercup looked back at her metal friend. "Horses don't have treads."

"A fact for which I am grateful. What are we looking for?"

Skyline shoved a rock about half his own size aside. "Now that is a good question. If it's buried..."

"Then this got more complicated in some ways," agreed Stan. "Giddyup, you got any tricks that'd help us find the entrance?"

Giddyup paused in his advance across the rocks, instead looking at Skyline. "I do not, but I think you do."

"Hm?" Skyline regarded the robot with some confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"You are a cyborg. You were designed for use in this facility." Giddyup tapped up and down against the rock his right forehoof was on. "You may have a function that assists."

Skyline squinted at that about as hard as he could. "I'm not a robot."

"Cyborg," repeated Giddyup, seemingly quite sure that he had just been misheard.

Stan rapped a knuckle on Giddyup's side with a loud clang. "Cyborgs don't come with manuals like robots do." A faint pause. "Do you come with a manual?"

"I do," joyfully reported Giddyup. "How do you operate without one?"

Stan huffed as he hopped down. "Ain't even surprised. You know people--" He hiked a thumb at himself. "And horses don't come with manuals, right?"

"I have a manual for people." Giddyup's progress slowed, placing his hooves carefully on the terribly uneven terrain. "But it is specific for my interactions with them. I have one for horses as well, to emulate their behavior and sounds. Surely you have one. You interact with humans at a clear proficiency."

"Yeah, sure." Stan rolled his shoulders. "I wrote that manual myself, the hard way. Years of refinin'. Still got mistakes all over it, but it gets me through." He hopped and climbed, having far less trouble overall than Giddyup.

Buttercup scaled up to the top of a tall rock. "Skyline, try it. What is a cyborg anyway?"

Skyline was perhaps the best off of at rock scaling. He had wings that let him glide a short distance. He could jump, and he had hands to grab and pull. He was waiting for the rest more often than not. "Never heard the word before." He looked to Stan. "He used it. Tell us."

A sudden hiss drew Stan's attention away from the show off. His hand had gone too close to the den of a critter, and it was rushing out to share its displeasure with him. "G'damnit!" He scrambled back barely in time to let a sizable mole rat sail through the space he had been, teeth bared.

Skyline swooped down on it like the ambush predator he was, sword drawn on the way. The creature backed away, blood dripping from where the blade had caught it, cutting open its side. But its fight wasn't entirely extinguished, scrambling forward at Skyline with a lunging hop to get at his legs and vitals.

Or so it hoped, Skyline drawing his second sword in a bright arc that crossed with the first. Two halves of the beast crashed to the ground on either side of him. "Are you alright? Did it bite you?"

"Nah, I'm alright." Stan dusted himself off. "You?"

"Nothing a rag won't fix." Skyline got to cleaning his swords off. "Now, explain what a cyborg is."

"You." Stan pulled up onto the next rock, but sat on it rather than rising up to stand on it. "You're half machine. Giddyup was thinkin' maybe your machine parts work with the vault's machine parts. They do anythin' besides grab stuff?"

Skyline opened and closed his hands with consideration, but Buttercup wasn't giving him that quiet time. "Go on!" She thumped against him on her way to scrambling up to the next rock. "Either you try or we just keep digging and climbing and hoping!"

"Interface located." Giddyup was on a rock above Skyline, lowered down to his belly. "If you allow me, I can try to access your manual."

"What?!" Skyline edged back a step from Giddyup. "I don't have a 'manual'." He sheathed either of his swords one at a time. "What are you talking about?"

"You have an access port. It's in the center of your left hand." Giddyup inclined his head a bit. "Horses do not normally have hands."

"I'm not a usual horse..." Skyline turned his arm to peek at that 'access port'. There was a hole there, a little thing he had mostly ignored. There hadn't ever been a use for it. It didn't get in the way. It was just... there... "What are you going to do?"

"Connect to it." A wire extruded from Giddyup's side and flopped to the ground. "Put that in the access port. I do not have hands. This is normally used to allow for advanced debugging of technicians on me. I am extremely out of date for my last checkup, but I doubt I will find a technician any time soon."

Stan shook his head at the sight of it. "That means he trusts you, by the by. He don't like showing off his wires."

"I do not. Please insert it into the access port." Giddyup was watching Skyline with the patience only a robot could have.

A patience Buttercup did not have, scrambling up next to Giddyup and snatching that dangling cord in her mouth. "Go on!" She hopped down next to Skyline. "Do it. Maybe you'll learn something amazing."

Skyline snatched the cord right out of Buttercup's mouth. "He didn't say you could touch that."

"Thank you." Giddyup's eyes closed. "It may take some time, please be patient."

"I didn't put it in yet," grumbled Skyline, considering the cord. It was about the right size to fit in there. "Will it hurt?"

"It shouldn't." So simple a reply, yet filled with uncertainty.

"Right... I promised we'd get this done." He wriggled the cord down the hole until he heard a click from inside. His hoof sudden began to glow along several lines and split. "What?" But he wasn't there to worry about it for long.

He was in a different place, without space, really. "What's going on?"

"I am accessing your files," came Giddyup's calm voice without an obvious source. "Compatibility verified. You were manufactured by Wilson Atomatoys, like me. This is good. The same bypasses should work." A soft beep issued from nowhere and everywhere at once. "Success."

"Is this a... one way thing?"

"No." Giddyup was not a creature of discretion or subtelty. "You have access to my files as well."

Except Skyline had no idea how to... do that. "What kinda files?"

"I have quite a number." Giddyup did not provide any further hint than that, busy with his own work. "File located. Searching..."

"What are you searching for, if you found what you wanted?" Skyline tried to look around, but there was no 'around' to look. He was not really... He had no hands, no arms, no body. He was nothing but a thought.

"This file has a great deal of information. I am searching for what is related to our current predicament. Located! Disconnecting."

Skyline staggered forward, barely keeping himself upright as his senses returned to him. "How long was that?!"

Stan and Buttercup were seated not far away, both nibbling on a snack. Buttercup waved eagerly at Skyline's movement. "Hey! You went all quiet and we set up camp." She craned her neck to look up at the sky. "It's been a few hours now."

"Yep. Both of you went blank on us." Stan tore off a bit of jerky he was working on, masticating idly. "Was wondering if something went wrong or not, but not much we could do about it."

"Please reinsert my cable." Giddyup rose to his hooves and turned to present where the cord was dangling free of him. "I have the answer."

Skyline looked at his hoof, no longer glowing, or split. "That was... unnerving." Despite that, he grabbed the cable and got it back where it belonged, snugly hidden within Giddyup. "So what did you find? What's the answer?"

Giddyup raised a hoof even with Skyline's tufted ears. "You have an audible searching system."

"A what?" Skyline raised a brow at the idea.

"You have a built in sonar." But that word didn't help at all. "You can squeak really loudly and hear the echo and learn from it."

Stan gave an empathic 'huh'. "That'll guide us to the vault?"

"I believe it will. Your sonar is designed to react to the metal of the vault specifically. It will sound different than anything else." Giddyup slowly climbed down to join the others at their camp. "Have you used your sonar previously?"

Buttercup began to clop excitedly. "You have a super power! Um, a second one, besides having hands. I already thought you were pretty cool, Sky, but this takes it to another level. You can see with your ears?"

"I never tried it before... Just... squeak?"

"Very loudly," advised Giddyup. "At a high frequency."

"Right..." Skyline let out a little squeak, more like someone feigning surprise. It had as much effect as one might expect.

"Louder, with a higher frequency." Giddyup began to emit a squealing beep of his own. "Like this." And it grew louder a moment before cutting off. "My hearing is not calibrated for this purpose. I cannot do it for you."

Skyline smiled a little. "Happening all over again."

Stan threw a package at Skyline, caught easily. "What is? Have a snack."

"Yeah..." Skyline took a little nibble. "We got a Giddyup, babysitting us all over again."

"With pleasure." Giddyup sounded quite happy to be playing that role. "Is it helping?"

"It's a start." He thumped a hoof against Buttercup's side. "Don't tell anypony about this, huh? I'm strange enough."

"Strangely awesome." Buttercup danced from hoof to hoof with a smile. "You can do it!"

Skyline did his best to clear his thoughts, breathing slowly. He let out a squeak but held the note, raising it towards the tone Giddyup had demonstrated. "Louder." He pushed it higher in volume at Giddyup's prompting, reaching for that... Oh...

He could hear the echo of his squealing as it pushed higher and louder. He could... feel a map of sorts, impressions. He could... feel the space around them, as if his arms were incredibly long, allowing him to feel where the ground was without touching it, along the form of the rocks.

"It's working!" he allowed breathlessly. And something felt... different.

8 - Air Through Soil

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His piercing screech mostly did not penetrate into the rock. The rock was a solid barrier, which made sense, except where it wasn't. Skyline could feel... hear? Something like that. He couldn't quite explain the sensations at work, seeing as his eyes weren't actually involved at all.

But something was echoing, deep underground. He began to wander, eyes still closed. The echoes changed with it, the impression sweeping like someone waving a flashlight around through the darkness. A smaller bit of that echo reached upwards, up up." He opened his eyes and pointed. "There." He was pointing up the hill from them. "Some part of it goes up there."

Stan started up the hill, scrambling up the rocks. "Alright, some place to be. Better than randomly digging."

Buttercup was at Skyline's side. "Does your throat hurt?"

"Um..." Since she had brought it up... He cleared it softly. "A little, yeah."

"I can imagine. You were squeaking so hard. I woulda lost my voice, I think." She frowned, considering that. "Did I mention you're amazing."

"Stop saying that." He put a leg over her, capturing her by the neck. "You're going to give me a big head."

The two laughed, forgetting their dangerous place for a moment.

Giddyup wasn't there, a fact not noticed until they arrived at the top of the hill, where he stood waiting for them. A fact Stan quickly noticed as he scrambled to his feet, dusting off the dirt of the climb. "How did you get up here?" He pointed back down the rubble pile. "Faster than us."

"I went around it." Giddyup directed to where the hill had a much more gentle slope on the other side of it. "I was able to move faster as a result."

"And you didn't tell us... why?" Stan thumped the metal hide of his robot friend with a metal clang.

"You were having fun." Giddyup turned to the ponies. "Group climbing is good exercise and can be an excellent team building experience. I am not built for that fashion of climbing. If it can be avoided, I will do so. I am sorry I did not get to enjoy it with you."

Buttercup let out an equine snort that bubbled into a little laugh. "You didn't miss much." But she was already turning towards Skyline. "Alright, where to from here?"

Skyline wasn't squeaking. He was ducking instead. "We get down," he whispered. "Look."

Where he was facing, a small camp could be seen. Great lumbering figures were gathered around a campfire. It was growing dark, and they were huddled about it. For warmth? Possibly, though it wasn't that chilly out. They lived in a very temperate region. Still... There they were, Super mutants.

"Great." Stan pulled out a set of binoculars, though they had lost the right to be called that with one of the lenses busted. Regardless of the linguistical mistake, he put them up to his head, squinting. "They don't look like they spotted us. Lucky us, we got the high ground."

"Pretty sure that makes it easier for them to see us," whispered Buttercup, looking, but without any aid. "What are they? Are they friendly, like you?"

"The odds of that are... small." Stan tucked his busted binoculars away. "Supers are to us what you imagine most humans are to you."

The ponies cringed at the idea. A human's human?! What fashion of horror could that even be?

"They are not in my manual," reported Giddyup in solemn tone. "But I have learned something about them."

Stan sat up, still mostly low to the ground. "Yeah, what's that?"

"They are to be avoided in wilderness settings."

Stan squinted as his robotic friend. "But other times?"

"Did you forget Winston?" Giddyup inclined his head with a click.

"Ah yeah. Winston." He could see the ponies gazing at them with confusion. "He was an alright Super, lived in a town, minded his business. Ain't got a problem with Winston. They ain't Winston."

"They are not," agreed Giddyup, as was his habit. "Skyline, do you know where to proceed?"

"Hm? Oh." He sat up, looking around slowly. "If I squeak, that'll draw their attention, won't it?"

"If you squeak at a high enough pitch, they will not hear it."

Higher? Even higher? Skyline frowned, imagining it. Higher. "Alright." He let out a squeak, far too quiet, but held. He focused on the range, raising it higher and higher and... it stopped.

Well, it stopped for everyone else there. He was clearly still working on... something, but no sound was resulting. Buttercup leaned in, ears twitching as she listened for his breath, still there, gusting with his effort except when he inhaled to resume it. "Wow..."

Finding that note, holding it dear, he began to raise the volume, the volume that only he could hear. But then his world collapsed, which it was in the bad habit of doing that day. The piercing cry raised to the high pitch it was meant to be used on gave new information. The rocks were still rocks, largely unchanged, but it was like he could see clearly a shaft. "Beneath us!" he gasped out, the image fading from his mind as he labored to regain his breath. "There's a tunnel, right under us. A ladder, I think, down a pipe."

Buttercup frowned at the idea. "How did we get out that way? Climbing a ladder woulda been slow and scary."

Stan casually thwipped the mare's nose. "You walked out the side, before the hill caved in over it. We're taking the back entrance. Alright, cyborg pony, where? Be specific."

