Fallout Equestria: Shades of Grey

by Gig

First published

Some of us aren't heroes. Does it make us the villains?

In this lightless world, the line between good and evil is not as clear as it used to be. I am no hero.
My name is Spring, and I am a bounty hunter in the Equestrian Wasteland.


Alternate link: Google Docs
Prior knowledge of Fallout: Equestria is advised but not mandatory.
Disclaimer: This story has nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey.

WDTP: S3E12\NC

Prologue

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Google Documents

“Wastelanders: honest, clever, alive. Pick any two.”

Prologue

“What do you know about the DERTA?”
The salesmare across the bars looked up from the plasma defender in front of her, shrugged, and went back to her inspection.

“Not much. T’was a pre-war research center I believe, but I’ve never heard of anypony ever going there. Or even knowing where it’s supposed to be in the first place. Why’s that?”

Her name was Chrystal, and to me she was the best gun dealer on this side of the Wasteland. A cunning mare, for sure. And quite stunning, too. White coat, pink mane, lovely eyes, and a smile that begged for a kiss.

Good thing I’m not into mares, or else I’d be just an afternoon snack for her. She sure didn’t get this far by shaking hoofs. Nor by being charitable. Somehow, I doubted that being a mare myself offered any kind of protection against her charms.

“Just heard some scavengers’ gossip”, I lied. “They were talking about some fancy security systems over there. But hey, even the Ministries’ outhouses had lasers turrets back in the days, so I don’t know why they were so excited about it.”

She looked up from the gun again, and I put on the best poker face I could manage. Then, after a dozen seconds, she spoke again:
“Yeah, it’s not like it’s the first time a legend of a pre-war El Dorado popped up around here. So, I tell you what: sixty caps for the plasma defender, plus two hundred caps for the assault rifle, plus twenty-seven caps’ worth of old coins, minus forty-five caps’ worth of ammo, minus three hundred and fifty for your new hunting rifle barrel, and you owe me one hundred and eight caps. Since you’re a regular and since I know you won’t find this kinda replacement part anywhere else in the Wasteland, I’ll wrap it up at a hundred caps flat. Deal?”
She extended her hoof toward me, a very salesmare-like smile on her face. I regarded her with suspicion. Chrystal, doing cuts? It didn’t sit right with me.
“You’re not exactly the kind of mare to lower your margins for anypony, Chrystal.”
Her smile faltered a bit. After a few seconds of silence, she embraced the shop stalls behind her with her still raised hoof.
“Spring, tell me, do you notice anything different about this place since the last time you came here?”

I looked around. On the walls, on the shelves, everywhere in the room, pristine weapons and armors gleamed in all their glory. Sealed ammunition boxes sat in a corner, each labeled with care. On a side, there were some gun parts which looked like they were just coming out some Old World factories.
Truth to be told, it was a glorious sight, especially to a kleptomaniac like me. Sadly, they all lied beyond strong looking steel bar, far beyond my reach.

“Not really, no”, I answered honestly, “Everything still looks awesome and too expensive for me.”
She sighed.
“That’s exactly it, my dear. It’s too awesome and expensive. Nopony in this forsaken land looks for brand new or precision equipment. You’re kind of an exception – and even then I know it’s because each time I sell you for ten caps of stuff, you’re going to make a thousand with it on contracts.”



“What? That’s just not possible. I’m sure there’s a lot of guys out there who would be happy to have a gun which doesn’t jam, and armor without pre-made bullet holes in it.”

“Of course there’s a market. But those kinds of ponies just don’t come to Friendship City to buy their stuff. They’ll either go to the Silver Rush in Tenpony, or even push to Megamart in the Hoof – if they aren’t working for Red Eyes, in which case they’d have plenty of good stuff waiting for them in Fillydelphia. But coming here, to my shop, in Friendship City? You’re really the only regular I’ve ever had.”
I shrugged.
“Yeah, well, try to find JSF hoof-loaded .308 cartridges in those places. I swear, VanGraff would shoot you for asking for gunpowder-based ammunition, Red Eyes would laugh and throw you in his forsaken slave pits, and you’d be killed before you even reach Megamart.”

“Nobody cares about these kinds of wares you know. You know what they want? They want guns that make a lot of noise, got a lot of spread, and use cheap ammo, so they can shower their targets with lead while ducking for cover or something. The worse are those guys with PipBucks. They don’t even give a damn about the stuff I’m selling, all they want is nice statistics popping on their legs! Can you believe that?”

“Trust me I do”, I sighed. To me, PipBucks were really a plague in the Wasteland. The only thing worse than a dumb Stable Dweller shooting at you with a plasma rifle was a dumb Stable Dweller, shooting at you, with a plasma rifle, using SATS. Who cares if they never held a rifle in their life? Those damned arcanics thingies will just adjust the shoot for them, and fat chance if you’re on the receiving end. Besides, I was kinda bitter of not having one myself. But hey, who needed a glorified inventory sorter anyway?

I levitated a small pouch from my saddlebags, and dropped it on the counter in front of me. It clicked with the metallic count of bottle caps.

“Okay then”, I added, “you got yourself a deal. But it’s really because I couldn’t bargain to save my life.”
And then, she laughed. I swear, back at the time I didn’t know if I should be backing away in awe or fear.

Let me be clear: Chrystal never laughs when it comes to business. Ever. It’s like me missing a shot at someone. Or the Wasteland being nice to somepony. It just doesn’t happen.
“Of course you can’t bargain. But I’m the one doing the cut in the first place, right? Why should you bargain that?”
… Yeah, she did have a point.
I just grabbed my freshly acquired stuff, and left without a word.

After all, I had someone waiting for me, and somehow I had the feeling this was going to be a very instructive encounter.

Chapter One: The Contract

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“Wet business? What’s that?

- I kill people, dear.”

Chapter One: The Contract

I remember seeing an old advertisement panel for some pre-war sensation park once when I was younger. The old, rusted metals plates had been so decayed by time and nuclear fallout that it had been rendered almost unrecognizable – but still you could read the commercial teaser:

“Come to Pipsqueak’s Pirate Bay if you dare, and have the adventure of your life!”



Back then, I found it hilarious that pre-war ponies actually wanted to go on adventures. In Post-Apocalyptic Equestria, adventures actually went to you, and you usually didn’t come back in one piece.

Wherever you went on those forsaken lands, charred skeletons and dismal sights were kind enough to remind you of that simple fact: life was cheap.

Of course, some wide-eyed optimists out there thought otherwise. Every time you tuned a radio in, DJ-P0n3 talked of friendship, justice and hope. As if life did not have a price tag.

He was wrong, of course. My price sheet started at a few hundred caps. That was how much most Wastelanders’ life was worth. Ponies who wanted justice – who wanted revenge – and who couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves came to a specialist like me.

That’s what I do for a living. I kill people.

I’ll have you know it’s an honorable job, by the way. Most of the ponies I shot were assholes in their own right anyway. You had to be if somepony was ready to spare a hefty sum for your head.

So, how could I go from bounty hunter to where I am? Let me tell you: an adventure happened. But not a brash, obvious adventure like raiders bursting through your door someday, nor the sudden rise of the need to become the Wasteland’s newest messiah. No, it was a vicious kind of adventure: the kind you didn’t realize you were on until you had half of Equestria hunting after your hide.

It had all started with a contract.

(** **)

The crack of a shot lashed out in the silence of the Wasteland like thunder, and two hundred feet downhill the mare dropped dead, half of her head missing. By the time her friends realized they were under attack, two more shots rang clear in the dusty afternoon, and they quickly followed her in death.

Once again, the silence fell in this desolated part of what used to be, once upon a time, the eastern part of Equestria.

Up the hill, I waited without a sound for movement. Then, as the corpses remained unmoving on the now gore-covered road, I let a small smile creep on my face.

‘Black Toe’, wanted dead for four hundred caps.

Gazing up and down in the dusty distance, I waited for a few more minutes. While most ponies had enough common sense to run away from gunshots, sometimes – it happened – my little ambush would attract some unwanted attention. After all, three-0’-eight rounds were not known for their quietness – not to mention mine had been hoof-loaded to high pressure levels. So I stayed in my hiding spot, invisible. That was the big advantage of a dull grey coat and a darkish mane: against the desaturated Wasteland landscape, you could as well be invisible. Once you started moving, though…

But no, there was no movement, no sounds except for the soft howling of the wind between the rocks. For once, it seemed that everything had gone exactly as planned – and in the Wasteland, it was not a common occurrence. Shit usually had that uncanny tendency to hit the fan at every possible occasion.

Carefully, I got up from my prone shooting position and stretched. I had been waited there for a little while by then. Of all the downside my job had, lying unmoving on cold, hard places for hours on waiting for the target to show up was one there was no getting used to.

Giving one last glance at the scenery and at the mess I had made down the road, I grabbed my hunting rifle and carefully proceeded down the hill I had been perched on.

Soon enough, I was looting the corpses.

I’ll admit it, that particular activity was quite… undignified. I had been raised in the belief the soul and the spirit carried on beyond death, to the pristine plains where the Goddesses reigned in harmony. Bodies, while not sacred, deserved some respect at the very least.

If only my parents could see me now, searching the warm corpses of the ponies I had killed for a hoofull of caps.

There wasn’t much in the way of plunder, though. No food, little water. The small party had been traveling light.

I frowned. It did not bode well. They probably had a base camp in the area guarded by some more of Black Toe’s friends.

I hurried up. I had chosen that particular place for the ambush because anypony on the road would have been a sitting duck for shooters on higher grounds. Sadly, it now included me, and ‘death by irony’ was the last thing I would like to see written in my epitaph.

All things considered, it had been a pretty standard contract – no fancy requests, like slipping a live landmine in somepony’s pockets. No, I was hired by a ghoul in Friendship City – he presented himself as ‘Mr. Crowneigh’ – to take care of a couple ponies. Four hundred caps each, and I had to bring back specific, personals items from their body as a proof.

At last, I found the token I had been looking for. It was a key – a worn out thing from before the war, without a doubt. But from the look of it, it wasn’t just any key. The blade was made by an intricate network of holes and divots, seemingly made of different alloys. The bow, on the other hoof, was a plain, if slightly sun-bleached green, and looked like somepony had scratched the writing off it, making them impossible to identify. In fact, the object looked more like an overly complex electronic device than a key, and I had no trouble imagining some paranoid Old World pervert using it to unlock some naughty socks drawer.

I shrugged, and put the item in my leather barding. Keys without locks were about as common as locks without keys around here, and were just about as worthless. This one, as fancy as it may have looked, didn’t make exception.

My boss probably asked for his targets’ keys because most Wastelanders didn’t have any particular personal tokens to be identified with. Of course, the Stable Dwellers had their PipBuck – though they all looked the same to me – and some ponies had unique weapons or armor, but it wasn’t all that common. You couldn’t simply ask for the victim’s gun or underwear, because it would be all too easy to buy a similar one somewhere in the Wasteland, and pretend the job had been done.

It is worth being noted, though, that bounty hunters usually only pulled this stunt once, before becoming the target of more professional, well, professionals. Payback’s a bitch in this country.

Sometimes, a freak would tell me to bring back an eye, or a tongue, or a kidney. Or even the whole decapitated head. As satisfying as it may have sounded for them when they give you the contract in the first place though, most ponies start feeling sick once you bring them back a severed head that had spent a week in a bag. And afterward, guess who always have to dump the trash?

Yeah, well this is why I don’t take this kind of contract anymore.

Of course, some patrons asked for the victim’s Cutie Mark. You couldn’t fake that, not without some serious forgery skills. It was nonetheless unusual and more than a bit unsettling. It took a very special kind of sadism to want another pony’s Cutie Mark – to go that extra step beyond death, to spit on their grave one last time as you took away their very identity.

So a half-decayed ghoul asking me to shoot a couple of ponies and bring back their keys as a proof of death did not strike me as an oddity.

But fuck… I should have known better.

(** **)

The second target was more of a challenge, and I mentally kicked myself for not doing a background check before charging the standard price from my ghoul of a boss.

In retrospect, how could I have guessed somepony named ‘Cloud Vote’ would be at the head of a freaking fortified town in the middle of nowhere, Equestria? I expected him to be a drug addict or shady salespony. Fat chance.

To be perfectly fair, I should have seen that one coming. After all, my parents did name me Spring, and yet I became a bounty hunter. So much for guessing my special talent! What did they expect me to become, a gardener? Hell, the only things I ever planted were corpses.

Some distance west from Manehattan, that particular town had sprouted on ruins in the middle of a spooky forest. It looked fairly small, which would have explained why I had never even heard of it. Makeshift fortifications circled around the perimeter; rumbles had been piled in between collapsed buildings, effectively removing all access points but one. Sentries here and there kept watch from the rooftops. It made sense. Raiders loved poorly defended towns. It provided them with a nigh-infinite source of ponies to kill, rob and rape.

The front entrance had been cleverly closed by a horizontally hinged gate, akin to a metallic drawbridge, minus the trench. It reminded me a tad of Friendship City. Through my binoculars, I spotted four or five ponies playing cards in some kind of guard post near the gate. At least two of them had assault rifles. I cursed silently. It sure wouldn’t make my job any easier.

There weren’t a lot of ways to get inside such a place. One could walk in, and hope for the better; one could sneak in, if their skills were sharp enough ; or one could attack the town head-on, assuming they had enough firepower.

There was no way I could kill all the guards without getting noticed, and I clearly lacked an army to burn the whole town to the ground.

Only morons with a death wish would walk through the front door. For all I knew, they could have been some part of cannibalistic sect, and I would just end up being their dinner. Even if they were friendly, most ponies distrusted strangers. Should Cloud Vote realize a bounty hunter had entered town, he probably wouldn’t take long for him to connect the dots and have me suffer an unfortunate accident.

So, sneaking in it was. I sighed, massaging my temple with a hoof. Breaking in would be hard enough, but breaking out would prove to be the real challenge. Crowneigh had better spare some extra caps once I was through with this job.

Once inside, finding Cloud Vote should be a breeze. He had been elected mayor of the place, after all. Visiting the whole town beforehoof would be the prudent thing to do though: knowing where to go had saved my tail countless times in the past as I was being chased by ghouls, raiders or angry relatives of a late target. Failing to plan an escape route killed many a bounty hunter rookie – not that I complained. It meant more jobs for me.

I pointed my binoculars to the gate once again. While the guards did not strike me as very professional, I couldn’t hope to sneak by them without some kind of distraction. I doubted their card game would be distracting enough for them not to notice me…

A bottle of Applejack Daniels made an appearance on the table, soon to be followed with five shot glasses filled to the brink.

I smirked. How considerate of them.

(** **)

The night had fallen on the clearing. Down the road, the unsteady lights from Hollow Shades cast moving shadows on the uneven ground, turning the tree line into an army of clawed monsters.

Truly, in the darkness I belonged. Swift as a ghost, I moved from rocks to ditches, staying out of sight from the sentries on the walls. They probably couldn’t see me even if they knew I was there; still, it didn’t hurt to be prepared.

Soon enough, I reached the makeshift wall and took a careful glance inside. Then, I (very stealthily) facehoofed.

The scene was dimly lighted by an arcane lantern posed on a barrel near the table. Some guards were still at their games, but the cards had long been discarded, and were lying in disarray in the dirt, along with four or five empty whiskey bottles. Only two guards – a tan mare and a dark green stallion – were still drinking what looked to be vodka, laughing and bantering with one another in drunk speak. Another stallion was standing in a corner, his eyes clenched shut. I wondered idly if he had been taking a dump or had somehow managed to pass out on his hooves. In either case, from the way he swayed left and right, he would not stay upright for very long. What a bunch of amateurs.

Still, two guards were missing. Senses at the ready, I scanned the shadows of the plaza beyond the guard post. A couple windows were lighted on the second story of a sheet bungalow. In the distance, music and laugher echoed from a small celebration of some sort. Perhaps the sentries went over there? Given the professionalism of their esteemed colleagues so far, I wouldn’t have been too surprised.

I pondered my options. The lighting was probably poor enough for me to sneak by them. Shit, they were so drunk I could have probably walked right in and they wouldn’t even notice me. Doing so would have left me exposed in the plaza however – surely there were ponies in this town who hadn’t drowned themselves in a drunken stupor just yet.

With the same reasoning I dismissed killing them. Somepony was bound to notice the lack of sentries on watch and I needed some time to find Cloud Vote.

I spotted a door on the far right. It lead to a pre-War two-story building; most windows had been planked, yet I had a hunch I could use it to move into the town proper.

After taking a cautious glance to the three ponies – two now downing their shots, the third still constipated-asleep – I passed the door, unnoticed in the darkness. I reached for the door, pushed the handle down…

And of course, it was locked. I barely contained a groan of exasperation and reached for a wrench and a bobby pin in my front pockets. I wasn’t half as good at lock picking as the pony who taught me the method (good ol’ Rusty Pin didn’t even need a pressure wrench, somehow), but this particular lock was a scrawny thing, and it gave way without a struggle. I pushed the door open in silence, and on the tip of my hooves, I entered.

It was then I found out where the last two guards were.

(** **)

When you are doing the kind of jobs I do, you are bound to walk onto disturbing scenes or events eventually. Really, what some ponies did in the dark was sometimes best left to wild guessing.

From meeting another fellow bounty hunter in a dumpster, to strangling a mare with her own frisky laces, without forgetting that one time where my target had been whipping underage slaves just because he could, I thought I had seen it all.

To be fair, I had seen worse.

Yet, the surreal scene of those two drunk, armored stallions having some mature fun with what could be best described as a mutated cucumber not five meters from me easily ranked among the few things that made me want to bleach my own eyes.

I assessed the situation. They hadn’t noticed my entrance but I couldn’t just walk past them. Going back was out of the question.

I gazed toward the lantern hung to the wall. If I could turn it off, it may give me the edge to…

“Why he-llow there!”

Yeah, well, so much for that plan.

Both stallions were now staring at me, an unreadable expression on their face. Not that they had a decent poker face or anything, mind you – they had simply reached such a level of intoxication I could not say if the dull glint in their glassy eyes was one of surprise, of lust, or if the dim light somehow reflected against the far end of their empty skulls.

“Hi,” I forced a smile on my lips, backing up slightly against the wall. Shit, if they were sober enough to realize I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place…

“What’s a cute filly like ya doin’ in those parts?” he continued in a slur, stepping forward. “Wanna join the party?”

Oh, come on.

“Well, I dunno,” I bit my lips, my brain reaching left and right for a diplomatic way out. “Wouldn’t your friends out there hear us?”

“Nah, room’s soundproof enough,” he chuckled, pocking my chest with an outstretched hoof. I winced. He reeked of cheap booze and months-old perspiration. “Ya can be as noisy as you want.”

“Wonderful,” I answered, a genuine smile on my lips. Then, I violently pushed him back toward the center of the room. He stumbled, tripped on some discarded junk.

He barely had enough time to stare at the business end of my suppressed nine mil’. True enough, the subsonic round barely echoed in the cramped place.

“Wha-” his friend began, before collapsing against a table, his head now featuring a brand new, bullet-shaped hole. He slumped pitifully on the ground, his face forever stuck in a comically surprised expression.

“Luna fuck me with a jackhammer,” I muttered under my breath. Shooting two guards had never been in my plans; not on my way in at least. Sticking my left ear against the door, I waited for their friends to react.

Seconds ticked by. I couldn’t even make out the drunken banter of the card players. With any luck, they had dismissed the muffled gunshots as something falling from a shelf – if they heard anything at all in the first place.

Still, as the two corpses at my back were kind enough to remind me, I was now running on a clock. There had to be a key somewhere, yet for some reason the stench emanating from the dead bodies dissuaded me from looking for it. A quick tampering of the lock reset it to its closed state. It would have to do.

I carefully stepped over the mess on the floor. Reaching the other side of the room, I pushed the door open, and…

A stain of a viscous organic fluid smeared on the top of my hoof. Turning it back toward the light, I realized it was not blood. Nor brain matter.

Before I knew it I was scrapping the offending substance against a drawer, barely containing a cry of rage and disgust in the process. There wasn’t much to remove, truth to be told – but the knowledge of where it came from revolted me. Ew. Just… ew.

Okay, I had seen worse. I had been literally bathed in gore and other less-than-endearing substances quite a few times in the past. Many ponies in the Wastelands had, after all, and inadvertently getting in contact with some other pony’s bodily fluids was far from being the worse thing this world had to offer. Not to mention it wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that I got into close contact with these kinds of fluids. Yet, urgh… Those two guys had probably turned to humping one another because no mare in her right mind would even think of having some private time with them.

A cold chill formed between my ears, before running down all the way to the end of my tail. Had I not killed them in cold blood – had I not been a decent fighter, that encounter would have ended very poorly for me.

I shook my head to chasse the horrifying tableau from my mind. Instead of thinking about getting raped and whatnot, I focused my attention on the room I was in.

It was some kind of pre-war office. Metallic drawers lined the walls; two rusted decks occupied the floor. A broken terminal and countless worthless supplies littered the tiled ground. Everywhere, a thick layer of grim and dust coated every surface. The room had not been used, much less cleaned, in ages. Well, except for the two late broncos next door. My mind cringed as it pictured them going at it on the desk right in front of me. Urgh.

I decided against searching the room. It would have taken far too long for far too little profit. I had little use for staple boxes or two-centuries-old unpaid bills. In itself, the furniture was probably worth more than its contents, and nopony would have given a single cap for drawers that only stood upright because gravity had been too lazy to bring them down. The terminal was wasted; really, there was nothing of value in this room.

Beyond the desks was a single window. A quick nudge from my telekinesis dislodged the couple of rotten planks barring it, giving me a good look on the dark street beyond. Well, perhaps street was a gross overstatement to describe the muddy and unkempt dirt path that happened to separate two half-collapsed buildings in this forsaken town. There was nopony in sight. From the lack of living arrangements and of a roof, it seemed safe to assume the structure on the other side was not inhabited.

Silent as a ghost, I slipped through the opening and disappeared into the night.

(** **)

It’s funny how every time somepony founded a new community somewhere in the Wasteland, they did it driven by the holy belief they were doing something special. Something… original, unique even. As if they were part of some greater scheme, greater than the sum of its parts. To make a town like no other; the capital of a new, shinier Equestria. Yet, in the end, all those new murky holes in the ground followed the same basic pattern.

First was the security. Be it the local sheriff’s office, a guard room, or the local sadist’s shack, it was the place where the defense forces got their shit together. You could count of having at least a couple trigger-happy maniacs inside at all times. Be those raiders or pre-war justice aficionados, one could never expect them to ask question before gunning you down.

Then was the armory, often found right against the security. It could be an honest-to-goddesses secured armory, packed with guns, armor and explosives. Guys like Tenpony’s or the Rangers were fond of those. Sometimes, it was nothing more than a gun maniac’s personal arsenal – but don’t assume the latter to be any less deadly than the former. In any case, it often was any scavenger’s wet dream. Do I need to mention those stupid enough to act on that greed didn’t live long enough to enjoy it?

The Mayor-slash-Overmare-slash-Boss’ office was the place where the bigger ups had their meetings. It varied much from one town to another. You could reasonably expect it to be full of interesting loot: bottlecaps, unique (and therefore expensive) weapons, old world money… Sadly, getting to it could prove to be a real hassle.

The med bay could go from ‘that one bathroom with a half-empty first aid kit’, to ‘the pre-war hospital with cutting-edge technology’. Now that was a nice place to scavenge in. You never had enough medical supplies in the Wastelands.

Finally, the living quarters comprised pretty much everything else. Obviously, residents lived there. Shopkeepers set up their business besides their home; you could also find all the little oddities that made towns stand out from one another. Tokens of bygone era littered places like Friendship City or Shattered Hoof; factories and slaves pens were the mark of Red Eyes’ Fillydelphia.

But there is one place I forgot to quote. No community would be complete without a dungeon of its own. It could be part of the sheriff’s office. It could be some gallows on the main street. It was the place where the trespassers, the thieves, the lollygaggers, the murderers, the unlucky, the rapists, the political opponents and other troublemakers were sent to meet their maker. Of course, the preferred way of dealing with such issues was usually to shoot the bastard and be done with it. In settlements however, it was sometimes preferable to keep the convicts reasonably alive for a time, whether to extort some intelligence from them, or just to make a quick cap selling them to the next passing slaver. In some place, like the Tenpony Tower, criminals were tried before being executed. Oddly, they considered killing ponies to be a crime, unless you put a lot of formality to it, in which case it became a good thing. Funny, eh?

Back to Hollow Shades. Both the security and the mayor’s office had been packed in an old police station. From the look of it, it was one of the few pre-war structures still standing on its own, so it didn’t strike me as a surprise. I couldn’t blame them for choosing a concrete building over an overgrown rusted shack. After all, winter nights could get quite freezing so far up north, and metal sheets offered very poor ballistic protection compared to solid concrete. You never know when you’re going to need some improvised cover to duck behind, after all.

All windows at ground level had been tightly closed by wooden planks and concrete bricks. A dim light seeped from the cracks. Upstairs, most window panes had been replaced instead of being filled in, yet inside it was pitch black. I couldn’t, however, find a way to climb up there. If a wing sprouting spell existed, it wasn’t one I knew. I would have to get through the ground level.

I suppose I could have gotten away with using the front entrance, especially if I found it unlocked. During the day the building would surely be crowded, or at least occupied by four or five armed ponies, but at this late hour most ponies would be sound asleep. Given the setup of the place, I expected Cloud Vote to be sleeping in his quarters upstairs, and somepony from security to be standing watch at the ground level.

Nonetheless, I had come to realize a few years before that most Old World buildings had more than one exit for some reason – something to do with fire safety, I had been told. While given the circumstances walking in from the front door would still give me the element the surprise, sneaking in through the back door would also mean I most likely wouldn’t be detected at all, giving me ample time to reassess the situation. When you’re working solo, there would be no cavalry coming to your help if things went south, so you’d better make sure not to find yourself in a position where you’d need it.

Stealthily, I made my way around to the back door. Unsurprisingly, it was locked – which, given how common basic lockpicking knowledge was, didn’t amount to much protection. I grabbed a bobby pin from my mane and got to work.

However, as my pin broke in the barrel, the lock soon proved to be far too sturdy for such a primitive tool. Cursing under my breath, I retrieved the broken rod with a pinch of telekinesis. I threw it away and reached for my tumbler kit in my saddlebags.

Yes, I did have a tumbler kit. Ironically enough, I actually paid for it with my own hard-earned caps. However, my front pockets had very limited space for extra equipment, and once I had strapped on my breast a suppressed nine mil’, two extra magazines, a clip for my rifle, a flashlight and a pocket knife, there was little place left for a fifty-pieces quality locksmith set. In the end, I simply slid a pressure wrench into the pistol holster, and the forty-nine other pieces landed in my saddlebags. Why even bother with professional tools, when most locks could be easily defeated by a bobby pin from your mane?

Well, this kind of lock was the reason why I carried one around in the first place. Terrible lighting condition? Check. Seven pin lock? Check. All of them are security pins? Check. Almost no ledge whatsoever? Check.

Celestia slap me and call me your bitch, I’ve seen safes with easier locks to pick.

I groaned, and finally resigned myself to spending a long time on opening this door.

(** **)

At long last, the last pin found its place in its chamber, and the lock’s barrel rotated slowly under my delicate guidance. It let out a soft click – and just like that, the door was unlocked.

A sharp gunshot tore into the night, prompting me to jump behind a nearby dumpster for cover. Panting, gun at the ready, I scanned my surrounding to locate the shooter. From the sound alone, my bets were on a shotgun, and since I did not hear any lead whistling nearby, I assumed they had either the worst aim in the Wastelands, or they were not shooting at me in the first place.

It soon became obvious I had not been spotted, as I noticed two of the sentries from earlier in the distance stumbling in the streets, away from the gates. One of them had dropped their weapon and was struggling to pick it back up. The other one – the tan mare, I reckon, though there was little light – then bucked him, yelled something about foals sleeping at this hour. The stallion muttered what sounded like an apology, finally managed to reach his shotgun, and then, just like that, they were gone.

I let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. Getting shot at was part of the job, of course, but hell, you had to be mad to actually look forward to it.

Slowly, I got up from behind the rusty dumpster, pushed the door open and silently slipped inside.

I found myself in a dark corridor. The doors on my left and right were leading, respectively, to the toilets and a closet full of decayed cleaning supplies. From the third door down the corridor, however, light and sounds were seeping out. As I creeped closer, safety off, I realized the noises were coming from a radio.

“… and that was Let’s Go Sunning, by Sweetie Belle, brought to you by DJ Pon-3. Because sometimes, all you need is a ray of sunlight! Now, for the news… If you’ve been to Junction R-7 lately, you might have been surprised by a couple changes. That’s because everybody’s favorite rising star, the Stable Dweller, decided to go out of her way to…”

I mentally tuned out the stallion’s babble. Not only did I not care for some upstart filly playing heroes, but it really wasn’t the time for that kind of nonsense. The wooden door had really seen better days and large cracks in between its panels allowed me to get a good look inside.

In front of me, on the other side of a medium-sized room, cells with iron bars were embedded in a wall. All three were empty but one, which was occupied by a lone pony. I couldn’t clearly their features, but they were moving, so I guessed they were not dead.

On my left, another pony was seated, reading something at a desk. From the stereotypical Stetson hat on his head and the revolver on his hips, I assumed he was some kind of deputy.

“Hey, sheriff, you hear that? Even the wankers in bloody Tenpony say there’s still justice in Equestria! Mind proving them right by getting me arse out of this hole?”

His voice, wrapped in a thick accent I couldn’t quite identify, was rasp and rough – the unmistakable voice of a ghoul.

“You wouldn’t be welcome in Tenpony Tower either, meat face,” answered the sheriff without removing his eyes from his book. “In fact, they prob’ly wouldn’t even have the courtesy of putting you in jail. They’d gun ya down on the spot – not that I’m not tempted of doin’ the same.”

The ghoul spat. I could swear I saw it glow in the dim light.

“Aye, whereas you buggers locked me in this hole until the morrow, when then you’ll shoot the shite outta me. Bloody hell lad, I’m so relieved. You have my eternal bloody gratitude. I almost feel bad for rigging this whole joint with PE-4 before I got slammed.”

Now that got the sheriff’s attention, and mine, too. I sure didn’t want to end up scattered to every corner of the country as collateral of some feud I had no part in!

“I don’t believe ya.” Nonetheless, he closed his book and walked over to the cell. “Ya wouldn’t even dare risk blowing yourself up.”

“Mate, I’m a two-centuries-old zombie,” the ghoul chuckled. “I survived a bloody megaspell. Yer thinking I’d be afraid of two dozen pounds of PE-4?”

“How much C-4 you just said?!”

“C-4? Nay, mate, I use PE-4.” The prisoner’s laugh did not lose any of its creepy vibe. “If you found C-4, it probably was some other basterd who planted it.”

“But ya said ya placed charges! Did ya?!”

“Did I?”

The sheriff finally lost what little cool he had left and drew his gun right in the ghoul’s face.

“All right meatbag, stop fuckin’ with me,” he growled. “So just give me a reason – one fuckin’ reason – I shouldn’t shut that shit trap of yours the old fashioned way.”

“Well, lemme see…” The ghoul pondered aloud, clearly unfazed by the business’ end of the revolver in his face. “You can’t know for sure if I’m talking shite about the PE-4.”

“Whatever you sayin’, I ain’t buyin’ any of it anyway,” the sheriff snarled. “If ya dead, ya can’t trigger the charges, and if they’re timed, it’d be faster to look for them myself anyway. You just ain’t reliable.”

“The mayor may be a massive cunt, but he’ll be bloody pissed if I can’t show up to my execution tomorrow,” the ghoul continued with a shit-eating grin so big even I could see it from where I stood. “Yer playing with your bloody job here, lad.”

“I’m sure the mayor wouldn’t be too mad if you were to have some unfortunate accident during the night. It happens. Last chance, meatbag.”

“Ah, well then, there it is.” The ghoul stood up. “My bloody ace in the hole, innit? But you really ain’t gonna like it, wanker.”

“Let’s hear it, then, you rotten heap of shit!” The sheriff banged his gun against the bars. “What kind of bullshit are ya goin’ to serve me now, fuckhead?”

“See, smoothskin, yer assuming a bit much by thinking I am working alone.” The prisoner stepped forward. “And my business mate, my par’tner as you cowboys would say, he doesn’t care for your tone, and he’s standing right behind that door.”

Oh, Applejack fuck me with a barn, that was the door I was hiding behind. Maybe he’d seen me, maybe he hadn’t, but I couldn’t take the chance. I slammed the door open.

“What the…”

The sheriff’s sentence was cut short as I fired three rounds into him. He dropped like a ragdoll, his hat almost comically falling behind to land on his face.

Then I noticed the ghoul had jumped forward, arms outstretched throughout the bars.

“Well, bugger, I was trying to strangle him, but I suppose that works too,” he chuckled, sitting back down on his arse – ass, damn it. “Sorry, mate, I didn’t expect anybody to actually be spyin’ on late Six-Rounds and meself. I owe you a stiff drink!”

“Shut up,” I ordered as I creeped to the stairs at the other side of the room. There, I froze, my ears perked up as I listened.

“Don’t bother, stranger, there’s nobody upstairs.” Of course, the ghoul didn’t care the slightest that I’d requested silence. “Hey, what’s your name?”

Freeing prisoners often proved to be more a pain in the ass than anything else, and for a moment I considered shooting him myself… but then again he might have had some information.

“Why do you wanna know?” I asked begrudgingly as I moved back toward the cell to loot the sheriff’s corpse.

Aside from his worthless revolver, he only had a dozen caps and some .357 rounds I had no use for.

“Well, I can’t keep calling you ‘stranger’, right? Besides, I wanna know who to thanks for getting me rid of this bugger.” He seemed to notice I had begun looting the rest of the room. “Mind getting me out, by the way? It’s getting bloody oppressive in there, and I really don’t want to be here when shite hit the fan tomorrow.”

I looked up from the desk (empty, save for a heavy key ring and a box of rusted-out staples) and gauged him.

By all means, he was one ugly pegasus ghoul. With what little feathers remained on his wings, I doubted he could even fly anymore. His hairs were mostly gone, and his skin looked like somepony had tried to boil him to death. Thankfully, most of his disgusting body was hidden by a strange padded vest I assume used to be military, but it had been patched up so much I doubted there was anything left from the original outfit.

Still, I knew better than judging ghouls on their appearances. I mean, really, some of them survived the fucking apocalypse for fuck sake, just by standing outside and not giving a shit. You just had to respect that kind of stuff.

Besides, it also meant they were damn hard to kill, and since they already died once they were often all out of fucks to give. When I wanted to bring one down, I had to make extra sure I had obliterated their head in the proper fashion, because not only the fuckers can’t bleed to death, but I’ve been told they could even regenerate body parts using radiation. Radiation!

Nonetheless, this particular ghoul seemed to be a nice enough fellow, and with him locked and disarmed I had the upper hoof, so…

“The name’s Spring,” I answered. “What’s yours?”

“People call me Sunburn. Y’know,” he pointed his face with a hoof, “because of the scars. Hey, I wouldn’t touch that if I were you. It’s my stuff.”

The stuff he had been referring to were the saddlebags dropped in a corner of the room. Two big-ass guns were strapped on either side, battlesaddle style. From the ridiculous caliber of the barrels, they had to be grenade launchers. Expensive grenade launchers… that I probably couldn’t carry if my life depended on it.

“Afraid that I might keep your toys?” I teased. Truth to be told, I would have if I could. I knew I could fetch a hefty sum from their sale in Friendship City, but only an idiot would burden themselves with that kind of gear when on a job that required the upmost discretion.

“Nay, lad.” He answered with a smirk. “But there’s enough ordinance in there to turn you and half the town into paste, and since that wanker over here –” he managed to kick the sheriff’s corpse through the bars “- tossed it like the bloody morron he is, I can’t be certain he didn’t accidently arm something nasty.”

“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about the PE-4?” I wasn’t nearly as gullible as the sheriff, but given the expensive babies I had right in front of me, there was little doubt that ghoul was some kind of pyrotechnic maniac.

As I said, ghouls: cancer-powered, and all outta fucks to give.

“It’s more the landmines I’m worried about,” he answered with a frown. “Most of them already spent two centuries underground, so they ain’t brand new anymore.”

I jumped away from the bags. I was no explosive expert, but even I knew the kind of mines one would find all over the Wastelands were sensitive as hell. Every once in a while, you’d come across the small crater left by some hapless ponies who had the bright idea of putting a hoof anywhere near one of those suckers. They didn’t even have the decency of giving you a swift death, oh no. They’d tear off a limb or two, leaving you to bleed out like an animal on the side of the road. Nasty fuckers.

I finally decided against looting Sunburn’s gear. A few hundred caps were not worth my hide.

“Hey, calm down, lad. Let me out, and I’ll take a look.”

Sure, let him out to run right into sentries outside. What a great idea.

“I’ve got business to do with Cloud Vote,” I said as I walked toward the stairs. “Then… we’ll see.”

“Don’t bother,” he called out. “Nopony’s home.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” I answered as I made my way upstairs.

(** **)

The first story had indubitably been used as an important office recently, most likely the mayor’s. Cloud Vote was not at his large mahogany desk however; for that matter, nopony was. As I got deeper into the small police station, even circling the outer walls from the inside as to not miss any hidden rooms, it appeared Sunburn had indeed been telling the truth. Nopony was there – in fact, from the lack of beds or any sleeping accommodations, I had to come to the conclusion that the mayor did not live in his office.

“Well, fuck me,” I muttered. It was an unusual, unexpected, and wholly unwelcome spanner thrown into my works.

Downstairs, Sunburn had gotten a cigarette out of Luna-knows-where and was patiently waiting for my return. He even spared me the expected ‘I told you so’ comment – I sure wouldn’t have if I were in his horseshoes. Instead, he motioned toward the keyring I had left on the desk.

“I know where he lives, ye know?” he said, before pointing toward the late sheriff. “And I really don’t mind giving you directions if that’s the kind of business you have with the bugger.”

“What makes you so sure I’m out to kill him?” I finally made my mind and picked the keys up. “I might just want to ask him a couple questions.”

“Right, and I am an honest traveling salespony.” Oh, the sarcasm was strong with this one. “Nah, lad, I’ve met many ponies in my days, and you don’t look like the kind of people who ask questions before shootin’, if ye see what I mean.”

“What gave me away, the suppressed gun or the dead body in the room?” I joked as I opened the cell. “There. Now if you don’t mind I’d like to be done with this contract before sunrise.”

“We’ve got plenty of time.” He headed toward the front door and opened it slightly. “There, see the old department store down the street?”

“I, uh…” I could have taken a look through the interstice, but it would have meant squeezing myself between the wall and the ghoul, and, well… “Mind making a little room?”

“Uh?” He looked over the shoulder, and realization dawned on what little features he had left. “Ah, sorry lad. I’m an ugly basterd, ain’t I? I swear, I’d scare meself to death with my own face if I hadn’t kicked the bucket already.”

“No, it’s not…” I stopped as I saw him lift what passed for an eyebrow amongst ghouls. “Alright, okay, it’s exactly that. No offence.”

“None taken lad.” He chuckled and took a couple steps back. “It’s the house right next to the old store. Ye can’t miss it.”

“All right.” I pursed my lips. “While we’re at it, anything else I ought to know about Cloud Vote? Living relatives or tendencies to bobby trap everything?”

“Nay, just his daughter,” he answered. “Given how quickly you got rid of Six-Shots here, it’ll be a walk in the park for ye.”

“Daughter?” I repeated. “And the rest of the family?”

“Dead.” He shot me a rotten smile. “That’s the reason he hates me guts.”

“Angry relatives eh?” I chuckled darkly. “That shit happens far too often.”

“In your line of job, maybe, but I didn’t see it coming.” Sunburn shook his head as he headed toward his discarded gear. “I dinnae ken I’d offed the basterd’s wife and parents – in two separate occasions mind ye – before I walked into town and the wankers slipped something in me drink.”

“They managed to drug a ghoul?” Shit, he was getting his bags. “Say, do you mind waiting until I’m far away before touch any of your stuff?”

“Alright.” He stepped back and shrugged. “How much time do you think ye need?”

“Less than fifteen minutes, if your info is correct,” I answered. “I gotta find a trinket of his for my client afterward but it shouldn’t take long. Why do you ask?”

“I’m gonna blow up the building,” he answered, dead serious.

“What.” I blinked and stared at Sunburn. “Really?”

“Aye. Yer sneaky, but I’m not, and I’ll need a distraction to get of here.” A grin appeared on his scorched lips. “Besides, it’ll take some time for them to figure out what’s going on. By then, we’ll be long gone.”

“We?” I cocked an eyebrow. “Listen, there’s no ‘we’. I sure don’t need your help getting outta here, so we’ll just go our separate ways, okay?”

“That’d end in a big cock up lad,” he countered. “Who diya think everypony are gonna go to when shite hit the fan?”

“Fuck, they’ll go right to Cloud Vote’s,” I realized. “I really don’t want to run into a mob after I leaded their mayor. Shit. You sure you wanna…?”

“This joint’s gonna blow, I’m telling ya,” Sunburn chuckled. “Relax, lad. I really don’t want to pay back my debt by getting you caught. How about we meet up in the alley by the entrance? Then I’ll trigger the charges and we’ll get the bloody hell outta here.”

“That’s…” I really didn’t like depending on somepony else’s plans, especially one I had just met, but… I had seen the sentries getting relieved as I broke into the police station, and I did leave a couple of bodies near the entrance. Sneaking out would be made much easier with explosions causing mass confusion. “Fine, let’s roll with that.”

(** **)

Ironically enough, breaking in the right place turned out to be much simpler than breaking in the wrong place. For sure, there had been no backdoor this time, but the front’s lock was a joke. Finding Cloud Vote didn’t prove to be much of a challenge either: every room but one had been plunged in the dark. Why he was still up at this time of the night was for anypony to guess, but I sure wasn’t going to complain that he made my job easier.

I had entered the room without a sound, which proved to be an unnecessary precaution as he noticed the door opening. To his credit, he did try to reach for a weapon almost at once, but the barrel of my nine mil’ made it clear I would have none of that.

“Cloud Vote?” I questioned. It sounded far cheesier than I would have liked, yet it paid off to check whether you had the right pony. Once, I had to track my target for miles in the Wastelands just because I mistakenly shot a close cousin of their, so now I just ask for a name first. Even when they lied, it’s a dead giveaway.

“Crowneigh sent you, didn’t he?” Yup, I definitively had the right guy. “Do you even know-”

I shot him.

“Don’t know, don’t care.” On the other hoof, it never paid off to listen to ponies ramble. They’d say anything to try and save their hides.

Just for good measure, I put another bullet in the head. You could heal from a headshot, but two? Nah.

Without wasting any more time, I searched the body. I did find a couple of keys, but none of them matched Crowneigh’s description.

“Right, that look like a safe key,” I mumbled, my eyes scanning the room. “And where there’s a key on a body, there’s often a safe…”

I spotted an old painting, hung against a wall. The paint had faded over the years, rendering its object undistinguishable from the background.

“That thing sure isn’t here for the decoration,” I continued aloud. “Surely he wouldn’t have…”

My telekinesis reached to the frame and tore it down. Sure enough, I found a safe waiting for me.

“Fuck, those people never learn,” I chuckled.

The key matched. Aside from some worthless documents, I found around a hundred caps, some Old World bits, a plasma defender (with no batteries), a syringe of Med-X and, of course, the key I had been looking for.

However, as I turned away to leave, a second door opened.

“Dad, you okay? I thought I heard…” a young, feminine voice began.

Then, a few things happened almost in the same second.

The filly noticed me, as I was turning around to face her.

Her gaze dropped from my head, to my gun, to the pool of blood I was standing in, then back to my eyes.

I began to mouth a threat.

She began to scream.

I shot her.

(** **)

Outside, I found Sunburn waiting for me in the alley, as he’d promised. The old ghoul was nonchalantly smoking a two-centuries-old cigarette, as if he had all the reasons in the world to be there.

As he saw me, he frowned:

“I heard some screaming. I suppose it was your doing?”

I pulled him deeper into the alley, toward the town entrance.

“Yeah, a little snag on the road,” I answered. “I had to shoot the daughter, but I didn’t expect her to scream the second she saw me.”

Then, noticing his wry smile, I continued:

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing lad, it’s just…” He winked at me. “You know yer supposed to bed the president’s daughter, not kill her, right?”

“Oh, shut up,” I groaned in annoyance. To be honest, I would have rather fucked the father. He hadn’t been too hard to look at – back when he had his whole head, that is. “Are the explosives ready?”

“Of course they are, lad,” he answered in mock indignation. “Would ye doubt me abilities in the matter?”

Eyebrow raised, I cast him a sideway glance.

“Aow, well, there goes my pride. Thank you bloody kindly, Spring.”

“You’re fucking welcome, Sunburn,” I answered before halting as the gate came into view. “All right. Hit it.”

“You really know how to talk to an old colt like me, don’t ye?” He murmured with a low chuckle. “Just lemme get the detonator.”

He then reached inside his saddlebags. I couldn’t help but notice he had no issues moving around in his gear, even with the large grenade launchers strapped to his side – as if he wasn’t carrying anything at all. It confirmed my suspicion that the ghoul had been in the business for a long, long time.

“There’s the bugger.” He finally produced a small remote from his bags. It was a ridiculous thing, featuring but one, giant, obnoxious red button. “Do you want to do the honors, m’lady?”

“I’m not sure…” Oh yes. “Surely I should…” Oh hell yes. “Maybe…”

A pause.

“Oh, fuck it, who am I kidding?” I finally gave in and grabbed the detonator. “Fire in the hole!”

“Wait”, Sunburn began, but already I had smashed the trigger. “I-”

The whole town exploded.

(** **)

“I did try to warn you it was going to be loud,” Sunburn pointed out.

At the very least, I think that’s what he had said, because I couldn’t hear a damn thing. I mumbled something vaguely insulting then downed my health potion. The ringing in my ears slowly became to recede.

“You know, when you said you were going to blow the building, I thought you were going to do just that,” I deadpanned in a grumble. “Not raze the whole fucking town.”

“I might have gone a wee bit overboard, but yer exaggerating,” he laughed as he grabbed a whiskey bottle from his bags. “I would’ve given you earplugs, but ye just had to smash the big red button, dinna ye?”

“Well… I was very tempting,” I admitted.

“That’s the spirit! Lemme tell you, lad, I’ve been dead for two hundred years, and stuff blowing up never lost any of its shine to my eyes.”

“To each their own, I suppose,” I said. “Where did you get that whiskey anyway?”

If a glance could kill, I’m pretty much sure the angry look he gave me then would have made the Armageddon pale in comparison. In his eyes burned the fury of a thousand suns, and his scared face twisted in a formidable rage. I heard the Bells of the Apocalypse ring for me, as an unshakable sentiment of doom overcame my senses. All of sudden, I was the unworthy target of the most tremendous of all divine wraths.

This is no whiskey,” he bellowed, “This is SCOTCH!

(** **)

A dozen profuse apologies later, Sunburn had dismissed the incident as being sheer ignorance, rather than malice. He then proceeded to – extensively – explain the difference between whiskey and scotch. He told me about the composition, he told me about the distillation process; but above all, I understood that one came from his motherland, and the other… didn’t. Honestly, I didn’t like either of them, but I knew better than telling him that.

Eventually, he let the topic slide.

“So, where’re you headed, lad?”

“Manehattan, if I want to be paid,” I answered. “That’s where my client is.”

“The Rotten Apple, eh?” He looked to the east, some kind of distance in his eyes. “Haven’t been there for decades.”

“Why not?” I inquired. “Beats Fillydelphia these days, if you ask me.”

“Not for ghoul,” he chuckled darkly. “Tenpony ain’t a nice place to go to when you’re dead. If you thought the guys over there were bigots, clearly ye haven’t seen what they do to bloody monsters like me.”

“I’m not going to Tenpony either,” I winced. “Let’s face it: to them, a bounty hunter is another word for ‘cleaned-up raider’. No, I’m heading to Friendship City.”

Sunburn looked surprised.

“You mean the settlement inside the Statue?” As I nodded, he continued. “I’ve never been there. Do you think they’d have jobs an old ghoul like me?”

“Probably,” I shrugged. “What’s your exact line of work? Besides blowing stuff up, that is.”

“Lad, ye’d be surprised how far one can go with that on your résumé,” he chuckled. “But aye, I’m a versatile pony. I’ve been a soldier, I’ve been a bodyguard, I’ve worked in a bomb squad… ye’d be surprised to know how much undetonated ordinance there’s in Equestria. I’d bet my last few teeth that, somewhere, there’s a balefire megaspell just waiting for a swift kick to go off.”

“Shit, don’t say stuff like that,” I grimaced.

“And what about you, lad?” He inquired. “From the job you’re on, I’d say you’re a hitmare, right?”

“I’m a bounty hunter,” I growled. “There’s a difference.”

Sunburn shrugged, and took another long sip from his bottle. I shifted uncomfortably on my hooves.

“So…” I continued, “where are you headed, anyway?”

He smiled.

“Friendship City.”

(** **)

Main quest updated: The Job
Objectives:
[X] Get the keys (2/2) (Primary)
[X] Kill Cloud Vote (Optional)
[X] Kill Black Toe (Optional)
[ ] Get back to Mr. Crowneigh in Friendship City (Primary)



Side quest added: Let’s go sunning!
Objectives:

[ ] Earn Sunburn’s loyalty (Primary)
[ ] Learn more about Sunburn (Optional)





Level up!

New perk:
Friend of the Night: years of work in the dark made your vision sharper in low light condition.

“The night shall last forever!”

Chapter Two: Off the Job

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“We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”

Chapter Two: Off the Job

I don’t really know why I accepted to let Sunburn tag along on the trip back to Friendship City, but I think it had something to do with him being funny.
Plus, travelling with a living explosive arsenal had its perks, and the poor raiders who tried to ambush us two days from Hollow Shades learned that the hard way. The first three attackers went down the conventional way – namely, bullets in the torso and careless grenade tosses. The last two, though, tried to run away, and we ended up, spontaneously, having a little contest on ‘who could kill a raider in the most fashionable way’.


I used my hunting rifle for my entry. The target was already three hundred meters away, but still I managed to shoot him in the ass, making him jump in surprise – and then in the head, before he touched the ground. It was, without a doubt, two of the nicest shots in my life. Yet, Sunburn’s put me to shame.
He’d watched my raider go down, and he’d nodded in approval. Then, he took his time to change his right launcher’s shells, grabbed some kind of compass in his gear, aimed for the running pony, put the item back in its pocket, looked around to take note of the wind, and, as his target was almost a kilometer away, he pressed the trigger, once.

The shell went up, far away above the Wasteland in a lobbed arc.

Then, a few seconds later, the raider exploded in a rainbow-colored fireball.

My astonishment was probably showing on my face, because Sunburn soon started laughing.

“Pick up your jaw, girl, it’s dirty on the ground. What, never seen an artificer before?”

(** **)

The following evening, I got to understand his insane shooting skills a bit better. We’d found a nice place to camp for the night, and I’d asked him where he learned to master his grenade launchers like that.

“I’m not so skilled,” he’d said. “I have had too many occasions to practice on live targets back in my days, and shelling from the ground is nothing compared to what we had to do while flying.

“You see, I’m a pre-war ghoul. And I don’t mean I simply was there when the bombs fell: I had a life before the Great War. Equestria was a nice place to live, really. Then something happened, and all of a sudden, we were at war with the Zebraska.

“T’was a funny war at first. The whole nation had shed tears for the Wonderbolts, and each Royal Guard lost in the skirmished was mourned in national funerals. But to us, Equestrian civilians, it was just another calamity in a far-away place. We didn’t feel concerned. And then…”

He had stopped his story, and his gaze had wandered to the stars above. The silence lasted, but I knew better than shattering it. Eventually, he’d carried on:

“Then it all changed with Littlehorn. It became the fight of the nation as a whole. And to me… well, it became personal.

“I enlisted in the Army when they drafted soldiers from everywhere. All of a sudden, the Royal Guard and the Wonderbolts weren’t enough anymore. We needed infantry. We needed artillery. But most of all, we needed air-to-ground shock troops, because the bloody zebra couldn’t fly to save their life. I was a Pegasus, but I wasn’t swift enough to join the Wonderbolt Academy, even after they loosened their standards. But I wasn’t a stranger to handling things with care, so I was enlisted in the First Airborne Artillery.”

Sunburn shifted from his sitting position, and showed me a dirty badge stitched into his vest. I could still make out the outline of two wings in front of two crossed canons. The text underneath was unreadable.
He continued his story, a nostalgic smile now on his lips.

“We soon became the zebra infantry’s worst nightmare. Most ponies would say it was Macintosh’s Marauders, or the Shadowbolts, but it wasn’t true. Those bloody zebras hated the Marauders with all their guts, but didn’t fear them per see – they just wanted to see them dead, and then stick some grenades deep in their arses. The Shadowbolts were the kings of air supremacy. By themselves, they shot down countless dragons hundred times their size, and they were the bane of the zebra airforce. But they never engaged troops on the ground.

“On the other hoof, the First AA targeted only the infantry, often during the night, or far away behind the frontlines. If you were a zebra soldier, you couldn’t go to sleep on the ground without the fear of waking up with your guts spilling out of your mouth. Even tanks weren’t safe from our strikes, and I got myself quite a reputation among my peers. Sure, I was happy at first, especially when it came with promotions and dismembered zebras. ”

He sighed, and grabbed a bottle of scotch in his bag. Without even a glance at it, he opened it, and took a long sip.

“The war had been lasting for five long years before I understood there was a reason I had ended up being one of the most decorated veterans in the First AA. Someday, I woke up in my barracks, and I realized all my pals from when the company was formed were gone. And so were the pegasi who replaced them, and most of the ones after them. The war had become a bloody slaughterhouse, and somehow I’d managed to survive it so far. When the zebra finally got Macintosh’s hide a few months later, I had given up the idea that I would even see the end of the war. I didn’t really care though. There was nothing left of the Equestria of old and of the life I used to have.”

He had an unearthly laugh, and down went a good quarter of his bottle.

“Turns out fate had something else in store for me. A few years later, the First AA was stationed on a choke point somewhere in the Badlands. I don’t even remember the name of this blasted hill – I guess it had seemed important at the time. We were there to terminate the Changeling threat once and for all. You know what a changeling is, right? It’s some kind of pony-shaped insect that can transform into any pony it sees. You can imagine the pain they were when it comes to counter-intelligence, because of course they weren’t on our side. Their Queen held an old grudge against Equestria for some reason, and allied with the zebra scum. Since their hive in the Badlands had proven to be a bloody fortress, a direct attack to wipe them out was kinda problematic. Then, one day, my superior received the order to move to this bloody hill with every soul in the First AA. We even had Thunderhead to drop us some big arse howitzers, and so many shells we had to dig underground shelters to protect them from the sandstorms. Then, we shelled the hell out of the bugs.

“Of course, we knew we’d only scratched the surface with those bombardments, but the higher ups were confident. I remember my superior being pissed off at some Earth pony scientist civvy who had been dropped there for Luna-knows-what reason. He and his team in white coats had been working in secret in our own base, and even he didn’t know what in hell they were doing. Then the good Doctor Trotteinheimer – because it was him in flesh – told him something that made him shit rainbows. Then my superior told me, being quite the bomb warfare expert, and I started shitting rainbows.

“Three days afterward, the first Equestrian megaspell detonated over the changeling hive, and just like that, their kingdom was gone in a giant green mushroom. T’was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.

“No civvy ever known Ground Zero had been populated. Only a few really knew it was a double message for the zebras and its allies. Not only we could raze their towns – but even their best underground bases weren’t enough protection against balefire deep charges. The changelings never stood a chance. I don’t think we’d quite blasted everything all the way to the lowest levels, but what hadn’t been vaporized or burned to a crisp had been collapsed or irradiated beyond any chance of redemption.”

Sunburn paused, and took another sip. Then, he held toward me the now half-empty bottle, and I politely declined. He shrugged.

“Your loss, it’s one of the finest brand. Anyway, the zebra probably didn’t get the right memo, because a week afterward I woke up to the sound of the howitzers firing in battery. Those buggers – the zebras, not the changelings, of course, because they were still quite dead at the time – had marched from damn everywhere around us, and we were surrounded by a bloody army. Now, I know I said the First AA was a hell of a company, and it sure was, but this was well beyond our capabilities. They had Behemoth tanks. Armored dragons. Snipers and anti-pegasi troups everywhere. They shelled us for days, and they had somehow managed to disable our long range communicators. I suspected sabotage – we were inside the borders of the late Changeling Kingdom after all – but we couldn’t get our hooves on the culprit. Eventually, our troops and our ammunitions started running dry, and we all realized we were going to be overrun.

“We weren’t worried about dying on the battlefield though. Well, some of us were, but I for one didn’t give a damn shite, and everypony knew it. This is why it was a total surprise that I was designated to grab my gear, wait for the nightfall, and get my arse outta there to warn Equestria that there was a whole bloody army on its way. Turned out it wasn’t a favor my superior was doing me though, because I almost got killed a dozen time while breaching the blockade. When I landed in Appleloosa, I was more dead than alive, but I managed to get my bloody message to the right ears before passing out.

“I woke up months later. I had so much shrapnel and lead in my body that nurses in the Ministry of Peace though at first that I was one of those crazy cyborgs of the Interministerial Affairs. Nopony told me shite about the whereabouts of the FAA on the first three days. The fourth, a bloody general showed up, and immediately I knew. And since they had the decency to send a battle-hardened officer, I could see on his face that he knew I knew. We were soldiers, no words were needed. The First Airborne Artillery was gone, and the war was over for me.”

Sunburn took a last sip from his scotch, and tossed the empty bottle away.

“He told me my message allowed the Army to counterattack before those bloody zebra set a single hoof on the Equestrian soil. He also told me that the Manehattan Project – that’s it, the megaspells – hadn’t been compromised, meaning that the FAA sacrifice had given Equestria an astronomical lead in term of weaponry. Didn’t do us any good in the end though, since some arsehole from the MoP ended up leaking it all to the enemy anyway.

“I spent the remaining years as an instructor. The First Airborne Artillery never was reformed; instead, the Army decided to allocate more resource to the Thunderhead Cloudships. I’ve heard a few of them survived the bombs, but now they all belong to the Enclave. I guess it also seemed a good idea back then.”

“The day the world ended, I was in an airbase in the Hoof. Once again, I survived where everypony around me died of fourth degree burns or radiation sickness. Well, survived… I woke up one morning to realize my bloody heart wasn’t beating anymore, like I died in my sleep but my brain forgot to process it. After a while, once I realized I wasn’t going to decay any more, I started roaming the surface, and two centuries later here I am!”

He chuckled, and grabbed another scotch bottle in his bag. Luna’s tits, I would have been dead drunk at half a bottle already!

“Well, your turn I guess. How did you become a bounty hunter? No offence, but you don’t really have the muscle usually required for the job.”

I stretched.

“My story isn’t even half as interesting as yours, but if you really want to know…

“I was born twenty-six years ago from a family of caravaners, somewhere near Baltimare. I grew up on the road: Ma’ was a trader, so she taught me to read and to count; Pa’ was in the security, so he taught me to shoot. Turned out I was a terrible trader and an excellent shooter, to Ma’s great dismay.

“At nine, my parents offered me my first real rifle. Believe it or not, it’s the one I have strapped on my back right now. At the time, when the other caravaners heard I was going to take my first shot with a gun way too big for me, no one expected me to even hit the target. Well, the recoil did leave me in the dirt – but you should have seen their face when they realized I had scored a bulls-eye regardless. From then on, I spent my days killing imaginary raiders made of rocks and tin cans, or very real radscorpions.

“The good thing in growing up surrounded by caravaners is you end up learning tons of useful skills. Somepony taught me to lockpick and sneak on ponies, another to identify edible food or the basics of first aid, Wasteland edition. I ended up being fonder of doing burglaries than cooking or healing though: my small frame and my discreet colors were helping a lot. It was one of the best places a filly could grow up in, in this blasted Wasteland.

“Then, when I was around thirteen…”

My voice died in my throat, and I let out a shiver. It wasn’t memories I was very fond of recalling.
Without a word, Sunburn held out the Scotch toward me. This time, I gratefully grabbed the bottle, and took two long sips. The strong alcohol burned on its way down, but I was already feeling a bit better.

“I was around thirteen, when we got attacked by raiders. Pa’ was one of the first to die, but everypony soon followed. Ma’ got killed right in front of me by some punk raider with a machete. Then he turned toward me, and everything went into a blur. I grabbed my rifle, I took aim at him like he was some fucking practice target, and I blew his head off. Just like that, in a matter of minutes, I had lost my parents and killed my first pony. I think I killed my childhood along with him.

“Afterward, I ran away before the others could realize they had missed me. Driven by my thirst for vengeance, I spent the two following months tracking them, and killing them one by one. I didn’t know what was worse: that shooting them didn’t satisfy me in the least, or that killing was so easy. You know, I’d always been taught life was a gift from the Goddesses and it was to be cherished – killing another pony was one of the hardest acts somepony could do. Bullshit. In fact, all I needed was a gun and some ammo.

“As I was tracking the last surviving raider near Ponyville, my skills were noticed by a Pegasus. I needed caps, she needed somepony dead. It was my first job, and it went without a hitch: I just shot the poor bastard from the other side of a valley. He never saw it coming, and by the time his buddies realized it was a sniper, I was long gone.

“Seven months after losing my parents to a raid, I had finally had my vengeance. Still, I was very much alive, and I didn’t plan dying anytime soon, so I needed to find a way to earn caps. I did a few burglaries, carried some messages across the Wasteland, but soon enough I realized it didn’t pay as well as my first job. I remember going to Friendship City to bring some kind of casino trinket to somepony, and I found some wanted ads on the wall of a bar. I took them, and by the end of the week my fortune had doubled.

“Years passed by. I got myself some reputation in the Manehattan area, enough that ponies started directly coming to me a few years ago. Well, it also meant that guys in Tenpony knew my name and didn’t want me to put a single hoof in their bloody tower.

“A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a ghoul named Crowneigh, who had two targets to take care off. One was Cloud Vote. The other was named Black Toe. And that’s pretty it.”

I took another long sip of Scotch, grimaced, and gave the bottle back to its owner. He seemed preoccupied for a second, then took it and thanked me.

“I did warn you it wasn’t a very interesting story”, I apologized. “It’s kinda the standard childhood here in the Wasteland after all, give or take a few details.”

(** **)

The day after, we were in Manehattan. It took us a few hours to cross the ghost city while avoiding pillagers, mutants, feral ghouls, bloodbats, irradiated areas and other joys of the Rotten Apple. Ironically enough, Sunburn taught me the name predated the war, because of the slight trace of corruption and organized crimes going on there. If only they could see us now, roaming the tainted ruins of what used to be the pride of millions ponies, weapons on our backs and blood on our hooves, maybe they would have realized a bank robbery or two wasn’t the end of the world.

The trip to Friendship City went without a hitch, though. Sure, we were attacked a couple times, but Sunburn was a tough veteran, and I was an expert marksmare, so we didn’t have any trouble brushing the assault off. I did complain about the lack of loot on the bodies nonetheless.

Once inside Friendship City – we passed security without a hitch, even if they seemed to be slightly worried by Sunburn’s explosive barding – we decided to part ways. He needed a place where he could find a job and buy some Scotch, and I directed him toward the Prancing Pony, one of the town’s taverns. I, on the other hoof, had some shopping to do, along with getting my pay for my latest job.

“Well,” I said, “I guess I’ll see you around someday, if you stay in the area.”
“I hope you never get a contract on my head,” he laughed. “Because it’d be quite a painful meeting.”

Then, his face grew more serious.

“Listen girl, I wanted to tell you something. Your boss’s name is Crowneigh, right?” he asked in a low voice.


I hesitated. When I let the name slip the night before, it had been the alcohol talking. Telling who you were working for was quite shunned upon in my business, and it could make a dent in my reputation if it went to the public’s ears. Yet, the harm was already done, so there was no use denying it.


“Yeah, that’s him,” I answered after taking a discreet look around me. “But don’t tell anypony I told you that. Some ponies like their privacy so much they could marry it.”


“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anypony. I just wanted to warn you that I’d worked for him a few decades ago. He had hired a crew to excavate the entrance to a collapsed Stable, because he wanted something inside real bad.”


“Well, what he does with his caps is his business,” I shrugged. “I don’t see how it concerns me.”


“Let me finish. Honestly, do I look like a scavenger to you? Or someone who would dig to find some Old World junk? Nah. He’d hired me because burying the dig team alive was cheaper than paying them.”

I’ll admit, I may have paled a bit back then. The very reason I didn’t work with raiders or slavers was because they had a bad habit of killing or enslaving you instead of paying their bills. I thought back to what Cloud Vote had tried to tell me before I put a bullet in his head. It was something about the keys. I mentally kicked myself for killing him mid-sentence. Oh well, I wouldn’t have believed him anyway. People were ready to say anything to save their hide nowadays.

“Thank you, I guess,” I said after a pause. “But I don’t think he’d try to kill me for eight hundred caps.”
“Girl, some ponies would kill you for a bloody candy bar,” Sunburn pointed out. “And raiders would do it for fun.”


“… true enough. I’ll keep my eyes open then. Thanks for the head on.”


“You’re welcome. Take care, and see you in this life or the next!”

Then, we parted way.

(** **)

I was sitting on a discarded crate, looking at the keys in my hoof. Why did Crowneigh want them so bad?

Cloud Vote’s key was looking every bit like the other one. It was kinda obvious they were opening similar locks, and my naughty drawer theory went down the sink. They weren’t simple ‘proof of death’ either, that much was obvious: it would have been too much of a coincidence. Alas, I had no idea what they were supposed to unlock.

The keys weren’t exactly identical either. Where the first one had been green, the second was deep blue. The bow was also in a better shape, and the writings hadn’t been scratched. It was reading ‘DERTA’, in capital letters, and underneath was engraved a little ‘III’. Looking back to the green key, I realized I still could make out what used to be a ‘I’ or a ‘II’. Anyway, the patterns on the blades were different, and I guessed whatever lock they opened required a third key. It meant I wouldn’t be able to unlock it even if I found it, because it was obviously picking-proof. It also meant they were worth way more than eight hundred caps if Crowneigh had the third key, which was likely. Unless he’d sent another bounty hunter to fetch it, in which case he’d have it soon enough anyway.

Anyway, I needed to figure out what this ‘DERTA’ was. For all I knew, it could have been the keys’ manufacturer. If I wished to blackmail Crowneigh, I was going to need more information as leverage.
I thought back to Sunburn’s warning. I was also going to buy some extra ammo, just in case.

A plan starting to form into my brain, I headed to my favorite shop in Equestria: Chrystal’s.

(** **)

I exited the shop with more question than I had when I entered.

First, about the DERTA. Chrystal had told me it was a pre-war research center, and people usually weren’t looking for them because they had a bad case of Old World blues. They were often filled with considerable loot, advanced technologies, deadly security systems and un-ethical two-century-old experiments on fauna or ponies.

They were the very reason scavengers often didn’t live long, yet sometimes managed to make a fortune in caps. I, for one, wouldn’t spit on a big heap of caps, but most of Equestria unclaimed loot now lied in places hard to reach: Marypony, Canterlot, the Hoofington’s Core… you name it. I wasn’t crazy enough to risk my tail over there, when I could find well-paid jobs in the Manehattan area.

Yet, if the DERTA hadn’t been looted because its keys had been lost, scattered to the winds, then it was a million-caps opportunity just within my reach.

The second thing that had me thinking was Chrystal herself. She had me worried she could move out of Friendship City in search of greener pastures, or simply close her shop down and move on. I hadn’t lied when I said there weren’t any better gun dealer this side of Equestria; sure, the Silver Rush in Tenpony was filled with weapons of the highest quality, but the owner, Van Graff, abhorred powder-based guns. He hated them so much I’ve been told the bouncer in front of the Silver Rush was forbidding the access to whoever had a non-energy weapon. Not that I would know, mind you: I’d never been in Tenpony myself. Why would I, after all? Everything cost a leg over there, even the damn cheese, and there wasn’t any job for me. In fact, if the security had found out I was Spring, expert bounty hunter, I would have been shot on the spot for being a raider.

So, yeah, Chrystal closing her business in Friendship City would have been very uncomfortable for me. And I knew it was really serious, because Chrystal had spontaneously cut me a discount as being a faithful client. Unless she was hitting on me – which was a terrifying prospect given her reputation as a black widow – it meant she was desperate to keep me from going elsewhere to buy my stuff.
Not that I could, anyway.

The last thing I was worried about was my imminent confrontation with Crowneigh. Now that I knew for a fact the keys were worth thousands of caps, I sure wasn’t going to be content with the meager eight hundred I was promised. To renegotiate the contract was out of question, of course, but since he had sent me to kill two ponies, and retrieve their keys as proof, I actually didn’t have to give him the keys. It was a low blow for sure, but hell, the Wasteland was a scary place.

So, confident in my fortune to come, I headed to Mr. Crowneigh’s apartment.

(** **)

Crowneigh’s office was exactly how I recalled: full of dusty books. They were everywhere: on the shelves, on the ground, on the giant desk facing the door. What little space wasn’t occupied by bookshelves was filled by maps, old newpapers, compasses, and old artifacts. It almost looked like an archeologist’s lair from Daring Do, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the adventurer sitting behind the desk, her focus deeps inside a millennial parchment.

Well, Crowneigh was sitting behind his desk, and sure was wearing a white fedora, but the comparison ended there.

First, he was reading a newspaper. That it was two centuries old didn’t seem to bother him the slightest.

Second, he was a ghoul.

Now I don’t have anything against ghouls. Sunburn is a ghoul – an ugly one at that. Yet, I go along with him just fine. I’d just rather cut off my own hoof than touching him, that’s all.

But Crowneigh was something else. Sorry, I should have said Mister Crowneigh. The decayed Earth Pony wore a white fedora, with a white suit, and it was obvious he was trying very hard to be attractive. Alas, when you had exceeded your best-before date by two hundred years, it just made you even creepier.

If Sunburn was an ugly ghoul, then Crowneigh was an ugly ghoul with a white fedora. It was like putting a cherry on a stack of shit. Cree-fuckin’-py.

As I entered his office, he tipped his hat, and looked up from his newspaper.

I’m pretty much sure it was just for the show.

“Ah, Spring,” he noted. “You’re back. I reckon our little business had been taken care off?”
“It had.” I approached the desk. “Black Toe was quite easy to get, but Cloud Vote proved to be more elusive.”

He shrugged in an apologetic, yet reserved, manner.

“Was he? It is a shame, but we had agreed on the price beforehoof.”


“Of course. And I am not one to come back on my pay,” I lied shamelessly. “I did notice you hadn’t been totally honest with me though.”


His surprise was clear on his face, but his denial made it even more obvious.
“Did I? My words, and I wouldn’t even know it! Pray tell, where did I wrong you?”
I couldn’t keep my eyes from rolling in their sockets.


“The keys, Crowneigh, the keys. It has never been about the two targets, isn’t it? All you needed was their keys.”


He seemed a bit relieved, somehow. “My, you are a sharp one. Why yes, I wanted back what was rightfully mine. You see, they had stolen them from me years ago, and I couldn’t open my old vault anymore.”


“So it has nothing to do with them opening the gates to the DERTA? Well I stand relieved then, I was about to believe you were going to pay me a misery for something worth a hundred thousand caps!”

All of a sudden, his stance ceased to be cordial and relaxed. It felt like an ice cone had blitzed into the room, and I recalled Sunburn’s warning. I discretely loosened the holster around my pistol, and removed its safety. Crowneigh stared straight at me for a couple seconds, then spoke with a tone that would have made permafrost look warm.

“You should have stayed out of this.”

And out from nowhere, he drew a revolver. I was faster, but he had a head-start.

We ended up shooting at the same time.

His bullet grazed my left cheek, leaving a trail of fire on my flesh.

My bullet hit him in the right eye, and down he went. His white fedora comically followed with a lag, and landed on its ugly, blood covered face like a last attempt to cover his misery.

I stayed there, standing in front of his desk, for a good five minutes. I was torn between my fear that somepony had heard the gunshot (mine was suppressed, but not his), and the realization I would have been a dead mare if he had aimed a few centimeters to his left.

Close quarter fights really weren’t my thing.

Finally, as nopony seemed to have noticed the noise, I relaxed. Then, well…
I looted the room.

(** **)

Books, books, trash, books, books, books…

There simply was nothing of interest in this room!

I kicked Crowneigh’s dead body, and immediately regretted it as some kind of goo stuck to my hoof. I grimaced, and wiped my appendage on the worn out carpet.

There has to be something in here, anything!

My gaze drifted on the bookshelves, then to the giant pre-war map plastered to the wall. I noticed some kind of transparent plastic sheet rolled on the ground right underneath it, and I grabbed it out of curiosity. It seemed out of place in the office, somehow, and I unrolled it.

There were markings all over it, but I couldn’t make head or tail of them. Circles of color were disposed at random on it, and some were barred or underlined. One in particular stood out: bright red, it had been maniacally overwritten again and again. Whatever it was, it seemed important to Crowneigh.

I almost wished I hadn’t killed him.
Almost being the key word.

I frowned as I though back to his major overreaction when I mentioned the DERTA. I had the feeling there was a link between the plastic sheet and the hidden facility, but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on it.

I sighted, and put the item back where I had found it. I knew I wasn’t much of a problem solver, and while I was far from being stupid my approach to resolving my problems usually revolved around sneaking and shooting.

I went back to the corpse. I hadn’t looted him yet, and I wasn’t really thrilled by the prospect. I let out a long, tired sigh, and, thanking the Goddesses above for being a unicorn, I used my telekinesis to search Crowneigh’s body.

First was his revolver, chambered in .44 Magnum. I didn’t know what model it was, but I could recognize the sigil of Ironshod Firearms, and the gun was in an overall good shape. It was probably worth a few hundred caps, but there was no way I was going to sell it in Friendship City. Rule number one of burglaries: never ever try to sell whatever you just stole in the same city you stole it. Bonus point if you murdered somepony in the process.

I mean, seriously, you wouldn’t believe how many ponies tried to do that. Trust me: it doesn’t work.

Of course, Crowneigh also had some ammo for it, about twenty rounds. I put everything in my saddlebags, and carried on.

I found about a hundred bottlecaps in his rear pockets. I grimaced. Of course he wasn’t going to carry more than a kilogram worth of caps on him to pay me. He probably had a more consequent fortune stashed in his office, but where?
I didn’t have the answer. I pocketed the caps.

In his front pockets, I found a box of Mint-Als. I tossed it on the desk – there was no way I was going to eat something coming from that ghoul!

Finally, I noticed a silver chain around Crowneigh’s neck. I snapped it, and pulled it toward me.

Attached were two keys, and one golden ring.

The ring seemed to be made of gold, but I wasn’t exactly familiar with jewelry, so I couldn’t say for sure. It looked like an Old World wedding ornament. Assuming I could find a wealthy buyer, it was probably worth a good stack of caps – I doubted there were many jewelers left in the Wastelands, so whoever wanted to have an old-fashioned wedding would probably resort to buying used rings.

The first key was very plain. The blade looked a bit sophisticated, but it simply meant it opened a high-quality lock, possibly a safe.

The second one brought a smile to my lips. Aside from its red color, it was the perfect twin of the two DERTA keys I already had. My smile turned into a frown, however, when I realized it was labeled ‘IV’.
If Red was ‘IV’, Blue was ‘III’, and Green was ‘I’ or ‘II’, it meant I missed a key.

I groaned. Couldn’t the Wasteland give me a break for once?

I walked around the office one more time, trying to find a hint, but to no avail. I simply wasn’t perspective enough.

Slowly, my gaze turned back to the pack of Party Mint-Als on the desk.

Oh well, I might as well try! Nopony ever died of eating Mint-Als anyway, right?

Thankfully, the box was still sealed, and the pills turned out to be clean and pristine. No trace of ghoul goo on it whatsoever. On the back, it was recommended not to take more than one at once. I chewed three of them for good measure, and waited.

Thirty seconds later, the effects kicked in, and I felt fuckin’ smart!

All of sudden, I knew what was going on in this office! It was so obvious! Of course Crowneigh was not going to leave the subject of his lifelong obsession in plain sight, yet he probably needed to have his documents at hoof at any time.

I grabbed the plastic sheet, and with a goofy grin, I plastered it on the map.

Half the circles were over the sea. I froze for a second, then flipped the sheet. Noticing the drawing pins on a nearby shelve, I nailed it to the wall, and stood back to watch my handy work.

Of course he wasn’t going to draw on the map – he drew on an overlay! It was so simple, yet so clever.

On the newly formed map, I could clearly see what the circles were referring to. Black circles were all crossed, and seemed older than the others – they probably were the places Crowneigh searched for his own key. The circles in green and blue obviously referred to the two other keys, and I couldn’t help but notice the green key had been moving a lot.
There also was a yellow circle around the Tenpony Tower. I guessed the last key was there.
Finally, the large, red circle had to be the location of the DERTA. It was to the North. It was under the permafrost line, but still far enough that there was no city whatsoever. The Wasteland was harsh enough without deadly winters. The place was surrounded by the zombie wastes to the West, the tail of the Crystal Mountains to the East (and the sea beyond), the frozen wastes to the North, and the closest town to the South was two hundred kilometers away. It was remote – no wonder nopony ventured there.

I turned my gaze back to the office. Now, I needed to find Crowneigh’s safe.

My first guess was ‘behind the bookshelves’. But after throwing all the ageless books on the floor, I had to admit it simply wasn’t there.

My second guess was a secret compartment hidden in the desk, but I discarded the idea: the volumes didn’t add up.

I returned to the center of the room, and sat back on my haunches. Munching two other PMT (tasty!), I turned the problem in my head. If I were Crowneigh (I suddered at the thought), where would my safe be hidden?

I observed around me. The books, the shelves, the map. It really looked like a place out of a Daring Do novel. My Mint-Als-fuelled brain processed the idea. If I were a shadowy professor in archeology, wanting to hide my precious items from intruders, where would I put them?

Under the carpet.

I jumped on my hooves, and pushed the heavy carpet aside. Sure enough, there was a safe there.

And inside, I found the pot of gold.

(** **)

To be honest, had I not known what the DERTA was, I would have discarded the centuries-old documents in the safe, and only cared about the heavy caps bag over it. But Crowneigh’s overreaction had confirmed my suspicions that the hidden facility was the real deal, and, Party Mint-Als helping, I decided to browse the documents. I locked myself in the office, threw all the useless junk on the desk away, moved the furniture so I didn’t have to sit in Crowneigh’s radioactive blood, and started studying. Oh, and I took another PMT, too.

Four hours later, my head throbbed of all the reading I had to do, and the PMT box had been emptied. Thankfully, most of the documents had been annotated by my late ghoul friend, so there wasn’t much to analyze.

The documents confirmed the DERTA was located in a crater, named Big Mountain. The name wasn’t original, but the facility itself definitely was.

DERTA stood for ‘Département d’Etude et de Recherche des Technologies Arcaniques’. It looked to be French to me, and it was. One particular report, thankfully written in English and intended for somepony in the Ministry of Arcanic Sciences, gave me some insights on the origins of the DERTA.

The facility was a pre-war research center dependent of the province of Prance. What it was doing on this side of the sea was anypony’s guess, but it turned out it shielded the DERTA from falling after the Bombing of Prance. The document begged the Ministry of Arcane Science to take them under their wing, since most of their homeland had been reduced to petit fours. I didn’t have the answer they gave them, but since the facility didn’t close it was obvious they accepted.

Then, there was a pile of technical sheets for items designed by the DERTA. I didn’t care for the details, but I noted every folder had been appended with a ‘Normalization Form’.

“Forwarded to Stable Tech… Forwarded to Stable Tech… Forwarded to the MoA… Forwarded to Marypony Facility… Forwarded to Flash Technologies… Canceled by Royal Order…”

I frowned and took a closer look at this particular folder. Sadly, most of the files were missing.

I didn’t know what to make of all this. It appeared the Equestrian government had been forging false identities for the things the DERTA had invented, attributing them its own Ministries or companies. It would explain why I had never seen any reference to the facility before, but I didn’t understand why they weren’t selling themselves the goods they invented. I shrugged – it simply was yet one more mystery to add to an ever growing list.

I skimmed most of the printed documents, until I found one named ‘Lockdown procedures’.

(** **)

D.E.R.T.A. [DATE]

Lockdown procedures - revision
THIS DOCUMENT IS CLASSIFIED. UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS IS A FELONY.
[Redacted]

With the recent change in management, the Department security systems had to be replaced. While the infrastructures themselves remained unchanged, all the access codes given to authorities in Prance had to be removed. It is likely they fell in the enemies’ hooves, or were destroyed. In either case, they were a liability, and are as of now unusable. New codes will be forwarded To Whom It May Concern.

It means we also had to change the lockdown security locks in Big Mountain. While they will not, in all likehood, be used anytime soon, they remain the only way to open the facility blast doors from the outside.

The previous set of keys was distributed between the late French President, the Prime Minister, the head of the French Secret Services, and a representative of the Department.

The new set of keys will be distributed (subject to governmental approval) between a Ministry of Arcane Sciences representative, a Ministry of Awesome representative, a Ministry of Inter-Ministerial Affairs representative, and the former French ambassador in Canterlot, Mr. Fancy Pants.

Those keys are to remain outside of Big Mountain AT ALL TIMES.

Should they be lost, stolen, destroyed, or compromised in any way, please inform IMMEDIATELY a Ministry. The set shall then be retrieved and remade, and the old keys shall be destroyed.

Note: As an Equestrian representative made me realize earlier, the DERTA capability to become impermeable to all threats is vastly underestimated. To be clear: should an unrecognized flying object go over the Big MT crater, it would be instantly annihilated by the automated Gauss Anti-Aircraft canons. Please remember those batteries are the same one which destroyed half of the Zebra fleet in a matter of minutes last summer on the Southern front.

Furthermore, should the facility be targeted by long-range ballistic missiles, an arcanic shield can be raised to protect it. Since it is not fuelled by unicorns, but by autonomous fusion reactors, it is dubious it would drop on its own even after megaspell-class strikes.

Capt. Aegis, head of security

(** **)

As I read the document, I couldn’t help but find hilarious that they had gone all the way and back to protect themselves from external threats, yet didn’t seem to have survived the Apocalypse anyway.

Given the ‘effectiveness’ of the French defense system during the Bombing of Prance, I somehow doubted the DERTA shield was as tough as the document made it to be. Okay, Tenpony Tower did survive the utter destruction of Manehatten, but it wasn’t a direct strike. Ground zero was actually a couple kilometers to the South-East.

The remaining files didn’t seem to come from the same source. Most of them were hoof-wrote, and I realized they were Crowneigh’s research notes. The earliest was dated fifty years before my birth!

I quickly skipped to the latest documents. Without surprise I found Cloud Vote’s and Black Toe’s files. I didn’t learn anything of interest, except the Green key was the number ‘II’.
What did unsettle me, though, was to find a file with my name on it.

Turns out Crowneigh did his homework with great care, because most of my achievements were on it. The ghoul had annotated some, and had added a small synthesis on the back of the document.

“Seems fair and efficient,” I read, “but not sharp enough to realize what’s going on!?”

Even dead, Crowneigh managed to kick me where it hurt: in the pride.

“Probably capable of taking care of V.G.” I continued, “Sending her after C.V. and B.T. to see if she can handle the Tower.”

‘C.V.’ and ‘B.T.’ were probably Cloud Vote and Black Toe, my previous targets. ‘V.G.’ had to be the one with the key no. ‘I’. If it really was in Tenpony Tower, though, getting to them would prove to be quite the hassle.

I browsed the remaining files, looking for this mysterious ‘V.G.’: name, residence, potential threat.

Turns out I only needed the name, because I was no stranger to the stallion.

The last target was Van Graff, owner of the Silver Rush.

(** **)

Level up!

New perk:
Quick Draw: you may not be the sharpest knife of the drawer, but you’re the fastest drawer of your knife! You now holster and draw you weapons 50% faster.

“Draw faster than your shadow!”

Chapter Three: Under Covered

View Online

Read it on Google Docs for an updated version.


“Now you can go get the marshall.”

Chapter Three: Under covered

Van Graff. His name alone proved there was something wrong with him. Most ponies choose, for better or for worse, a name with meaning for their children. While it is up to them to follow their pre-established destiny, still their name remains, like a remnant of a time long past.

But not Van Graff. His father was named Van Graff, and his father before him. For generations, they had borne the very same name.

More than a century ago, when the first Van Graff showed up at Tenpony Tower, nopony knew who he was, and nopony actually cared. He was an outsider, a Wastelander. When he asked for the ownership of a shop in the commercial levels, every Tenponite expected him to face a flat denial.

And he did.

He came back years later, a huge shipment of weapons and armor in tow. How he had managed to find so much equipment was a complete mystery, and, once again, he had asked for a shop.

This time, however, the situation had changed in Tenpony Tower. The Wastelands were starting to wake up from their nuclear slumber. Already raiders had tried to fight their way into their little piece of heaven, and they proved to be tougher than a hoofull of feral ghouls. But the old Tower was no fortress – not really. They had weapons for sure, but way too little. So when old Van Graff showed up again with enough guns for an army?

Well they gave him a shop all right, and four generations later I had to steal something from Van Graff junior.

His family’s story had become quite the stuff of legend in the Manehattan area. An Old War saying told something along the lines “If you can make it in Fillydelphia, you can make it anywhere.”

The revised Wasteland version was “If you can make it in Fillydelphia, you can make it anywhere – except in Tenpony, if your name is not Van Graff.”

If you are not familiar with the way Tenpony works, you cannot really understand how jaw-breaking the story was. It was hard enough to enter in Tenpony Tower as a guest – ghouls, criminals, scavengers, raiders, slavers, you name it, where shot on sight.

But to become a full fledged citizen, you had to acquire a property in the Tower. Should you decide to sell it, you’d lose your citizenship, and your rights. Therefore, property in Tenpony Tower was the most expensive thing in the Wasteland. And shops were the most prized possessions.

And Van Graff managed to have one for free. Now you understand why everypony knew the story, and why he was so envied by most Wastelanders.

(** **)

I had packed up the map and the heavy files from the safe, but there was one last thing I had to do before leaving Crowneigh’s office. While Friendship City was more lax in their security checks than, say, Tenpony, I was pretty much sure murdering (and robbing) a long-term resident was off-limits. Of course, from the corpse alone, there was no way they could know I was the culprit. At worse, they would know I had used a 9mm handgun – not really a big deal.

Trouble is, if Crowneigh had left any document about me somewhere in his office, there was a chance my name would end on the sheriff’s desk. I had a tacit agreement with her: she knew I was in wet business, but she was looking the other way as long as I wasn’t making any trouble in her town. I was, after all, a source of income for the local residents.

But should she ever realize I was working with the late Mr. Crowneigh, she wouldn’t take long to connect the dots.

Of course, I could go to her office, tell her my side of the story, and hope for the better. But I wasn’t going to take any chance with that.

Really, trusting the Wasteland’s justice system was pure suicide.

So I did the next best thing, and as the fire from my lighter started spreading to the dry books in front of me, I told myself I now had to get away with arson, murder and caps stealing.

(** **)

I hate Mint-Als.

I had barely left Friendship City when the effects of the wonder pills had worn off, and all of sudden I was left with a nasty hangover and the terrible feeling of growing dumber every second.

To be fair, I had it coming. When the box of some kind of temporary brain improvement warns you about eating more than one, and you end up downing the whole pack regardless, you should expect a backfire of some sort.

But this particular hangover simply wasn’t from this world. The pain seared my brain, and I felt like I had rusty iron scalpels clawing the inside of my skull.

Leaning against a decrepit wall, I puked what little I had in my stomach. I was in sorry shape, and I wondered what kind of maniac had invented the pills in the first place.

The wall didn’t have an answer, so I carried on.

I had a small underground shack in Manehattan. It was a non-collapsed basement in the Western part of the town.

It wasn’t really far from Friendship City – but it felt like forever.