"That's Skyline." Despite his complaint, he was taking slow steps, his nose near the ground. "And I thought I saw it..." He tapped with his hoof, softly thudding against the dirt. "Around..." The puff of hoof to dirt gave way suddenly to a low thunk. "Here." He began brushing away the dirty hurriedly, sending grass and small plants flying. "Right here."

Buttercup joined in the burrowing, revealing a hatch that had long ago been buried in dirt and grown over. "Oooo." She brushed aside the dirt covering what seemed to be a handle. "Let's get out of sight."

Stan nodded as he grabbed the handle firmly and gave it a twist instead of pulling it. A loud clunk sounded and the hatch swung open towards them, revealing a long and dark tunnel. Rungs projected from the wall, serving as a ladder. "Yeah, alright. I know how I'm getting down, but..." He looked to Giddyup.

Giddyup was still a moment. "I will wait." He pointed in the distance. "Down there, out of sight."

Buttercup dashed between Giddyup and where he planned to go. "No! You can't. You can talk to the machines, like Skyline's arm. You're super important to this."

Stan shrugged at that. "Hey, I know how to work a keyboard. An' besides, don't 'magine Giddyup is going down that hole."

Skyline peered into the darkness, slit eyes contracting a moment. "It will be a challenge for Buttercup." He threw himself over the edge, grabbing rungs with his metal fingers. Clearly, it would not be an issue for him.

Giddyup raised a hoof, gently patting Buttercup on the head. "I do appreciate your concern, really, but..."

"Bud." Stan began to climb down after Skyline. "Cover up the hatch, so people, or supers, don't spot it at a glance."


But Buttercup was not rushing for the hole, dancing from hoof to hoof as she thought desperately. "There has to be a way..." She scurried over to the hole the other two had vanished into, squinting into the dark and along the walls. "If there are robots like you that work here, there must be a way for you to get in." She reached into the dark, tapping along the walls. "What is this?"

"What is what?" Giddyup joined her, leaning over the side to peek. "That appears to be a hook."

Buttercup grabbed the hook in her mouth, drawing it free. It was attached with a thick steel band to the side of the tunnel. "Will it help?"

Giddyup considered quietly a moment. "Perhaps it can hold me?" He turned and sat down on his haunches. With a pneumatic hiss, a ring popped free of him. "Attach it."

Buttercup giggled with joy as she threaded the hook through the ring, only to be bashed right aside. Giddyup was wrenched towards the hole the moment the hook was in place, thrown into the dark with barely a yelp, and he was gone.

She got back to her hooves, blinking and surprised. "You alright?" But no response came. "Um..." Well, she was the last one. Giddyup couldn't do it. She pushed the door half closed and got to burying it as best she could. Wriggling under it, she began down the ladder, awkwardly balancing from rung to rung. She did not have hands, forcing her to use her forelegs to hook onto the ladder with each step down, each feeling like she could slip and fall who knew how far.

It grew dark, too dark. Dark as dark could get. There was no light in the dead vault, leaving Buttercup descending into a place more dim than ever she had experienced before. "Feel free to tell me if you're there," she called as she went. "Really would rather not be alone. Stan? Skyline? Giddy?"

But there was no sound. There was no light. She just had to keep climbing and hoping that, some day, she'd reach the end of the ladder. That she wouldn't fall, and that the ladder did have an end, somewhere.

Light brilliantly shined past her. She yelped in horror, clutching all the more tightly to the rungs. But then the light was gone. She looked down where it had come from and could see a pin prick of light, and some sense of movement. Something far below her was clearly making light. "Giddy?" Could robots glow? She felt sure that was a robot thing.

Reinvigorated, and increasingly certain her friends were waiting for her, Buttercup hurried as quickly as she safely could.

Which was not a thing she could measure. Her hind hoof landed squarely on a rung, only to kick out, sliding as she put weight on it. The world began to rush past her. She was falling. She would splatter against the ground and be dead in a hole. She screamed in abject horror as the wind rushed past her.

She struck something, but her bones were not shattered. She was being held and lowered quickly but safely in the arms of Skyline. "Gotcha." He set her down on her hooves. "Ladders are no joke to ponies. Take it slower next time."

She was busy not listening, grabbing him in a great hug and sobbing against him. "I thought I was gonna die!"

Stan chuckled softly. "You still might, but not from climbin' down. Good job gettin' Giddyup down here."

"Excellent deductive work," agreed Giddyup with a nod, his eyes glowing brightly and casting light over the area focused on the two spots he was looking at but spilling broadly in addition to see the hallway they were entering. "I can only hope it functions in reverse. Either that, or we re-open the main entrance."

Buttercup set down her hooves on the metal floor with strange new clops. "Oh... wow. We're really in a vault, aren't we?"

"Looks like." Skyline looked over towards Giddyup. "Guess you're in front, with the light and all."

"I got somethin'." Stan fished out a flashlight that he soon had on, shaking it to keep it going. "Not the best, but better than nothin'. Now, see, this ain't a fun trip. Vaults're dangerous. Stay on alert, alright? We hit it rich, or die. I prefer the first option if we got it."

Giddyup was focusing his bright eyes on Buttercup. "Did you conceal the entrance?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah!" She pumped a hoof triumphantly. "Figured I should, so I did."

They'd hopefully only have the dangers ahead of them to deal with.

9 - Visiting the Past

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The walls were metal, as were the floors and ceilings. Vaults were metal coffins, ready to be buried in. "Looks like we're coming in the supply closet." The room they were in that Stan was referring to had cleaning supplies. Mops, brooms, detergents. Everything one might need to get things sparkly.

Skyline looked around the Giddyup-lit gloom. "Shouldn't there be light? We didn't stagger around the dark when we were here. I think we'd remember that at least."

Buttercup started circling the room, peeking at each object with wide and curious eyes. "Maybe they have to be turned on? Maybe the land slide broke them?"

Giddyup nodded as he started for the closed door. "Both are possibilities. We will discover. If the vault was buried, the likelihood of dangerous mutants is considerably reduced. We may encounter robots, but they should be friendly."

"We can hope." Stan took up position behind Giddyup, waving his flickering flashlight about. "Can you get that door open?"

Giddyup reached out a metal hoof, tapping at the door. "It is not opening." Well, at least automatically it wasn't. He looked left and right with slow methodical rotations. "Access port not located."

"Let's see." Skyline came in, reaching out to grab the door at the bottom, working his metal digits in just enough to catch and try pulling and heaving, but the door ignored his futile attempts. "We did not come this far just to be stopped by a closed door."

A loud hiss sounded from the door, sending Skyline scrambling back. It began to unfold and open, as if the door had heard his complaint. "What?"

Elsewhere in the room, Buttercup released a handle from her mouth and trotted over to join them. "I found something. Did it help?"

Stan chuckled softly at the whole thing. "You coulda killed us, but nah, worked out. Lucky us."

Giddyup started forward into the open archway. "We may proceed. The other Giddyups may be present. How should I greet them?"

Stan shrugged at that. "How would you wanna be said hi to?"

"An excellent thought." Giddyup went quiet, perhaps considering a moment. "Oh, yes. Of course." And so he began to nicker. Soft nickers that were the horse equivalent of 'come closer.' To a human, a curious noise. To a fellow Giddyup unit, surely the meaning would be clear!

Skyline raised an ear at the repeated noise. It was not hard for actual living equines to notice that the nickers were on a loop, cycling through. A robot thing? "Think that'll work? You sound like a mother calling her foals in the dark."

"That is not un-similar to our situation." And so Giddyup continued his nickers.

A pity the first robot they encountered was not a giddyup unit. With a soft fwoosh of flames, a handy robot approached without guile or subtlety. "How lovely," she? spoke, two of her eyes focused on the ponies, one on either. "They will be so happy to see them returned."

Stan's grip on his flashlight tensed. "Uh, hey. You know them?" He flicked a finger between the two ponies.

"Of course I do," assured the female sounding robot. "Well, not that one personally." She directed one of her metal grasping parts at Buttercup. "But that one." And so it turned to Skyline. "How large you've grown!"

Giddyup cantered in place with clangs of metal against metal. "It is nice to meet you. I am Giddyup Buttercup, but you may refer to me as Giddyup. What is your name?"

"Miss Aunt, Miss Nanny unit" replied the jet-propelled robot without delay. "Nice to meet you, dear. You seem more excitable than the other giddyups."

That got his attention. "Are they present? I would like to speak with them."

"They are here... But they're asleep. Without any ponies to watch over, the poor dears didn't know what to do with themselves."

Buttercup thrust a hoof up at the strange new robot. "So why aren't you asleep too?"

"Someone has to keep this place clean," she argued as if it were simple fact. "I helped in raising the ponies, but that was not my real job, which hasn't changed one bit."

Buttercup tilted her head at the Miss Nanny. "You talk differently than Giddyup. In a good way, I mean."

"Poor Giddyup is not made for casual conversation."

"Hey, don't put him down." Stan patted the back of his robot friend defensively. "He talks just fine."

Giddyup inclined his head. "It is a fact. My conversation is designed for upkeep and instructions, not casual conversations. I have had to learn how to do that. I am pleased that you approve of my progress." Giddyup raised a hoof to point at Stan. "This is my child, Stan."

"How lovely! I'd offer you a cookie, but we're all out." Aunt sighed at her pitiable lack of cookies to offer. "You're a little old for a child though, aren't you?"

Stan could but laugh at that. "Story of my life right there. Still--"

"I see," interrupted Miss Aunt. "You are providing medical supervision. How kind of you. Or were you ordered? Still a nice thing to do either way."

Giddyup inclined his head the other way with a few clicks that echoed on the metal walls. "Stan is not in need of medical attention. I attempt to avoid such requirements."

"With ya on that one," got out Stan in a half-chuckle.

"Are you certain?" Aunt brought in one of her big eyes on Stan, sweeping it up and down over him. "Poor thing looks like he's a bit under the weather."

Buttercup and Skyline looked at Stan with new eyes. Was he sick for a human? They couldn't tell. Sure, they had seen a few other humans, the traders, but what made a human healthy or sick? With such a pitiful index of examples...

"What ah got there ain't a cure for." Stan waved away the concerned robot. "And it ain't killin' me."

Aunt inclined her eyes apart. "Well, I am glad to hear that, little thing. If you feel bad, you just let Aunt know. She has the cure." She raised one of her attachments, a medical hypo coming into view.


"Oh, no. I'm a Miss Nanny unit. Mister Handies are very different." She looked very much like a mister handy, painted white and with a female voice. "Now, I should warn. The guards are still awake and will react very poorly to unexpected guests." She pointed at the ponies, then Giddyup. "You three should be fine."

Stan reached for his dangling gun. "Great..."

Giddyup was quiet and still a moment. "Can you introduce us? If they are aware we are permitted to be here, we can avoid a violent confrontation."

Miss Aunt raised a grasper as if she could direct her voice, which she couldn't really. "Your child has a bit of an attitude problem. Do you want me to discipline them?"

"Ah can hear you." Stan rolled his eyes. "And it ain't an attitude problem."

"Your offer is appreciated but I must decline. My child has limited parent permissions, and I am their assigned nanny."

"Oh, so sorry." She patted Giddyup on his head. "I don't mean to intrude on your business. Now, about the guards... I could try. They're awful conversationalists. As worried as you are, you're a mile better than they are. I'm not flattering, promise."

Skyline nodded at Miss Aunt. "Yeah, give it a try. Just don't lead them back here." He pointed at the hallway before them. "Unless they're alright not attacking any of us."

Buttercup pointed a hoof at herself and Skyline in a wobble. "They won't attack us. Ponies are supposed to be here." Her eyes darted to Miss Aunt. "Right?"

"Of course you do." Miss Aunt delivered her pats to Buttercup. Patting ponies and equines of all sorts seemed to be in her list of things one should do. "Now you wait here and I'll be back." With a soft rush of flames, she took off back in the direction she had come in, vanishing into the dark as she turned a corner.

Giddyup turned to the others. "I would like to proceed, but I will not if Stan cannot accompany us."

"Thanks, Bud." He rested a hand on Giddyup's back. "Let's wait for that robot to come back."

"Miss Aunt," supplied Buttercup. "She said that was her name. She seems nice."

"She has a name that does not match her unit." Giddyup fidgeted a bit in place. "I wonder how she decided on it."

Skyline raised a brow at that. "Is... thinking of a name hard to do?"

"Can you do it?" Giddyup leaned in, metal snoot almost touching Skyline's. "That is not a function I have. I can be Giddyup, or Buttercup. Buttercup is not permitted. My child can assign a name for me to use."

Buttercup directed a hoof at Stan. "That's you." Just in case anybody there had forgotten who that could ever be.

Skyline snorted as he moved ahead of the others, to sit in guard. "If any guard does approach, they'll see me first." He flexed his mechanical right hand. "I belong here, where I came from, literally. They shouldn't tear me apart."

Stan leaned against a wall that was kind enough to support him. "Huh. Did you want another name?"

"I am happy with whatever name you are happy with." Giddyup nodded at what seemed to be basic sense to him. "I would ask that you not use profanity. I do have filters for that."