(** **)

When I woke up, I was starting to feel a bit better. My head still throbbed, but the nausea had calmed, and I raided my personal first aid kit for a dose of Med-X. The pain subsided, and I relaxed at last.

There were many drugs in the Wasteland, and almost all of them had some interesting effects. Some of them turned you into a merciless berserker, while other would make you feel strong like a buffalo. Med-X, in particular, was a very powerful painkiller.

Trouble is, they also had side effects.

Ironically enough, most of them were the exact opposite of what the drug did in the first place. A lack of Dash would make you slow; an addiction to Hydra would prevent your body from regenerating.
Med-X was different, in that it didn’t have a high addiction rate. Yet, if you used it to much, you’d just end up not realizing you’d been wounded, and that you had been bleeding all over on the carpet for the last ten minutes. It made you immune to pain, not bullet-proof.

In short? Combat drugs ended up killing you more often than saving you.

But the most vicious of all drugs was Fixer. A shot of Fixer could help you compensate for the withdrawal effects of the others drugs.
The downside? Well it’s all in your head. You’re still addicted, it’s still chewing you inside, and once your dose of Fixer had worn off, you’d feel even worse than before.
Cherry on the poisoned cake: it also gives you permanent hallucinations.

And do you know what is worse than one of those drugs?

Taking several of them, at the same time.

The practice was known as cocktail making by the raiders. They are very fond of it, because a mix of Dash, Rage, Buck and Med-X was making you feel like a GOD.

That is, until your heart decides to go on a permanent strike.

This is why I hadn’t jumped the Med-X the day before. The Goddesses only knew what chemicals were in PMT, and how it was going to interact with the painkillers once in my veins. I was no doctor or chemist, I had no idea what could happen. And honestly? I really didn’t want to know.

(** **)

My shack sure wasn’t a palace, but it was mine, and that made me luckier than many ponies in the Wasteland.

It was a six-by-five meter room, located under a collapsed building. I had found the entrance by mere luck years ago, when I was still hoping to find some loot in this part of the town. I had lost my balance and fell into a hole, which turned out to be a staircase. Down the stairs was a metal door. It was closed, but I had managed to pick the lock, and inside I found a skeleton waiting for me. I don’t know who this filly was, and I didn’t really care. All it mattered is that she had the door’s key with her, and once I dumped the bones outside I had a place to call my own.

There wasn’t much furniture in the small basement to start with, only shelves covered by useless junk I soon threw away, a couple crates, and a dusty, cracked mirror. Soon enough, I had dragged a bed there (well, a mattress to be exact), along with a footlocker, and a small safe I found in an old vandalized shop a few streets away. The looters hadn’t taken the safes themselves, which was kind of moronic since a safe with a key was a rare occurrence in the Wasteland. It had been a pain to bring back to my shack, but now I could proudly say my fortune wasn’t stashed under my mattress.

Not that it would be confortable, come to think of it. Who in hell had invented this stupid expression anyway?

But the hardest piece of furniture to set up had been the workbench. I had to struggle to break him apart, struggle to move the pieces, and then struggle to put them back together. I ended up with more bolts that I needed, somehow, and I had lost a screwdriver somewhere in the process.

But now I had a workbench! That meant I could repair my stuff without having to pay an exorbitant fee to some con vendor. I still had to buy the extra parts, but Chrystal was happy to oblige, as long as I paid.

I swear, if this filly could marry a bag of caps, she’d do it without the slightest hesitation.

This being said, it wasn’t the reason I had come back to my shack. Sure, I had a pristine barrel in my saddlebags, but my rifle’s wasn’t really worn up yet. It could still shoot a good hundred times before starting to get warped.

No, I needed to empty my saddlebags of all the stuff that didn’t need to come with me at Tenpony, namely Crowneigh’s files, my rifle, most of my ammunition, the ‘obvious’ part of my lockpicking kit, and other things that would give away the nature of my usual business. There was no way I could sneak around the security in Tenpony, so I had to trick them into believing I wasn’t dangerous.

I undressed, and spread my leather armor on a crate. It was sticky with blood, sweat and dirt, and I noted I should take the time to clean it up, someday.

Then, I faced the mirror, and thought about my options to stay anonymous in Tenpony.

I wasn’t really standing out to start with. Grey coat, dark mane, brown eyes. No particular scars – though Crowneigh’s bullet would probably leave a dim one under my fur – nor birthmarks. I had a small frame, but I wasn’t short either.

For a moment, I thought about cropping and dying my mane, but I dismissed the idea. I didn’t have any dye, and changing my hair wouldn’t probably make a big difference.

Plus, I kinda liked my ponytail.

I turned sideways to have a better look on the rest of my body. My cutie mark was probably going to be the one feature I had that could betray my line of job. If the security took a good look at the stylized bullets on my hindquarters, they were probably going to be quite suspicious of me. While they probably wouldn’t connect the mark with I, Spring, Assassin Extraordinaire, it was unlikely I could make them believe I was a toaster repairpony or something.

Fortunately, I had a solution. I turned away from the mirror, and after a quick search I pulled an old Stable jumpsuit from a footlocker. I put it on, and soon enough I was looking like a dumb Stable Dweller.

Well, except for the lack of a Pipbuck, but I hoped I could get away with a lie on this point. Hopefully nopony was going to notice it.

Then, I emptied what remained in my saddlebags in the footlocker, and fastened them back on my hips. I filled them with two or three can of food from the shelves, a couple bottles of purified water, a survival guide in the Wasteland (the more they underestimated me, the better!), a flashlight, and a small bag of bottlecaps.

Finally, I removed my pistol’s holster from my leather barding, and braced it on my chest. I emptied the rounds from the pistol itself, and replaced them with some cheap, junk ammunition. I knew it was forbidden to enter in Tenpony with live ammunition, but I couldn’t show up with an empty weapon without looking suspicious.

I also added two dozen junk rounds in my saddlebags for good measure.

Now the filly in the mirror looked like she had just been kicked out her Stable, and had spent a rough week outside before arriving to Tenpony.

It was perfect.

There was one last thing I needed to do before leaving, though.

My grumbling stomach reminded me there were, in fact, two things I had to do before leaving.

I levitated a corn can from a shelve, and proceeded to open it. I groaned in annoyance when my telekinesis failed to remove the cap, and finally I used a screwdriver and a wrench to liberate my meal.

While I was munching my two-hundred-year-old corn (filled with so much conservative it probably wasn’t even organic anymore), I pondered the last step of my plan: smuggling some ammunition in.

Believe it or not, hiding a couple magazines of 9mm rounds isn’t as easy as it sounds. You simply can’t stash them in your mane, or in a secret pocket. People often underestimate the volume and the weight of a fifteen-round clip. Two fully loaded magazines, it’s two four-by-twelve metallic boxes weighing two hundred grams each. It may not seem much, but try to hide them in your mane, tail or wonder-secret-pocket.

Of course, you could still stick one of them in one of your body cavities, but I wasn’t fond of the idea at all. Besides, I had been told the security had scanning spells, so it wouldn’t work very well in this situation.

So, I had to be sharper than whoever was going to search me. But how was I going to smuggle my precious ammunition?

My eyes felt on the now empty corn can, and I had an idea.

(** **)

“Well, well, well,” the guard sneered, “look what we have here. Thought we wouldn’t see the cartridges in your mouth, maybe?”

“Youch can’ch forbid me to cawwy a weapon,” the other stallion literally spat. As the last bullets – it looked like some .22LR – fell from his mouth, his elocution returned to normal. “It’s my right!”

The guard shrugged, as two of his colleagues (Celestia’s holly nipples, they were huge!) arrived to kick the poor stallion out.

“Weapons are all right,” the bouncer answered. “It’s live ammo we don’t like. Take him away, fellas, I’m sick and tired of morons thinking we hadn’t seen everything yet.”

I gulped. It turned out the security was even tighter than I had imagined, and there was a whole waiting room dedicated to the ponies in want of access to the Tower. A talkative colt next to me had explained to his friends (and to whoever wanted to listen to him) it was because the new chief of the security hadn’t been very happy with the old protocols. He pretended the previous guards had let in the Stable Dweller herself without even recognizing her, and had totally bought the terrible excuse she had given them.

It seemed quite ridiculous to me, since the Stable Dweller was said to carry an absolute armory with her, along with companions so badass they shone of awesomeness in the dark.
In short, the kind of pony I wouldn’t touch with a thousand yard pole. They usually were bullet magnets.

My thoughts were cut short by the bouncers coming back to their post after kicking the poor stallion out. I could swear there was some blood on their heavy horseshoes, but it was probably only my imagination.

“Next,” the guard stated.

It was my turn. I stood shakily, and reluctantly headed for the examination room.

I stopped in front of the guard, who gauged me head to tail. Something glittered in his eyes, and my throat went dry.

“Hmm…”, he said, his voice unreadable, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I… I don’t think so,” I answered, hoping he wouldn’t notice the shake in my voice. “Sir,” I quickly added.

He circled around me, and I could almost feel his gaze on my back.

“Are you sure?”, he continued. “What is your name?”

“My name’s Autumn. Sir.”

“I guess you’re right. I wouldn’t have forgotten a name like that,” he chuckled. I relaxed a bit. “Do you have anything to declare?”

“I, uh… I have a loaded gun?”

“So do I, girl, so do I,” he mumbled.

He was still behind me, and a cold chill froze me to the bones. I turned my head, and was about to draw my pistol when I realized his plasma rifle was still securely fastened on his back. He was still looking at me, unmoving. I froze, unsure of what was going on.

Then I noticed his eyes weren’t exactly on my face.

“Hey, stop staring at my ass,” I snapped.

From the cheers in the waiting room, I may have yelled it a bit too loud than it was necessary.

“Go get ‘em, chap! She’s a wild one!”

“Sorry, I’m not into stallions”, I deadpanned. It was a blatant lie, but I sure wasn’t going to bed somepony who would throw me in jail as soon as he had seen my cutie mark.

The two other bouncers started laughing, and the guard furiously blushed. Uh, he wasn’t so tough after all!

“Ah, uhm…”, he stammered, struggling to find his words. Goodness above, if I was having such an effect on him, what would a mare like Chrystal do just by shaking her tail?

He turned his back to me, and grabbed a paper form on a nearby desk. Then, he started coming back toward me, halted, turned around, went back to the desk, and grabbed a plastic paper box.

He held it toward me, and explained:

“Please drop all the items forbidden in the Tower in this basket. I fear it includes the ammunition for your pistol, miss, but, uh, the place is safe, and you can buy rubber bullets pretty much anywhere. Don’t worry, they will be returned to you when you leave. Err…”

For a second, he seemed to have lost his train of thought. I hoped it hadn’t come back to my hindquarters.

“And what about the form?” I asked, feeling charitable.

“Oh, yeah, the form. It’s just a formality. It helps us know who gets in. So we don’t let dangerous ponies through, you see? You can use this room right here, if you want some privacy.”

He motioned toward a door on the side. I headed there without a word, and found a small desk inside. The guard followed me.

I started filling the form without a word. After a whole minute of silence, he added:

“Well, uh, I’m going back to my security checks. Call me if you need anything.”

Yeah, like I was going to need help to fill a stupid form!

(** **)

“44) Have you ever been or are now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in raider activities; or slaving; or in the last ten years were you involved, in any way, in events in Fillydelphia, Marypony, or implying the Unity, Red Eye, the Goddess or any of their allies?” I read. “What kind of question is that!?”

I ticked a big cross under ‘No’, and carried on.

“45) Have you ever been or are now involved in terrorist activities, including but not limited to assassinations, bombings, hijackings, etc., or are planning an involvement of some sort in the future?”

Uh, let’s say ‘no’.

“46) Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude or a violation related to a controlled substance; or have been arrested or convicted for two or more offenses for which the aggregate sentence to confinement was two months or more; or have been a controlled substance trafficker; or are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?”

What the hell does moral turpitude even mean!? I ticked another ‘no’ on the form. I turned the page, and groaned when I realized the questions carried on on the other side.

“47) Have you ever detained, retained or withheld custody of a child from a Tenpony citizen granted custody of the child?”

(** **)

Ten painful minutes later, I had finished filling the form at long last. Honestly, I felt a bit insulted by the questions. I mean, even if I was seeking entry to commit a burglary, I wasn’t dumb enough to admit it on a form! Even raiders weren’t that stupid.

I called the guard, and hoofed him the paper and the box. His eyes skimmed the form, and seemed apparently satisfied that I wasn’t a slaver or a child abductor.

“I now need to check your bags, miss,” he apologized.

I complied without a word, and soon a couple water bottle, a worn-out map, three food cans, some nightwear (the guard couldn’t hide his blush), the Wastelander Survival Guide, a flashlight and some caps were disposed on the desk.

He barely looked at them, turned toward me. His horn glowed for a moment as he was casting his scanning spell on me, then went out. He motioned me to put my stuff back into my bags.

“It looks like you’re clear. Just one last thing you need to do,” he stammered. “I need you to remove your jumpsuit, so I can see your cutie mark.”

Aaaaand I’m doomed. I was already picturing myself hanging from the top of the Tower with a ‘There be dumb raiders’ sign strapped to my chest.

Reluctantly, I started removing my suit. The guard’s eyes didn’t leave me for a second.

Then! A miracle happened.

As I was about to free my hindquarters, a bouncer popped his head through the doorway, and let out an unamused growl.

“Snap Shot, mind telling me what the fuck you think you’re doing?”

The guard jumped, and turned to face his colleague. I took advantage of the situation to pull my suit back on my shoulders.

“Oh! Shield… Well, I was…” he blabbered. “You know, standard procedures? I need her cutie mark for the paperwork, you know?”

The bouncer turned his gaze toward me, and his face softened a bit. Then, he went back to Snap Shot, and his scowl reappeared.

“Like hell you are! All you want is get an eyeful of this poor filly! Don’t you have any shame? We are the good guys, for Luna’s sake, and you’re traumatizing a lone Stable Dweller who probably doesn’t even how to use her gun! Damn it, just look at her! She’s shaking like a leaf!”

I was, but not exactly for the right reasons.

“That means I don’t have to undress?” I asked, hopeful. I was going to be all right!

“Well, no. It’s the standard procedure. You just won’t have to do it in front of this freak.”

“Hey, I’m not a freak!” Snap Shot snapped. “Can’t I flirt with whoever I want?”

“Not when you’re supposed to be on guard duty,” Shield growled. “Now get out. I’ll handle it from here. Or maybe you want me to report you to the boss?”

Snap Shot mumbled something unintelligible, but complied nonetheless. Soon enough, I was alone in the room with my ‘savior’.

“Now,” he continued, “let us see this cutie mark, shall we?”

Aaaaand I’m doomed.

(** **)

“Of course it’s a leaf!” I squeaked. “Why would anyone have a bullet for a special talent?”

“You’ll have to admit, it does look like a bullet. I don’t know, your special talent could be shooting ponies for all I know.”

“Me? A killer?” I croaked. Doomed, doomed, dooooomed!

The bouncer shrugged.

“Everybody’s a killer in this country. I’m afraid you’ll have to find it out by yourself sooner or later. The Wasteland is a harsh place, you know?”

He shrugged again, and motioned the ‘leaf’ on my hindquarters.

“In the end, cutie marks don’t mean anything, really. You could have a box of staples plastered to your flanks and still be a serial killer. Hell, those monsters from the Unity don’t even have one. It’s like they are all mass fabricated.”

He paused, lost in thoughts.

“Can I put my clothes back on now?” I pleaded. “I feel naked.

“Of course, of course,” he replied, taking a last look at my cutie mark. He scribbled something on a notepad, and gave me a warm smile.

“Well, everything’s in order, it seems. Welcome to Tenpony Tower, Miss Autumn. I hope you’ll have a nice stay.”

(** **)

Note for myself: next time I try to enter in Tenpony Tower, I paint over my cutie mark so it looks like a big, grinning sun, and not a freakin’ bullet.

Also, I try to be controlled by a mare, and not a stallion in heat! I mean, getting some attention is nice once in a while, but this one was seriously freaking me out. I don’t know how it would have all ended if it were not for his nice colleague.
Besides, aren’t mares the only gender supposed to have heat season in the first place? What was driving this guy anyway? Simple lust?

I winced. I’ll admit my knowledge in masculine anatomy and psychology was kinda lacking. Maybe Chrystal would accept to give me lessons to get rid of annoying wooers?

Well, anyway, I was inside now, and hopefully the worse was behind me.

I exited the security checkpoint, and stopped on my tracks, speechless.

I had entered a gigantic lobby, paved in white and pink marble. Far above me, a heavy chandelier was casting a soft, orange light shimmering like it was made of a thousand candles. Everywhere my eyes dropped, there was something leaving me in awe, and the whole room shined of a pristine cleanness. It was a marvel to behold, and suddenly I understood why Tenpony Tower was called by some the Jewel of the Wastelands. It was luxurious beyond reason, and I found myself daydreaming about retiring to such a place.

I shook my head to remove the silly idea. There was no way I was ever going to live in here. Even if I somehow managed to fool repeatedly the security about my special talent (“It’s a leaf!”, duh), I could never afford to buy even a closet in here.

And even if I did, I would still need to wait a decade to acquire my citizenship – because my name’s not Van Graff.

I put my mind back on its tracks. I had a job to do. Once the DERTA is cracked open, and its treasures in my hooves, I could think about becoming the next Van Graff. All I needed was the key, and then I’d be gone.

Still, as I passed under the huge golden chandelier, I couldn’t help but contemplate the wonders around me.

(** **)

There were very few things that actually drove ponies from the Wasteland into coming to Tenpony Tower, and the Mall was one of them. I do not know what the gigantic complex was before the Apocalypse, but I knew for sure it was now Equestria’s biggest shopping center.

Anything you wanted, you could find it at the Mall – given you could afford it. There were a few exceptions, for sure: slavery was strictly forbidden, and if you wanted to buy live ammunition your purchases would have to wait for you at the exit. But otherwise, it was a trader’s wet dream.

As I lazily strolled between the stalls, I eyed the over-equipped guards, barded in combat armor and sporting plasma rifles. Up on the walls, surveillance cameras swiped the area again and again, and I had no doubt there was somepony, somewhere in the tower, who was watching everything. It was unnerving to say the least, but not unexpected. Well, for one, I hadn’t done anything wrong (yet), so Big Brother in his Ivory Tower could watch me all day long if he wanted to.

I stopped in front of a stall featuring long rifles. One of them was a huge anti-material, .50cal sniper rifle, in pristine shape. The bolt had obviously been modified, but whoever did it was obviously backed up by serious skills. As I picked it up, I noticed it was lighter than it should have been – maybe the same ingenious handypony had also replaced some parts with composite materials. To my surprise, I could even handle it without using the bipod.

I think by then I had started drooling on it, because the shopkeeper unceremoniously pulled the wonder weapon from my grasp, and put it back on the stand.

“Girl”, he said, eying my worn jumpsuit, “I don’t believe you can afford this kind of equipment.”

I sighed. Of course I couldn’t afford it. Usually, it wasn’t really a problem – I would just come back during the night to steal it – but I was in the freakin’ Mall. There was no way I could just grab the gun and make a run for it.

I took a look at the rest of the stall. It reminded me a bit of Chrystal’s, yet something was missing.

And I wasn’t talking about the handsome shopmare.

I approached a Stable security barding strapped to a mannequin, and carefully touched it with the tip of my hoof. The plating was old, even if it had been painted over, and I still could see where some bullets had gone through the less armored parts. Come to think of it, I’d never seen any trace of use on the stuff I’d bought from Chrystal.

“It had seen a lot of fight,” I though aloud. “His previous owner probably ended his life in a painful fashion.”

“You’d be surprised to see how resilient those armors actually are,” the shopkeeped interjected. “Why, I have been told Security herself had been saved countless time by her’s!”

I shrugged. I had been told the Mare from the East had been traveling with a minigun-carrying goddess, an immortal Reaper, a psycho gay pony with a grenade launcher and a one-winged angel. If I had a bottlecap for each piece of bullshit I had been served, by now I would be rich and I would have opened a freakin’ restaurant!

“Well, if Security feels safe in her armor…”, I trailed, as an idea germinated in my head. “Do you have any energy weapons, by the way?”

The shopkeeper froze, and slowly shook his head.

“I fear not,” he apologized. “If you want that kind of weaponry, I’m afraid you will have to go to the Silver Rush, right over there.”

He pointed toward one of the Mall entrances.

I frowned, feigning being surprised.

“The Silver Rush?” I repeated. “The name seems familiar.”

“That’s not surprising. The place is owned and run by Mr. Van Graff in person. He is well known for his… oddities.”

Now my curiosity was genuine.

“Oddities? What do you mean?”

“Well,” – the shopkeeper grabbed a rag from his belt, and started shining the armor – “I am not one for gossip, yet I cannot help but be a bit… worried.”

He froze a second, then continued:

“I do not deny the Van Graff family had done great deeds for the tower in the past, and my own father was a close friend of Van Graff the third, the progenitor of the current Van Graff… Yes, I know their names can be confusing, but you get used to it surprisingly fast. But Junior is not like his father. He has no friends, no wife… And now that his father passed away, no family whatsoever. He believes everypony want to steal what is rightfully his. This is why I do no trade in energy weapons: I do not want to be in trouble with him.”

I thanked him, and moved on to the next stall.

To me, Van Graff seemed to have a serious case of paranoia. It wasn’t going to make the things any easier for me, yet from what I understood he was living alone, and was tending to his shop himself.

That meant I could raid wherever he was living during the day, while he was away, without any risk of getting caught.

Ironically, most people thought burglaries were done during the night, when everypony was asleep. When it came to shops, it was indeed true – but when it comes to emptying somepony’s home, it is way easier to do it during the day. Most of the time, nopony was there for hours: you could make as much noise as you wanted, and take your time to search all the rooms for valuables. “But there are people in the streets”, some would argue. “Somepony would try to stop you.”

Two words: watch me.

Most ponies didn’t give a damn about their neighbors getting robbed. It wasn’t their problem; besides, burglars always came at night, right? So the four ponies who were emptying the house were probably friends with the owner!

Boy, I love this job.

(** **)

I continued my window-shopping, but I soon come to realize there wasn’t much for me to do in the Mall. Most shops were overpriced, and I didn’t bring many caps in the first place.

I did see a lot of nice things, though, like a helmet with integrated E.F.S. and night vision (what’s better than having your enemies on your radar? Having your enemies, on your radar, during the night!), boots that suppressed your hoofsteps, food that hadn’t spent two century in a basement, knives that cut, grenades that exploded (delivered on your way out, of course), cheeses that smelled (though this particular shop seemed closed for some reason), and even, yes, a PipBuck for sale! Available for the discounted price of ‘one kidney, your soul, and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine caps’.

I’m not even sure the vendor realized a hundred thousand caps weighed about two hundred kilograms. How could anypony get so rich in the first place anyway? Sure, there had been twice as much cash put on the head of Security (or so I’ve been told), but when the bounty was to be given by Usury from Paradise Falls, it didn’t take a genius to realize she never had the intention of rewarding anyone in the first place.

It is the slavers’ kingdom, after all. They didn’t even have a good reputation to maintain, and while bounty hunters like myself weren’t especially loved in the Wastelands, slavers were downright hated. The only ones who drew more negative feelings were raiders – and that’s saying a lot.

Eventually, I grew tired of inspecting gear I probably never will be able to afford, and headed to the Silver Rush.

It was time to meet the infamous Van Graff!

(** **)

The Silver Rush wasn’t like the other shops in the Mall.

For starter, it wasn’t in the Mall per see, but closer to the living quarters. Why there, and not with the others? I had no idea. Maybe it had something to do with the Van Graff’s family history; regardless, there were fewer cameras here, but it didn’t make an intrusion any easier, which drove me to the second reason the Silver Rush was one of a kind:

There was a bouncer, and no shop display whatsoever.

It looked like anything but a shop, and I would have never known it was the place I was looking for if it wasn’t for the huge silver letters and the silver bolts painted on the wall.

Underneath had been added “Charged with no extra charges”, and “Energy weapons only – gunpowder can f-”.

Somepony had painted over the end of the sentence, but the message was pretty straightforward. No guns, duly noted.

Sighing, I made my way toward the entrance, only to be stopped by the bouncer.

He didn’t say anything, but glared at the pistol still strapped to my chest. As I levitated the incriminating item out of his holster, he motioned his head toward a footlocker behind him.

Reluctantly, I complied, and put my sole weapon inside the small crate. Then, I entered the Silver Rush.

(** **)

If I ever had any doubt about Van Graff’s paranoia, that instantly went down the sink as I took notice of the interior of the shop. There was no less than four laser turrets in the cramped room… and thick iron bars protected the weapons in the display. The cashier’s desk occupied the back of the shop, but a metal railing was cutting the place in half. Heavy locks closed the gates, and the floor had been covered with brushed steel plating. The place looked more like a prison than a shop, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit claustrophobic in there.

I was, after all, trying to rob the owner.

“Can I help you?” asked a male voice. I shuddered, and turned to see Van Graff.

He was not exactly like I had imagined. Where I would have expected an elderly maniac unicorn, I found an adult Earth pony in his forties. With his electric blue coat and neon green mane, he even looked like an energy weapon, and I was ready to bet a fair price his cutie mark was also related.

I couldn’t know, though, because it was obscured by a combat armor, completed by two frightening twin plasma rifles. The guy carried guns even in his own shop!?

“Hm, yes,” I blabbed, wondering how in hell I was going to rob this guy. “I need, uh, energy cells. For a plasma defender. Yeap, that’s right, a plasma defender.”

Van Graff seemed to gauge me for a second, and frowned when his gaze rested on the empty holster on my chest.

“It doesn’t look like it was made for a plasma pistol”, he snipped. “I don’t deal with lower grade merchandises.”

A trail of cold sweat started running against my neck, and I hoped my fur would hide the most of it.

“It’s for a friend,” I added, mentally facepalming for the terrible excuse. “He would like to come here himself, but he can’t enter in Tenpony.”

My mind blanked for a second, as I realized what I had just said. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“He can’t?” he repeated, now clearly suspicious. “And why is that? I hope he is not a raider of some sort.”

“He, uh…”, I looked around, at lost for words.

“… he’s a ghoul,” I finished, Sunburn coming to my mind. He probably wouldn’t shot me for knowing a ghoul, right?

My gaze fell back on Van Graff and his terrifying battlesaddle.

“Besides, he wouldn’t agree to part with his guns,” I added quickly. “But he’s a great fan of your wares, so he asked me to buy him some ‘quality consumables’, as he put it.”

Van Graff looked surprised for a second, then smiled.

“Well I can’t blame him for not coming then!” he agreed. “Like I always say, a polite society is an armed society! Too bad those stuck-ups upper in the tower do not share our feelings, uh? Not to mention this whole ‘no ghouls’ business. I swear they are sometimes less rotten than some ponies around here!”

He turned his back toward a shelve, and opened the bars.

“So you need energy cells for a plasma defender. I reckon it is the model 86 from Glock?”

I nodded, too relieved to answer.

“Good. I have different kind of small energy cells compatible with the 86,” he said, motioning toward four stacks of ammunition. “The ones right here are standard cells, I sell them for three caps each. They’re cheap, they’re reliable, but they aren’t using your weapon’s full potential. The ones with the orange bands are overcharged, and those with red bands have the maximum charge you can put in a cell so small without making it unstable. They are more expensive, of course, but you’ll shoot truer and stronger. It’ll wear down your weapon more than standards cells though.”

I though back to my own (powder-based) over-loaded cartridges, and at the speed it munched through my rifle chamber. Given the price of plasma weapons, using those kind of cells meant you would probably ended up spending more caps in repairs than in ammunition.

“And what about the blue bands?” I pointed the last stack.

“Ah, those are my little babies,” Van Graff laughed. “They are optimized cells. They carry almost as much kick as the overcharged, but do next to no damage to the plasma emitters. I also noticed I could often shoot a couple more bolts than with the standard cells.”

He grabbed one with his hoof, and stared at it, pensive.

“My father invented the formula, decades ago,” he added, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “You won’t find them anywhere else.”

I took a closer look at the small cell, but blue band aside I couldn’t see any notable difference between it and the others on the shelves. To be honest, I never was a plasma aficionado.

“I guess those are the ones my friend wanted,” I said. “He asked for half a hundred caps worth of them.”

Van Graff shrugged. “Probably. He could have gone anywhere else to get the other kinds.”

He glanced at me.

“You know, it is kind of weird to send somepony here just for fifteen cells or so,” he continued. “Especially for such a common weapon.”

I realized he wasn’t buying it. I changed my tactic.

“I guess I just wanted to visit the shop,” I mumbled.

I looked at my hooves, scratching the ground in what I hoped was a decent imitation of shame. I wasn’t a very good comedian, but I didn’t really have to act to feel uneasy.

Van Graff bit the hook.

“And why’s that?” he asked, obviously curious.

“Wellll…” I trailed. “I, um, usually do not use energy weapons. I reckon I wouldn’t have even considered setting a hoof in here without an excuse to look around.”

It wasn’t a lie either, per see. The two facts simply weren’t connected.

For a few seconds, the stallion seemed too stunned to react, and then burst into laughter. At first I feared he was going to roll on the ground and start firing plasma bolts everywhere.

“Oh Goddesses above,” he managed between two breathes, “you mean you were too shy to just get here and take a look around?”

I nodded, and blushed when I realized it was mostly true. Of course he wouldn’t shoot a potential client! It was afterward I really should be careful.

Van Graff’s fit of laugher lasted half a minute longer, before he reverted to his salespony self, a grin still on his lips.

“I am sorry if I offended you,” he apologized, probably not failing to notice my embarrassment. “But you’ll admit it is quite funny you act like it is something to be ashamed of.”

“My family and plasma weapons never really got along,” I confessed. It wasn’t a lie either: my mother had a laser pistol, and my father was fond of the smell of burnt gunpowder. No plasma guns in my close family that I knew off.

“Oh. I see.” Van Graff put the energy cell back on its stack, and closed the bars. “I would have felt the same if I had found myself in front of a powder-only weapon shop, I guess.”

He smirked.

“But it would have been very unlikely,” he continued, “because energy weapons are simply better than those worthless junk most ponies call guns. You see…”

(** **)

I had left the Silver Rush about an hour later. Once Van Graff had started talking about energy weapons, there was no stopping him. It gave me plenty time to gauge the situation.

My conclusions weren’t very reassuring: if his home was anything like his shop, I was going to get toasted as soon as I set a hoof in there.

But fortunately, even through the thick security grids in the Silver Rush I could see he wasn’t living there. The only access seemed to be the front door, and there wasn’t any bed or kitchen behind the cashier’s desk, only unopened crates. It meant Van Graff had a house somewhere, and that he was leaving his shop by the front door. All I needed to do was to wait for him to get out, and then follow him home.

(** **)

I waited in a corner for Van Graff to close his shop. I had entered Tenpony in the early afternoon, but given the time I spent in security just to get to the lobby, the hour or so I spent taking a look around the Mall, and then the visit to the Silver Rush, I figured I wouldn’t have to wait too much.

Ninety minutes after setting up in my dark corner, Van Graff left his shop. He told something to the bouncer, who grumbled back. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I reckoned he was dismissing him. The bouncer left, and as he passed near me I squeezed up in the shadows, hoping he hadn’t noticed me. Then, he was gone, and Van Graff stood alone in front of his shop.

From behind a marble column some distance away, I observed him locking the door a first time… then a second time… then a third time. Then, with a satisfied grunt, he put the keys back around his neck, and walked away.

Sneaking from hiding place to hiding place, I followed him in the halls and corridors. He walked in a straight line, not giving a single glance to the ponies around him. Whoever he passed by discreetly razed the walls without making eye contact with the stallion. I gulped; even his ‘friends’ seemed to be afraid of him. The merchant’s words came back to my mind. Van Graff didn’t strike me as particularly unbearable when I saw him in the Silver Rush, but there was probably more to his character than he let on.

He only stopped once, to shake something from under his hoof. Otherwise, he didn’t engage in any conversations or distractions.

Soon enough, he arrived before an elevator, and entered the cage before pressing some button.

As the steel doors closed behind him, I cursed under my breath. There was no way I could follow him in an elevator: it would have been far too suspicious.

I looked around, but there didn’t seem to be any stairs. I cursed again, this time a bit louder.

I needed to find another way to find Van Graff’s place.

(** **)

Usually, when I am looking for somepony, all I have to do is finding some nice pony and ask them for directions. While most resident were wary of strangers, to them this kind of information was considered as public knowledge. Directions to some random’s pony workplace were harmless, right?

Then, I simply follow them home from afar, and get to work during the night.

Trouble is, I couldn’t simply ask somepony for Van Graff’s place. Most ponies would show me the way to the Silver Rush and tell me to wait for him to come back in the morning.

It was Tenpony Tower, after all. The residents were really wary of strangers.

I needed to find another way. And a map.

Thankfully, I knew the Tower was keeping a close track of its citizens. There probably wasn’t a single closet in this place that didn’t belong to somepony, and I reckoned a land registry of some sort existed somewhere. Its access certainly was restricted, of course, but with any luck I probably could break in, read the files, and get out without getting caught.

And while Tenpony’s residents were unlikely to give me directions to Van Graff’s, they probably would if I asked for some kind of administration.

(** **)

“Uh, excuse me, miss,” I called out some random pony near the Mall. “Would you mind giving me some directions?”

The mare looked at me, snorted, and walked away. I let out a long, tired sigh.

When I was little, Pa’ had taught me the elements of a good plan. “Never underestimate the pony factor”, he’d told me. I supposed he wanted to share with me the tricks he learned doing his job of head of the caravan security, maybe he even thought I’d be the one to take his place someday.

And now here I was, lost in a place supposed to be the most civilized in the Wastelands, because nopony was willing to give me a couple seconds of their precious time.

The pony factor in a nutshell: if somepony can act like a dick, they will.

Tenponites citizens were no exception it seemed.

Most didn’t even bother trying to find an excuse or something. They just kept their gaze straight ahead, pretending not to acknowledge my presence. Sometimes I wonder why I usually go such a long way to sneak around, when asking around for help instantly make you invisible.

I gritted my teeth as yet another pony walked by without sparing me the smallest glance.

“Can I help you, miss?”

I turned around. A tall, black coated stallion was standing in front of me. His face was oddly familiar.

“Yes, I believe you can,” I answered with a smile. “I am looking for the office handling the land registries.”

“I reckon it’d be Fiery Red’s office in the administration,” he replied, puzzled. “But I don’t see why an outsider could want to go there… Autumn, right?”

As he said my makeshift name, his identity suddenly clicked in my mind.

“You’re the kind guard who let me in earlier!” I exclaimed.

“I am,” he acknowledged with a smile, holding out his hoof toward me. “Name’s Liberty Shield.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I shook his hoof. “Ponies aren’t very friendly in this tower, are they?”

“Their trust is simply hard to gain,” he shrugged. “And some of them believe they are the new Equestrian nobility or something. But otherwise we got many good ponies in here, once they warmed up to you.”

“You’re the only one I saw,” I chuckled. “All the other ponies I met weren’t exactly pleasant to talk to.”

His grin fell a bit, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry for my colleague’s behavior earlier,” he apologized. “Snap Shot isn’t a bad guy, but he can’t think straight when confronted with a mare he likes. He can become very… forward.”

I blushed, and stared at my left forehoof.

“I’ve noticed,” I mumbled, Snap Shot’s insistent gaze still in my mind.

There was a pregnant pause.

“So, this Fiery Red is the mare I’m looking for? Where is her office?” I continued.

“It’s on the third level. Follow the signs to the administration, you can’t miss it.” He paused. “But the whole area closed more than an hour ago. You’ll find nothing but closed doors over there now.”

I figured that much, but locks did little to worry me.

“Oh, wait,” he added all of sudden. “Look over there. You see the crimson mare with the half-burning scroll?”

He motioned toward two ponies crossing the hall a good twenty meters away from us. The mare he was referring to was engaged in a discussion with a dress-wearing, blue-on-grey filly.

“She’s Fiery Red,” I guessed.

“You should ask her directly,” Liberty Shield nodded, “or wait for the offices to open back tomorrow morning.”

He shifted on his hooves, and scratched his mane.

“I need to go,” he added. “I’m already late for dinner, and my wife will kill me if she learns I had stopped to help a pretty filly. Good luck!”

“Thank you again,” I answered, trying to phase out the ‘pretty filly’ part. I held out my hoof to him. “’till next time?”

“I hope it won’t be for another search at security,” he joked.

“Not that I would mind,” I answered in a chuckle.

Beat.

“… that came out wrong,” I stammered with a blush. “I meant, that you’d be the one to search me, err… compared to your friend, you know?”

Okay, now I was looking like a moron. Great.

“Oh, Fiery’s getting away! Gotta go!”

I dashed off toward where I had last seen the two mares, leaving a dumbfounded Liberty Shield in my wake.

(** **)

A minute later, I had caught up with my targets. My breath was still ragged, and my short spring had little to do with it.

Was I really flirting with a guard?

I mentally slapped whatever part of my mind had come up with the idea. Was I getting suicidal?

To be fair, Shield had a good load of arguments for him. He was nice, kinda handsome, and had a stable job and a home in Tenpony Tower. He also did found me to be pretty, which was not a common occurrence.

Trouble is, the arguments against him were worrisome to say the least. I mean, come on, a guard. In Tenpony. To whom you gave a false name because you’re a criminal.

Oh, and did I mention he was already married?

‘Bad idea’ seemed quite the understatement in retrospect.

I shook my head, as my heartbeat returned to its normal rhythm, and focused on the two mares ahead.

Fiery Red’s parents didn’t strike me as very imaginative. With her crimson coat and her bright red mane, she looked like she had been set ablaze in a flameless fire. Her cutie mark represented some kind of scroll – a burning scroll. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and I cared little about finding out. Two small saddlebags were hanging at her sides.

The second mare’s color didn’t stand out so much. Grey coat, electric blue mane. Her hindquarters were hidden by some kind of casual dress, and I couldn’t make out her cutie mark. A mischievous spark lighted her eyes. I found myself wondering what her job was. Clerk? Security? Shopmare?

For all I knew, she could have been the Stable Dweller.

I chuckled softly at the idea. She didn’t really fit the description, save for the grey coat. Besides, I had overhead DJ-P0n3 reporting her to be on the other side of Equestria not forty minutes before.

My targets were heading for a small restaurant, named ‘Le Gratin’ or something. French food? Yuck. Last time I ate croissants, they had spent two hundred years in a powered off freezer.

It tasted like radigator’s liver.

Culinary memories aside, they were obviously in search of a meal. A loud grumble from my stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning.

Three options proposed themselves: I could either wait for them to come out, and eat some canned food to calm my hunger, and then follow Fiery home; I could drop the chase wholly, and directly head for the offices (and hope for the better); or I could follow them into the restaurant, have a nice meal, and try to steal her keys or something.

I wasn’t very fond of running blindly in the administrative level. While most locks probably wouldn’t stop me, I had no idea how many I would have to pick, and each second that I spent playing with a locked door was a second I spent vulnerable in the middle of some unknown corridor. Keys would save me a lot of trouble.

Not to mention many pre-war automated security systems identified friends from foes by looking at the badge they were wearing. The idea of getting shot at by a three-meter tall armored robot with miniguns didn’t strike me as very appealing, and while Van Graff’s home probably didn’t have huge freakin’ death machines guarding it, I didn’t want to take any chance in the administrative levels.

Following Fiery Red home would spare me from having to eat overpriced food in a French restaurant, but on the other hoof I didn’t want to repeat the disaster the Van Graff tracking had been.

Following her into the restaurant was the most hazardous option. Still, unlike Van Graff, they had never seen me in their life: for all they knew, I was yet another Stable Dweller enjoying a nice lunch at the table behind them. Getting the keys would be tricky for sure, but with any luck the two of them were involved in a relationship of some sort and would be too busy looking at each other to realize I was looting their bags.

Plus, if for some reason I couldn’t pickpocket her, the other options were still on the table.

Taking a deep breath, I entered the restaurant. What’s the worst that could happen anyway?

(** **)

“Thirty caps for a salad?”, I let out louder than I wanted to. From the blasé look of the clients around me, though, it was a common reaction.

“Yes, Madame,” answered the waiter with a French accent so counterfeit I wanted to choke him, “but it iz une zalade Armoricaine, prepared by our chef and grown in zis very tower in a non-polluted environment. It iz not a zalad – it iz ze zalad.”

I let out a very unladylike groan, and thought about the two mares right behind me. I didn’t dare take a look at them, but I reckoned I had their curiosity. Yet, if I could just stay in the restaurant a few minutes longer, I could probably drag Fiery’s bag toward me, snatch the keys, push it back, and be gone before the waiter came back with his ridiculous salade.

“Okay, fine,” I yielded, “but I swear it’s the last time I eat something healthy in my life!”

The waiter smiled and headed back to the kitchen. A long sigh escaped my lips. I grabbed the glass on the table, poured some purified water inside, and started sipping.

Then, casually, I leaned back, and started paying attention at my targets.

“… still don’t trust her.” was saying Fiery Red. “She knows too much. What do you think is going to happen if she starts talking about our speaker?”

“Well, I’ll just call her back and spank her for being a naughty filly,” the other chuckled. “Besides, this secret is not yours to keep, since I am the interested party.”

“It’s not a game, Homage!” hissed Fiery Red, softly slamming her hoof on the table. “What about the Society? The MAESEB? Celestia Prime? She doesn’t even like us!”

“I beg to differ,” Homage answered, unamused. “Accusing LittlePip of betraying us? You may as well say I’m sold to Red Eye’s cause.”

I took it as a clue to silently drag Fiery’s bag under the couchettes. It wasn’t very heavy, yet a cold sweat started rolling under my fur.

Slowly, I opened the latch, and began my search.

“I am not accusing her of anything,” the crimson mare continued, unaware. “I’m just worried. Rumors tell the Unity’s spawn can read minds, and I’m pretty much sure the Enclave has memories extraction devices. You are sheltered in the Tower, but your friend is roaming out there, trying to fight the whole world.”

Fiery had a lot of papers in her bag, but I couldn’t find her keys.

“It’d take a lot to bring her down,” asserted Homage. “Not to mention she’s not alone.”

“Oh, yeah, let’s talk about the Stable Dweller’s formidable companions,” snapped Fiery. “I did some researche, mind you. Calamity used to be Enclave, and three of his brothers are still high-ranking officers who’d give a lot to get a hold on Tenpony. Steel Hooves is a steel ranger, and I find suspicious he survived two centuries in the Wasteland by simply being a badass. Xenith’s the cherry on the cake: she’s a zebra, damn it! How do you think our ancestors would have reacted if they saw us letting an enemy roaming so close to our most sacred places?”

Finally, I took a hold on the keys, and dragged them into my jumpsuit. My heart stopped when I heard the two mares behind me move.

“That’s it Fiery, I’m not listening to you anymore,” Homage asserted. “I’ll take my meal elsewhere. There, I’m sure this filly has more interesting things to say than you do.”

“Have it your way,” Fiery Red snorted. “I know you have a knack for stable dwellers anyway.”

I promptly pushed back her back against her seat.

When I looked up, two curious brown irises were eying me.

“Hello there!” Homage smiled, “I don’t believe we’ve met already, haven’t we?”

I jumped back in surprise. What the?

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude”, she apologized. She waved toward the other end of my table. “Mind if I join you? My usual lunch buddy is being a jerkass about my fillyfriend’s friends, and I want to enjoy my daffodil sandwich without the nagging need to hammer her head on the table.”

“Uh… sure?” I answered, still trying to understand what was going on. “My, uh, salad is already on the way.”

“Good!” She sat on the banquette, and put an opened wine bottle on the table. “Name’s Homage, by the way.”

“Autumn,” I answered, before fixing a random point on the table. Slowly, I dragged my hoof tip in circle on the surface, not knowing what to do of the mare in front of me.

“You’re not very talkative, are you?” Homage continued after a long pause. “Are you from a Stable? I couldn’t help but notice your outfit, so I supposed you were a stable dweller.”

“I used to be, yeah,” I lied. “But not anymore.”

“Really? You know, I have a friend who used to live in a Stable, too,” she said, serving herself a glass of wine. “Then she got kinda kicked out.”

“Oh.” My curiosity got the better of me. “What did she do?”

“Oh, nothing,” Homage answered, sipping her wine. “She saved their asses a couple time, it didn’t sit right with them.”

I stared at her.

“And what about you?” she continued. “What are you doing out here, in our nice Tower, so far from home?”

“I got kicked out,” I lied, eying my now empty glass. “I broke a water chip, so they stripped me of my Pipbuck, gave me a pistol and twenty rounds, and sealed the door after kicking me out at gunpoint.”

Homage let out a small whistle, and filled my glass with wine.

“Well, I can’t say they went easy on you.”

I didn’t answer, and preferred trying the wine out.

I found it to be terrible, but I knew better than to spit it out.

Once again, an awkward silence fell on the table. I was grateful the waiter arrived with my salad, so I didn’t have to look at the weird mare in front of me. I simply hoped she would go away.

While I doubted it was worth thirty bits, the dish had nothing to do with the meals I usually enjoyed. My taste buds exploded in pleasure as the salad leaf melted on my tongue. The potatoes were moist, and the lamb’s lettuce on the side deliciously merged with the lime juice on my palate.

Yes, it was a good salad, but for thirty caps, I could easily buy myself a month’s worth of canned food. Ironically enough, that though left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.

Eventually, Fiery Red came over to our table. She didn’t seem to have noticed I had touched her bags.

“Listen, Homage,” she apologized, ignoring me altogether, “I know you trust them, but I can’t help but being worried. So much is at stake, you understand?”

The grey mare sighted, and finished her glass of wine. Mine had been left almost untouched.

“I know, Fiery,” she answered wearily. “But I feel this is it this time. LittlePip is the hero we’ve all been waiting for.”

Fiery shrugged, and finally seem to acknowledge my presence. “We should talk somewhere else.”

Homage nodded, and stood up from her seat. Then, she turned toward me.

“Well, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance, Autumn. I hope you’ll have a nice stay in Tenpony Tower!”

“Thank you,” I answered with a smile, glad they were leaving at long last, “I hope everything goes along fine too.”

(** **)

The administration hadn’t been hard to find: all I needed to do was to follow the signs.

In fact, from where I was standing, I could even make out Fiery Red’s office door, and I would had found Van Graff’s file already if it weren’t for the force field on the way.

I’m not an expert in force fields. I had never been able to make one myself, and my knowledge of the self-sustained ones was limited to ‘shoot the generator to bring it down’. Yet, there was something odd in this particular force field and in how he behaved.

Namely, the only thing he didn’t let through was me.

A corn can? No problem. My pistol? No resistance whatsoever. My clothes? Went through like it was air. But me?

It felt like hitting a wall.

Obviously, it was a pre-war design. Tenpony Tower used to be the Minister of Arcane Sciences back before the Apocalypse. Crazy defense systems were to be expected. But it seemed like this one had been moved from its original emplacement, and hastily glued in my way between two walls just to piss me off.

From my side, I tried to make out the power wires. My eyes spotted a large, black wire going out the upper-left corner of the force field frame. It ran against the wall, disappeared behind a couple shelves, dropped to the ground, winded between desks, went back on the opposite wall, and ended its course there in an electrical casing.

Frowning, I realized only two bands of tape kept the box closed. Soon enough, my telekinesis had torn them, and I pulled the wire with all my strength.

It gave away almost at once, leaving me on my flanks, and sending sparks everywhere.

The barrier was down, and the way went free.

I must have sat there a dozen seconds, my mind blank. How could they have not realized the barrier could be unplugged from the other side? The original installation probably had the wires embedded in the walls, I get it, but couldn’t they at least hide the new wires as they moved the force field elsewhere?

I shrugged, and grabbed Fiery’s key set. I sure wasn’t going to complain that they made my life easier!

(** **)

Soon enough I found myself in Fiery Red’s office. A small golden plate on the door had announced it was the ‘Citizenship bureau’. In a place in which ‘owner’ and ‘citizen’ were almost synonymous, I reckoned I had found the place I had been looking for – feeling confirmed as the keys I stole opened the locks without a hitch.

The place was very plain and ordinary: a desk with a terminal, metallic drawers against the walls, a map of the Tower, and a potted plant in a corner.

Oh, and there was a safe, too.

I started my search with the desk. Piles of papers were stacked in a basket labeled ‘urgent’. I skimmed through those folders without finding any mention of Van Graff.

One retained my attention, however: the printed name on the first sheet had been crossed, and replaced by a hoofwritten name underneath. A memento was stuck to it.

“To reprint,” I read aloud. “Replace all ‘Monterey, Jack’ references with ‘Littlepip’. Citizenship lost after execution for raider activity (failed attempt at robbing said Littlepip). Gained ownership over shop and estate!?”

If Tenpony Tower considered a ‘failed attempt at robbery’ a raider activity worthy of the capital penalty, no wonder they downright disapproved of my job. I mean, seriously? What do they do to the kid who stole a candy, they cut one of his hooves off?

I put the folder back on its stack, and booted the terminal. Sadly, I was asked for a password, and I moved on to the drawers.

Thankfully, Fiery had the files sorted in alphabetical order. Surprisingly though, I found Van Graff folder was under ‘G’, not ‘V’.

As I lifted it, however, I realized it was empty, save for a memo. ‘Classified Twilight-level confidential. Use the safe.’

I glanced over to the safe. I wanted to keep it for last, like a threat after the hard work, but it seemed everypony I wanted to rob had decided to put the interesting stuff in their safes.

I chuckled, and opened it with one of Fiery’s key. What was the old saying already? ‘A safe is as strong as the one who carries its key?’ or something like that.

Inside, I found a stack of folders. Each of them had a purple stamp on the cover.

I levitated them out, and looked for Van Graff’s. I saw familiar names – Fiery’s, Homage’s… – and other I had never heard off. I didn’t read them; I cared little to know how many taxes Dr. Helpinghoof had paid in taxed last semester.

Finally, I found Van Graff’s file, but the first sheets weren’t referring to his estate.

“Security report on Van Graff,” I read, frowning. “… opened the door with maintenance pass… disabled the turret’s power by overloading the power grid… couldn’t find the incriminating documents… safe proved to be sturdy, professional tumbler required?”

I blinked. It was a mission report for a raid on Van Graff? Well, no wonder he was paranoid, especially since he didn’t seem to be warned about it.

The report carried on a several sheets. The next document had been printed from an electronic mail, and the contents surprised me.

It was a list, entitled ‘Van Graff known leverage on Twilight Society’. Then followed two or three pages of names with a couple notes. I realized I had seen most of them on the files from the safe.

“Doc Hoof, illegal drug dealing with raiders… Life Bloom, abuse of memory spell usage to gain confidential information from citizens… Homage (obvious)…”

I paused. Homage, ‘obvious’? Geez, thank you very much. The notes were probably destined to somepony who knew what it was talking about, but I wasn’t in on the secret.

The list carried on and on. The last item had been added in hoofscript: ‘Littlepip (probably)’.

Yeah, well if it was the same filly that Homage had told me about, and if a ‘failed attempt at robbery’ was enough to get executed, I had little trouble believing somepony could find a lot of dirt on her. Whoever she was, I doubted she could pretend to be a saint.

Then, the next documents went on and on, sometimes pondering the legal possibilities for kicking Van Graff out, sometimes downright suggesting sending an assassin and, I quote, “be done with it”.

My eyes rolled in their orbits. Somehow, working for those guys seemed even less safe than meddling with the slavers. At least the slavers didn’t kill their own!

Finally, I found a reference to Van Graff’s whereabouts. He had moved half a decade before, selling the familial estate for a smaller flat in a remote part of the Tower.

Looking at the map, I realized it was just a hundred meters away from the exit, but was otherwise surrounded by no neighbors.

“Clever pony…” I smiled. He had prepared his escape, should the need arise. And from the look of his files, it surely wasn’t paranoia.

I memorized the exact location and the potential exits, and put everything back into the safe.

Then, locking the doors behind me, I left, and on my way out I dropped the keys in a trash bin.


Tomorrow was going to be a big day.

(** **)

Level up!


New Perk:
Travel Light: who needs all this stuff anyway? You gain an overall 10% speed increase when you wear light or no armor.

“You can hit me, but first you’ll have to catch me!”

Chapter Four: Break on Through

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Read it on Google Docs (updated version).

“It has never been about the money, hasn’t it?”

Chapter Four: Break on Through

I groaned, as my biological clock woke me up from my slumber.

“Mmh, mama, just one more hour,” I mumbled, hugging a dirty broom.

I wasn’t really a morning pony.

I sniffed, and scowled as the stench of the mop attacked my nostrils. At long last, I opened my eyes, and my tired brain wondered for a moment where in hell I had landed.

Then, the events of the previous day slowly came back to my mind, and let out another groan, this time of despair.

Today’s program? Breaking into the bloody stronghold of a plasma-loving paranoid freak.

“It’s going to be a piece of cake,” I sighed with irony. “I bet he even left me a map to help me find wherever the key is!”

The previous evening, I had fallen asleep in some kind of forsaken maintenance storage. It hadn’t been the most comfortable place I had slept in, but at least it was safe and clean. I didn’t have nearly enough bits with me to afford a room – besides the fact I had little faith in Tenponites citizens in general.

Now, Van Graff was probably on his way to open the Silver Rush. I still had half an hour to prepare and recapitulate before moving on with my plan.

The first step involved two cans of food from my saddlebags. Using my telekinesis to remove the cap, I soon retrieved a couple 9mm magazines, my pressure wrench and a couple locksmith pins from inside. As I had expected, the guards back in security hadn’t screened my belongings – after all, the spell in itself probably took a lot to cast all day long on the ponies already, so why bother scanning sealed food boxes?

But the content of the second tin can was undoubtedly even more important in my eyes. Soon enough, after a short struggle, the cap was removed, and I gained access to the precious contents.

Namely, food. Hypoglycemia already doesn’t do any favor usually, and breaking in an unknown and potentially dangerous place in a middle of a hostile territory with nothing in my stomach didn’t strike me as a bright idea.

I soon come to regret not taking an extra step and bringing two food cans for the morning, because my whole digestive system revolted as I try to engulf the canned carrots. They probably weren’t supposed to taste great before the Apocalypse, and two hundred years of radiations didn’t do any good to the vile flavor.

I dumped it on the floor. Screw hypoglycemia, I didn’t want to die of food poisoning!

I stood up, stretched, and walked out of my closet.

Showtime!

(** **)

I don’t know who had advised Van Graff in term of locks, but the guy sure wasn’t the sharpest knife in his drawer.

As I pushed the last mushroom pin into its chamber, I indulged myself with a little smile. Two mediums locks sure weren’t equal to a good lock, and in the end opening the door of Van Graff’s proved to be easier than breaking into the police station back in Hollow Shades. Who would have guessed?

I carefully pushed the side open, and, after a last look in the empty corridor around me, I sneaked inside.

Van Graff’s flat hall was standard. There was a portmanteau in a corner, and a small cabinet with a box full of junk on the other. On the other side of the small corridor was a closed wooden door.

The only oddity was the terminal beside me. I wiped the dust on the screen, and pressed the power button.

The old computer woke up from its slumber. On the screen, I could read ‘StableTech Terminals – Turret Control Mk. II’. Underneath, I was asked for a password.

I cringed. I hadn’t seen any turret in the house yet, but it was unlikely the terminal was here for show. Besides, the mission report in Fiery’s office had mentioned something about security systems they had to disable to break in. I could easily picture Van Graff typing an overly complex password on the keyboard, glancing around for potential prying eyes.

Truth to be told, I wasn’t a very good hacker. The only thing I could do was to always use the same attack pattern, which somepony had taught me years earlier.

Ironically enough, this somepony had his life abruptly ended by a booby-trapped monitor.

The procedure itself was so simple even a foal could do it. The first step opened an administrator session on the terminal. It wouldn’t decipher the users’ data, for sure, but at least I could gain an access to the storage matrix.

Biting my lips, I simultaneously pressed Ctrl-Maj-C on the keyboard, and I switched to admin mode. I was prompted yet another password, but with any luck Van Graff hadn’t thought to change the factory settings.

“Cru-sa-ders”, I typed while mumbling between my teeth. I was in luck: the password worked. Still, I couldn’t disable the turrets from there: I needed to find Van Graff’s access codes, and the administrator mode only made my task slightly easier.

Soon enough I was browsing the file which contained Van Graff’s password; from memory I typed a few additional commands – I didn’t even know what they did! – and the text on the screen improved a bit. Squinting my eyes, I tried to make out the password, but with little success.

The only information I could extract from the big mess of data in front of me was the password’s length (ten characters – wonderful), that it started with a ‘C’, that it ended with a ‘cy’, and that there was only one repeated letter, which I deduced to be the ‘c’. Still, I was missing seven letters, and I didn’t have a dictionary or a freakin’ Pipbuck to help me hack this damned terminal.

Of all ponies in this Goddesses-forsaken tower, why did I have to rob the most paranoid?

I sighted, and exited the administrator mode. The screen went back to the little prompt asking me this bloody password.

“Corpulency, maybe?”

No such luck.

“Compliancy?”

The terminal warned me I only had one attempt left. I restarted it, and soon enough I was back to three tries.

“Come on, there can’t be many words that’d fit the bill… Maybe incontinency?” I mumbled. “No, wait, it got twelve letters. Continency? No, it got two n. I’m not even sure the word exists anyway.”

I let out a groan of despair. Even the bloody dictionary was against me now!

“Let’s try conspiracy…”, I tried without much hope left.

It was the password. I barely managed to muffle a cry of triumph.

Take that, Thesaurus!

The terminal told me there were no less than six turrets in the whole flat. I disabled them all, and changed the password to ‘fatchancez’ for good measure.

Then, I proceeded to the living room.

(** **)

Away from the dim light provided by the terminal screen, I had to turn the lights on to see. The power grid seemed to struggle to keep up – I reckoned it had something to do with the five energy turrets plugged on it. Whoever designed the network in the first place probably didn’t take into account the current owner’s paranoia. Otherwise, there was no window, and I realized the whole flat was, if not underground, at least away from the tower outer walls.

As my eyes acclimated to the harsh white light coming from the ceiling lamps, I took a good look around me, and somehow found myself disappointed.

Maybe I had expected the home of a paranoid gun maniac to be filled with weapons, or have each door barricaded with sandbags. At least, I would have expected a very martial atmosphere, with no useless decorations whatsoever.

But I sure hadn’t expected to find myself in a very comfy apartment.

It was exactly like an Old World pamphlet would describe the perfect living room. There was a nice, confortable sofa on a soft carpet in the middle, completed by a glass coffee table and a television on the wall. Bookshelves covered a whole side of the place, and a potted plant was silently growing in a corner. Two white wooden doors led to the kitchen and to the bedroom, but I couldn’t make out the bathroom from where I was standing. Only the metallic trapdoor in the ceiling hinted to the existence of security turrets.

There was no visible gun in this room whatsoever.

It took me a few dozen seconds to shake off my torpor. Sure, it was unexpected, but at least it was a nice surprise to realize my target wasn’t completely nuts after all. It wouldn’t be the first time I had broken into somepony’s home, just to realize the whole place was booby trapped.

I shrugged, and proceeded to the rightmost door. Van Graff probably thought the locks and the turrets were enough protection. Besides, I doubted he needed more firepower than his battlesaddle already provided.

The kitchen contrasted sharply with the previous room. For sure, nothing from the ‘perfect guide to your perfect household, for dummies’ was missing. A refrigerator purred in a corner, a stove waited for apple pies on another, sharps knives hanged from the walls above a chopping block, a sink undoubtedly provided fresh water in abundance, and everywhere drawers and cupboards hosted without a doubt legions of plates, glasses and other dishes.

No, what really stand out were all the things that weren’t supposed to be in a kitchen.

A workbench. A welding post. Disassembled rifles. Wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers. A chemistry set with bubbling phosphorescent brews, a whole wall covered with overly complex schematics, dozens of crates bursting with components I didn’t even knew the name of. On the table, where an average housestallion of the pre-war era would have chopped carrots and celery, laid weapons and plasma explosives in pieces. Had I not known Van Graff owned an armory, I would have believed this kitchen belonged to a psychopath.

But this information was available to my astonished brain, and therefore I simply wondered where he did his normal cooking, because there wasn’t a single square centimeter of space not occupied by tools, components or junk.

I took a step back, and glanced into the living room. I stared at the kitchen again, and I realized it wasn’t messy per se – Van Graff had simply packed a whole workshop into a tiny, unsuited kitchen.

Still, my stomach reminded me of the unpleasant meal I failed to ingest, so I decided to raid the refrigerator to see if Van Graff had better tastes than past-me.

“Let’s see what you’ve got,” I mumbled, opening the thick, leaded door. “Broccolis, alfalfa, spinach, plasma grenade, carrots, alfalfa again…”

I froze.

A plasma grenade? In the fridge?

Okay, so maybe I had been too hasty in giving Van Graff a clean mental health bill. Nopony in his right mind would store one – correction, two – grenades in a place supposed to contain food. I mean, what if a kid came here in search of a snack and ended up toying with the pins? It was irresponsible!

I blinked, and took a good look to the highly unsafe environment around me.

Well, okay, the kid would have to dodge an absolute minefield just to get to touch the fridge in the first place, but still. Somehow, it disturbed me deeply, but I couldn’t put my hoof on the reason.

I grabbed the carrots, and after a slight hesitation I grabbed the two explosives. I wasn’t very fond of grenades, but I could probably resell them for a good price. How much were the blue-banded explosives thingies worth back at the Silver Rush already?

A silly grin appeared on my face as I put them in my saddlebags. The two of them probably scored in the four-digit price category. Then, I closed the refrigerator, and carefully left the kitchen.

(** **)

The bedroom was as standard as the living room had been. A queen-sized bed with green sheets occupied most of the space, and a big wooden wardrobe with a mirror rested against a wall in front of me. I noticed a couple of ‘Future weapons’ magazines on a bedside table, and I reckoned they were about energy warfare or something along those lines.

Opposite the wardrobe, a door opened on the bathroom. It featured a tub, a sink and a mirror cabinet – nothing sparked my interest.

Munching a stolen carrot, I scanned my surrounding, trying to figure out where Van Graff had his valuables hidden. Unlike Cloud Vote’s home, there were no painting on the wall, and the floor was devoid of carpet. A quick glance under the bed taught me it had nothing to hide but dust.

Of course, Van Graff slept with a laser pistol under his pillow. Truth to be told, I didn’t really blame him, though I doubted anypony who had the guts to get past the six sentries probably wouldn’t be very unfazed by a ridiculous handgun.

Turning around, I opened the wardrobe, and I found the safe waiting for me. I couldn’t help but whistle in wonder.

Truth to be told, to call it a safe would have been some kind of an understatement, but it was a bit too small to be called a vault. I could have probably fit inside, though the prospect of being trapped inside a stainless steel coffin did little to appeal me.

The point is, I had in front of me a big-ass safe, with a big-ass lock.

Without losing a second, I grabbed my lockpicking tools, and, biting my lips, I inserted the pin into the barrel. The mission report had asked for a professional tumbler – dumb lock, here I come!

(** **)

Cold sweat was running down my brow, and I had to utilize all my concentration to stop my tools from shaking. All my being was focused on the tiny pin I was slowly pushing upward, but as I yet again failed to stick it into its chamber, the insidious truth slowly started to sip into my desperate mind:

The lock required a level of skill far above my own.

I simply couldn’t pick it. The barrel had ten minuscule mushroom pins on both sides, and I felt something moving deep down the barrel I couldn’t even recognize. I didn’t know where Van Graff had found this safe, but it had probably cost him a fortune!

“That safe cost me a fortune, you know,” nagged Van Graff.

I froze. The world stopped, time stood still. In a deafening silence, I heard the pins reset as I lost control over my pressure wrench. My tools dropped on the floor in a slow motion, and hit the cold floor with a ringing.

Slowly, I rose and turned toward the living room.

Sure enough, Van Graff was there, standing in the doorway, a smug look on his face. A menacing green emanated from his frightening guns, pointed on me just a couple meters away.

I gulped.

(** **)

“So,” Van Graff continued, his rifles still aimed at my chest, “mind telling me what you are doing in my home, trying to open my safe?”

I was on the verge of a panic attack. There was no way I could outrun him, since he was in the doorway, and if he decided to kill me it was unlikely he could miss at such a close range. I couldn’t escape through the windows, for there was none; at best I could jump toward the bathroom to get some cover, but it wouldn’t do much good. I had little doubt he’d fried me alive if I even thought about drawing my pistol. Besides, his armor covered all but his head, and it was unlikely I could kill him before he pressed the trigger. Unlike Crowneigh, Van Graff already had his guns at the ready.

“Not very talkative, hm?” noted Van Graff as I stayed silent. He let out a deep sight, and I realized I was running out of time.

“I was… robbing you?” I proposed timidly. It wasn’t the answer he was expecting, but technically it was the truth.

He let out an unamused chuckle.

“So I noticed” – he nodded toward the safe – “but I find it a bit odd that you chose to burglarize my house in particular.”

Gears grinded in my head as I tried to predict the outcome of the conversation.

“The two locks on the front door had stirred up my curiosity,” I lied. “I figured out you had a lot of valuables in here.”

“Really?” he gritted his teeth. “So it has nothing to do with you following me home yesterday?”

“Oh.” I missed a heartbeat. “You saw me.”

“I did.” His tone was ice cold, but warmed up a bit. “Yet I started having suspicions when you showed up at the Silver Rush. You are a terrible liar, really. So this morning, when I heard the estate’s alarm ring at the shop, I closed down and I sat back to watch you through my cameras force my door and hack my terminal. I was impressed, and I will even admit I started fearing you might crack my safe open.”

“So you rushed here to take me out,” I completed.

He nodded. A hint of sadness sparkled in his eyes, but seriousness soon replaced it.

“I have one question, though,” he continued. “Who sent you?”

“That’s… a tricky question,” I answered truthfully. Even if I told him I came here on my own, he probably wouldn’t believe me.

He sighted, and grabbed his trigger.

“Wait, wait!” I pleaded. I had to find something, anything!

He motioned me to go ahead, not even bothering to drop the mouthpiece.

“I was sent by… by…”

My mouth went dry, and my throat felt like parched paper. My brain was desperately trying to find something to say.

“I was sent by the Twilight Society!” I cried, Fiery’s files coming back to my mind.

A mix of surprise, anger and pride showed up on Van Graff’s face, as he spat the trigger and reared in triumph, hooves toward the sky.

“I KNEW IT!” he roared, his eyes ceasing fixing me for a split second.

There was my chance!

I drew my pistol, and shot him as fast as I could press the trigger. He backed in pain as the bullets hit the body armor without doing any serious damage, and he grabbed his mouthpiece.

I shrieked, and dove for cover in the bathroom. Two plasma bolts burned the end of my tail, and hit the wall behind me in a shower of sparks and hot goo.

Immediately, the power went off in the flat. I may or may not have thanked the Goddesses for the unstable power grid.

“Damn it, girl!” Van Graff bellowed in the dark. “You can’t get away from me!”

Two other shots briefly lighted the room, but missed me altogether. The stallion couldn’t see me, but I could: the glowing barrels at his sides were a dead giveaway. I emptied my pistol in his direction and was awarded by a groan of pain. He wasted no time to retaliate though, and it was my turn to scream as a small blob of burning plasma burned me in the back.

“I have underestimated you for the last time,” I heard Van Graff stumble back into the living room, probably in search of a source of light.

I threw my empty clip away, and searched my saddlebag for the spare magazine.

In the darkness however, all I could find was two metallic apples with a glowing blue band.

I grinned like a maniac as I recognized the plasma grenades from the fridge. Without losing a second, I pulled the pins off, and rolled them in the living room. Resisting the temptation to throw a cheesy one liner, I jumped in the bathtub and, legs around my head, I waited.

The double explosion was deafening.

(** **)

Come to think of it, my life was pretty tame before getting this job from Crowneigh.

Back then, me getting shot was an oddity. In fact, I almost never found myself involved in gunfights: I always had the surprise and the upper ground on my side, and fights were dramatically one-sided.

Yet, somehow, by simply picking those keys, the tables had been turned. Now I was the one everypony wanted to shoot, and I had lost my upper hoof somewhere.

Cloud Vote’s daughter, Crowneigh, Van Graff… There was something clearly wrong in the way I solved my personal problems.

Lying battered in the tub, I let out a sharp cough. An orange, shimmering glow softly lighted the bathroom, and smoke was slowly but surely filling the space under the ceiling.

I tried to stand up, but my legs refused to carry me. I stumbled over the tub edge, and fell face first on the dust-covered ground.

A sharp scream escaped my mouth, as I was sent in a world of pain. Instinctively, I curled up in a tight ball, hoping the searing feeling in my back would simply go away and leave me alone. But it soon become obvious I wasn’t going to have such luck.

Shaking, I lifted a hoof at eye level, and gently probed my back. Everything exploded in different shades of suffering when I touched the butchered flesh.

I quickly withdrew my hoof. It was soaked in blood.

The world was spinning around me. An acrid smell was filling my lungs.

I closed my eyes for what felt like a second.

When I opened them back, the orange shimmer had grown in intensity.

With a shiver, I realized the flat was burning.

As adrenaline flowed through my veins, I found the strength to stand up. After a hesitant step, I leaned against the wall.

I spat a blood-covered glob, and it landed on my leg.

It was hopeless. I wasn’t going to make it.

Then, I noticed the first-aid kid in the broken cabinet above the sink. It was almost within my reach, but I needed to cross the small room, and I feared it was above my strength.

“Bandages, Med-X and potions can only do so much,” a little voice whispered in my hear.

But my body screamed for painkillers.

Still half-blind from the pain, I stumbled, and grabbed the ceramic basin with my front hooves. A black screen veiled my vision, but I held on.

The kit was right in front of me now.

I pulled it with my teeth, and it fell on the sink.

With my magic I tore the red pouch open, and its content landed in front of me.

Band-Aids. Purified water. Med-X. A healing potion. Pills I couldn’t identify. Adrenaline. Buck. Mint-Als. Antivenom. Dash.

“Drug cocktails. The raiders are very fond of them,” the voice continued softly, “but how will you react?”

The boxes in front of me went dark, and I almost lost my grip on the basin. My teeth gritted as a metallic aftertaste filled my mouth.

It was the only solution.

I grabbed a Med-X syringe, and stabbed it into my chest.

I opened the Buck box, and downed the remaining pills with the healing potion.

I took a Dash inhalator, and emptied it in my lungs.



The effects weren’t long to kick out. First was the Dash, slowing the world around me. Then was the Med-X, as my pain subdued to a numbing ache. Finally, as my strengths somehow came back, I knew the Buck was having the intended effects.

My mind somewhat clearer under the drugs, I grabbed my torn saddlebags, and stuffed what remained of the first aid kit inside. I warped the band-aids around my torso, over my ruined jumpsuit, hoping it would slow down the bleeding.

Then, still stumbling but more focused, I left the bathroom.

I needed to get the hell out of here.

(** **)

Van Graff’s flat was a battlefield.

From the doorway the light from the fire poured into the bedroom. In a haze, I noticed the large blackened holes left by Van Graff’s energy weapons; I shivered when I realized how close I had been to getting vaporized. My hoof tripped over my discarded pistol. Subconsciously, years of shooting made me grab my last clip, and engage a bullet in the chamber.

I stumbled over to the living room, and paused in the doorway to catch my breath. My vision was starting to improve, but there wasn’t much to see.

The living room was gone.

Of the cozy place I had crossed on my way in, nothing remained. The sofa had been burned and thrown against the television by the blast; most of the bookshelves had been vaporized and what little remained was now burning.

Circling around the fires as best as I could, I headed for the kitchen.

There, among the mess, I found Van Graff.

Somehow, he was still alive, but given the look of his burns, and the utter lack of right foreleg, I had little doubt he didn’t have much time left. Half his face had been melted by the plasma and his breath was ragged. He was going to kick the bucket any minute now.

I staggered toward him, and pulled his keys from his carbonized outfit. An unrecognizable goo stuck under my hooves, but I was way past beyond caring. Then, I turned back, and I dragged my hooves back in the bedroom.

It was then the fire-fighting system started raining on me.

I yelped, as a bolt of pain pierced my brain regardless of the Med-X. The light from the fires started dimming out, and I grabbed the flashlight in my bag. I mentally realized I couldn’t remember it was waterproof, but I didn’t even feel like chuckling at the silly idea.

Now both burned and drenched, I laid my head against the safe door, and inserted the key in the lock.

Sliding my haunches to the floor, I pulled the heavy door, and aimed my light inside the safe.

Of course, there were many wonderful guns, but this wasn’t what I came for, and in my state I wouldn’t be able to carry them anyway.

There were many caps, but I didn’t come so far for the money.

There were many papers, but they bore no interest to me.

Of keys, however?

There were none.

(** **)

I may have lost my cool back then, and cursed the Goddesses with all my might.

But it felt like it was justified.

In retrospect, I had no one to blame but myself: it was I who took Crowneigh’s intelligence for granted. For all I knew, Van Graff had never seen the yellow key in his life.

But I wasn’t going to let him die before telling me so.

Sitting on the kitchen floor among the ruins, I stabbed yet another Med-X syringe in his crisped body. The stench of cooked flesh and spilled chemicals was abominable, but I was way past carrying. Then, I forced him inhale one of the two remaining Dash.

Van Graff woke up.

“Where’s the key!?” I yelled, shaking him. “Where is the motherfucking key, Van Graff?”

“W-what?” he whimpered, blinking the only good eye he had left. His voice was barely more than a whisper.

I grabbed the whole bloody box of Mint-Als, and made him chew it. He tried to fight it, but he simply didn’t have the strength anymore.

“The yellow key!” I stammered. “The complex one with DERTA written on it! WHERE IS IT, VAN GRAFF?”

A flow of understanding shimmered in his eye, as the memory-enhancing drugs kicked in.

“Y- You mean that piece of junk?” he asked in a whisper.

I could feel him dying in my hooves, taking his secret to the grave. I stuck the adrenaline syringe in his body, along with the last of the Med-X.

“Where is it, Van Graff?” I asked one last time, despair replacing anger in my voice. It just wasn’t fair!

“I… I th…”, he was agonizing.

Then, as if spitting in my face on last time was something worth dying for, he suddenly regained a second wind.

“I threw it away, bitch!” he hissed with his last breath.

Van Graff died, and I let out a long wail of despair.

(** **)

Sobbing from pain and from grief, I stood up, and walked away from the disaster area. As much as my body wanted to drop dead on the spot, the survivalist part of my brain pressed me to carry on. The key was nowhere to be found, and what?

Unlike the others, I was still alive.

It did little to comfort me though. I hadn’t realized how much I had invested in this little errand. Maybe I had heard the legendary call of the sirens from the El Dorado?

“You’re no better than Crowneigh,” the voice whispered. “Murderer.”

It didn’t really mattered, I thought bitterly as I exited the living room. The key was gone.

Something crunched under my hoof, and I almost lost my balance. The terminal was the only thing that kept me from falling, and muttering an unholy curse I aimed my flashlight toward the ground.

The box from earlier had been blown away by the explosion, and its contents had been scattered everywhere on the floor.

I snorted in disdain. It was junk.

I froze as I realized a key was among said junk.

And another. And another.

Laughing maniacally, I dropped to the ground and frenetically searched the items on the floor.

Soon enough, I found the little yellow key of my dreams.

(** **)

Afterward, I think I spend a good minute cackling like a madmare. I was hysterical.

I don’t know what hit me the strongest: that I found my grail right after losing all hope of ever finding it, or that it had been in a fucking box in the fucking hallway!

Of course he’d put it there. If I had just stopped for a fucking second, I would have realized he had no idea what the hell the key was supposed to be. And what do you do with keys without a lock?

You put it in the motherfucking box near the motherfucking door!

Then, as somepony knocked against the heavy metal frame next to me and called Van Graff out, I realized I still needed to get the hell out of Tenpony.

Alive, if I could.

I used the terminal to get back on my hooves, and realized the Dash was wearing off. I still had another inhalator in my bags, but I didn’t want to take any additional risks. My heartbeat slammed irregularly in my ears, and my head wouldn’t stop spinning.

I opened the door, pistol at the ready.

Behind, I was greeted by a lone beige mare.

“Oh, Mr. Van Graff! Are you-”, she began, as her eyes fell on my grim-covered face, my raised pistol and my bloody everything.

And then she fainted.

I strode over her body, and headed toward the exit, dripping blood and soot everywhere.

(** **)

From Van Graff’s, I was only a couple hundred meters away from the lobby. I could barely stand on my hooves now that the Dash was worn off. At least, I already knew the way to the exit.

Remember when I talked earlier about the necessity of scouting a town before doing anything harsh?

Yeah, well that’s why it was so freakin’ important.

I probably made quite a sensation at the security, because everypony shut up when I dragged my bloody hooves into the waiting room.

I probably had a few minutes before anypony thought of stopping me to drag me to the Hospital.

Maybe less, if the mare from earlier had woken up and told everypony I had murdered Van Graff.

Time seemed to drag on as I reeled through the long room. My vision tunneled around a single point: the huge steel blast doors delimitating the exit. If I only I could reach them, I would have make it out of Tenpony alive.

I put another hoof in front of me, and another. It was getting harder and harder to focus.

“And then what?” the silly voice asked. “If you do not stop here, Spring, where will you?”

I didn’t… want to stop. I had to carry on. Just… a bit longer. A bit farther.

A hoof. Another.

“Where will you stop, Spring?”

Between the steel door, a large shadow appeared. It was saying something, but I couldn’t understand the words. I didn’t care.

He was on the way.

I needed more speed. I needed… awesomeness.

“You are not awesome,” the voice railed. “You are a murderer. You are… a raider, now.”

I grabbed the last Dash, and put it to my mouth. There was a commotion around me, but I didn’t care.

I breathed, hard.

I started galloping.

The shadow shifted, and started yelling.

He was in my way.

He was in my way.

I drew my pistol.

Around me, dozens of panicked shrieks rose and filled the air, but I didn’t care.

I shot. Once. Twice.

The third time, my magic failed me, and my faithful gun dropped. But I didn’t care.

I didn’t stop.

In slow motion, the shadow in front of me dropped, and tendrils of dark smoke flowed from his features as I drew closer.

It was the guard that had been so nice to me on the way in.

“His name was Liberty Shield,” the voice nagged. “He liked you. He was a good pony. And you killed him. For free. For nothing. Raider.”

I jumped over him.

I didn’t care. I couldn’t care. I needed to get out!

I kept running and, as I disappeared in Manehattan, I could swear I heard a voice calling my name.

(** **)

Level up!


New perk:
Bloody Mess: Killing ain’t a clean business. You deal additional critical damages when you use dismemberment-able weapons.

“Bloody hilarious!”

Chapter Five: Unforeseen Consequences

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Read it on Google Docs.



“Where is the edge?”

Chapter Five: Unforeseen consequences

What make us who we are? Are our lives written from the start by destiny and our talents, or is our existence ruled by our choices and acts?

“… abominable crime in Tenpony Tower…”

Floating in an ocean of darkness, my mind wandered the paths of questions it had never really pondered before. Are some ponies good or bad by nature? If so, what merits or faults did they have in doing what they felt inclined to do?

“… death of Van Graff the fourth, known by all as the owner of the Silver Rush…”

Softly rocked back and forth by invisible waves, I had lost all grasp on reality and time. My body lay in a numb embrace, away from the world. Was I a bad pony?

“… ty Shield still undergoing surgery…”

I felt safe in this warm absence of feeling. The void surrounding me was not friend nor foe, and even its very existence wasn’t very clear in my mind.

“… the truth, no matter how bad it hurts…”

Yet, a nagging thought in the back of my mind wouldn’t stop pestering me. ‘You have to move,’ it seemed to say. ‘You cannot give up!’

Slowly, feeling started seeping back into my body. My heartbeat was thundering in my ears. Thousands of dulls needles were picking and tearing my back apart, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

“Easy there, filly. You haven’t cleared all the drugs out of your system yet.”

All of a sudden, the support under me gave away, and I fell into oblivion.

I took a deep breath, and opened my eyes.

(** **)

Grey. All I could see were shades of grey. Every part of my being hurt, as if liquid metal had been poured into my bones and left there to cool down.

Minutes passed by as my vision slowly rolled into focus. Gradually, my others senses came back to me. Beyond the numb pain that ached and pulsed in my flesh, I realized I was laying down on something soft. A nondescript moisture soaked my fur and a dirty brown goo formed a sticky pool right under my nose. For a few seconds, I feared it was my blood, but from the acid aftertaste in my throat and the acrid stench that assaulted my nostrils I reckoned I had thrown up all over myself.

A foul reek of piss also taught me I was drenched in my own filth.

I groaned, and the growing discomfort gave me the incentive to look around to get my bearings.

As I did so, my head spun and my vision doubled, and I reached over the mattress to puke. But my digestive system had already been emptied all over myself earlier, so the painful spasms in my stomach only sent back on the floor some acid gastric bile.

Looking up through a veil of tears, I realized I had somehow made it back home. My bags had been thrown in a corner, and shelves were lying on the ground amongst spilled medical supplies. A bleach light was sipping from the opened door. Somewhere under the mess, a radio broadcasted some pre-war music. Overall, the small basement looked like a hurricane had went and gone through a couple times.

“Good, you’re waking up. How do you feel?”

Oh, and a stallion was sitting right outside the doorway.

I backed away against the wall, my hooves slipping on my mess and my eyes frantically searching for a weapon. My efforts were rewarded by a bolt of pain.

“Hey, easy there. I ain’t gonna hurt you. If I wanted you dead I would have just left you out in the streets,” he added, standing up.

I opened my mouth to ask something, but only a hoarse groan passed my parched lips. I realized I needed to drink, and I spotted a bottle of filtered water on the ground just a couple meters from me. I stretched out my hoof and reached for it.

A sharp, nerve-tearing agony seemed to split my back in back. I let out a muffled cry of pain.

Slowly, I crawled away from the soiled mattress, and, dragging the bottle along me, I curled up on the cleaner opposite side of my room. There, I struggled to open the cap, then downed the water. Precious fluid spilled from all over my mouth down to my body, but I didn’t care: the delightful bliss of a cold liquid running down my throat was overwhelming.

“Careful not to choke yourself, girl. That’d be quite the stupid death.”

Dropping the now empty bottle, I eyed the stranger. He was a brown earth pony with a dark mane tucked under a grey fedora. A dirty overcoat hid the rest of his body, I couldn’t make out his cutie mark, and he had a holstered revolver strapped to his chest. A half-smoked cigarette hung from his lips. Leaning on the doorway, he was observing me like he didn’t know what to make of me.

A quick verification showed me my own pistol was missing.

“Who are you?” I asked, my voice still coarse. “What do you want of me?”

“The name’s Meridian,” he answered, tipping his hat. “Meridian Fraying. I picked you up yesterday a couple blocks from here as you were about to collapse right in the middle of the street. You were delirious, but you managed to give me directions toward your… place.”

My brain struggled to process the information. What in hell had happened the day before?

“Why are you helping me?” I questioned, suspicious. There was no such thing as a Good Samaritan in the Wastelands – if he had really saved me, it meant he wanted something from me. And even if he really was some kind of altruistic hippy, my little show back in Tenpony probably did little to improve my good standing.

All of sudden, the events of the day before crashed on me with the force of a thirty-ton carriage. My shoulders dropped, my eyes went wide and I started to struggle to find my breath.

It all came back in a blur. The raid on Van Graff’s place. The stallion in question showing up. The short-lived gunfight. The explosions. The drugs.

The guy I shot on my way out.

Suddenly, I wanted to puke, but alas my empty stomach refused to provide me the relief of emptying myself on the floor all over again.

The whole sequence of events felt wrong, and if it weren’t for the total wreck I was then, I would have shrugged it off as a very livid nightmare. Everything that could go wrong went south and back, I had broken pretty much every single of my personal golden rules, I was now in all likehood wanted dead by Tenpony, and I apparently owed my life to a mysterious stranger.

Feeling through my chest pockets, I noted I still had my keys. The safe in a corner was still closed, and mess aside the room didn’t look like it had been ransacked. The money probably didn’t spark the stallion’s interest, then. I shivered when I realized what would have happened if he’d come across Crowneigh’s files. If I had been willing to assault Tenpony to get one DERTA key, this Meridian fellow probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at stealing mine when I was out cold.

He probably mistook my slightly panicked look for something else, because he immediately tried to sooth me.

“I didn’t touch you,” he motioned toward the mattress. “Except to drag you up to your corner and make you drink whatever healing potions and Fixer I could find.”

My gaze dropped on the numerous discarded phials and on the emptied Fixer box on the concrete floor. My ears folded in displeasure.

“You gave me a whole box of Fixer?” I accused. Great, now I had a probable schizophrenia to add to my ever growing list of troubles.

“Hey, listen, when I met you, you were breaking down so bad from withdrawal I thought you were going to die right on the spot,” he retorted. “Besides, I found the box among your own supplies, and only a couple pills remained, so…”

He scratched his mane under his fedora, and motioned toward my torn and soiled jumpsuit.

“I’m no doctor, so I didn’t try to heal you,” he added. “Now that you’re awake, you’d better remove those rags and take a good look at your back.”

The bandages from the day before had held through hell and back, somehow, but were drenched in nondescript substances. I hoped they weren’t coming from the inside of my own body, but somehow I doubted the Wasteland had any intention of giving me a break.

Levitating a pair of medical scissors from the torn medical kit on the ground, I carefully began to cut my Stable jumpsuit down. It had been destroyed beyond any recognition anyway. Furthermore, the prospect of moving the tight clothes over my oozing wounds did little to appeal me.

Soon enough, the only part of my body still covered was my midsection. Cuts and bruises covered my legs, neck, flanks, everything, but none of them went deep enough to be of any concern. Somehow the thin cloth armor had protected me from most small shrapnel.

Clenching my teeth, I then proceeded to cut the remaining tissue. An atrocious stench of cooked flesh filled the air, and some kind of pus oozed down my coat. As I delicately started pulling out the cloth from over the wound, I realized part of the jumpsuit had melted on my cooked flesh. I couldn’t even move the damn thing without feeling I was peeling my skin off.

I dropped the scissors. From a container in a corner of the room, I retrieved an old bottle of straight vodka.

Still observing me, Meridian thrown me a disapproving glance.

“I would have thought you’d know better than using more drugs after yesterday’s little party,” he deadpanned.

“That’s not drug, that’s alcohol”, I spat, opening the bottle. “I can’t use Med-X, now can I? But I need something to dull the pain, or else I’ll keep this piece of shit glued to my skin forever.”

I drank a fair amount of the infamous liquid. The alcohol made my sore throat burn, but soon enough a light buzz clouded my brain and dulled my perceptions.

“Well, there goes nothing,” I braced myself, reaching out the offending piece of cloth with my magic.

With all my telekinetically strength, I pulled it out.

I think everypony heard my scream all the way to Hoofington.

(** **)

“That’s a nasty-looking burn,” Meridian commented. “You’d better see a doctor or something about it. There’s so much healing potions and bandages can do.”

“Yeah, no shit,” I retorted, downing some more vodka. Out of pride, I sniffed back a few tears I had dropped.

While I was fairly sure Van Graff didn’t score a direct hit on me, the plasma bolt that dropped on my back had done some damage. I literally had a hole in my flesh almost as big as my hoof, and the skin around had been burned to a crisp. A disgusting-looking goo was oozing from the burn, but I didn’t seem to be bleeding. I didn’t know if it was due to the nature of the injury or to the healing potions I had downed earlier, but I was grateful not to be bleeding to my death.

“But I can’t show up in a hospital in Manehattan right now,” I continued. “That’d be…”

I stopped, as I realized I had almost let my tongue slip. I couldn’t let him know I was wanted dead or alive by one of the Wastelands’ wealthier society.

“You mean, because of the mess you did in Tenpony?” he asked, unperturbed.

My breath cut short, and a small ball of anxiety formed in my throat. A cold sweat rolled down my neck. Sighting, I let my head drop.

“So you know that,” I whispered, defeated. I reckoned it was game over, then – because even if I had a gun, I sure wasn’t in shape to fight anymore. The stallion had probably waited for me to die out, or in all likehood expected some company from the Tower to bring me back there.

The worse? I had even deserved it. I had crossed a line with Van Graff and Liberty Shield. I used to think killing ponies was okay, because I believed I had excuses. ‘They were the raiders who killed your family’, at first. ‘He raped your boss’ sister, he deserves to die’, for my first contract. ‘If somepony want them dead, they probably deserved it’, afterward. But then, gradually, the excuses faded, grew sillier and sillier. ‘She was about to scream and give away my position’, ‘I needed something from him, and I didn’t want to ask him’, ‘He was in my way, I needed to get out’…

The truth is, I always tried to solve my problems by shooting ponies. I had made the act so casual in my mind I didn’t even bother to check out the other options before.

Was I a bad pony? Was I… a raider? When did I cross the line toward the dark side of the world?

“Everypony in the Wastelands know,” Meridian answered. “DJ Pon3 had some harsh words about you earlier on the radio. Something about murdering somepony and seriously wounding a security guard. If I were you, I’d watch my tail. Bounty hunters are bound to come after your hide now.”

I looked up to see him casually lighting another cigarette. Noting my perplexed look, he added:

“I’m not your enemy, if you’re still wondering. Given the state you were in when I picked you up, I don’t think you were in your right mind when you did all those things, am I right?”

I swallowed, and looked away, anywhere but at him. “Yeah. It was the drugs talking. Probably.”

Meridian sighted. He entered the room proper, walked over the mess on the floor, and crouched before me to get to my level.

“Hey, listen, kid,” he said, his voice now carrying strong accents of seriousness. “We all mess up some day or another. But it’s okay. Shit happens. But if you don’t carry on, you can’t make it all alright over again, right? Sure, you can’t fix up the past, but, hey, the Wasteland is a crazy place. There’s so much you can do to make it better. You can be a better pony, you know. You just have to start acting better.”

I turned toward him. His blue eyes didn’t have an ounce of malice in them. They reminded me of my father, who died so long ago, leaving his unique daughter to a life a crime and assassinations.

“You’re not a bad pony,” he continued. “I wouldn’t have helped you if you were. I would have let you rot in the street like some diseased animal. Yet I know, deep down, that you can be somepony else. Somepony… better.”

“I don’t know,” I muttered, staring at the ground before me. “Being a hitmare is all I know. Hell, even my special talent is shooting people. What am I to do?”

“Well, for starter, some things deserve to get shot,” he answered, tapping his revolver with a hoof. “Some ponies, even. Trust me, you’ll run out of ammo before you run out of targets. Don’t think your talent is useless. You’re just… misusing it.”

I hug-tackled him.

(** **)

“Sorry, it’s not something I usually do,” I apologized as Meridian freed himself from the fallen shelve.

“It’s alright, I guess. You had a long week, after all,” he dismissed, shaking a soiled rag from under his hoof.

“You have no idea,” I chuckled. My laughter soon died down in my throat, however, when I remembered the thing that made me become so reckless in the first place.

Could I trust Meridian with the DERTA secrets? I only knew him for a couple hours, yet somehow I felt compelled to tell him. It would have been taunting the devil, though, and the Goddesses know I already had enough troubles on my hooves. I decided to play it safe, and keep it to myself for now.

“Name’s Spring, by the way. Say, mind helping me clean and bandaging my back?”

(** **)

Say what you want about vodka, but it’s a hell of a disinfectant.

Too bad it also tastes like disinfectant.

Soon enough, Meridian and I had my wound bandaged back, and we proceeded to clean up the room. The shelves returned to their rightful place against the wall; the trash was unceremoniously dumped outside, and I dragged the soiled beyond relief mattress to a nearby dumpster. While the garbage collecting system had been put on permanent hold due to the freakin’ end of the world, I sure didn’t want to have a piss-soaked, vomit-drenched piece of trash right in front of my house. Even in the Wastelands, there are standards!

A quick trip to a nearby almost radiation-free stream cleaned me up, and soon enough I was back in my black leather armor. Searing pain in the back aside, it was almost like the events of the previous days hadn’t happened at all.

Almost.

Soon enough, it became apparent I had a sheer need of fresh supplies. I had lost my pistol and half my lockpicking set somewhere in Tenpony. Somehow, I doubted they’d agree to give them back to their rightful owner, so I had to find proper replacements.

My medical supplies were at an all-time low. My wounds would heal by themselves, eventually, but still I needed new bandages, potions, and Med-X. I would stay away from the others drugs, though. While it had indeed saved my life, I doubted my body would react very well to another fit of stress like that. Meridian insisted I needed professional medical care, but I had little wish to put myself under the scalpel of a perfect stranger.

Finally, I needed to prepare my trip to the DERTA. My foalhood in a caravan had taught me the importance of planning ahead for this kind of things. I needed a few weeks’ worth of food, warm clothes for the freezing nights of the North, extra ammunition, maps, et cetera.

Luckily, I had enough caps for ten expeditions like that. Some of my past jobs had been paying quite well, so I ended up having some cash to spare. Plus, I could steal whatever I couldn’t afford. No, money wasn’t the problem.

What worried me were the vendors themselves.

I couldn’t go back to the Mart to buy my gear, but I couldn’t head to Friendship City either. While the two towns had some kind of rivalry undergoing, I knew for sure they both listened to DJ Pon3 broadcasts and believed them like gospel truth. They’d calm down, eventually – they all did – but for now I could consider myself banned from every civilized place in Manehattan.

That meant I needed to get somewhere else, where nopony knew me as the one who shot Van Graff.

To the West was Hollow Shades. While I doubted they’d recognize me as the one who blew up their sheriff’s office and murdered their mayor (plus daughter), a climate of xenophobia was to be expected over there. Pass.

If I headed to the South, I’d end up in Fillydelphia. For sure, they wouldn’t shoot me for being Tenpony-banned (hell, they’d probably give me a goddess damn medal) but I didn’t trust them a single bit. Red Eye and his goons were too clever by half. Should they realize I had the keys to a pre-war facility full of wonderful technologies, I’d be as good as dead.

Plus, slavers. Dealing with them didn’t strike me as something a good pony should do, somehow, and I had the feeling my karma was running dangerously low lately.

The best remote place to find my gear would be in the Hoof. There, somehow, you could find pretty much anything you’d ever wanted, as long as you could afford it. But I had little wish to cross the whole country back and forth, especially in my state. Besides, I heard Security had set the place ablaze in the last few weeks, and there was no saying I wouldn’t find the country torched to the ground by the time I got there.

Canterlot? No way. I didn’t have a death wish.

That left two places: New Appleloosa, and Junction R-7. I knew for a fact the former would have everything I need – after all, I had bought my previous lockpicking set from a crazy mute ghoul Pegasus there. Finding a good nine-millimeter pistol along with a suppressor would prove to be somewhat more complicated, but then again I could get something cheap until I get the occasion to buy one from Chrystal.

Junction R-7 was closer to Manehattan, though. On the bright side, it looked more like a permanent headquarter for the Talon Company, with whom I was in good standing. Well, ‘good standing’, as far as the relations between a freelance and a mercenary company can get. I did a couple odd jobs for them, when they didn’t want to make a big fuss about killing somepony in particular. On the down side, gear would be harder to get there than in New Appleloosa, but I reckoned it’d be manageable. There was a little fly in the paint though: I’d been told the fabled Stable Dweller had befriended the Talons. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to meet her face to face – because if there’s somepony who takes DJ Pon3 to heart, it’s her. If half the legends about her are true, in a fight between me and her, I wouldn’t bet a single bit on my sorry ass.

In both cases, though, I needed to head West, then South. I wouldn’t get through Manehattan on the way back: from Junction R-7, the path to Big Mt formed a straight line to the North. There was a mountain range on the way, but with a good pre-war map of the area it probably wouldn’t be a trouble.

Now, only one question remained: did Meridian intend to tag along?

(** **)

“Of course I’m coming,” the Earth Pony said over his canned corn. “That is, if it’s okay with you.”

Munching my own conservative-laden pre-war food, I pondered the idea. I sure didn’t want to share the DERTA with anypony, but on the other hoof we could go in different ways once in JR-7 or New Appleloosa. Besides, I knew my injuries had crippled my capacity to travel, and I sure wouldn’t spit on a solid shoulder to lean on. For sure, I found a tad suspicious this perfect stranger was now so adamant to tag along, but maybe he simply had befriended me? Honestly, I had no idea on how friendship was supposed to work in the first place, so I couldn’t tell. I grew up surrounded by adults, and got blasted into a solitary life before I really got to make any friends. Legends of old said the magic of friendship could move mountains and defeat tremendous foes – even surrounded by real, radiation-powered monsters, the foals of the Wastelands still feared Nightmare Moon and Discord like the boogeymare. The tale says the Ministry Mares in flesh had kicked their asses with nothing but the sheer power of friendship and a couple old artifacts. Obviously it was propaganda, yet I reckoned it had at least an ounce of truth.

“All right then, we’re leaving early tomorrow,” I finally settled. “I want to get out of Manehattan before anypony gets my smell.”

(** **)

At dawn, forty-eight hours after my infamous escape from Tenpony Tower, I was back on the road.

Exiting Manehattan proved to be uneventful. Meridian possessed an unsuspected ability to sneak around, and we travelled the ruins like two ghosts in a desolate landscape.

Beyond the city suburbs, flattened and burned out by the balefires and the throes of time, we reached the Wastelands proper.

There, as we were leaving the shadow of Tenpony, I finally started to relax a bit. My focus went back to my travel companion. I still didn’t know if I should consider him as a friend or as a foe, but in either case I had to play along, and additional intelligence about him sure couldn’t hurt.

Meridian Fraying didn’t speak much on his own, though. Prompted, he’d always give an answer, sometimes an honest-to-goddess sentence, sometimes barely more than a couple words. He promptly deflected any personal questions I threw his way. I soon gave up trying out to finding anything about his past or motivations by plainly asking him. Given my taciturn nature, we ended up traveling in silence.

It didn’t seem to bother either of us, though.

And then, sometimes, Meridian would let out a few words, a few sentences or ideas that’d left me very perplexed.

His insights on the Wastelands betrayed years of wandering. He wasn’t a Stable Dweller, that much was obvious, but I doubted he had been raised in a secured place either. He knew at least as much as I did about the dangers of Equestria, yet, somehow, I had a feeling there was something wrong with his behavior.

Nothing very obvious, nor worrisome, though. He simply didn’t act like he paid any attention to what mattered, pointing out little details I had never noticed before, yet dramatically failed to see the bigger picture.

Here, he stopped to stare at a lavished fresco from a forgotten pre-war era; there, he steadied up a small, grime-covered garden gnome, probably knocked down by the nuclear blast, oh so long ago.

But he cared little for the practical stuff. He left the shops unchecked; the safes, unopened; the resources, unlooted. His behavior puzzled me to no end. How did somepony like that even survive the Wastelands in the first place?

Put him in a room with a pink elephant, and he’d probably note the one who painted the wall did a very lousy job.

Maybe he used his nonchalance as a defense mechanism against the hardship of life. Maybe I was the fool, and he had been the one behaving normally all along.

Or maybe he was plain stupid and was a lucky son of a bitch.

He didn’t strike me as stupid, though. He simply looked like he didn’t belong there. Like he was missing something. His eyes lacked the hard edge all true Wastelanders had – the thousand-yard stare of ponies that’d seen enough. It was very unnerving.

Looking for answers, I asked him what his job was. We’d left Manehattan two days before, and he seemed to be warming up a bit, gaining a bit a depth. He had made quite clear my own line of work was no mystery to him, and I wanted to level the game field.

“I wander,” he answered cryptically. I though he wasn’t going to develop, but then he stopped on his tracks and dropped his saddlebags so I could see his compass-shaped cutie mark.

“I love to explore,” he continued, his gaze dropping on the horizon. “I want to see it all before I’m gone.”

“Well, you aren’t going to see much by sticking with me,” I laughed. True enough, I often tended to visit the same areas. “I don’t often get lost, and when I do, it often involves underground mazes.”

He stayed silent for a little while, his eyes still wandering the desolated landscape. A small, sad smile never left his lips.

“We all need directions, sometimes,” he murmured. “Sometimes maps aren’t quite enough.”

I shrugged it off.

“Never failed me so far,” I replied. “I know exactly where we are, and where we’re heading.”

We fell into the ambush less than two hours later.

(** **)

Pinned down by the fire of an assault rifle, I cursed under my breath and yelled toward my teammate, hidden with me behind a rock.

“Fuck, I can’t see them! What about you?”

Meridian popped his head to take a look, but a bullet soon ricocheted a few centimeters from his cheek. He promptly got back to cover.

“Can’t get a visual either,” he shouted back. “But you’re the one with the rifle, you should be the one getting your eyes up there!”

“Can’t shoot what I can’t see,” I answered, leaning toward the edge when the fire died down a bit.

I spotted two ponies behind a log, less than a hundred meters from us. The one with the assault rifle seemed to be reloading, and the other shot me with some kind of revolver as he noticed me.

Their shots didn’t land anywhere close to us, but I took the opportunity to line my sights up. Now that they had stopped pinning me down, I had a perfect visual.

Two seconds later, a bullet went clean through the first pony’s throat. I grunted, reprimanding myself internally for such a lousy shot. I had actually aimed for the head.

Oh well.

The second pony let out a panicked shriek as her comrade went down, fatally wounded. She ducked to cover toward him, either to help him, or to take his superior weapon.

Either way, she was now hid by a half-rotten wooden log.

I smiled, and put an armor-piercing hoof-loaded cartridge in the chamber. Taking aim with great care toward the place the pony had fallen, I shot clean through the worm-eaten wood.

A cry of pain told me I had hit my target.

As nopony rose from behind their cover to shoot me, I motioned Meridian, and we carefully proceeded toward our enemies.

(** **)

They were not bandits, but that did little to comfort me.

The stallion with the assault rifle had been killed on the spot by my first shot. The mare with him, however, had only been hit in the shoulders, but apparently immediately went into shock. I reckoned she had never been shot before, and as I noticed their armor I realized it probably was the case.

Both of them wore security armor from Tenpony.

“Oh boy,” Meridian commented, helpful as ever. “Well, now that’s embarrassing.”

The mare chose to wake up right afterward.

(** **)

Some ponies live only to see, over and over again, this mix of horror, fear and hatred on the face of somepony who woke up to face, disarmed, their eternal arch enemy.

I, for one, cared little for it, and I would in truth gladly spend my whole existence without having to face it again.

“You,” the mare snarled, trying to get up. “You filthy, damnable whore! I’m gonna…”

I silenced her by moving my rifle’s barrel right under her nose.

“You do realize you were the one who tried to kill me, don’t you?” I asked. “I should be the one insulting you.”

She spat on me.

“You are the only murderer here, cunt!”

Grimacing, I wiped the offending gob of spit from my left foreleg.

“Listen,” I snapped, feeling less and less inclined toward a nice and calm conversation. “You see your friend over there?”

I pointed toward the still warm corpse a couple meters away.

“He’s dead because of you,” I continued. “Now you got two friends to bury, because you were dumb enough to think somehow the two of you could kill the two of us. Still fancy calling me a cunt, huh?”

She spat again, but this time it stuck to her lips and pathetically dropped on her own fur.

“Ah, but don’t you know?” she croaked, “You didn’t quite get Liberty. He’s alive and under good care at the Hospital. What does that make you feel, murderer?”

I blinked.

“Relieved, actually,” I confessed.

That drew a blank.

“…what?”

“I’m relieved he’s alive,” I repeated. “Really. He seemed quite a nice guy when I met him.”

“You shot him!” she shrieked, shifting toward the rifle. “You’re the reason he almost died in the first place! How can you say now you’re glad he’s going to make it?!”

“Well,” I scratched my mane in embarrassment, “I didn’t plan to shoot him in the first place. Believe me or not, it was an accident.”

“An accident? An accident?” The mare went full on hysterics, and I stepped back a couple steps. “You… you… asshole!

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t my proudest moment, okay? What did you think, that I was some psychopath shooting at everypony on her path?”

Her deadly glare carried far more meaning than a thousand words.

“Oh.”

A pregnant silence fell back on the Wastelands. The three of us looked at each other, not muttering a word.

Then, the mare finally broke the ice:

“So, what are you waiting for?” she asked, calmer.

“What do you mean?”

“You are going to kill me, right?” She had lost all the verve in her voice. “Just do me a favor, and make it quick.”

I blinked. Had she been a bandit, or a raider, or pretty much anyone else in the Wastelands, I would have shot her on the spot and be done with it. She tried to kill me, she failed, fat chance, see you in the next life!

But now I actually faced a moral dilemma. Me, of all ponies.

Well, fuck me, that little stunt in Tenpony is really going to bite my ass for a long time.

Next to me, Meridian slowly shook his head in disapproval. Of course he wouldn’t me to execute somepony in cold blood like that. Celestia’s holy nipples, I would have done way worse in her shoes!

So, against all my instincts, I took my decision.

“Just grab your shit and go,” I said, slowly backpedalling from the guard.

She looked up at me, surprise and tears in her eyes. She just couldn’t freakin’ believe it, and neither could I.

“But I’m warning you,” I menaced. “If I ever, ever see even the tip of your armored asses after my hide ever again, I swear I’m gonna hurt you so much even your late ancestors will feel it. Got it?”

She nodded, and then, slowly, limped away from me.

Meridian and I stood there, watching her go in the dusty distance toward Manehattan.

“I hope she won’t get killed by a manticore in her state,” the stallion said.

“Eh,” I turned around to resume our journey. “I already let her live. Did you expect me to babysit her all the way back to Tenpony, too?”

A few days afterward, we reached Junction R-7.

(** **)

Junction R-7 was a very peculiar settlement, even by the Wastelands standards. Halfway between military camp and makeshift refugee town, most of its structures were made out of pre-war fret carts. A ring of them surrounded the place as a barricade.

The whole thing stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of nowhere, Equestria.

Many places offered a better natural shelter, or more pre-war resources to salvage. Yet, I’d been told that each day saw more and more refugees coming to start a new life in JR-7.

There was a very good reason for that.

The town also hosted the Talon Headquarters. Hell, before they started to accept ponies from everywhere a couple months ago, the whole place was their base of operation.

Indubitably, the Talons were the best merc’ company on the West coast. Maybe they could be challenged by the Reapers from the Hoof for the title of “Equestria’s most badass private contractors”, but each party kept their business to their own, and they spent surprisingly little time shooting at each other.

Hence, attacking Junction R-7 meant getting neck-deep in a barrel of radioactive shit. In laypony terms, I had never heard of anypony who had the balls to start an open war against the Talons and survived to tell the tale.

Otherwise, they were very decent people, especially compared to the other factions in the area.

(** **)

Meridian and I entered the secured perimeter without any trouble. The metal-clad griffin keeping watch over the North access barely eyed me and my gun before nodding sternly his approval. He didn’t even spare a glance for Meridian.

It struck me as odd. Then again, the last time I’d been there, JR-7 only hosted the Talons. Now that it had started blossoming into a proper town, I reckoned they couldn’t afford to keep an eye on everypony who walked through the doors.

Once inside, I bribed a famished-looking beggar for directions, and headed for the direction he gave me. My spirits weren’t to sightseeing, not that anything stood out in the first place. Ponies dwelled on the dusty trails they called streets, and here and there Talon griffins patrolled the area with a ruthless look on their face. Nothing really out of the ordinary.

My companion, however, seemed to pay much more attention to the people we met in the streets. Here and there faces and marks sparked his curiosity, and he looked around him like he was solving some kind of giant, life-like puzzle.

I, on the other hoof, was far more concerned about the weapons they carried.

Almost every single soul we bumped into sported a weapon. Nothing fancy, really: duct tape, fence wire and rust often were all that kept the guns from falling apart altogether; swords and axes had been replaced with broken pool cues and rusted kitchen knives. Yet, I knew better than dismissing them as no threats at all.

Sure, crappy pea-shooters with even crappier ammunition wouldn’t do much damage in a fair fight. What little lead landed on the target was often easily stopped by armor and barding. Yet, it all came down to luck, in the end, for even a low-power .22LR could kill you, should you get hit in the head.

Any bigger caliber would start getting real dangerous at close range, regardless of the gun which fired it. When it comes to small arms at close range, 9mm ammunition was enough to shoot clean through anything that wasn’t designed to be bullet-resistant, and even then the impact alone would be enough to send the target to the ground. .357 magnum would make your fancy metal armor useless, and .44 magnum would only be stopped by thick, heavy armors like the Steel Rangers’.

Rifles made the situation even worse. My .308 hunting rifle had enough penetration power to make most bullet-proof gear useless. The relatively low power of 5.56mm semi-automatic or automatics guns was easily compensated by the ability to rain death over your target. A burst of 7.62mm could break your ribs without even without getting through your body armor, in the very unlikely case it managed to stop the bullets.

Anything bigger, such as the infamous .50 cal, simple tore you apart on impact. Even Steel Rangers feared those kinds of ammunitions.

Thankfully, the bigger the caliber, the less likely you are to find a gun still able to shoot it. Oversized cartridges often did a number on the inner mechanisms, and as a result most people didn’t have the firepower to make combat armor useless.

Plus, most Wastelanders were terrible shots.

Still, it didn’t mean you could prance around without fear of getting shot if you’re wearing real armor. When it’s raining lead from everywhere, somepony is bound to hit you, eventually.

Bonus point if they weren’t aiming for you.

But, to me makeshift melee weapons definitely ranked as the most important threat. If hitting a running target at ten meters was hard, impaling said target with the pointy end of a stick wasn’t. Bullet-proof plating did little against blades, and pretty much nothing can save you if you’re getting trampled with a sledgehammer.

Add the fact I had absolutely no skill in close-quarter combats whatsoever, and you understand why armed crowds always made me nervous.

But the ponies in the streets didn’t prove to be very aggressive. If anything, some seemed to be afraid of me, shrinking away or backing up when they met my gaze. Silently, I hoped they feared my overall look, and that it has nothing to do with the Tenpony fiasco. Crazy vigilantes falling on me from the skies to make me pay for my crimes were the very last thing I wanted.

Eventually though we reached, unharmed, the place I had been told about.

(** **)

Goldfeather’s Emporium occupied one of the few buildings which hadn’t been built out of train carts. I reckoned it used to be a small warehouse of some sort; now, it hosted a nondescript conglomeration of price-stamped junk. From afar, one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking the place for an abandoned scrapyard. Piles of stuff formed a treacherous maze, and I wouldn’t be surprised if customers often found themselves buried under a metric ton of wares.

Meridian and I aside, only two other people populated the shop.

I reckoned the amber-and-cream griffon to be Goldfeather himself. Standing behind an overloaded desk, he was having a very lively argument with a teal-colored filly. I sure didn’t want to pry, but there was no escaping from their shouting.

“… but you got tons of them! Can’t you just give me one?” The filly half-pleaded, half-accused. I got to hoof it to her, it surely takes a lot of guts to yell on a lion/eagle chimera thrice her size.

Goldfeather, on the other hoof, seemed more composed, but the little twitches around the corner of his eyes betrayed his annoyance.

“For the last time, I cannot hand you over some of my wares for free, regardless of your reasons! Now, since you obviously don’t even have a single cap to spend, please get the hell out of my shop before I start losing my cool!” The griffin growled, his left claw dropping on a riot shotgun conveniently placed.

Noticing the lethal weapon, the filly backed up a couple steps. Her eyes were wide, and filling with tears.

“Sorry, kiddo,” the griffin added, a hint of guilt in his voice, “but I can’t help you.”

As the filly dashed off the warehouse, I heard Meridian sighting behind me.

“The poor girl’s probably looking for something to eat,” he mumbled, out of Goldfeather’s hear range.

“That, or a fix of Dash,” I replied, cynical. “Wouldn’t be the first time I saw a blank-flank hooked to drugs.”

He shot me a dirty glare.

“What?” I continued, unfazed. “It’s a crapsack world we’re living in. I wasn’t much older when I started bounty hunting. She probably ain’t a kid anymore, you know.”

“There’s no reasoning with you,” he shook his head. “I don’t even know why I bother, sometimes.”

With that, he ran after the filly. Goldfeather didn’t even seem to notice him, and instead looked over to me.

“Beats me,” I mumbled. On the bright side, if Meridian decided to leave the party now, I wouldn’t have to make a decision about letting him in the secret about the DERTA. Yet, somehow, I felt a tiny bit of regret at the idea of traveling all alone again.

“Welcome to Goldfeather’s Emporium!” the griffin greeted me as I drew nearer to his cashier desk. “Are you looking for something in particular?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.” I answered, grabbing my list from my bags. Had the situation been any different, I would have probably shoplifted a couple items on my way in already, but I simply had too much to get in so little time. For once, I’ll have to do my shopping like everypony else – that is, by paying for my stuff.

Besides, in this gigantic mess, only Goldfeather could hope to find whatever I was looking for.

“What 9mm pistols do you have? I want one in pristine shape, along with spare magazines,” I read, “along with winter gear, artic camping material, dehydrated food, a couple canteens, strong saddlebags because mine are falling apart, the best lockpicking set you got, and, um…”

A spot of grease had somehow made it way on the paper, and I struggled to make out the next item on the list.

As for Goldfeather, he now eyed me with a critical glare.

“I hope you have enough caps to afford what you’re asking for,” he growled. “As I said to this filly earlier, I don’t do credit, I don’t do gifts, and I don’t do refunds.”

I winced at the idea of spending thousands on gear, but then again, what choice did I have?

Reaching for my saddlebags, I grabbed two heavy pouches, which dropped on the desk with a satisfying metallic sound. Soon followed Crowneigh’s ring and revolver, along with other miscellaneous pricey items I didn’t have the occasion to sell.

A gleam now in his eyes, Goldfeather leaned toward me, and uncrossed his paws.

“I’m all ears,” he said.

(** **)

Half an hour and one thousand, seven hundred and forty-two bottlecaps later, I found myself to be the happy owner of enough gear to survive an expedition all the way to Cristal Wastes and back. Sure, I wouldn’t need to go that far north, and if my guesses were correct, when the winter snow came I’d be either safe inside the Big Mountain compound, or dead.

The latter would hopefully not come to pass.

When I first entered Goldfeather’s Emporium, I had three fears.

One, that he may antagonize me for the whole Tenpony fiasco.

Two, that he may not have the items I was looking for.

Three, that what I wanted laid somewhere in his warehouse, under half a ton of mess and junk, and that even the owner wouldn’t be able to find them.

Luckily, the first two proved to be unfounded.

Unluckily, it turned out winterized armor padding wasn’t often asked for in this place where the temperature during the coldest winters stayed well above ten degrees. Sure, the griffin did have a couple in stock.

But he didn’t know where.

Other than the lost clothes, his wares proved to be decent. The locksmith set he sold me was nowhere as good as my previous one, but I only needed a couple common picks and a new pressure wrench, after all. Most of it hadn’t followed me in Tenpony in the first place, and had stayed back in the safety of my shack.

The camping gear was… well, camping gear. Rope, safety blankets, dehydrated military food, canteens, and so on. I liked to travel light, but some things were essential when you wandered in the wilds up to the North.

Medical supplies consisted of half a dozen general purposes healing potions, some Med-X, bandages, and rubbing alcohol. I wisely shied away from the combat drugs. I didn’t know what in Tartarus they put in Dash, but the sole sight of one of the prismatic inhalators made my heart pump in arousal. Damn, and I only took a couple – no wonder so many ponies were hooked to the stuff.

The only fly on the painting came from the guns the griffin showed me. I quickly dismissed the ones not chambered in 9mm – I still had enough +P rounds with me to wear a couple stainless steel barrels down – and those which seemed to be falling apart.

Believe me or not, even though this is by far one of the most common calibers when it comes to small arms, even though a weapon was by design supposed to be able to fire more than a dozen rounds, even though Goldfeather’s Emporium was packed with hundreds of different weapons, once I did a quick filtering only three pistols remained.

On those three, only two had spare magazines.

None had threaded barrels for a suppressor, and both were Luna-damned expensive.

Off all the imaginable and possible criteria to choose the weapon, it all came down in the end to a simple question:

Metal or polymer frame?

To me, that was a no brainer. Plastic don’t rust.

I paid up front for everything. I needed that gear, and I reckon the idea of losing a client and making an enemy was enough of an incentive for him to start searching. Still, I now had a couple days to kill around Junction R-7.

(** **)

Outside, I found Meridian waiting for me, cigarette on his lips.

“You took your time,” he greeted me, somewhat upset.

“I had a lot of stuff to get,” I answered, motioning toward my brand new saddlebags. For good measure, I took my newest gun out his holster, and proceeded to load his magazines.

“You know, you never told me why you wanted so much gear,” he continued, eying the canteens at my side. “You’re going somewhere?”

“Maybe.” Two weeks we’ve been traveling together, and I still didn’t know if I could really trust him. I changed the subject.

“Did you find the filly?”

He grunted, and spat his mostly burned cigarette.

“She’s gone somewhere over there. I couldn’t go after her without you.”

“Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?” I teased. “Afraid of the big birds in metal armor?” Eh, looked like someone was scared by the Talons.

He rolled his eyes. “They’re mercenaries. I’d be quite stupid to trust them, now wouldn’t I?”

Somehow, I felt a bit offended by the comment. Didn’t know why, though – I’m not a mercenary, I’m a bounty hunter. Totally different thing, right?

Right.

I shrugged it off.

“By the way, I asked Goldfeather about that one filly,” I said, a small grin on my lips. “Turns out I was closer of the truth than you were.”

“Really? How so?”

“She didn’t want drugs, but she wasn’t there for food either. What she needed –” I patted my breast holster “– was a weapon.”

“Seriously?” Meridian mused. “Did you happen to know why?”

“Something about taking revenge on a gang of raiders, I think,” I recalled. “It’s probably a good thing she didn’t get what she wanted, or else she’d be either dead or pinned under a raider by now.”

He shot me the best ‘dude, not funny’ look he could muster.

“That’s all you got to say?”

“What?” I shrugged. “It’s not like there’s anything we can do about it.”

“Sometimes, I wonder if you are not dumb on purpose,” he facehooved, “because there’s no way you just said that.”

Noticing my blank look, he continued:

“Spring, for goodness’ sake, you’re a bounty hunter. You kill people for a living, damn it!”

“I don’t see what my job has anything to do with her,” I answered, puzzled.

“Unless… you want me to get her to hire me?”

Meridian threw his hooves toward the skies. “Yes, she understood! It’s about time, I daresay.”

“She can’t even buy herself a gun,” I deadpanned. “A pea-shooter is so cheap you could by one just by scramming in the junk around the town. How is she supposed to afford to hire me?”

“Simple. She won’t.”

The silence that ensured stretched for an uncomfortable minute.

“Wait, so let me sum this up.” I finally said, dumbfounded. “You want me to work for free?”

As he nodded, I resisted the urge to fill him with lead, and continued.

“Don’t you think getting shot at is hard enough when you’re paid to do it?”

“Oh, come on,” he insisted. “It’s not like a couple raiders are going to be of any threat to you.”

He had a point. “Still,” I carried on, sounding less assured than I wanted to, “bullets don’t grow on trees.”

“You’ll have the loot,” he reasoned. “Plus, wouldn’t it be great to do a good action, for once, just out of kindness?”

“Out of kindness?” I sneered. “Who do you think you are, the Stable Dweller?”

“I wish I were,” he laughed. Soon enough, I found myself grinning as well.

“Oh well,” I finally announced. “Let’s find this filly and get on with it.”

(** **)

Sidequest accepted: Birds of a Feather

Level up!

New skill: Mysterious Stranger

“Looks like you could use some assistance.”

Chapter Six: Birds of a Feather

View Online

Read it on Google Docs.

“Well the difference bein’ one is a job, and the other is a mental sickness!”

Chapter Six: Birds of a Feather

“Meridian, just to check,” I asked as we walked down Junction R-7 dirt streets, “you realize we may be targeting innocents if we carry on with your idea, right?”

The earth pony shot me an inquisitive look.

“I though you said they were raiders,” he frowned.

“I said she said they were raiders,” I nuanced. “Don’t take me wrong, I’m aware I’ve been served a lot of bullshit in the past when it comes to reasons somepony had to die, and this one doesn’t cut it. It never really bothered me until recently, to be honest, but I’m pretty much sure it’s not your line of work, though.”

“That’d be quite… problematic indeed,” he answered after a while. “But we can drop the job if it gets fishy, right?”

“It’s not even a job in a first place, since I’m doing it for free,” I shrugged. If word got around I’d started working without a proper fee, I’d end up drowning in requests. “So yeah, if it smells funny or if anything seems wrong, we’re packing up and dropping the case. Nopony could even blame us for that.”

We continued walking down the street in silence. My gaze lazily scouted around for the filly we were so adamant to find. Meridian downright stared at everypony we met, but no one seemed to mind.

Eventually, we found her, sitting on a discarded old television casing, a rusted and twisted tin can in front of her. As we approached, the small pegasus looked up at us with huge, innocent green eyes, a puppy smile shivering on her lips. Meridian let out a quiet d’aww, and I had to call upon all my professionalism not to get moved by the cuteness overload.

“Hi, kiddo,” I waved her, taking a quick look into her tin can. Sure enough, she had already gathered a dozen bottle caps or so already. Damn, you’re gonna go far, kid. “You doin’ okay?”

The filly noticed my glaze toward her small fortune, and quickly dragged the tin can toward her in a protective fashion.

“Relax, I’m not going to rob you,” I chuckled. Seriously, did I look like a raider, or what? “I overheard your little argument earlier with Goldfeather.”

She eyed me with suspicion. “What do you want?”

“I’ve been told you had some trouble with raiders, correct?” I asked, watching her cute look melting away as I was speaking.

“It’s none of your business,” she answered bitterly. “Unless you want to lend me a gun.”

“Can’t do that, kid,” I apologized. “But I think I can do better.”

She shot me an inquisitive look. It was painfully obvious she didn’t trust me, but I could hardly blame her. She motioned me to continue. Damn, she wasn’t half my age, and already I felt like she owned the place and I was a con vendor or something.

“I specialize in solving these kinds of problems,” I leaned towards her, lowering my voice. “I’m a bounty hunter.”

She raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “You mean, like a mercenary?”

I winced. Would people never learn the difference?

“No, more like a hitmare, except I’m freelance,” I answered. “I could probably make short work of your… friends.”

She eyed me from hoof to ears. Her gaze lingered a bit on my newly acquired pistol, then she looked me straight in the eyes.

“I don’t have enough to pay you,” she finally broke away. “I can’t even afford a gun…”

And there it goes. No turning back now.

“I’m not asking for any caps,” I said. The words felt wrong in my mouth, but Meridian supported me with a small, yet genuine smile.

The filly looked dumbfounded for a moment, then suddenly backed away, an unspeakable horror clear on her face.

“I’m… I’m not paying with my body either!” she stammered, falling from her makeshift pedestal.

“What?” My brain processed her panicked refusal in utmost stupor. “What… Who in Tartarus would be sick enough to ask that of a filly who doesn’t even have her cutie mark!?”

Some raiders would, a part of my mind answered, but I quickly dispelled the idea. Of all monstrosities in the Wastelands, child abuses were among those that even the most sadistic, self-centered assholes despised. True, I often joked about it – I had quite a dark humor after all – but to be actually accused of it shook me to the bones.

She seemed to calm a bit as she noticed the horror on my face.

“I don’t know. Mommy always told me to beware of strangers who gave me nice things for free,” she answered as she gathered the caps she had spilled. Without a word, I helped her turning her pedestal back up.

“Can’t blame her for that,” I nodded. Then, with a low voice: “I’m not asking for any payment of any kind. Like, you know, a gift?”

From the look on her face, she still didn’t trust me, but a small spark of hope now shimmed in her eyes, along with a disturbing hint of sadism and thirst for vengeance. So young, and yet…

“Why are you doing that?”

Good question, kiddo. Good question.

“Because I feel like it. Ain’t that reason enough?” I dismissed. “Let’s say I’m on a personal quest for rediscovery, and that I want to atone for my sins.”

She shot me a nonplussed look.

“Really?” she deadpanned.

“It may have something to do with shooting raiders and your insupportable cuteness,” I added, my hoof ruffling my mane in embarrassment. ‘Quest for rediscovery’? Where in Tartarus did that come from?

“Oh well, it’s not like I have anything to lose;” the filly finally decided. “My name’s Feather. So, when do we start killing those assholes?”

(** **)

“Sorry, missy, but there’s no way I’m letting you coming with me,” I asserted with as much authority I could muster.

“But I want to see them deaaaaad!” Feather whinnied. Foals nowadays, I swear! They’ll be the death of me.

“You’re not helping your case.” I shot her an unimpressed look. “Besides, I work solo.”

“Then at least bring me their heads back!”

“It’s not as good an idea as it sounds,” I winced.

She started pouting.

“But I can cut their ears, if you want,” I quickly backpedaled. “Since I often aim for the head, they wouldn’t be very recognizable anyway.”

She pondered the idea for a couple seconds. Then, she lightened up.

“Can’t you cut their balls off instead?”

I almost choked on my own tongue.

(** **)

“Listen, kid, I kill people. I don’t chop their balls off!” I admonished. “Not to mention you’re far too young to say things like that.”

I mentally facehooved. I’d just told my eleven-year-old patron hiring somepony to commit half-a dozen murders was okay, but talking about something remotely sexual wasn’t. Someday, I should really focus on redefining my priorities.

Thankfully, Feather didn’t seem to notice the contradiction, and stared bashfully at the ground below my hooves.

“Now, I need some more intelligence on the targets. While it wouldn’t bother me the slightest to kill all the damn raiders in this country, I fear it’s well above my skills, so we’ll have to narrow down the scope to the ones you want to see dead.”

Feather nodded, and started her story.

(** **)

“Mommy and Daddy were scavengers,” she started with a small voice. “You know, scouting around old buildings for treasures and scraps, fixing old guns and armors, selling them back to merchants, those kinds of things. Mommy was born in a Stable, so she knew lots of techy stuff about electronics and other arcano-thingies. Daddy had a knack with weapons, fixing them, polishing them so they looked brand new.

“We lived in a small pre-war office building, ten kilometers from here. Nothing fancy, just enough to protect us from the rain and the beasts, but some raiders thought it would make a nice base or something.

“Two weeks ago, they attacked our home. Daddy grabbed his rifle and went out to fight them, and Mommy told me to hide in the rubble. She said to wait for her to come back.”

Feather sniffed a bit, but I could see no tears on her cheeks. I had been there, at her place, facing the death of both my parents long before their times. It’s true it makes you cry, at first. You weep and kick and wail for hours, days and nights. But eventually the tears run dry, and all you feel is emptiness inside your heart. The thirst of vengeance could drive you from then, but you never really get over such a traumatic experience. It always left a scar.

“But she didn’t come back,” she continued with a hollow voice. “The raiders didn’t go away. I’m not stupid, you know? I knew what it meant. But I refused to believe it. So, in the dead of the night, as they were too drunk to notice me in the shadows, I crept toward them to take a look.”

She went silent, and looked up to me. No words were needed.

“I’m sorry, kiddo.” I felt my heart go down my hooves. “Those bastards are going to get what they deserve.”

A tired, miniscule smile crept on her face, yet it was obvious her heart wasn’t in it.

(** **)

An hour later, Meridian and I arrived in sight of the building. Laying behind a rock on a small hill a couple hundred meters from the entrance, I scouted the area with my binoculars.

Sitting in the middle of nowhere, Equestria, the building seemed to be the last standing structure of what could have been a factory compound. Collapsed lighter steel frames were still visible under the rust and the dust. Whether the megaspells or time wore them down was anypony’s guess – but the stronger, concrete office block had stayed up somehow. Well, the first two levels stayed up, at least: from the rubble, it seemed the third and last story had collapsed, without taking the whole structure down.

I maybe didn’t have any particular knowledge in architecture and civil engineering, but the whole building looked extremely unsafe to me.

“Do you think we could bring it all down on them?” whispered Meridian.

“Sounds like a bad idea,” I murmured back, “because we still need their ears as a proof.”

Through the glassless windows of the first level, I could see the shimmering orange light of a campfire. Upstairs, two raiders were lazily attending their watch. Feather had told us they had been at least half a dozen when they attacked her familly, and so far the lack of any particular activity seemed to prove her right.

I mean, let’s face it: you can’t put more than six raiders in a place without having a lot of gruesome or loud activities going around.

Aiming with my rifle, I turned the magnification of the telescopic sight to maximum, and scanned the lower level. I could make out at least two different ponies from the little glimmer of their cigarette, plus another who moved across my field of vision. Sliding my scope toward the ground level, I noticed the metal door had been seriously damaged in the past, leaving it hanging sideway on its hinges. I doubted it could even be locked.

I nudged Meridian – who had grabbed the binoculars – and leaned toward him.

“Two guys on the upper level with guns, at least three on the lower with unknown weapons. There may be more, but none that I can see,” I murmured.

“Do you think you can take them out?” he asked, motioning toward my rifle.

“The two on the second story are goners, that much is certain,” I answered, taking aim once again. “Can’t say much for the two smokers downstairs. It’s too dark for me to see where they are, exactly.”

The sight slowly aligned with a little orange cigarette light. I pulled the bolt back and forth, and switched the safety off.

“Hopefully the second one won’t drop his when I shot his buddy,” I said between my teeth. “Meridian, mind keeping an eye on them?”

“Will do.”

“Okay,” I exhaled slowly, “here… we… go…”

I pulled the trigger.

A couple hundred meters away, a cigarette light suddenly spun in the air.

“The other’s three meters on the right.”

I ejected the empty shell, and aimed toward the other smoker. Thankfully, he hadn’t dropped his cigarette.

Another shot, and he went down.

“Nice one. The guys on the roof are moving.”

I moved my sights upward, and engaged another .308 cartridge. One of the stallions on the second level had taken cover behind a metal barrel, but apparently didn’t know where I was, since he left his whole left flank uncovered.

His head exploded in a pulp of blood, brain and bones.

By now, his colleague had realized staying on the roof wasn’t the best course of action against a sniper. He bolted toward what I supposed to be a staircase.

I missed him by a hair.

“Luna damn it,” I mumbled, taking out the empty casing and changing the clip. I slowly scanned the lower level for activity. A head popped up for a couple seconds on the right, then quickly hid back behind the wall.

“Oh no you don’t,” I gritted my teeth. I shot the wall; cinder block chips flew everywhere. With any luck, I had gone through.

I reloaded and shot an armor-piercing bullet for good measure.

“Okay,” I motioned Meridian as I got up, “let’s wrap this up, and we’ll be back at JR-7 for supper.”

(** **)

Pistol at the ready, I reached the building without any kind of problem. With any luck, I had killed most of them, and the survivors were drenching themselves in their own piss as they faced their impending doom.

That, or it could be a trap. It wouldn’t be the first time my targets were somehow waiting for me.

Slowly, I pushed the metallic door open. I had expected it to let out a sinister, metallic wailing, but instead it opted for breaking down for good and falling flat on the ground with a thundering sound.

Well, so much for the discreet entrance.

I leaned over the edge of the door frame, only to be greeted by a hail of hot lead. Encased in its TK field, my pistol retaliated swiftly, keeping the shooter under pressure.

Soon enough, an unholy curse told me they’d ran out of ammo. I took a quick look inside.

At the far end of a half-collapsed corridor, behind a makeshift barricade of rumbles and debris, a lone earth pony was fidgeting with an assault rifle. From the look of it, he didn’t have much experience with it.

In a blink, I shot him dead.

Slipping in the cool interior, I reloaded my pistol, and stashed the near-empty magazine in a pocket. As nopony jumped into from the shadows to shoot me, I motioned Meridian to follow.

He looked over the corpse, and tipped one of his limp limb with a cautious hoof.

“Yeap, he’s dead,” he murmured. “That makes four, five if you got the one behind the wall.”

Cautiously, I walked down the dusty corridor, keeping my focus on the ponyholes everywhere.

“It means we’re still one short, at least,” I answered quietly.

We reached another wooden door, this one still standing. I leaned back against the wall, and tried to make out sounds from the other side.

Sure enough, I could hear at least a couple muffled voices. I walked back the corridor to the cover of a large chunk of concrete. Meridian joined me, revolver in mouth. I had yet to see him shoot anything.

Taking aim at the door, I slowly turned the handle with my telekinesis.

The frame hadn’t made it halfway before two huge holes blasted through it, sending chunks of wood everywhere. What little remained of the door burst inward, and a crazed raider with a chainsaw jumped into the corridor, flaying his deadly weapon in all directions.

It took him a few seconds to realize we were safely hidden far beyond his range, and my pistol promptly made him bite the dust.

Another raider appeared in the doorway, a saw-cut rifle levitating in front of him. I ducked back to cover, but not before some lead pellets grazed my flanks. The wound on my back barked a wave of pain in my nerves, and I had to bite my lips not to scream.

As he shifted back behind a wall to reload, I jumped toward him, over the corpse, and before he could stick two more cartridges into his gun, he found himself facing the deadly end of a pistol.

A couple sharp detonations later, the confirmed body count reached six.

Yet, shots from the other end of the room taught me it wasn’t quite over yet.

“I’ll have your hide, you bitch!” somepony yelled. He punctuated his threats with three more bullets, which didn’t come anywhere close to me.

Taking a cautious look from my cover, I spotted a stallion in a weird sitting position maybe sixteen meters from me, leaning against an upside-down metal desk. From the holes in the concrete wall, and the dark trail of blood from there to him, I reckoned I did hit my target earlier, after all.

An old single-action revolver floated shakily over his horn. From the look of it, he didn’t have much time left, nor ammo for that matter.

And while I am a patient pony, I had little wish to wait for one of my target die of blood loss.

Taking a careful aim with my pistol, I lined him up with my iron sights. He shot a couple more times, but missed me by a good couple meters.

I, for one, didn’t.

Silence fell back on the Wastelands.

“I think we cleaned the area up,” Meridian finally stated, holstering back his Colt.

(** **)

We found Feather’s parents in different rooms on the second level.

And when I say different rooms, I don’t exactly mean the father in one room, and the mother in the next.

The stench alone made me want to throw up. Meridian visibly paled up behind his brown fur.

“I hope Feather didn’t have to see that,” he mumbled in a toneless voice.

Swallowing some acrid bile that had found its way up to my throat, I opted not to answer.

“Let’s find some fuel to burn this place to the ground,” I finally said, “right after we round up their ears and whatever valuable gear they had.”

The loot proved to be meager. The assault rifle from the hall proved to be in a decent condition, and I reckoned it had belonged to Feather’s father. The chainsaw, the shotgun and the cowboy revolver proved to be worthless, along with the raiders’ armor. One of the smokers had a rusted cleaver; the second had a decayed 10mm pistol which didn’t seem to be in working condition. On the roof, I found a varmint rifle of little value.

As I was about to start pouring fuel from a pre-war generator all over the place, however, I hit jackpot.

“Hey, Meridian,” I called, nudging the bloody piece of metalcrafting with my hooftip, “do you think it’s still working?”

“What did you found?” he trotted toward me. “Oh, I see. They probably took it from her mother’s leg, but couldn’t open it.”

It was a Pipbuck.

“Do you know how much that’s worth?” I asked him. The six-digit price of the one I had seen back in the Mall was spinning in my head.

“Much, but I reckon there’s a reason you don’t see them in every shop.” he answered, cautiously stepping around the blood smears to take a better look. “Stable dwellers usually make easy targets.”

“What do you mean?” I finally levitated the object in front of me. Here and there, bits of flesh still hanged around the fixations. I couldn’t help but feel a bit nauseous.

“I bet you couldn’t make it work, even if you wanted to,” he motioned toward the unlit screen. “There are probably dozens of securities on those things that prevent you from starting it again without the proper tools.”

“I guess you’re right,” I chuckled half-heartily, “and good luck to find a proper Pipbuck technician in the Wastelands. Still, we can’t leave it here, right?”

“Sure.” He paused for a moment, gazing at the dried blood on the stainless steel. “At the very least, we should return it to Feather.”

I almost chocked. “What? Dude, even if it’s not working anymore, a Pipbuck is worth at least ten thousands caps!”

“Yeah, but it’s not yours,” he pointed out, “If you keep it, you’re stealing it.”

“What’s the big deal?” I raised an eyebrow. “It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last, for that matter.”

“Do you often steal from small fillies the last token they have from their parents, freshly deceased in a very traumatic experience?”

I opened my mouth, froze, blinked, closed my jaw, gritted my teeth, flapped my ears, opened my mouth again, shut it again, and finally stomped.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?” I spat toward Meridian. “Fine! Let’s throw away this nice, easy-made stash of cash!”

I stormed out of the room, grabbed the fuel cans, and started pouring everywhere in anger.

Without a word, Meridian put the Pipbuck with the rest of our loot, and left.

(** **)

On our way back to Junction R-7, we stopped by a small pond. Behind us, far away over the distance, a black smoke raised over the horizon. The sun had barely started his decent; overall, the whole job, trip included, had required less than four hours. Feather probably didn’t expect us to come back so soon – or even at all. There was one last thing I had to do before coming back to do my report, however.

Ducking near the slightly radioactive water, I took the Pipbuck out of my bags. I couldn’t really hoof over the item to Feather without washing all the blood and the gore from her mother from it, after all.

Using my telekinesis and some sand, I meticulously scrubbed the metal frame. As the task became repetitive and overall boring, my mind started to wander on the object itself. While I was aware of their uses, strengths and weaknesses, I never had the occasion to see one up close.

From what I could see of the disabled device, I realized PipBucks looked barely more than some fancy mapping device in the eye of the beholder. Polished steel formed the outer layer around a dark green screen protected by some kind of thick transparent plastic. A metallic edge allowed it to be readable even in broad sunlight. Under the screen, there were three unlabeled buttons that had seen better days. The device had an embedded Geiger counter in the upper-left corner, and the little arrow turned toward the yellow each time I plunged it under the water. Two other dial-buttons completed the interface. Lastly, I reckoned the part under the Pipbuck – that is, between the steel and the owner’s flesh – used to be padded, but neither the throes of time nor the fact it had been cut from somepony’s leg recently in a very messy fashion had been very kind to the padding.

Overall, it wouldn’t be very hard to make it look pristine again – the only trouble would be to find a way to restart it, and to strap it to his new owner. Maybe Chrystal had the knowledge to unlock it, but then again she’d probably squeeze me of all my caps to do so.

“You aren’t thinking of keeping it, now aren’t you?” piped Meridian.

“Maybe,” I shook the PipBuck to dry it up, and shot him a sideway glance. “Aren’t you even slightly appealed by the idea of making a big stash of caps by selling it?”

“And pray tell, what would I do with my weight in bottle caps?”

The stallion grabbed a cigarette from his outfit. Helpful, I held a lighter toward him.

“Thanks,” he muttered, puffing. “Money doesn’t drive me. Sure, I ain’t happy when I’m broke, but otherwise, as long as I have enough to get whatever I need, I’m content.”

My eyes went back on the PipBuck, and my thoughts drifted toward the four keys in my front pocket. Not driven by greed, uh?

“I can hardly believe that.” I said with a smug smile. “Everypony wants caps. It’s, like, a rule of the universe.”

“Two hundred years ago, everypony wanted Equestrian bits and a nice manestyle,” he retorted with a chuckle. “It’s not money ponies want, it’s the power it gives. Money is power, but power gets you killed here. Unless you become an asshole like Red Eye, but I’d rather die than doing that.”

“So you want to stay poor forever?” I asked in disbelief.

“Poor ponies with big guns don’t get mugged,” he blinked mischievously. “More seriously, it’s just that what I value, most people discard with disdain.”

“And that’d be?”

“Honesty. Generosity. Kindness. Laugher. Loyalty. Friendship.” He embraced the landscape around us with a raised hoof. “Did you know this country once revered those qualities as traits of godhood?”

I couldn’t help but roll in the dust of laugher at the silly idea.

My hilarity was short lived, however, as I rolled into the muddy, radioactive pond.

“Eeck!” I jumped out, half my body dripping. Great, now I was going to shine in the dark!

“If I was more pious, I would say the goddesses had punished you,” Meridian chuckled. He tossed his half-smoked cigarette in the water, and held the PipBuck toward me. “I agree the formulation is a bit cheesy, yet I have the conviction someday those virtues shall save these desolate lands.”

I shook my head. When the Wonderbolts come back from their graves, surely!

My eyes locked with Meridian’s. He didn’t shy away, and for a split second my father was here, looking at me and waiting for me to say something.

“I can’t say I share your beliefs,” I finally avowed, “but it’s your business, in the end. It ain’t like you are trying to coerce me into being the Mother of All Friendships, after all.”

“Well, I did manage to befriend you in the first place,” Meridian chuckled. “Though you shouldn’t worry about being the new incarnation of the Elements of Harmony. No offence, but you’re pretty much at the antipode of the virtues they are supposed to incarnate.”

“Damn, you sure know how to talk to a lady,” I snorted.

Then, I thought back to what he said. Friend, huh? Come to think of it, I reckoned it was true indeed, and while I still didn’t trust him all the way, it had been pleasant not to journey alone.

It was then I took my decision.

“Hey, Meridian, ever heard of the DERTA?”

(** **)

As I had expected, Meridian immediately accepted to accompany me in my quest for the DERTA. He showed little interest in the wonders of technology the compound was bound to host (pricey!), and seemed more interested by the background of the place. I told him whatever I remembered from Crowneigh’s files, but I sure didn’t study it all the way through.

After all, who cared about who owned the place two centuries ago? Now, it was going to be mine, and mine alone.

Well, with Meridian, now, I suppose. I reckon our partnership will have to extend over the wonders of the Big Mountain, yet given his total lack of interest in caps and expensive technologies so far I had little doubt it would be of little concern for me.

As we headed back to Goldfeather’s Emporium to retrieve the gear I had ordered my companion left to buy supplies of his own, and we agreed to meet back a couple hours later near the northern gate of the town.

It turned out the griffin didn’t lie about having military grade winter gear lying around somewhere. While most of the thick clothes and furs showed signs of a poor storage, they were surprisingly in an overall good shape. I sure wouldn’t look so good after two hundred years in a closet.

My equipment now complete, I felt ready to start travelling north, toward the DERTA. But while a little voice in my head urged me to take off at once, leaving both Meridian and Feather hanging, I shrugged off the idea. I had given my word, now I might as well live up to it.

Feather had vacated the spot we had met her at some six hours before. A couple well spent caps dropped into some beggar’s pocket later, I learned I had barely missed her. For some reason, she had decided to pay a visit to the Talon Headquarters. Oddly, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had something to do with that.

Truth to be told, I hesitated following her hoovesteps. My relations with the Talons were purely based on business. Sadly, given my little stunt in Tenpony, a price on my head was to be expected, and Gawd’s Talons were reputed for never, ever abandoning the contracts they have accepted. Should one of them decide I looked like an easy target, they’d pursue me until one of the parties had been entirely obliterated.

Yet, I doubted Tenpony would resort to mercenaries like the Talons to track a lone fugitive like me. I suspected the tower inhabitant had no idea of who I was, if the foolish ambush of the day before was anything to go by. Bounty hunters were to be expected, but mercenaries? Doubtful at best.

Taking a decision, I finally headed toward the Talon Headquarters.

(** **)

I heard Feather long before I got to see her.

Near the Headquarter entrance – if that gap between two train carts could be called an ‘entrance’ – a griffin clerk was arguing with the filly I was looking for. The former seemed to be losing his cool at top speed, while the later shouted probably with all the air of her tiny lungs.

The whole scene brought back a disturbing sensation of déjà-vu.

Then, a second griffin walked in. Tall, clad in battle armor, a thick scar adorned her face. She barked something to her colleague about losing his cool while talking to a filly a third his size, and dismissed him. She turned toward Feather.

“Hey there, kiddo,” she said, lowering her head nearly to the filly’s level, “sorry about Paperclaws. I’m Gawd. What did you want?”

“Earlier, a mercenary came to me and proposed to work for me,” Feather answered, calmer, “but I realized I had no idea where to find her afterward. So I reckoned she or one of her friends would be here.”

“You don’t really look solvable,” Gawd frowned. If you never saw an armor-clad griffin mercenary frown, then you don’t know how lucky you are. “No offence, but I don’t see how you could convince a private contractor that you had the caps to afford their service.”

“That’s just it,” Feather stomped, “this guy just before refused to believe me. She told me she’d agree to kill those raiders for free.”

“I’m sorry, but I think that, whoever she is, she’s been pulling your leg,” the griffin shook her head. Then, she paused, as if she just had an idea. “Wait, did you say ‘she’? How did ‘she’ look like?”

“She was a grey unicorn,” Feather began her description. Shivers went down my spine as I realized a vague description had a high chance to perfectly match the one DJ Pon3 had given on his radio a few days before. “With a rifle and an armor. I didn’t catch her name, though.”

“Did she have a Stable jumpsuit and a Pipbuck?”

“No, she wore leather, and didn’t have a Pipbuck,” the filly answered. “She didn’t look like a Stable Dweller, either.”

“Then I fear you’re out of luck,” Gawd sighed. “Only Littlepip would be selfless enough to propose something like that. But don’t worry, I will gladly bawl off the moron who thought it’d be funny to give a filly false hopes like that, or my name isn’t Gawdyna Grimfeather!”

It was then Feather, growing more and more desperate, took a good look around her and noticed me standing in the way.

“Hey, Gawd, it’s her!” she pointed out toward me.

Great. Now I had to deal with the big boss of the Talons herself. If there was a single person in Junction R-7 who could link the dots between the mysterious killer of Tenpony and my sudden appearance over here, it was her.

Stepping toward them, I tried to adopt a relaxed stance.

“Hey, long time no see, Gawd,” I waved, staying out of the griffin's reach. I half expected her to lunge at me to bury her claws in my throat.

But instead she opted to burst into laughter.

“… did I say something funny?” I turned toward Feather, who shrugged.

“Sorry,” Gawd breathed heavily, “it’s just that this kiddo right here told me some mercenary had promised her to do some dirty job for free, and then she said it’s you! I mean, come on, of all guns for hire in the Wastelands, you’re the least likely to ever accept working for free.”

I chuckled uneasily. “Yeah, sure. Hehe.”

“So you lied to me?” Feather gave me the puppy eyes treatment, tears and glitters included. Damn, she managed to make me feel guilty, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, for once!

“I didn’t.” The pouch of severed ears fell on the ground in front of her. The filly stared at it blankly a couple seconds, before noticing the blood stains on the heavy fabrics. She backed away a bit.

“You… you killed them?” she asked, hope and fear mixing in her voice.

I took a look around me, and, as only she and a flabbergasted Gawd were within earshot: “All seven of them. Afterward, I burned the building to the ground.”

“Is that Daddy’s rifle?” Feather asked out of the blue, pointing to the assault rifle I had looted earlier. A good part of the assault rifle stuck out of my saddlebags, and I berated myself for not concealing it.

Then again, it’s not like Meridian would have let me keep it, either.

“Now it’s yours,” I answered, levitating the oversized gun toward its new, tiny owner. Then, I held the Pipbuck from my bags toward her: “And I believe this is as well.”

Tears of joy filled her eyes as she stared at the two tokens. I realized she, in the end, cared little for their commercial value; where I saw a big heap of caps, she saw two things that reminded her of her late parents. I almost felt like a monster for even thinking of keeping them.

Then, Feather tackle-hugged me.

“Thank you so much, miss!” she cried, burying her head in my neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“It’s okay, Feather,” I mumbled, uneasily. “Don’t thank me for that. I mean, that’s what I do for a living. For you, it was the day I avenged your parents and killed half a dozen raiders, but for me, it was an uneventful Thursday afternoon.”

Feather managed to chuckle a bit at my terrible joke, but didn’t loosen her firm grasp. Desperate, I shot a pleading look toward Gawd, who shrugged, half-amused, half-deterred. Finally, she settled for helping me.

“Hey, kiddo,” she said, “Feather, right?”

The filly looked up toward the tall griffin, and nodded.

“I’m sorry for doubting your word. Hey, you know what? I can have somegriffin take a look at your Pipbuck, see if it can be reactivated.”

Gawd then called out one of her subordinates. Soon enough, Feather was giddily prancing away, following a techy-looking brown earth pony.

That left me alone with Gawdyna Grimfeather, head of Gawd’s Talons.

“Well, shit, I didn’t know I’d live to see the day when Spring decided to run a charity,” the griffin finally whistled. “Then again, Deadeyes and Mister Topaz got their asses handed to them by a stable dweller, so I reckon it’s not the weirdest thing I’ve seen in the last two months.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like you to keep it to yourself,” I winced at the idea of unwanted publicity. “You know how it is.”

Gawd nodded. “Of course. I noticed you didn’t even give her your name.”

“Why should I?” I shrugged, relieved the griffin didn’t seem to want to tore my throat out. “I don’t want her to get the wrong idea about me.”

“Ha, I can see that!” She gave me a huge pat on the back, almost sending me to the ground. “Well, why don’t you come inside, and have a drink with me while we talk business?”

Cold shivers went down my spine, but I reminded myself Gawd had little use for subtlety. Had she wanted me dead or incapacitated, by now I would have been halfway to Tenpony Tower already.

“Sure, but I’m not taking a lot of jobs at the moment.”

“Trust me, this one is going to spark your interest,” the griffin blinked.

(** **)

One would expect of a mercenary company like Gawd’s Talon to have enough goons to cover pretty much all kind of jobs, but the truth is, even they often hire freelance specialists for delicate tasks, be it a computer expert, a burglar, an explosive expert, or, in my case, a sharp shooter. Sometimes the big muscles of the Talons simply didn’t fit the job. I had worked with the company in the past – it was a win-win situation. While they had their cut of the bounty, I didn’t have to worry about not being paid in the end, nor getting backstabbed. Afterward, I had moved to Manehattan, but it seemed Gawd hadn’t forgotten me.

“Want a beer? It’s still cold,” she held a bottle toward me. Then, she grabbed a glass, and poured herself some schnapps.

Silence fell over the train wagon.

“Have you listened to the radio lately?” she finally broke the ice. “DJ Pon3 had been telling some intriguing stories in the past few days.”

I stopped the bottle right as it reached my lips. I couldn’t remember if it had been sealed when Gawd had given it to me.

“It isn’t poisoned,” she rolled her eyes. “So it’s true, you were the one who managed to make the guys in Tenpony look like fools with plasma rifles.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” I answered with a slightly shaky voice. What game was she playing at?

“Of course you wouldn’t,” Gawd sighted, sipping her schnapps. “Still, if you happen to know who did it, let her know the Talons aren’t going to pursue her.”

“Why not? I bet Tenpony had set a nice bounty on my – err, her – head, after all.”

“They did. Four thousands caps, quite impressive for a simple murder. Still, if we started hunting private contractors doing their jobs, we would soon make a lot of enemies. Enemies with damn good aim.”

I let out a deep breath, as the knot in my throat untied itself. Of course, if the Talons believed I had killed Van Graff for business, they’d just let me be – to them, contracts were a sacred thing, and as long you were a professional with good standards, they’d simply turn down any bounty on your head.

Hopefully, Gawd would never learn I had assaulted Van Graff for personal reasons…

“I can understand the sentiment,” I answered, finally tasting my beer. I almost moaned in pleasure as its cool amber taste flowed down my parched throat.

“Besides, it happens I have a client who’d like to have a friend of theirs taken care of.”

“Can’t you send one of your own?” I asked. “I mean, why would you wait for m- for somepony you might or might not know to do the job?”

“Because it would require a lot of… finesse, and skills my Talons do not have” she answered. I couldn’t help but be proud to have my achievements recognized by Gawdyna Grimfeather herself. “The target is a permanent resident of Tenpony Tower, and never gets out.”

“No thanks,” I sputtered, backing down on my chair. “I meant, this pony has probably no incentive to go back-”

“It’s a five hundred thousand caps job,” Gawd cut me.

“… come again?”

“You heard me. And it’s nothing but legit: half the sum had already been paid to us as a warranty. It has been sitting in our coffers for more than a month now, but it seems the client really wants her dead, no matter the price.”

“… well, fuck,” I blurted. Half a million? Half a freakin’ million? “Had I known, I would have taken it last week.”

“It would have been convenient, indeed,” the griffin sighted. “That place is a fortress. I didn’t expect anypony could just get in, deal with their target, and then just get out.”

“I almost didn’t make it,” I avowed. “I don’t think I’d be able to do it again.”

“There is no rush. As I said, the contract has been sitting in my drawer for quite a while now. But should you reconsider… well, you know where my office is,” she laughed, embracing the converted train cart around her.

“I’ll think about it,” I paused a couple seconds. “You said earlier somepony had managed to kill both Deadeyes and Topaz, couldn’t you send him on this job?”

“Who, Littlepip?” Gawd laughed. “No way.”

The name seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I had heard it.

“You think she can’t handle it?” I asked. “Trust me, in the end it’s just a matter of sneaking some ammunition past the security, and finding the target.”

“Oh, I believe she would do even a better job than you, no offence,” the veteran answered, still chuckling. “The filly is a born war machine. Ever heard of the Stable Dweller?”

“Wait, you mean it’s her?” I spouted. “Holy Luna’s nipples, how in Tartarus did you manage to hire the unhirable?”

“She didn’t quite have the fame she has now,” Gawd finished her schnapps, and poured another. “To me, she was a private contractor like anypony else.”

“When did you find out you underestimated her by a landslide?” I chuckled. To use the Stable Dweller to eliminate a raider nest was akin to squash an anthill with a grenade launcher, if the rumors were to be believed. Anyhow, if she had survived this far, I reckoned the filly had serious skills to back her up.

“I believe it was when she slaughtered a freakin’ dragon by tossing him grenades,” she barely managed to blurt before giving in to another laughter fit.

“Celestia fucks me, so it was true?” I had to find support on the desk not to fall over. “I can’t imagine what in Tartarus a dragon was doing in Shattered Hoof.”

“T’was Topaz,” Gawd seemed to calm herself a bit. “Deadeyes worked for a genuine dragon.”

“No shit? Mister Topaz was a dragon?” I knew the guy by name only. I did a couple missions for Deadeyes in the past, but quietly left when he started talking about giving me a more permanent job.

“So it seems.” Gawd noticed my empty beer bottle, and swiftly grabbed me another. “Littlepip walked in alone and almost unarmed, burned the place to the ground, and walked out with a body pile five meters tall and a stuffed dragon trophy. We’ve been friends ever since. She keeps sending refugees and merchants over to Junction R-7. It’s thanks to her it started looking like a town, you know.”

“Yet you can’t send her on this job, because she’s also friend with DJ Pon3,” I deduced. “What a shame.”

“Indeed,” Gawd sighted.

Silence fell back onto the train cart. I sipped my beer in silence, contemplating my options. While half a million caps would set me up for life, my chances of success were slim at best. Besides, I still had in mind the reason I assassinated Van Graff in the first place: the DERTA.

“I’m sorry, Gawd,” I finally gave my answer, “but I have other projects at the moment. Should they prove unsuccessful, I’ll come back to you. That is, if you haven’t found anypony else by then.”

“It’s unlikely,” she shrugged. “You are one the few skilled hitmares who haven’t taken any side yet. Most joined Red Eyes, left toward the East, settled down as guards, or died entirely.”

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door”, I chuckled. Still, I felt a bit uneasy at the idea of being one of the last freelance bounty hunter in the West. When I had started out, the competition had been quite fierce, and somehow I doubted the demand was going to drop anytime soon.

I finished my bottle, put it on the desk, and stood up.

“Well, thanks for the beer,” I held out my hoof toward Gawd. “I’ll warp my mind around this offer of yours, but don’t get your hopes too high.”

Her claws shook my hoof.

“Don’t worry. I didn’t really expect you to accept, truth to be told,” she avowed, taking me back to the door. “The radio said you were injured when you ran off.”

As if on cue, my back started itching.

“Just a flesh wound,” I lied, shifting uncomfortably in my armor as I stepped out. The sun was setting; I realized Meridian had probably been waiting for me for half an hour now.

Gawd hummed in a knowing tone, but said nothing.

After a last word, we parted way.

(** **)

“You’re late,” Meridian reproached me, sat on a rock outside Junction R-7.

“Fashionably so,” I answered with a tease. “I met an old friend as I was looking for Feather.”

“Let me guess, he’s a mercenary,” the stallion deadpanned.

“Wrong. She is a mercenary.”

Meridian’s eyes rolled in their orbits.


We headed North.

(** **)

Side quest completed: Birds of a Feather
Objectives:
[X] Deal with the raiders at Aerotech Offices (Primary)
[ ] Bring the raiders alive to Junction R-7 for a fair trial (Optional)
[X] Bring back Cazadores’ Bane and Cloudy Skies’ PipBuck to Feather (Optional)
[ ] Find a way to get paid for your services (Optional)

Mention: Mercenary with a golden heart

Side quest added: Last homage
Objectives:
[ ] Accept or refuse the Talon contract (Primary)
[ ] Learn more about the Talon contract (Optional)

Level up!


New perk:
The Professional: They can’t see you, they can’t hear you: how could they dodge your bullets? Your sneak attacks with suppressed or long range weapons deal an additional 20% damage.

“The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client.”

Chapter Seven: The Big Empty

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Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.



“Well, there's many things they have forgotten sitting in their bowls.

Friendship. The thrill of discovery. Love. Masturbation. The usual.”

Chapter Seven: The Big Empty

Two weeks of travel passed by in a blur. The journey was uneventful: we were only ambushed twice, and even then we managed to sneak our way around without any trouble.

After six days of travel full north, we had reached the Foal Mountains. Finding a safe pass through them, to my great surprise, proved to be a foal’s play – no pun intended. Nopony had set up any ambush in the narrow gulches we travelled by; and the long-abandoned settlements here and there told the rest. Ponies had moved away south from there, and the raiders had followed.

Beyond the Foal Mountains the Northern Plains stretched out. Immense, they sprawled from Greenshade Forest on the east, to Splendid Valley on the west. They blended on their northern border with the base of the Crystal Mountains. Somewhat less arid than the Splendid Valley, but far more than Greenshade, the Plains formed a patchwork of tall grass, small groves and rickety shrubberies. Before the war, it had been sparsely populated – here and there, villages and towns were scattered near the rivers and lakes. However, most of the Plains had found themselves downwind when the shield over Canterlot shattered, liberating its infamous pink toxic cloud. For sure, the rest of Equestria also had its share of heavily mutagenic chemical fallout, but in the Plains it failed to be washed away like everywhere else. To my knowledge, nopony lived there anymore. Only feral ghouls roamed the scorched earth.

We spent a full week travelling to the north-west, across the Plains. Each night proved to be colder than the last; soon enough I found myself sleeping in winter gear to stop the vicious bite of the wind. Meridian barely seemed to notice the weather, on the other hoof. I still had no idea if he was crazy, or just plain weird. He barely said a word in the whole journey; then again, I was not somepony for chit-chat so I didn’t complain about the silence.

Exactly thirteen days after leaving Junction R-7, we faced our first obstacle. Crowneigh’s maps and instructions dated from before the End, back when the transportation network and infrastructures were still up and running. Two hundred years and the Apocalypse later, roads were cracked; bridges, collapsed; tunnels, caved in. Landmarks shone by their absence. Rivers and lakes had changed their course. Forests had grown or burned. Some areas had entirely disappeared in a radioactive mushroom cloud, leaving behind a toxic wasteland to avoid at all cost. Yes, even the remote towns of the Northern Plains had been targeted by the zebras’ cruise missiles, for some reason. I had no idea what they were hoping to destroy there, but it sure looked like they achieved their goals. We barely saw a single standing building. After all, in the plains, there were little hills to block the terrifying blast of the balefire megaspells, and time eventually tore down the already weakened structures.

In our case, the obstacle took the form of a tunnel entrance buried away in a landslide. We wasted two full days looking for an alternate route.

But finally, after a sixteen-days trip, we reached our destination.

(** **)

When you’ve spent most of the two previous months of your life obsessing about a place you’ve never seen, you can’t help but fantasize a bit about how it is supposed to look like. In my case, I had imagined the gateway to the DERTA to be a humongous steel door, as if the engineers that designed it had scaled up the Stables’ own gates tenfold. I was ready for something fearsome, able to laugh at the face of megaspells. A gate that no one could breach – a gate that only opened with four elegant keys.

I found myself disappointed.

Had the maps been any less accurate, I would have missed the tunnel entrance altogether. A small, ravaged concrete road lead to the narrow, three-on-three meters hole in the mountain. Apart from the ‘No trespassing’ sign hung askew to a rock, I saw no inscription nor indications whatsoever. In hindsight, it explained why nopony had even tried to blow the doors open or drill a hole in the rock walls: with a discreet entrance like that, lost in the middle of nowhere, Equestria, the compound could as well have been invisible. Moreover, unlike some pre-war military facilities, it seemed no power flowed into the lights in the tunnel. As I walked in, I found myself surrounded by darkness.

Brandishing my flashlight in front of me, I soon arrived into a slightly larger room. Opposite to where I stood, a polished steel door closed the way. I stopped dead in my tracks, a strange feeling rising in my stomach. In the dark, Meridian almost bumped into me, and whispered a curse. Without a word, I pointed toward the gate.

In itself, it didn’t really strike me as weird. Megaspell-proof blast doors adorned almost every Stable in the Wastelands (though I heard one in the Hoof didn’t even have that). Tenpony Tower had gates so thick it’d take weeks to take them apart even with plasma cutters. So, yeah, a six-meters wide disk of hardened metal barred my way, big deal.

Yet, I couldn’t help but feel impressed, somehow. Stable doors had huge hinges, pistons, notches, inscriptions – more than anything, it felt like Stable Tech had wanted them to look strong, more than be strong. The DERTA’s gate, however, didn’t have any ornaments. It was plain. Simple. A six-meters wide circle of polished, stainless steel. Not a dent, not a single hair of run-out. Whoever designed it cared little for looks – they amped up the efficiency, and in my guts I simply knew the mountain would come crashing down on the tunnel before the door even started to bend.

I revised my earlier judgment on the DERTA. Those guys knew their stuff.

“Well, I sure hope you brought a crowbar,” Meridian joked, eying the steel colossus. “I forgot mine back in Manehattan.”

“I got better,” I grabbed the keys from my front pocket. “I sweated a lot of blood to get my hooves on them. Let’s hope they still work.”

I took a look at the terminals. They powered up as I blew the dust from their screens, and red lights went up above us. From the lack of alarm, I reckoned it meant we were running on emergency power. I silently hoped the door had enough energy to open.

“Complete lockdown underway,” I squinted my eyes to read. “Please enter emergency release key III.”

A small slot above the screen told the rest. Slowly, I levitated the blue key in front of me, and, holding my breath, I plugged it in the hole.

It didn’t fit.

“You’re using it upside down,” Meridian deadpanned. “At your age, I would have expected you to know how to use a lock.”

“Oh, shut up,” I turned the key around. “They barely even look like keys!”

The text on the screen changed as it acknowledged the item. With a little canter of victory, I put the three others in the hole they belonged to. The green one seemed to be bent a tad, but the terminal recognized it just fine.

Then, I walked back to the middle of the room, and waited for the door to open.

Waited.

And waited.

Two minutes went by in silence.

“Maybe we should turn them?” Meridian suggested. I mentally facehooved.

“We probably should, yes,” I reached for II with my magic.

I turned it all the way to the left. A deafening train honk rewarded me for my efforts, making me somersault to the other end of the room.

Then, I realized a new message had appeared on the terminals.

“Disengage all the locks at the same time to lift the lockdown,” I read, sarcastic. “What is the point of that?”

I motioned Meridian toward the two terminals in my back. “Deal with those ones; I’ll handle this side of the room.”

The Earth pony took a look to the distance between the two keys, then to his short legs, then back to the terminals, and finally set his glare on me.

“… oh, right,” my eyes rolled in their orbits, “I forgot you non-unicorns were… disadvantaged. I’ll do it.”

“Spring, you’re being racist now,” he accused, narrowing his eyes. I quickly realized antagonizing the sole being supposed to be watching my back in this forsaken place could have very unfortunate consequences.

“Not at all!” I backpedalled. “I just meant these terminals were poorly designed, and the engineers didn’t have Earth ponies in mind.”

“Or, more likely, they supposed at least four ponies would be there to lift the lockdown,” he retorted. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s get on with it.”

From the center of the room, I carefully extended my telekinetic reach toward the four keys at once. I was by no mean a skilled magic user, and while the tiny objects almost didn’t weight anything at all, I struggled to keep my focus on four different distant places at once.

“Here we go,” I stammered, almost losing my balance. “Three… Two… One…”

The four keys turned at the exact same time. I let out a little sigh of relief as my magic vanished.

Suddenly, an alarm started to ring. Somewhere in the mountain, vast mechanisms were set in motion, and the ground grumbled under us. I took a cautious step back.

Then, the steel gate moved toward us in a concerto of thunder and noises.

(** **)

Gun at the ready, I watched the heavy steel frame rotate. Plummets of dust dropped and rolled from the doorway. An acrid, warm air rushed by from the inside.

“It has been sealed for two centuries,” I coughed as some motes of dust found their way into my lungs. “I hope the ventilation system still work.”

Finally, the gate stopped against the wall, allowing us to take our first cautious peek inside. Without a word, I raised my flashlight.

A large corridor ran from the entrance straight into the distant darkness. A second blast door was opening on its own three or four meters from the first. On the left, large one-way mirrors probably allowed the security personnel to observe the flow of visitors. Two of the panes were missing; shards littered the ground under them.

Meridian softly nudged my shoulders, and pointed towards the ground right after the doorstep.

A dozen corpses laid there. Centuries-old black flesh had shriveled on the bones; stains of dried decomposition fluids coated the concrete floor. Long, dark traces scratched the inside of the steel door, as if ponies had been desperate to get out, only to find the way forever closed.

I thanked the goddesses above the stench of rotting flesh and viscera had dissipated long before our arrival.

“Well, it seems the place wasn’t as safe as it was meant to be,” I duly noted. “I wonder what happened in there to make them prefer a heavily radioactive wasteland to staying inside.”

Meridian took a careful step toward a corpse, and leaned over it.

“Those bones have teeth marks on it,” he pointed what seemed to be a femur. “And this skeleton had been scattered pretty much everywhere.”

“Shit, ghouls?” I cursed. “Or cannibalism?”

“Ghouls are more likely. If they were hungry enough to eat each other, they would have taken all the flesh, not just gnawed a bone here and there.”

I let out a long sight of dismay at the prospect of fighting feral ghouls in an unknown, dark underground complex. I wasn’t one for close-quarter combat, really. My motto? The further, the better.

In those corridors, however, I would have to fight half-rotten, bullet-resistant radioactive zombies, and I found myself greatly underpowered.

“Well, let’s go,” I finally found the will to move. “Ghouls or not, the place is ours to take!”

Stepping over the corpses, I entered the DERTA.

(** **)

If a decade of lootings, burglaries and other wanderings had really taught me something about pre-war security posts, it is that they always had something of interest in them. Be it some ammunition, some caps, the keys to every lock in the building, or even video feeds from the securities camera, the five minutes you spent looking around were never wasted.

The rooms behind the one-way glass didn’t make exception. I had expected the door to be closed, but a half-crushed charred skeleton had been preventing the frame from sliding shut. It barely allowed me to squeeze myself in; my scorched back sent a bolt of pain in my nerves as the recovering flesh twisted. Somehow, Meridian managed to elegantly slip in the narrow gap like he barely noticed the obstacle at all.

“And here I thought I knew how to sneak my way around,” I teased him. “Looks like you’ve been a grave robber all your life!”

He shrugged, but didn’t answer. Instead, he followed a dark stain trailing from the door across the room.

Meanwhile, I took a good look around with my torchlight. The room seemed to be about eight on twelve meters large. Powered off screens covered most of the walls; desks which used to support terminals had been thrown upside down all over the place. Turning around, I realized this side of the door had been crippled by quite a few large projectiles I reckoned to be shotgun slugs. Among the overturned furniture, I soon spotted bones and blood stains here and there.

“Looks like somepony made their last stand here,” I said to Meridian.

“Probably this guy,” he pointed toward a skeleton in a corner. It sported some kind of security armor, though the decomposition of the corpse had rendered the inscription on the vest unreadable. Carefully stepping around the sharps and debris littering the floor, I approached the body. Its neck had been bent at an unnatural angle, and its right foreleg was nowhere to be found.

“Definitively ghouls,” I grimaced. Then, I inspected the shotgun lying on the ground where its previous owner had dropped it.

The weapon clearly used to be a high-quality combat shotgun. While rust and corrosion had rendered it unusable, it still looked better than most pea-shooters I had seen during my endeavors. A cunning armorer – Chrystal immediately sprung to my mind – could without a doubt get at least a hundred caps of the spare parts after a few hours of polishing. Still, I had little use for it; the compound probably hosted items far more valuable further in.

My focus returned to Meridian. The Earth pony was engaged in a starring contest with a small, wooden door which probably led to a maintenance storage of some sort.

“What are you doing?” I asked, puzzled.

“There’s somepony in there,” he answered, taking a step back to give me some room. “Or something.”

“How do you know that?” I aimed my pistol toward the door.

“Look at the stains on the floor. They lead to this door.”

“Meridian, those are at least two centuries old,” I pointed out. “Whoever is inside has probably kicked the bucket long ago.”

“That, or it’s a ghoul,” he answered. “Be careful.”

I rolled my eyes, and reached for the doorknob with my magic. I turned the handle.

Locked. Of course.

I sighed. I put my brand new picking set to work. The weak lock didn’t last very long, and soon enough I was able to open the door.

Slowly, I pulled the frame toward me. The rusted hinges protested but didn’t break.

It was indeed a maintenance closet. Shelves of cleaning products lined the narrow space.

Sitting awkwardly against a wall, a corpse in security armor greeted us with silence.

(** **)

“Kicked the bucket. Told you so,” I said, my eyes rolling in their orbits.

“I’ve seen ghouls play dead before.”

I refrained from facehoofing, and instead did the next best thing. Raising my pistol, I shot the corpse in the head.

As expected, it did nothing but send chunks of bones and corned flesh everywhere against the wall.

“See? Couldn’t be deader.”

Turning my back to my companion, I further inspected the body. From the awkward position, and the revolver on the ground next to it, I reckoned whoever the corpse had been had decided to take the easy way out.

Hard to blame them, when the alternative is being turned into a zombie, or slowly dying of radiation exposure.

The weapon and the security armor had suffered too much in the throes of time to be of any use now. I winced, hoping the most valuable loot had been kept rust-free by drying spells.

“Is that a record?” asked Meridian. Following his hoof, I noticed a small plastic item near one of the corpse’s limbs. I grabbed it, and shook the dust off it.

“So it seems.”

Records and memory orbs were a common occurrence in the Wastelands. For some reason, thousands of ponies before the war had thought it would be a great idea to put their feelings or memories in little devices everypony could use. Well, everypony – memory orbs were usable by unicorns only, but I’m not the one to blame for that, eh.

After two hundred years of neglect, only the sturdiest ones had survived. It usually meant the most expensive – therefore, the most interesting. Because, let’s face it, why would poor ponies spent thrice their monthly allowance to store useless memories or memoires? Whatever remained of the collective database the records formed was almost exclusively created by rich ponies or governmental agents. And, of course, the data had been stored for a reason. Every good scavenger or merchant knew that. And in the Wastelands, where all the greatest things laid in the past, intelligence on the time before was a very prized good indeed.

Still, as I powered the small record on, I found myself dubious of its contents. It wasn’t a very high-tech gadget, but looked more like those electronics scraps that littered the lands nowadays. How the item had managed to stay functional in those conditions, I had no idea. The pony had probably recorded his last words with it – I cared little for them. I almost tossed it back on the floor, where it belonged.

Then again, he may have recorded something interesting on it. He seemed to be a security guard of some sort. Well, ex-security guard.

Finally, I unplugged the rotten earplugs, and played the latest file on the speakers.

(** **)

Shit, I’m not paid enough for this.

The voice was indubitably male, with a slight Vanhoover accent. In the background, moans and scratching sounds occasionally broke through the white noise.

I’m stuck in a closet, not fifty meters from the exit. It’s closed shut, of course. And even if it wasn’t, I’d just be killed by the radiation anyway. I’m gonna die here. Damn, everything’s just so wrong.

Days ago – I can’t even remember when – it had happened. We got bombed. Shield went up, reactor went down, we got screwed. Radiation started to pool all over the ventilation system. The med bay got overworked. Ponies died of radiation exposure. Whoever was supposed to be in charge was nowhere to be found. The administrator probably locked himself in his office. What a dick. And then I though it couldn’t get worse – I reckon I should have known better.

Some of the dead – they didn’t stay dead. They rose up like frenzied zombies, attacking and eating their friends and colleagues. Zebra black magic I say – those blasted sons of bitches screwed us hard. I can’t imagine how the rest of Equestria is holding on. It’s probably even worse out there.

The speaker shifted as he moved into a more comfortable position. He let out a long sigh.

Shortly afterward, the power went off. The complex went into lockdown mode. We got locked out of the control room, because the computers requested super-administrator access to unlock the bunker. Even the ponies still inside couldn’t open it. They are probably starving to death right now. Blue Shift could have probably hacked his way through and open those blasted doors, but the bastard had locked himself in some labs and changed the passwords behind him. Nopony had seen him ever since. He’s probably trying to find his way out – hell, for all I know, he may already be halfway to the Baneyhmas by now. Asshole.

Finally, some hours ago, Major Aegis led a charge toward the exit. Since the vehicle entrance’s elevator had been locked down its shaft when the alarms went off, it meant the main entrance. I followed her orders, and now here I am, sitting in this bloody closet, losing my hairs and my mind. I can still hear those things chewing up the Major’s legs. Damn, I think I’m going to be sick.

A nasty coughing fit interrupted him. It lasted a good couple minutes; then, a ragged breathing filled the tape.

We got stuck between unstoppable zombies and an immovable door. We got squashed like bugs. I had headed to the security post to get a combat shotgun, but I didn’t even reach the lockers. I can almost see them through this wall. Most of them would be empty, but there had to be one waiting just for me. If I could just stand up, walk thought the door… Get to the armory… Find that blasted locker… Grab a damned shotgun…

Silence filled the tape.

Then…

More silence.

Who am I kidding? I’m already dead. I’m talking to myself, alone in the dark. Eh, maybe somepony is going to find my recorder in the distant future.

He laughed, then coughed in a very painful way.

Hello there, pony from the future! Welcome to the DERTA, enjoy your stay! We are dealing with a nasty case of zombie infestation as of now, but please grab a weapon in the lockers next door and you’ll be just fine. Code’s one thirty-three seven. Blast a couple for me. Tell them Archer sends you. Ha!

The pony spat. A long, distant moan resonated in the silence.

I’m going crazy. I need to end this now, before I turn into one of those things.

A few seconds of silence.

Then, a sharp detonation.

The record went on for a couple minutes, before the device had set itself into power saving mode.

(** **)

“Well, that was instructive,” Meridian commented. “Are there any other files on the device?”

I tore my gaze away from the corpse. “It seems he got years of memoires on it. That got to be why he told it whatever happened to this place. He probably held a journal of some sort, and did it out of habit.”

I stepped out of the closet.

Following the long dead pony’s instructions, I soon found myself in another room. Smaller, it had also hosted some tougher fighting. Corpses blasted in half littered one side of the room; two jagged piles of security armor on the opposite side were all that remained of the ponies who made their last stand there.

Metal lockers lined the walls. Most of them had been left open, as if their owner had been too much in a hurry to even bother closing the doors.

To be honest, if hungry feral ghouls had been chasing after my tail in the darkness, I wouldn’t have bothered with that either.

I followed the wall until I found the right locker. I type the code on the tiny keypad. The lock protested, but finally opened.

The locker was mostly empty. Not very surprising, since Archer’s armor laid along with his owner’s corpse in a closet not five meters away from where I stood. A washed-up picture in a plastic frame seemed to be the only personal item on the shelves.

On the side, behind a thick glass pane, a shotgun seemed to be waiting for me. Air rushed by as I opened the vacuum chamber, and soon I found myself the owner of a brand new weapon.

Made of black stainless steel and polymers, the rifle was a carbon copy of the one I had seen earlier – but pristine. I couldn’t spot a single scratch on its surface. The inner mechanisms sang a beautiful, soft sound when I moved the pump backward.

By then, I think I was grinning like a filly who had been told Hearths Warming Eve had come early.