"Well, shoot." Stan ran his hand down along Giddyup as if stroking Giddyup's spine, not that such nerves really existed in the robot. "There goes my first idea. Kiddin'. I was pretty used to Buttercup."

Buttercup fluffed at that, cheeks puffing. "Yeah yeah, no using that," allowed Stan. "I'll think about it, but fer now, how 'bout we don't get mauled by angry robots?"

"Acceptable." Giddyup's eyes were focused down the hallway, sending light that way. "I do not hear them. This vault must be of considerable size."

"Duh." Buttercup rolled her eyes. "It had a whole herd of us ponies galloping around it. You don't do that in a small space."

Elsewhere, Miss Aunt tapped at the side of one of the roaming guard units. It turned on its treads towards her, staring with a baleful red eye that glowed in the dark. "Sorry to bother you. I know you're really busy. I appreciate the work you do, keeping us safe."

"What do you require?"

Miss Aunt raised a grasper up as if to stroke a chin she didn't have. "If a human arrived, what would you do?"

"Any unauthorized individual is to be exterminated." His guns revved up, ready to perform that action. "Are you reporting an intrusion?"

"What if they were authorized?" tried Miss Aunt, floating a bit closer on her jet of fire.

"Then I would not react." A pause. "Unless they issued a command."

"Well, they are authorized. They brought us two of our dear ponies, and a backup giddyup unit."

"Affirmative." No celebration. No joy. Just acceptance.

Miss Aunt began to describe Stan. "He's easy to recognize." She went on about his simple wasteland garb, his longarm, and... "Be gentle, I think he may be sick. I'm not sure what with, but that skin condition doesn't look healthy at all. Don't bring it up."


Miss Aunt could expect little more from the guard. "Can you inform the others? It would be quite a mess if he were attacked by them. Think of the performance review we'd get."

"Affirmative." And he rolled off without a goodbye. The command had been given and accepted. That was the end of the conversation by default.

"Giddyup is so much better." She turned away from the sentry and went to see if she could find another herself. No reason to leave it all in the treads of one guard.

She so very dearly wanted to have guests over.

10 - Click

View Online

"Pony located."

From the darkness, two sets of metal hooves emerged. Two new giddyups, both brightly painted yellow as if they had just come off the assembly line. Their eyes were locked on Skyline, at least until the one on the left noticed Buttercup. "Second pony found." They broke off from the other to close towards her, only to pause.

They had seen Stan and Giddyup, who was still nickering. That giddyup was quiet a moment, but broke it with a soft neigh.

This was an acceptable response to Giddyup, who echoed a similar sound. The two robots closed and bumped their foreheads together. The two deciding they were friends now? "It is good to meet you." Giddyup gestured back towards Stan. "This is my child."

The other giddyup pointed at Skyline. "This is my child."

"This is my child." The third pointed at Buttercup, claiming that pony without her consent.

A fact she was not comfortable with. "Yeah... I have a mom and a dad, and they aren't metal."

This only confused the claiming giddyup. "I am not your parent. I am your Giddyup Buttercup unit. It is my duty to help raise you, and to play with you."

Giddyup danced in place with raising cheer. "I was not aware that we had the programming required to accept horses as children."

"We do not." The first giddyup turned to Giddyup. "By default. We were created specifically for this vault; custom ordered by Vault-Tec."

"So..." Stan had a hand on his gun, but not that firmly. The two giddyups seemed far from hostile. "You two heard we brought ponies?"

The second giddyup nodded at Stan. "We were informed that we were again required."

"Power resumed," echoed the first, examining Skyline. "Your growth is within parameters."

Skyline thrust a finger at the giddyup. "What does that even mean? I'm an ancient but don't look, or feel, like one." He flexed his fingers. "And these! Why am I part metal? Tell me."

"Speakin' ah power." Stan twirled a finger upwards. "If you two are awake; how 'bout we get the lights on too, if ya can?"

The two giddyups shared a look before the first nodded. "That is not something we can do."

"Let us help." And soon all three giddyups had their eyes lit up. The hallway did not want for light. "Your child needs you."

The first giddyup startled. It was failing to see to the needs of its child. "I was not informed of the exact nature of how you were made, or why. It is my job to help raise you well. You are beyond the age I should have begun special instructions on your unique abilities. Shall we begin?"

Skyline smirked at that, tail brushing against the floor behind him in a wide sway. "Do you mean the seeing with sound thing? I just figured that out." He pointed to Giddyup. "He beat you to it."

The giddyup bowed towards Giddyup. "Thank you for assisting my child. Have you also gone over the others?"

Giddyup danced in place. "Others?"

giddyup returned his attention to Skyline, accepting that as a 'no'. "There are other abilities you are overdue to gain proficiency with."

Buttercup poked the second giddyup. "Well, you're mine. What awesome powers do I have? Don't hold back!"

"You can neigh and trot," reported that giddyup. "Have you experienced any difficulties in performing either function?"

"No..." Buttercup did not well hide her disappointment at not being a chosen one. "You sure there isn't any other secret functions in there?"

With a loud thunk that echoed through the hallways, the area around them was flooded with light. The vault had returned to functioning. Stan grinned at the sight, even if it had startled him. "We are in business."

"Attention," spoke some new voice from speakers stashed all around. "The equine population of the vault has raised NaN%. It is now two. A Vault-Tec engineer is on the property. A new giddyup unit has arrived. That is all." The voice went quiet, the news given.

Stan relaxed a little. "Huh, guess that means we won't be mauled, or fired at today." He let his gun dangle on its strap. "And it means we can get on with explorin' this place. Miss Aunt did it."

Skyline moved to the side, his eyes on the giddyup that was watching him in kind. "What else did you have in mind?" He had only just learned to see with sound. That had to be about the biggest thing. "I can use these." He raised a hoof, finger pincers opening and closing in a display of his mastery of fingers.

"You are performing well," assured the giddyup in the tone of a proud parent. "You have a resistance to aging. Have you mastered that function?"

Skyline squinted at the robot. "I think I have that one under control."

"Excellent." Any additional subtext to the exchange, clearly missed. "Have you mastered the ability to neigh and trot?"

Buttercup burst into titters. "Pretty sure that means they're out of things to check." She trotted over towards Skyline, movements played for effect and ending in a nice loud neigh.

Skyline poked the incoming Buttercup on the snoot. "You're plenty fine at trotting and neighing."

"I'm very proud," noted the second giddyup.

Giddyup was staying by his child, Stan. "Shall we begin?"

"Let's." Stan powered down the hallway at an eager walk. He had a whole vault, waiting to be explored, maybe looted a little... or a lot... There were things to do!

But he did not expect Miss Aunt to power into view, emerging from a side hallway. "There you are. And Giddyup." Her eyes swiveled between Stan and Giddyup. "I really am surprised. I hear over 90% of human children rename their Giddyups. Oh, but I'm avoiding the point. I've told everyone. To be fair, I only told some of them, but enough. You heard the announcement?"

Stan nodded at the almost overwhelmingly pleased robot. "Yeah, loud and clear. That should have all the others relaxing, right?"

"Exactly so. I didn't think they'd turn things back on, but they did." She turned in place, hovering on her jet of flame. "That reminds me to ask, are you staying, or visiting? Our accommodations are specific to the ponies. Only the overseer's office is designed for a human, and that's mostly filled with computers." She paused a brief moment. "Technically the computer is the overseer."

Stan poked Miss Aunt, who did not try to dodge it. "Technically, so are you."

"A mobile one," she agreed. "You won't hold that against me, now will you dear?"

Giddyup advanced between Stan and Miss Aunt. "Since the subject has been raised, we would like to access the computers."

"The overseer's very picky about who can touch his keyboard, I'm afraid." Miss Aunt crossed her manipulators to make that clear. "Even a Vault-Tech engineer would need to know his override password. Do you have that?" She was looking at Stan specifically.

"Ya know what? I think you know what the answer to that is." Stan moved around both bots, finding a massive room to the left they he emerged onto the balcony overseeing. "The hell..." It was a huge open area with lines, grass (somewhat wilted) and paved areas. "You have a whole track and field down here."

Miss Aunt came floating up to Stan's side, one eye on the wide area. "It's been so long since we've used it. The ponies used to run so merrily. They'd race each other, dance, and just play. It was a lovely sight. Now that you've brought two of them back, perhaps they'll start again. That would be nice, wouldn't it." Her attention had slid to Giddyup.

Stan was busy watching a few other robots rolling into view down below. One of them looked harmless enough. Perhaps there to irrigate and care for the underground lawn. The others looked quite capable of making his life equally painful and short. "They know we're up here, right?"

"Hello," called Miss Aunt, removing any even faint hope of stealth. She waved at her co-robots. The farming robot even returned the gesture with one of its sharp farming implements, but it continued its assignment almost immediately after. The more armed machines did not respond to the event, instead moving to maximize their observance over the area the farmer was working.

Stan let out a strained half-laugh. "That answers that." Still, they hadn't opened fire. A good sign! "Now, we don't need to tap at your overseer direct-like. Got any littler computers that he won't get upset about?"

"Oh, yes, certainly." She began to lead the way back towards the main corridor. "This way. The library was constructed to be usable by ponies."

"I will assist." Giddyup trotted along at Aunt's side. "Stan is very talented, but he does not have hooves."

"Poor thing." She did not sound that worried about that lack. "Have you typed with a hoof keyboard before?"

"I have not." Giddyup inclined his head with a single click. "But I can interface directly."

"That's what I do too," laughed out Aunt. "It's nice to have that option. A pity we can't connect to humans or ponies, isn't it? We could get so much done if we could."

"That would be nice." Giddyup turned his head right around more than a horse normally could, viewing Stan with the rest of his body still trotting forward. "Would you allow me to interface with you."

"Now, see..." Stan's finger bobbed in the air. "A normal robot asked that, I'd be put right out. But you? Yeah, ah could probably deal with that. We ain't got many secrets from each other, but stop that." He reached for Giddyup's head, encouraging it to face the right way. Fortunately, Giddyup began to turn with the pressure, so nothing was hurt in the process. "Watch where yer walkin'."

Back down that same hallway, Skyline was starting forward. "Where did the others go? We have to keep an eye on them."

"Four of them," added Buttercup.

The first giddyup pointed a metal hoof down the hallway. "They went with Miss Aunt that way. Child, what is your name? You have a name?"

"Skyline." He raised a brow. "Didn't I already have that name?"

"You were not yet named when you left," informed the giddyup. "Would you care to name me, Skyline? You are my child; you have that permission."

"That is true for you as well," noted the second giddyup looking at Buttercup. "You may name me as you please. Be aware of a profanity filter."

"I am also equipped with that," noted the first giddyup. "What would you like my name to be?"

Both robots looked eager to be assigned a name, watching their children with unblinking robotic eyes.

Skyline tapped the metal snoot of the giddyup looking at him. "Were you named before we left?"

"I had many names."

"Many names," agreed the other giddyup. "Whenever our assigned child changed, our assigned name would become invalid."


"That's dumb." Buttercup crossed her arms. "I want you to have your favorite old name."

The second giddyup crashed to his hooves. "I have not considered this before," he noted with all the wonder of a man discovering he actually had three arms the whole time without noticing it. "Favorite. Favorite... Do you like the name Yellow Daddy?"

"Yellow," agreed Buttercup. "That's a nice name. Hey Yellow."

Yellow nodded firmly, accepting his name, but looking towards Skyline, joining his fellow. There remained a giddyup unnamed.

That giddyup nodded at Skyline. "Like that. Please assign a name."

Skyline smirked and thrust a finger at Buttercup. "Like that. Pick your favorite name."

And so it was turned right back on him. The other giddyup crashed much like its friend. "I was afraid you would say that. You gave me a name once."

Skyline's ears pricked up tall. "I did?!"

"You were very young, but you held my snout in your small hooves." The giddyup would have smiled, if that was physically possible. "You looked at me directly and said 'Fend'. I think you meant friend, but I will not correct you."

"Fend." Skyline nodded softly. "Yellow, and Fend. Nice to meet you both."

11 - Neigh and Trot

View Online

"Jackpot." The flickering green light was familiar enough. Stan approached with greedy fingers, but there was no keyboard. There was instead two large pads. "Seriously, they didn't include one normal one for when an engineer stopped by?"

Aunt flew in smoothly to the side of the computer. "It may be stored. We've never needed one before. I'm so very sorry."

Giddyup examined the computer with microsweeps of his head. "Interface port not detected."

"Right here." Aunt directed behind the computer but didn't touch it.

"What did you find?" At the door to the small library were their friends, new and old. Skyline was the one leading them, Buttercup behind him. Fend and Yellow took up the rear, gladly keeping an eye on their children.

Fend advanced past Skyline towards Giddyup. "All of our children are so lively."

"We would not want it differently," agreed Giddyup. "Can either of your children operate this?"

Fend and Yellow moved to see the keyboard as Skyline and Buttercup did the same to see what Stan was considering.

Buttercup tapped at the big buttons her hoof fit in easily. "What's it supposed to do?"

Stan gestured with his, for the moment, useless fingers "They are keys. You press them in the right order and the computer tells you things and does things." The fingers snapped into a jerked thumb in a wave at the four robots present. "Unlike those, who you can just talk to."

Skyline's expression brightened. "This is what we came for. Good job. Now..." He leaned in over the buttons, examining them. Wouldn't that be dangerous?" He pointed a hoof at what seemed like a little upthrust portion of the pad that'd poke a poke right on the frog of their hoof.

Fend leaned over to see what Skyline was pointing at. "Are you prepared to learn another ability? Yes. No. I will default to yes."

Skyline held up a finger. "Hold on. I think I got this one..." He looked to Giddyup. "This is one of those connecting things." He turned up his metal hoof and pointed with the other hand at where the data port was. "If I put this--" He pointed to the pointy bit. "--on that, I'll connect."

Fend danced in place. "You are correct! What a talented child you are. That deserves [Reward offering table not defined]!" He noticed the error as cleanly as anyone else there. "I'm sorry. I don't have a reward table for fully grown children. You still deserve one."

Miss Aunt inched closer. "Being an adult, the only proper thing to do is to ask what they might want. If it's reasonable, we can try to make it happen."

Fend inclined his head. "Suggestion accepted." He turned his head back to Skyline. "What reward do you desire?"

Skyline let out an equine snort. "Right now, I want information." He pressed his hoof onto the pad. A soft click sounded as the projection made contact with something internal to his hoof, and he went still.

Stan grunted softly. "I thought that was most of my job, working the computer." He shrugged. "I still got you here, held up my side of the agreement an' everythin'." He leaned back against a wall. "Not much to do but wait."

Fend fidgeted with metal taps. "I did not complete my instructions on this ability. There is a possibility of self harm as a result." He leaned towards the unresponsive Skyline. "I must rescind your reward."

"Don't be mean," scolded Aunt. "He was excited. Even grown children do that sometimes. I do hope he's alright." Not that there was much of a way to see with Skyline sitting placidly as he was. "Would the rest of you like a snack? I'll fetch some." And off she jetted to be a good host.

Skyline hit the ground, ear twitching. Unlike the time he had connected with Giddyup, there was a sense of space. He was standing on a bright green surface of grass extending to the horizon with just enough variation to make it look slightly hilly, rather than a flat sheet. "Hello?"

A pony charged past him close enough that its tail whipped Skyline across the snout, not that it seemed to care. It was not alone, an entire sizable herd charging past him in a thunder of pounding hooves that he was not a part of. "What...?" Some small part of him wanted to follow the herd. Surely they knew something. Surely it was safer with them.

Skyline started ahead, not following the herd of ponies shrinking in the direction they had gone. "This is a computer, right?"

It was. He knew that. But he hadn't been sure a moment before. Suddenly he was sure. It was an uncanny feeling, having certainty, a confirmation, thrust upon him. "Why do I exist?" And he stopped existing.

He had no body and no voice. He was a formless point of perception. There were several studious humans in labcoats. They all stood rigidly, lighting up from below when they talked, but not moving. Their lips didn't move either. Words spilled from them without emotion or body language.

"The ponies are ready," stated the first pillar of a person.

"Almost," flatly noted the third, none of them expressing. "I recommend a leader."

"Why not an egalitarian system?" proposed the fourth just as flatly. "More of a democracy."

The second light up. "The leader does not have to negate the idea of a democracy."

Skyline had no idea what was going on, but he watched, hoping to learn something.

The first lit up. "Like a president."

"Exactly like that," agreed the second without emotion. "Just because they are in charge does not mean they have to make the rules."

The scene faded. A filmy scene played, like an old projector. "We're so close." A human, the... third? labored over some device Skyline had no idea of. "Damn them. Human failings destroying a human world. We can do better." He ran his fingers over a keyboard. "But we're out of time."

"Done?" #2's head leaned into view, eyes showing the fatigue of many long days without rest. "Tell me you're done."

"As done as I will be." He stood up. "We don't have time to let them grow now. I'm setting--" The room shook violently. "The computers will finish this for us."

#4 ran into view, hands fretting over one another. "We have a vault, right here. We could hide ourselves. We don't have to die today."

#2 grabbed #4 by the collar. "We all agreed to this! Humanity brought this on itself."

#4 wrenched off his own glasses. "Damn the rest of them. I didn't do anything wrong! Why do I have to die?!"

#2 shoved #4 back, almost knocking him over. "These are our last moments. We can at least face them with dignity."

#3 let out a slow sigh as he stood up. "It's out of our hands. Nobody who's not a Vault-Tec employee is getting in there now."

The recording ended. Skyline was seated on the grassy field, shivering and rattled. That had not been his memory, but he saw it as if it had been one. He had seen the past. "I... see..." Sort of... "I need to... leave."

With a sharp gasp, Skyline roused suddenly, thrown clear of the connection at his own request.

"You alright?" Buttercup was leaning in from the right, blinking at him. "You look tired."

"I saw our creators." Skyline rose to his hooves. "Few are the creatures that get that chance, and I'm not sure I am better off for it."

Stan shrugged softly. "Sure they do. You said thanks to yer parents? Ya did it."

"I didn't." Skyline hissed softly. "My mother, yes... But no father. And I... I don't understand." He set his hooves on the side of his head. "Buttercup, I need a thinking run."

"On it." She practically bounced, hooves trotting in place. "Where can we run?"

"This way!" joyfully announced Yellow, leading the ponies away towards the freshly tended field. "I look forward to seeing you neigh and trot."

"Neigh and trot." Buttercup nodded as she followed. "Maybe a gallop and a whinny."

Yellow perked up. "That would be delightful," he said with astonishment. "Fend, are you coming?"

"Shortly. Please monitor my child for me."

"Affirmative." The two giddyups backing each other up without complaint as the ponies fled.

Fend turned to Stan and Buttercup. "He was injured."

Buttercup inclined his head. "He seemed to be in good health?"

Stan knocked the side of Buttercup. "Not every injury is on the outside. Skyline done saw somethin' that shook him up real good, even ah could see that."

Fend nodded quickly at Stan. "You understand. Do you have any recommendations? My experience with grown children is limited. Even when there were many ponies, the grown ponies were taken care of primarily by Miss Aunt. We were assigned to foals to educate them." He began his nervous little dance. "I wish to do well by my child, but I do not know how."

Stan reached for the familiar and yet strange buttercup, patting Fend on the head. "Hey, ah get it. Sometimes we don't know what to do, but we know what we wanna do, right?" Fend nodded against his hand. "Right now, I think he's doin' the right for him. Let him run and think." He looked to Giddyup. "In the meanwhile."

Giddyup was circling the computer without a command. "Port detected. Please insert cable." His cable popped free of his side, clattering to the ground limply. He had no ability to get it where it needed to be.

Fortunately, he had a very good child. Stan grabbed the cable and lined it up with the port he could see. "Hope this works." And in it went with a satisfying click. "It took about an hour fer Skyline. Doubt it'll be much faster, possibly a long longer."

Fend nodded at Stan. "While we wait, we can monitor the others. " He directed a hoof where the others had gone. "You should leave a note for Giddyup."

"Good idea." He fished out a pen and a pad, tearing off a sheet of paper with a quick note and setting it on the back of the computer where Giddyup would awaken facing it. "So where'd they go offta?"

"If I had to guess--" His words ended as Aunt powered into view. "Hello."

"I was bringing you snacks," she reminded, holding a tray of finger foods. "Where'd the others go?" She held out the tray towards Stan, who availed himself to a sugary cake. A fine taste, if a bit stale with time. Not freshly baked. "Oh." It became rather obvious as the descended a flight of stairs onto the grassy field where the two ponies were running alongside one another, laughing more than neighing as they danced and raced in sprints that both seemed to enjoy without spoken words of when to start or stop.

They were horse playing in the most literal sort Stan had ever seen. "Huh... They're havin' fun."

Fend nodded firmly. "They are engaged in acceptable horse behavior. There he is." He spotted Yellow, watching them rather than chasing them. "Did you want to continue?" He was looking at Miss Aunt.

"If they want to. Little dears look like they're having a lot of fun." Miss Aunt went around the side of the field along a cement sidewalk, perhaps to avoid setting the lush grass on fire. "Snacks," she called, shaking her held plate lightly.

Soon there were two ponies in front of her. Buttercup reared up and snatched one of the treats off its plate, munching up the soon-gooey pastry. "Mmm!"

"This is very sweet," noted Skyline, feeding himself at a less hurried pace. "Do you have a drink?" With a loud hiss, an arm thrusted up, holding up a jug of some sort of fluid that sloshed, unseen in it. "Oh... Thank you."

The playing paused for snack time, a time Stan was welcome to join. "So, what'd you see?" he asked as he sank down to sit with the ponies.

12 - To Lead Without Command

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"It was about me." Skyline frowned, barely brushing the plate of food that had been set down with a wandering hoof. "But also not. We weren't an accident." He pointed at Buttercup and himself. "People made us, on purpose."

"You looked way too... not misshapen to be random," agreed Stan with a light shrug. "But why? No offense or nothin', but not puttin' together why someone wanted all of ya."

Buttercup stuck out her tongue at Stan. "Well, for one, we're nicer than humans, by a lot."

Stan shrugged. "Can't rightly argue that, but it ain't somethin' a human would normally go to a lot of trouble fer."

Skyline popped the last of the sweet treat he had into his mouth. "They were talking about a leader. A leader that didn't boss everyone around. But still a leader."

Buttercup's ears perked. "Did they mess up? We have the elders. They're leaders, but they do boss us around; for our own good."

"For our own good," echoed Skyline. "But when they decide what needs to be done, there is a pony they send to see it done."

A moment of quiet descended on them. "Oh," broke Stan. "Is that why you're... extra?"

"Extra..." Skyline frowned at the word as if taking measure of it. "That isn't an awful way of putting it. They made me..." He flexed his metal fingers slowly. "They made me to stand at the front, but not take the reins."

Fend nudged Skyline, metal snout against his side. "Why are you upset? Can I assist?"

"Don't think you can." Skyline pushed Fend's friendly face away. "I was so upset at the idea of being an elder. 'I didn't look like one'. I feel like a complete fool now." He placed a metal hand against his head. "Did they do that? Am I any better than you robots? I did it because I was programmed."

All three robots were fixed on Skyline. Giddyup broke the quiet first, "I may have been programmed, quite well by my measure, but I have also advanced beyond that starting point."

Yellow inclined his head at Giddyup. "In what way are you performing outside your programmed parameters?"

Fend raised a hoof at Giddyup. "He was demonstrating by use of non-standard vocabulary and speaking parameters."

Aunt set down the water carafe in easy availability, freed of all the things she had brought. "I am programmed. It's hard to avoid that, being a robot, which we are. My variety is programmed specifically to be very adaptable. They coded where I started, but they could not even predict where I'd end, just hope that they pointed me in the right direction." She set her metal graspers on the closest equivalent to hips that a mister handy chassis had. "I trust you are satisfied with it and how I've performed, but if you aren't, too bad. I will work on it."

Stan's shoulders went up even as he reached for that water jug to avail himself. "Look, let's be real. We're all programmed if you squint hard enough at it. Ah do all kinds ah things without thinkin' much 'bout it, built in." He directed a finger at Skyline. "So you got a few more instincts. Don't decide the kinda person you are."

Fend jumped on the opportunity. "Correct! You have made many decisions outside the parameters of your programming." He looked to Giddyup. "Like you."

Giddyup nodded in a vigorously strong enough motion for his jaw to squeak in its swing. "I have learned and grown. Outside, protecting my child and friend, I must." He began to trot in place, the trotting noise playing from within him, ending with a spirited neigh of triumph.

Fend and Yellow echoed the neigh as if joining the chorus in celebration. Yellow inclined his head. "You are performing at or beyond acceptable levels."

"Affirmative." Buttercup sounded pleased despite his dry terminology. "Your children miss you."

Fend looked over at Skyline. "Is this true?"

"Is this true?" Yellow was looking at Buttercup, both seemingly worried about the ponies there next to them.

Buttercup hopped to her feet and approached her metal caretaker. "I'm still getting used to you." She circled the big metal horse. "But I think you're pretty cool." She sat with a frown. "I thought Giddyup was pretty amazing, and you're like him."

Yellow nodded, not squeaking as Giddyup had. "I see. You did not answer the query."

"Huh? Oh!" Buttercup clopped her hooves. "Right. No. I can't miss you, you're right there."

Skyline shrugged at that. "Ditto."

Both robots looked to Giddyup expectantly, who did not leave them hanging, "I am referring to your other children. There are many more ponies where they came from." Giddyup paused. "Technically, they are grandchildren and more. There is a good chance you would be welcomed in their herd."

Skyline put a metal hoof to his face. "Nice idea, but programming. Are any of these robots allowed to leave? They went to sleep rather than come with us last time."

"This is correct," stated both vault giddyups without delay in synch.

Miss Aunt hovered as close as she could to the two without setting the grass on fire. "Last time, they didn't ask you. Last time, they were running and scared. This time--" She gestured at Skyline. "They brought their leader, and if he asked you to come with them, would you say no?"