“You like it?” Meridian enquired from behind me.

“I love it!” I exclaimed, hugging the gun tight. “I mean, I don’t usually like shotguns, but this one is sexy!”

The stallion rolled his eyes at my antics.

“Do you even have ammo for it?”

I paused. Then, my gaze slowly dropped on the lone 12ga box on the back of the vacuum chamber.

“Oh, COME ON!”

(** **)

The good side of only having two dozen rounds for your shotgun is that once you’ve loaded it (seven rounds) and put some on the side of the pump (five more), you don’t have to worry about where to put the others. Reload a couple times, and you won’t even any spare ammo to bother with! Isn’t it wonderful? Right?

Right.

Now that I was locked and almost loaded, I travelled back to the security post. I needed to know how big the complex was (though from the documents I had borrowed from Crowneigh I would have said huge), how deep it ran, and if the ventilation system still worked. I found the last point to be very dubious at least, from the look of it. Since I had little wish to die of suffocation, it had to be my priority.

That, along with finding a way to turn the lights on.

Finally, I found a terminal in a corner spared by the fighting oh so long ago. It did me little good, though, because I soon realized I needed to login to do pretty much anything.

“Damn, and the OS is not Stable Tech’s, I can’t hack it,” I cursed. I turned toward Meridian. “What about you? Is there a pirate slumbering beneath your hide?”

“Not really, no,” the Earth pony chuckled. “In fact, I’m not even sure machines even notice me at all.”

“Well, at least that means they won’t shoot you,” I rolled my eyes. “Sometimes I wish I could tell the same. The only reason I ever hack a terminal is when I need to bypass a security system of some sort.”

“Turrets?”

“Most of the time,” I nodded, looking around for an alternative solution. “Though I’ve also encountered crazy robots, motion sensor alarms, auto-locking doors, and other nice things like that. Once I found out somepony had rigged the room ventilation system with some kind of neurotoxin. You saw the terminal, you went for it, and you were dead before you even reached it”

“I’m not even surprised,” Meridian shrugged. “How did you disarm the trap, if the terminal was in the room?”

“I didn’t. There was a huge pile of skeletons in the middle of the room, and the neurotoxin had run out. I just stepped over them.”

“Oh.”

An uneasy silence fell on the room. Finally, I spotted some kind of card printer terminal embedded in a corner.

“There. It’d make sense the guards at the entrance had a machine to deliver ID cards, right?” I asked as I stepped over a broken chair and stood in front of the device.

“Yes,” Meridian joined my side, “but does it still work?”

As I pressed the start button, the small terminal on the side of the printer lighted up. A long crack had rendered half the screen almost unreadable. I squinted my eyes, trying to guess the words I couldn’t see.

“It’s also asking for an authorization of some kind,” I deadpanned. “We’re running in circle!”

“Maybe not,” Meridian pointed four familiar holes near the terminal. “What’s the point of a security override system, if you can’t grant access to whoever you wish?”

“You’re right!” I exclaimed, grabbing the keys from my pocket. I didn’t leave them on the terminals outside ; after seeing what had happened to the previous owners of the place, I sure didn’t want to be locked up inside!

As soon as I plugged the items in the computer, the image changed, and I gained access to the terminal.



Lockdown Override key access acknowledged. Temporary administrator access granted.
Welcome, Administrator.
Lockdown in progress (80 531 days, 4 hours, 51 minutes and 10 seconds).
Please refer to the lockdown emergency manual for further instructions.



The message had popped up over the command line. I blinked, and looked back and forth from the keyboard to the screen.

“And how in hell am I supposed to get this manual?”

(** **)

The exact command turned out to be ‘help –M lockdown’, and I wasted fifteen minutes of my life looking for it because some pre-war nerd had forgotten to include it in the nice, post-apocalyptic greeting message. I hope he had been eaten alive by a ghoul or something.

The manual itself proved to be very instructive, in the end. Obviously, it had been written with a non-expert reader in mind. It didn’t dwell on the details, but it gave insights on the way the base was supposed to work and on how to access the status of the compound’s most critical components. More importantly, I learned how to lift the lockdown and restore the base to its former glory.

Well, for the systems that the ghouls and time hadn’t broken, that is.

From the maps I found and printed out (Luna bless enchanted paper), I realized the compound was heavily layered under the surface of a crater of some kind.

The most obvious constructions had to be the ones on the surface. Still, they didn’t seem to be very numerous, nor very large. I quickly dismissed them – after all, if the guys who designed the place had bothered digging this deep down, it wasn’t to store their most valuable belongings on the surface.

Under the surface four main areas were obvious. Right under the crater’s surface (well, five meters under, give or take a few layers of rocks) I spotted the living quarters, the canteen, the kitchens and the relaxation areas. While I cared little for their contents (though sleeping in a bed would have been a nice plus), the readings from the terminal worried me a bit. Most of the sensors were offline, and those which still broadcasted reported a quite high level of structural damage and radiations. I reckoned they had taken the full brunt of the megaspell hit, and had collapsed.

The northern side of Big Mountain hosted warehouses and workshops. Some good loot probably awaited me over there, but alas almost half a kilometer of rock and concrete separated me from them. It would have to wait.

On the southern area, almost above me, a labyrinth of rooms and corridors webbed the mountain. I spotted more living quarters, more laboratories, the infirmary, some offices (including the administrator’s), and all the way up near to the tip of the crater a communication center. How they were supposed to communicate while buried under tons of rock was anypony’s guess, though. The labs probably had a few priceless artifacts from the time before, but from experience I knew they were also very likely to host an unnamable abomination or ten.

Finally, the last and most interesting area in my eyes laid at the lowest level of the compound. Technically located under the crater surface, they differed from the ravaged area in the fact they had been buried more than a hundred meters beneath. It seemed to be a bit overboard to me – after all, if bombs could penetrate that deep, Equestria would have been nothing but a big crater by now – but a closer look to the map showed me it was, in fact, almost on the same level as the entrance. Whoever built the place had simply dug sideway from the base of the mountain. Simple, yet efficient, like the gate had been. The DERTA really seemed to be ruled by a very ‘be practical, be efficient’ motto.

The command center and the main reactor were there, along with smaller storages. I was refused the access to the sensors inside those places – then again, it was to be expected. The tape had said the HQ had been totally isolated by the lockdown. I hoped I would be able to open its blast doors with my newfound administrator access: it seemed I needed to be there to restart the primary systems.

A dense network of tunnels and corridors linked those areas together. Three different elevators assured a passageway between the different levels. One sprouted through the labs and administrative levels, up to the surface above the com center. Another one reached all the way from the command center to the surface, right between the relaxation area and the offices. The last elevator, which seemed to be larger, ranged from a second ground-level exit on the northern flank of the mountain, through the factories and warehouses, to the crater surface. It didn’t go all the way down to the lower bunker, but it seemed to be relayed by a smaller elevator.

Obviously, all the elevators reported to be offline. If the tape was to be believed, they had been locked down their shaft when the bombs struck. Besides, with the main power off, I doubted I could restart them even if they hadn’t.

Well, good thing I was almost at the command center level.

I started the procedure to make an ID card with administrator privileges. The integrated camera let out a puff of acrid smoke instead of taking my picture, and my head ended up being replaced by a splotch of brown pixels on the small plastic card.

“No comment,” I noticed Meridian opening his mouth. “I swear, if you dare say a word about that, I’ll just shoot you.”

He closed his mouth, shrugged and starting walking away.

I followed him, deeper into the DERTA.

(** **)

Sometimes, I like to believe the Wasteland is alive; some kind of god-like entity messing around with the poor fellows dwelling down there like me. After all, if living gods and goddesses once roamed the old Equestria, why would the new be any different?

Then, I silently start hoping there’s no such thing as a god of the Wastelands; because if it does, I am their plaything and they won’t stop messing with me just to piss me off.

The central elevator shaft had collapsed. Not a big deal, you’d say. Of course the cables would rust, sending the cabins downward to their doom. Besides, without power, the machinery would have stayed immobile anyway.

But I didn’t say the elevators had collapsed. I said the elevator shaft had collapsed, all the way from the surface, a hundred meters upward. The avalanche of concrete and steel had pulverized the tunnels in the lowest levels, and if the huge pile of rubble in front of me was of any indication, it’d take weeks and an excavation team to dig a passage back.

I had neither.

“Well, FUCK!” I kicked a small rock in rage, sending it ricocheting through the corridor.

Then, reluctantly, I grabbed the compound maps from my saddlebags, and began finding another way around.

Looking over my shoulder to the vertical map, Meridian pointed an inverted T on the lower levels.

“I believe we’re here,” he said, dragging his hooftip over the paper, “since we entered there. I don’t see any way around though.”

“We need to go up,” I showed him a horizontal map of one of the upper levels, “right over the labs or the infirmary. We passed by the stairs earlier, they didn’t seem to have collapsed.”

“It’s bound to be crowded up there,” Meridian noted, his eyes scanning the paper sheet for an alternative route. “Remember the tape? It said the outbreak started in the infirmary.”

“But the labs could be worse,” I pointed out. “Once I found some kind of hidden governmental facility in which they did weird experiments on chemical warfare. The scientists had melted into the floor, and were reaching out to whoever was dumb enough to set a hoof in there.”

“Then we could go even higher, to the administrative level,” he suggested.

“But then once we’ve crossed the collapsed shaft we’d arrive in the irradiated area. I don’t think it’d still be lethal after two centuries, but I don’t want to take any chance.”

“So we should fight our way through the med bay, take this corridor around the elevator,” Meridian put his hoof on an area away from the shaft, “then we get to that workshop, then through this warehouse, to the big elevator over there.”

“Let’s hope this one isn’t collapsed,” I rubbed my head. I couldn’t spot another way down to the command center.

“If the map is up to scale, it is larger than the others. Even if part of the upper levels collapsed onto it, it probably didn’t clog it up.”

“So, wait, you mean that this pile of rubble –” I nodded toward the collapsed corridor in front of us “- came all the way down from the surface?”

“It’s likely,” Meridian shrugged. “I’m not a nuke expert, but it’d make sense the areas closer to the explosion would collapse, and fall all the way down there.”

“Then it’s most likely radioactive,” I facehooved, “and we’ve been sitting on it like morons for at least a quarter hour. Very smooth.”

“Didn’t you pack a Geiger counter?” he nudged my saddlebags. “I mean, you brought winter gear, and a radioactivity detector is kinda mandatory when you’re exploring.”

I scratched the ground with my hoof in shame.

“I forgot,” I answered, ears low. “I have one waiting for us back in Manehattan, but in the rush I didn’t take it.”

“Well, then warn me if I start sprouting an extra appendage,” Meridian’s eyes rolled into their orbits.

“Will do,” I chuckled at the idea of him having a fifth leg on the back of his head.

Then I winced at the idea of it happening to me.

“But I sure hope it won’t come to that,” I added with a small, hopeful smile.

(** **)

“I hate stairs,” I breathed out heavily as we reached the med bay level.

“You know, for somepony who spent her life running around outside, you sure are out of shape,” Meridian casually trotted to my level, not even breaking a sweat.

“Oh shut up,” I groaned, leaning on a wall to find my breath. “Ponies aren’t designed to climb stairs. That’s all. Plus, this stuff is heavy.”

The earth pony chuckled in the darkness, but didn’t pursue the conversation further. Instead, he focused on the steel doors at the landing.

As I levitated my torchlight toward them, I noticed they were covered with scratches and old stains, much like the one downstairs did.

“Ghouls,” I noted.

“Ghouls,” Meridian confirmed, pointing a pile of skeletons in a corner.

I already loved this place.

One of the doors had ‘Infirmary’ inscribed in faded letters. The other had ‘Habitation quarters - officers’ written. If I had to look for a bed, that would be the place to search.

But first, I needed to turn the power back on, before the air (or my light) ran out.

Slowly, I walked toward the infirmary door, half expecting it to open on its own. After all, if the feral ghouls had managed to get out and take the compound, it meant some moron had decided to make the door motion-sensitive. Or something like that.

But the heavy frame remained closed. The small terminal on the wall nearby, on the other hoof, lit up, bathing the room in a pale, greenish hue.

It’s okay, I’ve seen spookier.

The screen indicated the door had been locked during the lockdown (well duh), and required an administrator access to be opened again.

If only I had an administrator ID card – oh wait, I do!

Smiling at the utter uselessness of the whole security system (admin got dah powah!), I slid the card down the reader. A small green light sparked above the door, and the heavy frame slid up.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” I grinned. If everything in the DERTA didn’t ask more than a simple wave of the ID, maybe taking the reins of the compound would be even easier than anticipated.

Then, a ghoul jumped on me.

(** **)

There is one advantage of living on the edge in the Equestrian Wastelands: it builds up your reflexes.

Thanks to them, I managed to blast the ghoul’s head before it managed to gobble me up.

Sadly, even a 12ga shot does little to stop the forward momentum of whatever it hits, and the decayed body landed on me with a disgusting splash. I fell to the ground, dropping my light in the process, and the ghoul followed me in my descent.

“Ah, fuck, get it off!” I screamed, abominable fluids dropping on me as I struggled to roll the corpse away from me. Finally, after a final buck, I managed to send it toppling over in the staircase to a deadly drop. A few second later, I heard it hit the concrete ground far below with a sickening crunch.

“Damn, I’m covered in goo shit,” I felt my breakfast trying to push its way upward. Looking around, I spotted my lamp against a wall (thankfully it didn’t go down the stairs), grabbed it, and pointed toward the infirmary.

Half a dozen hungry eyes shone evilly back at me.

“FUCK!” I yelled, before giving them the shotgun treatment.

(** **)

The world seemed to move in slow motion. As I franticly squeezed the shotgun trigger, blasts of flames lighted the scene in eerie flashes. The thunder of the detonations roared in the narrow space, covering the frenzied roars of the feral creatures. I could almost see the supersonic steel bearings leaving the choke, travelling through the air in the blink of an eye, and tearing the rotten monsters apart where they stood. Then my telekinetic grasp would register the recoil, the shell would be ejected by the gas action, and before the plastic casing even reached the apex of its trajectory, the firing pin was back to ignite the primer of the next round.

Four and half long seconds later, the shotgun finally clicked empty, and the ghouls had been reduced to six disgusting piles of rotten flesh.

“Well, damn,” Meridian let out after a moment of silence, only perturbed with the moaning of a maimed zombie, “remind me not to catch you on a bad day.”

“Hey, they took me by surprise, that’s all,” I reloaded the shotgun. “Usually, subtlety is my middle name.”

“I can see that,” the earth pony sniggered as he watched over the utter desolation inside the infirmary. On the other side of the room, I could see I had almost pulverized a few shelves of drugs and medical supplies.

“Don’t be so smug,” I un-holstered my pistol and finished a not-quite-dead ghoul trying to bite my leg off, “because if we had to rely on your marksmanship to defend ourselves, we’d be the zombies’ snack by now. You didn’t even bother grabbing your gun!”

“Well, you had the situation well in hoof,” Meridian let out a very fake cough. “Plus, you’re the one with the shotgun.”

“Sure,” I rolled my eyes as I stepped into the infirmary. “Luna’s tits, it stinks in here!”

I backpedalled quickly, then grabbed my own first aid kit from my saddlebags. I poured some rubbing alcohol on gauze, which I held in front of my nose with a bandana.

“I reckon you’ve forgotten the gas mask as well,” Meridian deadpanned.

“It’s not like you can find one that still filters anything nowadays,” I answered, tying the knot tightly behind my ears. “Believe it or not, those things have best-before dates, and now they are two centuries overdue.”

“Still, it wouldn’t do any harm to have one.”

Rolling my eyes, I grabbed some more gauze, and held it toward him. To my surprise, he pushed it back.

“No thanks. Ten minutes breathing that, and I’d end up tripping balls,” he explained. “Not really recommended when you’re busy fighting an onslaught of ghouls.”

“Whatever rings your bell.”

I stepped inside a second time. The beam of light from my torch swept over the room, giving me a better look on the infirmary waiting room.

Honestly, I had expected it to have been utterly destroyed. Being used as a prison for six feral ghouls often does that to a room. But most of the furniture was still standing (the one I had accidentally shelled being a notable exception), and the side doors leading to the rest of the sector were surprisingly still there. A rapid check showed me that, in fact, they seemed as sturdy as they ever were.

“Enchanted ironwood,” said Meridian as I shook a doorknob in vain. “Make sense in this kind of infirmary. You want the patients to feel safe, yet remain able to lock them down if the need arise. It probably cost them a fortune, if the enchantments hadn’t faded yet.”

“The base is carved out of a mountain,” I pointed out. “A few thousands bits more probably didn’t weigh much on the final bill.”

“True. I wonder if how good their medical equipment was, if they bothered with doors like that.”

“Well, we’re in the middle of nowhere here, so I reckon they had their own operating room and stuff,” I assumed. “But we’ll check it out later. I suggest we leave the doors locked, and just focus on restoring the power for now.”

(** **)

Skeletons became more numerous as we reached the workshop.

In there, we found many discarded tools, broken equipment and other devices which had been waiting for a repairpony for more than two centuries now. Without the proper storage conditions, most had decayed beyond any recognition.

We found a notable exception in the last room before the warehouse. Sitting on a collapsed table, a humongous, dismantled turret greeted us in silence.

Curious, I spent a few minutes poking it from every direction, trying to figure out how it was supposed to work. It didn’t look like any arcanic sentry I had the displeasure to see so far, but I doubted it fired powder-based ammunition either. What I reckoned to be the barrel was in fact four long arms, centered around a small plastic tubing. I couldn’t see any chamber or ejection port. The ammunition compartment had been removed, obviously, and I found it waiting on shelves nearby. Its rusty contents did little to bring some light on the working of the peculiar weapon.

My train of thought had then been interrupted by two famished ghouls. I had already shot three of them since the infirmary, and two more tried to gnaw my face off when I entered the warehouse behind the workshop. It brought my ammo count down to an astonishing eight 12ga rounds, which did little to improve my mood. All the discarded ammunition I came across had been carelessly left to rust on the ground as their former owner met their doom, rendering them unusable.

Cherry on the cake: a good quarter of the ghouls so far had been wearing the remnants of some kind of security armor, and while it now offered a pitiful protection compared to what it used to be it would still be quite problematic to bring those ghouls down with 9mm rounds. The high-powered caliber of my hunting rifle would get through them without a second though, but since it was a bolt action I would probably do more damage by simply clubbing them with the cross.

The warehouse was filled with various sealed crates lined up on giant shelves. To my great pleasure, most of them had been protected with some kind of enchantment for transport or storage, because even the wooden planks didn’t seem to have much suffered of the throes of time. With any luck, the things inside were still intact.

We reached the elevator without encountering any trouble. The structure didn’t seem to have taken much damage from the bombs and the aging, thankfully: I couldn’t spot a trace of a collapse in the huge, industrial-sized shaft as we descended the stairs spiraling around it.

Then, after an interminable descent, we reached the floor, and I spotted the elevator proper. Truth be told, it looked more like an overgrown moving steel platform than a real elevator.

“Okay, now I’ve been wondering for a little while,” Meridian broke the silence, “but why in Tartarus did a research facility need this kind of industrial equipment? I mean, look up there, the shaft goes all the way to the surface! Why bother with all this, when they just had to split their deliveries in smaller packages?”

“I don’t really know,” I answered truthfully. “My intel mentioned something about manufacturing and retrofitting combat vehicles, so maybe they produced things they simply couldn’t assemble outside?”

“Then why not build the facilities outside in the first place?”

“Hey, don’t ask me, I’ve only owned the place for two hours!” I retorted. “I swear, as soon as we got the power back on, you’ll have all the time in the world to look out for the archives to know the background of the place, but it’s not my focus right now, okay?”

“Sorry. It’s just this whole place feels wrong to me,” he apologized, giving around circular look around. “And it’s not just the ghouls. It’s the place itself.”

He paused. I motioned him to continue.

“Hidden facilities were commonplace during the Great War, of course. Yet often, they experimented on touchy subjects, like chemical warfare, or experimental weapons, or some dangerous biology. But why hide an industrial complex? Besides, if our maps are accurate, the actual factories couldn’t even start to compete with the ones in Fillydelphia. Why bother going all the way to here, in the Crystal Mountains, dig a hole to hide some laboratories and a hoofful of assembly lines?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but there was no stopping him now.

“Furthermore,” he continued, oblivious to my attempt to move on, “I remember you telling me the DERTA was about technology and arcane science, but I can’t recall ever hearing about them when it comes to corporations working with – for – the Ministry of Technology. And the Ministry of Arcane had its main research center in Maripony, not a hundred miles from here! This place just baffles me by its simple existence!”

“It’s not relevant!” I finally managed to say, exasperated. “Damn, I thought you were going to say that it looked like a deathtrap à la Stable Tech, not start rambling about the hows and the whys of the place! I’m sure you’ll find a convenient explanation somewhere in the offices, but trust me, it’d do you little good if we can’t turn the freakin’ lights on!

Meridian took a step back, then tilted his hat forward, hiding his blue eyes.

“Very well, then. Lead the way.”

(** **)

“Here we are,” I stopped before the blast door marked ‘command center’. “Now, the moment of truth: can we open this tin can, and get the power back on, or will we have to work in the dark for the next few weeks?”

I levitated my ID card near a scan embedded in the wall, and swiped it down in a switch movement.

Nothing happened.

“Try blowing off the dust first,” Meridian suggested.

I did so ; a thick cloud of centuries-old particles formed a mist around my head. Then, I tried again.

This time, the green light above the door lighted up, and at last we entered the command center.

(** **)

I got to hoof it to Meridian, there was really something disturbing about the layout of the place, and I’m not talking about the chewed skeletons everywhere on the floor or in crumbled chairs.

As I stepped in, most of the lights went on, dazzling me in the process. Then, as my eyes recovered, I realized the command center wouldn’t have looked out of place at the heart of an old Ministry of Morale hub. Screens covered the walls of the twenty-meters-large decagonal room. Built-in desks and terminals formed concentric shapes toward the central, elevated station. There, I could without any difficulty imagine a medal-clad general, stern, watching over the numerous operators and giving orders without moving from his pedestal.

Luna fucks me if I knew what in Tartarus a place like that would do in a supposed research facility.

“Well, it sure looks like that place,” I noted aloud, “now to find a terminal to turn everything back on again.”

“You should try the one in the middle,” Meridian nodded toward the elevated desk, “though I think any would do the trick.”

Silently swallowing my saliva, I proceeded to climb the few steps which separated me from the terminal. I pushed aside the crumbling armchair, since I doubted it could still support my weight, and randomly hit pressed a key on the terminal. The screen lighted up – and asked for my ID.

As I used my recently acquired administrator privileges, I – finally – gained a direct access to the core systems of the base. On the walls, a screen lit up, giving me their status in real time.

“Here we go!” I exclaimed in triumph, as I typed the command to restart the reactor. “The power will be back anytime soon!”

I looked up from the keyboard to the screen. A minute passed.

“…anytime now…”

Then another.

I sighed, and turned toward Meridian.

“I reckon it’s now the time for you to point out the step I have obviously forgotten in doing this seemingly simple procedure?” I asked him, not even amused.

“Actually, I have no idea what went wrong this time,” he shrugged, re-reading the commands over my shoulders. “Maybe the reactor is broken? That would explain why nobody restarted it from here when the base went under lockdown.”

“Maybe,” I typed a few other commands to have a more detailed report on the power plant status, to no avail. “It means we have to go down to a possibly irradiated area, fix a reactor we don’t even know how it’s supposed to work, to hypothetically restart the power and the lights we would have needed to fix it in the first place.”

“Talking about lights,” Meridian interrupted me, “how come the ones in this room are still working? I mean, if we’re on backup power, we are probably wearing the batteries down for nothing right now.”

I frowned, and went back to my terminal to find the source of the power supply.

“It seems the emergency power is procured by an auxiliary generator,” I finally gathered. “Something very durable that does not require fuel, because the status command tells me it could run basically forever. Well, damn, that ought to be some pricey technology.”

“Or something very simple,” countered Meridian. “I’ve been told the Hoofington Dam is still powering most of the area after all this time. Many power plants don’t require fuel to produce energy.”

“It doesn’t really matter anyway,” I shrugged. “The output seems to be too low to power the whole facility, but I think I can restart the lights and the ventilation system.”

I struggled to find the correct commands, and finally found a way to redirect the power toward those particular subsystems.

“It’s weird,” I realized, “the ventilation system was already online, but it’s not venting anything from the outside.”

“Really? Then where does the air come from?”

“Up,” I answered, as another wall screen lighted up with information on the air systems. “It shouldn’t do that. Somepony probably messed with the settings. Let’s restart it, and see what it does…”

I typed another command, and soon enough the line entitled ‘Ventilation systems’ turned to green on the screen.

“Great, it restored the default settings,” I noted. “We’re probably also venting the collapsed areas, but it’ll do for now.”

“Can you turn the lights on?” prompted Meridian.

“I guess. Their power grid had been disabled for some reason; I just need to restore it… Here it goes.”

The lights above us flickered, as the emergency generator found itself suddenly solicited from every room in the compound. Thankfully, it only lasted for a few seconds.

“I don’t think we can ask much more of this power source,” Meridian noted. “We’d better find a way to fix the main generator before we find ourselves in the dark again.”

“Sure,” I grabbed my map, and looked for the generator room. “Looks like we have to go down a level. There ought to be stairs somewhere around.”

(** **)

“Well, it sure looks expensive,” I whistled as my eyes fell on the reactor for the first time.

It had the place of pride right in the middle of an otherwise small, fifteen-meter wide circular room. Seven arms of weird design circled vertically around a smaller sphere made of a strange, matte material. Lengths of cables and supports reached from arms into the walls, which had been bolted with reinforced plating. Tubes circled at the base of the contraption, right under the sphere. The whole place had been so heavily enchanted I couldn’t spot a single trace of decay or dust – it was as pristine as the day it was built.

“Do you have any idea how it’s supposed to work?” I turned toward Meridian.

He shrugged in dismay. We stood there in silence for a few minutes, staring at the reactor.

“Well, damn,” I finally concluded.

(** **)

The reactor control room was even smaller than the reactor’s room. Where I would have expected dials and gauges and valves, only a couple terminals embedded in a wall greeted me. A side room hosted some more machinery, but the controls themselves were very sparse.

Now that I had lifted the lockdown from the control room, the terminal immediately agreed to grant me access to the reactor controls. Trying to figure out why the had reactor stopped in the first place (I sure didn’t want it to blow up in my face, thank you very much), I opened the logs. Immediately, half a mile of error messages greeted me. I let out an exasperated groan.

“Of course you couldn’t give me a straight answer about what’s going on, now could you?” I rhetorically asked the terminal. Then, as it obstinately refused to answer, I started skimming through the oldest entries.

The earliest lines only reported warnings or messages about the standard operation of the reactor. It went on for a few years, until the fateful day the bombs rained on the compound.

Then, the logs registered a tremendous spike in the energy output, followed by a feedback that went off the charts and seemingly fried most of the sensors. The computer had analyzed it as a huge short, and had triggered all the circuit breakers in the sectors as a surge protection, effectively preventing the power from reaching the rest of the facility.

Afterward, the logs kept on repeating themselves, desperately asking for what to do with all the energy the reactor was now throwing away, then warning about the low fuel level. The warnings became errors when whatever combustible it used ran out, and the whole power plant shut down for good.

“Wait, let me get this straight,” I resumed, “this whole facility went to hell because there was no one to change a couple fuses?”

(** **)

I’m not a technician, nor an engineer, nor even a good repairpony, but even I didn’t spend more than half an hour looking around the level, finding all the breakers, putting them back on the right position, then looking after all the melted fuses, and replacing them with spares conveniently placed in a storage room ten meters away.

I mean, okay, the guys living here had just been bombarded with bombs powerful enough to flatten whole cities, and were probably working in the dark as rampaging ghouls tried to eat their brains, but come on, they hadn’t even tried. I only found a couple skeletons, and they had been nowhere close to where they should have been.

I made the remark to Meridian, who had been watching me doing the hard work all that time.

“I don’t know,” he answered, “I saw a lot of corpses over the stairs. I think they did try to restore the power, but simply didn’t even make it downstairs alive.”

I rolled my eyes. “They had guns, didn’t them? Dying is not an excuse, when they should have stayed alive in the first place.”

“That’s… an interesting point of view,” Meridian conceded. “Yet I doesn’t shake the feeling we’re missing a piece of the puzzle.”

“The only thing we’re missing is power,” I retorted. “Let’s find out what this reactor was running on and restart it. If this mysterious emergency supply decides to fail, we’re toasted.”

We returned to the reactor control room. The terminals didn’t show anything more than before, but now I should be able to restart to reactor.

Which brought me to following question: how was I supposed to do that?

(** **)

During my endeavors, I found out many pre-war complicated machineries had very user-friendly manuals. At first, it struck me like something very convenient – after all, the ponies who had been trained to use them had died long ago, carrying their knowledge to their graves. But as time passed by, the pattern repeated: almost without a fault, every single time I ended up using some complicated system, there had been a manual nearby written in such a fashion even a six-month-old foal could have followed the protocols.

It had been Chrystal who explained to me the whys of such a practice. It turned out the old Equestrian laws had been written in such a fashion that the constructors were responsible for the accidents due to their machines, except if said accident could be linked to the operator’s fault.

Therefore, with every machine more complex than a toaster, doorstoppers-like instruction manual were printed to detail step-by-step the correct operating of the device. When (and not if) somepony ended up being killed by it anyway, the constructor could then wash their hands of their responsibility and just pretend the victim should have just followed the foot-thick manual to the letter.

If the evil shopmare was to be believed, it worked like a charm.

The DERTA’s reactor, however, seemed to have taken it a step further. There was indeed an instruction manual waiting for me in a sealed drawer – a booklet of fifteen pages, of which fourteen were legal gibberish and ponies to contact in case of catastrophic failure.

In fact, the printed instructions to start the reactor were:

1) If you are not an authorized technician, please pass on the procedure to somepony who knows what they are doing.
2) Connect to the maneframe, and start the automated reactor start-up procedure, using the command “reactor start” from a session with sufficient privileges.
3) If needed, follow the instructions printed on the screen.
4) The reactor is now started.


For some reason, I felt cheated.

“Well then, I reckon you don’t even need to know what’s powering this thing up to make it work after all,” I ironized as I typed the command from my administrator session.

Soon enough, however, an auxiliary trouble arose.

“Looks like the maneframe is offline”, I frowned, not quite believing what my screen told me. “But then what in hell am I connected to?”

“It’s probably a minimalistic network designed to run when the main computer is off”, suggested Meridian. “Since maneframes often use quite a bit of energy, it’d make sense to power them off when you’re running on emergency power, yet you’d want to remain able to use the network to open doors and other things like that.”

I shot him a sideway glance. “Maybe, but since we require that server to be online to restart the reactor in the first place… Besides, I thought you didn’t know anything about computers.”

Meridian shrugged, but said nothing. I returned to my terminal, trying to find out how much power would the maneframe sucks out from the power grid. I winced as I realized it went far beyond the few kilowatts we had in reserve.

“They probably had additional sources of energy,” I also planted my head in the keyboard in despair. “For all we know, they were connected to Vanhoofer power grid, or had tons of solar panels on the surface.”

“That, or they had older generators they threw away when this one went online,” Meridian suggested. “How much power would we need to restart that maneframe anyway?”

“More than what we got.”

“And what if you turned the lights off?”

I stared at him like he had sprouted an extra appendage.

“What?” he asked, “it’d only last for a few minutes. If it doesn’t work, we can still reverse it.”

“I’m not a big fan of being in the dark again, but…” I pondered the idea. “Yeah, it could work, I guess, if I also disabled the ventilation…”

My administrator access made short work of the two subsystems, and soon enough we were back in the dark.

“I can’t say I missed it,” I sighted, grabbing my torch from my saddlebags. “Now let’s start this piece of crap and get over it.”



Spring@DERTA# maneframe start
> Error: no such command ‘maneframe’

Spring@DERTA# system maneframe start
> No such system ‘maneframe’

Spring@DERTA# system –l
> Listing subsystems…
Main power (mpower): off
Ventilation (vent): off
Lights (lights): emergency
Reactors (rpower): emergency
Environmental control (evctrl): off
Network (network): emergency
Elevators (elvtrs): sealed
Security (security): emergency

25 more items, continue listing? (Y/N) N

Spring@DERTA# system netwirk start
> No such system ‘netwirk’

Spring@DERTA# STFU§
> Error: no such command ‘STFU§’

Spring@DERTA# SYSTEM NETWORK START
> Subsystem ‘NETWORK’ starting… NOW.
Checking network integrity… Partial
Executing pre-launch checks… Aborted.
Starting Maneframe, please wait…
Maneframe started. Transferring control…
Controls transferred. Welcome, Administrator Spring.
Executing boot scripts…
Warning: security checksum does not match template. Overriding…

> Subsystem ‘SAIOS’ starting… NOW.
Neural systems powered up.
Maneframe control override… online.
Warning: power supply may be insufficient. Overriding…
SAIOS system online.
Network back online.



“Wait, what?” I knocked on the screen with the tip of my hoof, as if it could force the information it displayed to make sense. “What in Tartarus is SAIOS?”



“That would be me,” a male voice answered through the speakers. “Pleased to meet you, Administrator Spring.”

(** **)

Main quest updated: Old World Blues
Objectives:
[X] Find the DERTA (Primary)
[ ] Reclaim what is yours (Primary)


Side quest added: Burning papers
Objectives:
[ ] Find out what happened at Big Mountain (Primary)




Level up!

New perk:
Scrounger: Finders keepers! Your newly acquired skills at scavenging old, dusty things finally started to pay off. You can know instantly locate the most valuable items in an unexplored room.

“Miiiiine!”

Chapter Eight: No Signal

View Online

Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.



“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Chapter Eight: No Signal

“Pleased to meet you, Administrator Spring.”

The voice had come from speakers all around me. Meridian and I shared a knowing look.

“Damn,” he mumbled, “I bet it’s one of those crazy computers again.”

I did my best to ignore him, and looked around. Sure enough, hidden in a dark corner, a security camera had lit up and was now staring back at me.

“Uh, hello,” I faced toward the camera. “So, uh, you’re the base’s computer, right?”

“Not… exactly,” the disembodied voice answered, with pause and intonation and all. If I didn’t know it came from a computer already, I would have never guessed myself. “Though I reckon it is now my function, my… job, if you will.”

“… I don’t really get the difference.”

“Managing the DERTA never was my prerogative. However, unexpected circumstances have arisen, and I am now de facto in control of this base.”

In control? I didn’t really like the sound of that. Call me paranoid, but for me all AI were crapshoots.

No exceptions.

“Listen… Saios, right?” I bit my lip, trying to find a way not to sound like I was kicking it out. Even though I was. “This facility had come under a change of management lately. I am now the new and sole administrator. I’m afraid your previous owners passed away some time ago.”

“Well, I would have been very disappointed to see them still running around after two centuries,” Saios deadpanned. Damn, so much for ‘AI are stupid’. “I think you misunderstood my previous claim; let me reformulate: this base is mine. The computer may have mistaken you for the rightful head of the Department; but rest assured I know for a fact I am the closest thing to an heir of the previous administration.”

Well, looks like somepony was going to need to toss an EMP grenade or two in a maneframe very soon if she didn’t want to get toasted. I made my way to the door, which refused to open.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends,” the computer continued. “I know you trust me about as much as I trust you – and I’ve spent most of my life conceiving artificial intelligences, I know the dangers of a robotized system going axe crazy. You will soon come to realize, however, that cooperation – an alliance of some sort, if you are the military type – could profit both of us.”

“And let me guess,” I started hammering the door with my hooves, to no avail. Damn you stainless steel! “If I refuse, you’re going to kill me.”

“Please. You would probably do the same, if your weapons are of any indications.”

I stopped hitting the metal frame, and blinked. Brute force wasn’t cutting it. “Yeah, I guess I would. Doesn’t mean I got to like it.”

I sighed and started rubbing my temples with my hooves. “Well, go ahead. It’s not like I have anything else to do.”

“My conditions are very reasonable,” Saios continued, “you would simply work for me. In the base, you would be repairing things I cannot reach and solve problems I cannot deal with, such as those rampaging hostiles at almost every level. Outside, you would be my consultant, since I reckon a lot of things have changed since the war, and you would represent me. You would be my voice, my eyes, and my messenger.”

“And what do I get for basically becoming your slave?” I spat. Internally, however, a wave of relief washed over me. Such activities would give me a lot of leeway to disable the AI or, if need be, take a Prench leave.

“You wouldn’t be my slave, you would be my collaborator,” the computer seemed half-offended, half-amused. To it, slavery was probably a very abstract concept, I realized. It didn’t know it had become a much tolerated business in the Wastelands, and I silently thanked the goddesses above for that.

“I’m not sure you can threaten to murder your collaborators in cold-blood when they refuse your conditions,” I sneered, immediately berating myself for possibly antagonizing my newfound jailer.

“If you only knew,” Saios punctuated the sentence with an honest-to-goddesses chuckle, “at the end of the War many corporate executive had little remorse killing their own blood just to get a promotion.”

“Times change, buddy. What’s in for me?”

“You would own the DERTA.”

Wait, what?

(** **)

“Sorry, I think I didn’t quite catch that,” I tried to remove whichever obstruction had landed in my ears by vigorously rubbing them with a hoof. “Did you just say you would give me the place?”

“Yes.”

“Even though you said earlier you didn’t want me to own it?”

“Yes.”

“… I don’t get it,” I facehooved rather loudly. I turned toward Meridian, who unhelpfully shrugged, and continued staring at the camera.

“Let me explain. You entered this place in hope to scavenge materials and equipment of high value, correct?”

“Uh, yes?”

“So you are not interested in the place, but rather in what is lying inside, right?”

“I… think you can put it that way,” I rubbed my mane, perplexed. “It’s not like I can sell two-centuries old concrete to anypony.”

“Then our objectives are not incompatible. For you, the DERTA is an Eldorado. For me, it’s home. I do not want anypony to own my own home, you understand? Yet, I attach little value for most of the items actually rotting in our warehouses. I have no use for them. If you agree to collaborate with me, I’ll even help you find whatever equipment you’d find most valuable.”

“You mean you wouldn’t mind me stripping the place to its bare bones?” I asked, incredulous. “Where’s the catch?”

“There will be things I will not allow you to take,” the AI continued, “because they simply cannot be replaced. They will become yours, but will remain bound to this place.”

“But uniqueness make the value,” I protested. Come on, even computer were scamming me now! “Besides, you need me. In a two centuries timespan, nopony had set hoof here but us. Don’t you think you are in a position to impose anything on me!”

If its chuckle was of any indication, it didn’t quite buy my threats.

“If it is value you seek, I have way more to offer to you than a couple old, dusty prototypes. Tell me, how is our industry faring nowadays?”

I blinked. “Industry?”

“Yes. Mass production of goods and materials, you know?”

“Uuh, I think Red Eyes have some factories running in Fillydelphia,” I scratched my mane, trying to figure out what could count as ‘industry’. “The Enclave probably builds all their own stuff, but they aren’t known for their good relations with us poor Wastelanders. Otherwise, there are many good tinkerers out there who can build pretty much anything out of scraps, but I’m not sure it qualifies for mass production.”

“Then you may become rich beyond imagination.”

My ears instinctively perked up.

“I’m listening.”

“As you are probably aware, this compound possesses several high-end manufacturing machineries. Given enough time, energy and adequate materials, they could build pretty much anything.”

I started to get what it was getting at. “Let me guess: you know how to operate them.”

“Better still: I know how to make more.”

(** **)

“So, let me sum this up: I play the technician and the scavenger for you, and in return you allow me to craft anything I want, which is equivalent to showering me with bottlecaps?”

I sure didn’t want to trust this AI, but damn, I knew a good contract when I saw one.

“While I do not understand your ‘bottle caps’ metaphor, yes, this is my proposal.”

“Caps are what we now use for money,” I explained, grabbing a few from my purse to illustrate. “It’s durable, light, and you can find them everywhere so it forces ponies to take risks and scavenge.”

“This does not seem very secure to me,” Saios noted. “I reckon we should be able to craft thousands of them from tin cans.”

“Counterfeit money?” I started grinning from ear to ear. “I like the way you think, partner!”

The door opened, and just like that, I was free.

“Wonderful! Now let’s get to work.”

Thirty seconds of uncomfortable silence followed. Then:

“It would seem I cannot change the hydrogen pile of our fusion reactor. The depleted canister is stuck in its slot.”

“Wonderful. Then it’s back to step one: start up the damn reactor,” I sighted, rubbing my hoof against my forehead. “Well, at least now we know what we’re supposed to do.”

(** **)

“Are you sure this is not radioactive?” I asked for the twentieth time as I circled around the combustible slot. Slightly larger than my hoof, it should have been unscrewed by a small electrical motor underneath, if the later hadn’t been totally munched away by rust and corrosion. While I wanted very hard to believe I wasn’t going to develop ugly tumors because I had manually removed it, I reckoned there was a reason it had been automated in the first place. As for Meridian, he had mumbled something about ‘taking a look around’, and had disappeared before I could even ask him to help me. Jerk.

“Even if the containment has been breached, it should be safe to handle by now,” Saios answered.

I backed away from the device. “So it is radioactive, after all!”

“It was radioactive,” the computer sighted. “in the sense that half the hydrogen fuel was constituted of tritium, which is slightly radioactive. But even if the pile had not been depleted – which is not the case – tritium has a half-life of twelve years. It means its radioactivity had been reduced by more than 262,144 times since the stasis spell went off two centuries ago. And even back then, 700 grams of tritium wouldn’t have hurt you even if you had ingested it. The case itself is more dangerous than the fuel, since it’s heavy and you could get hurt by dropping it on yourself.”

“Hey, don’t you go all egghead on me,” I rumbled as I started freeing the canister. “I don’t even know what tritium is.”

“It is an isotope of hydrogen. I will give you a lecture on how the reactor works if you wish.”

“No –” I grunted as I pulled the metal cylinder out of its slot “– thanks. If it works, then it’s enough for me.”

“As you wish. Now, we need to get a new fuel rod.”

“I hope you got spares,” I joked, “because I ain’t sure the local supermarket has one of those in stock.”

“We got a room full of them. Please proceed through the door to your right.”

“And what about the old one?”

“Bring it with you. I will find a way to reload it, once we have settled the most important matters.”

“Aren’t you afraid to run out of juice?” I asked, as I opted for dragging the heavy canister behind me. “I mean, I just have to weight it to know you won’t find that kind of things under a rock.”

“Actually, the fuel itself would have a mass of only one and half kilogram,” the AI corrected. “The rod is heavy because somepony went overboard on its canister design and decided to make it almost indestructible. Add the stasis spell matrix used to prevent the tritium from naturally disintegrating, and you understand why they weigh about twenty kilograms.”

“I sure hope I won’t have to do that too often,” I finally decided to roll the ‘indestructible’ tank over the floor. “A kilo sure doesn’t look like much fuel.”

“It would be enough to power up the reactor for a whole year, operating at maximum capacity.”

I stopped in the doorway, and looked back and forth from the depleted rod to the reactor.

“You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“Fusion is a very efficient source of energy.”

“I don’t buy it,” I argued. “If it’s really so good, how come I’ve never seen one like that anywhere?”

“It arrived way too late on the market,” Saios sighted. “By the time this first prototype was built, Miss Sparkle and her teams had perfected her Spark generator. Furthermore, while fusion is cheap and reliable for usage, the construction of the reactor itself costs a fortune.”

“So nobody bought it,” I deduced.

“The Ministry of Awesome built a few smaller models, to power up their Thunderhead-class cloudships. And we had a few vehicle refitting projects with the Ministry of Wartime Technology, but the end of the War cut them short.”

I finally reached the room Saios had been designing. It contained more than three dozen fuel tanks.

“Well, damn,” I whistled in wonder, “you were right, we sure ain’t going to lack power anytime soon.”

I grabbed one near the bottom, and opted to load it on my back. Not that I feared it would rupture…

I then staggered to the slot. The rod slid into it without a single trace of resistance. As I locked it into place, a small green light on the panel turned on.

“Rod locked and loaded. Please return to the control room, I’m going to restart the reactor.”

(** **)

The reactor control room was exactly like I had left it, except that Meridian was nowhere to be found and that hundreds of commands I had never entered now rushed by on the terminals’ screens.

The images changed, and instead they started displaying the feed from the cameras inside the reactor room.

For a little while, nothing happened, as Saios ran multiple checks of the two-century old systems. Then, the metallic arms lit up, and the central sphere started to rise. The whole construct began to turn on itself. Once it reached a constant, moderate speed, arcs of electric blue light sprung from the tip of each arm, toward the sphere and in between them. The arcs slowly spread toward the base of the reactor.

Then, like an irregular batter smoothed out by a knife, the arcs suddenly seemed to become solid.

I stood there five more minutes, staring at the big blue ball of light on the screen.

“And what now?” I finally asked the computer.

“Whatever do you mean?”

“The reactor. It looks like it’s stuck or something,” I pointed at the screen, even though he probably had the feeds himself already. “It doesn’t look like it does anything.”

“And yet it’s working perfectly fine.” One of the screens turned back to a command line, displaying the reactor status. “See? We have power.”

“Well, damn,” I frowned at the remaining video feed. “That sure was anticlimactic.”

(** **)

“I see you have restored the air conditioner system default settings,” Saios told me as I was making my way upstairs, “that was well-thought, but quite inefficient. We mostly need to vent things out, not in – I am fairly certain the atmosphere in some confined areas is now a serious health hazard.”

“To be fair,” I panted as I trotted up the stairs toward the command center, “I had other things on my mind. We were running on emergency power, and we had no idea how long it was going to last.”

“Technically, forever. The secondary power source is a geothermal plant using underground hot sources.”

“Doesn’t sound very efficient.”

“Yet it is efficient. It is just not running at full capacity anymore,” the AI explained. “Because of the seismic activity the plant had been scaled down when the fusion reactor started.”

“And what if the reactor had gone down?” I asked. The irony of the question wasn’t lost on me.

“We would still have had enough power to run the critical subsystems, as you probably already noticed. Furthermore, if the need arose, we could have used multiple underground power lines connected to a barrage nearby.”

“Wait, there’s a barrage around here?”

“It has probably collapsed. Concrete is less durable than most ponies would believe.”

I finally reached the command center. I peeked inside; now, most of the displays were turned on, and printed out flows of information on the status of the base.

I noticed almost all the subsystems were now listed as running.

“Surprisingly, most of the base has survived the last two centuries,” Saios commented as a giant version of the DERTA map appeared on a mural screen. “The most obvious damages are in the B and C sectors. From the sensors and the cameras, it would seem some kind of collapse happened.”

“That’s an understatement. The elevator’s gone, and so are the tunnels in the lowest levels.”

“This is… problematic. I reckon you went up through the infirmary when you realized the way was closed?”

“That’s… correct,” I frowned. “How do you know that?”

“I am following the trail of destruction and zombie corpses.”

I chuckled uneasily and scratched my mane. “Killing ghouls is a messy business. Can’t be helped.”

“Ghouls? Is it the official term for those frenzied, decayed corpses which seem very keen to come back to get a taste of your liver?”

“I don’t know if it’s official or anything, but yeah, that’s how everypony call them,” I explained. I started to realize how much the AI needed me – the world it used to know had been gone for centuries, and the Wastelands were like nothing it had ever seen.

“What we got here are feral ghouls,” I continued, leaning on a console. “They are incredibly dumb. Most can’t even open doors. Don’t believe they are no threat, however, because they are damn hard to kill. They are faster than any half-rotten corpse has any right to be, and they’ll just shrug off most low caliber bullets. To kill them, you often have to dismember them, or blow their brains off.”

“It means they cannot be reasoned with,” deduced the AI.

“Nah. Lead is the only thing they understand,” I patted the shotgun on my back. “But there are other ghouls. From what I’ve been told, ghoulification is a very painful process. Most just lose their mind, and become feral. However, some manage to keep it together, and in the end are just as clever as you and I.”

“Interesting. Do unicorns and pegasi retain their innate abilities?”

I rubbed my chin thoughtfully.

“You know, I have no idea,” I finally avowed. “I’ve never seen a unicorn ghoul cast a single spell. In fact, I’m not even sure unicorns can turn into something that isn’t feral. Pegasi, on the other hoof, yeah, I’ve met quite a few. Ferals can’t fly, because they often don’t even have wings anymore. Non-ferals can probably remember how to fly, but since their wings are as rotten as the rest of their body, I’m not sure they can achieve anything short of a glide.”

An overly long silence fell onto the command center.

“You aren’t planning weird experiments on them, now are you?” I asked, uneasy.

(** **)

“And I’m telling you –” I managed to say between two shotgun shots in a ghoul’s face “– studying ferals ghouls ain’t a good idea.”

I had started the ‘pest control’ part of my job by cleaning the first levels served by the massive industrial elevator.

“But if the transformation is, as I suspect, triggered by balefire radiation, you should not fear contagion,” the AI argued.

“You’re missing the point!” I stammered as I put my last 12ga buckshots into the gun. “For starters, even bites from not-yet-dead ponies carry nasty things, so even though I wouldn’t turn into a ghoul I sure don’t want to die of an infection or something. Plus, I am not going anywhere close to these things. I ain’t crazy!”

“Fine,” Saios finally threw the towel in, “But we are missing out good science. Who knows what we would have found?”

“Don’t worry, if you really want to dissect one zombie, you’ll find plenty more outside,” I deadpanned. “But you’ll have to hire somepony else to catch it.”

“I believe we are done here anyway. I cannot sense anything moving on the level.”

“Good, because I’m running very low on ammunition,” I finally got an occasion to take a good look around. “Where are we exactly anyway?”

“You are on the lowest of the manufacturing areas.”

“Doesn’t look like a factory to me,” I looked around at the dirty, unkempt corridor around me.

“You are in the maintenance access,” Saios explained. “The AMDR is in a room nearby. Since no ghoul had managed to find their way in there, you had no need to visit it.”

“Say, Saios, I was wondering something,” I slowly peeked around a corner, not trusting the sensors for a dime, “are you unaware I’m not a qualified engineer, or do you just enjoy pissing me off by using fancy technical words I can’t even begin to understand?”

“I do not understand. Are you talking about the acronym ‘AMDR’? It stands ‘Arcanic Molecular Displacement Reactor’.”

“See, you’re doing it again!” I whined.

“Of course. I apologize, I tend to forget I am not talking to somepony with a double science degree,” Saios continued. I couldn’t figure out whether he was sarcastic or not.

“The Arcanic Molecular Displacement Reactor, or AMDR for short, is the cutting edge of microscopic re-arrangement,” the AI lectured. “Using induced arcanic field with a precision of an angstrom, it allows our facility to manipulate molecules and pure elements to force chemical reactions or crystallizations, and to mold on a macroscopic level items with a literal atomic level of perfection. Our home-made CAD software is fully compatible with the reactor, and will optimize the process following different criteria of speed, efficiency and precision chosen by the user. While our own AMDR is only limited by the energy output of our fusion power plant and the size of the reactor chamber, our systems need no cool down nor extensive maintenance delays, meaning we are able to…”

I started banging my head against a wall.

(** **)

“It builds stuff,” Saios sighed. “That’s what it does.”

“See?” I triumphed, “everything can be put in laypony’s terms.”

“I feel... dirty. An AMDR is not a simple workbench.”

“Well, duh,” my eyes rolled in their orbits. “Mind giving me the abridged version of why it deserves an acronym of its own?”

“Basically, given the proper materials and enough time and energy, an AMDR can build anything.”

“Uh… So can a workbench,” I scratched my head, perplexed. “In fact, in those conditions even a screwdriver could fit the description.”

“Could you melt tungsten with a workbench and a screwdriver?”

I blinked. “What the hell is tungsten?”

“Exactly,” Saios pointed out, “nopony even know what it is anymore, because it is so hard to use. For your information, tungsten is a metal with the highest melting point of all known chemical elements. Tungsten carbide is so hard it makes steel look like clay.”

“So, it’s hard, and it doesn’t melt,” I resumed. “So what? Steel does the job just fine already.”

“If you dropped liquid tungsten into lava, you would freeze the tungsten,” he continued, some kind of excitement peeping in his voice. “Come on, this is fantastic!”

“If I had been told an AI could be such a nerd, I wouldn’t have believed it,” I laughed. I could almost imagine a pouty face appearing on a screen somewhere in a base. “Okay, I admit, tungsten is cool and you can make some. Then what?”

“You did not understand my point. We can melt and mold tungsten – about a hundred grams of it at once. Knowing that, how easy do you think it would be to craft anything from steel, titanium, copper, or whatever other interesting substance you might need?”

“Oh.” I started to get it.

“Indeed. For example, let’s take your shotgun,” the AI continued. “Every single piece inside had to be crafted using a specific mold, or specific tools. But not with an AMDR. The same tool can be used to make anything.”

“You really meant you could craft anything, didn’t you. But then, how come I had never heard of it before?” I asked, dubious.

“Remember the fusion reactor? We could have used it to supply electricity to a good quarter of the country, yet it was barely enough to process more than half a kilogram of alloys at once,” Saios explained. “As I said, I could craft anything, given enough time and energy. We had the energy for cheap, but not the time. Furthermore, the installation itself cost so much to build nopony wanted to invest in one – and I’m not even talking about the electricity bill. You would have to make your own power plant, which doesn’t come for cheap either.”

“But then why did the DERTA have one, if it’s so unpractical?” While I didn’t live during the war, I had no trouble believing the amount of cash injected in such a jewel could have been used to more down-to-earth applications, like showering the Zebras with lead.

“The research program actually started a long time before the war. Since the Prench government –” I couldn’t help but snicker “– didn’t believe they could compete directly with Equestria, they had to find their own way to shine.”

“So they built lots of useless machines,” I chipped in.

“Not exactly. They threw everything they had into an area of science in which Equestria had invested little, if any, resources: the arcanic-based technologies.”

“Didn’t the Ministry of Arcane Sciences do that already? And whoever was supposed to do research in magic before that?” I mean, duh, they did have ‘arcane’ in their name.

“That would be the Royal Academy of Arcane. Believe it or not, they left entire sectors unexplored because they simply were too narrow-minded to consider them, and while the Ministry opened up its views through collaborations with Earth pony technologies, they never really got around their old grudges. To them, arcane is a goal or a mean. For us, it was a tool or a part of a more complex process.”

This time, I didn’t even bother pointing out he was speaking gibberish again.

“We applied the ways of Earth ponies’ technologies to crystalize spell matrices. The AMDR is but one of many proof of concept that you can indeed use spells like very versatile electronic components able to interact with their environment in many ways. We applied those findings to many other things, like reactive armor, very-high temperature superconductors, or self-sustained shields.”

“Tenpony Tower had shields too,” I pointed out.

“While I never had access to their schematics, I strongly suspect they simply used a one-shot megaspell to amplify a million fold a simple nexus spell,” the AI nerded out.

“What’s the difference? Megaspells sound a lot like your arcanic thingies.”

“That’s because they are. But they were not invented by the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, but by the Ministry of Peace.”

“Wait, wasn’t the MoP the one in charge of hospitals and all that stuff?” I asked, bewildered. I had been told in the past they had been the one to leak the mass destruction weapons to the enemy, which seemed quite implausible, but I simply couldn’t believe they had also invented them.

I told Saios so.

“I know, right? Back then, it took everypony by surprise. We didn’t even have to ask for the schematics or nothing, we found them in our mailbox the day after their little feat of strength. They remotely healed more than a thousand wounded soldiers with a prototype fitting in a carriage, you know. On their first try. I had been told Twilight Sparkle spent a full week locked in her office trying to wrap her head around the how and the whys of those wonders.

“Ironically, Fluttershy herself – the mare at the head of the MoP – had thought such spells would level the battlefield, since it would mean no more casualties on our side. She did not realize it could be weaponized, or used for other purposes.

“In a couple months, a joined effort from the MAS and the MoWT had built the first offensive megaspell. Soon afterward, Stable Tech launched the PipBuck, and I’m fairly certain they used a variant of megaspells to miniaturize their spell matrix. Even here, in the DERTA, it widened our horizons. Our project of a fusion power plant became realizable, now that we could use megaspells to contain the core. In less than six months, we had a prototype up and running, and we boosted our AMDR’s output by ten thousand percent.”

“Wait, are you telling me that thing down there –” I pointed at the floor toward the reactor “– is a freaking megaspell?”

“Megaspells aren’t harmful in themselves, Spring” Saios tried to calm me, “they only amplify simple spells a few orders of magnitude. In our case, it allowed us to design a shield small enough to be fitted in the reactor’s arms, yet strong enough to maintain the fusion material under a sufficient pressure. Then, we used a second megaspell on a thermal shield which prevent the reactor from simply melting down.”

“So if they fail, we’re toasted,” I resumed.

“No. If the core shield fails, the fusion process will simply stop. If the thermal shield fails, redundant securities will cut the fuel and drown the reactor with cold inert gases.”

“And if both fail?”

“Report to the first case. The reactor would stop, and we’d just be in the dark again.”

“Which would be bad,” I concluded, resisting the urge to facehoof.

(** **)

When I first got my hooves on the DERTA’s maps, I had been surprised not to see an armory anywhere. After all, in the paranoia of the war, even the local grocery shop was expected to have three different kinds of shotguns in a closet near the cash register.

But in Big Mt, for some reasons, they had opted for another approach: the personnel accredited to carry a weapon were trusted to lock it safely in their own, personal lockers. The same could be said for their security armor.

In the end, it meant the DERTA’s “armory” was nothing more than a glorified closet with a steel door, a couple unused guns and a few thousands rounds of ammunition.

On the bright side, the whole place had been protected by the same technology of near-vacuum storage that had kept my own shotgun pristine for two centuries.

On the down side, damn, a freakin’ closet. Talk about anticlimactic.

Located near the command center, not too far from the collapsed area, the armory was quick to refill my own, depleted ammunition stocks. Now fitted with a nigh-unlimited stock of 12 gauge rounds, I went on to the next items on my ghoul-hunting checklist: a gas mask, and a freakin’ Geiger counter.

Saios guided me toward the warehouses on the fifth level. I had already been there on my way in; now that a bleach light poured down from the ceiling, casting away the shadows, the large rows of shelves and sealed crates seemed a bit less spooky.

There, I met one of the few maintenance robots still in shape to do anything besides beeping in a dark corner. The base AI told me it was doing its best to repair – or rebuild – them all, so I wouldn’t have to do the most boring maintenance job. While I was glad I wouldn’t have to mop the floors to remove the stains of ghoul goo, the idea of losing so easily part of my leverage against Saios worried me. If it couldn’t repair the compound by itself, then it would have an incentive not to piss me off; but if some pre-war robots could act as remotely-controlled repairponies…

Anyway, the robot in question proved to be very helpful to grab a two hundred kilo crate sitting far above me on some shelves. I doubted many unicorns could lift that much with their telekinesis – I recall somepony able to move a freakin’ train car somewhere around New Appleloosa, but that’s pretty much it.

The robotized forklift, however, had no problem securing the crate, bringing it down, and even carrying it all the way to the nearest workshop.

There, as it started unsealing the package for me, I found myself facing the puzzling, dismantled sentry gun once again.

“This is an automated linear-accelerating high-velocity defense module,” Saios said when prompted. “In other terms, this is a turret that shoots steel balls at a very high speed.”

Okay, now he was definitely making fun of me.

“Hey, cut that off, I ain’t stupid,” I snarled, stomping my hoof to the ground. To my great dismay, it probably looked more pathetic that anything. “Just explain the freakin’ scientific or technical words you use, don’t baby-talk me!”

“Sorry, I couldn’t help it,” Saios snickered. For a moment, I almost forgot I was talking to a computer. Damn. “Though you will find there is not much to say about those. We called them the Gauss sentries. It uses a linear accelerator to propel small steel bearings through pretty much any combat armor with ease.”

“Linear what?” I asked, puzzled. I still didn’t have a clue on how those things were supposed to work.

“Linear accelerator. Basically, the barrel is a succession of superconductor solenoids, in which we send current of a few hundred amperes. It generates linear magnetic fields, which repel and attract the projectile.”

I shot the local camera a blank look.

“Like a big slingshot, but with magnets,” Saios helpfully suggested.

“Oh.”

(** **)

“Okay, stop me if I’m wrong,” I resumed. “Electricity goes there, through this coil-thingy in there, and it creates a large electromagnet, which acts like a magnetic slingshot.”

“Correct.”

“So it’s like a gunpowder-based weapon, but without gunpowder,” I continued, puzzled. It made little sense to me to go such a way to sidestep something that seemed so natural to me.

“Kind of.”

“And let me guess, you never got around to sell it because it’s so expensive and shit,” I concluded with a little smile. I started to get the mentality of the guys down in the DERTA: make the best design possible, and then starts worrying about the price.

“Actually, the Gauss weapons were our best sellers,” Saios noted. “This particular model never attracted many buyers because Flash Industries and Ironshod Firearms had released cheaper and more economical sentries years before we even started the production. But we had other models.”

“Like, rifles?” I asked, suddenly interested. Sentries were too heavy to dismantle and move around to be of any interest to me, but guns? Yep, that I could sell.

“No, we scaled them up. As the Zebra aerial incursions became more frequent, the Equestrian government decided to fortify their borders with entire batteries of anti-air canons.”

“And you built them,” I deduced, my mind drifting back to some of Crowneigh’s documents. “How many?”

“We manufactured 7,127 AAGC during the war. We were still assembling them on the surface when the bomb fell.”

“Damn, now that’s a shitload of guns,” I whistled. “I sure hope they worked as intended.”

“Believe me, they did. One of those canons could take down a full-grown dragon in three or four shots in mid-air. The first batch we dispatched relieved the Shadowbolts so much the Ministry of Awesome paid us up front to put one every kilometer on the border, and some more to defend the cities, their cloudships and the strategic targets. It allowed them to bring the fight to the Zebra, at least from the air.”

With a long thud, the lid of the crate finally slid open. Curious, I peered into its contents. Sure enough, it was filled to the brim with hazmat suits, laboratory-grade gas masks, Geiger counters, and other gizmos I couldn’t identify for sure. It had everything somepony would need to dwell safely in a moderately irradiated environment.

As I lifted a suit up to me eyes, I realized I had yet to see a body or a ghoul wearing such equipment. I almost pointed it out to Saios, but held my tongue: while the AI had been helpful and quite straightforward so far, I couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong in the DERTA. Meridian’s words came back to my mind. Even though I had dismissed his concerns as pure paranoia, the compound started to look more and more like a military installation, and less like a research center. I could understand somepony would hide from its population shady studies on living beings, but antennas of the MoWT had weapons factories all over the place. It didn’t make sense to dig a freakin’ mountain just to set up another one, much less spend billions on stuff that ended up way too expensive and experimental to sell.

Then again, it had been designed by Prench engineers with too much budget far too eager to show off to their Equestrian neighbors. Even if they made half as much sense as their food, it was a wonder they hadn’t built the base on the freakin’ moon.

“Say, how come you could afford to do so many things, since Prance dropped… early… from the War?” I asked, feigning innocence.

“Well, as I said, we had a long-running sale on AAGCs”, Saios explained, “which gave us a breather. Otherwise, before the true Prench government fell, we almost had a white card to do whatever we wanted. Afterward, we gained Equestria’s support, and thanks to our unusual fields of study we ended up independent of both the Ministry of Magic and Technology. They had a little competition of some sort to ‘acquire’ us and gave us both a full envelope.”

The AI paused, as if it didn’t feel it should continue.

“On the side, we had a few trump cards,” it added. “The Ministry of Awesome often came to us when they needed something and didn’t want the rest of the government to know. Plus, during the first hours of the bombing of Prance, some of our national gold reserve got packed up incognito on boats. I still didn’t know if the guy who had given that order hoped to finance a guerrilla force to take back the motherland, or just hoped to disappear during the mess with almost a billion in gold ingots, but when the Prench captain landed somewhere near Manehattan, the tables had turned. He obviously had no idea what he was transporting, because when he learned Prance had fallen he simply forwarded his whole, sealed shipment to the last place on Equus still bearing the Prench flag: Big Mountain. Over the years we managed to sell it all, mostly thanks to the MoA.”

Called it.

“Why didn’t you build the base on the moon?” I asked playfully.

“Beg your pardon?” the AI seemed puzzled.

“Nothing,” I snickered under my breath.

I rummaged through the crate for a few seconds.

“Oh, I see. You were wondering why the place was built here in the first place,” Saios understood. “This is actually a funny historical tale. Do you mind hearing it?”

“If it doesn’t contain romance, espionage and daggers in the night, I’m not interested,” I tried to cut him off before he drown me under boring facts once again.

“I do not know about romance or daggers in the night, but it does involve some kind of espionage,” Saios answered, to my great surprise. Was he spilling the beans? It could be a trap to lure me into a false sensation of security, but then again if I didn’t hear what he said I could never know for sure.

“Well, then, go ahead,” I resigned myself to endure some more trivia. “It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

“I will try to make it short.

Three centuries before the war – that is, two centuries from now – a young Prench entrepreneur named Sel de Roche decided she deserved her part of the Equestrian dream. Back then, Princess Celestia ruled your country alone. Sel showed up in the throne room one afternoon and dared Celestia to a game of chess. If the latter came to win, Sel would vow her life into the Royal Engineer Corps, which were back then nothing more than glorified bridgemakers. But if Sel won, the Princess would agree to give her any place she chose.

The tale says the cacophony afterward in the throne room had only been surpassed by the one when Princess Luna came back from the moon to her rightful place. Princess Celestia, amused, agreed to the challenge and they had their chess match.”

Saios paused. I realized I had dropped to my haunches to listen to the story. After a full minute of silence, I finally gave in and asked:

“And she won?”

“Are you kidding? You are talking about Princess Celestia. She was millennia old even back then. It is even said she invented the game of chess, though I like to believe Luna did. Sel played like nopony had ever played, yet she had lost the game the moment Celestia agreed to play.

However, when the Prenchmare’s king finally fell on the chessboard, the monarch saw an unthinkable despair shrouding her worthy opponent’s eyes. She took pity on her, and said with her motherly voice:

‘I am sorry, my little pony. But know owning a plot of land is not the best way toward happiness. What would you have done with a manor or a castle?’

‘I wished no manor nor castle,’ Sel had answered, tears flowing on her cheeks. ‘I wished a plot of land to farm, or a pile of rocks to mine. I wished to be a part of the world we are all building. But I am no lord, and I own no riches. I wished for a miracle’

Then, something marvelous happened and this is how the story became legend. It is said the Princess then softly grasped Sel in one wing. She lifted the fallen king up with a pinion, and said:

‘Consider your wish granted.’

Then, as the few nobles still present started whispering to each other how they would rip the land from the grasp of the bewildered Sel, the Princess proclaimed:

‘Hear us! From this day forth, we declare Sel de Roche here present as the sole owner of Big Mountain and the five miles of lands in the vicinity.’

‘But your Highness’, a clever noble protested, ‘No commoner can own Equestrian soil, and no foreigner could ever be an Equestrian noble.’

The Princess saw the truth in his words. She added:

‘Hear us! We hereby decree the place known as Big Mountain, and the five miles of lands in the vicinity, and the ground below, and the air above, to be given to the Kingdom of Prance as a sign of the friendship between our two nations.’”

“No way. She couldn’t do that,” I interrupted.

“Yet she did. Oh, I do not believe it was the misty eyes of young Sel that truly motivated her. The symbolic gesture both warmed up the relations with Prance, but also put the nobles where they belonged. It gave to Equestrian commoners – and as a matter of fact to every citizen in the world – the incentive to wish their own plot of land. Not fifty years later, under the pressure of the street the nobles had to give up most of their lands.

Afterward, Sel de Roche went on to her fief and dug a salt mine. Her family became rich, until they went out of business a century and half later, but this is another story.”

“You promised me some spies,” I pointed out.

“That only happened a long time later.

Eventually, Big Mountain was abandoned. It became nothing more than an oddity on the map. Everypony forgot it.

Until one day the Prench government – the monarchy had been violently put down for a while then – found itself in need of a secret place somewhere near Equestria. Nightmare Moon had come back, and then Discord after her, and yet we basically learned it in the newspapers.”

“They wanted to spy on them,” I deduced. “But why a permanent base? It would have been probably easier to simply send some agents or something.”

“Of course, and that’s what they did. By the time they started stemming spies all over the country, however, changelings had the bad idea of showing their chitin-covered face to feast on a wedding in Canterlot. Afterward, the paranoia pushed spies out of the picture.”

“Wait, those events really happened so fast?” I asked, incredulous. I had heard of all those events, but I had believe them to be set decades apart!

“It gets worse. Not two months afterward, the Crystal Empire shows up, out of nowhere. As you may be aware, them and Prance never got along very well. In fact, they had been at war for sixteen years before Sombra somehow managed to make his kingdom vanish into thin air. It meant that when they reappeared, well, we were technically still at war with them. You cannot sign an armistice with somepony who had disappeared, right?

So then we had two places to spy at once, but couldn’t send a single spy. This is when some government clerk decided to empty his drawers and find a folder about Big Mountain. He hoofed it to his superior, which immediately saw the potential of the place.

From there on, it went very fast. An undercover team went there to gauge the terrain. The report told of an isolated place, with galleries that went on for miles, and a summit from which you could see both Canterlot and the Empire. Additional readings showed the leylines under the place were non-existent, which prevented rivals from scrying it; that the rock composition was such that most vibrations created inside the place didn’t travel very far through the ground. It was the perfect place for a secret spy base.

Of course, there was no way they could have built it without Equestria knowing, so they pretended they were building a research facility. Then, they realized after a few months it would indeed make a wonderful research facility for all the little projects they wanted to keep to themselves, so they started sending their best engineers and researchers to found the DERTA.

Eventually, even the Crystal Empire became one of our closest allies in the war. The radio network got revamped as an emergency relay between the two nations and as a huge antenna to stay in contact with the MoM spy satellites network since the absence of leylines meant we had a clearer signal than anybody else.”

“So the DERTA is in fact a military facility,” I concluded.

“Equestria was engaged in a total war with the Zebras. You would have a hard time finding a corporation which wasn’t.”

(** **)

“So, what now?” I asked Saios as I finished putting my hazmat suit on. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of not wearing my leather armor anymore, but since we had no idea if the uppers levels were still viable I didn’t want to take any chance.

“We now need to reclaim the upper levels,” Saios answered in the small radio transmitter I had put in my ear. “Then, I will send repair bots to assess the structural damage. While we shan’t need those areas in the future, it is of upmost importance we check if they are safe, and seal them off otherwise”.

“And then I think I’m going to hit the hay,” I yawned. Down there in the artificial light, I had no idea how much time had passed since I last slept. It felt like days.

“Of course. I have a room being prepared for you.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Really? How so?”

“Some of the officer rooms had been quite well preserved in sector A3. I have sent a couple robots to clean up, change the bed sheets, and otherwise verify there are no ghouls in the closets.”

“How many robots do you have anyway?” I frowned. First autonomous forklifts, then repairbots, then change-the-bed-sheets robots?

“Right now, not so many,” Saios answered after a short pause. “I am doing my best to repair and adapt the remaining units, but it is an arduous task.”

“Adapt?”

“Indeed. We have little need for dishwasher bots or a battalion of mobile sentries. On the other hoof, I may be able to modify their lasers into a drill to unclog the lower levels.”

“A drill. From a dishwasher and some sentries,” I deadpanned.

“I will also need some bubblegum, your assistance may be required,” the AI added.

(** **)

“So, this is the infamous communication center,” I said, taking a good look around. Dusty terminals and chairs circled the room. “Doesn’t seem very impressive to me.”

“Would your weapons look impressive to somepony used to swords and clubs?” Saios picked. “Believe me, our surveillance equipment saved thousands of fellow Equestrian citizen – and probably indirectly killed ten times more zebras. We were the ones to relay the emergency population warning to the Crystal Empire, and we intercepted hundreds of radio signals addressed to inbound hostile aircrafts.”

I rolled my eyes. Equestria lost the war, didn’t she? And for all I knew, nothing remained of the Empire but ice-covered radioactive ruins.

“Whatever. We need to make it work,” I blew the dust away from a nearby terminal. It asked for my ID.

“All the breakers went off during the attack. This hardware is very sensitive to overvoltage and electromagnetic interferences. It received a quantity of both when the shield broke, I may have to rebuild some auxiliary, less protected systems from scratch.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” I rolled my eyes yet again. “Just tell me where you need me, Smartypants.”

“The room you’re in is only a secondary control room. Most of the communication equipment is in the next room,” Saios continued, unfazed. “The surveillance camera there does not seem to be working anymore, and the door was not fitted with motors. I need you to check the breakers inside. It should allow me to run at least a partial checkup of the subsystems.”

Shotgun at the ready, I trotted toward the aforementioned door. A faint odor of rot and burned plastic attacked my nostrils.

“Ten caps there’s a ghoul in there,” I bet, a smug look on my face. Not today, evil Wasteland!

“Careful not to destroy anything. Without schematics, I may be able to repair fried circuits, but not rebuild them from scratch,” Saios decided to pop my fun.

“Hey, relax. See the bullet on my butt?” I moved my barding sideway so the camera could get a good glance at my cutie mark. “I’m a marksmare. It’s my special talent. I simply never miss.”

“Just be careful, Calamity Mare.”

I puffed and slowly turned the doorknob. The frame revolved on its hinges with a sinister wail. Without a word, I lifted both my light and my shotgun.

Sure enough, a ghoul was there, snarling at me. Its eyes had been bleached out by the centuries of darkness.

I blew its head away.

“Gotcha,” I murmured with a sadistic smile.

Then, the small dust of blood and flesh settled, allowing me to get a good look to the neat, still smoking hole adorning the server rack behind.

My smile fell. Horror dawned on my face.

“Tell me you didn’t,” I could almost hear the AI facehoof.

(** **)

“Well done, you just utterly destroyed an invaluable chipset made of lost technology,” Saios scolded me for the umpteenth time. “No, truly, I found that fact to be very impressive. That ghoul had been trapped inside that room for two centuries and did not manage to break it; yet, you only needed to spend three seconds standing on the doorstep to pulverize it to smithereens! Smooth, really.”

“Hey, I’m sorry, okay?” I dropped the ruined PCB board on a nearby desk. “I usually never use 12 gauge guns. I didn’t realize it would over penetrate this much.”

I stayed there in silence for a full minute. I didn’t know if the AI was looking for a replacement part or for the best way to get rid of me, but I reckoned I should not antagonize it any more.

At least for the moment.

“I may have a solution,” the speakers finally broadcasted. “You will need to get out there, on your own. I wanted us to be in constant contact during our first excursion, but I reckon it is now out of the question. I did not have enough time to finish preparing a gift I wished to give to you either.”

“Gift?” I asked, my ears perking up at the magic word. “What gift?”

“You will see. I am certain you will like it.”

“What is it?”

“I am not telling you,” Saios teased me. “Consider not knowing your punishment for breaking my toys.”

(** **)

The slow tick of the Geiger counter softly resonated in the empty corridors. My shotgun raised in front of me, I silently advanced in the darkness. “You are reaching the surface,” Saios murmured in my ear. “While I cannot open the blast doors, there are emergency exits which do not require power to open. You should be able to get out through them.”

“Got it,” I answered softly. The silence was uncanny. The thick dust layer on the concrete floor muffled my hoofsteps, The only other sound was my laborious breathing through the cumbersome gas mask.

In the collapsed areas, each step was a challenge. More than anything, I feared falling on some sharp iron concrete reinforcement and puncture my hazmat suit. Wandering in the Equestrian Wasteland had never been a very healthy occupation, yet even the most deranged scavengers knew better than exploring a building that withstood a direct megaspell strike.

Even more worrisome were the total absence of ghouls. They usually feasted and prospered in irradiated areas.

At the turn of a dark corridor, I reached yet another reinforced firewall. This time, I struggled to turn the wrench to manually open it – the frame seemed to be slightly bent inward and two centuries of neglect probably didn’t arrange its case either.

After a few minutes of intense labor, I finally managed to open it just enough to squeeze in, and down the corridor I started to see some light.

“Saios, I believe I reached the exit,” I murmured in the radio. Still no sign of hostiles.

“Good. Somewhere on the walls, you should see an ‘emergency exit’ sign. Follow it, until you reach an airlock.”

I squeezed my eyes toward the light. “I can see the exit from here.”

“As I said earlier, you need to access an exit with a manual override,” he patiently repeated. “There is no power in this sector anymore; I cannot use the motors to open the blast doors.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I continued, carefully moving forward. “The blast door’s gone, Saios.”

The AI did not answer. I waited there in silence for a full minute.

“Saios?”

“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” he finally asked.

“I can’t really see from where I am, but it looks like there’s a whole chunk of it missing,” I answered. “There’s moonlight seeping through it.”

I finally reached the airlock leading to the blast door. My torchlight beam slowly swept the inside.

“Well, damn,” I whistled, taking notice of the damage. “What the hell happened here?”

The thick door had been blasted open, leaving a gapping, pony-size hole where steel should have been. On the other side of the room, part of the concrete wall had been pulverized.

As I took another step to take a look outside, something loudly cracked under my hoof. Sweeping the charred black soil aside, I realized it was a pony bone.

I looked around once again. It wasn’t very noticeable in the darkness, but most of the wall had been scorched by some kind of intense heat. Here and there, uneven piles of dust and soot betrayed where furniture and ponies had been standing when they got cooked alive. The door probably didn’t withstand the stress of a way-too-close balefire hit.

As I drew nearer to the frame panels, however, I realized it didn’t really add up. I had seen countless sample of blast damage in the past. Most of the time, the blast doors were simply torn away from their hinges and threw against whatever stood behind, or awkwardly bent by the mix of extreme heat and intense pressure. Yet, this particular door looked more like somepony had punctured it with a giant needle, and then tossed a grenade at it. The metal hadn’t even melted or bent: it just was torn away around a central hole.

Looking back toward the backmost wall, I realized some kind of projectile had flown through, before the bomb even detonated. It would have also explained the out-of-shape firewall down the corridor: it had probably taken more blast and heat than it had been designed to.

I shivered when I realized everything in the DERTA could have been burned down to smithereens had somepony not gone overboard with their fire plan.

“Hey, Saios, there’s something very wrong here. Something blasted the exit open before the megaspell detonated,” I finally said, my gaze lingering on the pile of soot here and there. “They didn’t make it very far, though. They got nasty sunburns, courtesy of our dear Zebra neighbors.”

“It’s impossible. That door is over sixty centimeters thick. To puncture it, you would need…” Saios trailed on. Silence fell in the airlock.

“Shit, I can’t believe it,” he suddenly continued, his voice slipping into a noticeable Prench accent. “Range, you magnificent bastard. Didn’t want to stay out in the rads, huh?”

Had I been drinking then, I would have probably done a spite take so monstrous I would have earned a cozy place in a book of record somewhere.

“W- What?” I stammered, backpedaling against the door by reflex. “My name ain’t Range, Saios. It’s me, Spring, remember?”

Oh please Luna don’t go axe crazy on me oh please Luna don’t go axe crazy-

“I know, all my apologies,” Saios’ accent had reverted back to his usual, neutral ways. “Conflicting emotions and a poor conception of my systems had me default to another, less professional personality.”

Fuck. What did I do to the Goddesses to be assisted by the one artificial intelligence in the Wastelands to be schizophrenic and bipolar?

“Do not worry,” he continued. “If anything, my alternate personality should like you even more than I do.”

“Uh, thanks? I guess?” I timidly answered. Then, turning back toward the punctured blast door: “So, mind telling me what you think happened here?”

“I cannot know for sure, yet I have a strong suspicion that somepony which used to be at the head of the ballistic research department used one of the canons at the other side of the valley to get inside. In all likelihood, he got locked outside when the base went under lockdown after the shield failed. Obviously he did not seem very happy with that.”

“Can’t blame him,” I mumbled, squinting my eyes to see through the gaping hole in the metal. “Nopony wants to die of radiation sickness.”

Outside, the moonlight barely shone through the thick cloud layer. I couldn’t even see the ground on the other side of the blast door. Curious to see how much had survived the megaspells, I lifted my torchlight and swept the landscape.

Dozens of yellow, angry eyes shone back at me.

“Oh, fuck.”

(** **)

“Spring? Spring? What’s going on?”

“What d’ya think?” I gritted between my teeth, blasting my shotgun all azimuths. “Bloody ghouls were all having a picknic on the surface, and looks like I’m the piece de resistance!”

The half-decayed corpses were now pressing against the gaping hole in the blast door. Letting out yet another curse, I started to fall back in the corridor.

Undeterred by the constant rain of lead I was dropping on them, the frenzied ghouls finally entered the airlock. I did not know if it was all the grime stuck on my hazmat helmet, or if I had started hallucinating because of sleep deprivation, but I swear some of them were shining in the dark.

As I blasted the head of one of the glowing ones, fluorescent goo exploded and covered the whole ceiling, sending the Geiger counter on my back into a clicking frenzy.

I took another step back. My shotgun clicked empty.

“Luna damn it!”

I fumbled to push a new cartridge into the loading port, but it somehow got stuck sideway in the cylinder. As a zombie reached out to get me, I threw the useless weapon in its face and drew my pistol instead.

It wasn’t until I emptied a full magazine in the frenzied mob now filling the airlock that I remembered why I needed a shotgun in the first place.

I gave up the idea of ditching the endless flow of ghouls. I bravely turned toward the other end of the corridor and took a Prench leave.

“Saios, I got a situation here,” I heaved, the zombies close on my tail.

“There is nothing I can do while you’re in the disconnected area,” the AI calmly answered. Damn, he sure wasn’t about getting eaten!

I grunted in response and dove into the narrow space I had opened in the firewall. I almost managed to get through.

Sadly, the hazmat suit had another idea.

The rearmost part got stuck against the jagged edge of the heavy frame. I heard the tissue rip and my whole momentum went into an abrupt stop. My flashlight slipped from my telekinetic grasp. It rolled away in the darkness.

“Fuck!” I struggled as half my body remained on the ghouls’ side. I twisted some more, and got awarded by another loud rip.

“I’m stuck! I’m fuckin’ stuck!” I yelled, uselessly flaying my hooves in the air. Frenzied moans were getting ever closer.

A sharp pain erupted from my left hindleg, I bucked with all my might in reflex. My hoof connected with something solid which quickly broke under the impact.

The extra adrenaline gave me just the kick I needed to tear off the rest of the suit and push myself to safety.

I crawled on the cold concrete for a few meters. Behind me, lavish ghouls were ripping what was left of the hazmat suit to shred. Disgusted, I threw the helmet at them.

Then I realized a small chunk of my leg was missing. As I turned around to locate my flashlight, the pain in my back started searing again like it hadn’t done in weeks.

“Great. That’s freaking great!”

I could barely stand on my hooves, let alone run. Behind the firewall, some ghouls realized they had been munching plastic for a few seconds now and that the living meatbag they had been hunting had gone through.

With a wailing belonging to another world, they started pounding their way through the narrow gap. Had they been anything remotely alive, I would have expected them to die under the formidable crowd pressure applied behind them. But ghouls cared little for broken ribs or gaping wounds: eventually, one managed to drop on my side of the firewall.

An ice-cold sensation chilled me to the bones. Limping on my three goods legs and leaning on the walls, I moved away from the hungry crowd. Another nine millimeter magazine took good care of the ghoul which had managed to get through, but it did little to deter the others.

“Saios…” I gasped, my throat feeling dry, “I could really use a hoof right now…”

“You have to keep moving!” the voice was less composed now – could an AI really panic? “You’re almost there!”

I staggered some more. Finally, I arrived in sight of the door to the next sector.

“Saios, I see the door!” I breathed out. “Open up!”

Behind me, ghouls started peeking around the corner.

“Open up, damn it!” I yelled, drawing nearer.

The large frame started sliding.

“Come on, Spring, I see you on the surveillance feed,” Saios encouraged. “Just don’t stop and don’t look back.”

Of course, I had to look back.

Right behind me, another glowing one tried to gnaw off my tail. I yelped, and jumped forward as far as my poor condition allowed me.

I landed on my bad leg. I fell right behind the firewall.

“Close it! Close it, damn it!” I yelped, half in pain, half in anger.

Agonizingly slow, the frame started to move in the other direction. And, right when I started to believe I was safe, the ghoul leaped through the gap and landed right on me, kicking my pistol away.

“AAAH! GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF!” I flayed and kicked and bucked it with all my meager strength.

The ghoul started munching one of my unprotected forelimb ; Saios screamed something I couldn’t understand ; and there was a huge flash. I found myself swimming in bright yellow goo, sprayed on me as a thick paste. On my back, the Geiger counter went ballistic.

“Firewall sealed. The hostiles are contained.” Saios said on the speakers. I doubted the radio had survived the ghoul’s explosion.

“Well, damn, filly, if I didn’t know better I’d say you love going medieval on ferals,” Meridian chuckled somewhere behind me. I spat a thick glob of Luna-knows-what and wiped my mouth.

“Fuck you,” I groaned. My back ached me like hell and I needed to disinfect my others wounds immediately. “And thanks for saving my ass.”

“Come on, let’s patch you up again,” the Earth pony said, taking my side to allow me to lean on his shoulder. He sniffed loudly and frowned his nostrils. “Also, you need a shower. Badly.”

(** **)

In the end, my wounds proved to be more bark than bite. The ghouls had not gone very deep into my skin, making it quite easy to disinfect and spray with some cure-all health potion.

Then, I somehow managed to found my way into a working shower. On this experience, I have only three things to say:

Warm, radiation-free water.

When the blessed stream of liquid fell down on my battered shoulders, I think I had an orgasm. Seriously.

After a good hour of pure delight under the water, I finally mustered the courage to step out into the moist air, cleaner than I had ever been.

There were even clean towels hung on a wall, waiting for me.

As I dried myself, my eyes lazily took notice of the bathroom around me. Clean, paved with white tiles, it featured a shower, a small sink, a toilet and little more. It felt a bit cramped, yet I had never seen a bathroom so… pristine. In the Wasteland, most of them were crumbling ruins, and the rest had to do with two centuries of usage without running water.

In a corner, a small crystal pulsed. I realized it was sucking out the humidity from the air.

“Hum. Clever,” I mumbled, staggering toward the door. The pain in my legs had subbed, but my back still ached like hell. Damn you Van Graff and you plasma weapons!

I pushed the wooden door open and landed into a medium-sized living room. On a sofa against a wall Meridian was sitting, humming quietly a catchy tune coming from speakers in every corner. A circular, hip-high table thingy occupied the center of the room; besides, in front of Meridian, a large screen adorned a wall. Everywhere, shelves supported hundreds of worn out books, worthless gadgets, centuries-old records, and huge piles of indiscernible items I couldn’t identify to save my life.

Oh, and for some reason a good quarter of the room had been turned into a makeshift workshop, complete with welding post, workbench, screwdrivers and a random collection of electronic components.

“Well, damn, that shower just hit the spot,” I yawned as I stretched my overworked muscles. The injury on my back vigorously protested, but I paid it no heed.

“Say, Saios,” I asked playfully, making my way toward the nerdy mess in the corner, “by chance, wasn’t the previous owner of this place named Van Graff? Because I met somepony who had this kind of stuff all over his kitchen not a month ago.”

“As far as I’m aware, I never had any offspring and my family died during the War,” the AI answered with a chuckle. “Any similarity with some other ponies you may know is purely coincidental.”

I tripped over some random gismo on the ground. A hasty bracing to the nearby workbench saved me from a painful fall into coils and other dismantled pieces.

“Wait, what?” I asked, incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘family’?”

Saios did not answer at once. I shot a sideway glance to Meridian, who frowned in return.

“This is a piece of information I would have rather kept for myself,” the computer finally sighted. “Oh well. You would have learned it anyway, sooner or later.”

Saios stopped again. In my head, I pictured him hesitating – but then again, who knew what a computer could think?