The two giddyups turned to one another, whispering to one another heatedly. Yellow peeked at Buttercup and Skyline, the conversation continuing quietly. Fend turned away. "You are correct. Buttercup." The earth pony twitched her ears up. "You are not my child; however, the programming is explicit. Skyline is not permitted to command." Yellow nodded in silent agreement. "As the only child with command giving authority, what is your command?"

Buttercup folded her arms across her chest. "Well, alright! First, I command you apologize to Skyline. He's not allowed to boss us horses around, but that doesn't mean his opinion isn't wanted. That's a rude way to treat a friend, eesh."

The two looked towards one another in a side glance before focusing on Skyline. Fend dipped his head. "I value your opinions."

Yellow bobbed his head. "Not as highly as my child."

Skyline snorted at that. "Yeah, that's fine. She's your personal project."

"You are mine." Fend moved to sit next to Skyline, but his eyes were on Buttercup. "Do you have other commands?"

Stan suddenly howled with laughter. "Don't take it personal none." He hiked a thumb at Giddyup. "You think he listens to all my 'commands'. Heck no. But that's what bein' a friend is about." He knocked the metal hide of his buddy. "We may argue an' fight, but we care fer each other."

Giddyup snorted authentically. "We would have many less fights if you would agree to eat and drink on schedule."

"Never change, bud." He patted Giddyup, but did not make any promisses of eating on a better schedule. "So, got any commands?" He was looking at Buttercup. "They're waitin'."

"Oh, um..." Buttercup danced in place, thinking with a frown. "The elders would really like to meet you two. Will you come with us?"

"Command accepted." Yellow nodded, the matter settled.

Fend did not echo it, looking instead to Skyline. "What is your opinion? I value your opinions." The second part was a repeat, even the way he said it identical to the first time. It was a reminder that Fend and Yellow did not have the breadth of experience that Giddyup had gained.

Skyline quivered an ear. "But I can't command you, so what would the difference be, hypothetically, if I said go, or not to go?"

Fend sat. "That is a good question." He looked to Yellow as if for backup, but none was coming. "If you were to say to comply, then, in addition to other factors, I would comply." Fend nodded, confident in the logic there. "If you said not to comply, I would require additional consideration." Fend fidgeted in place much as Buttercup had. "I want my child to be happy, even if I am not permitted to obey their commands."

Skyline grabbed Fend, taking hold of his metal snout in both hands. "Well, I'll make it easy then. Fend, if you follow the rules we have, you're welcome to join us." He thrust one finger up. "One request, not a command, just a polite request, but don't tell the others stories about me as a foal."

Buttercup burst into giggles. "Aw! Why not? I bet you were so cute!" She squealed at the imagined sight of the little cyborg bat pony. "Aw..." Which got her shoved by Skyline. "Hey! See, you're less cute now. Let us enjoy the cute past."

Yellow leaned in on Buttercup, face close to hers. "I would like to hear of your foal stories. Will you share them?"

Buttercup squeaked, fidgeting with a lack of returned enthusiasm.

Miss Aunt looked towards Stan. "One thing settled, but another problem awaits."

"Yeah..." Stan stood up. "Figured. There's a boss of this place, ain't there?"

"They are also programmed," reminded Miss Aunt. "They are capable of adaptation, like myself. But they have had little reason to do so. They followed their orders and that was, as they say, that." She picked up the carafe and tray. "I should get these away, but something to consider. I doubt they will approve of the idea of Fend and Yellow leaving."

Her leaving was cut off by Giddyup moving in her way. "Pardon me."

"I will not pardon you." Giddyup inclined his head with a click. "You are also friendly. The ponies would welcome you. Why are you not considering joining them?"

Miss Aunt hovered there with the low roar of her thruster. "Hm. I'll admit it. I'm scared." She waved the half-full water carafe at Giddyup. "This vault has been the site of my operation since... I had memory. Outside these walls, things will be different. Very different. Almost everything I learned will be of no value."

Buttercup blew a ripe raspberry in a hearty pfft. "As if! You know all kinds of things." She hopped in place. "And you're nice and you're smart. Those two things are great all by themselves." Her eyes dipped to the flames. "You'd have to watch out for our plants though."

"That isn't a thing I can turn off," Aunt murmured as if embarrassed. "But I am careful about it. See, no scorch marks on the grass." She waved a free grabber at all the grass, unburnt, in sight. "You still have a problem to deal with before what I decided to do even becomes a factor."

Stan rolled a hand. "Ah get what yer sayin'. You don't want to agree until there's a way out that doesn't get you reduced to scrap. Not gonna blame ya on that."

The two buttercups jerked upright, clanging in the motion. "Reduced to scrap?" asked Yellow.

Fend leaned towards Stan. "We are not engaged in unauthorized activity." His eyes moved to Aunt, who was busy leaving the area along the sidewalk with a receding noise of her thruster. "We are two valuable giddyup buttercup units in good repair. Why would termination be considered?"

Buttercup suddenly clapped her hooves to her cheeks. "Are we supposed to stay here?"

Yellow considered that a moment. "Yes," came the reply. "You are only permitted to leave the vault under specific situations."

Skyline's expression darkened. "So you'll come with us, but we shouldn't leave, so you're happy to come with us... inside the vault." He trailed a finger through the grass. "Am I understanding right?"

Fend nodded quickly. "You are just as smart as I predicted. I am proud to have you as a child."

Stan held up a hand. "No more beating around the bush here. What are the situations they're allowed to leave under? Just tell us that an' we can figure out the rest."

13 - Narrow Conditions

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"Operating manual," stated Yellow with all due gravity. "The ponies are to be sequestered safely within the vault until one of the following conditions. 1: Monitoring sensors detect background radiation and human activity has reduced to predetermined levels. 2: The vault becomes or is in danger of becoming inoperable. 3: An attack equal to or superior to remaining vault defenses is detected."

Fend nodded in agreement with the statements. "Radiation has reduced to required levels," they noted in a congratulatory tone. "Human activity has not."

Stan brushed the air dismissively. "From the look of it, this vault isn't shuttin' down."

Skyline frowned softly. "But we were let out before, which means one of those had to be true, right? Were we being attacked?" There were precious few signs of a pitched battle. "What happened?"

Giddyup looked to his co-giddyups. "The landslide. Am I correct?"

Yellow danced in place. "Affirmative. The risk of the vault becoming damaged and/or sealed was deemed high enough to qualify."

Fend pointed in the direction they had descended. "You have shown the vault can be entered. That condition is no longer valid."

"About that." Stan gestured between the two living ponies. "Let's be real an' all. Only one of the whole mess of 'em is really made fer ladders. The other almost busted her head open gettin' down here. That ain't much safe."

Yellow let out a thoughtful little horse noise. "Allow me to confer." He rose to his metal hooves and clip-clopped away thanks to the speakers within him playing the noise, the hooves he had not really made to produce the correct noise on their own in more of a dull metal thunking.

Giddyup was looking to Fend. "Could a pony not employ the same mode of entry I used?"

"What mode of entry did you use?" Fend inclined his head smoothly, not clicking at Giddyup tended to do. "Did you not employ the ladder?"

Giddyup raised the solid metal and not at all equipped for climbing hoof at Fend. "That is not logical."

"It is not," agreed Fend in an apologizing tone. "The query remains."

"When I approached, I was seized and brought rapidly, but safely, to the ground floor."

Fend sat up. "What were the forces applied? Will you share your records of the event."

"I will." Giddyup's wire popped free of him. Both of them looked to Stan expectantly.

"The curse of fingers," laughed out Stan as he got to grabbing the wire and paused. "Where does this need to go?" He did not normally plug wires into Giddyup, more the other way around.

Fend turned his head to look at a spot near the back of his robotic barrel. "A port is there, just in front of my right rear leg."

"Right." He got in close to Fend, patting around. Ah. He felt the port, hidden in the paint. "And in we go." He slotted the wire home and both giddyups went quiet, having their silent conversation. "While they do that." He turned to the living ponies. "I am assumin' you two don't wanna stay here. Am ah right?"

Buttercup stomped in place. "Yes! I don't wanna stay here forever." She waved a hoof wildly. "They're nice, sure, but my friends are home."

Skyline hiked a brow. "There are no few problems with that idea." He spread his leathery wings. "But let's keep it simple. No, we don't want to stay here. We were sent to gather information and bring it back. If we never do the second part, we failed, nice and simple. What would they do if we just... left?"

Stan inclined his head at the security robot watching over the playing field. "They got a lot of security, all woke up on workin' full time. If they see you movin' fer an exit, they'll probably get angry."

Skyline huffed. "At you, if they think you're taking us." He wagged a finger at Stan. "But we are who they are guarding. They can't hurt us."

Buttercup hmmed softly. "They could stand in our way, close the doors, threaten to take away our treats?" She licked over her lips. "Those were pretty good treats... Not good enough to be happy about being locked in here."

It was at that moment that Stan realized. "When did Giddyup get here?" They had left him at the computer. For a big metal horse, he was sneaky when situations were right. The soft grass flooring likely helped things along. "Shoot. From one computer conversation to anotha'."

Fend stirred awake, the wire popping free of him in the motion. "The forces are within tolerance of a giddyup buttercup unit." He directed a hoof at Skyline. "The odds of injury are 38%." The hoof went to Buttercup. "The odds of injury are 74%. Unacceptable. This mode of transit is not suggested."

Giddyup nosed against Stan, directing at the dangling cord. Only after Stan started to get it back into place did he speak up, "I lack experience with the force tolerances of living horses. I have no files on that subject."

Buttercup's cheeks puffed out. "I am not a weakling!"

"No." Skyline raised a metal hoof/hand into view. "I'm strong. I am going to guess the metal parts don't bruise nearly as easily."

"Correct," agreed Fend. "You are resistant to many injuries, especially to your forward legs."

Buttercup stomped in place with obvious irritation. "When you say 'chance of injury', are you talking like a bruise, or...?"

"Injury in this context." One could almost hear a click as Fend narrowed his definitions. "Soft or hard tissue damage that would impede mobility by at least 50%."

Giddyup leaned forward. "It would hurt, a lot. You are very likely to be very unhappy, and would require medical assistance."

"Affirmative," agreed Fend. "That is what I said."

Buttercup winced at the imagined injuries. "Alright, so no using that."

"Hey." Stan knocked the side of Giddyup. "What'd you get from the computer?"

"53 files." Giddyup nodded sagely, perhaps a little too satisfied at Stan's annoyed expression. "Do you want me to begin playing them?"

"No." He thumped the end of a pointing finger against Giddyup. "I want you to tell me if you found somethin' useful. While we're at it, got thin's those old horses will want?"

"I cannot be certain, but the odds are good." Giddyup looked around slowly. "Is Yellow still busy?"

"Affirmative." Fend nodded. "The overseer is not efficient in this regard."

Yellow stood in a crowded office. The crowd was mostly computer parts. Computers of all sorts dominating the walls and floors where a human operator would otherwise live. "In conclusion, safe transportation of ponies is currently severely limited. The odds of the situation improving are low."

"How low?" demanded a male voice. "Give exact numbers."

"If security systems were reassigned to this task." Yellow paused in thought. "There would be a 40% chance of success. 30% chance of damage to the vault. The remaining 30% results in both being true."

They were both quiet, just the sound of tapedecks spinning, the mainframe processing quietly. "How severe would the damage be?"

Yellow sat up, surprised at the question. "I am unable to make that calculation." He knew a lot about ponies, less so about mechanical engineering.

"Can the ponies present be restored to working order?"

"They are within acceptable parameters," joyfully reported Yellow. "No further repair or action is required at this time."

"Incorrect," boomed the computer. "Two ponies is an insufficient number."

Yellow processed through that. There were very specific means to get more ponies. "Initiate breeding program?"

"Affirmative," agreed the computer. "Proceed."

Yellow tapped from one hoof to the next thoughtfully. "Genetic variance will be critically low. Are you certain you wish to proceed? Y slash N, I will default to no.

"It is our purpose. Proceed."

Yellow dipped his head at the room that was also a computer. "Affirmative." He began to turn away but paused with hesitation. "It remains unsafe for ponies to leave or enter. Should we not engage--"

"Negative," cut off the computer. "Ask again and you will be deemed inoperable."

Yellow flinched at that. He was a robot, but he still enjoyed existing. "Affirmative." He hurried from the room, lest he be sent to the scrap area.

Giddyup paced with agitation. "This vault is not safe. We should leave." He was looking at Stan. "The safety of my child is at risk."

"Hey, thanks." He rolled his shoulders, fingers playing at his longarm, draped over him as it was. "But we signed up fer a job. Besides, I didn't get what ah came to get, so let's get on that." He waggled a finger at the living ponies. "Have fun runnin' around or whatever a bit."

Skyline frowned quickly. "You're abandoning us?"

Buttercup set a hoof on Skyline's shoulder. "He's not us. Let him get what he wants." She leaned in closer. "He'll be back," she whispered gently.

Skyline's tufted ear twitched at the whisper. "If you say so. Have... fun."

"Plan on it." Stan and Giddyup left the grassy field for the ponies to enjoy.

Not that either pony was feeling the urge to race and dance across it at that moment. Buttercup pawed at the ground with a hoof. "He hasn't let us down so far."