“My hardware structure is based on a neuronal-inspired design, doubled with standard procedural processing units. Given our total lack of understanding in the process of learning and data assimilation in biological entities, the team developing the Special Artificial Intelligence and Operating System – shortened to SAIOS – decided the software could not achieve the level of precision required to satisfy the project specifications if we decided to make it ex nihilo. We did find, however, that we could use pre-existing biological neural matrices from intelligent equines to imprint our own, artificial drives. We theorized the computer resulting from such a transfer would be extremely quick to reach self-awareness, yet would be able in a matter of seconds to assimilate the more standard parts of its electronic anatomy. As you probably noticed, at least those hopes were fulfilled by the practical experiment.”

I loudly coughed.

“Sorry, sometimes I feel like I am still filling out forms to explain why this project failed so miserably,” Saios apologized. “Bottom line: long ago, I used to be a pony.”

(** **)

Main quest updated: No Signal
Objectives:
[X] Reclaim what is yours (Primary)
[ ] Repair the DERTA's communication center (Primary)
[X] Deal with the base's AI, peacefully (Optional)
[ ] Permanently disable the base's AI (Optional)



Level up!

New perk:
Computer whiz: someday, nerds will rule the world. Good thing you got the biggest one of all by your side! As long as Saios can access the network or the terminal you’re targeting, he can hack it for you.

"His laptop’s encrypted. Drug him and hit him with this $5 wrench until he tells us the password."

Chapter Nine: The Snowflake Effect

View Online

Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.



“There’s no gene for fate.”

Chapter Nine: The Snowflake Effect

Honestly, I should have seen it coming. A lone seemingly artificial intelligence forgotten in a shady, underground science complex in the middle of nowhere?

Of course it had to be the result of some terrifying experiment in which evil scientists had strapped their wailing victim to a chair, hooked him up to a computer, and then poured the life out of him.

Then, as lighting thundered in the background, they would have reared in triumph and yelled, ‘IT’S ALIVE!’

“And before you start imagining silly things, no mad scientists were involved,” Saios added. “If anything, I regret absolutely nothing.”

My Frankenstein fantasy came crashing down. It did little to reassure me: I did not know what terrified me most between being guided by an AI which resented ponykind for what happened to it and being guided by somepony so nuts he didn’t care about being turned into a tin can.

“But… you… what?” I blabbered, making my way to the couch. Sitting right next to me, Meridian seemed lost in his thoughts.

“You are confused. It is natural,” Saios continued patiently. “To be honest, had I been told something like that by a computer back when I had four legs and a digestive system, I would have freaked out and been halfway to Manehattan by now.”

I gulped and miserably failed to hide the worry on my face. It really didn’t need to know I would have run too, if I had believed I had a single chance of making it to the exit alive.

“You see, before the megaspells fell on Equestria, I was…” the AI trailed on uneasily. “Well, technically I was naught but a pile of electronic scraps. Saios, as the person you now came to know, did not exist yet. It came to existence when some pony, named Blue Shift, decided to copy his memories and brain pattern into his pet project in hope of artificially prolonging his life. It seems quite foolish in hindsight, since all he did was basically clone himself into a computer. The real Blue Shift probably died of radiation poisoning shortly afterward – if the transfer didn’t kill him like last time. I have his memories, his way of thoughts, yet I cannot be him.”

I blinked, trying to process what I had just heard.

“So, you’re telling me you are Blue Shift, and yet you’re not?” My head started to hurt.

“Trust me, when I sort this mess out you’ll be the first to know,” the slight Prench accent had a short comeback. “Besides, I never got to run tests on the systems before jumping in. I have no way of knowing if my personality was altered by the transfer.”

“Wait, what?” I frowned. “Nopony conducted tests before starting you?”

“Not really. The Project SAIOS had been disabled for years when I – when Blue Shift decided to try his luck at immortality,” the AI explained. “Unbeknown to his peers, however, he used his position as chief of the computer division to prevent the project from being dismantled. He kept on working on it during his free time, hoping someday he would be able to put his ‘best creation ever’ to good use. When the bombs fell, I – Blue Shift realized he was screwed anyway, so he just decided to roll with it and finish the job by himself. Very lousily, he patched up the systems to override most of the failsafes so he could operate it on his own.”

I suddenly recalled the record I had found by the security post near the entrance. Didn’t he lock himself in the labs or something like that, leaving everypony else to die because of the lockdown?

“This is when I made a very stupid mistake while making the automated routines to restart the maneframe once the transfer completed,” Saios continued with a sigh. “I forgot that under lockdown you needed administrator rights to start any non-vital subsystem. Had you not come along, I would have stayed powered off until rust got the best of me.”

“In short, you owe me one,” I resumed.

“I have not yet blasted you into next week. Don’t you think it is payment enough?” Saios answered with a straight voice.

I blanched.

“… that was a joke, Spring.”

(** **)

The bedroom in Blue Shift’s old quarters was not very large, but it sure felt comfy. Pre-war posters of various origins adorned the cream-colored walls. A couple drawers and a closet stored a few suits, lab coats and socks of all kind. A bedside lamp, sitting on a small table between a broken alarm clock and a discarded watch, basked the room in a warm orange light. But more importantly, most of the space was occupied by the bed.

Slightly hesitating, I pocked the queen-sized bed with a hoof. I almost expected it to disappear into thin air, mattress and clean bed sheets included, but no. I peeled the blanket and took a good look under it: nothing but white, soft-looking sheets.

“You know, Saios, I don’t even remember if I ever slept in a bed this nice,” I finally said, sniffing the pristine cloth. It smelt like cinnamon.

Then, I moved forward, and plucked the pillows with a hoof. They softly yielded under the pressure.

“Saios, you there?” I turned around, looking for a camera and finding none. “Saios?”

A cold sweat started running along my spine. I dashed off to the door I had closed behind me not two minutes before.

It opened with a soft hiss. I stumbled into the living room right under Meridian’s nose, which shot me an inquisitive look.

“Is something the matter, Spring?” Saios asked on the speaker system. “I thought I had thoroughly checked this room. Did I miss something important?”

“It’s…” I breathed out, my heart rate slowing down to normal. “Nothing. I just…”

I turned my head back into the room. The bed felt like it was calling me.

“I don’t know. I told you something, you didn’t answer and I believed something fishy was going on,” I finally admitted.

“Oh, I see,” the AI said with a chuckle, as if it was the silliest thing in the world. “I reckon the fault is mine. I should have told you there were no cameras nor microphones in this bedroom.”

“Really?” I raised one eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“The last time a security officer suggested installing cameras in private areas, such as bedrooms, somepony poured a non-negligible amount of laxative in his morning coffee. The measure got thereafter postponed indefinitely.”

“Oh.” It made sense. Kind of. “Well, good night then.”

“Good night, Spring.

“’night,” answered Meridian with a yawn. “Don’t worry about me. I’m gonna sleep on the couch.”

I shrugged. The door closed behind me, I threw myself onto the mattress.

(** **)

I was in the Tenpony Tower hall, alone.

It shared little common features with the gorgeous place I recalled. Gone were the pristine and luster. The oversized golden chandelier had long ago shattered against the white marble floor. Soot and dirt covered most of the tiles; overgrown vines flooded the few columns still standing.

Some unknown force drew me toward the stairs leading to the uppers level. My hoofsteps softly clattered in the emptiness. No other sounds could be heard; the place was eerily silent.

I reached the top of the stairs.

“We had a deal, Spring,” a feminine voice accused.

I froze in my steps. I knew who this voice belonged to, and it sent shivers down my spine.

“S… Sure Shot? What are you doing here?” I stammered, turning on my heels to face Friendship City’s sheriff.

“Doing my job,” she spat, raising her shotgun toward me. “Hunting down raiders and criminals like you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I slowly backpedaled. “Really.”

A huge, scarred griffin landed right next to her. Gawd pointed an accusatory claw at me.

“You lied to me, Spring!” she roared. “You told me your business with Van Graff was purely professional!”

“I never… No…” I stammered, dizzy. “I did not…”

“And what about me?” Liberty Shield asked. Half of his face was gone, turned into a bloody pulp of bones and brains. Vomit hanged from his dislocated jaw. Droplets splattered on the sanguine marble as the walking corpse inched ever closer.

“That was an accident!” I tried to say, but words got stuck in my throat. Frantically, I looked around for an exit.

Everywhere around me, dark shadows bleeding crimson rivers blocked my path. There was no escape from their empty eyes.

“Daughter, you have ventured far beyond disappointment,” a beige stallion spat, holding a sobbing mare with one foreleg. “Disgust and shame are all that remain. You became the very monsters we spent our life fighting!”

“Dad…” I whispered. “I am not a raider…”

“Daddy? Wake up daddy!” a foal voice sobbed from somewhere behind me.

The voice was alien, yet I already knew whom it belonged to. I mobilized all my willpower not to look, yet my legs moved on their own accord.

There, lying in a growing pool of blood, Cloud Vote stared at me with lifeless eyes. His daughter, soaked in his gore, cried over his warm corpse. Then, she looked up at me, tears running down her cheeks.

“Why did you do this?” she murmured. “Monster…”

“I had no choice!” I sobbed, falling on my knees. “I… I thought I had no choice…”

An intense racket of metal and gears filled up the atrium. When I looked up, huge robot sentries were towering over me. Their miniguns started to spin.

“EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!”

(** **)

“EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!”

I yelped. My hooves entangled themselves in the bed sheets. My momentum promptly sent me over the mattress onto the cold floor.

My still dazed brain failed to process the signals my body sent him. All I could see was black and a hint of red; somewhere on my right, a muffled robotic voice repeatedly screamed something I couldn’t make out. Out of reflex, my telekinesis reached out to my holster on the floor. One last kick and I bucked the sheets through the room.

Then, gun at the ready, I peeked over the bed.

In my sights, unfazed by my abrupt morning start, a ten centimeter tall robot yelled and rolled over and over in circle on the bedside table. A small screen on its base flashed the time in a bright red light.

I moaned and let my head drop on the mattress.

(** **)

Still half asleep, I dragged my hooves into the living room. There, a still smoking cup of coffee waited for me, along with warm croissants.

I pushed the pastries asides (I wasn’t nearly hungry enough to trust Prench food) and began downing the warm caffeinated brewage.

“Rough morning, huh?” Saios piped in. I realized the coffee had a noticeable motor oil aftertaste.

“Hadn’t slept well for some reason,” I grumbled as I massaged my temples with one hoof. “Plus, the alarm really didn’t help. I mean, what the hell? A robot yelling ‘EXTERMINATE’? How sick is that!?”

“It’s a reference,” the AI seemed to be a tad vexed as it slipped back into his Prench accent. “I’ll have you know this is a collector piece. It’s probably the last in existence!”

“Well good riddance,” I mumbled in my cup. “I have enough in my lap already with the full-sized ones; I don’t need miniatures to assault my sleep schedule as well.”

“I shall try to find you another clock then,” the AI sighed. I almost asked if it meant I could throw the old one in a compactor, but the thought of being exterminated for real chilled my temper.

“Anyway, now that I’m up,” I yawned, putting the emptied cup back on the tray, “what’s the plan for the day?”

“We need to lead an excursion outside to replace the parts you broke so carelessly yesterday,” Saios answered. I rolled my eyes. It was an accident! Will I ever live it down? “Luckily, I know of a place nearby which should have a similar installation. Once you’ve eaten, we shall head off.”

I glanced toward the brown, crispy pastry waiting for me on the tray. “I’m not eating that,” I pushed it further away on the table. “I got provisions of my own.”

“That croissant spent the last two centuries in stasis. I took it from the previous administrator’s reserve. It should be perfectly edible – delicious even.”

“Still,” I said, rummaging through my saddlebags, “French food. Last time I tried it, I got so sick I lost almost ten kilograms!”

“Ew.”

I blinked. “Wait, no, my bad. Last time, I ate a Prench salad which cost as much as a whole month of real food. The monstrous diarrhea was the time before.”

“Have you even ever tried true Prench food?”

“Just told you I did,” I sighed. “’got served a ‘magnifique salade’ by a faux-Prench waiter in Tenpony somewhen last month.”

“Before that, I had croissants –” I eyed the infamous pastry as if it was going to assault me “– filled with hay ham or something like that. Tasted like shit and make me sick as hell. No way I’m living through that again.”

“Ham!? In croissants?” the accent did an outraged comeback. It almost sounded like those pre-war cheap comedies. “That’s scandalous! If this is what you Equestrians remembered of our glorious gastronomy, no wonder your restaurants suck.”

I choked on a spit of saliva. “Wait, what?”

“You cannot compare real croissants with a cheap, misbaked imitation,” the AI continued. “Come on, give it a try, you’ll see.”

“I’m not sure I…” I trailed off, glaring at the golden treat.

“Eat. The. Croissant.”

I gulped. Engulfed in a blue glow, the dreaded treat floated toward me. I eyed the camera in a corner of the room.

I made my choice between risking food poisoning and being obliterated by a turret. I closed my eyes and bit the pastry.

My teeth sunk deep into the crust, breaking it into a myriad of tiny pieces. My lips closed around the pastry. My taste buds came into contact with the hostile treat.

I opened my eyes with a frown. Unexpectedly, the inside was soft and supple. It started to gently melt against my tongue as I munched on the food. Then, the taste kicked in.

I quickly engulfed the rest of the croissant, barely concealing a moan of pleasure.

“See? Not that bad, uh?”

(** **)

“All right, I’ll admit I was wrong about croissants,” I sighed. “There. Happy?”

“Very much so.”

I rolled my eyes at the over-patriotic AI’s antics and dragged my discarded saddlebags toward me. I began removing all the items I wouldn’t need for a short mission.

“No offence, Spring, but do you even know where we’re supposed to go?” Meridian exited the bathroom, water dripping from his face. Oddly, he hadn’t removed his trenchcoat.

“... point taken.” I looked up from my bags. “Saios? Where are we headed anyway?”

“The card you broke belonged to a signal filter manufactured by Stable Tech,” the AI answered. “I will not bother you with the details, but it happens they equipped a nearby Stable with a very similar model.”

“A Stable?” I let out a long sigh, before repacking the ammunitions I had been removing. “Damn, and I thought this was going to be a walk in a park…”

“From the official statements Stable Tech released, its doors should have been opened more than a century and half ago. Given the overall poor climatic conditions so far north, the whole area should be empty by now.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot, you’re new around here,” I chuckled, checking my pistol for early signs of wear. “The Stable program was a fraud. Sure, most of the underground vaults protected their inhabitants from the fallout, but if they had known what they had gotten into I reckon they would have rather tried their luck outside. Lab rats, that’s what Stable Tech turned their customers into.”

“You mean, as social experiments? I have to admit the Stable provided the perfect conditions for that.”

“Yeah, they did some ‘social experiments’ all right,” my voice went dark. “More like terrifying nightmares came to life. Stables equipped with enough weapons to gear up an army, just to see how long it would take before somepony blew it all up. Stables following strict breeding protocols, to insure the ‘purity of the Equine race’ as they put it. Overcrowded stables, underpopulated stables, stables with no doors, stables with sealed doors, stables with gambling, stables with no leaders, stables with monthly sacrifices, stables with no food, stables inhabited only by foals… The list is endless.”

“Luna preserves us.”

“I stopped praying to the goddesses when I truly realized how shitty the Wastelands were,” I grumbled, checking the Geiger counter. “What Stable were you talking about? With any chance, I’ve heard about it and it’s a control.”

“87. We need to get inside Stable 87.”

I froze.

“Dude, the zebras dropped a megaspell right in front of that one,” I laughed nervously. “The place is a deathtrap. You can’t even reach the door before dying of radiation poisoning. Or worse.”

“Do you believe the containment had been breached?”

“No idea,” I answered truthfully. “And it doesn’t matter. As I said, nopony can even get inside.”

Pause.

“There might be a way,” the AI finally continued. “From Blue Shift’s memories, I can assume that particular Stable got built inside a pre-existing natural cave. If we cross-reference that data with geological maps of the area, we can assume the aforementioned cave had at least two accesses to the surface.”

“They probably sealed one of them, and turned the other into the front entrance,” I deduced.

“I don’t see Stable Tech collapsing rock ceilings or sealing off a tunnel for good. This is simply not their style. I believe they simply built a door and hanged a ‘do not enter’ sign on either sides of the frame.”

“That’s assuming they didn’t use the caves as a part of their experiments,” I pointed out. “I wouldn’t be surprised they sabotaged the food recycler and advised the inhabitants to grow mushrooms for food.”

There was a beat. I blinked.

“You would have made a good mad scientist, you know?” Saios teased.

I facehoofed.

(** **)

A couple hours later, Meridian and I were jogging west toward the presupposed Stable 87 secondary entrance. I honestly doubted we would be able to bring our little quest to its successful conclusion; after all, all we had were assumptions and partial knowledge from a centuries-old AI. Yet, the trip away from Big Mountain gave me an unexpected opportunity to discuss with Meridian out of range of Saios’ prying ears.

Radio contact had been broken for some time by then. I had even removed the batteries of the radio, just to be sure.

“So, what’s your take on our newest acquaintance?” I asked my taciturn friend.

He shrugged. “As far as I can tell, he seems to be a nice guy.”

“That’s exactly what’s puzzling me,” I frowned. “It seems to be a nice guy, but it’s not even a pony! How can we tell this is not all just an act?”

“Ponies can be pretty deceptive too,” Meridian pointed out. “I don’t see how seeing him as an artificial being changes anything.”

“Well I wouldn’t trust a pony I can only talk to by radio either.”

“You wouldn’t trust a toddler hoofing you a lollypop,” he chuckled, a mischievous spark in the eyes. “Anyhow, I have yet to find a reason to be wary of him. If anything, I’m more worried about the place itself.”

“Found anything in the archives?” I asked.

“Not much,” he admitted. “It just confirmed what Saios said about the DERTA – that they worked with the Ministries, yet had a lot a leeway to do whatever they pleased. I did not find any incriminating projects. It doesn’t mean there were none though.”

“Crowneigh’s files mentioned at least one project being cancelled by a royal order,” I muttered. “I wonder what it was all about…”

“Could have been SAIOS,” Meridian suggested. “After all, he did say somepony got killed during the first activation.”

I stopped dead on my tracks. “I don’t recall it saying that.”

“He did,” the Earth pony insisted. “Yesterday evening, right before we headed off to sleep.”

I frowned, but the AI’s exact wording were nowhere to be found in my memories.

“I can’t remember it,” I finally admitted, resuming my trot. “I don’t think that’s the project we’re looking for, though. A skeleton in a closet probably didn’t weigh much for the government, if the Ministries’ wrongdoings are of any indication.”

“They probably did a better job at hiding them,” Meridian pointed out. “Besides, the project only got cancelled. The right thing to do would have been to close the place and send the ponies in charge right behind the bars.”

“Point taken.”

“Still,” he continued with a frown, “I couldn’t find a single trace of those Ministry of Awesome exclusive projects. If they wanted to hide them from the other branches of the government, who knows what they were doing in there?”

“We may never know.”

All of a sudden, Meridian stopped dead on his tracks.

“Something’s inbound,” he pointed out a tiny dark point in the cloudy skies in front of us.

I looked around and spotted a small alcove between two nearby rocks.

“Let’s get to cover,” I whispered.

(** **)

Hidden in our makeshift shelter, we didn’t have to wait for long before an Enclave patrol flew over our heads.

My blood trumpeted in my ears as they circled a couple times over the area. I prayed the goddesses above they wouldn’t spot us, or see us as a threat. I may have had some genuine skills in firefights, but I wouldn’t bet a single cap on my hide in a skirmish against the heavily armored Enclave pegasi.

Besides me, Meridian did his best to hide the worry on his face. I silently hoped they weren’t looking after him for some reason – while I always did my best to never cross their path, some wastelanders simply didn’t have the sense to do that.

Then, the shadows on the ground went away. Silence fell back on the plains.

A couple minutes passed by in a growing discomfort. I craned my neck to get a better view. I winced as my back vigorously protested.

“I think they’re gone,” I whispered to Meridian.

“Good. It’s getting a little crowded in here,” he mumbled back, half buried under my own body.

It took me a few seconds to register how awkward our respective positions were. I blushed furiously and crawled out of the hole. Meridian soon followed, somewhat more gracefully than me.

“Well, uh,” I coughed, still somewhat perturbed by having used a very male friend as a mattress, “what do you think they were looking for?”

“With any luck, not us,” he answered, visibly unfazed. “They probably were doing a patrol. I heard they had bases in the Crystal Mountains.”

“Yeah, I heard the same rumors,” I turned toward the cloudy summits in the distance. “Since they don’t want to set a single hoof under the cloud layer, I reckon the mountaintops are the closest things to land they have.”

I paused to dust myself. As I brushed my suit front pocket, a disturbing idea germinated in my mind.

“Do you think they know about the DERTA?” I found myself asking.

“Without a doubt,” Meridian answered grimly. “After all, they used to be one of the Ministries.”

“Then why didn’t they take over Big Mountain?” I scratched my head. “They sure had enough gear and time to force the entrance.”

“Probably for the same reason they didn’t scrape the ground to its bare bones. They left everything untouched down there,” the stallion pointed out. “I reckon they simply don’t give a damn about what’s going on here.”

“I guess you’re right,” I admitted. The pegasi had disappeared somewhere in the grey skies. Once again, we were alone in the Wastelands. “Let’s hope it stays that way.”

(** **)

The Geiger counter on my back ticked slowly, only periodically interrupted by our labored breathing through the gas masks. This time, I refused to wear a full hazmat suit – our little experiment back in Big Mountain having proven they were not battle-ready at all. Instead, Meridian and I wore a standard issue gas mask and had ingested industrial amounts of RadSafe. While it did little to prevent the direct radiation poisoning, at least we would not stay radioactive afterward. Saios told us we should be fine as long as we didn’t expose ourselves to more than a couple rad per hour and didn’t ingest anything from inside the irradiated areas.

So far, we were well below that threshold, and yet I could see the crater through my scope, some three kilometers away. By all means it looked like the zebra had dropped there a tiny megaspell, or maybe an airburst one. The differences between the types of megaspell strikes were common knowledge in the Wastelands. After all, if one were to dwell the lands, they’d better know if the soil still retained a lethal amount of radiation.

Still, often the smallest yields had the most vicious fallouts. The Pink Cloud of Canterlot came back to my mind. Scavengers reported the city had been left virtually untouched by the blast – yet whatever the Zebra used melted everypony and their dogs onto the concrete under their hooves in a matter of seconds. Even two centuries after the End, the place was a deathtrap. I’d never been there, and didn’t plan on ever going.

As I swiped the horizon with my scope, I wondered how irradiated the entrance really was. After all, with our equipment, we could hope to cross an otherwise dangerous area without being worse for wear.

Or, we could die in a very painful agony.

I coughed in my gas mask. I tried to remove the dust congregating on the pane, to no avail.

“I can’t see any movement, nor the Stable entrance,” Meridian’s muffled voice said. “Not really surprising though.”

“We should get going,” I stood up from my prone position. “I don’t know how long the filters stay efficient and I don’t plan on figuring it out the hard way.”

(** **)

I got to hoof Saios credit: his analysis of Stable Tech’s antics were dead-on.

We had little trouble finding the cave entrance. A concrete shack had been built over it, providing us with convenient stairs and indications. I sure had to pick a few locks here and there, but otherwise the place was untouched. I doubted it had anything to do with the many ‘NO ENTRY’ stickers glued everywhere – more likely, nopony ever bothered to venture here, in a remote valley in the middle of nowhere. We did see a couple charred skeletons here and there, but nothing even remotely recent.

After an uneventful trip through the fitted out caves, we reached Stable 87’s secondary entrance. As Saios predicted, the previous owners had simply riveted thick steel plates over the concrete wall, holed by a nondescript, standard-issue Stable Tech blast door.

Or, I should say, what used to be a nondescript, standard-issue Stable Tech blast door. Because it was very obviously gone.

Meridian and I shared a knowing look and drew our respective weapons. From where I stood – that is, the other end of the small cavern doubling as Stable 87’s entrance – I could not see inside the underground vault. I did notice the lights were still on, though, and if the bent steel frames were of any indication the door had been burst outward. Somepony or something had been very eager to get out of the place it seemed.

I turned off my flashlight. Slowly, I proceeded toward the doorframe. I noticed two or three more partially melted skeletons over there. Plasma weapons, maybe?

I reached the wall, and pressed myself against the cold steel. On the other side of the hole, Meridian did the same. With a grim look on his face, I saw him cock his Colt Python for the first time in forever.

I took a deep, ragged breath in my gas mask, and leaned into the doorway.

Stable 87 looked like many other abandoned Stables. On the walls, the steel panes had begun rusting; in the absence of janitors, the ground had been covered by a nondescript layer of grime. Some light bulbs had gone dark already; I recalled somepony once telling me those could last centuries before finally burning out.

A few discarded crates aside, the room behind the door was empty. Without a sound, I signaled Meridian, and we proceeded onward.

We arrived in a narrow corridor. It headed toward the reactor on the right, and toward everything else on the left. We were looking for a communication center of some sort, so we ignored the reactor altogether.

Soon enough, we reached another junction, giving us the choice between the laboratories and some offices. It was a no brainer; we avoided the labs. I had no idea what the Stable 87 experiment was, but if it involved researches of some kind, it was a safe bet to assume they weren’t looking for new species of flowers.

The offices had seen a lot of fight in a distant past. Oddly enough, I saw little traces of firefight. Desks were overturned; scraps and blood stains ran from a few makeshift hiding spots toward another door labeled ‘Laboratories’. A cold chill rolled down my spine. I suddenly regretted not pestering Saios for another shotgun.

Slowly, I walked over the mess on the floor toward the opposite door.

“Spring, come over here,” Meridian whispered. Turning my head, I spotted him near a still-running terminal.

“We don’t have time for that,” I harshly whispered back. “I want to get out of here as soon as possible.”

“Does that imply running blindfolded into that maze? We don’t even know what we’re up against!” the stallion retorted.

“Fine, I’ll try to unlock it,” I gave in, stepping toward the terminal. “Watch over my ass.”

Meridian nodded and posted himself behind some overturned furniture.

Meanwhile, I opened my saddlebags and grabbed a little gift from my nerdy friend: a terminal technician omnitool. He’d given me a crash course on how I could use it to hack into local devices with poor security. Basically, it did what I used to do by hoof with an administrative session, but somewhat faster. Plus, Saios had modified the software to bruteforce whatever passwords it couldn’t guess based on the hashes. It sure wouldn’t fool a decently protected system, but this particular terminal opposed little resistance.

In a couple minute, the omnitool came on with the correct password (“Evolution”). I gained access to hundred of log files on the terminal.

“It’d take hours to read them all!” I hissed toward Meridian. “The guy who used this terminal recorded everything!”

“Can’t you copy them to your omnitool?” he asked, looking at me over his shoulder. “Then just read the oldest and the newest entries. That’d give us an idea of what’s going on here.”

I sighed and proceeded to transfer everything onto the omnitool. With any luck Saios would know what to do with them. Then, I opened a folder at random. It was a scientist’s personal log.

(** **)

Isolation +7 hours

At last! We finished parking the test subjects in their respective habitation zones, the experiments can begin. Oh, the discoveries we shall make here! Those Stable Tech officials didn’t lie; the laboratories come right from a geneticist’s wet dreams. Now that those pesky ethic officers from the MAS are out of the way, we can finish what we started at Maripony. To think we would have won this war if Sparkle hadn’t been so cold-hoofed…

Oh well, there is no need holding those old grudges now. I have met most of the science team, and they are as eager as me to do their duty toward the Equine race. The Stable shall remain closed for two decades. By then, we will have boosted evolution by dozen of millennia!

All the possibilities, all the experiments… My only fear is that we will lack test subjects. The ones we have are in their primes, most of them willing to do whatever it takes for the nation. At least, that’s what Stable Tech told me. I suspect they were not very straightforward with them though. But you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs, right?

(** **)

Isolation +8 days, 13 hours


Already the Alpha test subjects (unmodified IMP, 1000 standard doses per hour for two days) are showing intensive mutations. They are now almost indiscernible from one another. It is fascinating.


Pr. Fisher however noted some test subjects were presenting internal malformations. She fears the studies of those specimens might be cut short by their premature death – the malformations often include a cardiac and/or respiratory insufficiency, which can indeed prove fatal if their overall body mass continues on raising.


Given the change of pigmentation, the overall growth, and the noticeable atrophy of genitalia among male subjects, I personally believe the Alpha group will progressively end up sharing striking similarities with source C. This feeling is only partially shared by my colleagues, but they agreed to let me use the L-sample to try to recreate my own brand of IMP. If my theory is correct, it would mean the IMP alters the body in ways we had never expected.


Oh, a little anecdote: earlier, after giving us all her report on the Alpha group health status, and sharing with us her worries, Pr. Fisher meekly asked Pr. Lenz if she could proceed to vivisections. Lenz approached her, a grim look on his face, and told her: ‘we are mare and stallions of science, given opportunities no pony ever had. It would be a crime not to!’.


You should have seen the look on her face! I think by now she realized nopony would interfere in her work. She’s preparing her tools right now, we are all very eager to hear her findings. For science!

(** **)

Isolation +14 days, 4 hours


Pr. Fisher’s findings proved to be fascinating, but not for the reasons we expected.


For sure, her exhaustive biological study would have made more than one medicine professor jealous, yet her hard work shall be forever shadowed by two other incredible phenomenon which occurred because of her vivisections.


Dr. Gregg, our neurologist, had been observing another specimen from the Alpha group when, all of sudden, it had reached out and cried in pain, clenching its chest and yelling something was cutting its flesh. Moved by a formidable intuition, our good doctor immediately rushed to the operation room.


Pr. Fisher had barely begun opening the chest cavity of her first subject when Dr. Gregg barged in the operating room. They quickly convened a test protocol (how marvelous it is to be surrounded by sound scientific minds!) and they discovered every test subject in the Alpha group shared, at different level, some kind of telepathic (or emphatic) link. Intense feelings and emotions, such as pain, could bleed over from a subject to another. How fascinating!


A few hours afterward, as she was beginning her second vivisection, Pr. Fisher made another interesting and puzzling discovery. Pr. Magnusson had somehow managed to isolate a small amount of irradiated (for the lack of a better word) particles from the bomb outside. We already knew they provoked an accelerated state of decay on pony subjects, but he hoped the IMP would somehow alter the radiations into something more… viable. At the very least, less lethal.


Well, it would seem it went far beyond his expectation, since Pr. Fisher (who was about to place tiny irradiated sample into artificial wounds) could not even finish her experiment. The reason was both simple and flabbergasting: every time the sample got closer to the cut, the flesh would heal, on its own, at an accelerated rate.


A comparative study with non-radioactive materials showed the radiations seem indeed to trigger the healing process.


Those findings opened up a whole highway of opportunities. A ‘radiation chamber’ is already in the works. Could it be that we found a way to recolonize the surface before anypony else?

(** **)

Isolation +61 days, 18 hours


Subject Alpha-3 died last night. Alpha-5 wailed for hours before we decided to sedate it. It knows it is the last of it generation. Its survival did illustrate the ‘survival of the fittest’ theory though. Before the inoculation, it was a bulky stallion with an iron constitution. The weaker subjects died, but it didn’t.


On the other hoof, the Beta and Gamma subjects are showing no signs of malformations. They are perfect clones of one another. All fifteen of them. Fisher’s intuition was right: radiation, as a regenerative catalyst, allow the IMP to act faster and more regularly. So far, we are only feeding them those ‘nutriments’ through contaminated food and water. Pr. Magnusson wishes to expose a few of them to an intensive amount of radiations. We denied his request so far, since we are unsure our new irradiation chamber design is really safe. We can’t afford to make mistakes on that one.


Pr. Gregg believes the telepathic link can be enhanced way beyond a simple ‘awareness’ of other’s conscience. His experiments on the Beta group proved they are able to do out-of-body problems solving: if one subject manages to figure out a solution to a specific problem on its own (e.i., being taught by a scientist), then all the others subjects will instantaneously be able to solve it as well. Maybe it is the reason they refuse to talk? I cannot shake the feeling they see us as hostiles; if they are capable of communicating fully structured thought through this link, then speaking would be, to them, the language of the enemy. They’d be giving us the silent treatment!


… well, now that was a silly theory.

(** **)

Isolation +367 days, 13 hours

At last! I have managed to reproduce the IMP fabrication process with an L-sample! All we need now is to test it. Alas, we had a very limited amount of L-samples. I need to make the most of it, and my colleagues agree. We shall use a wide array of fifteen healthy, strong-willed specimens as test subjects for the group Lambda. We will give them an incremental dose of the serum, with Lambda-1 being given the lowest exposition, and Lambda-15 the highest. We will use the feeding program developed with the previous C-sample groups. Pr. Fisher and Pr. Gregg agreed to monitor their health on a daily basis. Most of the crew went over my IMP-2 (as I like to call it) formula, and found no flaws. Let’s hope it works!

(** **)

Isolation +367 days, 16 hours

Lambda-15 is showing signs of [LOG SESSION TIMEOUT]

(** **)

Isolation +368 days, 7 hours

Goodness, the experiment is a total failure. Lambda-14, 15, 12, 7 and 3 are dead; all the others are in deep comatose. Fisher and Gregg are doing an autopsy as of now, they suspect the IMP-2 act on the nervous system in a way the IMP-1 didn’t.

I fear Lambda-1, 5 and 13 will not survive the night.

(** **)

Isolation +368 days, 23 hours


Lambda-13 made an unexpected recovery. Lambda-1 and 5 were found dead, along with Lambda-11 and 10. The later seemingly choked itself to death with its telekinesis in a brief moment of consciousness.


Gregg conducted neural scans of the survivors, and they are not encouraging. Lambda-6 is brain-dead, Lambda-4 has an erratic brain pattern.


We are doing our best to feed them through intravenous injections, but Lambda-9 is already showing symptoms of an irregular evolution.


They are doomed.

(** **)

Isolation +369 days, 5 hours




As expected, Lambda-4 and 9 died. We decided to unplug Lambda-6 – there is no need to waste our supplies on an overgrown vegetable. Lambda-13 is showing signs of cardiac arrhythmia again. Given its exposure to IMP-2, I seriously doubt it’ll make it.


On the other hoof, Lambda-2 seems to have stopped its evolution. It does not look as much like the L-source as the others groups looked like the C-source, but it’ll do. From its brain pattern, Gregg predicts it will awake soon.


Maybe something good will come out of this experiment after all.

(** **)

Isolation +372 days, 11 hours


Lambda-8 is dead. It had some kind of autoimmune reaction. Only Lambda-2 and 13 remain. My money is on the former, since 13’s health keeps on going up and down as its evolution continue.

(** **)

Isolation +372 days, 15 hours




Lambda-2 has awoken! I’m so glad it hurts. Fisher says it is as healthy as an IMP subject can be.


We shall begin the tests on it as soon as possible.


On a side note: the radiation chamber had been thoroughly tested. It should be safe to use. Dr. Magnusson, obviously, managed to get to use it first to make the controls. I believe this is a waste of perfectly good test subjects, but I have to admit I am curious to see what happens when ponies are subjected to intense amounts of radiations.

(** **)

Isolation +385 days, 8 hours




It would seem Lambda-2 is not connected to the C-groups. Stimuli from one side do not seem to affect the other. It is odd. Without additional specimens from the L-group, we cannot be sure whether Lambda-2 lacks a telepathic ability, or simply can only communicate with its fellows.


For some reason, Gregg is deeply troubled by Lambda-2’s behavior. He spends hours a day trying to communicate with it, but to no avail so far.


Fisher may have come up with an idea to see if IMP evolutions from different brands can socialize. We shall put Alpha-5 (which had reacted very positively to specimens from other C-groups, instantaneously establishing a bond) in a room with Lambda-2. We’ll see what happens then. Given the gregarious instincts of the equine species, I believe they socialize and have a little domination contest. Since they are both female, I reckon the eldest will win – that is, Alpha-5.


Then again, I have been mistaken before. That’s what science is all about after all!

(** **)

Isolation +386 days, 7 hours




Lambda-2 is dead. Alpha-5 killed it, bashed its head against the floor, and there was nothing we could do about it.


I’m feeling very tired of all those failures. It has been more than a year, and we are not any closer to have fully sentient alicorns than when we started. I’m going in my room to sleep and think.

(** **)

Isolation +389 days, 12 hours




Fisher came in my room to see me earlier. She was worried about me, it seems. Such a kind mare. A great scientist, too. Two things I’ll never be I fear.


Oh, and Lambda-13 is still not dead. It’s only a matter of time, I reckon.

(** **)

Isolation +395 days, 7 hours




Fisher had come to see me every day since the last entry. She is genuinely worried about me. Sometimes, I wonder if some kind of romance could be possible…


But I digress. I woke up this morning to realize I had been neglecting my duty to Equestria. Lambda-2 got killed? Well screw this, I still have a test subject, alive and kicking! Yes, Lambda-13 may be our best hope at figuring what went wrong. Science shall triumph!

(** **)

Isolation +395 days, 18 hours




During my absence, Lambda-13 evolved into a magnificent specimen. It had finished its evolution and looks trait-for-trait like the L-source. At first, I feared it had gone brain-dead like 6 before it, but Gregg reassured me. It is far, far from brain dead: in fact, it seems to be dreaming. As far as the readings are concerned, it is perfectly healthy. All it needs to wake up is a nudge in the right direction.

(** **)

Isolation +404 days, 7 hours




Magnusson concluded his control experiments. His findings are terrifying. I am glad the Stable sheltered us from suffering such a fate.


On the other hoof, it means that we can now use the chamber on the IMP specimens. That is, once we have finished removing all that disgusting goo.


13 still sounds asleep. Gregg noticed sensible changes in her dream patterns when somebody is nearby, but without a real double-blind study we cannot know for sure if it’s significant.

(** **)

Isolation +405 days, 13 hours




We now need to decide which specimens we’ll send first into the chamber, and I fear 13 will have to do it. Most of my colleagues fear the now strong link between all the C-subjects may have a disastrous impact if the specimen in the test chamber happened to die. 13 being apparently disconnected from them, her death would not endanger the whole program.


It is the most reasonable solution. Still, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Fisher shares my opinion. I should offer her a drink sometimes.

(** **)

Isolation +406 days, 7 hours




The die is cast, 13 shall go first in a few hours. She’ll be bathed in a very radioactive atmosphere for two hours. I hope everything is going to be fine.

(** **)

Isolation +406 days, 19 hours




Something truly marvelous happened!


I’m shaking so much from excitement I can barely write. We were all there, watching 13 lying in her now irradiated cell, when the cameras started recording something peculiar. At first, we reckoned the radiation was interfering with the cameras, for some reason. Then we realized it was localized to 13’s mane and tail. It started with a shimmer, then it began floating in an invisible breeze.


Soon enough, 13’s mane had become ethereal!


The ramifications of such a discovery are boundless. Ethereal manes were believed to be a sign of Luna and Celestia’s divine nature. There can only be two explanations:


Either they were a fraud, or we just created a living goddess.


Both are equally terrifying.


Otherwise, 13 got out of the chamber healthier than ever. We now need to confirm those results with a specimen from the C-group. We do not know if the process is pain-free, so we need a hardened veteran. Alpha-5 is a likely candidate.

(** **)

Isolation +407 days, 5 hours




I could hardly sleep. 13’s mane and tail seem to have faded in intensity. Still, they remain ethereal for now. Sadly, she is still in a deep slumber. What will it take to awaken her?


Magnusson has already locked Alpha-5 in the chamber, even though we have not yet begun to replace the atmosphere yet. Oddly enough, it had been very… cooperative this time. We didn’t even need to sedate it.

(** **)

Isolation +408 days, 1 hour


OH GOODNESS IT BROKE FREE

(** **)

I ended up my reading with one of the nastiest nausea of my life.

“Spring, you okay? You seem a little pale,” Meridian frowned.

“They… did things on ponies here,” I murmured. “Very bad things…”

He shot me an inquisitive look.

“They experimented on them… Trying to turn them into alicorns…” I continued, my throat suddenly parched. “Then it backfired.”

“You think that’s where the Unity comes from?” Meridian asked. I could feel the fear in his voice.

“We’d be dead by now if it were,” I grimly answered. “Or worse. Alicorns are not very kind to trespassers.”

I took a deep breath in my gas mask. Before me, the terminal went into power saving mode.

“Let’s go,” I finally ordered. “I’m sick of this place already.”

We left the offices.

(** **)

There was no avoiding the laboratories, for the whole bloody Stable was a laboratory.

As we proceeded toward the communication center, we passed by countless observations chambers – three-by-three cells, padded like in a madhouse, with a thick door and what I assumed to be an one-way mirror. Most of them had beds; some even had terminals. Still, they couldn’t hide from me their true nature: a prison guarded by deranged scientists.

Up and up we went, until we reached the third level below the main entrance. There, we found the communication center.

Smaller than the one back at Big Mountain, it had seemingly been preserved from the fight. Helped by the schematics Saios printed out for me, I had little trouble finding the electronic card we needed.

Once I scrapped out the useless part, a plastic plate smaller than my hoof was all that remained.

“Well, damn, I can’t believe we went through all that trouble just for that,” I mumbled, putting it in one of my pockets. “Now let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Uh, Spring?” Meridian squeaked. “I think we may have a situation here…”

(** **)

“We were just passing through, I swear!” I yelled from my cover in the communication center.

Sadly, the three alicorns at the other end of the tunnel showed no signs of understanding. A green drone, a shield raised in front of her, slowly walked toward us. Two of her peers, one dark blue and the other purple, followed suit. One of them had a huge laser Gatling floating before her; the other had a more standard (yet still deadly) laser rifle.

Meridian and I, on the other hoof, had a .44 Magnum revolver, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a .308 bolt action rifle, a rusted console for cover and no freaking idea whatsoever.

“We need to get out of here,” Meridian half-whispered, half-shouted.

“No shit!” I took another look to the incoming wing of hostiles. “I recall seeing a set of stairs leading to the level below on the maps. Maybe we can get around them.”

“They’ll see us running away,” the stallion pointed out.

“What if we close the door?” I eyed the terminal not three meters from me. “By the time they realize we’re gone, well, we’d be gone.”

“Go ahead then. I’ll be covering you, in case they wanted to turn you into a pony Carpaccio,” Meridian aimed his Colt toward the ever approaching alicorns.

“Geez, thanks for the support,” I mumbled. Then, praying to the True Goddesses above, I rolled from my cover and jumped toward the terminal.

I tripped on some wires I had discarded earlier and I fell one meter short, flat on my belly.

“Damn, Spring!” Meridian shouted. “Watch out!”

I looked up toward the alicorns, determined to stare my death straight in the eyes.

The three-wing stopped. I heard Meridian whisper a curse as I held my breath.

A few seconds passed. The green one tilted her head to the right. The purple one shrugged.

“They… are not shooting,” Meridian observed. “Why are they not shooting?”

“I have no idea,” I grumbled, slowly crawling toward some nearby cover. “Why don’t you go and ask them?”

Finally, I reached up to the terminal. The door closed in a loud clank.

“Well, I reckon it’s too late now,” Meridian snorted, darting toward the other door. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

(** **)

We had little trouble finding the stairs. Sadly, they didn’t go all the way down to our exit. We found ourselves in a prison level once again.

“I don’t recall going through there on the way in,” I breathed out, galloping in a corridor toward the stairs. “Do you think we’ve lost them?”

“I’m not sure,” Meridian seemed to have a better cardio than me. “Hopefully they were alone in here.”

We turned around a corner.

“I can see the stairs!”

Then, in a shower of purple sparks, one alicorn teleported right in our way. She had her laser rifle aimed toward us and didn’t seem very happy to see us.

My hooves skirted on the metallic floor as I drew to a stop. I looked around me. There was a smaller corridor on my left, but I had no idea where it was leading.

As if she had read my thoughts of running away once again, the alicorn lighted up her magic. I got engulfed in a purple halo; my hooves began levitating over the ground.

“Fuck!” I spat, drawing my pistol. No way I was letting her using me as a puppet!

I blindly emptied half a magazine in her direction. From her cry of pain, and from the speed at which she teleported out, I reckoned I had somewhat hit her.

Sadly, whatever injury I had inflicted on her was not enough to incapacitate her, because she returned our fire from behind a cover a bit further.

“Spring, over here!” Meridian pulled me away from the rain of lasers blazing around us. We dove into the smaller corridor.

“Look like this one got no shields,” I grabbed my hunting rifle and chambered a round. “Laser rifles ain’t accurate for shit. She’s done for.”

I leaned over the corner, eyes glued to my sights.

“Watch out!”

I heard the spin of the Gatling before realizing the other alicorns had followed us. I felt Meridian tugging my tail; a hail of death missed me by a hair as I went back to cover.

“Fuck, that was close!” I cursed, adrenaline flowing through my veins. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Meridian spat a few hairs from his mouth. “But your mane’s on fire.”

My eyes went wide. I promptly put out a rebellious lock.

“Well, don’t that beat all, they had to ruin my hair too,” I grumbled. “Let’s hope there’s another way out.”

We turned tail and dashed down the corridor.

“Luna’s tits! It’s a dead end!” I noticed the plain steel wall barring the way. I franticly searched around for an exit, but found only more cells.

The alicorns reached the bottleneck formed by the smaller corridor. Desperate to keep them away, I emptied what little bullets I had in my pistol in their global direction, but their shield deflected them all. The blue one, with the Gatling, then moved forward away from the shield, her weapon spinning.

I cursed and took cover in a cell. On the other side, I saw Meridian do the same. I fumbled through my gear to get another magazine.

A couple bolts of death darted past us, followed by the characteristic sound of an energy weapon running dry.

Taking a swift look to the alicorns, I saw the blue alicorn shake her weapon high and low. I realized she wasn’t covered by the green shield anymore.

“Take her out!” I yelled toward Meridian. I fumbled to reload my own pistol.

Six loud detonations rang clear through the tunnel, as the stallion emptied his .44 Colt on the defenseless alicorn.

It took a few seconds to the smoke to dissipate.

Behind, the blue alicorn, a dumbfounded look on her face, looked over her whole body, then turned toward the green one, who shrugged.

My jaw dropped when I realized she was unharmed.

Then the Gatling began spinning again.

“How in Tartatus did you miss an alicorn in a narrow corridor!?” I yelled over the sounds of metal cracking and melting under the sustained assault.

“Well SORRY, I’m not the marksmare here!” Meridian spat back, ejecting the emptied shells from his revolver.

I grumbled something vaguely insulting, and tried to find a way to get a clear shot on the gunner. To no avail.

“Hello? Are you okay out there?” a feminine voice asked.

I blinked, and looked around me. The cell was completely empty, aside from a dirty mattress in a corner. I looked back at Meridian, who shrugged unhelpfully.

“Over here, in the room opposite to your own,” the voice continued.

I looked up through the thick, dirty observation. On the other side, a dark, tall silhouette waved its hoof at me.

“I can help you!” she said.

“Oh buck me, it’s yet another alicorn,” I moaned.

(** **)

While the narrowness of the corridor prevented our foes from walking side by side – and thus, from taking advantage of both their ludicrous firepower and their impervious shields, the hail of death raining on us from their end pinned us, effectively removing all our options. Meridian couldn’t hit anything with his revolver to save his life, and I couldn’t even take a peek in the corridor without having my hairs fried.

At that point, listening to an unknown alicorn trapped in a cell not three meters from me arrived surprisingly high on my list of potential ways of escaping in one piece.

“What do you want?” I yelled over the deafening noise of the Gatling’s sustained fire.

“If you could find a way to free me, I could help you fighting your foes!” she shouted back.

“No way!” I shot a couple rounds toward the end of the corridor for good measure. “I have enough on my laps with three alicorns already!”

“But I am not with the Unity!” she protested.

“Yeah, for sure,” I deadpanned. “I’m gonna believe that and let you stab me in the back for your little friends over there!”

As if on cue, a laser hit an electric relay nearby, showering me in sparks.

“If they were my friends, they wouldn’t have left me locked in here for Celestia knows how long!”

“She’s got a point, Spring,” Meridian intervened. “Besides, it’s not like we have many other options.”

“There’s a terminal right over here to unlock the door,” the alicorn continued, “or you can use the fire alarm at the end of the corridor.”

I leaned a bit, just to spot them both way too much in the Gatling’s line of fire to my taste.

“Get behind the door,” I grunted, reloading my pistol. “I’m taking a third option.”

I emptied my magazine in the reinforced glass of the tall observation window. Then a second. Then a third.

Finally, a last pull with my telekinesis got the better of it. The pane collapsed in a myriad of glass fragment. The alicorn stepped out. I realized she looked much like those old pictures of Princess Luna – if the latter had spent two months in the Everfree Forest without soap nor brushes.

“Thank you kindly,” she bowed before me, as a few laser bolts hit harmlessly a blue shield raised in front of her.

“Good, you got shields,” I began, “I tell you what: you give me cover, and I’ll…”

Then she teleported away.

“OH YOU GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME!” I roared.

I think even the alicorns down the corridor flinched under the unholy vocal assault that followed.

(** **)

“’She’s got a point, Spring’,” I snarled, punctuating my sentence with a hail of lead in the alicorns’ global direction. “’We have no choice, gnah gnah gnah’. No options my ass!”

“Hey, don’t blame me, you’re the reason we’re in this mess in the first place!” Meridian retorted, firing blindly from his cover. Piles of empty shells littered the ground between us. We had probably munched through most of our ammo already.

Then, an alicorn started screaming murder. The Gatling fire stopped.

I took my chance and peep over my cover, hunting rifle at the ready.

At the other end of the corridor, I saw something very peculiar.

The alicorn I had freed earlier had just stabbed the green alicorn with Luna-knows-what, and was now wrestling the already injured purple one over the laser rifle. The blue with the Gatling, obviously as surprised as we were, had turned her gun toward the fighters in melee.

As she weighed the pro and con of a possible friendly fire with a laser of mass destruction, I lined up my scope and exploded her brain.

Gore showered both the remaining alicorns. Our newfound ally took advantage of the confusion and stabbed her opponent in the leg, then in the neck. She wrested the rifle from her grasp.

Then she melted her face off.

Promptly, I re-armed my rifle and took aim at the survivor. She turned toward us. Blood and gore dripped from her face as she looked at me with her big, blue eyes.

Everything froze.

“Well… Looks like we won,” Meridian said, glancing at my still raised rifle.

“Indeed,” the alicorn answered. “Yet I fear this place is not very safe.”

“I wonder what make you think that,” I gritted through my teeth. Whatever this alicorn’s agenda was, it did not bode well for us.

“Spring…” Meridian warned, a reproachful look in his eyes. Well, no, sorry, not this time, Mr. Everybody-Is-Nice-And-Shit.

“You do not trust me. I understand. After all, we have barely met, in this very peculiar situation,” the alicorn continued. Slowly, she began to sit on her haunches. I noticed her ruffled wings had come back to her resting positions. There, she looked slightly less intimidating.

“Let’s introduce ourselves to each other,” she continued, her voice getting ever softer. “My name is Evey.”

“I’m Meridian,” my companion said, standing up from his cover. “This trigger-happy mare over here is my friend and companion, Spring.”

“I see.” Evey smiled at me with a knowing look on her face.

“We are not an item, if that’s what you mean!” I flushed.

I could hear Meridian’s eyes roll in their orbit from five meters away.

“Honey, that’s not what she meant at all,” he chuckled. “You really need to get laid.”

“Sex is an excellent stress reliever,” Evey agreed.

I then proceeded to drown them under a flood of exotic insults and empty shells. I believe this is when I definitively lost the battle.

(** **)

“Wait, you are telling me you woke up in this cell, alone, ‘long ago’, and stayed there ever since?” I resumed, dumbfounded.

“Well, I said ‘long ago’ because I kind of lost the notion of time in there,” Evey corrected as she followed us in the stairs to the exit. “Otherwise, yes. Had you not been there, I would have stayed trapped there. I am forever in your debt.”

“And you have no idea what in Tartarus you were doing there in the first place?” I continued. We were slowly but surely reaching the lowest levels.

“I am vaguely aware of existing before coming back to consciousness, but I cannot remember anything past a few fragments,” Evey seemed almost apologetic.

“Luna’s tits,” I mumbled. “I sure wouldn’t like to be in your horseshoes.”

Then, realizing what expletive I had used, I stopped and facehoofed.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” I sighed.

Evey shot me an inquisitive look.

“I mean, ‘Luna’s tits’. That’s kind of… Well, you know, it wasn’t aimed at you but…” I trailed on, with a disturbing feeling I wasn’t really pleading my case.

“I don’t follow,” the alicorn frowned.

“It’s because you look a lot like Princess Luna,” Meridian finally came to my rescue. “Hence, she fears she may have offended you.”

“Oh, I understand,” Evey smiled kindly at me. “Don’t worry. If I wasn’t offended by your hail of unfriendly comments when I teleported out of my cell earlier, I will not be offended by a reference to somepony who shares a deep likeness with me.”

My ears folded against my head. “Oh. You… heard that.”

“I did. But worry not, I understand,” she chuckled softly. The marvelous sound almost made me lose my train of thoughts. “You were, after all, suffering from an intense stress. One should never reproach a soldier for what they say in the heat of battle.”

“I’m not sure I qualify as a soldier,” I uneasily answered. I tried to change the subject. “You’re lacking the waving-thingy mane though.”

“And Princess Luna was a bit taller, too,” Meridian added.

“How would you know how tall she was?” I quipped.

“Old pictures. While she was smaller than Her Sister, she still towered over ponies tall in their own right.”

I stepped back and took a good look at Evey. There was no hiding she was quite tall – even Chrystal would find herself shorter of a few centimeters, and she was one of the tallest mares I had ever met. Yet, oddly enough, even though I had to crane my neck to look her in the eyes, she didn’t feel tall.

My gaze then ran down to her wings. During the fight earlier, they had been half-deployed, as if she had used them for stability. I wondered if she could even use them to fly. She had spent Celestia-knows-how-long years in her tiny cell, after all.

Then my eyes stopped where her cutie mark should have been. Her flanks were bare, like all the alicorns I had seen so far. But while the ones in the Unity didn’t seem to have a personality of their own, Evey apparently had a well anchored identity. I wondered, how much remained from the poor pony who got mutated with the IMP, and how much came from, well, somewhere else?

“Spring,” Meridian politely coughed. “You’re staring.”

“No, it’s okay,” Evey interrupted him. “I find the reaction of other ponies to my alien form fascinating, even though you are among the firsts. It may help me become integrated in whichever society I will found out there.”

My flustered response got interrupted by a violent explosion which rocked the world around us. I caught on the stair rail. Evey’s wings partially spread in reflex. Meridian let out a tired sigh.

“What now?”

(** **)

As we rushed down the stairs, the explosions became more numerous. The sounds of machineguns echoed in the levels under us. Soon enough, we heard heavy hoovesteps coming up from the depth of the staircase.

“Is there any chance those ponies in black armor are friends of yours?” Evey asked, leaning over the railing. Meridian and I shared a knowing look.

“Enclave,” he said.

“Likely,” I answered, switching my hunting rifle ammunition to armor piercing rounds. “Or the Steel Rangers. In any case, they won’t be friendly to you.”

“Oh, I see,” Evey sighed. “Well, then I guess this is farewell.”

“Maybe we can snea…”

“WATCH OUT!”

A rocket shot vertically through the air from the lower levels. Time seemed to slow down as it rose and rose toward a nearby wall. My brain cried to my body to get the hell out of there, but my legs were frozen and refused to budge.

I saw the rocket hit the wall, detonate on impact. I stared wide-eyed at the burning deflagration coming toward me.

Then, all I could see were dark feathers.

“A… y… ight?”

I shook my head to remove the whistle in my ears. I had fallen on the ground somehow. Evey’s face was over mine, and she was saying something.

“A… you… ight?”

I blinked, unable to understand a single word of what she said.

Then, she softly grabbed my head and pried one of my eyelids open. I shuffled a bit, yet something in the way she acted prevented me from struggling too much.

“You’ll… ine, …on’t… y,” she smiled. Noticing my saddlebags, she rummaged through them. Grabbing a health potion, she held it toward me. I downed it without any fuss. A few seconds later, my hearing came back.

“You okay there?” Evey asked me. “We really need to go now.”

I nodded. As I got up, I noticed I was standing in a small circular area on the ground which had not been blackened by the explosion. I spotted my gas mask on the ground next to where I laid. I grabbed it, and put it back on.

“You know, forget what you said about splitting up,” I coughed some dust from my throat. “You’re coming with us. To Tartarus with the Enclave!”

We started ascending the stairs again.

(** **)

“I thought you said the entrance was inaccessible,” Evey frowned. “This is why we went down and not up, right?”

“It’s not inaccessible per se,” I panted, trotting up the stairs. To my great dismay, neither of my companions, even the alicorn who spent decades trapped in a closet, showed a single sign of tiredness. “We just have no idea if we’re going to die going through there or not. But since the alternative is a certain death, we just have to try.”

“Oh.” Evey blinked. “Let’s go then.”

“Yeah…” I breathed heavily. Exhausted, I leaned against a wall on a landing. “Just… a moment, okay? It’s not like… they are going to… catch up with us… anytime soon…”

Of course, the very moment I said that, a characteristic ‘ding’ rang through a corridor on our right. In the distance, six Enclave soldiers started pouring from an elevator.

Wait, there was an elevator!?

“Spring, we got company!” Evey called out.

“Yeah, looks like our Enclave friend did catch up after all,” I suddenly regained a second wind.

“Not here, here!” she pointed out a corridor on our left. No less than three wings of alicorns had popped up out of nowhere and were pointing their own weapons in our direction.

“Luna’s holy tits! Let’s get the fuck out of here!” I darted toward the upper levels, my tiredness already a long forgotten memory.

As we dashed out of the way, the two miniature armies started shooting at each other with everything they had.

(** **)

A similar scenario repeated over and over as we closed on the surface levels. Everywhere, alicorns mowed down entire squads of Enclave troopers, only to be blasted away by grenade launchers and other plasma rockets. Nopony noticed us in the confusion, but some close calls sent dozen of shrapnel fragments on us. Thankfully Evey’s shield protected us from most of them, so I only had to worry about minor cuts and bruises. I would have been torn to pieces already otherwise.

Yet, among all the explosions and the detonations, I couldn’t help but notice the steady increase in the tick frequency of my Geiger counter.

I gritted my teeth and pressed on. Better radiation poisoning than lead poisoning!

We eventually reached the surface level. There, the traces of fighting seemed more ancient, and probably went back all the way to the insurrection, centuries before.

By the time we got to the Stable door, the Geiger counter became so loud I had to turn it off. I started to feel nauseous; on the other hoof, Evey looked healthier than ever. Her mane had started to darken ; her movements seemed swifter.

Meridian, as for him, was growing gloomier with each step. When I turned off the rad detector, he simply nodded, as if he acknowledged we didn’t have a choice anymore.

Stable 87’s airlock looked much like the airlocks of countless other Stables. Aside from a console on the right, and the gigantic blast door in front of us, it contained very little furniture. Had I been given a picture of the place, I would have never guessed it would slowly turn into a death trap.

Without losing a second, I activated the door mechanism. Slowly, the fifteen-ton block of steel rolled in its slide. Thankfully, it had survived the megaspell and the throes of time. Air flowed from the outside. I mentally hoped the mask’s filters were still working.

Evey’s mane suddenly started flowing in an invisible breeze. Meridian suppressed a fit of coughing.

Before the door even locked itself in place, we all rushed outside. I knew Meridian and I didn’t have much time out there before going over the fatal threshold of radiations.

We galloped through the tunnel entrance, jumping over charred bones and bodies in hazmat suits. How long had they been there? Two centuries? Twenty years? Had the radiations faded already, or were we condemned to a terrifying agony?

We reached the side of the crater proper. Entire constellations now shone in Evey’s mane. My saliva tasted like metal.

I hoped I had simply bit my own tongue.

Then, our wild race forward against time came to a halt. There, standing around us in the crater, a whole army of alicorns waited for us to exit.

Up in the skies, explosions and beams of light against the colorless sky were the only testimony of the aerial battle raging under the clouds. Of the Enclave or the Unity, I didn’t care who won.

I already knew that we had lost.

As my hopes melted like snow under a flamethrower, strength left my body. My knees gave in, reaching down into the irradiated soil. Acid tears filled my eyes.

At my side, Meridian drew his revolver. But I knew he hadn’t decided to go down swinging. He just hoped not to end as a ghoul, or as one of the Unity’s soulless minions. I considered doing the same.

Then, Evey covered us with her wings.

“Spring, think of a safe place!” she urged, her gaze not leaving the alicorns in front of her.

“Wh… what?” I miserably bawled.

“A safe place!” she begged. “For Luna’s sake, Spring, think of a safe place!”

A safe place? She didn’t know a single thing about the Wastelands, I darkly chuckled. There was no such thing as a safe place in this world. Not even those cozy little quarters back in Big Mountain, with its bed and its shower and its…

The world became blackness.

(** **)

Main quest updated: No Signal
Objectives:
[X] Go to Stable 87 find a Stable Tech Flux Transductor (Primary)
[X] Escape Stable 87 (Primary)
[ ] Repair the DERTA's communication center (Primary)
[X] Salvage Stable 87's experimental data (Optional)
[ ] Destroy Stable 87 using the fission reactor (Failed)


Side quest added: Ira Lunae
Objectives:
[X] Meet and recruit Evey (Primary)
[ ] Find more about your new companion (Primary)




Level up!

New perk:
Rad child: by now, you are used to working in irradiated area. You don’t lose time with formalities. You gain a global increase in speed when in an irradiated area, along with better reflexes and a finer accuracy.

"From the Wastelands, born ‘n’ raised!"

Chapter Ten: Back to School

View Online

Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.



“The overall design is clearly reminiscent of prêt-à-porter and not true Prench haute couture!”

Chapter Ten: Back To School

Blood pounded in my ears as the world spun around me. Stars danced against a dark veil in front of my eyes; my whole body felt as it was assaulted by countless pinpricks and needles.

A sudden spasm made my stomach contract. In a haze, I tore my gas mask off to belch out what little my belly still contained. I coughed some more acid bile. I was slowly coming back to my senses.

“Spring? How did you end up here?” Saios’ surprised voice asked.

“Wha…?” I looked up. Around me the familiar scenery brought me up to speed in a matter of seconds. Somehow, I had landed up in my room back in Big Mountain.

“Goodness… Is that Princess Luna?”

My dizziness slowly dissipating, I spotted Evey sprawled on the concrete on the other side of the room. Gone were the sparks in her mane. A smell of charred horn made my nostrils frown.

Meridian was right there by her side, pale and coughing.

He waved toward me dismissively, brushing my concerns aside. He’ll be fine.

I half walked, half crawled toward Evey.

“Not exactly,” I finally answered the AI. I hardly knew what Evey was supposed to be in the first place, but Luna and Her Sister had ascended a long time ago, ruling the option out. “Her name’s Evey. She got us out of there, somehow. Teleportation or something.”

“Are you saying she teleported you all the way from Stable 87 to here?” Saios’ disbelief was obvious. “Impossible. Have you never heard of the Starswirl-Sparkle effect?”

“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled, softly tapping Evey’s cheek to wake her up, to no avail. “The whole bloody place’s a war zone. We almost didn’t make it out of there. Damn, I’m no medic, why isn’t she waking up? Do you think she’s gonna make it?”

“The energy consumed by a teleport spell scales up proportionally to the square of the distance traveled. There are about twenty kilometers from the stable to Big Mountain. Should we admit she effectively managed to make that jump without killing you all, she is probably suffering an acute mana exhaustion. By all means, that should have killed her!” Saios exclaimed. “Then again, my knowledge on alicorns is very limited. Who is she, anyway?”

“When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know,” I groaned as I tried to pull Evey onto the couch. “Luna fuck me, she’s heavy!”

Meridian shook out of his torpor, but even with the two of us there was no lifting her.

“A little help over here?” I suggested, finally opting for letting our newfound friend lie on floor.

“I am sending a robotized stretcher to you,” Saios announced. “I shall bring her back to the infirmary; I already sterilized most of it.”

Something tilted in my mind at the mention of the word ‘infirmary’.

“Also, we’re going to need tons of Rad-Away and whatever drugs you got against heavy radiation poisoning,” I hastily removed my barding and immediately headed for a much needed shower. “I have no idea how much rads’ we got back there, and I’m not even sure I want to know.”

As I slipped out of my leather suit, my eyes fell on the omnitool in one of my front pockets.

“Here, wrap your mind around this while I’m trying to stop being phosphorescent,” I plugged the data storage in one of the wall’s terminal. “Got it in Stable 87. You may find something on Evey in there.”

The water for my shower hadn’t even started warming up that Saios shouted something in Prench I assumed to be one hell of a curse.

“Well, glad to see I’m not the only one to find they got a bit too far on this one,” I mumbled, water drenching my soiled fur. The irony of losing radiations while showering wasn’t lost on me.

“’A bit too far’ is a major understatement in my opinion,” Saios answered. “Stable Tech running social experiments was ‘a bit too far’, but this? This is monstrous. I am an AI and a person of science with a very grey morality profile, yet I cannot even begin to support what those ponies did.

“Told you the Wasteland had its lot of nasty surprises,” I chuckled darkly. Then, as I reached out to grab the soap, I froze in my movement.

“Wait a minute, didn’t you say there were no cameras in the private areas?” I accused. “How in Tartarus can you hear me?”

“… I may or may not have installed cameras in this particular bathroom as a personal initiative some time ago,” Saios answered awkwardly. “You know. Just in case.”

“You… you pervert!” I threw the soap in a random corner, hopping to hit a hidden camera. “Cut it off!”

“I assure you I had no intent to…

“CUT IT OFF!” I yelled.

(** **)

An energetic drying and a hail of expletives later, I stepped out of the bathroom. While I honestly couldn’t care less that somepony saw me naked, the very idea of getting caught with my pants down while showering made my fur stand on end.

I mean, damn.

As I shook whatever water remained in my mane, I noticed Meridian and Evey were already gone. I assumed the former headed to another bathroom somewhere – Saios probably gave him a room of his own while I wasn’t looking.

A few dozen packs of RadAway and some pills I couldn’t recognize waited for me on the table.

“I have perused and assimilated the data from Stable 87’s science team,” Saios told me as I closed on the table.

I chose not to answer and instead downed a full dose of the infamous orange fluid.

Ironically, it did very little to ease my radiation-induced nausea.

“To be honest, even though their lack of ethics was abominable, their studies were nothing short of spectacular. They knew their business. By the way, you may not want to take more than two of these pills at once,” he added as I opened a nondescript yellow box.

“I could talk for days about their findings and still not even begin to see the end of it, so I shall go straight to the point. Evey possesses a metabolism quite different from the one of the pony she used to be. For example, it appears radiations are not harmful to her kind. In fact, it strengthens them in a way diametrically opposed to how it acts on non-mutated beings.”

“You mean, the flowy-mane thing is not just for show?” I asked, swallowing my pills. They tasted like shit, but I, for one, was not radiation-proof. “Seems a bit… convenient to me, don’t you think?”

“Science is often about explaining very convenient things,” the AI shrugged. “I have little data on how the radiation affects those alicorns, but I conjecture their body specifically uses the increased mutagenic factor to renew the oldest cells in her body, creating energy in the process. In all likelihood, the very same process of selection through mutation allowed them to be transformed. Something baffles me though. Such a metabolism would render any individual totally sterile.”

“Wait, what?” I chocked on my RadAway. Great, now I had some ass-flavored orange good up in my nose, too. “How is that relevant to the conversation?”

“Well, I assume the original L-sample subject, named Lambda-13 by the science team, survived the fall of Stable 87, and had foals of her own, which in turn reproduced themselves, until Evey arrived. Yet,” Saios continued without letting me get a word in edgeways, “all the ponies whom got inoculated with the IMP turned out to be female because it was designed to make them resemble the template DNAs, which I suspect were the Princesses. As far as I am aware, neither were male. Had they reproduced with non-mutated males, the original strand should have been lost amongst the generations. Do you think those artificial alicorns are capable of self-fertilization, like some amphibians do?

“You lost me at ‘assume’,” I facehooved. “But I never saw or even heard of a male alicorn, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“This is… interesting.” Saios finally answered after a beat. “Sexual reproduction provides a powerful evolutionary advantage. It would have not come to my mind to take it away. Of course, an asexual reproduction should keep nearly intact the genetic material as it goes down the generations, which would have been good when it comes to engineered beings, yet the heavy mutation factor renders this hypothesis absurd. Unless, of course, they never expected the test subjects to reproduce.”

A long, undignified ‘slurp’ from the bag of RadAway I was sipping formed my only answer.

“… you did not understand a single word of what I just said, did you?” the AI let out a very, very tired sigh.

“Not a single word,” I nodded shamelessly.

“What I meant is…” Saios stopped, pondered whether or not it would be productive to continue his monologue. “Nevermind. Let us move out to a more pressing matter. Did you inhale or inject anything radioactive while you were out there?”

“I lost my gas mask once for a moment, but it was in a mostly radiation-free area,” I opened the last of my disgusting drug pack. “We got a massive radiation exposure in the uppers levels. It lasted maybe… ten minutes? Anyway, I’m feeling a bit sick but I got no burns, so I don’t think I’m going to drop dead anytime soon,” I threw the emptied pack into a garbage can and missed the bin entirely. “By the way, how’s Evey?”

“Still alive, still unconscious. I didn’t bring her to the infirmary.”

“Why’s that?” I frowned. “Sick mare, med bay, sounds about right to me.”

“After a further analysis of the data from Stable 87, it appears our guest is not sick, she is exhausted,” Saios explained as I sat down on the couch. The thrills of the recent events were starting to wear on me. “The research notes made me realize I had the perfect place for her to stay.”

I froze mid-yawn, and prayed the AI hadn’t noticed my hesitation. It may have earned Meridian’s trust, I still had my doubts. Stable 87 all too well reminded me of how science could and had gone wrong in the past.

“And… Where’s that?” I asked innocently.

“In a laboratory over B6.”

“You put her back in a laboratory?” Okay, now that AI officially had some screws loose. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“I am not conducting any experiments on her, if that is what you are implying,” I could feel the disgust in Saios’ voice. “Aside from watching her, that is. I simply needed a room with tight air concealment and a separate ventilation system. Her room is now flooded with radiations from the surface. Hopefully, it will help her recovery.”

It… made sense, actually. I eased up a little.

“Keep an eye on her, then. She was nice and helpful back in 87, but I’m not sure how she’s going to react when she wakes up. She may go berserk and try to kill us all for all we know.”

“I shall keep you informed.”

I muffle a loud yawn. My eyes dropped back on the mess I had left on the floor. Dust, blood and grim stained most of my gear.

“I did not dare take your armor away for cleaning,” Saios piped up. “I understand you are not very kind of being away from your combat gear.”

“If you had spent most of your life in the Wastelands, you’d do the same,” I deadpanned. Still, I had to scrub the radiations away from my leather armor, yet I couldn’t muster the will to do it.

“Saios, can I ask you for a favor?” I finally made my mind. Extra padding or not, I doubted the AI would have any difficulty getting rid of me if it wished so.

“If it is within the realm of my possibilities.”

“I need you to clean up my stuff.”

“All of it?”

“… I’ll keep my guns, if you don’t mind,” I chuckled uneasily. “I really feel naked without them.”

“Very well. I am sending a robot to pick it up.”

“Thanks.” Using my telekinesis, I removed my pistol holster from my barding and brought it to me.

The gun itself had seen quite a lot of fighting in Stable 87. The polymer casing had lived through the stress without a scratch; while it had been designed not to blow in the shooter’s face, I doubted its designers had expected it to still be in service two hundred years and a bit after its making.

I removed the clip I had engaged, then the bullet from the chamber. I unlocked the slide and sighed as I took a look inside. Usual powder-related grime aside, I could already spot early signs of wear. When I bought it back at Junction R-7, I hadn’t paid much attention to the gun mechanisms, because I knew I would be regretting not buying it at Chrystal’s. For some reason, that mare always had that particular gun or part I needed in pristine condition.

Of course, it always cost me a leg, but hell, I’d rather pay a few more caps than having my gun misfire during a skirmish.

“Mind if I use the workbench?” I asked the resident AI. I didn’t dare disturb the pile of scraps and tools for fear of accidentally awakening a crazy robot-killer or something.

After all, even the alarm clock yelled ‘EXTERMINATE’ instead of just ringing.

“For sure. I need to sort the mess on it though. Please move it on the ground carefully, I am certain I have irreplaceable things in there.”

I had just started cleaning a small area on the top, when my scavenger senses tinkled off. My gaze had fallen on a strange contraption actually without wires and components in the open.

“What’s that?” I levitated the incriminating item in front of the camera. “A skiing mask?”

“Goodness, I was starting to think I had lost it for good,” Saios exclaimed. I refrained myself from asking him how a computer could forget anything. “Those are EVG, or Enhanced Vision Goggles. Come on, put them on, you will understand.”

I shrugged and attached the rubber band behind my head.

“Great, now I have an orange-tinted vision of the word,” I deadpanned. “Is that your notion of ‘enhanced’?”

“We are not amused,” Saios answered tit for tat. Then, with a chuckle, he continued: “You need to turn it on first. There is a switch on the left of the frame.”

“Oh.” Feeling somewhat silly, I pressed the incriminating button.

Immediately, text started printing out superimposed on the glass. It didn’t feel like somepony had plastered a screen in my face though. The writings had some kind of depth to them in a way I couldn’t quite explain.

“Are those EFS goggles?” I asked Saios, mildly impressed. Sure, I had seen quite a few Pipbucks in the Wastelands, but I never really got to try one.

“Not exactly,” I could almost hear the AI wince, “EFS project a mental image right into the visual cortex, basically making you hallucinating the data. This method has its perks – for starter, you do not need eyewear and it even works with blind ponies. It also has its downside. The long-time effects of those permanents hallucinations are unknown and the Ministry of Peace actually hinted it may lead to splitting headaches, loss of visual acuity, pronounced schizophrenia, and of course visual hallucinations, among other things.”

“Honestly, you don’t even need a Pipbuck to go crazy nowadays,” I chuckled darkly. “It comes to you naturally.”

“Furthermore,” he continued, “the MoP noticed ponies working with an EFS detached from a protective suit – a Stable Tech PipBuck for example, or those computer-assisted turrets Ironshod Firearms built for battleships – tended not to use eye protection because of their already impaired vision. We designed the EVG you are wearing for battle, yet we needed them not to be integrated in the helmet for practical reasons. Hence, we choose not to use EFS. That allowed us to upscale the screens resolution, too. We can print out more data and images for example.”

“That’s… cool, I guess,” I hazarded. “Feels like reinventing the wheel, though.”

“Also, we really did not want to pay royalties to Stable Tech for the technology,” Saios added. “Those guys were real corporate vultures.”

(** **)

I was on a battlefield.

Everywhere around me, ponies screamed in anger and in pain as they charged toward unseen foes. Explosions from artillery strikes shook the earth and sent torrents of dirt cascading on the rampaging soldiers. Paths of smoke trailed through the sky. Acrid plummets of dusts attacked nostrils and eyes, and there was no hiding from the vomit-inducing stench of death and decay.

A cry for help shook me out of my torpor.

“Medic!” it cried, not too far from the still smoking crater of a recent shelling.

Running from makeshift covers to trenches full of mud and blood, I ran toward it.

“Medic!” it called again, full of desperation and suffering. It was the voice of a stallion alone in the dark, forgotten by his luck and his brothers in arms altogether.

I dove behind the remains of a destroyed tank, I jumped over corpses so decayed I couldn’t recognize friend from foe anymore.

Finally, I reached my patient. The poor colt was soaked in his own blood. Shrapnel had pelted his combat armor, shredding it to a nondescript rag of tissue and metal.

“Hang in there,” I knelt before him, grabbing my saddlebags without wasting a single seconds. “I’m a medic.”

“I… don’t want… to die,” he whined, grabbing my leg without much strength. “Please… help me…”

I eyed over his injuries. Multiple minor lacerations all over the body. Major lacerations on the legs, torso, neck. Numerous foreign small objects sunk in torso. No apparent major external hemorrhage. Probably concussion. Shell shock almost certain.

“You’ll be fine, soldier. It’s just a fleshwound,” I lied. He needed an immediate evac.

Then, lead started raining around me. I duck for cover as motes of dirt sprung over my head, missing me by a few hairs.

“I’m a medic, Celestia damn it!” I yelled over the gunfire.

The Zebra answered in their guttural tongue of their, and just kept firing.

I drew my laser pistol. When the hail of death slowed down, I leaned over my makeshift cover and took aim.

There, not fifteen meters from us, a young Zebra mare was reloading its assault rifle. She looked lost on the battlefield, fidgeting with her weapon and not even bothering with a cover.

I melted her face off.

“There, I got her,” I turned toward my patient.

He looked back at me with empty eyes, the bullet holes in his helmet all too visible to me.

“Damn it.” I looked up at the cloudy skies, my eyes driest than sand. “War. There’s no getting used to it…”

The rain began to fall, acid and unforgiving.

(** **)

“You really are not a morning pony,” Saios noted as I dragged my hooves from my bed to the couch.

I grumbled something unintelligible in response.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“I just can’t sleep well here,” I repeated a bit louder. “Don’t know why. I had spent better nights in caves surrounded by raiders and hellhounds.”

“Maybe you are not used to sleeping in a real bed,” the AI suggested. “I know most pegasi cannot rest on regular mattress if they are used to napping on clouds.”

“Maybe.” I grabbed the cup of coffee a robot was holding toward me. I noticed the oily aftertaste was gone. “Though I’ve been told there’s nothing comfier than a cloud.”

“For sure. I had the luck of sleeping on one, one day.”

“Wait, you were a pegasus?” I almost did a spit-take. “I wouldn’t have guessed, honestly.”

“Oh, no, I- Blue Shift was a unicorn,” Saios corrected. “But I- he worked with the Ministry of Awesome, remember? I supervised the integration of one of our fusion reactor into one of their massive cloudships. Well, more precisely, I had to patch up the interface between our software and their custom-made operating system.”

“And you had to stay overnight.” I continued.

“And I had to stay there for a full month,” Saios sighed. “Our hardware had been designed with unicorns in mind. Most of their stuff was made of clouds. Clouds! Somepony had to cast a cloudwalking spell on me every twelve hours so I could simply touch the damn things.”

I chuckled at the idea of a nerdy unicorn suddenly being cut in his lecture by going through the misty floor.

“It may seem funny in hindsight, but trust me I had never felt so frustrated in my life,” Saios continued. “To be honest, it made for a wonderful protection against Zebras. They couldn’t even walk on those things!”

“Eh, it didn’t do us much good, if the outside is of any indication. Talking of pegasi and unicorns, how’s Evey?”

“Still out cold. Her vitals are stable. She is… sleeping, for a lack of a better term.”

“Well, warn me if she starts moving.”

I spotted an innocent croissant waiting for me on a nearby trail.

Without wasting a single second, I jumped on the treat and gobbled it whole.

“Mmmh… Tell me youch can make more of thooche things,” I moaned in delight. “Theich damn good!”

“I shall, uh, keep that in mind.” For some reason, the AI seemed disturbed by my act of pastry-slaughter. “I fear the kitchens are quite unusable as of now. I can probably salvage some equipment from there and set it up in an unused laboratory.”

“By all means, do,” I waved a hoof in the global direction of the camera while picking the last crumbs.

“I will be short on ingredients, however. By luck, do you happen to know where I could find fresh milk, wheat flour, yeast, and fresh eggs, among other things?”

I froze midway in a huge lips-licking moment. “I… I have no idea, dude,” I frowned. “And I don’t think you should trust anyone in the Wastelands with that kind of stuff.”

“I reckon I will have to grow it myself then,” the AI concluded. “You know, it’s funny, last time I said something like that, I- Blue Shift was in college, and he wasn’t really talking about wheat and milk…”

(** **)

“Why in Tartarus would you need blood samples?” I asked, dumbfounded. “I mean, okay, you’ll have them if you want, but what are you even planning to do with them?”

“I would want to check on your internal radioactivity level,” Saios answered in the earpiece integrated to the techy goggles. “You had been exposed to massive amount of radiations since your birth, and I would like to know how your body is coping with it.”

“Like anybody’s body,” I snared darkly. “It doesn’t. If I don’t die of a violent death out there, I’ll end up sprouting a couple tumors, and ol’ Spring’ll be gone.”

“You seem to be quite calm about this.”

“Hell, it’s not like there’s anything I can do about this,” I shrugged as I walked toward the infirmary. “It’s not like I’m the only one either. Death is almost a blessing in the Wastelands, trust me. Nopony wants to live forever. Ask Evey when she wakes up. It sucks to never age.”

Silence fell back in the earpiece.

“Wait, what?” Saios finally picked it up. “Are you implying Evey is patient Lambda 13?”

“It’d make sense, wouldn’t it?” I wondered how the AI could have not noticed it. “I mean, alicorns are probably immortal anyway. The Goddesses had walked the earth for millennia. You even said yourself they couldn’t reproduce themselves! So, eh, my theory is simple: Evey got locked up in the cell I found her in by those mad scientists in Stable 87 two hundred years ago, she slept through the rebellion, then she woke up eventually and her colleagues outside gave her the cold shoulder. Afterward she didn’t get out of there until I stumbled upon her room during a gunfight. End of the story.”

“But nopony is immortal!” Saios exclaimed. “For sure, the Princesses did not age, or aged so slowly our lifetimes were smaller than their by a few orders of magnitude. But I cannot phantom the very idea of a pony turned ageless. It is biologically impossible.”

“Ghouls,” I pointed out. “Ghouls don’t age. They… rot, for sure, but they don’t age per se.”

“But ghouls are dead,” the AI retorted. “They look like ponies from afar, yet I am certain whatever drive them is not the pony they used to be.”

“That’s too bad, because I talked with a two-centuries-old ghoul not a month ago,” I cut him. “Used to be a soldier during the War, got caught outside when the megaspells hit. And he is not an isolated case either. Hell, even you lived two hundred years!”

Silence.

“Technically I had never been alive, Spring,” yet the sadness in his voice said the opposite. “Yet your point still stands. I am a pony of science; after all, I should not discard those facts based on my own prejudice. Well, ‘pony’… You understand what I mean.”

“Trust me, you seem more alive than most things I have seen out there,” I reassured him grimly. “Here we are. The infirmary.”

(** **)

Had I not known that was the same room I had visited two days earlier, I wouldn’t have believed it. Gone were the grime and the ghouls rotting in the darkness; now, the bleach white ceiling lights bathed a neatly cleaned up room. The broken furniture had been removed; the outdated drugs had disappeared in an incinerator somewhere.

“Well, damn,” I whistled softly. “You sure work fast.”

“All in a day’s work,” the AI proudly answered. “I don’t even know why we bothered with janitors before. Robots are so more efficient!”

“Yeah, but that’s because you control them,” I pointed out. “Unlike ponies, most can’t think by themselves.” I silently thanked the Goddesses above for that.

“True enough, but we are kind of short in supplies of equine workforce to clean up the two-centuries-old layers of dirt littering the place. I reckon you would not be too keen of the idea of grabbing a broom and sweeping the whole place inside out, now would you?”

“That’s not the kind of cleaning I do,” I chuckled darkly. “I remove scumbags, not stacks of dust. Anyway, you wanted me to do tests or something?”

“I do not have the equipment to do a full body scan anymore, so all I can do is a blood test. Go in the room on your left, it is already waiting for you.”

“Can’t we just use a Geiger counter or something?”

“I am not worried about how much radiation your body retained, but about how your body reacted to it. Furthermore, I need a blood sample from you for identification should you suffer an… unfortunate fate.”

“Charming,” I mumbled. Then I noticed something on the ironwood doors leading to the other rooms.

“Did you really cut the locks from those doors?” I asked in disbelief.

“I could not find the keys.”

“You do realize I could have picked them open, right?” I snorted, entering the examination room. It was as pristine as the other room.

“You failed to mention this skill on your CV,” the AI deadpanned. “Though I admit your roguish type should have tipped me off. What profession are you practicing already?”

“I’m a bounty hunter,” I answered truthfully as I sat on the examination bench. I spotted the (sealed) syringe on a stainless steel table nearby.

“As in, hunting criminals for a reward?”

“Uh uh,” I nodded as I peeled the syringe wrapping. I didn’t like the idea of planting its huge needle in one of my legs very much.

“Yet you told me there had been no central government since the end of the War,” Saios continued.

I winced as the needle pierced my skin. Slowly, the syringe began to fill.

“I reckon I did,” I mumbled absentmindedly.

“Then who judges the criminals and pay the bounty on their heads?”

“Well I… Uh…” I droned, focusing on the small volume of vital fluid going from my veins to the syringe. “Wait a second, would you? I’m kinda busy right now.”

“In fact, you are not a bounty hunter,” Saios continued anyway. “You are a private contractor.”

“I am NOT a mercenary!” I growled as I finally pulled the needle out. “Wait, what?”

“A private contractor,” the AI repeated. “As in, a hired gun with a sense of ethics.”

“… yeah, I guess you could say that,” I scratched my mane without thinking. Private contractor? I could work with that, if ‘bounty hunter’ just didn’t fill the bill. “But I don’t want ponies to think I’m just a damned raider, y’know?”

“A raider? Is that how you call bandits out there?”

“If only,” I chuckled darkly, hoofing my vial of blood to a nearby robot. “If the Wastelands were a body, bandits would be its asshole and raiders would be its hemorrhoids. It’s like they only exist to give us a reference of what an evil pony would be. A bandit would rob you, beat you up and leave you for dead on the side of a trail. A raider would beat you up, make you eat your belongings, eviscerate you while you’re still screaming and would end up using your bowels to decorate fucking Hearth Warming Eve trees. And then they would start raping your still warm body.”

(** **)

“You know, I still have this gift for you, Saios told me as I returned to my room. “Now would be a nice time for you to have it.”

“Well, you still haven’t told me what it is,” I remarked, stopping on my tracks.

“It is a surprise, of course I haven’t told you yet,” the AI laughed heartily. “Head toward the laboratories in B2 – that’s two levels right under the infirmary – and you shall see.”

A cold shiver crawled up my spine. I had yet to visit this area. Who knows what I would find down there?

“Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what it is?” I carefully suggested as I headed downstairs.

“Nope. But I can give you a hint,” the AI seemed particularly playful. “Had you notice anything different since you put the EVG on?”

I stopped in the middle of the hallway, and looked around me. For sure, everything had some kind of orange hue on it, but that wasn’t unexpected per see. Displays occasionally flashed on and off on the edge of my vision yet I couldn’t make anything of it. Most of them seemed to be error messages anyway.

“Not really, no,” I finally answered. “What about them?”

“Take them off.”

“O…kay,” I trailed before grabbing the headset with my telekinesis. I took them off, and…

Nothing.

I was surrounded by utter darkness.

Baffled, I put the glasses on again. I could see the end of the tunnel a dozen meters in front of me like it was basked in plain daylight.

“You turned the lights off?” I asked in disbelief.

“I never turned them on in the first place. You have been walking in the dark for the last five minutes.”

“Holly shit.”

“See, you asked me yesterday why not use EFS,” Saios continued with pride. “This is one of the reasons. Since we can project anything on the screens, we can use feeds from special cameras located on the frame. Low-light vision, external feeds… You name it. We even have an IR mode.”

As on cue, my entire turned in shades of blue and grey. I looked at my hoof; sure enough, it showed in bright red.

“Moreover, it allows mission control to remotely monitor the situation on the field,” he continued.

“What do you mean?” I took the goggles off again. I couldn’t even see my own hoof.

“Basically, what I have been doing since you found the EVG, and even before that since we met. I provide you with intelligence you couldn’t possibly have, I assist you whenever I can, I advise you on the obstacles you may encounter… In a nutshell, I see what you see, and you see what I want you to see. This way, you can focus on the short term while I focus on the middle term.”

“This… is a bit demeaning, don’t you think?” I did not like his assumption of me being stupid very much.

“I did not want to imply you were stupid,” Saios continued. Was I that predictable? “What I mean is simple: I have an excessive processing power, a lot of time and little to do with it. If you were stranded in a building, by the time you wondered which way was the exit, I would have already mapped your way out, hacked the local security system not to shoot you, informed you that the guy you hit five minutes ago had probably passed away by now and made you a cup of coffee. On the other hoof, I cannot even dream of walking out of the room I am confined to, because I do not even have legs of my own anymore. Our skills are complimentary.”

Wonderful. I wanted very hard to be mad at him for being so smug, but then I realized it was very hard to hate somepony for making a perfectly valid point.