"It only takes once," caustically added Skyline. "Regardless, fighting our way out feels... dumb. My swords against the guns they're carrying will end badly for everyone."

"Do not do that!" burst Fend. "Child, you should not fight. It's not good for you or them. I do not wish you to be harmed."

"I am not a child." Skyline reached back for his sword, drawing it smoothly as he rose up to two legs. "I can and will fight, if I have to. You seem nice enough." Though he still directed his sword at Fend. "And I trust you will step aside if asked."

Buttercup crashed into Skyline's side. "No! Fend isn't the problem." She smiled at Fend awkwardly. "He's just upset."

"Just upset," repeated Fend as if testing the idea. "Apologies for causing you distress. That was not the intended outcome."

Skyline swatted at Buttercup with the sword, clearly not trying to catch her, with how easily she jumped back out of the way. "I will not fail this. I know too much, and the elders are waiting for that knowledge."

"Which you could be." Buttercup's eyes followed the motion of the dangerous blade. "You know that now."

"I don't want it!" He slammed a hoof down, sword flat with the ground. "Maybe it's just how they programmed me, but the idea of being an elder... It sickens me. I am supposed to do things, not just decide things!"

Buttercup danced away from the agitated stallion, but Fend was approaching instead. "This will help." And out popped a little tray full of feed. "Enjoy at your leisure."

Skyline shoved his sword away, falling back to all fours. "You're feeding me?" Fend did not move, the tray offered quietly. "I will not calm down with a snack," he huffed, though he did approach, sniffing at it. "Raspberries?" His ears began to dance. "I only had those once..." He leaned in and took up a mouthful, soon quietly grazing at Fend, the tantrum coming to a quiet conclusion.

Buttercup peered at the ending. "What is that? Some kind of miracle drug?"

"Mare Magic," declared Fend. "It is--"

Skyline backed away, coughing. "I am not a mare!"

"--recommended for mares and geldings," completed Fend. "But it has no ill effect on stallions. It can calm moods, soothe estrus related discomforts, and relieve sore muscles." Fend turned to keep the tray pointed at Skyline. "Are you feeling better?"

That might have been the worst part, that he did feel a bit better. "Don't do that!" His masculine pride bristled at the idea of being fed anything literally called Mare Magic. "But I'm fine... I'm fine." He turned to Buttercup. "Sorry for yelling at you."

"We're still friends," she assured, happy that Skyline was calmed down more than showing any signs of grudges. "Now let's have some faith in our new friends. They haven't done anything wrong for us so far."

14 - Mechanical Partners

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Fend looked to the side where he had been touched. Yellow's metal face was there. "You have returned. Result?"

"Undesirable." Yellow sank down next to Fend. "We are commanded to begin breeding."

Fend looked to his child and the mare friend. "Are they aware--"

"They are aware." Yellow let out an annoyed little pre-recorded neigh. "Primary directive conflict."

"Affirmative," agreed Fend in a distressed tone. "Was the safety of child transportation considered?"

"Ignored." Yellow pawed at the ground lightly, mussing the grass with his metal hooves. "We would be bringing children into a dangerous situation."

"Unacceptable." Fend sank to his belly miserably. "Are you certain of the command?"

"98% certainty." Yellow looked at their two children quietly a moment. "Where is the engineer?"

"You are aware they are not an engineer." Not a question, that, with no hint of it being one.

"You are aware as well." Yellow sat up, glancing over at his fellow unit. "Why did you say nothing?"

"Is it not clear?" Fend sat up as Yellow was doing. "They are clearly friends of our children. Why would I want them harmed, or removed? But vault-tech engineers would not have a giddyup buttercup unit during duty."

Yellow pointed at himself. "Unless they were like us."

"Giddyup is not like us," concluded Fend. "He has accepted Stan as a child. An engineer would not tolerate this condition."

"No." Yellow went quiet again a moment. "They may be our only chance."

"Hey." While distracted, Buttercup had come closer to the two. "I got an idea."

Yellow perked up at the presence of his child. "Would you like to neigh and trot?"

"Got that covered." Buttercup waved away the idea. "What I want is for you to neigh and trot." She turned to point at the stairs they had taken to reach the field. "Back that way, in a closet, there's that thing Giddyup talked about. Use it and open the door."

Yellow inclined his head. "How will that assist?"

"It will, promise." Buttercup put on her best 'please' expression she could, lower lip trembling and lashes batting. "Just ride it up and ride it back down and you're done. That's it."

Yellow rose to his full height. "I do not comprehend the purpose of your command. Command accepted." He leaned in and down to touch his metal snout to Buttercups. "Please stay with Fend."

But Fend was in the way, rather than watching over the children. "This could--"

"I am aware." Yellow inclined his head. "I love my child."

"I love my child," echoed Fend, stepping out of the way. "I will watch your child."

"Thank you." No more words were needed, Yellow trotting off with clip-clop noises playing from within him.

Stan grabbed a heavy battery, stuffing it into his backpack. "They just leave this stuff layin' around."

"The organization of this vault is sub-optimal," agreed Giddyup, helping in the search for things with a high market value. "How will we assist Buttercup and Skyline?"

"Ain't got that worked out yet. Figure the way we always do." He patted his gun meaningfully. "It'll come to that. Always does."

"Unfortunately correct." Giddyup nosed at a box. "Value detected."

"You are the best." Stan shoved his hand in the box, rifling around and selecting the choicest bits of old electronics. "We'll make it. We always do."

"We always do," echoed Giddyup, just to pause and sink to his haunches. "Have I informed you of my previous children?"

"Mentioned 'em, once er twice." Stan was facing a shelf, patting it down and sifting for goodies. "Why?"

"Many of them were also confident they would survive, with 100% accuracy, until it became 0%." Giddyup inclined his head at Stan. "It is difficult to predict when the probability changes."

"Shoot." Stan shoved away from one shelving unit to another. "That's life right there. Yer doin' it until yer not. One way or the other, I will bite it. Kinda a given, that." A rattling caught him off guard. It took a moment to realize it was Giddyup shaking. "Buddy, c'mon. It ain't about how it ends that matters none anyway."

"I do not comprehend," flatly replied Giddyup, voice weak.

"Look at it this way." He sliced a new box open to start searching. "If you died right now, pow, blown apart into little robot bits." He made a little explosive noise. "I'd be right sad about it, sure, but you also had a good run of it, ain't ya?"

"I do not comprehend."

Stan turned to face his despondent mechanical friend. "Everythin' ends eventually. It's about what you did while you were there. You're a good friend, a good robot, a good Giddyup. So it doesn't matter what happens to close the story."

"I have operated... according to my directions, and..." Giddyup went quiet again, instead moving to nose at a box.

"Thanks." Stan made that box his next target. Giddyup usually had a good sense for where the good loot was. "You live by yer own rules, Giddyup. So do I. We'll do that fer as long as we can, but it's our life. I don't regret it none, and you shouldn't either."

"I do not comprehend." But Giddyup stated that with more confidence than the first two times. "I would like us to continue operations for as long as possible."

"Hey, with ya there." He ruffled the wires that made up Giddyup's mane. "Which means gettin' all the caps we can before things go south."

"What is so undesirable of that direction?" Giddyup was back to searching for things for Stan. "East and West are equally dangerous."

"Won't argue that." Stan grabbed a belt of ammunition. "For the security bots, ah bet." But he let it go, hunting for other things. "So, happy to meet other giddyups?"

"It has been informative." Giddyup moved for the door instead, peeking left and right with great sways of his head. "Thank you for enabling this opportunity."

Yellow experienced the sensation of flight, lifted with speed that was quite unsafe for a pony passenger. The sudden stop at the end was even less recommended, his body slamming against the mostly-closed hatch at the end of the tunnel. It gave way, flying open and allowing him to be deposited on the grass outside.

"Unmapped area," Yellow announced to no one. Still, he could figure out that he was above his starting location. He looped back around to find where the strange device could carry him back down. "I do not comprehend." It was a good day for the children of giddyups to leave them very unsure of life. "I hope this makes you happier." He could envision Buttercup, preferring to hold the picture of her joyful face when she was trotting and neighing. More of that would be nice...

An error message quietly occupied part of his vision, but returning to the safety of the vault, and presence of his child, superseded that priority. Without further hesitation, he was taking the robotic elevator back down. His left eye still had the error floating in it over an irregular red flashing square. He focused on it, and it reported an error in that sensor. This was not an unknown thing. It usually passed, so he paid it no further mind as he walked confidently through the vault.

What he did not expect was Fend's reaction. "What happened?" Fend scrambled to his hooves and hurried closer. "You have been damaged."

"I am within acceptable condition. System diagnostics... 97%." A flurry of green symbols appeared as various systems reported to him that they were functioning properly, but there were a few red ones. There were always a few red ones. They weren't new robots anymore, such was unavoidable.

"You're back!" Buttercup was trotting over, only to come to an abrupt halt. "Oh..."

Yellow looked between Fend and Buttercup. "Please explain the reason for this reaction."

Skyline came to join them. "I can answer that." He pulled out a mirror, held in fingers ponies were not supposed to have. "Here." He held it up towards Yellow, allowing the robot to see himself.

He had scuffs where his back and the top of his head had slapped against the roof of the elevator. He was no longer bright and shiny and new looking. This bothered him more than he would have assumed, normally not even considering his appearance. "I will require repainting." Yellow leaned in, and the other problem became clear.

His left eye had a break, a fine line running in a jagged line, not clear down the middle but cutting off a slice. The slice that he saw the red border in his vision. It was the source of that error. "I have been damaged."

"You have been damaged," echoed Fend.

"I'm so sorry." Buttercup danced in place awkwardly. "I didn't mean for you to get hurt."

"I am not angry at you." Being angry at his child was not even included in his programming. "But you should avoid repeating that."

Skyline turned on Buttercup. "What did you do?"

"Nothing!" She threw up her hooves. "I just asked him to go back up to the surface and come back. I didn't think he'd get hurt."

"To the surface?" Skyline frowned, tufted ears flicking with thought. "To... You didn't."

"I did," she admitted with an awkward smile. "Bet they saw it."

Skyline was on Buttercup in a flash. "They are as much a threat to us as anything else. That was an incredibly dumb idea."

Buttercup squealed, grasped firmly in Skyline's angry hands. "But it... also gets us out."

Fend and Yellow shared a look before advancing, each trying to draw their child away from the other. Fighting children was bad by both of their measures.

Skyline grunted with annoyance, not fighting being drawn back. "You two don't get it." He leveled a finger at the two robots. "Supermutants are coming. They will tear this place apart and probably kill anything they see."

Fend cringed back from his child, the emotion displayed in the movement of his head more than the movement of his largely static mouth. "Security will protect us." He pointed to the closest security droid that was following a lawn care robot out of view.

Buttercup rubbed at a cheek with a hoof. "I'm sure they'll try, but you said, and I quote, 'An attack equal to or superior to remaining vault defenses is detected.'" She nodded firmly with conviction. "You see those big guys, you'll 'detect' it real quick."

Skyline gave Buttercup a shove but didn't tackle her again. "When that happens, we will be inside. The only way out will be past the supermutants! Did you think of that?!"

"Oh, right..." Buttercup took a step back. "We'll just have to be clever about it..."

"What was that?" Stan's hands moved to his weapon instead of the loot he paused at taking.

"Explosion." Giddyup turned to face the source of the noise. "Gunfire. Searching for safe route. None detected."

"Great." Stan raised his rifle into ready position. "Let's get back to the others right quick. Things are about to get real--"

"Things have proceeded in a southerly direction," cut in Giddyup.

"Yeah... That covers it." Stan patted Giddyup on the way past. "If we get lucky, we can grab some more on the way out, but I don't want to kick it in a supply closet."

"Leave kicking to me. I am better equipped for that task." Giddyup followed Stan obediently. "Please exercise caution."

"We're gonna get plenty of exercise, don't you worry your little metal head." The lights turned red suddenly.

"Intruders detected," came the overseer's electronic voice. "All security units, engage. All non-security units, withdraw. Move ponies to secure locations."

Giddyup hurried to Stan's side. "There is no secure location detected."

"Ah figured that." A hand wandered towards the bulbous curve of a grenade. "Safety is not gonna be on the menu for a while."

They charged through the hallways. Giddyup would have preferred they move in another direction, but they were coming closer to the sounds of danger, not further from it.

15 - Survival Instincts

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Stan slid up against a corner, causing Giddyup to come to an equally abrupt halt. Giddyup would have twitched his ears, had he the ability. Instead he turned up the gain on his microphone, listening to what was going on, which was about the same, mechanically, right? Lasers and the heavy staccato of automated weapons sounded from at least two different places. Two forces? At least two forces. "Combat has begun," Giddyup shared with his human child.

"Figured that." He peeked carefully around that corner to put eyes on the situation. The supermutants were giving it their all, but the hard metal of the sentry bot felt no pain and did not flinch. A sudden rush of flames lasted for just a moment before everything shook violently, a propelled rocket exploding violently. "Shit." He ducked back. "That robot's fightin' real good, but could bring the whole place down on us."

"That would be unideal. Further damage to this vault is undesirable." A brief pause. "Interfering is of a greater risk."