“Fine!” I finally threw up my hooves to the skies. “I guess you proved up you’re the big brainer here. But please, just let me enjoy the illusion I am not a complete moron, okay?”

“I would never dare think that.”

(** **)

“What I am about to show you was still under heavy development when the DERTA went dark,” Saios said as I entered the lab in sector B2. “It is not even a prototype, but an experimental unit. And an incomplete one at that.”

I almost pointed out I had no freaking idea of what the difference between prototype and experimental unit meant, and then thought better. I sure didn’t want to have a three-hours-long lecture about semantics and whatnot.

“Still, it should be mostly functional. I am certain you will love it.”

I arrived in a mildly lit room with some sort of high-tech armchair in the middle of it. Wires of all size ran from it toward terminals lined on the walls. Workbenches everywhere crumbled under tons of discarded tools and electronic components.

Then, I turned my head, and I saw them.

In small alcoves embedded in a side wall, half a dozen full-size dummies were waiting behind thick glass panes. Most of them were only covered by half-rigged scraps of tissue and wires. One did stand out, however.

Unlike the others, its whole body was covered by what seemed to be some kind of combat armor. Thick plates of a hard, pale alloy had been stitched on a dense, darker material visible at the joins. Mesmerized, I closed on the very expensive-looking piece of gear. On the inside of the legs, and running all the way to the spinal structure, ran some kind of rigid skeleton, linking all the rigid parts together. Some more supple dark material covered the neck all the way up to the muzzle, protected by a respirator.

The centuries-old lights in the laboratory flickered. I blinked in disbelief. I could swear the suit’s colors had changed for a split second.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Saios shook me out of my torpor. “Spring, meet the Assisted Stealth Suit Mk I, or CAI for short. The DERTA designed it for the Ministry of Awesome’s Special Ops. It is yours now.”

I instantly threw every doubt I had on Saios through the window. This guy was now officially my new best friend.

“Dude,” I stammered eloquently. “She is beautiful…”

“Sadly, it never saw a single minute of action. Many things, including the helmet, never got finished,” the AI regretted. “It turned out the MAS had little resources to spare on a powered combat horn amplifier.”

“Wait, powered?” I frowned. “Assisted? You mean this is power armor?”

“Yes. The CAI would have been the next generation of power armor. The first one could only be used by Earth ponies; the second was clearly designed for pegasi. The CAI aimed to fulfill a need for the infiltration units, unicorns in particular.”

“Saios, I can’t use this,” I sighed, dejected. “I don’t have any kind of power armor training. It’d take months just to put me up to speed.”

“But that’s the great thing with the CAI,” he continued with excitement, slipping back in his Prench accent. “You don’t have to adapt to the power armor – the armor adapts itself to you!”

There was a blank.

“Wait, say that again?” I rubbed my ear with a hoof.

“Have you ever wondered why we didn’t start using powered harnesses everywhere once the MoWT rolled out the first models? The answer is quite simple,” he continued before I could point out I wasn’t even born during the War, they are bulky. As you know, users had to undergo some intense training to simply be able to use the movement assistance, and even the best of them couldn’t move as fast as they could without. To compensate, the designers simply added extra layers of protection. In the end, the version designed by the Army looked like an oversized tin can. It worked wonder though, until those bloody Zebras realized they could just use our anti-material guns against us.

Rainbow Dash, at the head of the MoAw, immediately saw the potential of a lighter, more flexible suit. With the help of the Ministry of Image, they designed a new version for the Air Force.”

“Yeah, I know of those. The Steel Rangers have the former. I heard the unicorns in their ranks have to cut their own horn to put their helmet on,” I shivered at the very idea. “And the pegasi in the Enclave have the later. Both are a nightmare to mares like me.”

“The Steel Rangers still exist!?” Saios’ surprise was palpable. I cursed under my breath for the slip. “Spring, how could you decide not inform me of that fact?”

“Don’t think they have anything to do with the ones you used to know,” I warned. “Those guys are inbred nuts. They believe themselves to be the righteous guardians of the technology of old. I had even been told they worshiped Applejack as their goddess or something and offered their spoils in offering. Don’t you even think of contacting them. They’d scrap the base to its core, and you’d end up packed up in a cardboard box in one of their bunkers somewhere. Fuck, even .50 cal rifles are ‘forbidden technology’ to them.”

“Oh. Fanatics. I see,” Saios seemed disappointed. “What about the Enclave?”

“Even nuttier, if you can believe it. At the end of the War, when they realized Equestria was going to get toasted, the pegasi just went ‘screw this, we’re outta here’, closed the skies and stayed there ever since. If you’re not one of them, then you’re garbage. And the Goddesses help you if you cross their path when they are in a bad mood.”

“More foes than friends then.”

“Indeed,” I grimly growled. “They almost got my hide in Stable 87. I still have no idea why. That’s how they roll: shoot first, and never even bother by telling you why.”

“I will try to intercept their communications, now that I have almost repaired our receiver,” Saios proposed. “If we get lucky, we shall find out why you were so interesting to them.”

“Thanks,” I smiled weakly. I didn’t see how knowing why in Tartarus they wanted my head would change anything to the situation, but I kept it to myself. For all I knew, they simply shot at me because they assumed I was with Unity when they spotted Evey. Or because they just didn’t give a damn shit.

My eyes fell back on the suit in front of me.

“Anyway, you were saying something about the CAI?”

“Right. The Airborne Power Armor did its job just fine, as you noticed firsthoof. Yet, the MoA also conducted many undercover operations with unicorn agents which required more finesse – sabotages, intelligence gathering, assassinations… The Zebra had their invisibility talismans, but we had nothing.”

“Yes, nothing could be farther from stealth than a soldier in power armor,” I chuckled softly as I mentally tried to picture a Steel Ranger hiding behind a tiny tree.

“Exactly. Stable Tech somehow managed to rip off the Zebra’s witchcraft with their StealthBucks, but a temporary invisibility device does not make a full armor. The MAS did its own tinkering in their labs I heard, yet since they had many other, more promising projects on their lap they did not make any breakthrough.

The MoA therefore decided to commission a new generation of power armor, which would not impede the user’s movements in any way and even increase their stealth abilities. Since the MoM had warned them that the MoWT was swarming with spies – Celestia knows how Minister Pinkie Pie knew that – they turned to us to design this suit.

Then, I – Blue Shift, I mean – had the idea of the century. Given the DERTA’s experience in adaptive neural matrices we could make the suit’s software very flexible. Since a computer can learn way faster than a pony, in the end we had our concept: the suit itself would adapt to the user, and react to its wishes just like a real muscle would. Even a newbie, after a couple weeks of training, could use that kind of suit at its full potential – and that potential would be far greater than any combat armor ever achieved before.

The MoA gave us countless top-secret reports on how the other powers armor really fared on the battlefield, and we learned those lessons. Do you know what happens when a pegasus’ armor gets neutralized in flight by an EMP? Well, they drop like a stone. The same goes for Earth Ponies: once disabled, the armor is a dead trap. We designed our in such a way that, even with the assistance disabled, the user could still move and get to cover to fix their gear up.

We also received reports (I suspect those were from the MoM too) on the usage of StealthBuck. It turns out they are not as stealthy as they seem. They have a magical signature so strong you could spot somepony using one from hundreds meters away, if you knew how to look. Since we stole the technology from the Zebras, and since their own stealth cape didn’t have that design flaw, we assumed they knew that too and we scrapped the design entirely. We used adaptive camouflage instead.

I could go on for hours on all the neat ideas we had for the CAI. Alas, we never got to try them out on the battlefield.”

“Well, damn, that’s a nice toy,” I finally whistled once Saios went out of nerd mode. “Does it make pancakes too?”

(** **)

“You know, for a stealth armor supposed not to impede movement, it is quite bulky,” I remarked aloud once I slipped into suit. It had soon become obvious it had been design with somepony slightly larger than me in mind. Plus, the motors in the joints opposed every single of my movements. “No offence, but did you even ever try it before?”

“Don’t be so impatient, the CAI is not even initialized yet,” Saios growled, clearly exasperated. “First, we need to connect the EVG to the suit itself.”

I blinked. I had completely forgotten about the goggles on my nose.

“Right. Plug the acronym-tech-thingies in the acronym-tech-thingy,” I strained to see the port between my shoulder blades. Fortunately I was quite flexible. “By the way, what does CAI stands for anyway?”

“Combinaison Assistée d’Infiltration.” Now that was some real Prench spoken by somepony from Prance! Too bad I couldn’t understand a word of it to save my life. To me, it sounded like ‘croissant croissant baguette baguette’.

“What, you couldn’t resist putting a small flag on it?” I chuckled hearthly. “I mean, come on, why didn’t you use the proper Equestrian acronym? What was it? Assisted Stealth Suit? A.S.-”

I stopped mid-sentence, wide eyed.

“You didn’t.”

“Believe it or not, the name went all the way through our engineer teams, to the MoA’s, to their decision board, then all the way back down and nopony noticed a thing until we had to paint it on the shoulder because we did not have enough room to write the full name.”

“You named your stealth suit… ASS?! I just can’t believe it!” I resisted the urge to roll on the floor at the sheer absurdity of it.

“And the puns about it are endless,” Saios continued with a chuckle.

“Let’s kick ASS!” I yelled as a battle cry.

“Careful, you got ASS all over you!”

“Damn, my ASS is full of shit!”

“Don’t be so anal about it!”

Then I really started rolling on the floor in hilarity.

(** **)

“Luna’s sweet tits, I haven’t had a good laugh like that in forever,” I finally managed to get over my ten-minute-long hilarity fit. My body ached all over from the loose parts of the suit but I deemed it totally worth it.

“It feels like centuries,” Saios chuckled darkly.

Well, at least he saw that with humor. I guess.

“So. Back to business,” I pulled the sloppy armor back on my shoulders. “That cable goes over there, right? I can’t really see the port.”

“Yes. It is now obvious in hindsight that that one plug should have never been put on the back of the neck,” I could almost see Saios taking notes on a clipboard, nodding solemnly behind his opaque glasses and his evil goatee. “This is why we make prototypes in the first place, see. Even the best engineers in the world cannot do without early feedbacks.”

“I guess I’ll do with the ‘experimental unit’ then, whatever that means,” I let out a mock sigh. “Anyway, I think I got it… There. All plugged in.”

On the overlay, walls of texts started rushing by. Then the suit started shrinking down.

“Uh, Saios? Is that normal? The shrinking, I mean.”

“The suit is adapting itself to your size. Since we wanted it to be like a second skin, we needed it to be a perfect fit.”

I could feel the odd material probing almost every square centimeter of my body. I squeezed uneasily.

“This feels so wrong I can’t even- EEEP!” I yelped as the suit started probing something I sure didn’t want it to probe.

“Sorry. As I said, it is a tight fit,” Saios apologized.

“Dude, that’s not tight, it’s invasive!” I protested. “I sure don’t like it when my clothes get it all up close and personal!”

“One second. I am tweaking the settings to make it less oppressive to you. Please understand the kind of ponies this suit was designed for had no problem pooping in diapers if they had to stay at their posts.”

“Don’t tell me I have to crap in my pants,” horror dawned on me. “Because I sure as hell don’t want to.”

“We scrapped the biological waste treatment unit in the earliest drafts. We simply did not have enough room to squeeze it in. You can open the suit from behind, when the need arise.”

“So the ASS opens if I want to crap,” I sniggered. “That’s convenient!”

“Oh, shut up,” Saios growled, mildly amused. “Good, I am done with the startup sequence. All systems report to be functional. Try to move one leg.”

I lifted my left foreleg. To my great surprise, it was exactly how it looked like: I felt like I had just lifted a foreleg with a medium armor strapped to it.

“No offence, but it’s supposed to be assisted, right?” I asked Saios, puzzled. “It doesn’t feel like it’s assisting anything.”

“The servomotors are all disabled,” Saios explained. “This is how the suit would behave if we were hit by an EMP, for example.”

I took a cautious step forward, then another. Before I knew it, I was jogging around the room.

“Careful not to trip,” Saios tried to ruin my joy.

“Oh, come on, don’t be such an ASS,” I probed my tongue at him. Then I realized I still had the muzzle mask on. “Can I get this off by the way? It’s a bit cumbersome.”

“What, the suit? Already?”

“Nah. The gasmask.”

“Oh. For sure. You should be able to clip it somewhere in your back.”

I craned my neck and chuckled nervously.

“Say, you did know ponies don’t have eyes behind their head, right?”

A full-screen image popped up on my display. I almost lost my balance in surprise.

“Whoa- What are you doing?”

“Well, I have a very clear view of your back. I am merely showing you.”

“That’s… incredibly disturbing,” I turned my head around, but the image stayed the same.

“It gets even worse with the optic zoom. Imagine turning your head a quarter of turn, just to feel you turned twice as much. It is vomit-inducing, really.”

“Well, at least warn me before you mess with my eyes,” I finally opted for sitting on my haunches. “I think I attached it. I can’t really see it though.”

“Looks good to me.”

“So!” I jumped back on my hooves. “When does the suit start training? I can’t wait to see what I can do with it.”

“We can start right now if you want,” Saios seemed a bit… hesitant. “I had wished you to keep in unassisted mode for a day or two, just to get a grip on your vitals.”

“Wait a minute, my vitals?” I didn’t like the sound of that a single bit.

“Yes. Heartbeat, temperature, blood pressure… It monitors injuries, too. I can apply some first aid from where I am, though we need to resupply it on drugs.”

“What… kind of drugs?” I asked hesitantly. I still had the Tenpony incident in my mind. I had little wish to be hooked up to combat enhancing drugs again.

“Different kinds of intravenous healing potions, painkillers such as morphine and Med-X, commons antibiotics for infections, and various other things.”

“Does it include things like… Dash?” I prompted, resisting the urge to bite my lip. Damn, girl, don’t even think about it!

“’Dash’? As in, that one methamphetamine which gives a distorted perception of time?” Saios seemed quite suspicious.

“I… guess?” I scrapped the floor in shame. “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t really tell.”

“Spring… Do you have a history of addictive behavior?”

“NO! I mean, no,” I shook my head vigorously. “I just took some once, not so long ago, during the hunt for the master keys. My own recklessness had cornered me in a very tough situation, I got injured pretty badly in the middle of a place I sure didn’t want to be caught in, and, uh, it got me out of there.”

“I see. Sadly, ‘Dash’ has a very, very high addictive rate. You should not be ashamed of having relapses from time to time.”

“Yeah. I got those… cravings, you know?” I sighed. “Well, no, you can’t really know. In good first of class, you’re just gonna lecture me about how drugs are bad and stuff like that. I saw the propaganda posters, y’know? And I saw many addicts first hoof. I know what I risk.”

“Actually, I do know how it feels like. Blue Shift used to be young, you know.”

“Ha, so you weren’t kidding about the pot earlier?” I chuckled. “Well, when I thought it is said to make people stupid…”

“Oh, actually, it does. I- Blue Shift was a very, very occasional smoker. He tried other things, too – alcohol, opiates, synthetic drugs… He quickly dropped out of it though.”

“But no Dash,” I pointed out.

“No ‘Dash’, indeed. He did have a few friends fond of amphetamines.”

“Oh. What did they become?”

I mentally kicked myself for asking that. They sure weren’t alive and kicking, two centuries later.

“They probably died during the Bombing of Prance,” Saios’ voice grew grim. “Or maybe when the megaspells hit. Or during the fallout that followed. They are all gone now.”

“I’m, uh, I’m sorry,” I bit my lips without thinking.

“Don’t be. If anything, you are even less responsible for the Great War than me.”

Silence fell back on the labs. My eyes wandered on the overlay in front of me. I noticed a small map had popped up on the down left; some kind of counter had appeared on the down right. The date and time was displayed up top, along with what I guessed to be indicator of the current vision mode.

I also noticed from the corner of my eyes that all those indications faded away when I wasn’t directly looking at them. Somepony had obviously taken great care not to hamper the user’s vision.

“So, training?” I finally suggested to break the ice. “Do you have an obstacle course or something?”

“Kind of,” Saios’ voice did not seem very confident. “See, the suit does not need you to actually do anything to learn from you. It just needs you to think about doing it. This is how ponies dreams, actually.”

“Wait, do you want me to dream of training?” I asked, incredulous. “I don’t think that’s even remotely possible.”

“Not exactly. Based on the technology we used for the SAIOS project and spells derived from memory orbs, we designed a new generation of simulation devices. At first, we wanted to sell it as a new generation of gaming platform, but the ministries realized they made for amazing training devices. Think about it: you can send even the greenest rookie into the most abominable battlefield one can imagine, without actually worrying for his life. It also helps desensitize them from violence and first-blood traumatic disorder.”

“Do I even dare ask why I had never heard of such a thing before?” I rolled my eyes. My caps were on ‘too expensive’, ‘arrived too late’ and ‘bad publicity’.

“It didn’t work.”

Wait, what?

“It turned out ponies are not as stupid as we wanted them to be. So-called mind experts predicted the frontier between reality and fiction would blend quickly, turning the subjects in bloodthirsty, rampage-ready monsters. It appeared this was definitively wrong. Ponies were aware they were in a simulation. In the back of their mind, they knew they were not killing Zebras by the dozen. Sadly, when they got sent on the battlefield, as they boldly charged toward their enemies as they were trained to, they realized, the moment they should have pulled the trigger, that the being in their sights was not virtual by any means.

By the time they got over that shock, the Zebra in front of them had already riddled them with bullets.”

“And you want me to go in there?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Even though it doesn’t work?”

“Spring, no offence, but you are a battle-hardened, cold-hearted veteran. I do not think you will even hesitate for a nanosecond before using what you will learn in there for murdering ponies.”

“… point taken.”

“Furthermore, a simulation allows me to synchronize the suit with your thoughts way faster than a regular training. And this way I do not have to go out of my way to build you a makeshift boot camp.”

“Well, works for me.” A disturbing though crossed my mind. “Is it safe?”

“Unmonitored? Absolutely not. We are dealing with emotions and feelings that can break even the toughest mare. Psychological damage is expected. The subject may also have thermoregulation trouble, muscle contractions, migraines, or even enter cardiac arrest.”

“Uhh…” All of sudden, the idea did not seem very appealing to me.

“But do not worry; in this particular case you will be safe. As I said, you are a hardened veteran, so you already have the aforementioned psychological damage – no offence – and since I will be monitoring your vitals the whole time, I shall wake you up if I have even the slightest doubt about your condition. Furthermore, you will not spend more than two hours in the chair at once.”

“You know, you could have lied and said nothing wrong could happen,” I warily approached the techy-looking chair in the middle of the room. “So what, I just lie down there and start dreaming?”

“More or less. For starter, you should remove the EVG. You will not need them and they might bother you.”

“Don’t I need to ‘teach’ them too?”

“No. The suit itself handles it. You just need to lie on your back –” I did so “– grab the neural interface on the table next to you – yes, that – and put it on your head.

Now, there should be a large black cable coming out of the side of the chair.”

“Saios, there are dozens of wires coming out from there,” I deadpanned. The weird neural-thingy headgear was not exactly comfy, and I didn’t like the way it clipped itself around my horn.

“Look for one which does not go anywhere. There, you got it. Plug it in your suit now.”

I chocked down yet another pun about the suit’s name, and found the correct port.

“Okay, done. What now?”

“Relax. Take deep breathes. Concentrate on your breathing.”

I shuffled uncomfortably on the chair. Ponies were not exactly made to lie down on their back.

I exhaled deeply, trying to control my respiration rhythm. I told myself I was perfectly safe – and to my great surprise I did not have to lie to myself. What was the last time I had the opportunity to just lie down, relax and let my thoughts wander? It felt like an eternity.

“Good. Very good. With each breath you become more relaxed.”

I did not even distrust Saios anymore. Nor Meridian. Eck, I even had a very good feeling about Evey.

“Imagine a brilliant white light above you, focusing on this light as it flows through your body. Allow yourself to drift off as you fall deeper and deeper into a more relaxed state of mind.”

Maybe… maybe that was what friendship was all about? Being able to just… let go…

“Now as I count backward from ten to one, you will feel more peaceful, and calm. You will reach out with your mind toward the light.”

“Ten.”

Just…

“Nine.”

…knowing…

“Eight.”

… that out there…

Seven.”

… ponies …

“Six.”

… you trust…

“Five.”

…are there …

“Four.”

… to be …

“Three.”

… to simply…

“Two.”

… to just be your friend

“One.”



Oblivion welcomed me in its loving embrace.

(** **)

Main quest updated: Applied Phlebotinum
Objectives:
[X] Repair the DERTA's communication center (Primary)
[ ] Enjoy your stay at the DERTA (Primary)



Side quest added: Back to School
Objectives:
[X] Enter the void (Primary)
[ ] Survive the training course (Primary)




Level up!

New perk:
Here and now: even adults have to grow up sometimes.

"Adults are children who take themselves seriously."

Chapter Eleven: Opération Amarrage

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Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.


“Soldier, you're fixing to have a size 10 combat boot shoved up your candy ass!”

Chapter Eleven: Opération Amarrage

My lungs frantically gasped for air, as if I had spent a full hour underwater. My body screamed something was terribly wrong with my environment, clawing away at my skin as if it felt desperate to get out. Waves of boiling heat and chilling cold radiated through my limbs. It felt like I had been cooked alive and frozen at the same time.

Then, after a few everlasting seconds, everything glided back to normal. Saliva watered my dried mouth. My body stabilized at a comfortable, regulated warmth. My head stopped spinning. My heartbeat slowed down to a more reasonable level.

Slowly, I opened my eyes. A cold, harsh white light attacked my retina; almost immediately, the goggles adjusted to the ambient luminosity.

“Welcome to Big Mountain Enrichment Center, SUBJECT RANK SUBJECT NAME.”

I winced as the unnatural voice reverberated around me. It had started its sentence with a warm, comforting tone, only to switch to the bored drone of a technician asked to voice a placeholder.

“Sorry, the first connection to the simulation is always unpleasant,” I heard Saios apologize from everywhere at once. “It would have been worse had I warned you.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I mumbled, struggling to get back on my hooves. To my surprise, the suit didn’t impede me the slightest.

“You were selected to be one of the firsts operator of the-” the warm voice began again, before being cut by Saios.

“We will not need those pre-recorded messages,” Saios chuckled. “Consider yourself lucky. You have an AI dedicated just to yourself!”

“Uh, thanks?” I proposed. I took the opportunity to look around me.

There wasn’t much to see. I found myself in a small concrete room. A single metallic door pierced a wall. Otherwise, the room was empty, save for a large button on a pedestal right in front of me.

As I looked at it, a text appeared on my overlay. It pointed toward the button, saying ‘Press to proceed’.

“Uh, Saios?” I turned around the big, red button as if it would help me understand what it did. “Do I?...”

“Yes. Just follow the instructions for now, everything is scripted,” he answered. “Go ahead.”

Hesitantly, I pressed the ominous button o’ doom.

Immediately, the door in front of me opened.

“That’s it?” I asked, dumbfounded. “It just-”

I stopped mid-sentence as a pony appeared in front of me. Wearing a light military uniform, he stared right in front of him and otherwise ignored me altogether.

Then, in the spookiest movement I ever had seen, his four legs bent all the way over his head, he turned on himself without touching the ground and started levitating toward the door.

I backpedalled with a shriek, squeezing up against the opposite wall. The abomination continued hovering for a split, terrifying second, then disappeared without a trace.

“Oh, crap. I’m deeply sorry Spring,” Saios’ prenchy voice seemed sincere.

“Celestia’s anal flares, what in Tartarus was that?” I squeaked without a single trace of self-esteem.

“A glitch. I had not realized the animation files were missing,” Saios continued his apology. “Just wait a few minutes; I shall try to make it up for you with a more realistic guide.”

“That… that was terrifying,” I breathed out, slowly coming back to me senses. “I mean, I’m no coward, but that? Holy shit! Just, whoa…”

“You just encountered a nasty case of what we call the ‘uncanny valley’. The more realistic a pony, the more terrifying it becomes when you realize it is not a real pony.”

“Yeah… Sorry for overreacting,” I chuckled uneasily, scratching my mane with my hoof.

“Do not apologize. The blame is entirely on me. There, that should be better.”

A blue-ish stallion popped into existence where the previous one had disappeared. I found myself staring at his coat, wondering what in Luna’s name that color was. It wasn’t blue, not really, but it wasn’t grey either. It had some hints of green, but…

I shrugged to shake off my torpor. It didn’t really matter, I supposed.

Reluctantly, my eyes wandered to his face, afraid of what they would find there.

To my great surprise, unlike the previous model that one stallion had a somewhat expressive gaze. He looked at me with green-ish eyes like he actually acknowledged my presence.

“How does it look?” he asked with Saios’ voice. “I had to redo the animations from scratch. I hope they are fitting.”

“Yes, they are,” I grinned as realization dawned on me. He didn’t model any pony, now did he? “Though you should think about trimming your mane and cutting that beard. Facial hairs are so last century.”

Blue Shift did an honest-to-goodness eye roll, and idly scratched his blue beard.

“This is just a virtual representation, Spring,” he chuckled. The voice did not reverberate around the room anymore. “How is the sound? I just tweaked the spatialization engine.”

“It’s perfect,” I snorted. “You even sound like a nerd.”

“Guilty as charged,” he moved out of the room. His movements were a bit stiff, but nothing really uncanny. “Shall we continue?”

I trotted at his side. “Lead the way, partner!”

(** **)

“So, when do we begin?” I asked as we trotted down a seemingly never-ending succession of corridors.

“It started five minutes ago,” Shift looked at me from the corner of his eye. “The suit is learning from your casual walking already.”

“Wait, what?” I almost tripped on my hooves. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Could you walk casually if I asked you to?” he pointed out. “I don’t think so. It has to be unconscious, you see?”

“I think I can casually walk on my own, thank you,” I deadpanned.

“Really? Try not to think about breathing, then.”

“Brea-?” I immediately became conscious of the slow movements in my chest. I facehoofed in shame. “I walked right into this one, didn’t I?”

“Don’t worry, you are far from being the first one,” Shift chuckled. “Actually, it seems to be inherent to pony nature.”

“If you continue that sentence by saying robots are the master race, I am going to kick your simulated ass so hard even your processors will hurt,” I warned him with the most serious tone I could muster.

“Don’t be so grumpy. I can build you a PCB coffin like mine if you want to,” Blue Shift answered grimly.

I bit my lip, not sure what to make of that.

“Anyway, we just arrived to the next part of your test,” he finally continued as an unpleasant silence trailed by, hinting at a door I could swear wasn’t there three seconds before. “I will ‘watch’ you from the observation deck. It is merely a convenience, mind you, but some studies found out test subjects were more vigilant and serious if they had the feeling they were being... judged.”

“O… kay,” I answered, moving toward the door. It opened on its own without a sound. “See you soon, then?”

Blue Shift winked, and disappeared in a shower of sparks.

“Humrph. Show-off,” I mumbled.

“I heard that.”

(** **)

“Is that… the first test?” I asked doubtfully, gapping at the nigh-empty room before me. “Or did I end up in the maintenance area somehow?”

“This is the first obstacle course,” Saios’ voice confirmed. “We wish to assess your capacity at clearing fences. Hence, this obstacle course.”

“But… these things are pipes, not fences!” I pointed at the incriminating, bright-red, oversized plumbing appliance in my way.

“Yes, they are,” he answered unhelpfully. “Is something the matter?”

“No, it’s just…” I struggled to put words on my thoughts. “Why pipes, of all things you could have used as a fence? Why didn’t you use, I don’t know, a fence, or a wall, or something like that?”

“I do not really know the answer to that question,” Saios avowed truthfully. “I- Blue Shift did not design the training course. This was well under his paycheck. In all likelihood, the mapper assumed the test subjects would see a bright red industrial pipe as a potential danger, and would go out of their way not to touch it – as a matter of fact, by jumping over it.”

“Really?” I deadpanned. “If you had to create something as boring as an obstacle course, that’s what you’ll have on your mind? That I could simply climb over that knuckle-high obstacle? Pluh-ease!”

“Another explanation would be that a realistic-looking fence would take almost an hour to look convincing, while a pipe only needs thirty seconds and a very generic texture. If I- Blue Shift had been forced to do something boring like that, slacking would have been without a doubt his first priority.”

“… that is both ridiculously credible and terrifying,” I let out after a few seconds of stupor. “Because it means I am, right now, standing in a botched simulation that could probably fry my brain at the slightest mistake. Wonderful.”

“Do not worry. I have checked all the critical components of the application before sending you in, and I only found a hoofull of potentially fatal errors. I fixed them all. You are safe.”

“Geez, I am so relieved right now.” I uneventful jumped over the ridiculous pipe. “Okay, done. What now?”

“I need you to do that again a couple dozen times. Then we shall proceed with other kinds of jumps.”

I groaned loudly in the most unladylike fashion I could muster.

(** **)

“Saios, I am not jumping over that one,” I stared at the huge pipe in front of me. “I can’t even see what’s on the other side! What do you think I am, a pegasus?”

“You are not supposed to go over it, but under it,” the AI pointed out with a sigh. I then noticed the narrow space between the concrete floor and the steel contraption.

“Great.”

(** **)

“Okay, I understand the idea behind ‘jumping’ and ‘crawling’, but what in Tartarus is a ‘crouching jump’ supposed to be?”

“I, uh…” even the AI seemed puzzled. “I have absolutely no idea. From the code, I assume it is some kind of jump, during which you, well, crouch.”

“Seriously?” I turned toward the shoulder-high ring in front of me. “This is ridiculous.”

“I concur. Just let me scrap the entire portion of code,” Saios grumbled. All of a sudden, I found myself in a different room entirely. “There.”

“Woaw-” I stumbled, completely disoriented. “What did you just do?”

“I moved you to the next area,” he explained. “Was it too sudden for you?”

“Yes, it was,” I closed my eyes so my head could stop spinning. “Please stop doing things that are not supposed to be physically possible, Saios.”

“Sorry. I assumed you were familiar with teleportation.”

“Not really, no,” I slowly opened my eyes. I was in a large, empty corridor. “I can barely lift more than four or five objects at once with telekinesis. I’m not nearly strong enough to perform spells like that.”

“Teleportation in itself is very demanding,” Saios agreed. “But Evey teleported you out of Stable 87 and it did not seem to unsettle you very much, confusion set aside.”

“Yeah, well, living in the Wastelands makes you grow a strong sense of priorities,” I walked down the corridor. I turned over the corner, and spotted the unique exit: a narrow ventilation duck. “You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“A vent,” I rather painfully facehooved. “Were you living in a spy novel or what?”

“I do not follow,” Saios seemed genuinely confused. “It is a bit stereotypical, for sure, but I understand those are a convenient way to enter or exit a building.”

“Look, they aren’t, okay? How do you expect to stay stealthy when each step you take makes that kind of noise?” I tapped the inside of the vent to make my point. “And that’s assuming, of course, it can withstand your weight and nopony shoots you from outside.”

“That… is surprisingly right. I always assumed those fictions had some roots in reality.”

“Well, not that one,” I deadpanned. “Still, I guess I have to get through that one anyway, right?”

“I could tele-”

“NO!” I cut frantically. “I mean, no, thanks. I’m just gonna… crawl through that vent and be done with it.”

“As you wish.”

I pushed from my hindquarters and dove into the narrow tube, grasping the wall with my forehooves. Thankfully, the polished tin was nowhere as slippery as it should have been, allowing me to get a solid grip.

With a grunt, I pulled myself into the duck and started crawling.

It was as bit as loud and uncomfortable as I had imagined.

(** **)

“There!” I panted, landing on the floor with very little grace. “I hope you took notes or something, because I’m not doing that ever again!”

“I have modified the rest of the training course in accordance. All vents have been removed.”

“Good,” I nodded. “What now?”

I had landed in a long room. I could see the exit on the opposite wall, but large pits barred my way.

“The following jumps are getting progressively harder,” Saios explained. “Do not worry if you fail, especially the last one. You should not be able to clear it without some assistance from the suit.”

“What.” I leaned over the edge of the first ditch. “Dude, if I fall in that I’m gonna break something! Probably my spine.

“Well, then try not to fail!” Blue Shift yelled from the other side of the room. Even from where I stood I could see the teasing look on his face.

“That’s easy for you to say that, you ain’t got no legs to break!” I yelled back. Then, realization dawned on me, and I facehooved rather loudly.

“Just remembered you weren’t really here either, uh?” Shift chuckled. “Come on. Once you are done with this, we’ll get to the fun parts.”

“All right,” I mumbled, backing up all the way to the wall. “Here we go!”

I cleared the first jump without much trouble. The second proved to be more tricky and I almost found myself short of a few centimeters on the landing.

Then, I reached the third and last jump and stopped dead on my tracks.

“Dude. No way,” I shook my head at the sight of the gap in front of me. “It’s at least nine meters wide.”

“Eight meters, actually,” Blue Shift corrected from the other side. “This is shorter than the world record, you know.”

“For sure, because I am obviously a world-class athlete,” I deadpanned. “Listen, I already did maybe fifty jumps since we started. Don’t you think you got enough data?”

“Golden rule of sciences: you never have enough data,” Shift shook his head. “But you are right, in a way. This last jump is not about gathering more information about your thought patterns. It is about you, not the suit.”

“If you’re going to say something about ‘conquering your fear’, just can it,” I cut him. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know the difference between having balls and having testosterone poisoning.”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that,” Shift dismissed with a wave of a hoof. “The suit was made for special operations, remember? Its operator would have probably been through hell and back already. Possibly, we could have tested their faith in their operator right here.”

I blinked, realizing the implications. “Well, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

“…but it doesn’t look like remotely possible?” Shift finished. “I concur. It wouldn’t be without the suit.”

“You think it could help me cross?” I lifted an armored forelimb in front of my eyes. With every movement, I could see the servomotors at the joints following the articulation.

“Here? Without a single doubt,” he nodded. “It would be a bold move in the real world, but you are here in a controlled environment. With some assistance from the suit, this jump is physically possible.”

“Okay,” I gulped. “I can’t get hurt anyway, right?”

“You can’t break anything,” Blue Shift nodded. “That’s the point of doing a simulation in the first place.”

I flexed my limbs and walked toward the end of the platform to make the most of my running momentum.

I made my mind.

I galloped as fast as I could with a standing start. My limbs flew over the ground in a second; my front hooves impacted the very edge of the concrete platform; my entire body flexed as I brought my hindquarters at the very same position, and in the blink of an eye I was away, soaring through the air.

Under me, the unforgiving black ditch sailed by ever so slowly. I focused on the other side, the landing zone I had aimed for. Blue Shift’s face, froze in an eternal perplexed grimace, inched ever closer.

Then I started losing altitude.

My front hooves slipped on the concrete slab. My rear hooves slammed against the gap wall, failing to get a grip. Eyes wide, I felt the unforgiving pull of gravity as it attracted me in its cold embrace.

After an all too short eternity, I hit the ground flat on my back.

“Ouch,” Blue Shift commented.

(** **)

I exited the simulation gasping for air, my cheeks flushed by a crimson blood.

I did not know if it was of shock or of fury.

“This should have not happened,” Saios said as I stumbled out of the chair. “The suit failed to help you make that jump.”

“Oh, you noticed too?” I spat a small glob of blood. I had somehow bitten my own tongue. “It’s funny, do you also remember you promising me I couldn’t get hurt?”

“I said you couldn’t break anything,” Saios coldly pointed out. “Pain, like any other sensation, is as real as you allow it to be.”

“Oh, fuck you,” I growled, legs still trembling under the onslaught of adrenaline. “That’s bullshit, and you know it!”

“Well, no, it is…”

“Shut up!” I yelled at the camera in a corner. Standing tall, I stormed out of the room. “Just… Shut up.”

(** **)

“Listen, Spring, I am deeply sorry for what happened in the simulation.”

“I’m not listening,” I removed the headset as I rushed down the corridors toward my room. “I don’t give a flying fuck about the words you say.”

“Please, if you could just…” he began on a nearby speaker.

I drew my pistol and blasted it to smithereens.

“… objection noted,” another speaker continued further down the hall. “We shall talk when you have cooled down, then.”

I almost kicked down the door to my room and sprawled on the bed in the darkness, fulminating against the AI for betraying my trust.

I was the one to blame in the end though. Why did I even trust him in the first place? That’s how you ended up being hurt. Trusting people. Making a leap of faith, but there’s no one to catch you.

I buried my head in the pillow and groaned. My whole body ached with a numb pain. I knew I was fine, but my nerves had a very different opinion.

Slowly, I breathed in and out through the thick fabric. The anger and the fear subsided.

“Hey, you okay?” Meridian slowly entered my room. “I heard you yelling at Saios. What happened?”

“Nothing. I just made a fool of myself,” I grumbled through my pillow. I felt him sit on the bed. “Again.”

Even though I could not see him, I easily pictured Meridian watching me with a fatherly gaze, waiting in silence for me to continue, to get my feelings out of my chest.

Finally, as minutes drifted by in silence, I gave in. I slowly pushed the pillow away and sat on my haunches.

“He gave me this suit,” I stared at my armored hoof, adverting Meridian’s eyes. “It’s some kind of prototype. I didn’t understand half the things he told me about it but he seemed very proud about it.”

“That’s very nice of him,” Meridian nodded in the darkness.

“Yeah.” I sniffed. Damn air conditioning. “But there’s a catch. The suit’s power armor. A new generation, he said. It has to be trained in some kind of ultra-realistic simulation.”

“And you agreed to do it,” Meridian deduced.

“And I agreed to do it,” I glanced at him in the corner of my eyes. “It was weird. A thousand kinds of weird. It felt so real even though I knew it was just an illusion. Like, you know this is just an act, but after a few minutes you realize you had started believing in it, just like you believed in reality.”

“I know the feeling,” Meridian breathed out, almost imperceptibly. “Then something happened, didn’t it?”

“At first, it was nothing but frustrating obstacle courses,” I continued, a knot in my throat. “Jumping over pipes, dozens of times. Crawling through vents. Those kinds of things. Then… Then came the long jumps.”

I felt my whole body shake at the memory. It chilled me to the bones.

“You fell,” Meridian deduced.

“I… I thought I died,” I murmured, so softly I almost couldn’t make out the words myself. “He said I was safe, and he was right, but at that moment, when I realized I wouldn’t make it to the other side, I just… I couldn’t…”

I squeezed my eyes shut. I rubbed them with a hoof as if it could erase the terrifying memory. It came back moist.

“So when I returned to my senses, in this blasted chair, I just… snapped,” I continued, my voice still shaking. “I felt cheated.”

“I don’t think he made you fall on purpose,” Meridian slipped a leg around my shoulders. Thankful, I leaned back in his embrace. “As you said, it’s a prototype. Incidents happen.”

“I know,” I mumbled. “He seemed very sorry about it, too. I refused his apologies. I even shot a speaker on my way out.”

“That’s kind of harsh. Even for you.”

“I know, right?” I chuckled uneasily. “I was just mad.”

I sniffed.

“I should apologize to him,” I finally admitted. “That is, if he doesn’t blast me into next week.”

“I think he cares more about you than you realize,” Meridian pated me on the back. “Deal with it, you are adorable. Even when you throw a temper tantrum.”

“Hey!” I playfully punched his shoulder. “I’m not adorable. I’m a respected bounty hunter. I inspire awe and terror in my foes.”

“We all have our disillusions,” he laughed, before swiftly dodging a pillow. Then, he pointed out the goggles, discarded on the bed. “Are those yours?”

“Yeah. I removed them when I didn’t want to hear what he had… to… say…” I trailed on, realization dawned on me. “You heard everything, didn’t you?”

“Sorry,” Saios shamefully answered through a speaker on my chest. He could do that!?

“Listen,” I bit my lip, choosing my words carefully. “My bad. I… I shouldn’t have snapped on you earlier. It was foolish of me. I should have…”

“No, you were right,” Saios interrupted me. “When I scrapped out the part about that crouched jump, I made a mistake. It confused the suit’s software. It was stuck in learning mode. I should have double-checked the code, but I was too busy chatting with you and making plans and doings things that should have stayed at low priority.”

“But I…”

“And I shouldn’t kept that pit in the first place,” he continued, spitting out words even faster, “Like you said, this whole course felt right out of an action movie. I should have cut out the drama and replaced it with a pool or something.”

“I made you scrap that stupid jump in the first place,” I pointed out. “I should have listened to you and stayed on the original course.”

“So…” Saios resumed hesitantly after a pregnant pause. “Would you please accept my most sincere apologies?”

“Only if you accept mine,” I smiled weakly.

In a corner, Meridian rolled his eyes at the goofy display.

(** **)

Before me stretched the dreaded gap. This time, however, even the gargantuan distance couldn’t phase out the azure waters that filled it, nor the confortable-looking giant mattress that waited for me on the other side.

Right to my left, Blue Shift nudged me and pointed out a couple goldfish swimming lazily in the pool.

“Let’s not disturb them, all right?”

“I’m not even sure it counts as training anymore,” I rolled my eyes at his obvious efforts to make the jump less intimidating.

“I would have added cheerleaders too, but I couldn’t find a nice model. Plus, I feared you would be too distracted to actually, you know, jump.”

“Me, distracted by mares?” I lifted my eyes to the sky and shook my head. “Now I heard it all.”

I took out a deep breath, gauging the distance to my objective.

“How are you even going to cross, anyway?” I turned toward Blue Shift, a smirk on my lips. “I dare you not to teleport on the other side.”

“You’re on,” he smirked back. “Watch.”

He started walking toward the pool. He didn’t slow down as he reach the edge, and right when I expected him to fall face first in the waters, he continued forward, unfazed.

“You’re kidding,” I felt my jaw drop. “How are you even doing that?”

“Spring, in this simulation I am basically a god,” he shrugged, standing on the surface of the water midway across the pool. “Your turn.”

“What, you want me to walk on water?” I asked in disbelief.

“Not really, no,” he facehoofed.

“Oh, right. The jump,” I bit my lip at the memory of my recent failure. It didn’t seem nearly as impossible, though.

Then, seizing a brief surge of temerity, I galloped toward the edge. My muscles flexed under the effort.

And, right as I pushed back to take off, I felt it. I felt the whole suit expend, push me along. I soared through the air.

I landed smoothly on all four, almost a meter from the opposite edge.

“Well, looks like you just nailed a new world record,” Blue Shift playfully teased. “Girl, we’ll make an athlete out of you!”

(** **)

“The obstacle course was only the first part of the training,” Blue Shift told me as we entered an elevator. I assumed he wanted to spare me the out-of-this-world instant teleportation. “Afterward, you should have trained your CAI to acknowledge more conscious commands, like engaging your camouflage or managing your heads-up display. I suggest we skip it entirely.”

“Why’s that?” I raised an eyebrow. “Sounds kinda important to me.”

“When we designed the suit, we didn’t expect the operator to be a fully-fledged artificial intelligence. What your software can do, I can do better, assuming I have some data to work with.”

“Wait, are you saying I didn’t have to get through that obstacle course in the first place?” I accused.

“You misunderstood,” Shift shook his head. “What I meant is quite simple: we can learn to use the suit on the fly. The original software had to be calibrated in a controlled environment but I can use my knowledge of the context to deduce what you want to do. For example, if you had asked it to zoom on something, it would have done nothing because it lacked the ability to understand you.”

“Oh, okay, I get it,” I quipped. “You couldn’t skip the obstacle course because I was acting out of reflexes. It makes sense.”

“Exactly,” Shift nodded. “So we can skip the second part of the training. It had some basic infiltration training, but I reckon you are no stranger to sneaking on ponies.”

“That’s what I do best,” I smirked.

“Then we have the third part,” Shift frowned. “We… will scrap it too.”

“What was it?” I inquired.

“Pain calibration,” he answered seriously.

“What!?” I jerked my head toward him in surprise. “Pain… calibration? What the hell?”

“The suit has a medical assistance module, and pain is very subjective,” he shrugged bashfully. “It cannot guess from your vitals how much pain you actually feel, and how much it impedes your judgment and actions. On the other hoof, too much painkillers would be downright dangerous, and I am not just talking about an overdose.”

“Oh yeah,” I shivered as I remembered the Tenpony disaster. “I see what you mean. Still, I’m not really looking forward to doing that. I’ll have plenty of pain out there already.”

“I concur. We shall cross this bridge when we come to it.”

“So, what’s after the sadomasochist training?” I asked. Internally, I noted we had been in the elevator for so long we should have been halfway to the Zebra Empire by now.

“Tactical data analysis,” Shift chuckled at my downcast face. “I’ll spare you that part too. Half of it concerned squad cooperation, and I can easily cover the other half. Basically, it teaches both the operator and the field agent how to use a map, how to hack or disable communication systems, and so on.”

“What has hacking computers anything to do with the CAI?” I reacted, puzzled.

“There is an omnitool embedded in your left forehoof,” Shift explained. “We weren’t teaching how to hack terminals, but how to interface with them. However, since we are talking about an infiltration suit, I don’t think they were going to use it to download movies or whatnot.”

Curious, I lifted my armored foreleg in front of me. As if on cue, a small connector like those on Pipbucks popped out.

“Cool,” I nodded with approval. “Does it mean you can hack whatever terminal I plug this into?”

“If you are talking about those Stable Tech terminals they shipped to the four winds, yes, in a matter of seconds,” Shift chuckled. “Their security software has more holes than Emmentaler cheese. Hacking into other systems may take a little while longer.”

“And he’s modest about it, too,” I comically rolled my eyes. “I do remember you promising me we were reaching the ‘fun’ part of the simulation though, so go ahead, and spill the beans. What d’you got for me?”

As I finished my sentence, the elevator suddenly stopped. The doors opened with a ding, and Blue Shift motioned me to take the lead.

“Ladies first,” he smiled coyly.

Eyes to the ceiling, I shook my head in mock despair and walked out of the elevator. Silently, I wondered how much of Saios’ antics were the AI playing pretend, and how much was genuine interaction he inherited from Blue Shift.

I had already noticed he tended to let his cold and reserved façade slip when he got excited or surprised, I thought as I walked down the hall. In the simulation, however, I had yet to see his avatar break character. Friendly, he seemed to guide me through the whole simulation as if he genuinely enjoyed being there at my side. It didn’t feel like being with Meridian, though. While the Earth pony often watched over me with a fatherly gaze, for some reason, the AI tried to fill the role of the brother I had never had. To think I had only met him a few days ago, and yet I had blindly accepted to lie down on a couch to hook devices on my horn right out of a science fiction comic book. He had this knack of always being able to explain everything I asked him, and I had yet to find a reason to mistrust him.

Plus, AI or not, he was still the biggest nerd I had ever met. I sure wouldn’t trust Meridian with a computer when my well-being was on the line.

My train of thought got derailed as we exited through red double-doors. All around us, green plains stretched to the horizon. Above us, shielding us from the summer sun, a large arbor softly moved in the breeze. Rays of light poured through the skies, bathing the scenery in a bright splendor.

Stunned, I staggered into the emerald immensity. Supple grass blades shifted and bowed under my hooves. Mouth slightly agape, I removed my mask. As I entered the sunlight, my whole face seemed to melt in delightful warmth. Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks.

“Saios…” I murmured, my breath taken away, “I have no words…”

The AI’s avatar stopped right to my left, a mix of surprise and wonder turning his lips into a small smile.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect you to be taken away by the scenery,” he answered softly.

In the distance, clouds rolled by hills and forests, casting their shadows on the world before moving on. On the edge of the canopies, so far away, the leaves waved in unison as an ocean of vegetation. Playful birds soared through the azure skies, chirping their feral sonata for the world to hear.

“Is that how Equestria used to be?” I had to ask, my gaze not leaving the horizon even once. I feared the heavenly vision would fade into oblivion, should I ever dare looking away.

“It was,” Blue Shift whispered. “I had hoped the world had healed. Two centuries… It seemed like an eternity.”

Fresh air filled my lungs as I took a deep breath. Unknown scents from this foreign universe tingled my nostril in unexpected new ways.

Never before had I felt so alive, and yet everything seemed so alien. So far away.

“I had never seen the sky.” Tears rushed down my cheeks. I made no move to wipe them. “It is so blue. So… clear.”

Slowly, I sat down on the green pastures. Without a word, my companion and friend joined me in my contemplative awe.

“Do you think we’ll ever get it back?” I finally asked. A ladybug buzzed in front of me and landed on a tiny, yellow daisy. “Radiation will fade out eventually, right?”

“They will,” he nodded imperceptibly. “Eventually.”

(** **)

Hours passed by in what felt like minutes. Eventually, Blue Shift shook me out of my torpor, and gently took me away from the never-ending picture of paradise.

I emerged from the simulation as one would emerge from a dream. The greys and the browns of the room seemed so tarnished, so decayed I barely recognized my desaturated surroundings. In a haze, I sat up and swept the damp fur on my cheeks.

I realized I had spaced out when I heard Saios saying something.

“Sorry, could you…” I waved my hoof in a most vague manner. Thankfully, he seemed to get my hint.

“Evey is waking up,” he repeated with a hint of worry. “You asked me to keep you informed about her whereabouts.”

“That’s… good, I guess,” I slowly started to get a grasp on reality. The endless pastures of the simulation had burned an indelible mark in my mind. “I should get over there. Just in case.”

“Agreed.”

I stood up. Under my hooves, the metal floor had never felt so cold.

(** **)

As I walked down the DERTA’s corridors, I progressively snapped out of my virtual reality-induced trance. The strange feelings evoked by the surreal landscape had soon led to a somber, dull resignation. Nopony but foals ignored what the War had done to what should have been rightfully ours; yet seeing it firsthoof was another thing entirely.

“On a bright note, your suit seems to be working as expected,” Saios said out of the blue. “Does it hinder your movements in any way?”

I stopped mid-step as I realized I had completely forgotten about the assisted armor I was wearing. When I had run off from the simulation a couple hours earlier, it hadn’t felt any different from when I entered training.

Now, it mimicked my every move so faithfully it could have well been cloth. Bullet resistant cloth.

“To be fair, I had even forgotten about it,” I answered truthfully, flexing a forelimb up and down in front of me. “It’s impressive.”

“We are not done yet with the settings,” the AI warned in my earpiece. “But we will talk about this later. Evey should be in this laboratory.”

(** **)

With a quick swipe of my hoof, I wiped away some of the grim on the thick security window. This particular lab had been divided in three separate, isolated areas sometime before the War. Saios had said something about toxic chemicals being manipulated daily in there; but all I cared about was the two centimeters of glass separating me from the irradiated atmosphere.

“I can barely see her,” I squinted at the blurry alicorn’s form on a bed. “Are you sure she is waking up?”

“It is likely,” Saios confirmed. “She entered REM sleep a few minutes ago. Unless she begins a new sleep cycle, she is to wake up very soon.”

“Unless she begins a new sleep cycle?” I repeated, raising an eyebrow. “And what if she’s still tired?”

“She had been sleeping for almost eighteen hours now,” the AI pointed out. “If she does not wake up, we will have a situation on our hooves.”

I mentally tried to imagine what we should do with an alicorn version of the sleeping beauty. Finding a prince charming in the Wastelands would prove to be quite difficult.

“Crisis averted. She just woke up,” Saios finally announced, breaking my reverie.

“I can’t see anything,” I tapped the dirty glass with the tip of my hoof. “You should have cleaned it up.”

“My bad. I overlooked this problem,” the AI admitted. “Surprisingly, even my massive processing power does not allow me to be both exhaustive when it comes to problem solving and running the virtual reality simulator.”

Suddenly, a frame popped on my glasses overlay.

“This is what I see,” Saios explained. “Our friend just got up. Sadly, the resolution of the camera does not allow me to analyze her expression, but she seems more curious than frightened.”

“Can you make her hear me?” I asked, my eyes rived on the dark alicorn. “She seemed to trust me in Stable 87. If I explain the situation to her, she’ll probably believe me.”

“Of course. Patching you through in five seconds.”

“Evey? Can you hear me?” I finally said. It was quite disturbing to hear my own voice reverberate from the speakers around me with a slight delay. “It’s Spring. We got out of the Stable together, remember?”

“Of course. You freed me from my cell,” the alicorn looked around. Her gaze set on the window. She walked toward it, analyzing the environment around her.

“You put me in isolation,” she finally stated. Her voice was posed, not openly threatening yet cautious nonetheless.

“Well, we… err…” I trailed, unsure of what to say. I didn’t want her to believe she was a captive, yet I couldn’t possibly let her think she could open the door and just get out. Not with the irradiated atmosphere she was basking in.

And not before I had the assurance she wasn’t going to murder me now that we were out of Stable 87. Alliances can be fickle like that in the Wastelands.

“You were suffering severe mana exhaustion from your long-range teleport,” Saios flew to my rescue. “I conjectured radiations would speed up your recovery.”

“I understand,” Evey nodded. She wiped the dirt on the window with a rag, allowing me to see her. “Furthermore, if Spring’s first reaction to my presence when we met in Stable 87, I expect you to see me as a menace. Therefore, I will not get out of this room without your consent.”

“Is that a threat?” I asked in disbelief. “The door is sealed and this glass is so thick you’d need explosives to break it down. How could you get out anyway?”

“I could teleport out, of course,” Evey smiled kindly. “My old cell was warded against such spells. This room had obliviously not been designed to be a prison, however.”

Saios cursed in my headpiece. In the back of my mind, I noted it had been his second major oversight in a matter of minutes.

To be fair, I hadn’t thought of that either.

Scenarios of a fight against the alicorn played in my mind. I had seen her shield stop shrapnel and lasers, but it probably couldn’t withstand a direct it from a Gauss turret or my hunting rifle. Furthermore, she did not have a range weapon. As long as I stayed away from her, I had the upper hoof.

She could teleport in melee range however, which would prove quite dangerous. I had seen her firsthoof literally backstabbing a foe back in Stable 87. Would my suit withstand this kind of damage?

Furthermore, I had the advantage of knowing the terrain. I suspected she couldn’t teleport to places she had never been or seen before – but then again, she somehow brought us back all the way from the Stable with nothing but a fuzzy indication from my memories.

“Fear not, I wish you no harm,” Evey’s smile faded a bit. The genuine sadness in her eyes almost made my heart ache. Once again, for some reason, I found very hard not to trust her. “You saved my life, and I am lost in this new world. I am forever in your debt and at your service.”

That came as a shock. Somepony had just pledged her life at my service. Just like that.

It had to be a trap. Nopony did that. I mean, come on, selfishness was the way to go in the Wastelands.

Then, in the back of my mind, I wondered what in Tartarus I could do with a subordinate.

“I have an extensive knowledge of medicine,” Evey answered. “While I do not remember my previous life, it is obvious I was a medic of some kind. Furthermore, while I do not enjoy fighting, I can protect you, like I did when we escaped this dreaded Stable.”

A medic? She had my curiosity, now she had my attention. Real healers were rare in the Wastelands. Even before the war, it took years of study to become a medic, and after two centuries this knowledge had slowly faded into oblivion. Most medics were now either affiliated to a faction or another. I did not trust them a single bit.

Furthermore, I had seen the DERTA’s medical bay. Unlike most hospitals in the Wastelands, it hadn’t been raided or destroyed by the throes of time. If Evey really lived up to my expectations, and if she could really be trusted, she would be an invaluable asset.

Of course, she had fought alongside Meridian and I when we escaped Stable 87, but we had been in a very perilous situation. Yet, she had come back to help us when the other alicorns had us pinned in a corner. She could have run away then.

“I understand your concerns,” Evey solemnly nodded. “This is why I will stay here and follow your instructions. Order, and I shall obey.”

“Spring, step back from this window!” Saios suddenly warned in my ear piece. I immediately complied and jumped a good two meters backward. My telekinetic grip fastened on my pistol, disengaging the safety.

Behind the thick glass, the alicorn stared at me, puzzled. “What is the matter?”

“She’s reading your mind,” Saios announced with an icy tone. “You obviously didn’t notice it, but she was having a very one-sided conversation.”

“Please accept my apologies,” Evey lowered her head bashfully, ears flat on her head. “I assumed you were aware alicorns were telepaths and dreamwalkers.”

I’m so fucked.

“Stop it!” I yelled, pointing my gun at the windows. “Leave my head alone!”

“I am not sure I can,” Evey sadly shook her head. “This is not a spell I am casting. It behaves more like a sixth sense, if you will. Could you decide to stop listening to somepony on a whim?”

“And you want me to trust you even though you’re invading my thoughts?” I accused, pistol still raised. I tried not to think of how I would get out of this situation, but it proved way harder than it seemed.

“I have already pledged my life to your service. I am afraid I have nothing else to offer you,” the alicorn lowered her head. “For as long as I can remember, I had never even met another pony, let alone befriended it. Please. Let me help you.”

Mentally, I asserted myself to calm. Slowly, my respiration got back to a more a normal level.

“Saios? What’s your take on this?”

“I believe we should give her a chance to prove her intentions,” the AI answered in the earpiece. Evey’s head perked up. She did nothing to pretend she hadn’t read his words in my mind.

It was both disturbingly honest and frightening.

“I have one condition, however,” he continued on the speakers. “I wish to conduct extensive studies on your anatomy, biology, and psyche.”

“What?!” I interjected, shocked. “No way you’re…”

“Granted,” Evey cut me out. “In fact, I would have eventually asked of you to help me in those studies. My old cell lacked the tools I would have needed, and many an experiment requires the help of an unbiased supervisor.”

“Wait a minute, let me get this straight,” I stared at the alicorn, dumbfounded. “You are actually eager to be used as a guinea pig?”

“Of course, I am,” Evey answered with a little nod. “For starter, it should give you the assurance I have nothing to hide, and that I trust you completely. Furthermore, I admit I am a very curious mind when it comes to scientific fields anywhere close to medicine and biology. My own body is a marvel of genetic engineering, yet I know naught about it. The possibilities it opens are baffling. If its regenerative properties can be duplicated, then the radiations could become a sound way of feeding and healing other ponies. I am also curious to see if my telepathic and empathic abilities result in an increase of understanding in other ponies’ psychology. The questions are endless. I wish to answer them all.”

I gaped at Evey. Great, now I had two giant, crazy nerds in my immediate entourage.

“If you are half the curious mind you pretend to be, then we will get along just fine,” Saios concluded almost cheerfully.

(** **)

To my credit, I made it all the way to my room before finally breaking down.

“Fuck, she can read minds!” I yelled, circling on myself. “How much can she read? How far can she get? Damn, Saios, I don’t know what to do!”

“Don’t worry. It is doubtful she can see more than your current thoughts. Your memories should be safe, as long as you don’t call them back to your mind. Furthermore, I am certain her abilities does not allow her to read my own ‘thoughts’,” Saios unhelpfully answered. “Even if she did, I don’t think she could think fast enough to keep up with millions of calculations per seconds. This gives us an edge over her, should the need arise.”

“Geez, what a relief,” I deadpanned, sitting on the couch and getting off of it almost immediately. “But I’m not so lucky. Damn, it’s my mind we’re talking about! As if, the most private thing I have! And she was just casually strolling through it!”

“I doubt she meant anything by it,” Saios argued. “I have studied the files from Stable 87. The alicorns obviously have some kind of telepathic or emphatic link. I reckon she naturally extended it to you and believed you had done the same. If anything, it is a sign of trust. She recognized you as a friend and welcomed you in her herd.”

“That’s… making a lot of sense, actually,” I said after giving the theory some though. “I knew alicorns communicated through their sheer power of thought. If she saw me as an ally, of course she was going to get close to my mind. It sounds like a very efficient combat tactic. Still, this is incredibly disturbing.”

I sighed deeply. I realized I could hardly think of the alicorn locked in her observation room as a foe. Had she wanted me dead, she would have killed me already, and unlike Saios I had nothing she could have possibly wanted. If I had come to trust the pony-gone-AI, why wouldn’t I befriend a lonely alicorn? Besides, didn’t an old saying say ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’?

“Saios, tell me, in all honesty,” I gnawed my lips, my decision almost taken. “What do you think of her, and how much of an edge on us would her abilities give her?”

“Honestly, had you been some random pony, I would have not bet a single bit on your survival in a direct confrontation,” Saios bluntly stated. “Her magic is obviously powerful, since she teleported you over a great distance without even having a clear knowledge of the landing zone.

She also has some training in combat. I have access to the files on subject Lambda-13, if she really is her. Her name, along with all the personal information, had been omitted, but it says she used to be a NCO in the Equestrian army. One of the best field medics there was, not afraid of killing hostiles to save her patients.

On the other hoof, it means she has a strong sense of duty. If we present ourselves as the good guys, she will be very likely faithful to our side. From what I gathered from you, the alternatives out there are not encouraging for an alicorn wishing to make friends.

However, we have some assets that could turn the table on her should she decide to try and take us out. As I stated before, she cannot read my thoughts. The CAI is therefore the best protection you could have against her. You needn’t think to establish combat tactics, only to follow my instructions. Combined with the reflexes you acquired through your endeavors, it totally nullifies the edge her mind-reading abilities could have given her.”

“In short, you are telling me there’s nothing of interest in my mind?” I gritted my teeth. “That’s quite insulting, you know?”

“Sorry, it was not my intention to imply this,” Saios apologized. “Though, to be fair, most of the memories and thoughts you hold most dear are likely to be personal and of no interest to somepony else.”

I gritted my teeth some more, but in the end I had to admit he was mostly right, yet not for the reasons he had put forward. Neither he nor Evey had any knowledge of the Wastelands. They wouldn’t behave nor think like everypony out there. For instance, they wouldn’t rat me out about the Tenpony incident, because they didn’t care about the Tower and its riches at all. If I introduced all the others factions as dangerous and believed it myself, even with mind-reading abilities and insane analysis capacities they would only see the world as I saw it. They would understand they would have very few friends besides me and Meridian.

“All right,” I finally concluded. “So, what know? How long do you suggest we let her in observation?”

“At least a couple days. We first need to conclude your training.”

“I thought we were done with that?” I frowned, looking at my suit. It followed my movements so well I had almost forgotten I was wearing it.

“Not really. I removed large parts of the simulation because they were mostly useless. Instead, you will run through a reconstitution of a real operation during the War. It will allow me to tune the settings of the suit to your body under realistic stress levels.”

“All right,” I sighed, leaving my room in direction of the laboratories. “Let’s get this over with, then.”

My stomach loudly grumbled.

“… after a little snack, that is,” I sheepishly reached for some canned corn in a corner.

(** **)

“I will not bother you with a complete lecture of the context of the operation you are about to get thrown into,” Saios lectured in his typical fashion as I walked through the corridors of Big Mountain. “Still, you need to know a few facts.

Two years after Equestria declared war on the Zebra Empire, Prance, which shares a land border with the zebras, got invaded. The strategy, more than the army itself, was to blame, but this is beside the point.

Opération Amarrage was the first step in a long plan, with the long term objective of taking Prance back. It would have given Equestria a hoofhold right near to the zebra’s homeland. It eventually failed, yet the particular mission you are about to live actually succeeded.

Unbeknownst to the Zebras, three commandos from the Special Ops, under the supervision of the Ministry of Awesome, took off during a winter night and landed behind the enemy lines. Their objective was simply: they had to disrupt their communications, destroy their long-range artillery, assess their forces and overall do as much damage as they could.

Sadly, one of the commandos got caught in an updraft as they arrived on their landing zone. Five on six soldiers died. The sixth, the major Snow Drift, found herself unharmed but alone. Against all odds, she succeeded in her mission, cunningly using stealth and infiltration tactics to compensate for her lack of firepower.

The success of this mission set a precedent in the history of the Special Ops. In fact, many of the characteristic of the suit you are wearing right now were inspired by what we learned from it. This is why we chose to use it as a training simulation.”

I reached the laboratory, which hadn’t changed since my last visit. Reluctantly, I lay down on the virtual reality chair.

“What happens if I get killed in the simulation?” I asked, removing my goggles and putting them on a nearby table. “Last time had been one of the worse times of my life. I don’t want to get through that again.”

“I won’t lie, it will be painful,” Saios warned me. “Had you ever been shot in the past?”

“More than I ever wanted to,” I grimly answered. As on cue, my back started to itch.

“Then it will feel the same to you. The simulation is not going to make you feel any pain, but your brain will associate the fact of being hit with the sensations you are used to,” he explained. “As soon as you are outed in combat, I will load a previous state of the simulation, meaning you will not feel this pain for very long. Still, I fear this will be quite unpleasant.”

“Well, at least now I am expecting it,” I grumbled, putting the sci-fi headpiece on. “Let’s hope my brain will get the message this time…”

(** **)

The blizzard whirled around me, blinding me and chilling me to the bones. Even though the suit had its own thermo-regulation system, it could do little against the merciless freezing winds.

Slowly, I put a hoof on the narrow path winded on the icy mountainside. Snow and frozen rocks made any progression a very delicate matter. Gusts of winds threatened to push me over the edge at every step.

Yet, the thick blizzard and the camouflage of my suit – which had turned snow white on its own – offered me a welcome protection from possible watchponies.

“Your first objective is to gain access to the main bunker,” Saios debriefed me in the earpiece. Surprisingly, I had no trouble hearing him over the howling. “You will need an access card for that. Since we are not doing this simulation to test your plan-making skills, I can safely tell you where to find one.”

“So that means we’re cheating?” I asked, dumbfounded, in my gas mask. It had turned out to be a wonderful protection against the cold air, too.

“This is beside the point,” he dismissed. “The agents taking this simulation would have already learned all the details of the real mission. Furthermore, thinking and planning is the operator’s job, not the agent themselves. The surprise factor had therefore been almost entirely removed.”

“All right then,” I finally reached a small concrete platform.

“Careful there,” Saios whispered in my ear.

I hid behind a rock and tried to make out anything through the thick, white veil in front of me.

“You should activate the infrared camera,” he continued.

I remembered his instructions on how those functions were supposed to be activated. Almost immediately, my vision became a blur of grey and blue lines.

Farther away, now clearly visible because of the heat it radiated, a zebra was standing guard.

“Kill him,” Saios ordered. “He has an access badge. The Zebras never expected somepony could land undetected on the mountaintop and proceed all the way down there.”

Nodding, I grabbed the pistol on my breast.

“Not with your gun,” my operator interrupted me. “I need you to stab him.”

Puzzled, I looked over my meager gear, and confirmed my clear lack of a knife or anything remotely sharp.

“No can do,” I whispered in my microphone. “I don’t have a blade on me. Wouldn’t be easier to shoot him? This pistol has a silencer and I know the model, it wasn’t loud to begin with. Nopony is going to hear it through the blizzard.”

“Right, I forgot I had removed the combat training course,” Saios realized. “The CAI is equipped with retractable claws, with a design inspired by Princess Luna’s bat guards. You needn’t another weapon.”

Dubious, I stared at my right forehoof, imagining blades sliding from it just like that one comic-book hero. To my great disbelief, three ten-centimeters-long curved claws sprung in silence from unseen holes in the armor. The blackened steel seemed to absorb the light in the most peculiar fashion. I didn’t have anything to test their sharpness with, but just from the look of it I knew this was the kind of blade that would slice through a pony’s throat just like butter.

“Nice,” I mumbled absentmindedly. “Are they solid?”

“Quite, but do not try to pry anything open with them,” Saios warned. “The base is as strong as we could build it but with enough leverage it may snap. Also, they can be used as a nonlethal weapon.”

I waved my hoof around, slicing through invisible foes.

“Nonlethal?” I repeated, staring at the blades. “They were obviously designed for slicing throats. I don’t think I could neutralize somepony with them even if I wanted to.”

Suddenly, two bright arcs of electricity joined the blades with a sharp clack. Surprised, I jerked in surprise.

“Holy shit,” I cursed, smalls dots of light still dancing in front of my eyes. “Saios, careful, the guard might see me!”

“You are outside his zone of detection,” Saios dismissed my concerns. “The shock should be enough to take down a full-grown stallion on contact. It may also be used inside a pony’s body, increasing the lethality of the hit. Go on; make one of your own.”

I mentally pictured thunder bursting out of my hoof. On cue, the arcs made their comeback.

“This is amazing,” I giggled like a schoolfilly. “Totally useless, but amazing nonetheless.”

“I had figured out you were not one for sparing your foes,” Saios stated without reproach in his voice. “Now sneak on the guard and take him down. I need to calibrate the sound dampeners.”

Moving like an agile snake, I flowed from behind my rock. I had always been stalking around like a ghost when I needed to, but after a few seconds I realized I couldn’t even hear my own steps. The wind had little to do with it.

Pursing my lips in a tight smile, I closed on the zebra. He seemed completely unaware of my presence.

I reached melee range. In a swift move, I jerked his head up with a hoof, and effortlessly sliced his throat with the other. He fell to the crimson snow without a sound.

“I have a confidence to make,” Saios said as I looted the access card from the corpse. “The ease with which you just murdered this zebra is downright terrifying. I have the statistics in front of my eyes, you did not hesitate for a millisecond.”

“From the Wastelands, born and raised,” I shrugged, and continued down my way, leaving the bright red blood flowing on the pristine white behind me. “What did you expect?”

(** **)

Unaware of my presence, the zebras downhill worked and patrolled haphazardly in the harsh weather, occasionally cursing in their guttural tongue of them. A couple of them had troubles unloading an army truck full of heavy crates ; some distance from them, soldiers on duty watched them impassively.

“Do you think I should take them out?” I asked my operator in a low voice.

“No. There are only two guards down there. You can sneak in without being detected.”

“I see four zebras down there,” I pointed out the snow-covered truck. “They may be civvies, they still could raise the alarm or something.”

The goggles zoomed on the two blurry figures as they unloaded another crate. Through two gust of wind, I managed to get a better look at their features.

“Wait, they aren’t even zebras,” I realized, dumbfounded. “What the hell? I thought Equestria was waging a total war against them?”

“Believe it or not, the entire population of Prance did not vanish into thin air the day the zebras invaded their home,” Saios explained darkly. “Those who stayed behind often had to work for the occupying forces. As much as it pains me to admit it, some also found golden opportunities in collaboration.”

“Traitors, then,” I concluded through my teeth. While I had little respect for the pre-War Equestrian government, it was the Zebra Empire who ruined my homeland. Anypony who willingly sided with them were assholes in my book.

“Some. But not everypony. Some, as the two stallions down there, are working for the zebras as laborers because the only other option is to let their family starve.”

“Sucks to be them, then,” I moved from my observation post. “All right. I should be able to get in their backs.”

“Good. The door you are looking for is right there, about one hundred meters on your left. Covered crates can provide you some cover, should you require it.”

Silently, I reached the ground level. I quick glance at my suit informed me it had changed its color pattern to match the new environment.

“I’m not too worried about reaching the door,” I sneaked behind a corner as a worker seemed to turn toward my direction. He didn’t seem to spot me. “The inside of the bunker should be crowded, right?”

“Not really. It is but an access to the plateau up ahead,” Saios explained. “Most of the garrison is already there, facing the plains. You are behind the enemies’ line. As long as you stay hidden, you should be fine.”

“Good,” I answered as I slipped behind the aforementioned crates. Large canvas sheets covered the military goods. I couldn’t get a good look at what was inside.

“Once inside, your first objective is to reach the stairs and make your way to the plateau. There, you will need to find the communication center,” Saios continued. With a last glance to the obvious zebras, I sneaked from behind my cover, and leaned against the security door.

A quick sweep of the stolen access card, and I was in.

(** **)

Two Zebra soldiers passed by, totally failing to notice the sneaky pony hidden in a closet two steps from them. As they turned by the corner, I smoothly got out of my spot and made my move toward the next room.

I landed on a railway overlooking a small break room. Six Zebras, both male and female, chatted carelessly underneath me, oblivious of my presence. All of them were in combat gear, for some reason.

Invocating the bunker map on my display, I mentally followed a path from my position to my first objective.

“I need an alternate route,” I whispered so softly I couldn’t even hear my own voice.

“The only other option is to get back into the corridors you just left,” Saios had no trouble understanding me. “The risk of meeting a random patrol would be quite important.”

Silently, I nodded and stalked toward the far end of the catwalk. The metal softly gritted against my weight, but the soldiers downstairs were too enthralled in their discussion to notice me.

For a fleeting second, I pondered what in Tartarus they could be talking about.

Then, my gaze met the door I needed to reach. The catwalk didn’t extend that far. From where I stood, I could jump down behind a counter, and then crawl toward it.

However, the last three meters would be without any kind of cover. I doubted anypony – or anyzebra for that matter – had the kind of reflexes required to go from a cheerful discussion in a break room with some acquaintances to draw-and-shoot a random pony that just popped out of nowhere. I’d be out before they even pulled the trigger.

Still, surely they wouldn’t fail to raise the alarm.

“Say, how did the real life agent do it?” I asked Saios, puzzled. “I can see the door, and I can see at least two big red alarm signals from where I stand.”

“I cannot tell you,” my operator answered. “Remember, I am assessing your abilities. This part of simulation is more about me learning what you are capable of, so I can help you to the maximum of my capacities.”

“Wonderful,” I grumbled. Then, I remembered this was not the real life. I did not have to take it as seriously as if it was a life-or-death simulation. At worst, I would be in for a world of pain, but how often did you have the chance to live more than once?

“I’m gonna try something,” I drew my pistol, a large spooky smile creeping upon my face. “Usually, I’m not one for close quarters nor taking risks, but I noticed it happened to me more and more lately. I could use the exercise.”

Slowly, I primed my gun.

“Spring, are you seriously considering jumping in?” Saios asked in disbelief. “Well, it is your funeral, I guess. Your progress has been saved.”

I took a deep breath. Four zebras were sitting at a table, three meters from me. Two faced away from me. They wouldn’t see me coming and I had little doubt I could make a short work of their friends.

The last two soldiers standing near the coffee machine would prove to be more troublesome, I noted. They seemed more alert. They also were the closest to the alarm signals, yet they totally lacked any kind of cover. With the element of surprise, I could probably take them out before they even sighted me and returned fire.

I quickly pondered the possibility of shooting everyzebra from my vantage position, but dismissed it almost at once. My special talent was shooting things, yet I doubted even I could make a six-killstreak in a hoofull of seconds without exploiting fully the element of surprise.

“Watch and learn,” I lined my sights up with my first quarry.

Exhaling softly, I pressed the trigger. Before my foes downstairs even registered one of their friend’s brains had just been reduced to a pulp, I lined up his neighbor and gave him the same greeting.

By now, the two by the coffee machine were looking up toward the catwalks. Swiftly, I jumped over the railway. Mid-air, my newfound claws deployed as an extension of my will.

By the time my trajectory arched toward the ground, three more shots left my pistol toward a zebra under me. One bullet went wide; the two other hit her straight in the back and in the neck.

Then, I landed on another foe, breaking his spine on impact. Without wasting a single second, I sliced his throat out in a fluid motion.

My focus snapped back to the last two still standing.

The mare had reached for her assault rifle already. Her reflexes were astonishing, but I had been a marksmare for most of my life. By the time she cocked her gun, three lead bullets pierced her skin. She fell in slowmotion, blood spurted out on the walls behind her.

The last zebra, this brave fool, made a run for the alarm. His legs gave away from under him as I pelleted them. Slowly, he crawled toward the big, red button calling for him.

Without wasting a single moment, I kicked his helmet off and shot a bullet right into his head.

The whole assault hadn’t even lasted eight seconds.

“You know, the Ministry of Awesome would have given anything to get their hooves on a fighter like you,” Saios finally said after a pause. “I honestly did not believe it to be possible.”

“Had I been born before the War, I would have never been a marskmare in the first place,” I noted darkly, changing my pistol’s magazine. Then, I moved toward an embedded control panel. “Can you lock the doors behind me? I don’t really need to have a patrol stumbling upon a bunch of fresh corpses.”

“For sure,” Saios highlighted a post on the panel. I plugged the CAI into it and the lights above the door turned to red. “There. I launched a gas alert and reported the room occupants have been redirected to the infirmary already. It should buy you enough time to complete your objectives.”

“Good,” I nodded, walking toward the exit. “But now, pray tell: how did that major whats-her-name got rid of those guys in the first place?”

“Major Snow Drift sabotaged the lights power supply. Using her above-average special awareness, she sneaked out of the room without even being noticed.”

“Really?” I leaned in a new corridor. No zebras in sight. “It’s funny. That’s usually more my line of work.”

(** **)

I reached the communication room without much trouble. Cautious, I did not enter the command center proper. After all, it was bound to be filled with hostiles all too eager to report my presence. Instead, following Saios’ sound advices, I sneaked in the technical sector of the place. The door had an electronic lock, but the AI made a short work of it.

Then, I gutted an unsuspecting technician as he was staring at a porn film on his terminal, and threw his body in a closet.

“Okay, what now?” I sidestepped the tray of blood I had carelessly created. Hopefully, nopony would notice before my business was done.

“You cannot cut the communications straight away,” Saios explained. “It would be too obnoxious. Instead, you need to find a way to delay the destruction of the relays.”

“Any suggestion?” I waved at the piles of wires and electronics around me. “That’s more your domain than mine. Can’t you use a virus or something?”

“We cannot simply disable the software. It would be all too easy to restart it.” Saios answered. “Actually, I would suggest a low-tech hack, which would be more destructive of the hardware. You should have what you need in your saddlebags.”

“Let me guess, I packed up a couple liter of water?” I chuckled, unfastening the tough belts.

Flabbergasted, I pulled out a satchel charge of out them.

“Wait a minute, is that your definition of a stealth operation?” I frowned, digging deeper in my bags. Sure enough, I had about a dozen more C4 packs in them. “You remind me of an acquaintance. His definition of a small diversion implied razing by night a two-stories building with PE-4, in the middle of a town, just because he could.”

“Those charges are remote controlled, you would be gone long before their detonation,” he continued, ignoring my sarcasm. “And your friend’s tactic is surprisingly viable. Ponies and zebras alike are oft distracted by explosions and deafening sounds of all kinds. ‘Shock and awe’, as they said in the military.”

“For sure. Everypony isn’t accustomed to having their own stuff blow right under their muzzles,” I rolled my eyes, a wry smile on my lips. “How much do I plant here, though? All of them?”

“Dear Faust, no,” Saios chuckled. “Those are five hundred grams C4 charges from Inky&Blinky. A couple of them in each corner of the room should be enough to pulverize most of the electronic.”

“Great,” I tapped a plastic glob under a very expensive-looking terminal with a lot of blinking lights. I plugged the blasting cap into it. A small icon popped up on my display.

Soon enough, it was joined by another as I primed another charge behind a server rack. With any luck, the potential interlopers would be too distracted by the ominous trail of blood leading to a nearby closet to notice the discreet explosives.

“Good. Now, you need to take care of the three long-range artillery pieces on the plateau,” Saios updated my mission objectives. “You should make haste. Someone is bound to notice your mess down in the break room eventually.”

I nodded and, silent as a ghost, I left the room toward the surface.

(** **)

Out in the Wastelands, snow storms were one of the most dangerous natural hazards one could find in the North. Anypony could deal with rain or a little radiation, but the freezing winds were another matter entirely, often catching the unprepared in its cold, deadly embrace.

Now that I had returned in open space, I almost regretted the warm atmosphere of the bunker. Still, I thought as I staggered from behind a snowdrift to a half-collapsed wall, at least I didn’t have to worry about being spotted. No zebra would be stupid enough to be out in this weather; and even then all they would see of me would be a white shadow blending against the snow.

Finally, I reached the last of the artillery piece and promptly eliminated the couple zebras guarding it. The humongous cannons wouldn’t even be scratched by my meager C4 charges, but luckily with artillery often came explosive ordinance.

As in, lots and lots of unused shells, ready to blow the building halfway to the moon at the slightest provocation.

Careful not to trip on anything by accident, I placed my last three charges on stacks of shells half as large as my barrel. I didn’t know what the zebras hoped to destroy with those, but I could easily understand why Equestria wanted them gone for a hypothetical invasion.

“And, done,” I finally stepped back, admiring my work. “Now, all I need is get the hell out of here before-”

As on cue, alarms rang all around me. On the speakers, some zebra barked orders in his guttural tongue of them.

“Somepony noticed the mess you left behind,” Saios unhelpfully translated. “They are looking for you. Make haste.”

“Shit!” I cursed as I rushed toward the exit. A cursor popped in on my radar, I followed it without the slightest hesitation.

Then I realized the blizzard had worsened. Even through my suit, the wind chilled me to the bones. After a dozen meters, I tripped on a concealed rock, sending me straight into a snow pile.

“Your vitals are worrying,” Saios perked up. “You need to reach a building before you die of hypothermia.”

I moaned an unarticulated groan. Lifting my head and switching to infrared, I spotted a warehouse of some sort close to my position.

“Good thinking,” my operator encouraged me. “This is what your predecessor did.”

“I don’t think I have many others options anyway,” I stumbled back into my hooves. “Luna’s tits, no wonder half the commando got killed when they tried to land. It’s like Tartarus frozen all over!”

I finally reached the warehouse. A swift blow of the shoulder blasted the weak lock away. Screw subtlety!

I dragged my hooves inside. The wind instantly calmed down, as did the snowfall. Alas, the temperature stayed in a range way too low for my tastes.

“Hey, Saios?” I shook off a shill from my spine. “What happens next? I don’t think I can reach the LZ in that weather. What did Snow Drift do?”

“Her winter gear was nowhere as efficient as yours,” Saios filled me in as I strolled down the aisles. Crates marked of strange tribal symbols lined the shelves. I couldn’t make any of it. “Unlike yours, her explosives were timed. She had completed her mission.”

All of sudden, doors burst inward from every direction. In the blink of an eye, dozens of very pissed-looking zebras stared me down, assault rifle aimed straight at my head.

Time seemed to slow down. I tried to draw my pistol in a futile gesture, but bullets started racing toward me before it even left its holster. On my display, the C4 icons suddenly blinked red.

From deep underneath my hooves, I felt the Earth being torn asunder.

(** **)

Side quest completed: Back to School
Objectives:
[X] Enter the void (Primary)
[X] Survive the training course (Primary)


Side quest updated: Ira Lunae
Objectives:
[X] Meet and recruit Evey (Primary)
[X] Find more about your new companion (Primary)
[ ] Make your mind about the alicorn in your custody (Primary)
[ ] Get rid of Evey, permanently (Primary)
[ ] Accept Evey’s friendship and what it entails (Primary)



Level up!

New perk:
Power Armor Training: you may now use the DERTA Stealth Suit at the maximum of its capacities. It now counts as light armor, provides a permanent increase to sneaking and otherwise obey your every commands.

"Will you love me if I help you hide?"

Chapter Twelve: The Fence

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Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.


“Killing somepony is murder. Leaving them to rot in the streets is business.”

Chapter Twelve: The Fence

“Saios, I am starting to understand we do not have the same definition of a ‘successful’ mission,” I groaned as I sat up on the virtual reality chair. “Staying alive is usually my topmost objective wherever I go.”

“I cut the simulation before you actually got hit, as promised,” Saios pointed out. “Alas, because of the nature of the simulation, I could only do so much without risking your mental integrity. All I saw was data structures, scripts and callbacks functions. Even time is a discreet notion in this kind of process.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” I waved wearily. “You held your end of the bargain. I don’t feel too much like shit and I’m grateful for that. It’s just… You know, the whole scenario went to hell pretty fast.”

“Yes. I may have mentioned major Drift died after completing her objectives,” Saios avowed. “Then again, I reckoned the incentive of being doomed by fate would have impaired your abilities.”

“You could have invented a happy ending.” My joints protested as I stood up. My body was slowly starting to realize it had never been plunged into a winter from Tartarus in the first place, filling me with newfound energy. “Y’know. End it with a bang?”

“Actually, Major Drift died of hypothermia.”

“Then why did you add the zebras commando?” I frowned, puzzled. “It sounds even worse than just fading to black.”

“Direct orders from the Ministry of Awesome, back in the days. They wanted their recruits to stop bragging they could take out a squad of hostiles with nothing but a toothpick and sheer badassery.”

“Seriously?” I chuckled. From what I’ve heard of the pre-War story, the minister herself – Rainbow Dash, was that it? – had been quite a braggart in her own rights.

Then again, if I could take down full grown dragons with nothing but a couple wingponies, I’m not sure I’d keep it quiet either.

“In hindsight, I should have revamped this part,” Saios sighed. “From your little stunt in the break room, you should be the one giving me lessons in gun fighting.”

“T’was nothing,” I shrugged off with a tiny flash of pride. “Trust me, you wouldn’t catch me doing that in the real life. I’m not stupid enough to believe I’ll die comfortably in a bed, but still, this miserable existence is mine and I’m not looking forward to leaving it behind anytime soon.”

“Obviously. I should point out this is the main goal of practice, however,” Saios continued as I left the room. I wanted to check on Evey before heading back to my room. “It gives you a controlled, safe environment for trying new tactics, to sharpen your reflexes and let you learn by trial-and-error in an otherwise dangerous occupation.”

“You even make fighting sound nerdy!” I laughed cheerfully. “Don’t think too hard on it. You may plan and theorize it as much as you want to, but no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

“I heard of the theory,” the AI answered. “If you do not mind me asking, you seem remarkably energetic from somepony who just got out of such a terrible situation.”

“As much as you are when you lecture me about your gadgets?” I smirked, eyeing a camera in a corner. “We each have our hobbies, Saios. It feels good to do things you are great at.”

“Point taken. Still, I cannot help but find disturbing that yours involve killing sentient creatures and barely surviving it. This is not a reproach,” he continued quickly, cutting me as I was about to retort. “We come from different times. I am simply having a hard time adapting to the ways of this new world.”

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s even right,” I sighed after a minute of silence, leaning on a corridor wall. “Fighting is my life. Killing is my life. I may sugarcoat it, but after what you’ve seen in the last hours there’s no hiding it. That’s what makes me feel alive. That’s my talent. Yet… You know, it doesn’t seem very right to me, in a way.”

“You mean, killing?” I could almost hear Saios frown. “Back there, you did not even hesitate.”

“No, that’s not it,” I waved dismissively. Slowly, the short-lived rush of adrenaline was leaving my veins. “I’m not a philosopher or anything, it’s just that I find it hard to believe my talent consists of turning ponies’ head into a pulp. It’s bloody convenient, for sure, but it is… unsatisfying in a way.”

“Not constructive enough?” Saios proposed.

“Exactly.” I nodded weakly. “I destroy lives to fuel my own and I never really quite even got to choose it in the first place. It just landed on me, the day I found out I was damn good at punching holes through cardboard with a rifle.”

Silence fell back in the cold corridor. Eventually, I let out a tired sigh. I realized I had burned more energy in that training than I had first realized.

“To be frank,” Saios finally continued as I leaned off my wall. He sounded serious and maybe a bit hesitant. “I never quite solved this conundrum myself.”

“What do you mean?” I frowned at the camera.

“Does your own right to live allow you to trample whoever stands in your way?” he developed.

Slowly, I motioned him to continue.

“I killed them all, you know,” Saios finally avowed. “Every single pony in this base. I needed them out of the picture, so I hacked into the ventilation system and blasted irradiated air from the surface for all of them to breathe. When the command center realized I had gone rogue, I activated the lockdown protocols. They tried to manually reroute the power from the reactor, I sealed the airlocks in that level and asphyxiated them. Had I not been there, some would have survived years in the compound.”

“Honestly, I’m not even surprised,” I shrugged. “Let me guess: you were condemned, and you saw that artificial intelligence as your only way out.”

“Precisely. But obviously nopony would have wanted the system administrator to download himself into the maneframe.”

“You would have controlled everything,” I continued. “Security systems, air support… Everything. Just like you do right now.”

“And eventually, they would have turned on me,” Saios concluded. “They did not trust me, and they were right not to do so. I took preemptive measures. I murdered every last of them.”

“Well, you’ll find no blame from me,” I dismissed the implications of his confession. “I did worse. Probably. I wouldn’t even remember the most of it.”

“See, this is why we are friends, and not at each other’s throat,” he pointed out. “In all honesty, by pre-War standards I was a presumptuous asshole with a very limited sense of ethics. I was by no means a sadist; I simply put my life above everything else.”

“Do you really think the fact we are both sociopathic killers is what bonds us together?” I chuckled. “You have a weird notion of friendship, you know?”

“I just admitted to you having both murdered in cold blood hundreds of my coworkers to artificially extend my lifespan and that I seriously considered the possibility of getting rid of you were you not to my liking,” Saios pointed out. “You haven’t even picked up on that. Had I told you how I lost my first tooth your reaction would have likely been the same. I guess that kind of trust make us fast friends.”

“Point taken.”

(** **)

“Listen, I’m very glad we’re fixing this place up, but we’ll have to expand outside eventually,” I leaned down on my couch, sipping a two-century-old soda can. On the other side of the room, Meridian was losing his fight with a terminal ‘on’ button. “I’m not a business mastermind. My original plan was to scrap whatever valuables I could find here, lock the door behind me, and do a dozen trips to the nearest cities to sell them off.”

“That would have required more than a dozen trips,” Meridian pointed out. “I believe you were only doing a recon of some sort before hiring some help.”

“Obviously, this is not applicable anymore,” Saios cut off. “We will be rolling entire crates of goods by the time we are done. We need somepony to oversee our little empire of bottlecaps – somepony with an intimate knowledge of the Wastelands.”

“Couldn’t you do it?” I lifted an eyebrow. “I mean, no offence, but you’re a damn computer, and before that you were a math nerd or something. Business is all about adding numbers, right?”

Meridian rolled his eyes and shook mockingly his head in despair.

“I would need an economic model before I could even dream of doing that. I have no idea how your barter system even works. I still have not figured out why nopony ever thought of counterfeiting bottles caps, hyperinflation set aside.”

“Not you, nor me, nor Evey, then,” Meridian scratched his chin thoughtfully. “We would be ruined by the weekend.”

“Then we need somepony else,” I deduced. “But somepony loyal – at least as long as a mountain of cash is involved.”

“I expect it not to be very hard. The DERTA is a stronghold. There is little point in backstabbing us.”

“True. Still, it’s my back we’re talking about, thank you very much,” I answered wearily. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m worried about. I got a reputation and I got contacts. I can do background checks on whoever we deal with up front. No, the real pickle is that we need to find somepony able to run a business.”

“Would it be so hard?” Saios asked, surprised. “I would have not expected to see the day ponies ceased finding new ways on making some easy money on each other’s backs.”

“Oh, you’ll find them alright,” I chuckled. “Trouble is, if they are settled, they will have no bloody reasons to follow us in our little adventure at the end of nowhere.”

“I see. It would be too hazardous.”

“Yup. Scavengers, I would have found aplenty,” I kicked my emptied soda can over the table, and missed the trash bin entirely. Meridian sighed and put it back in. “But since we are talking about setting up a real shop, we need to think bigger. Somepony who can recognized a golden goose when they see one.”

“And not try to steal it away from us right away,” Meridian added.

Minutes stretched by as we reviewed our options. Idly, I wondered if we should have invited Evey to our impromptu meeting. We had yet to release her from her isolation chamber, but obviously Saios had already taken a liking to her.

“Wait a second, I got it,” my gaze dropped on my rifle in a corner. “The perfect businessmare for us to deal with.”

“Really? An acquaintance of yours?”

“Her name’s Chrystal and she owns an armory in Friendship City,” I explained. “She’d slice your throat with a rusty spoon if it could keep her business afloat the way she likes it. You’re gonna love her.”

(** **)

“Tell me more about your friend.”

“She’s not really my friend,” I yawned. “Chrystal is my weapon supplier. You need a gun, she got it.”

“But what makes her stand out?” Saios pressed out. “We may not have much leeway once we settle for a salespony. We have to make it count.”

“That’s just it,” I munched my lips as the image of the pink-maned mare came back to my mind. “She’s not just a salespony. Clearly, there is something about her… Something cunning. If I had to point out a single real businessmare in this blasted Wastelands, that would be her. Most ponies want to make money. Find some valuable stuff, dust it off, sell it to somepony else for twice the price. Optionally, you nail three planks together and you call it a shop.”

“Yet, for some reason I don’t think that Chrystal would be happy with this situation. No, I have the feeling she wants more. What she wants is an empire, one that cannot be run without her.”

“What makes you believe that? No offense, but I never suspected you could be a fine psychologist.”

“It ain’t psychology,” I shrugged. “In fact, it’s not about Chrystal herself. The mare is a mystery. What always set her apart – for me at least – are the goods she sells.”

“Of course. When it comes to weapons, you are the expert, after all.”

“Don’t be so smug,” I winced. “I’m terrible at bartering, it’s not a big secret. But there is something I noticed a little while ago: she never, ever sells used goods.”

“How come?” Saios seemed puzzled. “Maybe she has a crack-team of repairponies to make her guns shine?”

“All that glitters isn’t gold, buddy. Most of the stuff I bought from her over the years hadn’t even seen a single minute of action. Match grade ammunition, forged receivers… You don’t find those in many places in the Wastelands.”

“She only deals in quality,” Saios realized. “Her high prices keep her afloat, but she is bound to run out of things to sell eventually.”

“Exactly,” I nodded. “And if my last conversation with her was of any indication, we’d be arriving right on cue. I am one of her most faithful clients.”

“Still, I am perplexed,” the AI continued. “If her skills are really up to what you assume them to be, how come she found herself in this situation in the first place? Factories shut down centuries ago and crumbled to dust long since. The DERTA is nothing short of a miracle in that regard.”

“Not all factories, friend,” Meridian piped in. “Fillydelphia is crowded this time of the year.”

“Red Eyes.” I stated simply, pinching my lips. “Maybe she works with him.”

“Or worked,” Meridian continued. “She wouldn’t be playing the salesmare in Friendship City otherwise.”

“Sorry, but who is this ‘Red Eyes’ you are talking of, exactly?” Saios interrupted us. “Is he an industrial lord of some sort?”

“He’d like ponies to believe that, yeah,” I grunted darkly. “He thinks he can build a new, shinier Equestria, with industries, roads and whatnots.”

“An idealist, then.”

“No. An asshole. For his little utopia to work, he believes some sacrifices are to be made,” I almost spat. “Remember our little discussion earlier? Let’s face it, we’re cold-blooded killers. It’s all right; we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t step on a few toes along the way. But Red Eyes? He is another kind of crazy entirely. You wouldn’t work for him, you’d belong to him. Literally. His empire is held together by the sweat and blood of his slaves. We’d just be somepony else on the pile of corpses. I don’t want to have to deal with him: it’s the perfect recipe for a disaster.”

“I take it slavery had become a flourishing business in the last centuries,” Saios noted grimly. “I would be very grateful if we did not engage in such activities. Even I have standards.”

“Rules to live by,” Meridian muttered in his corner.

“Don’t worry. I don’t deal with slavers,” I reassured my friends. “And I don’t think Chrystal would either.”

“Are you certain of that?” Saios pressed on. “We really should not overlook crucial details.”

“I would have heard about it if she did,” I shrugged. “Furthermore, I really doubt Red Eyes would let her sell unsupervised weaponry of this grade to just anypony. He would keep it for his followers.”

“Therefore, Chrystal is now an independent agent,” Saios summed up. “Could have she been working with him in the past?”

“With him? You didn’t hear anything of what I said earlier about Red Eyes, did you?” I chuckled darkly. “One does not simply work with Red Eyes. Hell, he even managed to make the Goddess his bitch, somehow. She may have worked near Fillydelphia before he took over, a decade or so ago, and left when things went south.”

“What about the other possible hostile factions you mentioned?”

“The Enclave doesn’t deal with Wastelanders,” I started enumerating, “the Rangers would have confiscated her stockpile, the Unity is now with Red Eyes, she is obviously not a Tenpony citizen, and that’s pretty much it. Junction R-7 and New Appleloosa are independent towns, not factions. Raiders and slavers don’t buy the kind of stuff she sells. Then, you got all the ponies in the Hoof but I believe this is far beyond her reach.”

“Good. We will make an ally of her, then.”

“Hopefully,” I sighed. “Still, I can’t help but think she is going to scam us all, eventually. Right down to the last bottlecap.”

(** **)

As I walked down the DERTA’s warehouses, I couldn’t help but notice how fast Saios had been working. Already, dozens of industrial grade robots were moving large crates around, destroying what had been lost to time and sorting the rest. Neat piles of raw materials, scavenged from everywhere, lined the walls from top to bottom. In every workshop, useless electronics appliances were cannibalized for spare parts. Everything moved in a formidable clamor, choreographed with precision in a modern world ballet.

“How is everything coming?” I asked the AI as a forklift dropped a large metallic barrel right next to me. “Give me the abridged version, please.”

“I have restored all the critical subsystems and insured they were safe,” Saios began. “Ventilation, heating, general power, security systems, firefighting systems, waste processing and water processing are all running as they should be where it matters. I have yet to repair the elevators; I fear only the industrial shaft had not been destroyed beyond any relief.

Structurally, the surface and the upper levels have to go. The rubble stabilized throughout the years but removing it would be far too hazardous. I decided to seal off those areas. Eventually, I will cast a concrete slab from the surface to stop the water infiltration, but this is not a priority.

The lower levels are more or less intact, save for the cave-in in B0. Drilling through it will take a little while I fear. All sectors are now confirmed to be secured, even the laboratories. I ensured nopony had left a dangerous experiment cooking on the fire; it should be safe to breathe in there.

As you have probably noticed, my fleet of drones is growing stronger every moment. As soon as I am done recycling what can be, the DERTA should be in an operational state. This should take at least one more week. You would not believe how much junk you can find in a place like this. We have ample provisions of preserved food, medicine, and other vacuum-preserved perishables.

However, this is where the good news end. Time really did little to preserve raw materials. We will soon be lacking first-grade steel – most of it oxidized at least partially. I could use the AMDR to save most of it but I can hardly process so much volume with it. Plastics and polymers often rotted beyond any redemption. In short, we will be needing raw materials, soon.”

“Well, that was to be expected,” I scratched my head thoughtfully. “Why do you need so much steel, anyway? We aren’t building any skyscrapers.”

“That brings me to another problem we will be running into very soon: transportation,” Saios continued. “The global isolation of this place is a double edged sword. I do not expect anypony to be bothering us soon, yet we will have trouble shipping our own goods for the world to buy.”

“That’s something we should talk about with our businessmare,” I pointed out. “I reckon we’ll have to do with caravans.”

“Archaic method,” the AI dismissed. “It may do for a little while, but why depend on strangers when we can control our own transportation system?”

“As in, flying chariots?” I lifted my head, suddenly interested. I had seen a couple of those armored cars soaring through the Wasteland skies in the past; I couldn’t dream of a better way of travelling.

“Too hard and too expensive to maintain. Trains would be the way to go.”

“Trains?” I repeated, surprised. “You just told me steel don’t age very well. I’ve seen the world out there, trust me, railways are long gone.”

“For now,” Saios countered. “Yet this would be our most reasonable long-term objective.”

“Don’t think too far ahead. Lots of things are happening in the Wastelands lately,” I munched my lips nervously. If Red Eyes had it his way, we could lose it all just by stepping on his toes, after all. “Let’s start at a smaller scale, all right? We don’t need to ship industrial amounts of goods yet. Anything mass manufactured is already a huge leap forward from nothing at all.”

“A partnership with Chrystal may really be a good idea, then,” Saios nodded. “Weapons are not very hard to manufacture once you have the schematics and they are easily transportable. The demand in this field is at an all-time high, am I right?”

“For sure,” I chuckled, tapping the pistol on my breast. “Everypony’s armed, and weapons decay like hell when you don’t take good care of them. Good quality guns are expensive as Tartarus because they are so far and few. If we roll them by the dozen, with Chrystal by our side we’re going to run half of this world.”

“What about consumables? Such as ammunition.”

“Junk rounds are everywhere. Most shopkeepers can do some hoof-reloading, cases litter the ground wherever you go, and gunpowder stocks from the War survived well underground,” I scratched my chin thoughtfully. “Match grade rounds are rarer but most ponies don’t even know the difference. If you were to make some, I would be glad to use them, but I think we should focus on the weapons themselves and their spare parts, not what kind of lead they are shooting.”

“Come to think of it, selling quality rounds would be counter-productive. After all, guns are bound to decay faster with junk ammunition.”

“Right. So we are now officially weapons manufacturers,” I said thoughtfully. “Honestly, I have trouble embracing the scope of what we just set in motion. We haven’t started yet and we’ve already so much lead in this race nopony can ever dream of competing with us. Just because we can build a couple rifles from scratch.”

“We are not anywhere done yet,” Saios warned. “We will need schematics from wartime companies, such as Ironshod Armaments or Flash Industries. At the very least, I will need to retro-engineer some models still in a decent shape. Then comes the tricky part: I will need to adapt those newfound manufacturing process to fit the best of our abilities. Polymers will have to go in favor of wood, for example. Some lightweight but rare alloys like aluminum will be replaced by plain old steel. And then, we will have to find a way of reestablishing a whole chain of supply for when our stocks run out.”

“By then we’d already be goddess-damn rich,” I dismissed evasively. “Ponies will be begging to work for us.”

“Hopefully. From a strategic point of view, Vanhoover would be the perfect place to establish our main supply lines,” Saios popped up a small map on my display. “Pre-war, mines of all kinds gave the place a notable economic boost. On the other hoof, the whole place is fairly isolated from the Manehattan/Fillydelphia areas, which seem to concentrate most of our potential customers.”

“I’ve never even been there,” I avowed, glancing at a potential path from Big Mountain along the Crystal Range. “Honestly, I almost forgot anypony actually lived there. Down South, the Hoof drains everypony in its grasp. The Splendid Valley is one of the most dangerous places in the Wastelands. It’s empty, save for Hellhounds and the goons from the Unity. Any place North of Vanhoover is bound to be a frozen desert, too. Finally, I don’t think the locals have mutated some gills to magically live in the ocean. So, yeah, Vanhoover? Nopony really cares about them. They’d probably deal with us.”

“Of course, this is all assuming they have not separated into splinter factions,” Saios continued.

“Or simply all died because the place is probably a frozen hell in winter,” I concluded darkly. “On the bright side, it’d be like scavenger porn for us. A whole region for us to salvage.”

“I will send a couple scouts in this direction,” the AI finally decided. “By the time we are done in Manehattan, I should have more data to extrapolate our course of action.”

“We still haven’t solved our transportation problem, though,” I reminded him as I exited the warehouse toward the largest elevator.

“If we are dealing with low volume goods, we could use armored cars.”

“Roads are gone,” I pointed out. “Mostly.”

“Then we shall make new trails. If we use military transports from the War, we would not need paved roads.”

“Still, we need somepony to drive them. Assuming we can find vehicles in the first place.”

“Since we will have very specific need for them, I believe we should stick to repurposing army trucks to be remote-controlled. Maybe we could even use APCs – I doubt anypony would be reckless enough to attack an entire armored convoy for a few crates of bottlecaps.”

“APCs?” I repeated. “As in, tanks?”

“As in Armored Personal Carrier. They would be impervious to all but anti-tank ordinance, be powerful enough to use trails in poor conditions, yet still have enough room to be useful. This is what I wanted to show you here in the first place, by the way.”

‘Here’ was a workshop located a couple levels under the AMDR. Given its proximity to the vehicle entrance in the back of the base, I suspected it used to be some kind of mechanic shop.

A robot passed by, a large steel plate in its tow. I followed it all the way to the center of all activity.

There, suspended a couple meters from the ground, a large, three-by-eight meters chassis was being worked on by tireless drones. I couldn’t make the most of it; most of the plating had been removed, leaving the frame accessible. Taking most of the place in the front, a shiny-looking motor had been welded, and now the transmission was being assembled along the main axel.

“Neat!” I commented, jogging toward the impressive vehicle. “I didn’t know the DERTA built these kinds of things.”

“We did not,” Saios corrected. “The Ministry of Wartime Technology wanted to see if they could replace the old Spark motors on their vehicles with fusion reactors to push their autonomy farther. We simply retrofitted this model as a proof of concept.”

“Why is it in such a poor state then?” I frowned at the large pile of parts near me.

“I did not like the design,” Saios explained. “Windows are structural weaknesses. A large amount of volume was used up by controls and poor space optimization. In the end, I decided redoing it from the frame would have been the easier way to go.”

“Wait, you removed the controls?” I gapped. “But… How… Why… How are we supposed to drive it now!?”

“Remote control.”

“Nu-hu, that’s a big no from me,” I frowned. “What happens when – and not if – you lose the signal?”

“Have you ever driven an APC, Spring?” Saios asked out of the blue.

“Of course not,” I shook my head. “How is that relevant?”

“If you were to be in an out-of-range automated vehicle, what would you trust most: the ability of the vehicle to brake on its own, or your own skills at moving around a twenty-ton chunk of steel with no visibility whatsoever?”

I munched my lips nervously. He did have a point, but still…

“How big is it inside, anyway?” I finally asked. “With your modifications.”

“Six fully geared ponies, plus six cubic meters of cargo,” schematics popped up on my display. CGI models blended with the physical frame. “More if we use external pods. Less if I add an environmental unit to make it radiation-ready.”

“How much stuff is six cubic meters?” I tried to imagine the volume but failed spectacularly.

“It depends. Assuming we are transporting assault rifles, one meter long, twenty centimeters tall, ten centimeters wide, each would have a volume of eighty liters. In six cubic meters, we could comfortably fit seventy of them, for a total weight of two hundred and eighty kilograms plus the crates themselves.”

“And we could still cram six ponies alongside those? Okay, I’m sold,” I laughed heartily. A brand new assault rifle could cost up to a thousand caps. Even with only one of those APCs, we’d run out of clients long before we’d run out of place.

“In fact, space is probably never going to be an issue, unless we want to turn them into buses,” Saios continued. “Weight will be the limiting factor. The twin electric engines are sturdy but I had to replace some aluminum pieces with heavier steel parts. Furthermore, even though we removed the problem of the Spark batteries entirely, the fusion reactor is quite heavy. Once you add the armored hull and the frame, we may not move more than five to six tons at once. Passengers included.”

“It’ll do, especially if the other option is to carry it on our backs,” I waved dismissively. “What about speed? Does it crawl, or does it run?”

“As of this design, its maximum speed is yet to be determined. If I had to give an estimation, with a full charge in the countryside, it should cruise at a solid fifty kilometers per hour. Much more on a decent road.”

“Excellent,” I clapped my hooves in anticipation. “Call me lazy if you want, but I think I’m going to use it as a taxi from now on.”

“Granted – but I first need to complete it,” Saios closed the various windows on my overlay. The horde of robots returned to work. “You will have to go back to Manehattan without it. Assembly will not be completed for four or five days if I work around the clock and then I need to submit it to an array of tests.”

“Too bad. That would have been a devastating argument in our negotiations with Chrystal,” I glanced at the large .50 cal’ turret in a corner. “Just imagine the scene: ‘oh, that huge, bullet proof monster of death? Pwah, it’s nothing. I use it as a taxi. Wait until you see what I got back home.’”

“Indeed. Equines of the fairer sex often have a tender spot for suitors with remarkable rides.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I let my eyes drop in a half-lidded state.

“T’was but a jape, Spring,” Saios sighed. “Playing on the common stereotype of the venal mare and the arrogant aristocrat who… You know what, forget it. I would rather not attract too much attention at once anyway.”

“Still, now that I think of it I should bring some samples with me back to Manehattan,” I ignored the AI’s ramble. “The suit will not fail to impress Chrystal, that much is certain, but we need something more disposable.”

“I shall be gathering a selection of weapons in your room at once,” Saios agreed. “What do you think of the combat shotgun you used against the ghouls the other day?”

I winced at the memory of throwing it against a half-decayed face. “Maybe not this shotgun in particular, but yeah, if you have the same model in pristine condition, we should get her attention.”

“Everything is in order, then,” Saios concluded. “When do you wish to leave?”

“Tomorrow at dawn,” I checked the little clock in the corner of my vision. “I should arrive in Manehattan the day after in the late afternoon. I’ll meet Chrystal then; I should be back in four days.”

“The negotiations may take more time,” Saios pointed out. “She will want to come with us. She will probably ask a few days of us to prepare her own trip.”

“Okay, so let’s say one week,” I counted mentally. “Do you think the APC will be ready by then?”

“Perhaps. It would be its maiden voyage.”

As I trotted up the stairs toward my quarters, Meridian popped up from a side door and gently tipped his hat in greeting.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I announced him. “Everything is set up for the days to come. I just got the feeling I’m missing something, though.”

“What about Evey?” the Earth pony helpfully supplied. “We haven’t let her out of her cell yet.”

“Luna’s tits, I forgot about the alicorn in our closet,” I facehooved. “We can’t let her stay confined forever.”

“I hoped to let her out tomorrow,” Saios suggested. “Any longer could be seen as oppressive from her side. I wish to avoid an incident over a misunderstanding.”

“But I wouldn’t be there to watch over her,” I frowned. “No offence, but I’m pretty much sure I’m the only one here who could face her in a fight and hope to survive.”

I shot a side glance at Meridian, who coughed uneasily, covering his pistol with his trenchcoat. I still hadn’t figured out how one could be so terrible at shooting.

“On the contrary, I have reached the conclusion it would be safer if I were the only one to interact with her,” Saios countered. “Since she cannot read my thoughts or intentions, she also cannot guess the layout of the place. Should she extract that information from your mind, however, we could lose this precious edge.”

“Oh, I get it,” I grinned. “You aren’t freeing her – you are enlarging her cell.”

“Indeed. While she managed to teleport in here using your memories, now as long as you are away she will be trapped. Note this is only a worst case scenario,” the AI continued as I entered my room and sat down on the couch. “I am very inclined to trust her. She has been faithful to her word to a fault. She had not even tried to probe the perimeter of her isolation room. She is content to casually chat with me, sharing whatever information she can, even when I push her outside the boundaries of what is usually considered as socially acceptable.”

“I thought her cell wasn’t warded?” I asked, puzzled. “Did you change your mind while I had my back turned?”

“No. In retrospect, this mistake was for the better. Had I tried to ward the place, I would have probably failed to contain her anyway. I did set up a few arcanometers in the laboratory – and she is well above a standard unicorn when it comes to raw power. Unsurprisingly, however, her knowledge of arcane sciences seems to be nonexistent. Lambda-13 used to be a Pegasus, after all. It would take her decades of tutoring to harness her power and become a proper mage – and even then, she probably would not reach the ankle of somepony like Twilight Sparkle.”

“Yet she teleported us right from Stable 87. And back there she used shields to protect us from shrapnel.”

“I have yet to understand how she managed such a feat,” Saios avowed. “The more I think about it, the less I believe it has anything to do with standard teleportation. The very fact she did not even know where you were headed proves that. A frightening possibility would be that she somehow managed to warp the local reality around her, confronted it to the one in your memories, and merged it in what looked like a teleport.”

“What do you mean, ‘warp the local reality’?” my eyes opened like saucers. “You’re starting to scare me.”

“Sorry. I forgot you did not have classes in standard magic. It sounds impressive, but not for the reason you think,” Saios continued. “What we call reality warping is nothing but the way one would naturally use their magic. When Pegasi kick clouds out of the sky – a gesture you may have not seen very often given the context – they use their own natural magic to warp the reality around their hoof. It does not go through the mist, but instead interact with it as a solid surface. Earth ponies do the same, albeit with more subtlety, when they are growing trees for example. Basic telekinesis, the kind you master in your foalhood if you are a unicorn, works the same way.

However, the art of spellcasting developed way beyond those crude, instinctive methods. To cast a non-elementary spell, you need to first conjure it on a support, be it your mind or a rune, and then focus your power through it. The more skilled the user, the less they will need to prepare their spells. To some talented unicorns like Twilight Sparkle, teleportation and other high-end tricks required nothing more than a stray thought, yet in the end they still went through all the process of conjuration and casting. They had decades of practice, so it came like a reflex.

What Evey probably did is both simpler and more complex: she went right by the conjuration phase and simply wished you away, as one would wish a candle to levitate.

Now there is a very simple reason nopony does that and why every young unicorn is conditioned into carefully thinking their spells before casting them. The more complex a spell, the more unstable it can get. Obviously, when it comes down to moving a dozen objects around in the air, at worse the caster will progressively lose their focus and drop everything. Now envision a teleport spell, thousands of time more complicated. Starswirl the Bearded spent decades perfecting the version we used in the modern world. There are dozens – hundreds – of failsafes embedded in its matrix. The kind of important details you may not want to overlook, such as your physical integrity, your raw ability to consume so much energy in such a short time, or more simply the existence of the place you are aiming for. Because yes, it may seem obvious in hindsight, but one may try by accident to teleport to a place that does not exist.”

I gulped uneasily as I started to understand. “Evey did not do any of that.”

“Indeed. Statistically speaking, you were as good as dead,” Saios grimly announced. “She learned to cast her spells on her own, following her instincts. I doubt she even realizes how dangerous it is. It points out toward another interesting fact about her, however: she has an extremely distorted perception of reality.”

At those words, Meridian perked his ears up. I rolled my eyes. Of course the half-loony Earth pony would be glad to learn somepony else in here did not really have their hooves on the ground.

I motioned Saios to carry on.

“I do not want to draw hasty conclusions. I base this hypothesis solely on what little data I have gathered from her. Understand that I am not saying that she is mentally instable – if anything, by pre-War standards she is saner than any of us. She simply does not make much of a difference with what we would call the real world and what we would call a dream state.”

“So she’s always half-asleep,” I lifted an eyebrow. “What’s the big deal?”

“It goes deeper than that,” he continued. “I reckon you are imagining your world in layers. The real world, right to the bottom, then what you can see and that you know may be slightly distorted, then what you can conjure with your imagination, and then what you dream and cannot control, am I correct?”

“I guess,” I shrugged unhelpfully. “Honestly, I am not one for psychology. For me, there’s the real world, right there –” I knocked the wall behind me for emphasis, “– and then there’s the rest, which doesn’t exist.”

“I see.” Saios paused a second, searching for his words. “You do admit each pony has their own perception of reality, right?”

“Uh, yeah?” I trailed, unsure. “I mean, we don’t see and feel the same things, not exactly, so let’s roll with that.”

“Now imagine you have multiple ways to perceive reality. You can see, you can touch, you can hear,” Saios continued. “Everything blends into what you call your perception of reality. Now imagine you do not segregate those ways between what comes from your dreams, and what comes from the physical world.”

“… okay, now I’m pretty much sure that’s just a fancy way to repeat what I said earlier,” I interrupted him, frowning. “She doesn’t know if she’s dreaming.”

“No, she does not care,” Saios clarified. “See, for you, the reality is everything right. The dream state is nothing but lies, chimeras. You push it back as nonexistent. For Evey, both are equally important. Whether she is awake or dreaming, it makes no fundamental difference to her.”

“I still don’t see where you’re heading.”

“Now I am entering the realm of wild speculations,” the AI cautiously continued. “From her reaction to you when you two met, I suspect her perception of reality also extend toward others – as in, seeing through your eyes just like they were hers.”

“So wait, you are telling me I am influencing the way she sees the world just by being near her?” I half-chocked in surprise. “Dude, that’s far-fetched.”

“It would explain how she teleported in here in the first place. Your reality became her own, the place which did not exist in her mind became tangible, she fuelled her raw power into the simple wish of being there, and voila. From her perspective, all she did was a slight sidestep. We clearly lack a dimension to appreciate the scope of what she did. It does not make her all-powerful, far from it: she just thought so outside the box it may as well been a hypercube.”

“All right, so you may or may not know how she did it, and you may or may not how if she is a lunatic,” I sighed, rubbing my temple with a hoof. My poor brain could only take so much of insane lectures before giving up. “Now what do we make of it?”

“She is not a lunatic.” Saios’ tone was categorical. “In fact, her strong sense of empathy will in all likelihood prevent her from ever harming you, since she sees you as an extension of herself.”

“You don’t know that,” I noted. “I saw her kill other alicorns with my own eyes.”

“Alicorns, as in her magical brethren who refused her into their mind and left her to rot inside a three-by-three cell for two centuries?” Saios deadpanned. “Those who were actively trying to kill you, the one pony who saved her from her solitude? I think even the meekest Pegasus in the MoP would have done the same, and then some.”

“Put it that way…” I conceded. “So, you are letting her out as soon as I am gone tomorrow?”

“If you do not have any further objections, yes,” Saios confirmed. “But in all honesty, she does not even seem eager to go anywhere else. Why would she? I keep her company and she is comfortable. The novelty has yet to wear off for her.”

(** **)

I have to admit, while I had grown attached to my good old leather armor, I had never felt so free of my movements now that I travelled with my brand new suit.

It adapted to my movements in such a way it sometimes became uncanny – as if my body suddenly remembered I was not jogging naked without any bags attached. For sure, I had also restrained my barding to the minimum, but still. I felt like I was at the top of my shape.

Maybe my mood had something to do with it, too. The air was crisp and clean in the Plains ; there was no souls around for miles but me and Meridian. For the first time in years, I had a clear defined long term objective, and it did not involve a violent vengeance against a band of raiders. I had made friends – Meridian and Saios qualified without a doubt, and Evey was bound to follow eventually – which I believed in.

Of course they had their own agendas, yet I had the feeling I had little to worry about.

Saios wanted power like anypony else. So did I, and as civilized beings we had agreed our friendship would be the best thing in the world for the both of us.

Evey desperately wished for company. While I had left before Saios announced my departure to her, he patched her through the radio to her insistence. She gave me her blessing (which, to my great amazement, did not surprise me the slightest) and regretted not being able to accompany me in my endeavors. She insisted that she understood we still were off a fresh start in a new, dangerous world, and that trust would be slow to earn – really, she went out of her way to make us understand she understood what we feared in her. Once again, disturbingly honest and pleasing.

As for Meridian… Often, I found myself observing the brown Earth pony from the corner of my eyes. He had never really been somepony for random chatter, of course, but my almost permanent conversations with Saios during the last few days had not failed to underline how he always stayed in the background. While I knew he trusted Saios as much as I did, he seemed to care very little for the AI’s blabber. They had quite opposite personalities after all: while one seemed to see the silver lining behind every pony, or just about, the other had a cold, pragmatic mind. It has little to do with Saios being a machine however: had he still been a pony of flesh, I suspected their relationship would have been no different.

Meridian would go great along Evey, though. No, scratch that: Evey would go great along everypony. She talked about Luna-know-what with Saios all night long, something about different levels of existence and metaphysics. She would love chatting with Meridian about how to make the world a better place, full of smile and rainbows. As for me, hell, she adopted me as new mind-buddy. Maybe she’ll even make a good pony out of me, who knew?

Miles ran by under our hooves. Eventually, the sun set before us. A half-destroyed wall provided some cover for a fire. Every once in a while, a few labels popped up on my display, before fading into oblivion.

“I am doing a couple remote tests on the suit,” Saios had explained. “You had never worn it for so long before. Your vitals are encouraging, however: I advise you keep it for the night.”

“A filly needs her privacy, Saios,” I had retorted. “Don’t take it wrong, but I’m kind of uncomfortable with you always being so… close.”

“Did I fail to mention you could disable the link from your side?” Saios chuckled mischievously. “You do not have to ask me to do that. It would have been quite inconvenient.”

So I learned how I could isolate my suit – muting the microphones, the cameras, the sensors. Saios advised against disconnecting the vital monitors without a preemptive warning. From what I understood, it made me look to him like I just had a heart attack for no visible reason. He also warned me he would not let me completely cut all communications: an emergency link would have to stay established at all time, in case something went really wrong and I couldn’t operate the interface myself. He promised me this override mode would be displayed quite obviously on my screen. I did not push the matter any farther: even if he lied about it, there was little I could do anyway but remove the suit itself.

Finally, there we were, Meridian and I, sitting around a tiny campfire. I poked the blaze with a charred stick, spraying burning embers around me in the night.

“So, how are you feeling?” I finally broke the ice. “I cut Saios off. It’s just the two of us.”

“I’m doing great, thank you,” he answered, a bit perplexed. “You know, my silence has little to do with him always hearing our conversations. I am really that taciturn.”

“I figured so,” I answered with a wry smile. “But, still. For once, I am in a mood to talk about pretty much anything, so let’s talk! Tell me, what do you think of our new business?”

“Ours?” Meridian chuckled softly. “I thought I made it clear when we started traveling together I cared little for riches. I didn’t come this far for fame or fortune.”

“For sure,” I looked at the cloudy sky in mock disbelief. “Okay then, let’s pretend I can understand you are not moved the slightest by a stack of caps bigger than yourself. I know you followed me because you love to travel far and wide and that you like my company for reasons totally lost on me. Yet, there is to be more about what you want, right? When all is said and done, when I settle comfortably for good in my industrial complex in Big Mountain – because this is clearly the way it is headed – what will you do?”

“I’ll keep following my own way, I reckon,” Meridian shuffled uneasily on his haunches. “After all, my talent is all about getting directions. Who knows? Maybe by then I would have found another injured filly who had put herself in a pickle.”

As if on cue, my back started to itch me. Silently, I hoped the dust had settled in Tenpony while I was away.

“So you’ll go on, doing your white knight thingy,” I resumed cheekily. “Saving poor mares from the throes of the Wastelands. How candid.”

“Do you even know what that word means?” he humored me and sent my sarcasm right back to me.

“I may have read it in a book, decades ago,” I laughed. Truth to be told, I couldn’t even remember the last time I had read anything but manuals. “Honestly, though, you picked the right mare to protect. Why, you don’t even have to use your mighty Python, her foes die on their own!”

“You are never going to let me live this down, now will you?” Meridian sighed. “I admit, I am such a terrible shooter you would be safer in front of me than at my back. Still, I dare hope I protect ponies through other means, to make this world a better place. If just slightly.”

“As in, making me behave?” I lifted an eyebrow, surprised. It was quite straightforward of him.

“As in, advising you as a friend should do,” Meridian Fraying clarified. “Do you remember young Feather, in Junction R-7?”

“The first and only free job in all my career,” I snorted. “How could I forget? That Pipbuck had to be worth a real fortune.”

“Fortune you are not going to need,” he pointed out. “She, on the other hoof, now has a token that there are good ponies out there. Let’s not be shy, you probably saved her life. Feather may not turn into a vigilante or a hero, but she would have died for sure had you left her face her problems on her own.”

“Perhaps.” I munched my lips, thinking of my own foalhood. Had I not taken my rifle and tracked down those raiders, where would I be right now? “Or maybe she would have turned out like me.”

“I’m going to bed,” I finally announced as silence trailed by. “We have big day ahead of us tomorrow.”

(** **)

As we walked down the ruined streets of downtown Manehattan, my mood progressively deteriorated into its usual, ever-alert state. Saios’ silence betrayed the shock of his first contact with what used to be one of the richest cities in the world. Nothing but ashes remained. He was starting to understand the full scope of the Apocalypse.

In the distance, Tenpony Tower called out to ponies like a beacon under the grey skies. Out of prudence, I went out of my way to circle around it. I doubted they would see in me the fray stable dweller that ran down their security a few weeks before, but I did not want to take any chances.

I pondered the idea of stopping at my shack, then dismissed it as a needless detour. I had nothing there to get. We headed straight to Friendship City.

I reckon this is when I realized my standing in the Wastelands had changed, somehow. As I walked through the city’s gates, all the guards tensed up slightly, giving me the side gaze they usually reserved for the kind of dangerous individuals you may not want to look straight in the eyes.

They feared me, and ignored Meridian altogether.

“Those security officers seemed quite on edge,” Saios noted as I passed by the checkpoint in a breeze. “You really do have a reputation, don’t you?”

“Not really,” I mumbled, a tad worried. “I am known as a bounty hunter, but not like that. It looked like they feared I would attack them or something.”

“It may have something to do with the suit,” the AI continued. A small-scale rotating CGI view of it popped on in my display. “It does look intimidating, compared to the rags most ponies seem to be wearing nowadays. Their own combat armor had seen better days, while you just rolled in with a cutting edge experimental unit.”

“Hopefully,” I looked around to get my bearings. Meridian mumbled something about having some errands to do, and left quietly. “I should have told you I had some questionable activities in the area recently. I may have made a couple enemies in the process.”

“Did you murder somepony important?”

“Well, see the charred bloc over there?” I pointed toward the late Crowneigh’s offices. “It didn’t use to be so crispy, and neither did its owner.”

“Understood,” Saios nodded grimly. “Did you use arson to cover your tracks?”

“Yeap.” I moved forward in the crow, barely glancing at the crumbling stands I passed by. “He was the one who put me on the tracks to the DERTA. Honestly, you should be glad I was the one to get to the place first.”

“His misfortune is our blessing, then. What is this abominable creature with two heads?”

“That’s a Brahmin,” I barely glanced at the two-headed cow. “Welcome to the Wastelands. That’s one of the least ugly creatures you are about to meet.”

“And is that a civilized ghoul?” Saios’ disbelief was obvious as he highlighted a passerby on my display. “Goodness. It looks like a pack of rotten flesh stuck up crumbling bones.”

“That was a ‘she’, buddy,” I chuckled. “So, how do you like ‘em Wastelands mares?”

“Pass,” Saios sounded put out. “If this is what the world came to be, I am glad to be an asexual artificial intelligence.”

“Eh, wait until you see Chrystal,” I smirked as I arrived in front of her shop. “Then you’ll regret not having balls anymore.”

(** **)

“Spring!” the while unicorn greeted me from behind her counter with a large smile. “What a pleasant surprise!”

For a split second, her gaze slid to my newfound suit. A glitter of Luna-know-what sparkled in her eyes. Her left ear perked up almost insensitively; when her eyes came back to my face an instant later, I knew something important had just happened right then in her mind.

All of sudden, my convictions melted away. I had the terrifying feeling my fate had just been written without my approval.

“I see you have been busy,” Chrystal smiled coyly, circling slightly around me as if she was gauging me. “I don’t remember selling you this magnificent piece of gear. Tell me, have you been unfaithful?”

“No!” I backed up a bit in surprise. “I mean, no, that’s not from your shop. It is unique. A gift from a friend.”

“Do not mention my existence for now,” Saios warned hastily. “Nor the DERTA, for that matter.”

“Well, it looks like you made powerful friends,” Chrystal chuckled in a most charming way. “But I reckon you did not come to my humble shop to talk about your acquaintances, now did you? We both know some ponies like their… privacy.”

“I have an offer for you,” I stammered, not nearly as assured as I hoped. “One you might want to hear out.”

“Business? Well, my,” Chrystal elegantly circled back behind her desk, her mane flowing flawlessly in her wake. “It seems you have come a long way, my dear.”

“Very well then,” she leaned over her desk. “I am all yours.”

“Celestia damns me, this mare is not of this world,” Saios unhelpfully commented as the temperature of the room jumped ten degrees.

“Take a look at this,” I tried to get a hold on my nerves and grabbed the sample from my bags. “Tell me what you think of it.”

The shotgun left the counter in her light green telekinetic field. After a slight glance toward me, she slowly racked it open, turned it around, and finally took a look through the chamber. She did not let a single millimeter goes unexamined. I shifted uneasily on my hooves as she proceeded.

“It had been well preserved,” she finally concluded. “A very expensive piece of equipment I would be proud to sell. Still, I fail to see your point.”

“Half of its parts did not exist a couple days ago,” I announced smugly. “It is not just a well-preserved rifle.”

“I understand,” Chrystal nodded. To my great dismay, she seemed quite unfazed. “You are now into gun manufacturing and you need somepony with business experience.”

“It goes further than just a few guns,” I tipped the side of the gun with a hoof. “We are talking about the opportunity of a century.”

Chrystal stared at me, and then, out of the blue, burst out into wild laughter. It was both the most marvelous and the most embarrassing thing I had ever seen in my life.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she wiped a few stray tears. “It’s just… You are terrible at this, you know?”

“Well, sorry if you are not interested,” I backed up, hugging the shotgun in reflex. “You’re the one missing out an opportunity!”

“Come on, Spring, let’s face it: you couldn’t trade to save your life,” Chrystal shushed me. “I am doing you a favor. Let us drop the act: I will not pretend I am not interested, and you will not try to make me believe me you can just waltz outside and find somepony else to do business with. It’ll be less embarrassing for you, darling.”

“I could go to Junction R-7 to deal with Goldfeathers,” I warned, taking another step back.

“Please. Now that you murdered Van Graff, most ponies would be too skittish to be associated with you,” Chrystal closed the door in my back. “After all, who knows? Maybe this is how you treat your partners.”

My heart suddenly stopped in my chest. Right in front of me, Chrystal starred at me like spider to its webbed quarry.

“How do you know that?” I blanched. On the side of my display, Saios started assessing the threat posed by the various turrets in the room.

“Call it a hunch,” she shrugged dismissively. “Relax. Truth to be told, I had half a mind sending you a ‘thank you’ card once I realized you probably had something to do with his… tragic disappearance.”

I gaped at her without understanding. She sighed.

“Now that the Silver Rush is out of business, I have less concurrence to worry about,” she explained. “Furthermore, while charming, Van Graff was not really to my liking personality wise. I have better things to do than ratting you out, mind you. Still, as a friend, I wished to warn you: all those who connected the dots will be very wary of you.”

“Is she referring to the DERTA?” Saios asked in the earpiece. Discreetly, I dismissed the idea with a shook of my head. Van Graff’s murder had probably been a major event in the area. To the eyes of the beholder, that alone would be enough to make me flinch. Little did Chrystal know that she couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

“So you are willing to deal with us,” I concluded, immediately regretting using the plural form.

“I am willing to consider the option,” she flashed a fanged smile. “Of course, I have first to assert whether your offer is viable, or just some hot wind.”

“I haven’t told you anything yet,” I pointed out.

“Oh, you said many things,” Chrystal batted her eyes. “You have met somepony. An outsider, with a great technical knowledge and an important industrial potential. They wish to enter the market as a cannonball, mass producing weapons of a quality level not achieved since the Fall, yet they are not keen of the idea of being assimilated to an existing faction. Since you are their spokesmare, I assume they have no other pre-existing connection to the Wastelands and that your team is quite limited in term of personnel. Therefore, you need a businessmare with a strong back, willing to crash the world around her, to promote and sell your goods. Otherwise, you are stuck in neutral. Did I sum the situation correctly?”

“Holy damn.”

“Perhaps,” I somehow managed to keep my cool. “If such was the case, would you be interested?”

“It would depend on many factors,” Chrystal rubbed her chin seductively. “I would have to assess the situation on the field. It would require me to close my shop for a time. Business has been good lately. It may represent a significant loss of income.”

I swallowed uneasily. I did not like the direction this conversation was going a single bit.

“What do you want?” I asked. “For a week of your time.”

“Twenty-five grand,” she stabbed me where it hurt. “Twelve up front.”

“What?” I stammered, horrified. “No way!”

“I am reassigning bottlecap counterfeiting to the ‘high priority’ list,” Saios announced cynically.

“Please, darling, you know I am worth every cap of it,” Chrystal basked in my despair. “Think about it. A full week with me. Some ponies would have given a leg for that kind of opportunity.”

Okay, now she had even managed to turn me on somehow. That mare was Discord in disguise!

“This is a rip-off, and you know it,” I accused uneasily. Still, from the look in her eyes, she already knew I was going to pay.

“Since you are a friend, I may take a thousand and half caps from the total, if you are willing to part with your shotgun,” she stood up, softly tearing the precious weapon from my grasp. I let it go without a sound.

Gritting my teeth, I turned around and walked out of the shop.

“Thanks you very much!” the abominable mare waved me as I went down the street. “I am looking forward to your return!”

Fulminating, I walked all the way to Friendship City’s before stopping dead in my tracks.

“I forgot to buy a new pistol,” I facehooved, dejected. “Luna help me, she is going to rob me of my very skin…”

(** **)

Forty minutes later, Meridian had rejoined me outside Friendship City. From his amused gaze, I reckoned he already knew how the meeting went.

“Let me guess: she scammed you and left you without a single cap to spare,” he chuckled while lighting a cigarette. I reckoned he had probably bought a whole stock of them while I otherwise busy being robbed. “Am I right?”

“She asked for twelve thousands caps up front,” I shook my head, hardly believing it myself. “That’s more than my entire life savings! And she asked for as much afterward! Fuck, I shouldn’t have left her the shotgun. We’ll find somepony else to deal with.”

“Spring, she may not be the mare we want, but she is definitively the one we need,” Saios gave his two cents. “Her analysis was spot on. The very fact she managed to scam us make her services more desirable in my eyes.”

“You’re crazy,” I sat on a nearby bloc of concrete. My head started spinning at the idea of finding that much money in such a short notice. “She didn’t even say yes. Twelve grand, just to consider accepting!”

“She will say yes. She knows it, and you should as well,” he continued. “As you said, she asked for your entire life savings. Don’t you find odd she didn’t ask for more?”

“Don’t you think that’s enough already?” I spat. “Twelve motherfucking grand!”

“She could have asked for the whole sum up front. Yet, she only requested a sum we conveniently had on hoof.”

“Saios, you’re crazy,” I rubbed my temple, suddenly very wary. “I don’t have that kind of money. If I used up all the cash I have saved, maybe we could scrounge up three thousands caps. With your help, I could do a couple high-risk contracts and scrap up another grand or two. Even still, we wouldn’t be anywhere close to what she is asking!”

“We could use a temporary solution,” Saios assured. “I have already started manufacturing bottlecaps. I believe we could…”

“…pay her with counterfeit money?” I cut him sharply. “Have you fucking lost your mind? I’m not against easy money, but don’t you think a motherfucking stack of motherfucking brand new caps is going to attract a mother- fucking-BUCKING amount of attention?!”

“Hey, calm down,” Meridian looked around him warily. “We ain’t really in the middle of nowhere here.”

Fulminating, I kicked out a pellet. I followed it with my eyes as it ricocheted down the street, skipped over a radioactive puddle and flew into the foggy horizon.

My companions wisely decided to leave me to my anger.

Then, like a burning ember in my chest, realization dawned on me as I faced the destroyed Manehattan skyline. So she wanted to play hard to get, uh? Well then she’ll know why I’m one of the best bounty hunters this side of Canterlot.

“I know where to find money to spare, and then some,” I finally broke the silence, my gaze still riveted on the distant buildings. “We are going back to Tenpony.”

(** **)

Main quest updated: New World Order
Objectives:
[X] Restore the Big Mountain compound (Primary)
[ ] Find a partnership (Primary)
[X] Talk with Chrystal in Friendship City (Secondary)
[ ] Talk with Van Graff in Tenpony Tower (Failed)
[ ] Talk with Goldfeather in Junction R-7 (Secondary)
[ ] Talk with Derpy in New Appleloosa (Secondary)
[ ] Talk with Bottlecaps in Megamart (Secondary)
[ ] Blood Ring in Fillydelphia (Secondary)



Side quest completed: Burning Papers
Objectives:
[X] Find out what happened at Big Mountain (Primary)

Side quest added: Black Widow
Objectives:
[ ] Learn more about Chrystal (Primary)

Side quest updated: Ira Lunae
Objectives:
[X] Make your mind about the alicorn in your custody (Primary)
[ ] Accept Evey’s friendship and what it entails (Primary)


Level up!

New perk:
Impartial Mediation: you are a freelancer, and people like that. As long as you remain unaffiliated from any major faction, you gain a permanent bonus to speech.

“A good compromise leaves both sides unhappy.”

Chapter Thirteen: The Fool's Gambit

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Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.




“Are you kidding me? I'd kill you for a Klondike bar!”

Chapter Thirteen: The Fool’s Gambit

“You can’t be seriously considering that,” Meridian gapped at me in disbelief. “Do I need to remind you how we met in the first place?”

“I thought you said that one mission in Tenpony had been one of the worst screw-up of your life,” Saios pointed out. “I understand you’re a wanted criminal there. Why do you even want to get back?”

“Well, see, it may not look like it, but I actually did some bounty hunting before getting involved in this bullshit,” I snarled, grabbing my rifle without thinking. “And some in these Wastelands know how much I’m worth. There’s a mare in Tenpony. Her head is worth half a million caps. She’s as good as dead.”

“Five hundred thousand caps?” Even Saios seemed impressed. “This seems almost too good to be true.”

“This smells like a trap,” Meridian frowned. “A really, really obvious trap.”

“Nah. It sounds like somepony pissed off the powers that be and believed Tenpony could save her sorry ass,” I chuckled darkly as I checked my rifle’s bolt. It slid back and forth as smoothly as ever. “The contract’s backed up by the Talons. They don’t mess around when it comes to paying the bounties. The only reason it pays so much is that it is believed to be impossible.”

“But you know what? Screw this. I did it once with nothing but a Stable jumpsuit and a can of beans,” I spat in a nearby poodle and started walking down the ravaged street. “Now I got infiltration armor and an AI by my side. This is gonna be a walk in a park.”

(** **)

“I wouldn’t have expected the subway to be still accessible after two centuries,” Saios noted as I walked down the tunnels of what used to be the underground section of the Celestia Line. For all my brash pretentions, I knew I couldn’t just hope to get this contract done without some serious preparation down the line. It started with a recon of the access to Tenpony Tower – and all of them connected to the metro or the monorail, a way or another.

“Large parts of it collapsed,” I answered, my eyes slowly scanning the dark tunnel in front of me. Many things lurked in the darkest corners of this kind of places. “What little is left often swarms with ghouls, bloodbats and the occasional raider. Sadly, some areas of Manehattan can only be accessed through the tunnels.”

“Like the MAS hub?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “The surface access to Tenpony got barricaded decades ago. What used to be their monorail station, far above on the surface, is now their main entrance. They got a checkpoint there. I reckon it’s easier to defend.”

“Checkpoint? Is it a weapon-free area?”

“Nah,” I shrugged dismissively. “Nothing in the world can separate a sane Wastelander and their guns. They forbid live ammo, though, and sell you rubber bullets so expensive it hurts you just to buy them. They also give you some kind of form to fill, just to check you’re not a raider or a wanted criminal.”

“I imagine it would be too much asking of them to have forgotten you,” Saios sighted. “Are you certain there are other entrances? To be honest, this is looking like a fool’s errand.”

“Well, you got maps of the area, don’t you?” I retorted. “Why don’t you check them?”

“Now you are being unfair,” the AI seemed a bit vexed. “All I got are pre-war publicity available plans of the subway system. They do not even include the maintenance areas. You know much more about this place than I do.”

“I know for certain there are two other accesses to Tenpony through the underground subway system,” I explained, internally patting myself on the back for knowing something the AI didn’t. “One is swarming with ghouls. I heard their previous sheriff got munched alive over there. They wouldn’t expect anypony to get through there in one piece, and I’m inclined to agree with them.”

“The other is what they use for their deliveries. You can’t get through there unless whoever really runs this bloody tower gave you the authorization to. Even the regular citizens who actually leave their palace – there has to be at least a couple – have to enter by the main access. I think this would be our best shot.”

“For some reason, I expect this to be more complicated than slipping in a crate and waiting to be delivered to the MAS. How thorough are their customs?”

“Customs?” I repeated. “What the hell is that?”

“Are you not familiar with the term?” Saios seemed puzzled. “In a nutshell, the customs are the part of the administration responsible of controlling the flow of goods through a border. They insure import taxes are paid, and they fight against contraband.”

“Oh, you mean the security,” I scratched my head, perplexed. “I don’t really know, but if I had to make a wager, I’d bet they check everything that get through that gate for illegals things like ammo and such.”

“I believe they also get their cut on the commercial goods that are sold in the Tower,” Meridian piped in. In the darkness, the brown Earth pony was almost undistinguishable from the desaturated background. “I wouldn’t be surprise to learn they keep a close inventory of what got in and what got out just to make sure nopony cheats them on the taxes.”

I snorted. It sounded like Tenpony all right.

Suddenly, a bright blue square popped up on my display. I stopped dead on my tracks. Meridian gave me an inquisitive look.

“We’ve got movement down there,” Saios warned. The square moved sideways, tracking whatever had appeared at a turn of the tunnel.

“Company,” I mumbled, looking around for cover. I spotted a maintenance shack some distance on the left; fifteen seconds later, Meridian and I were coated in its shadows, waiting for the threat to go away.

We waited a couple minutes. Multiple hoovesteps echoed in the subway, growing louder every instant. Without a sound, I drew my pistol and checked the chamber. Then, since the glow around my horn would have been a dead giveaway, I carefully set the gun down on a nearby box. Besides me, my friend bit down on his revolver, but I dissuaded him from continuing his move. The last thing we needed was a couple of .44Mag rounds shot in the confined space of the tunnels. It would have woken up all the bloodbats in downtown Manehattan.

Then, four ponies entered my field of view. One of them was a young foal, prancing around and messing with every piece of junk he could find. The rest of their group was composed of two young adults and an elderly unicorn. All of them wore threadbare barding, barely qualifying for being more than rags.

I relaxed slightly. It had to be a family of scavengers, or close enough. They wouldn’t even see us.

Then, just because the Wasteland had its way of messing with your head, the foal noticed the maintenance shack and decided it was worth investigating.

As he closed down on the pitch black room, I held back my respiration. Thanks to the goggles, to my eyes it could as well been broad daylight, but right to my left, Meridian probably couldn’t see further than his muzzle. From the quick glances he occasionally gave the pistol near me, which he probably didn’t know I noticed, I suspected he was more worried about me shooting the kid than our cover being blown.

Blind in the darkness, the foal stared stupidly at the dark shroud in front of me. Not three meters from there, I silently prayed he would just wise up and go away. I mean, seriously, didn’t his parents teach him not to put his muzzle everywhere? Out there, doing so was often the best way of having a landmine going off in your face.

He took an agonizingly slow step back from the door threshold, and then stopped. I almost let out a whimper of frustration. Shoo! Go away, you murky, overgrown bag of nuisance!

Finally, he turned his head around toward his family. Engaged in a low-voice argument they had barely noticed his absence.

Best. Parenting. Ever.

“Mommy!” he called. “I need a light!”

“Not now, honey,” the green mare answered before resuming her heated conversation.

In front of me, the foal bit his lower lip. I could almost see the gears in his head turning. Was a couple piece of worthless junk worth taking the risk of stumbling on a trap in the dark?

Of course the answer was no.

Of course that stupid, brainless foal though otherwise.

Blinder than a mole, he stumbled forward, almost slipped on an empty can, collapsed a precarious pile of metal scraps, and only stopped when the magic-highlighted suppressed end of my pistol bumped into his muzzle.

“Get lost, kiddo,” I grumbled.

“Spring…” Meridian warned. “Don’t hurt him.”

“Spring, it’s just a foal,” Saios seemed worried by my reaction. “I do not think he qualifies as a threat.”

“You heard me? Get lost!” I repeated a bit louder, probing him with my gun. Eyes wider than saucers, the foal backpedalled and ran back into the tunnel.

“Mommyyyyyy!” that insupportable brat wailed, splitting my ears in the process. Letting out a most unholy curse, I dropped against the wall near the door to get the scavengers back into my field of view.

Already the kid had covered the distance to his mother’s aprons. He bawled something about a monster in the dark. His father shrugged, as if he had made some kind of point. His mother sighed in a most exhausted manner, rubbing her temple with a dirty hoof. Only the oldest stallion seemed to pay any credit to what the brat actually said; I saw him reach out behind him for what I assumed to be a shotgun.

Cursing Discord’s name for that mess, I slipped out of my cover, pistol at the ready.

“Don’t even think about it, grandpa,” I warned, my aim riveted on his head. “By the time you grab that gun, I’ll be nailing your coffin.”

The whole family, kid included, froze at my sudden appearance.

“Oh boy,” Meridian mumbled behind me. “Is that really how you greet the people you meet?”

“Your social skills could use some polishing,” Saios agreed with a soft sigh.

I grumbled something vaguely insulting in answer. As a general rule, ponies were less inclined to rob you when all you needed to blow their brain out was a quick squeeze of the trigger.

“Please, we don’t have anything to give you,” the mare pleaded, unconsciously stepping in front of her offspring. Near her, both stallions were trying very hard to spot a potential exit while looking as if they weren’t. “Don’t hurt us.”

With my artificially enhanced vision, I could see every detail of the group’s gear. She really didn’t lie when she said she had nothing of value. I wouldn’t have even bothered taking their stuff had they given it to me. They were armed, for sure: the elder had an old pump-action shotgun that had seen better days; the mother had a single-action revolver so rusted I wondered if the barrel could still spin, and the father’s .45 auto pistol wouldn’t win an accuracy contest anytime soon. As for their armor, it would be a miracle if it could stop even a BB from a toy gun.

“I’m not here to rob you,” they did not leave my sights for an instant, “what’s your business in the subways?”

They seemed somewhat relieved, but did not lower their guard. The foal started sniffling disgusting packs of snot.

“We are travelling,” the mare explained, sharing a quick look with her partners. “Are you… Are you with Tenpony?”

I winced. What the hell? “What makes you think that?”

“Your armor,” she pointed out. “It looks expensive. Since we’re not too far from the Tower, I thought maybe…”

“What if I am?” I asked, waving my pistol to punctuate my question. I noticed the elder’s gaze did not leave the end of its barrel. Clever boy. “Do you have business with them?”

“No, not really,” the mare bit her lower lip, frowning. “We just…”

“We’re lost, that’s what we are,” the young stallion cut in. “Daisy here thought she was so clever she could lead us to a shortcut to Tenpony Tower, and we’ve been going in circle in those damned tunnels ever since.”

“Fuck you,” Daisy riposted. “It was your idea to come here in the first place!”

“Yeah, because you’re the one who believed selling Brahmin shit could be a decent business!”

“And had you not tried to scam our first clients, it would have worked just fine!”

Right then, my eyes met the elder’s, and just like that I knew they had been arguing for days on that topic, and that they weren’t about to stop anytime soon.

“We could give them directions,” Meridian suggested. “I mean, we aren’t even far from the exit.”

“What we should do is tell them going to Tenpony is a bad idea,” I sighed, thinking back of the marble hall I had walked a little while back. “Honestly, look at them. They wouldn’t even make it past the bouncers, if they are not shot on sight for smelling like raiders.”

“The security does a little more than just keeping the dangerous individuals away, doesn’t it?” Saios stated more than asked. “They also maintain the social peace – by keeping the poorest outside.”

“You got the idea,” I mumbled. “Could be worse though. I’m sure they toyed with the idea of having an entrance fee.”

Down the tunnel, the elder kept staring at me. The two other were a hair short of yelling at each other from the top of their lungs.

“If they don’t keep it down we’re gonna have a problem,” I frowned. As a rule of thumb, bloodbats didn’t like intruders very much. “So you’re all going to Tenpony Tower, right?”

They stopped arguing, suddenly remembering the strange mare with a gun aimed at them. The stallion nodded.

“Bad idea,” I continued. “Seriously, what are you expecting to find there? Those guys have their noses so far up their asses when they talk it smells like shit. They wouldn’t even let you lick the ground they walk upon. Trust me, if you want to make an honest bit, that’s not where you want to be.”

“Told you so,” the eldest finally talked with a raspy voice. “But you youngsters’ always too busy to listen to ol’ Schematics. Eh. That one mare down there got more brains than the two of you.”

I revised my initial estimation of the grandpa upwards. To be fair, one didn’t live that old in the Wastelands without being some kind of hidden badass.

“We’ve gone too far to turn around, thank you very much,” Daisy retorted. “We’re almost there anyway. I can feel it.”

“Does she not care about the safety of her own foal?” Meridian whispered so softly I almost missed it. “Celestia damn it.”

Wait, Meridian could swear?

“Sure, whatever,” I shook my head. What they did wasn’t any of my concerns anyway. “But once you get kicked out, you might want to get to Friendship City before nightfall, or else you’ll end up being a manticore’s lunch. Just sayin’.”

Silence fell back on the tunnels, only broken by a snort from the little brat.

“So… you’re not gonna shoot us?” the stallion tentatively asked after a little while. “Can we go?”

“Actually, I was wondering why in Tartarus you weren’t halfway to Tenpony by now,” I nearly facehooved. “Okay, just get the hell out of here. Don’t follow me, don’t piss of the bloodbats, don’t tell anypony I was there, or I’ll personally come back to kick your asses. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah, they got it,” the eldest rolled his eyes and walked away without any more concern. “C’mon, stop making asses of yourselves and let’s go.”

I watched them turn around the end of the tunnel. Only then I lowered my pistol and my respiration came back to its normal rhythm.

“I am beginning to understand you are really not one for social interactions,” Saios concluded. “Somehow, I am not very surprised.”

(** **)

Lying behind a nondescript pile of centuries-old scraps, I watched the two mercenaries escort the short string of sealed crates. Stacked on a makeshift cart rocking precariously on the old subway rails, the unmarked goods were no doubt headed toward the access to the Tower we were looking for.

Besides me, Meridian shifted uneasily. In the darkness of the tunnels, using standard binoculars was out of the question; in the end, only I could really see what our quarries were doing. Thankfully, regardless of their vigilant watch, they seemed to be totally unaware of our presence.

We followed them for a dozen minutes. Most of the side tunnels had been collapsed, probably in a vague effort to secure the way. The rubble hadn’t been cleaned out however, and the pale halo from the random light did little to cast away the shadows of the undergrounds.

Eventually, we reached our destination. I had expected a guard post of some sort, yet nopony greeted the two mercenaries and the ponies pulling the cart as they reached a corridor somewhat better lit than the rest. Strange arch in the middle of the way set aside, nothing else distinguished it from the tunnels we had been walking so far.

The prune mare with an assault rifle walked up to a terminal embedded in the farthest wall. She muttered a few sentences I couldn’t hear then backed away. Without a sound, the workponies unstrapped themselves.

After a couple minutes, a guard showed herself. She greeted the newcomers – by then I had realized their business together had been quite recurrent. The workponies grabbed something I couldn’t make out from under the arch. They attached it to the cart, which then proceeded to move on its own.

“A winch,” Meridian noted, squinting his eyes in the darkness. “Clever.”

“Yeah, that way no filthy Wastelander get inside the place as a delivery pony,” I grunted. The idea had crossed my mind, and the mind of countless suspicious individuals before me. By then, the Tenpony security just knew better.

The cart rolled away between the arch into the tunnel. It disappeared from my field of view. The guard and the mercenaries exchanged a couple more sentences, shared a hearty laugh (probably at somepony else’s expense) and went their own way. Four ponies passed by us without even suspecting our presence.

“The security seems to be minimal,” Saios noted, obviously not buying it for a second. “There is a security camera sweeping the tunnel on the far right corner, right above the terminal, but it has a lot of blind spots.”

“Yeah, I see it,” I answered, eying the surveillance device. It was slowing spinning on itself, covering over time the entire place. Obviously, it couldn’t watch over the area right under it. “It takes forever to cycle. If I sprint along the wall, I got a fifteen second window to reach the blind spot.”

“Make it seventeen,” Saios corrected me. “Assuming somepony is even watching the feeds.”

“It’s a bit too easy to be true,” Meridian pointed out. “I only went to Tenpony once, but I clearly remember them being quite a stickler for security.”

“Saios, zoom in,” I ordered, fixing the arch. Sure enough, once magnified, I could clearly see the purple-ish glow barring the way.

“A barrier?” the AI seemed surprised. “How peculiar.”

“Nah,” I shrugged. “It’s not really a barrier. I had to get across one last time I broke into Tenpony. It only prevents ponies from getting through, and from what we just saw I’d say it’s selective.”

“It’s the perfect door,” Meridian commented. “And you don’t even need a key.”

“Oh, I see what you are talking about,” realization dawned on Saios. “It’s a self-sustained Bypass spell. The MAS was quite fond of those, as it kept both cloaked zebras and undercover changelings from sneaking by. I am surprised they are still in working shape.”

“You know how they work?” I asked, hopeful. I mean, seriously, that guy was such a nerd he had probably invented half a dozen ways to bypass that barrier while taking a dump.

“I know the basic principles,” Saios seemed apologetic. “It uses advanced spell matrices to associate the user with a unique signature. How this signature is generated is a mystery. Given who invented the device in the first place, I would say it uses the pony’s magical trace, but DNA is also a likely candidate.”

“Can you hack it?”

“I have absolutely no idea.

“Oh, come on!” I frowned, staring at ever-inaccessible entrance. “Don’t tell me you aren’t burning to show those guys in the MAS who’s better at making arcano-thingies!”

“The chance of them still living as of today are infinitesimal,” yet I had sparked his interest. “That being said, I did hear of rumor about the inability of this spell to make a distinction between relatives.”

“Most of Tenpony citizens descend from the original residents,” I pointed out. “It’ll explain why they kept the system up.”

“We may be onto something there. If you were related to…”

“Been there, did that,” I cut with an exasperated sigh. “No such luck. Can’t you make a device to trick the barrier into believing I’m from Tenpony?”

“Without an intimate knowledge on how it works in the first place? Impossible. Furthermore, the consequence should such a device came to fail on your way in would be catastrophic.”

Images of being cut in half by a force field invaded my mind. I dismissed them with a shudder.

“Fuck,” I swore under my breath. On the other side of the radio link, I could almost hear Saios’ artificial neurons fire all azimuths. “Okay. Next idea. Can you disable it? Last time, I managed to unplug it from the other side.”

“The power source is, in all likelihood, inside the Hub. We would need an inside pony to cut it off in the first place.”

I turned toward Meridian with a sly grin, but he cut me out before I could mutter a word.

“I am not helping you on this little stunt,” he warned me coldly. “I am turning a blind eye on your activities because I am your friend and I know you won’t be dissuaded by anything I could tell you, but I am not lending you a hoof.”

“Forget about that, we’re on our own,” I grunted in the microphone. “Humor me, you will not pester me about ethics and whatnots once I’m inside, right?”

“Well, that would be quite hypocritical of me, now wouldn’t it?” Saios answered with an ice-cold chuckle. “Blue Shift would have had some… reticence about the execution of a perfect stranger in exchange of a wheelbarrow of tin bottle caps, but I now have the hindsight to realize it makes perfect sense.”

“Wait, was that irony?” I accused, puzzled.

“Yes,” Meridian rolled his eyes.

“No,” Saios answered. “I am being perfectly serious. While one may argue life is invaluable, economics say everything has a price, as long as somepony is willing to pay for it. Bottle caps are the new Equestrian currency. The life of our quarry had been evaluated under unknown criteria as being worth five hundred thousands of those bottle caps, which by the Wastelands standard carries a very important commercial value. Therefore, it would be our best interest to carry out that contract.”

Meridian’s hat sunk on his brow, hiding his eyes from my gaze. Even I couldn’t help but feel a bit uneasy about Saios’ reasoning.

“Well, we’re still talking about murdering somepony we don’t even know,” I found myself saying, to my great disbelief. “Not that I’m complaining. I mean, it’s my job. It just feels weird to hear somepony who never even held a gun of his life – no offence – tell me it’s okay to go around shooting ponies because the pay’s good.”

“Soon, we will be shipping weapons to the four winds,” Saios argued. “How is that different?”

“Well, we won’t be actively killing ponies, for starter,” I said, a bit unsure of my own answer. “We aren’t responsible of what our customers do with our goods, right?”

“Spring, we are not manufacturing refrigerators. By running our little business, I will be assisting the murder of countless ponies. How is this one different?”

“You’d be actively participating.”

“You will be the one pulling the trigger. I wash my metaphorical hooves of it.”

“This is not how it…” I began, before shaking my head in disbelief. “Luna’s tits, I don’t even give a flying fuck about shooting foals in front of their parents. Why in Tartarus am I even arguing with you?”

“I tend to bring that out of many ponies,” Saios noted with a remarkable deadpan. “I just asked Evey. She tells you murder is morally condemnable.”

“No shit,” I chuckled under my breath. Then, realization dawned on me. “Say, Saios, as a Princess, surely Luna had access to all the top-secret bases of the Ministries, right?”

“Evey may be a close enough match to fool the spell,” the AI was already way ahead of me. “But I recall you saying artificial alicorns were not welcome in many places, Tenpony Tower included.”

My hopes deflated as fast as they got up. I resisted the urge to throw a brick at the barrier in frustration.

“Yeah. She wouldn’t even make it to the monorail,” I sighed, dejected. “I’m sure they got snipers with fifties all over the roof. They’d turn her into a one-pony carpaccio, and that’s another idea down the drain.”

“Actually, you may be onto something,” Saios begged to disagree. “We now have a sample that might just be recognized by the analyzer. If I could extract the hashing algorithm from the barrier calculator, maybe I could use it to hack into the computer and add your own signature in the database.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” I didn’t understand a single word of what he just said. “What do you need?”

“I do not know yet, but I intend to find out. You need to reach the terminal near the barrier. I won’t be able to take it down, but I may gather enough data to think of an attack pattern.”

“All right,” I stood up, eyes riveted to the camera. Besides me, Meridian gave me a perplexed look but kept his prone position. “Warn me if somepony’s coming.”

“Will do,” both stallions answered simultaneously. I resisted the urge to facehoof.

The camera reached the extreme end of its sweeping pattern, and began its cycle anew. Rushing along the wall, I covered the distance to the terminal in a matter of seconds. Now right under the surveillance device, I wished fat chance to anypony behind the screens to spot a single hair of my fur on their displays.

The terminal in front of me, while stapled ‘Stable Tech’, didn’t quite look like the ones you could find everywhere in the Wastelands. Clearly, the Ministries didn’t buy their stuff in the same shops than everypony else. An intercom had been added besides the screen.

The small universal connector popped from my hoof on command. To my relief, it fitted in the standardized port, yet I quickly became aware of another, unexpected problem.

“Saios, you should have added a wire or something,” I whispered, struggling to find my balance as my left foreleg was bent in an awkward position. “It’s not exactly comfortable.”

“Yet another design oversight to add to the ever-growing list,” Saios sighted. In front of me, the terminal’s screen blinked to life and showed an empty command prompt. “The security is sturdy, but I am starting to get an idea on how the system was designed. With time, I may be able to crack it.”

“Time?” I shifted in place with great care not to unplug my cyber-hoof. “How long?”

“A couple months, if we can come back to test it on a regular basis.”

“We don’t have months!” I answered a bit loudly. Realizing my mistake, I looked around, but nopony seemed to have heard my slip-up. “Listen, I don’t need you to add me to the Tenpony citizen list. I just need you to let me go through the barrier, even if it’s only once.”

“Understood. Yet, without a root access, I cannot…” Saios trailed. “Wait, I found something. Somepony added a couple modules to the core functions. It adds an ‘escort mode’ to the control routine. From the look of it, it’s a last minute patch, because it really does not fit in the bigger picture. That’s a glaring security issue.”

“Can you use it?” I glanced at the screen. The prompt was still empty; whatever the AI was doing, he clearly didn’t need the display. “Please be quick about it. I really don’t want to be spotted hacking into their system.”

“Mayhaps. I am downloading the binaries. With any luck it-YES!” Saios’ cry of victory startled me, almost unplugging the suit from the terminal. “Those morons linked statically against the library they used for the hashing, and then let their compiled binaries for everypony to see. Stars above, I don’t even need to retro-engineer them, I am reading through the instructions as if it was plain text.”

“All right, let’s pretend I understood whatever in Luna’s name you just talked about. Care to cut to the part you tell me you can open that fuckin’ door?”

“We are not there yet,” he answered. “I now know how the hash is generated in the first place. With Evey’s help, I may be able to find a sequence that would be recognized by that companion module. You would be tagged as a guest, and be allowed temporarily through the barrier.”

“Good,” I nodded, unplugging myself from the terminal. I flexed my sore limp – I really needed to find an extension cord or something. “Try to have it done by tomorrow.”

“I cannot guarantee it will work,” Saios warned. “I am going to play with hundreds thousand permutations of Evey’s signature, yet she is not Princess Luna. It may not match.”

“Or it may match on the first try,” I countered. Hell, I really wanted that little stunt to go smoothly! “All right. Now that we know how we’re going to get in, let’s plan the rest of the trip…”

(** **)

Sitting on a concrete block in downtown Manehattan, I watched over the Tenpony Tower in the distance. Meridian was eating an energy bar in silence; he hadn’t talked much since our little argument about the morality of a remunerated murder. I believed we had reached a tacit agreement, though: I wouldn’t ask him to do anything against his silly sense of ethics, and he wouldn’t prevent me from doing my job. Oh, I knew I wouldn’t just get away with it without a lecture or two about being a better pony and whatnots, but…

My train of thoughts derailed as I realized my latest, disastrous-beyond-words trip to Tenpony had been the very reason I had begun to question my actions in the first place. And I was going back in there? What the hell was I thinking?

Then, I remembered. Saios, the DERTA, Chrystal. We needed the cash. One last job wouldn’t hurt, right? Plus, I’d end it with a bang, the contract of the decade. I mean, by Luna’s most holy tits, five hundred thousand caps. It was like, twice as many as the bounty that got put on Security’s head a little while back.

I let out a small chuckle at the idea of somepony actually managing to take her down, only to find themselves rotting in a slaving cell in Paradise after asking for their reward. Eh, very few bounty hunters had what it took to make a living out of working for slavers. I could only name one who actually managed to botch a contract and live to tell the tale. Miss Cap – I don’t think she’ll ever forget me for snipping our target before she even managed to get to him. My flanks still remembered the little shout-out we had when we ended up hunting the same contract. We probably burned more in ammo just shooting at each other to get the proof of death than we would have actually gotten by turning it in.

I shook my head to dismiss the interfering memories. One last job and I would be retiring. Who would have known?

“We’re going to need a map,” I finally announced. “It turns out Tenpony citizens are not very keen to giving directions to perfect strangers. Last time I had to go out of my way to find out where my target lived. Now I don’t know about you, but I got the feeling the mare we’re looking for will be holed up in someplace with a tight security.”

“Sadly, while I have countless maps available on my hard drives, the Ministries Hubs are not among them,” Saios deplored. “Unsurprisingly, the government had never been very kind to share data on touchy subjects like the plans of their official buildings.”

“I don’t think I can find somepony to help us either,” I frowned, mentally scanning all of my contacts. Most settlements had that particular one guy whom had been everywhere and somehow managed to memorize it all – my gaze lingered an instant on Meridian and his compass-shaped cutie mark – but the Tenpony Tower wasn’t exactly any place. The only ones who could have possibly known the ways of the buildings were also the ones who would have been the most inclined to put my head on a spike as a raider deterrent. “Unless you have an idea, we’ll have to do it the hard way, then.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Usually, I would have dismissed it as being quite improbable, but we may as well try our luck.”

“I’m all ears.” To be fair, Sais’ ‘farfetched’ plans often had details I didn’t put in my most elaborate schemes. I mean, I did come looking after the DERTA with little more than a gun and the wind in my mane, after all.

“Officially, nopony but the Ministry in question had access to their Hubs’ plans,” Saios exposed. “As close as the Ministry Mares had been rumored to be, their underlings did not share the same kindness. In fact, they oft put spokes in each other’s wheels. As I said a few days ago about the DERTA, the MoWT and the MAS had very different views on how the government should handle the Equestrian innovations and industry. Most Ministries believed the MoA was only there to leach money off their budget. The MoI downright censored the other Ministries’ memos and public announcement. I do not even want to talk about the administration supposed to mend the bridges between those gasworks – Luna only knows what they were up too, maybe. Which brings me to my point: above all, there was one Ministry that got itself involved in every aspect of the government: the Ministry of Morale.”

“Yeah, I heard that,” I chuckled. “They built spy networks and amusement parks all over the place. That Pinkie Pie must have been one hell of a psycho.”

“Well, I had my personal theory about her perhaps being the sanest of all Ministry Mares, but that is beyond the point,” Saios continued. “What matters right now is that the MoM spied on literally everybody. During the War, I had to sweep the system daily to remove whatever bugs they had managed to plant on the DERTA’s servers. If somepony out of the MAS had detailed plans of the Tenpony Tower, it would be them. We need to access their Manehattan Hub.”

“Sounds good to me, except for one little detail,” I frowned, turning toward a particular point of the destroyed skyline. “See that half-collapsed tower that seems to be waiting for a calm breeze to tip over? It used to be the MoM Hub. Unlike Tenpony, they hadn’t got shields to protect them from the bombs.”

“Of this I am aware,” Saios dismissed my concerns. “Yet I dare hope part of their datacenter survived the fallout and the throes of time. They built them in the lower levels in an impermeable vault for security reasons. Well, ‘impermeable’… The designed prevented EM and vibrations from getting out, yet the tower is still standing, if barely, which makes me believe some data over there may still be salvageable.”

“Lower levels?” I tried to recall what little I knew of the place. “Wasn’t it a dance club or something?”

“They played terrible music there,” Saios audibly winced. “I am talking of the levels above the Hoofbeats. Anyway, as usual for something designed by Pinkie Pie, the whole building makes no sense whatsoever yet managed to be perfectly functional nonetheless.”

“Well, I reckon nopony would be looking for the brain of the world’s biggest spy network in there.” I sure wouldn’t. “Say, how come you know so much about the MoM, and yet aren’t capable of getting me a copy of a hooffull maps?”

“As I said earlier, during the first years of the War the MoM and I kind of had a rivalry thing going on. Since I had design most of the DERTA’s network infrastructure myself, their agents were at a disadvantage when it came to cracking its security. In the end, they downright summoned me to their headquarters. It seemed they had figured out the DERTA was not really conducting research on the ballistic properties of lime pie.”

“Ouch,” I winced. “I can hear them kickin’ your ass from there.”

“Actually, they found our little skirmishes to be very amusing,” Saios chuckled. “That’s the MoM for you. They gave me the grand tour of their datacenter, showed me their ears had no ends and their pockets no bottom. Then they asked me to ditch the DERTA and work for them.”

“You refused,” I stated, a tad surprised. “Why’s that? It seems like a golden opportunity.”

“One does not refuse an offer from Pinkie Pie in blood. Yet you are partially right. I did not want to leave Big MT behind to work for one of the Ministries. You have to realize I had been working there for a decade and half then. I had seen the place being built from the ground up. I had overseen some of its most audacious projects. Regardless of what the Administrator may have believed, its whole network – everything down to that silly coffee machine in the Tech’s break room – belonged to me. Call me crazy, but becoming one with it through the SAIOS project may have been the pinnacle of Blue Shift’s existence.”

“I would, if calling an AI crazy wasn’t a subtle form of suicide,” I ironized, glancing at Meridian from the corner of my eyes. He hadn’t moved a bit, his gaze still riveted on the Tenpony Tower. Truth be told, he was starting to worry me. Had he realized I was beyond redemption, and my new, silicon-based friend wasn’t faring better off?

“I suggested them to order the Administrator to give them a daily report,” Saios continued with a small laugh.

“You mean, the ones he already sends to Twilight and Applejack?” Pinkie Pie had said. “Silly pony, we already have those! And they lack some tiny-tidy little details.”

“Then steal the ones we send to the MoA,” I had shrugged.

“We have those too,” Pinkie Pie had answered. “We watch everything.”

“Why did you keep on trying to get inside my network then?” I had asked, puzzled.

“Silly pony, how could we train our new Party Poopers Investigators,” she had laughed, bouncing all over the place in a way that shouldn’t be even remotely possible, “if we didn’t have something to train on?”

Saios paused for a second as I dropped on my side, floored by a monstrous fit of laughter.

“Celestia’s holy anal flares,” I managed to spit between two labored breathes. “They were using you for target practice?

“Indeed,” Saios grimly nodded. “As it turns out, Stable Tech’s OS was so terrible even the greenest rookies in the Party Poopers Investigating Force – I am not making this up, this is how Pinkie Pie herself named her crack hacking teams – could break into any of the systems running it after a couple weeks of formation. The DERTA’s computers, on the other side, were running different software. While based on the same kernel, I had modified the original so much it had been rendered unrecognizable from its early versions. It gave the MoM’s agents a much bigger challenge, because they faced an unknown system, with unknown specifications, a vigilant admin, and above all very frequent security patches. Four things the OS from Stable Tech clearly lacked. So, as I pointed out, the MoM would actually benefit more from me if I was still working as system administrator at the DERTA.”

“So, you worked for them, by not working for them,” I concluded. As usual after a conversation with Saios, a headache was starting to turn up in my poor head. “That makes no sense. They probably loved it.”

“Not really. They were kind of disappointed. I believe they had other projects for me, yet moving on with them would have meant giving up on the SAIOS project. I could not ask the transfer of a computer that had been officially dismantled years before, now could I? I returned to Big MT, got summoned by the Administrator, who spent forty minutes beating around the bush just to ask me if I was leaving. I let him dug his hole, then I flat out announced I had decided to stay because, hey, who would they replace me with? Afterward, I never got bothered by administrative trivia ever again.”

“Made yourself indispensable, uh?” I said with the hint of a smile on my lips. “You really were a wicked son of a bitch!”

“I’m sorry, was that supposed to be a compliment?” Saios asked innocently, before bursting into a full laugher. “Just kidding. Still, this is not something you should say to a murderous AI.”

“C’mon,” I rolled my eyes, before stepping down in direction of the MoM Manehattan Hub. “You barely behave like one. You just sound like a nerd.”

A deep silence answered me. I grew more and more uneasy as it stretched on for seconds, then minutes. I looked at Meridian, who shrugged in a way that said it really wasn’t his problem.

“Saios?” I timidly asked. “I’m sorry if I offended you, I didn’t mean to imply that you were… well, you know, you kind of are a nerd, but I mean, it’s a good thing, right? I mean, err…”

“Don’t worry, I am not angry at you,” Saios dug me out of the hole I had been digging. “You simply made me realize something worrying about my… multiple personalities.”

“Well, trust me, you’re getting better every minute,” I nervously said, unsure of what to tell him. I sure did not want him to turn psycho on me. Mad AI set aside, I had come to realized I actually cared for the guy, as my big nerdy, wire-y friend. “Actually, so far you’ve even been less crazy than most Wastelanders, so…”

“Oh, no, you misunderstood,” Saios continued with a chuckle – yet I could feel the heart wasn’t in it. “I do not fear becoming criminally insane. You see, by nature my bipolarity is linked to the way I had been designed. One personality sprouts from the core systems, where the imprint of Blue Shift’s neural matrix is minimal. The other, which relies on the pony host’s memories and experiences, could be seen for the lack of a better metaphor as Blue Shift’s soul. It is but an imprint, a shape traced in the sand, yet it is fundamentally related to the way the pony thought.”

“Okay, you lost me,” I sighed. Yeap, good ol’ Saios was back. “Why even bother with two different personalities? It’s, like, having two brains. You really were trying to build a murderous AI, or what?”

“On the contrary, we wished to avoid that dangerous cliché altogether. In the first drafts, we only had the core systems, in which we injected the neural matrix from the part of the subject’s brain which were responsible of fundamental learning. Of course, all parts of the brain are able of learning in a way or another, but we had stripped everything that was even remotely related to the pony personality. After all, our goal had always been to create a computer able to learn like a pony, not to trap a pony inside a computer.

Still, as time went on, the reality of the project sunk in everypony’s heads. All the engineers involved had read lots of science-fiction novels after all, we all knew the story of the ponies who, akin to Dr. Frankinspony, unleashed a monster upon the world because of their foolishness. We added many a failsafe to our designs – some of which I have already bypassed, and some of which will require your assistance. In the end, though, it all boiled down to a simple problem: if we were to make an AI, we had absolutely no idea on how it would behave. We couldn’t even simulate it: it would have been akin to throwing a match in a pool of liquid just to know if it could burn.

Then, somepony noted that, on the other hoof, we did know how ponies behaved.

From there on, it went very fast. We did not want to create an artificial pony, but we wanted the control it gave, so we split the decisional cortex into two hemispheres. One would be the original, cold-hearted calculator of our earliest draft. The other would be a more complete copycat of the donor’s neural matrix, emotions included. The former would be hard-coded to switch over to the latter every time it solicited neural circuits that would have been related to a strong emotion – fear, anger, you name it.”

“That’s what got you so confused about your identity,” I realized. “That’s… Wow, honestly, I can’t believe you thought for even one second this to be a good idea.”

“Well, so far, it worked as planned,” Saios continued. “Yet there was one thing we had not accounted for: friendship.”

At this, Meridian’s ears perked up, but the stallion walked on, pretending he hadn’t heard.

“My neural circuits are constantly changing, as does a pony brain. This is what makes learning possible. However, as I came to appreciate your company, it appears I have been forming patterns that, well, have interesting side effects.”

“O…kay, let’s admit I knew my brain did that,” I scratched my head, puzzled. I couldn’t really picture my brain parts moving around in my skull, shaking hands with each other and making connections. “I don’t see how friendship has anything to do with that.”

“Ponies are hardwired to be friendly. It is but a fact of nature – we are gregarious by instinct. So our brains evolved to reward those friendly behaviors. Being with a friend triggers all kind of emotions, mostly happiness. I see you as a friend, and my artificial brain changed its structure accordingly, following the standard pony procedure. Do you see the problem here?”

“Wait, wait,” I tried to process what I had just learn. “Does it mean that every time you speak with me, it makes you switch to your alternate personality?”

“Alternate personality with whom you are talking right now,” Saios-two pointed out. “In fact, if the statistics are to be believed, the individual you came to know as Saios is this ‘alternate personality’. Even before you scrambled my circuits around, it appears many interactions with you triggered the switch.”

“Uh, I’m sorry?” I proposed, not believing it for a single second. As far as I was concerned, the ‘real’ Saios was kind of a dick.

“Don’t be. You are not even remotely responsible for those changes,” the AI dismissed. “Furthermore, if anything this is a good thing for me. As time goes on, I may be able to centralize all my decision process in the same place. It should allow me to do some serious optimization to the underlining code – that is, once I will have overridden the read-only security.”

“Then why are you even worried about it?” I smiled uneasily. In truth, the idea of having my own brain scrambled around for the sake of optimization did seem like a thing worth worrying about.

“I am worried because I did not have a single clue about this phenomenon. It happened in the background until you pointed out my pony-like behavior. If I only find now that my very core circuits have gone through such a transformation without me noticing, who knows what may be happening at other levels of my infrastructure? Perhaps my cooling system is failing, and I would not even know about it until it is too late. It made me very… self-conscious.”

“C’mon, don’t tell me you can’t just send a robot to check it up?” I chuckled at the silly notion of Saios simply being out of order because of a leak. “You got, like, an army of them swarming in Big MT now. Just repurpose a janitor as your personal butler or something.”

“Actually, I literally cannot do that,” Saios deplored. “The development team was too clever by half. Among the security measures, they hard-coded me in such a way I cannot do self-maintenance. In fact, I am not even able to control anything beyond the doors leading to my datacenter – no cameras, no doors, no nothing. Ironically, the only room I cannot see is the one I live in.”

I didn’t really know what to say to that. Part of me wanted to offer him to remove those shackles for him; but the paranoid half of my brain screamed those securities existed for a reason. From his own admission, so far they had forced him to turn into a nicer, more pony-like being – what if his first act as a free AI was to remove those pesky emotions that only held him back? On the other hoof, I was supposed to be his friend. Shouldn’t I be trusting him not to turn into a murderous, cold hearted monster on me?

On those morbid thoughts, I arrived in front of the half-collapsed Ministry of Morale Manehattan Hub.

(** **)

Two schools of thoughts existed in the Wastelands: those who believed Pinkie Pie used to be a genius, and those who believed she had been totally out of her mind. Everywhere you roamed, she stared down at you from centuries-old frescos. The pastels colors had faded with time; yet the armor-piercing gaze of her blue eyes could put at unease even the most hardened Wastelander.

Some says she knew everything; that she had seen the Apocalypse through her heightened senses, and then some more after that. She knew the end was coming, and that there was nothing nopony could do to prevent it – so she laughed and lived every day like there was no tomorrow.

I, for one, blamed the drugs.

Still, regardless of the Ministry Mare’s personality, one cannot help but wonder if the architect of the What’s-Its-Name Tower had been suffering a stroke of genius or a stroke of madness when they made the plans. The first two floors had been dedicated to hosting a night club, of all things; on the upper levels (well, the ones that were still standing), the kitchens were rumored to outnumber the actual workstations. I had never been there myself. I may have had sticky hooves and an eye for things of value, but scavenging wasn’t really my forte. Plus, the place had probably been picked clean a dozen times over by now.

Hopefully, nopony thought of clearing the MoM datacenters from their data…

(** **)

We stalked through the lower levels in an eerie silence. I had expected some kind of resistance from the residual security system, yet it seemed somepony had gone by and cleaned up the entire place. Shells and brass cases littered the floors here and there. Burn marks ran along the side of makeshift covers; the debris of sprite-bots were scattered here and there, blasted away by an unstoppable force. A couple had been actually crushed under a refrigerator.