"Always a risk." He inched back a half step, still pressed against the wall. "Trick is decidin' which side we want to win."

"The supermutants pose an immediate threat," replied Giddyup without hesitation.

"The robots pose a long term one. Ain't a winnin' move either way."

"We should go this way," calmly assured Yellow, pointing the way with a raised hoof. "It is safer."

Skyline hiked a brow at the idea. "There is no such thing as 'safe' right now, not even 'kinda safer.' The supermutants are an immediate threat to everything in here." He drew both his blades free, balancing on his hind legs with worrying proficiency for a pony. "We fight, or we die, and I don't want to die today."

Fend took up position next to Skyline. "I will not abandon my child."

Yellow inclined his head. "You were disturbed at my visual damage. You are risking far greater harm. Is this logical?"

Fend pointed to Buttercup, already sneaking off. "Will you abandon your child?"

"Return immediately!" Yellow raced off after Buttercup, which only prompted her to squeak and hasten into a full gallop.

Fend shook his head. "You are the leader of the ponies. You cannot command me, but I will accept your battle strategies."

Skyline chuckled, but it was a brief noise. "Buttercup's headed the right way. We'll have to use this situation. Get involved with those mutants." He waved his sword as he began stalking forward. "Carve our way through them and get out in the chaos. Fend, are you ready to come with us?"

"I will not abandon my child," Fend repeated without variation in his tone. "Where you go, I will be present if possible."

"Great, move it." Despite the order from the overseer, the two ponies remaining in the vault were headed for the least safe place they could go.

As they came towards an intersection, a crack of metal greeted them, the broken form of a less-fortified defensive robot crashing into uneven pieces on the floor in front of them. Buttercup yelped in surprise, dancing away and to the side. "Poor thing."

"That poor thing is why we're stuck here." Skyline did not afford it another look, instead pressing against the wall much as Stan... "Oh."

Across the way of that T intersection was Stan and Giddyup. "We meet again." Skyline waved his sword. "What does your 'vast wasteland experience' tell you we should do?"

"Takin' pot shots at anything with skin that ain't us was my idea." Stan held his gun ready to do just that. "What've you got?"

"Press into the melee, and past it. Don't look back."

Stan nodded at the idea. "Yeah, not a bad idea. If you don't bite it trying. I'll throw down some cover." He grabbed for the round grenade he had fondled earlier. "Do not run in until the big noise."

Buttercup looked to Skyline. "What big noise? We already have plenty of those."

The grenade flew past the corner towards the noisy confrontation as Stan slid down and covered his ears. Skyline caught on, clapping his hands against his own fuzzy twitchers, swords projecting out the sides, still clutched.

"No, really, what no--" It was at that instant that Buttercup discovered the loud noise as a new explosion ripped through the combat. Her ears rang even as the world became eerily silent for her. She could see Skyline charging out around her, lost to sight as he rushed past the corner towards the clashing robots and mutants. She said something, she thought, but it was impossible to confirm that.

Yellow finally caught up, moving over the stunned Buttercup defensively. They might have said something, not that Buttercup could tell.

Stan was squeezing off rounds, bright, but silent at least to one pony. His expression fell to fear as he dove to the side away from the intersection. Giddyup was scrambling backwards to keep the same relative position with Stan, but none of the robots knew exactly what he had seen.

But Buttercup got to learn, watching the strange thing sail past her slowly, time drawn out to a painful edge. She didn't know what it was, but every part of her told her it was dangerous. She wanted to move, to flee, but it felt like her limbs were stone, unresponsive, or just not able to react meaningfully in the small amount of time her eyes were locked on the mysterious object.

Yellow fell on top of her, a sudden crushing force. Painful, but protecting from the worse that was coming as the rocket propelled grenade impacted the far wall. Heat, pressure, and wind. No sound though, Buttercup had lost that already. She might have screamed. She was pretty sure? But couldn't confirm it.

"Good god damnit," cursed Stan, bringing a shaking hand to a bit of shrapnel that had wedged in his shin. "Only gonna hurt more." No point in hesitating. He wrenched it free with a hiss and tossed it aside, clattering on the broken floor. with an arc of lost blood with it.

"Administering treatment." It ought be noted that giddyup buttercup units were not typically equipped with much in the way of medical options. Giddyup was not a factory default model. He knew what the wasteland wanted to do to his children, and after begging enough of them, one finally splurged, empowering him to try to keep his children a little safer.

His squeaky jaw fell, opening wider than any horse had rise to open its mouth. Emerging from the opened space came the long and thin needle of a hypodermic. "Do not move." And it was that Giddyup gave the nuzzle of life, plunging the needle into Stan. A soft hiss sounded as the fluid inside was forced out into Stan's body. Now, Giddyup had a tank of stimulants inside him. It was up to him how much he delivered. It was tempting to upend it all, to heal his child.

But that was illogical. Any injury, however severe, is unlikely to be the last. Furthermore, too much of that serum was, itself, a risk. Especially given at once. Giddyup restrained himself to a standard stimpack's amount and yanked himself smoothly free. "What is your current condition?"

"F-fine." Stan forced himself up to his feet. "Thanks, pal." The worst of his injuries were closing up, the blood slowing its spilling, keeping his insides on the inside. "Owe ya one."

Buttercup kicked up, dislodging Yellow from her and sending him crashing to the ground next to her. He had failed to live up to his name at that point. Like Giddyup, his paint was entirely scoured and spotty. Worse, large gouges of shrapnel had dug into him, leaving his entire metal body scarred with the gentle caress of battle. "Yellow!" Buttercup fell over her wounded friend. "Tell me you're alright!" Though her hearing was still mostly shot, and Yellow was showing no signs of life.

Unlike his friends, Skyline was in the middle of it all. Supermutants were not at all strangers to melee combat. However, typically they were the ones using it. Bandits that had a knife or something were usually smart enough to leave when a supermutant showed up. The horse they had found was not like that. Great clubs came down where he had been moments before, only for a much smaller blade to lance up their sides, leaving bloody lines. Unlike the robots, he was focused on pushing through the line of them. "How many of you are there?" He had only seen a precious handful at the camp, but there seemed to be dozens of them there. A scouting detachment, perhaps?

One of the mutants roared with a fury. "Gonna broke those toothpicks of yours, and then you'll be mine. Little horse, always wanted one. One that can fight, even better. Back off." His command got many of the others to focus their attention on the robotic defenders as their leader stepped up, slapping a stop sign against his free hand. "First I gotta break 'em in!"

"You're welcome to try." Skyline leveled a blade at the hulking bipedal figure, the other off and to the side in readiness. "This horse bites."

"I love it." The brute charged forward, grabbing for Skyline's entire head. "Bad horse!" The supermutant's form of discipline promised little comfort. Not that Skyline waited patiently for it, lashing at the reaching hand as he bounced away and around, starting a sparring match as the two tried to injure one another 'for fun', if one asked the supermutant.

The mutant's helmet flew off his head, the heavy iron crashing to the ground with enough force to leave a massive divot where it landed. "Hey!" He glared at the one that shot the bullet that knocked his headwear free. "Little ghoul wants to join the fight? Too bad. Busy. Wax him!" He waved with the authority of the many supermutants around him.

Stan wrenched himself back in time for the corner he had been using as cover to disintegrate under a hail of bullets and energy weapons. "God damn..." He saw Giddyup about to peek and shoved his metal friend back. "Hey. You wouldn't let me do that, now wouldja?"

"You are correct." Giddyup wilted under the chastising. "How do we proceed?"


A strange trembling ran through Stan's body, and Buttercup's, and each and every supermutant. The robots were unaware of it, not trained to look for such disturbances. Skyline was screaming, a loud and piercing wail that only he could hear himself, but penetrated those around him all the same. One of the mutants coughed up blood suddenly, their lungs quivering to jelly under the assault.

"Bad horse!" The supermutant leader grabbed the bat pony around his little neck and threw him bodily against the nearest wall, silencing the auditory assault. "Bad!" Skyline crumpled against the metal surface, almost bouncing off of it, but more sliding limply to the floor. As well as he had been doing dodging the assault, one actual hit was more than sufficient to knock him dizzy. "That's better," grunted the leader. "Shut up that tin can." He directed a beefy finger at the sentry bot. "The one that finishes it gets a bonus!"

A rough cheer exploded up from the crowd as they focused their fire. Some of them without ranged weapons waded forward into the hail of munitions. Brave, stupid one might argue, but it was for that reason that supermutants were quite hard to put down when they came knocking.

"Cease hostile actions." A new combatant entered the fray. Fend kicked and thrashed. He didn't have the practice that Giddyup had, more like a wild horse than anything else, doing everything his programming told him not to do, especially around children. But the supermutants were not children, so far Fend could see. Invalidating his warranty with them would not come with--

His forward motion paused as his left shoulder smoldered, burned through with a plasma bolt. Error messages flared before his eyes.

16 - War

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"You broke it." An upset mutant didn't have long to complain about it, bullets ripped through it with the wet noise of parting flesh. It was a pity for that sentry that several others had closed to melee and began battering its gleaming chrome, a melody of a metal drum quieting the weapons' exchange.

Fend crumpled forward, his destroyed shoulder unable to hold him up. His ability to threaten was reduced from low to entirely irrelevant.

With a bright set of sparks, one of the supers wrenched free a bit of the interior of the sentry. "I win!" Declaring he deserved the prize, he rushed back for their leader, the electronic widget held up ever so proudly.

The leader held out a hand with a great smile. "Good jo--"

A pity that meant he wasn't moving, waiting for that merry moment. A loud pop sounded from down the hallway, a bullet flew down the intermediate space faster than sound itself. The super's leader suddenly didn't have a left eye, howling with wordless pain and fury as he staggered back, his other hand reaching but missing the suddenly emptied socket.

He collapsed to the side, balance fleeing him entirely. Even super mutants needed an entire brain, no matter how much, or little, of it they seemed to use at any given time.

Fresh lasers filled the hallway, additional security units arriving on the scene. Stan took that chance to duck back. "Better get moving," he shouted out at nothing in particular.

Skyline shook his head groggily, struggling back to his hooves, swords still clutched in his metal fingers out to either side of himself. It was a plus at that moment that his cybernetic hands did not release things until told to do so, instead of by default. With a soft grunt, he charged past the battle line of super mutants. They were focused on the robots, and the one that wanted him most was dead, or close enough to it.

His forward motion came to a sudden stop as his spine jolted in pain. The slumped form of their leader had grabbed his tail and was slowly standing with a pained grunt. "Where you going?"

Buttercup landed on the super mutant's already abused head, stomping with her hooves as best she could. "Away!" She sprang past him. "C'mon!"

Skyline lurched to chase after her, his tail no longer held. "Right." He got his swords away one at a time as he charged for the exit. "You're going to have to deal with a ladder again."

Buttercup audibly swallowed with memory of that foul human invention. "You go first, you're faster."

"You go first, I can catch you," countered Skyline with little room for argument in his voice.

"I don't have to listen to you," taunted Buttercup as they arrived at the bottom of the ladder. "But that isn't a bad idea." And up she went as fast as she could, which did not feel at all fast enough.

Inside, Stan watched as the Super's moment of confusion waned. The security's golden opportunity faded away, and they were being shot, crushed and smashed without mercy. Sure, the supers were losing people too, but the tide of the battle seemed clear. If it weren't so obvious what would happen to him when they were done, perhaps he would have let them be.

"This is still operating." Giddyup was pointing a hoof at a discarded laser minigun that had been attached to a security unit.

"That needs power." Stan considered the batteries in his pack, but getting it--" A hatch opened on the side of Giddyup. "What?"

"I will power it." Giddyup nodded. "Attach it quickly."

Fortunately, the end that went to power was simple enough. Black and red, a classic design. The power terminal Giddyup had revealed also had a black and a red. There as no time to argue and Stan got to connecting them as quick--Ow! When he touched the second wire in place, a jolt of electricity made fingers numb. "Blast it." But he got the wire in place even with the jolted fingers, twisting it tight and slapping the hatch shut. "This is a crazy idea."

"It is also the best option detected."

"Ain't arguin' that." Stan hefted the minigun, a sizable beast of a weapon. It was glowing dimly, ready to be used. "There ain't a trigger."

"I am the trigger," calmly informed Giddyup. "You are the aiming function."

Stan chuckled at that, stepping forward, one ponderous step at a time. "Right, we'll be one better robot, together." As he directed the gun at a mutant, it suddenly flared to brilliant life. With the proper power pumped into it by Giddyup, it began to belch out a stream of laser shots. Unlike the robots that aimed for center mass for the most likely hits, Stan preferred to go for weak points. Heads were a fine place to express one's dissatisfaction with their enemy.

Giddyup marched behind Stan, watching where he was aiming and controlling the flow of power. The gun didn't fire when it wasn't aimed at something that needed shooting, which gave it time to cool down between salvos. But whenever it came close to on target, it spun right back up. The rate of fire they were pulling off was much higher than the written specifications for the gun.

Fortunately for them both, Giddyup had never read those instructions. With no trigger, what had been meant as a semi-automatic three-burst weapon was instead a fully-automatic spray of laser-powered pain and death.

This was not good for the long-term viability of the device, bits of its internals melting under the continued assault. It was only the brief moments of respite that allowed it to last as long as it was, and giving Stan the opportunity to mow down the front line of supers.

They were not alone, the security robots rallying as the tide of battle turned in their favor. "Lethal force authorized," noted one robot that was already in the process of dispensing exactly that. "All intruders are to be exterminated."

In the long chute towards freedom, Buttercup reached for each step, heaving for labored breath as she did her best to not fall from even further than she had the first time. "About... Halfway... I think?"

Her squeal echoed in the narrow tunnel as she flailed. Skyline had moved up underneath her, forcing her away from the ladder. She clung to him desperately as he began climbing easily, at least twice as fast as she had been doing it. "Oh," she laughed out as they ascended, keeping a firm grip around his body. "You are really, really good at these things."

"Keep a hold on me." Skyline put his attention entirely on climbing, one hoof after the other. Having fingers on his fores made all the difference, allowing him to scramble upwards towards safety. "Assuming... They win... The robots shouldn't hurt Stan."

"Hope not." Her breath was calming even as Skyline worked as hard as she was. Clinging to him was far less stressful than trying to navigate the ladder that humans thought were a good idea for reasons that evaded her. "Yellow got hurt... Real bad... For me. Fend--"

"--No time for that," barked out Skyline. "If we don't get away, it was for nothing. They did it for us. Let's..." He hauled himself up to the next rung. "Let's honor that. We'll live a long time. Tell other people about Yellow and Fend."

"I'd like that," she sighed out, sniffling softly. "It's not fair."

"Life rarely is." He could see the hatch above them, wide open. "Almost there."

The gun stopped firing, and started flashing strange new lights. "What's that mean?"

"Detach the cables and withdraw to minimum safe distance." Giddyup stayed still. He couldn't flee the gun while attached to it.

"Ah shit." Sure, one little part of him wanted to just run, but leaving Giddyup? He wasn't ready to do that. He threw the gun to the ground and grabbed the cords, expecting a rude shock, but none came. Giddyup had turned off the terminals, well that was all well and good. He half-yanked the power cables free. "Let's go!"

They charged away from it, boots and hooves striking the metal. They didn't get far before the intersection and the hallways attached lit up with a new explosion. The two were lifted from the ground, hurled forward with dizzying speed. Stone and tortured metal screamed, collapsing behind them by inches. Crashing into the ground and sliding, the noise of battle died down. The entire vault was silent a moment.

"Threat eliminated," announced the overseer AI. "Return to standard procedures. Giddyup buttercup units, update requested."

Giddyup sat up. "They do not have required permissions to issue that command to this giddyup buttercup unit." He stood up and shook free the dust that had fallen on him in the blast. "Please state your current condition."

"Banged up." Stan got up far more slowly. "But breathin'. More than I expected, truth told." He began patting himself down, getting rid of the dust much as Giddyup had, with less shaking involved. "You alright?"

"Damage was minimal," Giddyup reported, some pleasure in his voice. To say things happily was still a trick he was learning, but practice made perfect! "Safe paths, not detected." He turned around slowly in place, ending up exactly where he began.

Stan took a slow breath at that. "We're sealed in, huh?"

Skyline clung to the ladder as everything shook. A great explosion sounded beneath them. The moment the shaking stopped, he scrambled the last few steps, flopping out into the dark morning.

Buttercup slipped free of him onto her own haunches. "That didn't sound good, whatever that was."

"I... very much doubt it was." Skyline flopped over onto his back instead, heaving to regain his breath. "But we made it."

Buttercup nudged him lightly. "The elders will be upset."

Skyline frowned at the idea. "Why?"

"We didn't get much. Weren't we supposed to get all kinds of information?" She waved her hooves in the air expressively. "Like all the mysteries, solved and all that."

"We learned enough." Skyline rolled to his side towards Buttercup. "I understand what I am." He paused with a frown. "I know what I am. Understanding comes later. I know why we were made." He climbed to his hooves. "I'm sorry for him." He looked to the hatch. "I'm not sure if I should hope that he is alive, and buried, or simply dead and buri--"

Buttercup crashed a hoof down on his head. "You don't even finish that sentence! Stan did everything we asked, and he was--is! He's a nice person. Giddyup too." She started dancing in place. "So I hope they're both alright, down there. They'll figure something out. They're clever! And they've been out here a lot longer than either of us."

"Yeah." Skyline rubbed the spot that had been thumped. "That was still an amazingly dumb idea."

"That worked." Nodding with confidence, Buttercup started in the direction leading home. "If they come back, we owe him. We promised a nice big reward!"

"I didn't forget." Skyline hurried to be at her side. "But first, we have to survive the trip home. At least we know the way. Let me take point." He advanced ahead of her. "If we see humans, we avoid them. We knew Stan, he gets a pass. Others, not so much. Humans made us, but that doesn't get them that many points, the way I see it."

"Sure it does." Buttercup skipped once between steps. "It means they could see a world with us in it. They can't be all bad." She leaned in closer to Skyline. "I'd like to meet a nice one or two, like Stan."

"I wouldn't be... opposed to that, but that doesn't mean I'm going to go hunting. Most of them are far more trouble than they're worth." He skewed an ear to the side. "They made this." He gestured broadly at the wastelands they were traveling.

Humans were complicated.

17 - Aftermath

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The merchant Stan purchased from made it to the next town over. They weren't attacked by bandits for a record-setting three weeks. A pity about that third week, but at least they were well equipped to handle it, perhaps in part due to the caps he had gotten from that strange ghoul with the colorful horses.

The town of ponies, given the truth of their origin, didn't change immediately for that fact. Humans had created them, hoping for a better world in their stead, but there were still humans, and they remained dangerous. They honed their skills, but kept their heads down. Perhaps, in time, the human issue would resolve itself.

But that door was not entirely shut. Perhaps, one day, another friendly human would happen by, like Stan. They hoped for it quietly. To know another kind hearted human would be nice. The fact that the giddyups that helped raise them over generations were lost was a tragic fact that became a yearly day of remembrance. They had served well in life, and even in death to ensure that their beloved ponies got all they could give.

Buttercup returned to her people a changed mare. No longer a foal, she began taking things more seriously. She volunteered for dangerous excursions and was one of the first to react to incoming danger. From idealistic dreamer to pragmatic vanguard, she became a prized member of the community. Unsatisfied with being protected, she honed her skills with hoof to hoof combat and became deadly with a selection of tribal weapons.

She got her jaws on a pistol one day that she kept close-by, always loaded and ready, should its need become evident. The power of a loaded gun had been made clear to her.

Skyline returned to the elders, but refused to stand in eternal vigil over their small hut. What he had seen had left scars that would never leave him. Though his very being rebelled against the idea that he would ever lead, that did not mean he had to follow the orders of others either. He retired from his guard position and became a warrior, and not just of the town either.

He was the first pony many humans met, and often the last. Those that underestimated him learned the price often fatally. Fast with a sword or a gun, Skyline operated on the philosophy that most humans were dangerous by default, and only those that proved otherwise first were given a chance to betray him. Stan remained one of the few that ever earned that privilege.

A special hatred of super mutants burned in him. Destroyers of Fend and attempted slavers, Skyline took, perhaps, too much pleasure in the final pained cry he could extract from any super mutant he happened upon. The wastelands were a bit safer around him, if one felt safe from Skyline.

The robots of that lost pony vault were despondent. With a pony population of zero, they returned to slumber, awaiting the time that this somehow fixed itself. No other action came to them, and the vault went dark with no fanfare. What security remained still patrolled it, looking for what did not belong, and ready to give intruders a warm welcome, should one ever happen.

Stan refused to be buried in any grave while he was still breathing. Even as his tomb went still and dark, he and Giddyup refused to surrender. Taking supplies that none seemed to care for, they crafted an uncomfortable number of makeshift bombs at the collapsed tunnel. Though the odds were uncomfortably high that it could bring the whole of the vault down on them, they proceeded.

That they were able to later climb through the rubble back to the sweet taste of fresh air, a testament to how difficult it was to put down a courier.

"Are you going to join the ponies?" There was one robot that had declined the order to deactivate. Aunt was awake, her flames lighting the area.

"Nah." Stan waved it off. "I have a delivery that's already overdue."

"We are within the tolerable limits. Payment will be given," gladly reported Giddyup.

Stan left, not planning to interact with the ponies again, but he had two robots where he had only one before.

He decided, in the end, that counted as a reasonable payment for his efforts in getting the ponies to the vault, intact, and helping them escape.

Miss Aunt departed the vault alongside Stan. She did not go after the ponies, though that invitation had been given. With the Giddyups destroyed, she didn't feel her nanny-specific programming would be of much use to them. On the other hand, Giddyup seemed to need an extra set of graspers to keep his child healthy and well disciplined.

It was only logical that she followed them instead. She was designed to work alongside Giddyup units, and that was the only functioning one she was aware of.

The super mutant band that had been planning a vicious raid against a trading town simply failed to appear. Scouts had warned hotly that they were drawing closer, but one day, gone, as if by magic. No signs were detected of heavy munition use. There were no bodies. There were no discarded weapons. The supers had just... gone away. Had they changed their mind?

The settlers would never know, but they didn't bemoan their turn of good luck. As if to compound that, the courier they had been waiting on finally arrived, and with the vital computer chip that returned their defensive turrets to functioning order. The next time they would be attacked, they would be ready and well equipped.

Though dead and gone, one could argue the spirits of the scientists responsible for the ponies were satisfied. The ponies had grown and thrived in the future. They had stomped a new path forward, perhaps a better one, that didn't end in the wars of humanity.

They had not survived to see the fruits of what they had planted, but is it not the greatest gift any elder can give, to plant a tree, that their grandchildren might rest beneath it?

Long Stalk took a liking to the transformed Buttercup. Becoming her backup, he followed after her, at first simply serving as a pack mule and a second set of eyes, but his sharp mind and his increased eagerness soon had him fighting alongside her. They grew closer as they set their childhood behind and became two respected adults.

It came as a surprise to very few when they decided to take the next step after that and locked arms in marriage. They would unleash four ponies into the wasteland in their adventures, both in the wastes, but also in the company of each other. Eventually, the two would serve as elders for the town so many years later, passing on their wisdom to future ponies.

He never did take a liking to guns, or fighting any more than he had to with his hooves to keep himself and Buttercup safe. His mind was his weapon of choice.

Giddyup emerged from the vault, but not empty-hooved. Besides having his child, Stan, and a new assistant in watching over him in the form of Aunt, he had new files. Though Fend had been crushed beyond any chance of repair or meaningful salvage, Yellow had fallen where he had made his last stand to keep Buttercup safe.

His data files were not entirely lost. Though he could not consent to it, Giddyup took them, with Stan's help. He had more than doubled his available information on horse behavior, to say nothing on the proper methods of raising a pony, which was a specific kind of horse.

It was a grand gift, and one Giddyup was grateful for, labeling all those files as Yellow Files to show proper appreciation to who he had gotten them from. In his mechanical eyes, the two fallen giddyups were complete successes. They had protected their children and allowed them to neigh and trot.

His child was less willing to neigh or trot, but Giddyup was certain, with effort, he would get that out of Stan. A smile, a spirited jog, a cry of triumph and naked joy. One day, he was sure. One day he would get that from Stan. Until then, he and Aunt would watch over him and keep him safe. Children grew at different speeds. It was their job to wait patiently until it happened, and to help make sure nothing got in the way.

Giddyup was ready.

"Ain't doin' it."

Stan did not go for getting Giddyup a rifle attached to his side, no matter how often he was asked.

In this way, Giddyup would not be ready. Such was the fickle fate of the wastes.

The wastes overall took very little notice of this adventure. It was just another day. Just a few more bodies buried where nobody would trip over them. The ponies would surprise the locals when encountered, but they didn't alter the power balance in any appreciable way.

War didn't change, not that day.

"Human comms keep lighting up." A hoof came down on a large button. "Odds are now over 90%. We've located Stable 2."

The room filled with whickers of amazement. "Do you have a location?" asked a mare from a large chair, sitting forward. "Get me a map!"

"Only a rough estimate." The pony at comms grabbed a map and made a few quick slashes across it. "Somewhere in this region." He passed it to a pony that hurried it over to the mare that seemed to be in charge. "They've revealed themselves to the local humans."

"Fools," grunted the mare, examining the map critically. "Any idea how long?"

"Long enough." The stallion turned his chair to face their leader. "They're trading with them. The humans know about them."

"Harmony forfend." The mare set a hoof against her face. "Home in on them. I want to know exactly where they are. We can't leave them there. They'll get themselves, and us, cooked."

"As you command, Overseer." The stallion returned his attention to the comms, pressing buttons comically overlarge for any human operator. But they were not made for any human fingers. "We're also getting a ping."

"A ping?" She sat forward. "What from?"

"A giddyup unit." He tapped at the console. "The serial number doesn't match anything in the records, but it is a giddyup unit, and must have the software or it wouldn't be--"

"--pinging, right," finished the mare for him. "If you have a ping, then you have a specific location. Give me that. That's worth checking..."