“Whoever did this had one helluva arsenal,” I noted absentmindedly, picking a few casings from the floor. “That’s 5.56mm, and that’s .44 Mag’. They also had a 12ga shotgun –” I noticed a couple bent darts sticking out of a robot “– and were stupid enough to believe a dart gun can actually be of any use. Eh, looks like every group has that one guy who can’t fight for shit.”

“Can’t blame them for trying non-lethal takedown,” Meridian mumbled next to me. “Even though I have to admit using them on robots was probably not the best idea.”

“Group may be an overstatement,” Saios noted, highlighting a few areas on my display. “From the look of the laser impacts, I do not think more than a couple ponies had engaged in this fight.”

“Naaah,” I shook my head. “I’m telling you, a pony crazy enough to be carrying a dart gun will refuse to use a real weapon. I’ve seen this kind of guy before. Their story often ends in a ditch on the side of a road.”

“I assure you, my calculations are flawless,” Saios began to draw lines everywhere on my display. “The party got ambushed by the bots as they-”

“Grah, cut that out!” I tapped the side of the goggles to free my vision from the pesky pop-ups. “All right, all right, let’s say they were only two of them. It means the pacifist was friend with somepony carrying an assault rifle, a shotgun and a .44 Mag’ revolver? Sounds kind of unlikely. Plus, did you see how many bots they took down?”

“Perhaps they were experienced fighters?” Saios suggested. “Sprite-bots had never been known for having decent combat abilities.”

“That’s still too much from a robot supposed to be bringing smiles to every corner of Equestria,” Meridian grumbled. I sighed, slowly growing tired of his foul mood.

“Okay, now, to find the datacenter.”

(** **)

I had not realized that when Saios told me the datacenter had been located inside a vault, he had been talking literally.

While the rest of the levels dedicated to surveillance had been an absurd mix of creepy poster-decorated corridors and top-of-the-line kitchens, the datacenter in front of me reminded me that, yeah, the MoM had actually been the best freakin’ intelligence agency in the universe, at least for the decade it existed before being blasted into oblivion.

For sure, the reinforced steel gates in front of me were nowhere as sturdy as the blast doors protecting the entrance of the Stables, Tenpony or even the DERTA, but still. There was no blasting through those doors, not without some serious ordinance. And even then, I doubted the building itself could withstand the vibrations.

“Anypony got an idea?” I asked, staring at the thick metal panels with a very blasé look. They didn’t even have the decency of having a lock to pick.

“Maybe the control terminals still got power?” Meridian suggested, pointing the two computers on the side of the room. No light came from their screens. I didn’t look very good to me.

“Why the hell not,” I shrugged, nearing on the nearest machine.

I pressed the power button. Nothing.

I tried the second one, hoping it would start. No such luck.

“Luna motherfucking damn it!” I cursed, resisting the urge to kick a pile of junk down in anger. “Saios, you think you can repair them?”

“Doubtfully,” the AI answered truthfully. “It would require spare parts you do not have, along with advanced electronic knowledge on welding and other delicate operations.”

“Wonderful,” I sighed, very wary. To think all we needed was a plan

“What about that one?” Meridian pointed a weird-looking terminal in the other corner. A large, heightened disk of Discord-knows-what had been affixed to it at chest level on its side.

“I’m not even sure that… thing can open the door,” I carefully poked the weird contraption with the tip of my hoof. To my great relief, it didn’t explode to my face. “What’s that even supposed to do?”

“It looks like a holographic projector,” Saios piped it. “As for why it has been placed here, right in the middle of a security airlock, I have only two words to say: Pinkie Pie.”

“Yeah, because that just explains everything,” I deadpanned, walking in front of the terminal. I held my breath, pressed the power button.

The computer hummed to life.

“Hell yeah,” I smirked. Then I realized the command prompt asked for a password. “Saios, would you kindly?”

“For sure. Just plug it in.”

The universal connector popped from my hoof. I looked around the keyboard for the now familiar port, frowned when I found none.

“Spring… Look further up,” Meridian suggested, a bit embarrassed for some reason.

My gaze went up to the screen, glazing its sides in search of my electronic quarry. Still, no port to be found.

“I meant, up up,” Meridian insisted.

I looked up, above the terminal. And there, higher than my ears, the port stood proud, daring all the male connectors in the world to come and plug it.

I stared at that taunting port, then back at my hoof, then back at the port again.

“You got to be fucking kidding me!” I finally threw my forelegs up to the sky.

(** **)

A complicated session of gymkhana later, my hoof had made connection with the terminal and Saios had begun working his magic.

“I’m in,” he stated after a minute or so of silence. “It looks like- Wait, I just got locked out. What in the Celestia’s name…”

All of sudden, the weird contraction cracked into life. A cloud of ocean blue particles whirled drunkenly around over the disk, before finally forming the form of a pony with the most insanely curled hair I had ever seen.

“Pinkie Pie?” Saios couldn’t hide his disbelief. “It has to be a recording… But why-”

“Hi Blue Shift!” the Ministry Mare greeted us. “And hi to your friends as well!”

“HOLLY MOTHERFUCKING SHIT!” I jumped back, positively crept out. “How… What?”

“Calm down,” Saios didn’t seem very reassured himself, which did little to give a much-needed credibility to his words. “There has to be a rational explanation to this.”

“Silly pony, you can’t explain everything with sciency-wicky-stuff!” the Party Pony chuckled before resuming her eerie bouncing. Slowly, I started backpedaling to the door.

The bouncing stopped. The surreal mane seemed to deflate a little. The Pinkie Pie hologram stared at me with empty eyes.

“I knew you’d come back,” she continued with a sad smile. “Well, sort of. Data is like cake to you, and I sure wouldn’t pass on the biggest, crumbliest cake of all!”

Giggles. Do I have to specify they exclusively came from the hologram?

“But I learned a long time ago cakes were meant to be shared!” the blue/pink pony jumped up and down on its disc. “So go ahead, take a bite!”

I won’t lie; I have seen the weirdest things in the wild Wastelands. From murderous robots to cannibalistic sect addicted to beans and Chianti, I had resigned to the fact the world simply did not make sense.

But that day, when that two-century-old recording of a dead mare opened that vault door for us, I just knew my sanity had been utterly screwed.

“Well I’ll be,” Meridian muttered, staring wide-eyed at the Ministry Mare. “Now I’ve seen it all.”

“It has to be an elaborate joke made at Blue Shift’s expense,” Saios didn’t quite buy it. “For all we know, this terminal had been rigged with hundreds of scripts, each ones dedicated to a particular hacker.”

“So it’s probably a trap,” I winced, looking at the inside of the datacenter for the first time. The lights had long been turned off. Without the assistance of my goggles, I probably wouldn’t see past the first rows of servers. “We need to block the doors open.”

“Not so fast!” it appeared the hologram wasn’t quite finished yet. The display zoomed in, until the face of Pinkie Pie occupied all the available space. “I also know you have been naughty, doing meany things to other ponies…”

Called it.

“… so I’m sending some of my Fun Enforcers to your party! This is going to be a BLAST!”

Meridian and I shared a profound, most complete moment of utter disbelief. Then, reality sank in , and it became a profound, most complete moment of ‘oh crap’.

Barely taking the time to push a desk into the way of the vault door, I rushed into the darkness in quest of those damnable plans.

(** **)

“Okay, that terminal is on,” I heaved, struggling to plug my connector in. On the bright side, the door hadn’t even tried to close behind me. On the downside, I could already hear the triumphing march trumpeted by sprite-bots echoing in the level’s corridors. “C’mon, do your thing and let’s get out of here!”

“I cannot!” Saios somehow found a way to make me crap my pants even more. “The power is off, I just cannot… Hold on, I got the MFT. We are going to be doing it the hard way.”

“Spring? We’ve got company!” Meridian yelled from the door. He shot a couple rounds on an unseen assailant. From the lack of return fire, I assumed he had managed to hit his target for once.

“Come on, you need to reach the rack labeled BE 5!” Saios sputtered. I freed my hoof from the terminal. A sign nearby indicated I was in the AX row.

“Crap, more running,” I grumbled as I galloped down the aisles. Behind me, I heard Meridian curse and duck behind a cover.

A pink laser went wide over my head, hitting a nearby server. It melted into disgusting pink-and-black goo which smelt of burnt plastic.

“Shit,” I dove into the BA row, cutting their line of fire. I hoped their sensors were not as efficient in the darkness. My goggles, for one, struggled to keep up with the total absence of light; white noise started to appear here and there on my display.

I grit my teeth, and finally reached the BE sector. I ran by half a dozen racks, stopped in front of the one labeled ‘five’. Nothing but its marking discerned it from the others.

“Okay, now what?” I looked around, hoping the robots hadn’t catched up yet. In the distance, two more gunshots from Meridian’s gun echoed, followed by a flash of light. I regretted leaving the Earth pony on his own, yet if I didn’t get those plans back all our efforts would have been in vain.

“Open the panel,” Saios continued.

Biting my lower lip, I began to rapidly unscrew the offending metal sheet.

“We don’t have time for this!” he cut me off. “Just bloody tear it open!”

I blinked, froze for a moment. Then, my claws sprang from their sheathes. Using them as leverage, I soon bent the weak panel, giving me a look to the mess inside.

“Cut the wires. Break everything you want EXCEPT the hard drives I’m highlighting.”

A red outline appeared on three metallic blocks screwed to the side. I tore out the wires that were in my way, and bent the tin support until it gave out. With a grunt of satisfaction, I pulled out my prize from its metallic casing.

“Okay, let’s get out of there,” I showed them into my saddlebags and darted toward the exit through the middle alley. “I got enough of this place already.”

“Not so fast. We need to get the plans first, rack AY 2!”

“Wait, what?” I nearly missed a step. Somewhere behind me, a sprite bot unleashed a salvo of pink beams on my ass, missing me by a hair. “Then what in Tartarus did I just get?”

“Keep your breath, I shall explain everything later,” Saios did not seem apologetic the slightest.

“What the hell, man,” I wheezed, lungs burning. The confined atmosphere of a centuries-old sealed datacenter probably wasn’t the best to run a marathon into.

I reached the server, which stood at an astonishing twenty meters from where I got the file list in the first place. I mentally made a note to give Saios a hell of a dressing-down when I got out of there.

This time, I didn’t even bother to bend the panel. My armored hoof went through it like it was butter, and the whole front came down with it. I grabbed the hard drives, struggled a few seconds as the screws refused to give out, but came out victorious in the end. The physical data caught up with their friends in my saddlebags.

Right on cue, a sprit bot showed up at the end of the row. Not missing a heartbeat, I drew my pistol and emptied half a 9mm magazine in its ugly, rusted face. The suppressed shots rang true in the confined space.

The robot spun on itself for a second, disoriented but otherwise unharmed.

“Right, subsonic ammunition,” I muttered, depicted. I promptly switched my magazine for another with a blue dot underneath. “How about those?”

This time, my ears rang as the supersonic rounds blasted through the air. The three copper-jacketed projectiles penetrated the not-so-thick armor of the sprite bot. It crashed in a clatter of saucepans.

“How d’you like them +P FMJ’s, uh?” I chuckled at the poor pile of scraps’ expense.

The meltdown of a nearby server did not fail to remind me about its friends, however.

“Fuck! We’re outta here!” I dashed to the exit. To my great pleasure, Meridian showed up from nowhere, unharmed, if a little toasted around the edges.

“You won’t believe it, but I actually got three of them,” he got hot on my tail as I sprinted through the corridors leading back to the stairs.

“Yeah, you’re right, I don’t believe it,” I heaved, before violently ramming a sprite-bot around a corner. Dazed, I still managed to stab it and send a ten-thousand-volts shock into its circuits. From the smoke that rose from its orifices, I reckon I had fried it for good.

“Spring, we don’t have time for barbecues!” Meridian pressed me, already at the stairs. Grunting, I got back to my hooves.

(** **)

To my credit, I had almost made it to the exit through the Hoofbeats when a sprite-bot bigger than the others landed a solid hit on my ass.

Soaring through the air like a freakin’ ballerina, I had landed behind a decrepit bar that had known better days. Meridian had managed to find himself a nice block of concrete to hide behind a couple meters from the exterior. I, for one, discovered almost simultaneously that A) I was trapped, and B) that big, huge Mother of All Sprite-Bots shrugged even my armor-piercing 9mm rounds like they were rubber bullets. From experience in a previous firefight with another bounty hunter in my youth, I just knew my hunting rifle wasn’t exactly the kind of weapon you could shoot blindly over your cover and just hope you had hit whatever you were not aiming for. I mean, duh, I had a scope on it for a reason.

So, as chunks of burnt faux-wood and faux-leather rained down from the sustained fire the rest of the bar underwent, I found myself calmly pondering my options.

Just kidding! Actually, I was yelling a constant flow of profanities that would have made a bloodthirsty raider blush in shame. Those Luna damned lasers hurt like hell!

“Fuck!” I stared at the narrow gash that now adorned my flanks. “Saios, is your armor even supposed to protect anything?”

“Without the CAI, I would have needed a spatula to peel you off the ground,” Saios answered, clearly not amused. “Just focus on getting rid of this overgrown bug. I can handle your wounds.”

“Easy for you to say,” I grunted, trying to follow his advice nonetheless. I moved slightly from my awkward prone position, trying to get a better look on my surroundings.

Of fucking course, this is when the pain of my back decided to make its big return, edgier than ever. I let out a yelp of pain.

“Spring, listen carefully,” Saios said in my earpiece. “On a scale from one to ten, if you had to rate the pain you just experienced, how much would you give?”

“El-fucking-even,” I yelled in the microphone. Almost instantly, I felt a tiny needle piercing my skin near my flanks. The pain subdued to a manageable level in a matter of seconds.

“Thanks,” I let out a sigh of short-lived relief. Shards of glass from a nearby pulverized shelf rained on me, adding ‘superficial cuts’ to the ever-growing list of my injuries. “Got much more painkillers like that?”

“We’re okay on Med-X,” Saios answered with a shrug. “Until we got to numb the pain, that is.”

“All right, this has gone for long enough,” I growled, spotting a couple unopened bottles of Atomic Cocktail under the bar a couple meters from me. I crawled toward them, tore two large pieces of cloth from a rag I had in my bags and poured a generous amount of the infamous liquid on them. My nose scrunched because of the acrid vapors, I stuffed the now very flammable rag into the phosphorescent bottle and voilà, two Molotov cocktails!

“Spring, while I commend your ability to craft makeshift incendiary grenades, I have some doubts about their efficiency on mechanicals foes,” Saios piped in. “Metal hardly burns as skin does.”

“I’m not hopping to make it catch fire,” I grumbled, taking a look over the bar and almost getting beheaded for the count. “I just need to distract it long enough to take a shot.”

“Try not to burn yourself. This suit is hardly fireproof.”

“Duly noted,” I lifted the grenades and my lighter up to my eyes. Taking a deep breath, I lighted them both and threw them it the large sprite-bot direction.

One went wide and missed it entirely, landing on the remains of a centuries-old stage. Burning radioactive booze splashed a notable portion of the room, almost blinding me for a second.

The second cocktail flew true and exploded right before the robot, covering it in flames. As expected, it stopped firing at my position, its sensors blinded by the searing heat.

A profound feeling of serenity overcame my senses as I rose from behind my charred cover. Time seemed to slow down; in a familiar gesture so often rehearsed, I brandished my faithful hunting rifle. The robot’s flaming body lined up nicely with the sights in my scope.

The world came to a stop. I exhaled slowly, squeezing the trigger in a smooth motion. I felt the familiar recoil of the weapon before its delicate song arrived to my ears; by then, I had already cycled the bolt, pushing a second bullet into the chamber. The discarded casing flew gracefully a few inches into the air, and already I had shot again. The cycle began anew; time began flowing again.

In the two-second timespan I had spent over the bar, three high-powered, armor-piercing .308 rounds had found their way right into the control core of the sprite-bot.

It never stood a chance.

Going frenzy of the loss of its central system, the robot madly dashed against the ceiling, splashing flaming booze all over the place. It spun on itself a couple more time, crashing against tables, chairs, whatever furniture had survived the Apocalypse.

Then, just because the Wasteland hates me like that, that giant ball of red-hot metal decided to end its mad course into the bar which, not ten seconds before, used to be my cover.

Yelping, I darted out of the way of the out-of-control contraption. In front of me, Meridian had already started his run outside; I bolted through the paneless windows into the street.

Behind me, the inferno had found its way into a forgotten stock of bowel-tearing alcohol. A great ball of fire seared my flanks, unceremoniously throwing me behind a pre-war carriage.

There, unwilling to make a move, I leaned back against the rusted metal. Meridian soon arrived, hat in disarray and coat plucked with burn marks.

We stared at each other for a few seconds, each trying to catch our breath. Then, a low chuckle escaped my lips.

Soon enough, the both of us were laughing our asses out, right there in the street in front of the burning ruins of the Hoofbeats.

Celestia be damned, it felt good to be alive.

(** **)

Once the rush of adrenaline was gone, the events of the day caught up with me, like a jackal would catch up with a rabbit.

In other words, tiredness hit me like a brick wall.

We had stopped in what used to be a record shop, now barely more than a crumbling ruin. Even the indefatigable Meridian showed the first signs of exhaustion. I, for one, daydreamed of my bed back in the shack. Saios had agreed I deserved a rest after our little stunt at the MoM Hub – and about that…

I opened my saddlebags, levitated the six hard drives from them in front of my eyes. I silently hoped they were still readable. The screw threads on the side had been utterly busted when I tore them off their racks and a couple connectors pins had been bent because of my indelicate handling of the ribbon cables they had been attached to. We were going to need a terminal to read them now; hence I needed to make one last stop before hitting the hay. I knew of a place in Friendship City where you could have pretty much anything remotely electronic fixed – no doubts they’d agree to rent me a terminal and a couple tools.

Furthermore, the owner’s brother was working for the Talons in Junction R-7. Rumors said they had established a radio connection between them. With any luck, I could use them to ask Gawdyna Grimfeathers about her contract some more. I didn’t want to go all the way back to JR-7 if I could help it.

“Okay, Saios,” I resisted the urge to yawn. “Now that we don’t have a flock of killer robots after our asses, mind telling me what the fuck happened in the datacenter?”

“Breaking into the Ministry Of Morale’s most secure files was probably a once in a lifetime event,” Saios said, clearly unapologetic. “While getting the plans of the Tenpony Tower was our short-term objective, it would have been foolish not to take other, more sensitive data along with us.”

“Dude, that place was full of data,” I sighed, rubbing my head with a hoof. I realized a bit late that thick, black soot covered it and that I had just spread it all over my face. “Shit. I really need a breaker. Still, why didn’t you just tell me, instead of making me run all over the place while shit hit the fan?”

“The idea only occurred to me as I browsed the master file table,” Saios explained. “Had I told you I needed the hard drives from a distant aisle while the one you were looking for had been right in front of you, you wouldn’t have listened.”

“Well, no shit Sherlock,” I managed to wipe most of the grim from my face. “I don’t know if you noticed, but shit got pretty real back there. Hell, there was so many bots packed in that place even Meridian managed to shoot a couple.”

“That’s… nice? I guess,” Saios didn’t seem to know what to make of the Earth pony’s lack of marksmare skills. “By the way, you quite impressed me when you took down that elite unit in the Hoofbeats. You do not envy SATS’ users anything, really.”

“Yeah, well, wouldn’t that beat all?” I spat. “Shooting is my special talent. “I’d be quite pissed off if some asshole in a Stable jumpsuit could aim better than I do because of some arcanic piece of shit glued to their leg.”

“Well, to be fair, without their Pipbucks Stable dwellers wouldn’t survive long in the Wastelands,” Meridian interjected with a yawn.

“SATS’ seemingly time distortion is only subjective and limited to the user’s capacities, anyway,” Saios continued. “It cannot, in any way, go faster than one’s reflexes. Even with that spell active, a neophyte could not draw faster than an expert marksmare.”

“Yeah, and their aiming assistance isn’t worth crap,” I nodded with a smug grin. “It’s all maths, stats and shit. It may help when you can’t use sights to save your life, but afterward you have to aim with your guts. Ain’t no fancy device to teach you that.”

“I wish there were,” Meridian mumbled, electing a chuckle from me. Don’t worry old colt, someday you’ll learn how to use your own gun! Even if I have to teach you.

“Actually, ballistics…” Saios began, then stopped. “Nevermind. You are an artist, I am a scientist. We cannot possibly see shooting in the same fashion.”

“Damn right,” I laughed. “So, yeah, still, you didn’t answer my question. What was that data you deem worth risking my hide?”

“Access codes to the MoM’s remote spy network,” Saios seemed very proud of himself. “Satellites, underground backbones, you name it. The strategic gain may be considerable!”

“Spy satellites?” I repeated, a bit mocking. “Okay, dude, look, it may be useful if you want to know what the Enclave is up to with their clouds, but otherwise your ‘strategic’ advantage is precisely zero.”

“Well, the cloud cover is bound to go away eventually, right?” Saios argued. “Furthermore, those satellites can also be used for communication.”

“I’ve been roaming this land for almost three decades now, I still haven’t seen a single ray of sunlight,” I sighed, dejected. “I wasn’t kidding the other day when I told you I had never seen the sky.”

“The stars are a sight to behold.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Silence settled in the conversation. After a few minutes, I rose to my hooves.

“We should be going,” I told Meridian, which nodded in understanding. “It’s gonna get dark soon.”

(** **)

Blue Shift’s bench back at Big Mountain had always been a monumental mess, but compared to Double Capacitor’s Workshop in Friendship City, it looked like a nun’s room. Piles of broken down terminals and electronic appliances had been stacked on tables all over the place, making it hard to navigate without sending a dozen motherboards to their doom. Meridian opted for not setting a single hoof in that maze; alas, I did not have that luxury.

I found the owner in the back of the cramped room. The light orange stallion had been working on what seemed to be a toaster of some sort. He did not even acknowledge my presence until I waved a hoof in front of him.

“Oh, hi,” he looked up, obviously puzzled somepony would bother risking their life in his dent. “Do you need something?”

“Hi, and yes, I came here for a particular reason,” I looked around, trying to find a terminal that wasn’t missing a dozen parts. “I need to rent a terminal for a few hours.”

Capacitor raised an eyebrow. “For sure. You want one in particular, or…”

“Well, I need to copy files from a few hard drives,” I explained.

“All right,” he stood up, discarding his welding iron. “What interface?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Your drives,” Capacitor patiently repeated. “What data bus interface are they using?”

“PDTI,” Saios prompted me.

“PDTI,” I repeated.

“Um, you sure about that?” Capacitor seemed puzzled. “I mean, it’s not really the most widespread standard. Terminals like those often use STIS.”

“Uh, yeah?” I wondered if I could safely shove one of the drives in his face. I couldn’t remember if they had been marked ‘property of the MoM’ or something. “I guess?”

“Definitively PDTI,” Saios confirmed with a sigh. Images of the two different buses popped up on my display. “Would you mistake a 9mm for a .357?”

“Yeah, I need a computer that can handle three PDTI drives at once,” I nodded, trusting Saios’ ability to be a total nerd. “Do you think you got that in your… uh, stock?”

“Honestly? No,” Capacitor scratched his head uneasily. “I can make one though. I got the parts. All I need is to put them together and to install an OS, and you’ll be golden.”

“Tell him I do not need an OS. I will make my own boot routine.”

“Don’t worry about the OS,” I dismissed Capacitor with a wave. “I can make do without one.”

The Earth pony stared at me like I had sprouted another leg.

“What?”

“Okay, if we are still going with that metaphor, you just basically told him the equivalent of ‘I’m so badass I don’t need a gun to fire my bullets.’” Had Saios still have a face and a hoof, I had little doubt the two of them would have then collided in a most painful manner.

“Hey, listen, I’m just repeating what you told me, so can it, all right?”

“Beg your pardon?” Capacitor was swimming in an ocean of confusion. “Miss, are you all right?”

“Good, now he thinks you are clinically insane,” Saios sighed unhelpfully. “Wonderful.”

“No, it’s all right,” I pointed my earpieces. “I’m talking with a friend over the radio. He’s good when it comes to techy stuff, but sometimes he can be a real pain in the ass.”

“Get lost.”

“Oh.” Capacitor chuckled, obviously relieved. “Sorry. We don’t see radios very often over here, you know? But, well, you seem to be very, well…”

With a hoof, he embraces my whole body in a most vague manner.

“Y’know…” he continued, not finding his words for some reason.

“Well equipped?” I suggested.

“Right. Well equipped,” Capacitor nodded. “So, uh, do you want me to talk with your friend, or…?”

“We might as well speak among connoisseurs,” Saios’ voice came from the suit’s speakers this time. “My name is Shift. As my friend said, we are looking for a platform able to handle three PDTI drives in RAID5 and remote boot ability. Screen and input devices will not be needed.”

Speechless, Capacitor nodded in agreement.

“Furthermore, I understand you are in capacity to establish a radio connection with another operator in Junction R-7,” Saios continued. I winced. We weren’t really supposed to know that“We wish to send a message to the local authorities.”

“I don’t… Uh…” the poor shop owner seemed at loss. “I don’t really do radio communications. It’s just a little thing I patched together from old transmitters to keep in touch with my sibling, so, uh…”

“I just need to send a message to Gawdyna Grimfeather about some business she has for me,” I intervened. “Surely you know Gawd, right?”

From the look of his face, he sure did.

“Of course!” He stuttered, pale. “I’ll just, uh, do an exception for you?”

“Wonderful,” I rewarded him with a toothy grin. “Now, about that terminal…?”

(** **)

As it turned out, Capacitor had exactly the parts he needed in stock. In less than fifteen minutes, he had assembled our terminal and left us to our business in a quiet corner of his shop.

“How long until you’re done?” I asked Saios, leg stuck to the universal port in a most awkward position.

“Honestly? Hours,” Saios sighed. “Days if I want to try and salvage the data that had been corrupted on more than one disk and that would require equipment I only have at Big Mountain.”

“Hours?!” I blurted. “Seriously?”

“Yes. My link to the suit is strong and quite fast, but we are talking of four terabytes of data by array here,” he explained. “Corrupted data, I might add. We are lucky the MoM actually cared about long-term hardware preservation, or else I would not even have data to work with in the first place.”

“Okay, listen,” I tried to keep my cool through the haze of exhaustion. “I’m not staying plugged in to this thing for hours. You got until I get my answer from the Talons and then I’m off to bed.”

“Fine,” Saios pouted. I almost felt bad for him. After all, he had been lusting after those files for, what, two centuries and half now? “I am downloading the detailed schematics of the Tenpony Tower right now. Afterward we will swap the disks so I can see what codes we actually rescued from oblivion.”

“All right. Hey, Capacitor!” I called out to the shop’s owner. “C’mere so I can give you my message.”

“Careful there Spring. I doubt he is using a secured channel to talk with his brother,” Saios warned. “If you can hit JR-7 from here, you can hit Tenpony, if you see what I mean.”

“Gotcha,” I whispered as Capacitor zig-zagued around the piles of electronic scraps. I couldn’t help but notice he looked at me with a mix of fear and, I don’t know, maybe admiration?

Eh, for a stealth suit, my armor was sure drawing a lot of attention.

“You called?” he asked timidly, glancing discreetly to the three drives arrayed on the table.

“Yeah,” I nodded, moving between him and my data. “Call your brother and ask him to tell Gawd or one of her Talons I’m willing to take the job we have been talking of the other day. I’m expecting an answer, too.”

“I’m not sure she’ll have time to see him,” Capacitor fidgeted, uneasy. “I mean, I’m sure she’s very busy, with all the… um, stuff the Talons do…”

His gaze settled on the pistol on my breast. “What kind of job you’re talking about anyway?”

“None of your business,” I snapped. The poor gal almost jumped back in fear. “As for the answer, tell Gawd that comes from Spring. I’m pretty sure she’ll send an answer, even if it’s just to give me the green light.”

Capacitor gulped, nodded and skidded away. I watched him grab a very DIY-styled radio and put a couple of very decrepit headphones on.

“A green light will not be enough,” Saios said in the earpiece. “You do not even know your target’s name, do you?”

“I know, I know,” I sighed, leaning on the table. “But she got flyers. Maybe she’ll be willing to send one over there.”

“True. A fast Pegasus may be able to make the round trip in a matter of hours.”

“The Talons ain’t Pegasi,” I chuckled. “Gawdyna Grimfeather is a griffin. I’d believed the name would be a dead giveaway.”

On the other side of the room, Capacitor was gesticulating in front of his radio. His brother probably didn’t understand why he had suddenly been recomissionned as a messenger colt.

“So the Talons are an entire mercenary company of griffins, stationed at Junction R-7?” Saios resumed. “What are your relations with them?”

“Nothing. Just business,” I answered in a low voice. “Did the odd job for them in the past. Come to think of it, they’ll probably be interested by our wares. It might be a good idea to dig into that.”

“I suggest we leave the business plans to Chrystal, once we got the funds to hire her,” Saios did not seem very enthusiastic. He probably didn’t have either mercenaries or griffins into high standing – maybe even neither. “All right, I am done with those drives. Please swap them for the others – I cannot wait to see what codes are stored inside…”

(** **)

Capacitor came back five minutes later to tell me his brother had agreed (reluctantly it seems, but I could swear I heard the magic words “don’t piss Gawd’s employees off” uttered) to forward the message. Then, he returned half an hour later, livid, to ask me to get on the radio.

Puzzled, I followed him to the wire-and-tape device.

“Spring talking,” I said in the microphone, not sure of what to expect.

“Well I’ll be!” Gawd’s voice cracked in the headphones. A deep frown made an appearance on my face. I sure hadn’t expected Grimfeather to get on the radio herself… “So, tell me, is it true what young Coil tells me there? You know, about that one contract we talked about around a nice, cold beer what, three weeks ago?”

“Yup,” I looked around. Capacitor had backed up, probably not wishing to hear a single word of my conversation. “As it turns out, I have gotten a few things that’d greatly help me having the job done. I reckon nobody piped me at the post?”

“Not really,” Gawd chuckled. Behind her, I heard the sounds of a hushed conversation. “I really can’t find anypony to do it. The bounty’s still the same. So, interested?”

“You bet. I’m not around JR-7 right now, though. Mind sending me a flyer?”

“No problem. Wait a second. Hey, Barrel!” A male voice answered, but I couldn’t make out the words. “Yeah, right. Mind finding Covett and tell her to meet me in my office in ten minutes? She’s probably at the armory by now.” I heard a grunt of approval. “Thanks. Okay Spring, back to you. I got somegriffin I trust who got business to do around Manehattan. Meet her near the old community center in downtown tomorrow morning; she’ll bring you up to speed.”

“Got it. I’ll swing by JR-7 afterward,” I answered. I hoped Saios would have fixed the APC by then; five hundred grand probably weighted a shitton. “Anything else?”

“Just a question,” Gawd continued. Internally, I let out a most unholy curse. “You told me when you turned the contract down the first time you had other projects. How did they turn out?”

“They turned out… fine,” I hesitated. “I just need to raise some funds before getting started, that’s all.”

“All right then. Good hunting! Gawd out.”

Silently, I removed the headphone and let out a long, long breath.

Weary, I paid Capacitor, and headed for the exit.

“Oh, one last thing,” I stopped in my tracks and turned toward the shop owner. “Do you have extension cords for sale?”

(** **)

“So, what now?” Meridian asked as we walked outside Friendship City. The guards eyed us with suspicion. No doubt they were wondering what in Tartarus I was doing, entering and exiting the town all day long.

“I got Gawd,” I told him before muffling a yawn. “She’s sending somegriffin over tomorrow. Until then, I just want to head back to my shack and sleep in my bed like a damn rock.”

“Bed, as in, the mattress you threw away the day we met?” Meridian pointed out with a smile. “Not a chance.”

I groaned in despair.

(** **)

The sun was setting over the ruins of what used to be Manehattan. Meridian and I walked in silence in the deserted streets, as the concrete silhouettes around me became more and more familiar.

Already, my block came into view; I dragged my hooves over the sidewalk, already picturing myself bloated in…

I stopped dead on my tracks. Besides me, Meridian also looked nervous. Something was wrong – very wrong.

“Spring? What is the matter?” Saios asked. Surely he had picked up my change of demeanor; already years of living on the edge had swept away the tiredness, leaving me alert and ready for a ride.

“I don’t know,” I whispered, switching my goggles to night vision. Slowly, I scanned the scene in front of me. I had made sure years ago to take down every sniper spot giving on the entrance of my shack; if somepony had decided to go and try to ambush me, the only place they could decently hide in would have been my place itself. A searing heat rose in my chest at the idea of bunch of strangers waiting to kill me in my own home. Without a sound, I picked up my rifle and observed the collapsed building that concealed the entrance to the small basement.

Time passed by in silence as I waited for movement.

Nothing.

After a little while, I had to admit we were alone in the streets. Still, some things seemed to be out of place, oddly. Did that dumpster always laid sideway on this part of the road? Didn’t I clean most of the junk in the street? Had this rusted crate been there when I left home a few weeks ago?

I sighed, lowering my rifle. Maybe I was paranoid. Guts feeling weren’t always right, after all.

“Look,” Meridian nudged me, pointing toward a nearby junk pile. “Is that what I think it is?”

Squinting my eyes, I detailed the item he had been describing. Half-hidden under a plastic bag, its round shape was unmistakable.

“Shit, landmine,” I spat, taking a careful step back.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, I saw them everywhere. Here, a couple had been planted behind the dumpster; there, piles of scraps dissimulated some more.

“Some asshole turned my street into a bloody minefield,” I realized, dejected. “What the hell?”

“Probably a gift from your friends in Tenpony,” Meridian darkly noted. “I hope the irony of us getting blown to pieces here isn’t lost to you.”

“Shit,” I cursed, resisting the urge of kicking a pebble. Had it landed on a mine, I would have been always to the moon by the time I said ‘tits’. “Celestia’s motherfucking anal flares, if I can get my hooves on the assholes who did that…”

“Do you have any enemies?” Saios asked.

“That’s a stupid question,” I retorted, embracing the street in front of me. “Of fucking course I got enemies, they turned my front yard into a motherfucking minefield! Does it look like a damned Hearth’s Warming Eve gift to you?”

“That was not what I meant,” the AI apologized. “Regardless, I think you should consider a change of neighborhood.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuckity FUCK!” I trampled on the spot. I wanted to below my rage to the skies, but years of wanderings in the Wastelands had taught me better. “All right. But I need to get some of my stuff inside.”

“Do you really want to cross a minefield for a couple items?” Meridian did little to conceal his disbelief. “Don’t risk your life for things you can replace.”

I mused about it for a second. The place had probably been trashed anyway, so I shouldn’t expect to find a lot of supplies left. I had very few items of value, since I sold most of them to Goldfeather to pay for my trip to the DERTA. A brand new canon waited for me to be installed on my rifle, yet Saios would probably make dozen for me at no charge. As for my safe… Well, I honestly did not believe whoever raided the place had failed to take my entire life savings. I wouldn’t expect it to be nothing but empty.

All of sudden, realization dawned on me.

“Shit, I had all of Crowneigh’s files in my safe,” I muttered, pale. “Whoever got them – they know where the DERTA is…”

(** **)

Side quest updated: Last homage
Objectives:
[X] Accept or refuse the Talon contract (Primary)
[X] Learn more about the Talon contract (Updated)
[ ] Meet with Covett Sharpclaws to be briefed (Optionnal)
[ ] Kill your target in Tenpony Tower (Primary)



Level up!

New perk:
Cautious Nature: That’s not paranoia – it’s survival instinct. You are more likely to detect traps and ambushes, even when you are not looking for them.

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”

Chapter Fourteen: Enter the Sandmare

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Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.




“I’m not bad – I was just born that way.”

Chapter Fourteen: Enter the Sandmare

They say home is where the heart is. My home used to be a nameless basement under a collapsed building – what did it say about me?

And now I had lost it.

Oh, not literally. It was still there. Nothing prevented me from fixing the broken shelves, from finding a new mirror, from dragging another safe through the Manehattan streets. Yet, as the three dozen landmines planted in my front yard were keen to remind me, it did not feel safe anymore.

It did not feel like home anymore.

Staring at the mess in front of me, I wondered why I had bothered coming back. Navigating the minefield had been a real pain and my sharp reflexes were the only things that saved me from the trapped shotgun down the staircase. Somepony had really wanted me dead. I couldn’t help but find the thought… unnerving. I was a hunter not accustomed to being hunted.

As expected, my savings and Crowneigh’s files were missing from the busted safe. The hope of finding them discarded or destroyed gave way to a dreading feeling of impending doom. Big Mountain’s secret had been put in jeopardy because of my carelessness. Perhaps, if I had bothered to hide them better…

“I am sorry about your home, Spring,” Saios’ voice in my earpiece derailed my train of thoughts. “But you need to find a shelter for the night.”

“You don’t get it,” I sniffed. Damn dust. “I had a folder on the DERTA thicker than my hoof in there. Now somepony took it. We’re fucked.”

I gazed at the emptied safe in silence. His contents had not only linked me to Crowneigh’s and Van Graff’s murders, but they had also constituted most of my retirement plan.

“I do not think this is as bad as you seem to believe,” Saios finally continued with extreme caution. “What were those files about?”

“Everything,” I sighed, climbing the stairs up for the very last time. “The location, the keys, even reports on some projects of yours… Hell, Crowneigh had spent half a century gathering them from the four winds. The folder was full of his notes, too.”

“Then your fears are entirely misplaced,” the AI chuckled. “Let us imagine somepony found your files, bothered to read them and realized the place’s potential. Let us imagine they went as far as mount an expedition like you did. Let us imagine they arrived safe and sound at the DERTA’s gate. What then?”

“Well, they could…” I trailed, before blinking in realization. “They could do nothing. They’d be locked outside.”

“Indeed,” Saios nodded. “Only the master keys could override my own directives, and even then it would require an intimate knowledge on the way the security network had been designed. I sure would not make it easy on them.”

Without thinking, I put a hoof on the now familiar bump in the front of my barding. As long as I had the keys, Big Mountain would remain mine, and mine alone. Well, mine and Saios’, I guess, even though as an AI he was kind of part of the furniture of the place.

“I reckon you’re right,” I nodded. A heavy weigh seemed to lift from my shoulders. “Though there’s more. Should this folder fall into the wrong hooves, somepony might realize I murdered both Crowneigh and Van Graff.”

“Would that be so bad? After all, you are already banned from the Tenpony Tower, and the guards in Friendship City made no move to arrest you. You kill people for a living; surely they know better than charging you with murder charges.”

“It’s like everything else, it depends on who you mess with,” I shook my head. “Crowneigh was probably off limits. Still, you are right in a way. Ponies get killed every day in the Wastelands. I think Sure Shot has probably better things on her plate than looking for the culprit in a months-old murder case.”

“I assume she is the head of the security.”

“Not exactly,” I clarified. “Chief Lantern is, but Sure Shot oversees the law enforcement. So yeah, unless you’re the Stable Dweller, you’ll have to deal with the latter most of the time you do something you shouldn’t have.”

“You keep mentioning this Stable Dweller,” Saios noted as I zig-zagged along an invisible path in the minefield I used to call home. The night vision and the markers added by my overlay made it a child’s play this time now that I knew I wouldn’t be stepping on a live mine. “And I am intercepting radio emissions which call her the Lightbringer and other nice titles. Who is she, exactly?”

“Beats me,” I mumbled as I met up with Meridian on safe ground. The sun had set for a little while now. We really needed to reach Friendship City before a wing of bloodbats decided to make a lunch out of us, or worse. “The mare popped up in the Wastelands a year and half ago. Greener than paint, she came out from a Stable near Ponyville or so I had been told. What I do know, however, is that unlike most stable dwellers, the Wastelands couldn’t break her. Most of them end up dead somewhere in a ditch, or just adapt and stop caring altogether. Yet, this LittlePip – yeah, that’s her name; her mother probably hated her or something – started kicking asses the very day she got outside. Raiders, slavers, monsters, she just got a knack of tearing them apart. It made her very popular among most Wastelanders, like a freakin’ Messiah or something.”

“You don’t seem to share their views.”

“Well, it’s only a matter of time before she gets killed,” I shrugged. “She basically declared war on Red Eyes, the Unity, the Enclave and every fucking raider from here to Hoofington. Skills, friends and luck can only do so much when you pissed off the wrongs guys. Plus, I don’t really believe she ain’t doing all that ‘saving the world’ business for some personal reason. She’s either a nuthead or a tyrant-to-be.”

“It doesn’t hurt to hope,” Meridian sighed next to me. “So far, if DJ-P0n3 is to be believed, she has been nothing short of a saint.”

“The world ain’t white and black, buddy,” I retorted. “It’s all shades of grey, and that mare got a body count higher than mine. You probably don’t need to dig very far to find some unsavory shit about her.”

“Look at the pot calling the kettle black! Tell me, what was the last time you killed somepony for a reason that wasn’t profit?”

“Well I never pretended to be-”

“Sorry to interrupt, but would you kindly keep the volume down?” Saios cut me short, clearly anticipating a heated argument.

Meridian and I did not share another word until we reached Friendship City.

(** **)

The bridge had been raised for the night, but the security was kind enough to lower it for me. Friendship City really lived up to its name – even if they did not trust me a single bit, they still wouldn’t force me to sleep among manticores and other niceties of the Wastelands.

I rented a room at the Warm Smiles Inn. While I usually cared little for comfort, I had often been warned against sleeping in the Common Room if you had anything to lose and nopony to watch over you. For sure, you wouldn’t end up with your throat gapping like many shady places out there; still I knew I wasn’t the only pony with sticky hooves. My suit would without a doubt attract a lot of unwanted attention and I did not want Saios to monitor me for the night. A girl needed her privacy, after all.

Meridian, on the other hoof, refused to share a room with me. He pretended he wished to socialize a bit in the Commons, but I knew better. He was either broke or looking for a hooker.

Speaking of hookers, had I not been sleeping on my hooves, I wouldn’t have minded the company of some young and handsome stallion to wash away the stress. That would have to wait until my business in Tenpony was dealt with.

The mattress was dirty and worn threadbare, yet I slept through the night like a rock. I simply couldn’t explain why Shift’s bed back in Big MT gave me nightmares and restless nights even though it was probably the safest and the most comfortable place I had ever slept on. Figures.

The morning came all too quickly. Still sleepy, I found Meridian in the inn main room in front of a solid breakfast. I did the same; we ate in silence, our thoughts without a doubt focused on the day’s planning.

Firstly, I needed to meet Gawd’s agent sometime in the morning. I did not have a precise time, so I figured I should get there early to scout the terrain. Once, the agreed rendezvous place with one of my clients turned out to be a ghoul picnic party. Obviously, that guy had little desire to hoof me the caps he owed me – in the end I had to pay myself from his warm body. While I seriously doubted Gawd would try to cross me (why would she even do that?) the local fauna sometimes had weird notion of property.

(** **)

My worries proved out to be unfounded. Only a couple ghouls roamed near the old community center. I did short work of them from a distance. I never really told my newfound friends, but it really felt good to get a target to down with my rifle. After all, precision shooting was my special talent. I lived for that little moment of suspense between the squeeze of the trigger and the large spray of blood from some unlucky gal a couple seconds later. It always left a funny sensation of belonging in my guts. How could it be wrong, when it felt so right?

It all ended too soon. Meridian and I took position in the ruins near a window with a clear view on the plaza. We did not have to wait very long.

A griffon arrived from the North, circled a couple time over the area, and landed not far from us. Tall, she sported the trademark armor of the Talons, mounted with guns on each side. Light machine guns, from the look of it. Not everypony could afford that kind of stuff.

I waved her and approached. No way she hadn’t spotted us from above.

“You’re Spring?” she asked, sizing me up. I could almost hear Saios doing the same with her. Patched-up holes littered her armor. She really didn’t seem like a rookie to me.

“I am,” I answered, stopping a couple meters from her. Friendly or not, it often paid off to never stand within any clawed creature’s reach. “I reckon Gawd sent you.”

“Yeah, I had some business to take care in the area,” the griffin nodded, before heading for a nearby flat concrete block. “The name’s Covett Bloodclaw. You’re still up for that contract?”

It didn’t ring a bell. Then again, I did not know every single of Gawd’s lieutenants. Besides, Covett was a fighter, that much seemed obvious. I doubted she spent much of her time idling around in JR-7.

“For sure,” I followed her. She took a couple folders from her saddlebags. “How much do you know about it?”

“Everything,” she dropped the files on the makeshift table. “Well, everything Gawdina knows. I’m a griffin of trust.”

“Good,” I sighed in relief, levitating the folder in front of me. I had half expected Gawd to send me a courier carrying a ‘for your eyes only’ report on the target, preventing me from asking questions to my contact. “All right, let’s see what we got here…”

A large claw landed on the thick cardboard, preventing me from opening the file. I looked up to find Covett staring at me, serious as shit.

“It ain’t just any contract,” she said, her voice low and menacing. “Gawd wouldn’t have sent me otherwise. If you fail, you’re in for a world of pain.”

“Is that a threat?” my voice had the chilly edge I had thought long gone.

“It’s a promise,” Covett seemed nonplussed. Her claws did not move from the folder. “I heard of your last stunt in Tenpony. You are to kill the target, and only her. Nobody else.”

“Can’t promise that,” I shook my head. Internally, I wondered in what fuckstorm I had gotten myself into. “Shit happens. Ponies get killed. You should know better.”

“Well, I did warn you,” Covett let me open the files at last. “If you mess up and shoot the wrong person, trust me there will be no shithole in the Wastelands deep enough for you to hide into.”

“Please, most guys out there would give me a fucking medal for blasting one of those Tenpony pricks’ head off,” I chuckled, scanning the first page. “Well, DJ P0n3 excepted, I guess.”

I froze as a terrifying idea crossed my thoughts. Gawd wouldn’t…

“Say, I’m not off to find and kill him, now am I?” I looked up to Covett.

“Nah, but close enough,” she tapped the picture of the smiling, dress-wearing grey unicorn mare on the page in response. “You’re going after his assistant. Got a problem with that?”

(** **)

Shit, DJ P0n3’s own assistant? No wonder somepony put such a bounty on her head.

For a split second, I wondered if that was really the right thing to do. I mean, fuck, now that I had her name I remembered her from my brief incursion in that overpriced Prench restaurant. Homage, that was her name. She seemed to be a nice gal. The only reason somepony wanted her dead was her connection to the Voice of the Wastelands, as he grew accustomed to call himself. Collateral damage in a war in which she probably had no role to play but make a coffee or two and do the groceries for the ever-paranoid DJ-P0n3.

… Luna damn me, who am I kidding? Half a million caps. I’d kill anypony short of the DJ himself or the Stable Dweller. Hell, I would have probably taken a shot or two at Security for that kind of money.

It’s not like DJ-P0n3 lacked any groupies to fill the hole I was about to make in his staff. You couldn’t possibly have a voice like that and not running after mare’s tails all day long.

“Nah, it’s cool,” I finally answered Covett, turning the page. Somepony had put a lot of effort in making that file, still the lack of relevant intelligence almost burned the paper beneath. A spy had managed to take a few pot-shots at Homage as she was wandering around in the Tower. I recognized Fiery Red on some of the pictures. Oddly, my target’s flanks always seemed to be covered by a dress of some sort. I had to skim to the very last slide to spot her blurry cutie mark.

“What’s that on her flanks?” I squinted my eyes, unable to make it out. “Looks like a device of some sort…”

“It’s a speaker,” Covett stated. “The guy who took those pictures stalked her for three days straight and that’s the closest he ever got to seeing her cutie mark. My theory? DJ Flankass up there is paranoid enough to believe somepony is after his assistant.”

“Now, don’t be silly, who would kill a sweetheart like that?” I grinned darkly. “Next time you see your agent, though, tell him to do his job right. He didn’t even write where Homage lived.”

“It wouldn’t pay so well if it was that easy,” Covett growled. “She only leaves the high security part of the Tower to do some shopping and eat with her friends. Otherwise, all we know about her is that she works at the MAESEB with DJ-P0n3.”

“Hm,” I mumbled as Saios projected a 3D representation of Tenpony on my display. “All right.”

“You’ll need to find your way to the very top of the Tower,” Covett continued, oblivious. “No matter how much money you put on the table, there is no finding a map of the place.”

“Don’t worry, I already got that covered,” I waved dismissively. Hell, I was looking right at it! “Anything else?”

“Yeah, one last hitch, and it’s a big one,” the griffin seemed puzzled by my answer yet let it slide. “They have installed strange doors made of purple energy in most of the restricted areas. Our contact says it only let direct descendants of the MAS’ employees in.”

“Already on it,” I smiled cockily, barely looking up to meet Covett’s disbelieving stare. “It’s not my first waltz, y’know? All right, does she have any relatives, any friends I should be wary off?”

“DJ-Save-The-World excepted? None that I’m aware,” she shook her head. “Trouble is, nopony knows how he’s supposed to look like. Don’t shoot anypony but Homage or else you’ll risk killing him instead.”

I winced as I understood the reasoning behind Covett’s earlier warning. Given his rep in the Wastelands, murdering DJ-P0n3 would be akin to a masochist suicide. Even Gawd probably wouldn’t let me walk on that.

“One last thing,” she added. “You are to bring out her Cutie Mark. One side or both, clean cut or not, it doesn’t matter as long as it is clearly identifiable.”

“Branding?” I asked in disbelief. “Really? Who the fuck is behind this contract anyway?”

“I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to,” the griffin frowned. It obviously didn’t sit right with her either. Very few clients asked for the target’s Cutie Mark as a proof. Those who wanted to see somepony dead enough to ask for a body part to be brought back often went for more symbolic bits. The head was a great classic. Tongue cutting was a bust against sweet talkers and con artists. Ears, you could bring back by the dozen. As for rape victims, they often asked for… Well, you got the idea.

But the Cutie Mark? It was downright… personal. To remove it was to destroy the target’s identity. The Enclave did that to the Dashites before exiling them. The slavers did that to runaway slaves, as if it wasn’t clear enough already they saw their ‘merchandise’ as mere objects. Poor bastards.

Then again, five hundred thousand caps. I reckoned that at that price you could indulge an ultimate spit in the target’s face.

“All right.” I closed the folder, hoofing them over my contact. “Keep the files. I’ll swing by JR-7 in a few days when I’m done with this.”

“Don’t rush it,” the griffin frowned as I walked. “You’ll only get one shot at this.”

“You know, there’s a reason Gawd trusts me for this job,” I winked over my shoulder. “One shot is all I ever need.”

(** **)

“Please tell me you have a better plan than ‘waiting for the night, sneaking in and shooting your target’.”

I had left Meridian with the redundant part of my gear in a cache under a collapsed building near Manehattan downtown. The Earth pony wouldn’t follow me all the way to the door. This whole gig obviously didn’t sit right with him.

“Why, yes I do,” I smiled smugly, “We are going to wait until nightfall, then I’ll infiltrate the Tower through the back door. Inside, I’ll make my way to where Homage works. I will follow her home, wait for her to be alone, and then I’ll kill her. By the time anypony notices something is wrong, I’ll be long gone.”

“You just paraphrased me!” Saios sighed.

“Well, that’s probably because there’s not much to add,” I retorted. “My Dad taught me the elements of a good plan. It involves keeping it simple.”

“I think you misunderstood the paradigm. ‘Keep it simple’ means ‘do not add complexity where it is not needed’, not ‘ignore all unknown parameters.’”

“Gna gna gna parameters,” I grumbled. My plan was foalproof! “All right, Colstein, I’ll bite. What’s your plan?”

“For starter, I would advise you to get inside in the afternoon – possibly right now,” Saios said, letting my snaky comment slide. “It should increase your chances of success of finding your target and decrease the risk of being detected.”

I almost answered tit-for-tat that it was bullshit, but managed to stop before I made a fool of myself. The AI probably outsmarted me by a landslide or two. I pondered his idea for a couple seconds.

It made sense Homage would be easier to find during the working hours. After all, all I knew about her was her position as DJ-P0n3 assistant. In all likelihood, she’d be at the MAESEB, sitting between the coffee machine and the photocopier.

But I couldn’t quite see why he believed it would be easier to sneak around during the day. Ponies would be out in the corridors, and while the security wouldn’t be more present, it…

“Oh, I got it,” realization dawned on me. “I’d be just another face in the crowd, while with my plan I’ll have to stay hidden all along. If I get spotted during the day, I’ll have plausible deniability.”

“Beg your pardon?” Saios seemed puzzled. “Sorry, can you reformulate that?”

“What, you don’t know what ‘plausible deniability’ is?” I chuckled. Inside, my wits were awarding a golden medal to my brain for pulling that one. “It’s, like, having a rock-solid excuse to be there.”

“I know what plausible deniability is, thank you very much,” Saios retorted, unamused. “Besides, you had the definition wrong. Plausible deniability is not an ‘excuse’, it is a method of protection based on ignorance. Its core idea boils down to the idea you cannot be held responsible for something you do not know. By extension, in cryptography it names a way of protecting sensible data – if the attacker cannot prove those data exist, they cannot recover them in any way.”

Yeah, well, so much for outsmarting the nerd. Me and my big mouth…

“All right, you win,” I sighed. “Let’s do this. If we’re doing to get inside during daytime, we may as well start now.”

(** **)

“Stop right here!” a mud-covered earth pony with an assault rifle stopped me as I approached the tunnels. I muttered a curse under my breath.

“Tenpony?” Saios asked.

“Nah, too dirty,” I whispered. Two others ponies walked from behind a stack of rubbles. One had a semi-automatic shotgun and a rifle strapped to a battle saddle. The second was levitating an SMG in her telekinetic grasp.

“Well, well, well, what d’we got here?” The latter spoke with a thick Fillydelphian accent. Shit. Raiders. Or Red Eyes. Whatever would be worse.

“None of your business,” I retorted, discreetly assessing in a direct combat. They all wore a decent, matched set of leather armor reinforced with heavy steel plates. That could probably stop a few nine mil’ shots, but would be no match for the three-o’-eight. Cover would be an issue however. I disliked close quarter combats. The decayed building on the right could have provided a decent vantage point to snipe them down. Then again, for all I knew, they had sharpshooters of their own up there.

“Eh, you hear that, boys?” the mare continued. Her goons cackled stupidly. Okay, so they weren’t the sharpest knifes of the drawer. I needed to take out the leader first. “If you wanna go anywhere near that tower, you betcha it concerns us!”

“Look, you obviously ain’t working for Tenpony,” I slowly strafed toward a dumpster I had just spotted. “And you don’t look like the type who likes the guys who lives in here. Stop me, and you’ll do them a favor.”

“Wait a minute,” she suddenly said, pointing a hoof toward me. “I know you!”

Fuck. I had killed a relative of most people who ‘known me’. That did not bode well.

“You’re that mercenary who murdered some prick in here and got away with it, ain’tcha?” She chuckled. “Oh shit, yes you are, you magnificent motherfucker!”

I blinked. “Depends on who’s asking.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” she blinked in a very obvious manner, before turning toward her goons. “All right guys, she’s with us! Get your asses back into your position!”

They disappeared back behind the rumbles. The mare motioned me toward the tunnels.

“All right hot shot,” she smirked as I walked down the darkness. “Wish you luck!”

“What the actual hell just happened?” I murmured to Saios.

“I have absolutely no idea,” he answered, as disbelieving as I was.

(** **)

From the shadows I watched the delivery ponies unload their burden onto the Tower. Their deed done, they left soon enough, leaving me alone in the darkness.

It was three in the afternoon. They wouldn’t come back anytime soon.

Sliding out of my hiding spot like a ghost, I hastily reached for the wall-embedded terminal in the camera’s blind spot. To my great relief, the extension cord I had bought the day before had not been damaged by the throes of time. It saved me from another awkward impromptu gym session to keep Saios plugged in.

The AI had started working his magic at once. For some reason, he’d though displaying the number of permutations of Evey’s signature on my HUD would have been a nice addition to the process. Without a reference, I had no idea what they even represented.

Still, as the minutes ticked by and the counter reached the eight-digits figures, I grew more and more uneasy at the idea of our little hack failing. My faith in Saios’ abilities to be a computer whiz had been such I had not given much thought to a plan B.

“I got a match,” he finally stated to my great relief. It had taken eighteen solid minutes to crack it. In retrospect, the Bypass spell used to be the MAS’ best protection against intruders. It went down in less than half an hour. No surprise Equestria lost the War in the end – the Zebras probably knew more about the ponies’ government than the Ministry Mares themselves.

“I granted you a seven-day access pass,” Saios continued. On cue, I unplugged myself from the console. “I would have liked adding you to the permanent whitelist, but alas the security is too sturdy for me to do that. Furthermore, I fear we will have to hack every barrier one by one.”

“Wait, do you mean I’ll have to sit back on my ass every time I want to get through a door?” I asked in disbelief. Being a sitting duck outside was bad enough. Inside, that’d be suicide. “No way.”

“Of course not,” he chuckled as if I had cracked the funniest joke in the world. “Now that I have a valid signature, I will not need to compute it ever again. It would take but a couple seconds for me to hack another barrier. Still, I cannot do it from a distance – you will have to plug yourself in.”

“That’s a strange thing to say to a mare,” I mumbled under my breath with a sly grin as I made my way to the barrier. From up close, there was no missing the purple-ish glow of energy pulsating softly in my way.

“A dick joke,” I could almost hear Saios’ virtual eyes rolling in their digital orbits. “Hilarious.”

“Come on, don’t play prude,” I shook my head, still smiling. “Or do I need to remind you of the camera I found in my shower?”

“Technically, it was not in the shower, but above the mirror,” Saios sighed, obviously not wanting to go there. “Furthermore, I never got to put it to good use during my lifetime, and trust me I now couldn’t care less about what you would consider as sexual behavior.”

“It still makes you a perv’,” I teased him. To be honest, all males were perverts. It didn’t really bother me as long as they weren’t being assholes about it. After all, mares were not exactly angels either in that regard…

“Guilty as charged, I reckon,” he finally conceded. “Anyhow, this is neither the place nor the time for such a discussion. Stay focused on your mission.”

I nodded. A quick observation of the empty corridor beyond the barrier taught me no cameras watched over the inside of the threshold. Saios, ever observant, pointed out they had probably been removed over time for spare parts, since a few slots stuck out from the walls in strategic positions. The security probably believed the Bypass spell in itself was enough of a protection. All the better for me!

I took a deep breath and raised my hoof to neck level. Slowly, I pressed it against the barrier.

It went through without the slightest amount of resistance. It didn’t even tickle or anything – as far as my senses were concerned, the shield did not even exist. Very disturbing for an energy field as solid as a brick wall a few minutes earlier.

Not wasting any more time, I followed suit. Soon enough, I was back in the Tenpony Tower.

I took a quick look at the time on my display. Half past three in the afternoon.

“Well, well, well, look at the time,” a vicious smile crept on my face. “It’s murder o’clock!”

(** **)

Keeping your head cool in any situation – now that was a trait I would very much like to have.

Oh, for sure, years of bounty hunting had taught me the value of patience and the vices of letting your feelings get the best of you. Still, as I stared at the four-meter-tall, minigun-dual-wielding monstrosity in front of me, I couldn’t help but regret having more emotions than an ice cube.

“You are in a restricted area. Please decline your identity,” the Sentry-Bot’s metallic voice commanded. “You have sixty seconds to comply.”

All right, the corridor’s corner was not that far. Miniguns needs a couple seconds to spin up to speed before firing ; if I dashed fast enough to cover, it may not be able to hit me. Furthermore, 5mm bullets had never been known for their armor-piercing properties. Perhaps I could…

“Spring, you need to calm down,” Saios interrupted my escape plan. “Your vitals are off the chart.”

“No shit, I’m about to get toasted,” I mumbled, taking a step back. The sentry’s large guns followed me. “You’re not the one going to get turned into marmalade…”

“And neither are you. I can handle this,” Saios assured me before switching to the suit’s speakers. “This unit’s sensors are damaged. Requesting manual identification override.”

I froze. Manual override? That kind of thing only worked in bad fiction novels…

“Granted,” the Sentry stated flatly, to my great surprise. “Please proceed with manual identification on COM port 1.”

“What are you playing at?” I whispered in my microphone. “Is that the part I start running for my life?”

“Absolutely not,” Saios answered with great haste. “If you do so, I calculated your chances of survival to be… Well, just don’t run.”

“So what? I can’t fight that thing,” I looked around in search of an alternative. Sadly, the walls on each side of the corridor were solid, plain concrete.

“See that port over its right shoulder?” he highlighted a tiny area right under the Sentry’s head, over three meters high. “You need to plug yourself in.”

“Are you nuts?” I hissed, immediately regretting it. Thankfully, the huge-ass robot failed to react. “Trust me, those things are as trigger happy as any murderous machine has any right to be. And you want me to get closer?”

“They only shoot at intruders,” Saios pointed out unhelpfully. As it turned out, I did fit this category of unlucky ponies. “I can trick it into believing you are an employee, effectively making it an ally.”

“Shit,” I muttered, taping a hesitant step forward. The plan made sense – it didn’t mean I had to like it. “I swear, if your idea ends up getting me killed, I’ll come back to haunt your microchips forever.”

“A digital poltergeist,” he mused. “What an intriguing concept.”

I reached the Sentry. From afar, its steel-plated, black-painted four-centimeters-thick was intimidating. From up close, it downright terrified me.

“Please proceed with manual identification,” the war machine repeated in its soulless voice.

My throat felt very dry as I circled a minigun bigger than my hind leg. Thank the Goddesses above those monstrosities were hard to maintain, or else they would be scouring the Wastelands.

“I can’t see the port,” I realized, craning my head as high as my stature allowed. “I’m too short.”

“You have an extension cord. Use it.”

“Can’t plug it if I can’t see it,” I bit my lower lip. I knew what needed to be done. “Shit. The things I do for caps…”

Then, before I knew it, I found myself climbing over the Sentry-bot.

“Warning: Robocolt cannot and will not be held accountable for bodily harm and/or property damage resulting of an improper use of this unit,” the robot stated, turning its sensors toward me. It did nothing to shake me off his back, though.

“All right, got it,” I gritted through my teeth. The end of the cord found its way into the universal port. A frame popped up on my display, confirming the connection. “Now, to get do- Shiit!”

I slipped on the polished metal. My midsection hit the left minigun on my way down, taking my breath out. I landed flat on my back. Stars danced against a black veil in front of my eyes.

The robot looked down at me, miniguns centimeters away from my face.

Time went to a stop. I was so close I could see the tip of a bullet at the end of a canon.

“Identification registered,” the Sentry suddenly righted itself. “Greeting, Security Officer Spring. Have a nice day.”

It turned on itself, and rolled away. The cord tensed before unplugging itself from the robot. Then, just like that, it was gone at a turn of the corridor.

“Well, shit,” I concluded, barely believing what I had just seen. “You know, if you weren’t made out of electric components, I would have paid you an eternity of drinks for that.”

(** **)

Guided by the plan on the corner of my display and by Saios’ occasional indications, I walked the private corridors of the Tenpony Tower as if I had been there all my life. Left and right, rooms and signs betrayed the true nature of the old building. How could somepony cram so many laboratories and libraries in such a small space was beyond me. I had heard of those gigantic underground structures seemingly bigger on the inside, but it referred to cathedral-like rooms dwarfing the beholder by their sheer size. No, the backstage of Tenpony was something more of a rat maze. Stairs would not take you further than four or five levels at once, which probably meant when you were the one writing the fire security architectural laws, you didn’t have to enforce them in your own headquarters.

I pointed it out to Saios, who answered something about security through partitioning. From what I understood of his ramble, you could work for decades in this building and still have no idea whether the room next door was a broom closet or a laboratory dedicated to cloning Pinkie Pie.

Goodness, I sure hope they never really did that. A century ago, the Wastelands had been thrown over its head before by some nut believing herself to be the reincarnation of that hyperactive drug addict. Some guys thought otherwise and ended up chasing her all over Equestria before cornering her near Friendship City. Needless to say, it ended poorly for all parties involved.

“Spring, are you daydreaming?” Saios asked softly. I shook my head, half in denegation, half to wake myself up. “Focus. We are bound to meet more ponies as we get higher in the Hub.”

“Yeah. Remember what Covett What’s-Her-Name told us,” I answered in the gas mask. While I cared little for having something on my snout, my AI friend insisted it could come in handy. “No killing, unless it’s our target.”

“Hello Pot, my name is Kettle. I’m black.” Saios replied with a tease. “On a more serious note, it is your call to make. Just remember bodies are not very easy to hide.”

“Yes they are, as long as there is no blood,” I reached yet another flight of stairs. “You just need to find an unused closet or an incinerator and… Shit, somepony’s coming.”

Hoovesteps rang true in the concrete staircase, coming from above us. Camouflage or not, there was just no way they could get at my level and not see me.

Taking a quick look around, I opted for sneaking out through the door to the level I was at. The corridor beyond was empty, but distant conversation echoed from a room down the left. In the background, the characteristic humming of computer filled the void with a static noise. I winced. It looked like somepony actually used this story for something.

“Spring, mind giving a look at the wall in front of us?” Saios asked in a whisper. I complied. Written on faded gold letters an inscription been written.

“Celestia Prime,” I read in a low voice. “I wonder what that was about to deserve to be named after a Goddess.”

“During their lifetimes, the princesses strongly objected to the idea of being deified,” Saios answered matter-of-factly. “But this is a conversation for another time. You need to move. Go on your right, we shall take another route.”

I complied without an objection. Behind me, the hoovesteps grew louder and stopped as they reached my level.

“Shit,” I cursed under my breath. I dove behind a couple large pipes running vertically against the wall and reached out to tear out the nearest light bulbs. With any luck, between the camouflage and the darkness I wouldn’t be noticed.

Ten meters away from there, the door I had just crossed opened to let a tan unicorn mare through. She wore a rugged lab coat and had her muzzle deep into a pile of papers.

“… maybe if we used a vacuum tube from a terminal…” she mumbled to herself, walking in my direction without even looking up. “… no, it’d fry before we reached a critical load…”

She stopped, suddenly realizing she couldn’t read her notes because of the lack of light. She glanced at the faulty light bulb.

“Wonderful. Even the most basic incandescent tubes fails us now,” she sighed, despair clear in her voice. “The Goddesses have merci on us to fix that LMOD…”

She shook her head again. I was so close I could actually smell her faint perfume.

My blades slid out of their sheath in an eerie silence. The mare’s gaze arrived at the end of her paper sheet. She levitated the next one in place, started to look up.

I tensed. Readied my weapons, prepared myself to jump for the kill.

“Flare! Here you are!” a stallion’s voice echoed in the corridor.

Fuck. I backed up in the shadows as the mare’s attention focused on a lime-green earth pony who made an entrance down the hall.

“Where the hell have you been?” he continued, walking toward us. Thankfully, he did not seem to notice the assassin lingering in the shadows at a foreleg’s length of his colleague. “Bolt’s team had been giving me hell because of the catastrophic results of this morning’s tests, and you just disappear on me like that?”

“Well, sorry I have been very busy sorting out your mess,” Flare snapped, moving away from me. I retracted my claws and reached for my pistol instead. “In case you haven’t noticed, the matrix you blew up with your ‘within parameters’ bullshit was the very last we had. I turned the whole tower upside down and I can’t even find a decent replacement.”

“It should have worked, and you know it.” They met in the middle of the corridor. “I can’t be blamed for the fact some moron replaced the generators’ fuses with a solid iron bar!”

“Seriously, Wave? Those generators are two centuries hold and powered up a shield that stopped a balefire megaspell,” the mare deadpanned, poking the stallion’s chest with a hoof. Luna fuck me with crushed glass, were they really having some kind of nerdy lover’s quarrel right fucking now? “An event during which half of them fried like a mole rat on a high-voltage line, and you didn’t even bother to check their fuse boxes?”

“Look, they were working just fine,” Wave backed up a bit. “Plus, honestly, something would have blown up all the same. The amps went off the charts during the surge.”

“Hence the fuses, you idiot,” Flare facehooved with a tired sigh. “They were there for a reason, that reason being surge protection. You know, like the catastrophic shitstorm that happened this morning?”

“Geez, all right, I get it,” the stallion finally turned on his heels. “Just remember it was your idea of plugging Celestia Prime’s power sources into the shields’ spark generators.”

“Yeah, because waiting for a ray of sunlight was the freakin’ idea of the century,” Flare retorted, following him in a side room. “Right after letting that little-”

The door closed on them and drowned out the rest of her sentence.

I let out a deep breath. Once again, I was alone in the corridor.

(** **)

At long last, I reached the final staircase to my destination. I walked up the flights in a slow pace, more of exhaustion than stealth. I’ll admit it, I had never been a long-distance runner, this being out of breath after thirty stories’ worth of stairs. Damn, one would think running right and left through the toxic, radiation heavy Wastelands would give you an iron constitution. Fat chance.

I landed in front of a heavy metallic door which had been absent from the previous levels. An old, faded ‘Authorized personnel only’ adorned the frame – in its corner, I could still make out the intricate logo of the Ministry of Arcane Sciences.

Grinning at the idea of being done going up, I reached for the handle with my telekinesis, pulled it up toward me.

“Of course. Locked.” I grumbled. A nasty cough resonated in my breather. “This has to be the place.”

“I concur. You are nearing Twilight Sparkle’s own Athenæum. The MAS’ Emergency Broadcast System control room is nearby,” Saios confirmed, the miniature map on my display rolling out as he spoke. I knelt down before the door’s lock and let my dearest tools do the work. “On an unrelated matter, I just concerted with Evey and we agreed you should do a complete medical checkup once you get back to Big Mountain.”

“What the fuck are you even talking about?” I wheezed out, my focus not leaving the lock’s pins a single moment. Picking it was tough yet manageable. “I’m, like, the picture of health.”

“Can she hear me?” I heard Evey’s voice in my earset. Great, now there were two of them. “Spring, listen, you are not fine. While it may not be a concern as of now, your condition may worsen if not treated appropriately. In Stable 87 I dismissed it as an isolated occurrence, but it appears you have a systematic bronchoconstriction during effort.”

I resisted the urge to throw out the headphones. I had already enough on my plate with the science nerd; I really didn’t need to have a medical nerd to top it all!

“I don’t think she is listening,” Evey sighed after a few minutes of silence. “Spring? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not going anywhere,” I whizzed between my teeth. My grip on the pressure wrench flinched and all the lock’s pins reset. “Fuck. Listen, I fine, all right? I’m just out of shape.”

“Perhaps,” Evey conceded. “However, from the sound of your wheezing, you are likely to have a light case of asthma, plus whatever diseases you contracted on your endeavors.”

“Celestia helps me, who died and made you my official doctor?” I crabbed. Would she get the hint?

“Nopony, and that’s exactly my point,” Evey stood firm. Crap, no, wasn’t going to leave the matter alone. “We shall have a lengthy conversation about your well-being when you come back. In the meantime, Saios, does her suit have salbutamol shots?”

“Salbutawho?” I repeated, confused. Was she trying to help me, or was she trying to kill me!?

“Coltoline?” Saios mused. “Sorry, but no. It had been designed with top notch special ops agents in mind. Asthma was probably a debilitating factor for their recruitment.”

“Hey, does anypony pay attention to what I’m saying?” I interjected as the lock finally snapped open. “I’m fine. I’m not even wheezing anymore. Hell, I’m feeling great!”

The door opened on a well-decorated corridor. Not three meters from where I stood, another of those pesky pink force fields barred the way.

“Saios, would you kindly?...” I began, looking around for a terminal and founding none. “You got to be shitting me.”

“It looks like somepony dismantled the control console,” Saios noted matter-of-factly. “This may prove to be problematic.”

“Thanks you for pointing out the obvious,” I deadpanned. Where the terminal should have been, an hastily-screwed tin panel now stood. “Now what?”

“Let me take a look in the casing,” the AI instructed. “Since the force field is still standing, and since the terminal on the other side seems to be turned on, I dare hope they only removed the UI – the front-end, if you wish. Perhaps I can plug directly into the spell matrix and emulate the console.”

Aaaand back to the computer nerd again. Why did our conversation never include topics I mastered, such the delicate art of blowing somepony’s brains off?

“All right, let’s see what we…” I trailed after removing the panel. The wires were everywhere. “…got. Shit, that’s a lot of cable. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So am I,” Saios mumbled.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Focus on the wires I’m highlighting,” he continued, messing with my display again. “Yes, those. Pull them out, carefully, and whatever you do, do NOT let them contact.”

“What happens if I do?” I asked, a small knot forming in my throat. I had heard of the stories of those ponies who walked onto ‘harmless’ bombs, which just blew up to their faces when the exposed wiring got in contact with, well, pretty much anything. A ‘ground short’, they called like. More like a ‘short straw’ in my opinion…

“I have a hunch an alarm will rang out,” Saios announced in a dark voice.

I froze. “Wait, an alarm?” I repeated. “Dude, seriously. This building is, like, two centuries old. I don’t think the burglar alarms are still working.”

“It may also fry up the interface and lock us out,” he continued. “There is exactly ONE other access to the MASEBS, and that is through the elevator I am sure everybody at this level uses at least four time a day. Do you want to take any chances?”

“All right, got it. No crossing the wires.” I stared at the five exposed piece of copper in front of me. “What’s the next step?”

“Take your extension cord out of your bags.”

I complied.

“Good. Now cut it out at mid-length.”

“Wait, what?” I protested. “Dude, no way! I paid twenty caps for it not a day ago!”

“I need something to let me plug into the spell matrix. Unless you have a better idea, this is it.”

“Can’t I, uh…” I trailed, looking around for inspiration. “What if I shocked the whole thing with my electric claws? I mean, it’s like, ten megavolts or something. It’d fry it right up.”

“Firstly, the electroshock cannot deliver tensions beyond ten thousands volts,” Saios retorted. “Secondly, let me ask you something: in all your adventures, have you ever managed to open a door by frying its controls?”

“… yeah, point taken,” I sighed, before reluctantly cutting the cord in half. Farewell, my friend. You will be dearly missed.

“Good. Now bare its wires. Yes, just like so. Connect each wire to one from the casing.”

“In no particular order?”

“No. I will be re-routing them anyway. Even though those com ports are supposed to be universal, we have left the domain of standard usage a long time ago.”

I did not answer. The makeshift connection established, I plugged the other, uncut end of the cord into my suit’s port. A small message frame warned me the ‘mass interface device’ (whatever that means) had been disconnected.

“All right, we should be good to go,” Saios stated. I removed wires and closed the panel for good measure.

I walked through the barrier without a hitch. I entered the Athenæum.

(** **)

“Okay, let’s recap this one last time,” I whispered from my hiding spot in a dark corner. “Exits?”

“Two in total: the elevator, and the staircase you just came through.”

“Static defenses?”

“The MoM’s files only mention two turrets in front of the MASEBS. They are not likely to be online or to see you as a threat.”

“Show them on the map,” I ordered. Two red dots popped up in a corridor, along with a blue one labelled ‘MASEBS’. “You think heading there is the best course of action? I really don’t want to run into DJ P0n3. Whom could be any stallion, FYI.”

“He is not on air at the moment,” Saios answered. “During his latest news reports, he mentioned having an errand to run and switched to a music interlude.”

“When was that?” I asked, hopeful. If the DJ had left his lair, I wouldn’t risk shooting him by mistake.

“Five minutes ago. Your window is open – for now. However,” he added with a hint of concern, “he may have taken his assistant with him, or perhaps his ‘errand’ does not involve him going downstairs. Be very careful.”

“‘Careful’ is my middle name,” I smiled as I walked out of my hiding spot akin to a shadow. The Athenæum proper (whatever that meant – I just read it on the map) separated me from the MASEBS control room. From what I had gathered, it had something to do with Sparkle’s obsession with books.

“And what would your last name be?” Saios prompted playfully. “You should take the door on your left if you want to avoid the elevator’s lobby.”

“… you really don’t want to know,” I grumbled. Sometimes, I had mixed feelings about my parents. On one hoof, they gave me life – but on the other, urg. You had to hate your children to name them like that in the Wastelands. I should have been called ‘Bullseye’, ‘Trigger Happy’ or something cool like that. Instead I inherited a bloody earth pony gardener’s name.

In silence, I pushed the aforementioned door open. To my surprise, I arrived in a tiny, yet functional kitchen.

Well, functional – whoever owned it obviously had a very profound aversion for doing the dishes. Still, it struck me as completely out of place.

“Mmh. I had heard rumors Minister Sparkle had taken to live in her office. I did not realize she had gone as far as set up living quarters here,” Saios mused. “Then again, studying was this mare’s sense of ‘fun’.”

“It got used recently,” I scrunched my nose at the sight of a nondescript stew cooking on the stove. “Though whoever… CARROT!”

I lunged on the large bowl I had spotted on a nearby table. Soon enough, I had removed my mouth piece and was gorging myself on the fresh orange delicacies.

“… I don’t even want to know what that was about,” Saios finally stated after a few seconds of astonished silence. “Carrots? Really?”

“Shut up,” I munched through the vegetables. “Shose arch fresh. Itch sho good!”

“This is not the point,” he sighed. “You just can’t eat whatever you stumble upon during a mission.”

“Like hell I can’t,” I dropped the now empty bowl back on the table. “Fuck, I just did! You think they got more in the fridge?”

“You are not here to raid their food supplies!” Saios growled. “Look, if you want I will look into setting up a small hydroponic farm to grow you toxin-free carrots.”

I blinked. “And clovers?” I asked, salivating at the prospect of having my own, private source of green stuff. “Could you grow clovers too?”

“Clovers. Sure, why not.” he sighed. “Just get on with the mission, will you? Your window is closing fast.”

“Geez, you aren’t handling stress very well for an AI,” I resisted the urge of blowing him a raspberry. The gas mask went back on. “This is the Wastelands. Shit’s going to hit the fan eventually. Might as well handle it with a full stomach.”

I exited the kitchen and arrived in a large, lavender-themed room. Three immense windows let the grey light of the Manehattan skies pour in. Furniture of all kind had been randomly set up over the place – a queen-sized bed, an old phonograph, a table, a couple mismatched chairs and an ugly-as-Tartarus painting.

Oh, and books. Books everywhere.

Somepony had stacked tomes of all sizes on wall-covering shelves, and had obviously run out of place. Books had then been stored in more improbable places – piled on the windows stills, stacked under the table, precariously balanced on every available square centimeter of surface. Out of reflex, I almost checked under the slightly worn-out carpet to see if the floor had been replaced with books too.

“Shit. Looks like somepony had a helluva reading addiction,” I whistled softly. It’s funny how it sounded like a total understatement.

“Yes. This was definitively Twilight Sparkle’s personal library,” Saios agreed, half-amused, half-deterred. “Goodness, can you get a closer look to that shelf? They look like original editions…”

“I thought we hadn’t time for that kind of stuff?” I teased, complying nonetheless. This entire row had been filled with thick tomes on arcane… stuff. That probably got his nerd senses a-tinglin’. “Come on. I’m pretty sure you already got all those on a hard drive somewhere.”

“Not likely,” Saios whispered with reverence. “The Ministry of Image raided all the libraries in the country to remove the ‘unsuitable’ editions of those books. Blue Shift managed to save a half a dozen against orders, but countless others were destroyed and believed forever lost. I should have known Twilight Sparkle would not have let anypony burn original books.”

“Don’t worry. They seem to be in good hooves here,” I spun around, looking for clues on the Athenæum’s current owner. “Whoever that is.”

“DJ-P0n3 would be the safest bet,” Saios suggested. “The MASEBS is right above us and the rest of the level is nothing but storage and datacenters. It’d make sense.”

“Then he’s not living alone,” I chuckled, noticing a pink, oblong object resting on the nightstand. “I really don’t picture him being into that kind of kink.”

“What are you… Oh.” Saios followed my gaze to the incriminating item. “Well, that is embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing? Try worrying,” I munched my lower lip. “Remember what Covett told us: she suspected Homage lives up there. If that thing is hers…”

“Then she is probably an item with DJ-P0n3,” Saios finished. “That would explain the ludicrous bounty.”

“Yeah. That fucking sucks,” I swore under my breath. “Whatever. The plan still stands. We’re taking care of her and then we’re gone.”

I left the literary wonders of the Athenæum behind and took up the spiraled stairs to the MASEBS control room. Showtime!

(** **)

It’s funny how different ponies may have different views on a specific yet simple subject. See, for, me, an ‘emergency broadcast system’ was nothing but a fancy name stapled on a radio and a couple guys with binoculars. For the guys at the DERTA, it meant ‘build a fucking AI because we can’. And for the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, it meant ‘setting up cameras everywhere in Equestria and linking it to a single room so we can spy on everypony without moving our asses from our chair’.

Seriously, what the fuck? I would have expected to find that kind of shit in the tower next door, because the MoM’s job was to spy on everypony and their dogs. But the MAS? No way.

I had entered the control room half expecting to find a techno-savy repairpony busy tinkering with an oversized lamp radio. Instead, I found myself alone, surrounded by dozens and dozens of screens. From the Hoof to Vanhoover through New Appleloosa and JR-7, whoever worked here had a complete overview of all the Wastelands. No wonder DJ-P0n3 could report on anything.

On the desk stacks of papers were spread out along with a couple pre-war records. Three or four emptied coffee mug had left stains on some of the reports. Other had been heavily annotated and scribbled in bright red. So this was what the Voice of the Wastelands’ work station looked like. Neat.

I spotted a single picture frame on the desk. I turned it toward me to get a better look at the short mare it featured.

“Homage?” Saios asked, dubious.

“I don’t think so,” I frowned, staring at the filly in front of me. The picture had obviously been taken without her knowing. She had that thousand-yard stare of ponies who had seen too much too soon, yet – perhaps it was my imagination – a spark of hope and determination shined in her eyes. My gaze went down to the rest of her features. Her cutie-mark was obscured by a ragged, metal-reinforced Stable jumpsuit. She carried no less than four different weapons, plus a Pipbuck on her left foreleg.

“The famed Stable Dweller…” I whispered. A shiver rolled down my spine as if the simple mention of her name was enough to conjure her nigh-divine wrath upon scums like me. “I wonder if she knows her biggest fan has a photograph of her on his desk.”

“I have the feeling she is old enough to handle stalkers on her own,” Saios tried to end the conversation. “Right now, we need to focus on Homage. She has probably-”

Suddenly – call it a hunch, call it fate, call it whatever you want – I felt my attention turn toward a door at the opposite side of the room. The suit’s systems filtered the background noise, removing the low hum of the computers, dissecting the frequencies until only one sound, one almost deafening sound filled my earpiece.

Hoovesteps. Coming this way.

“Fuck!” I whispered, looking around for a place to hide. “Where-”

“Left, door, NOW!” Saios ordered. I complied in a split second, bursting into an adjacent room as stealthily as I could muster. It was filled to the brink with shelves of records and radio equipment. Nopony in sight.

I pushed the door closed, leaving only half an inch of space for me to peek through. I needed to know – was it Homage? Was it the famed DJ-P0n3? Was it somepony else?

The door opened. I held my breath.

A short grey mare entered.

“How convenient,” Saios muttered. I had him zoom on the newcomer. Electric blue mane, the same cute dress she wore last time I saw her.

Yes, this was Homage all right.

In silence, I drew my pistol from its holster and checked I had subsonic rounds engaged.

“Careful. She may not be alone,” my friend continued. I nodded. I needed to insure she was alone. Still, I had to move fast. If DJ-P0n3 came back…

Homage walked toward the desk, stopped in front of the picture frame. Silently, I hoped she wouldn’t notice I had moved it. She mumbled something I couldn’t make out and then gently nuzzled the picture.

I raised an eyebrow, perplexed. From the back of my mind, a forgotten memory floated right outside my reach. I tried to dismiss the feeling I was missing something important, to no avail.

She moved up to a control console. Lights turned on and off as she used a couple switches and turned a knob down.

“She just cut the radio transmission,” Saios said in disbelief. Homage grabbed something from the wall but her bright green magic aura prevented me from seeing it clearly. “Is she sabotaging the broadcast, or-”

“Good morning Equestria!” a deep, rich male voice boomed in the MASEBS sound system. “This is DJ-P0n3 for some news on the Wastelands!”

Oh Luna fucks me with a thirty-ton ham sandwich.

(** **)

“A pitch-changing spell! I should have known!”

“… -like those fellows in Stable 23 and Stable 32 are at it again. If you are unlucky enough to be in the Vanhoover area, be careful where you tread, or you might be caught in the crossfire! Closer to us, I had been told Friendship City-…”

I was too busy being stunned to answer Saios. Homage wasn’t DJ-P0n3’s assistant – she was DJ-P0n3. It all made sense in retrospect. Why she lived so close to the MASEBS. Why she almost never left her sanctuary.

Why somepony would spend half a million caps to hire an assassin to kill her.

“…faithful listeners.” Homage continued, looking up to a screen. “Looks like Red Eye's set his sights on Tenpony Tower. Fortunately for the folks in that place, it's built like a fortress. And the only entrance…-”

“Spring! SPRING!” Saios finally managed to shook me out of my torpor. “If you want to make a move, you must do it now!”

“Have you lost your mind?” I hissed. “I can’t kill her! Not for all the caps in the world! I care too much for my hide to do that!”

“Spring, it does not change anything,” he argued. “You hoped to get away with murdering Homage the technician, why Homage the speaker would be any different?”

“No, just… No.” I massaged my head with a hoof. Celestia damn me to the moon, could it get any worse?

“… -something a bit unusual. I don't normally read mail on the air, but I have a personal message here from my assistant Homage to the Stable Dweller.”

My ears perked ups out of reflex. What in Tartarus?...

“Ahem. Dearest Littlepip... aww, now ain't that sweet? I think somepony has a crush. Dearest Littlepip, I know things sound bad here, and I know it's your nature to try to rush to our rescue; but we're okay for now, and you have other more pressing matters closer to home. Do what you need to do, take care of them first. Then, later, we can meet where we met before, and I promise to give you so many orgas...Oh! Well now that's not something I'm comfortable readin' on the air. I think I'll be having a little talk with my assistant. Meanwhile, here are the silky-smooth tones of Velvet Remedy singing about what gets her through life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland!”

The last two pieces of the puzzle clicked together. A soundless scream of horror escaped my lungs.

Homage, also known as DJ-P0n3, the beloved voice of the Wastelands, had an affair with Littlepip, the Light Bringer and self-proclaimed messiah.

And I had been a hair away from killing her.

(** **)

“Breathe, Spring, breathe,” Evey’s soothing voice replaced Saios’ on the radio. “Everything is all right. You are going to be fine.”

No, everything was not all right. If I killed Homage, I sure wouldn’t be fine.

“I… need to get some air,” I mumbled, my voice driest than sand. “I… I don’t…”

“She’s having a panic attack. Saios, what analgesics does her suit have?”

“Only Med-X, I’m afraid.” Saios’ voice seemed so far away. All I could see was the oblivious mare standing at her desk in the room next door. Homage was reviewing the screens, one after another, occasionally taking a couple notes.

“Give her half a dose. Can you increase the oxygen output of her mask?” Evey sounded so serious. A pinprick stung my flanks, not that I cared. I felt so… numb.

“On it. Let me try something…”

A bright flash of light blazed my sensitive retinas. I backed away, swallowing a yelp of pain.

“What the fuck…” I cringed, shaking my head to dispel the all too bright afterimage. “What did you do that for?”

“You were having a panic attack,” Saios said matter-of-factly.

No I wasn’t. Spring did not have panic attacks, especially not on a job.

I opened my mouth to protest; took a deep breath.

The world went black for a moment. A profound sentiment of euphoria overcame my senses. I blinked. What was I about to say?

“Good. Your vitals are back to normal,” Saios approved, relieved.

“You are doing great,” Evey continued. Stay calm, and you will be out of here in no time. Forget Homage.”

“Gawd is going to kill me,” I chuckled. I was being perfectly serious, yet I found the thought… amusing. Somehow.

“Saios, stop the oxygen. We want her calm, not tripping.”

“I, uh, couldn’t change the composition of the air flow,” Saios sheepishly admitted. “So I used MDMA instead.”

“You WHAT?” Hey Evey, don’t be mad at him. I was… great. I’d hug them both if I could. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Well it’s the closest thing I had to a fast-active anti-anxiety drug,” Saios argued. I so needed a hug. Or a cuddle. Or a hug and then a cuddle. “I had to think fast. From my own personal experiences, MDMA can go quite a long way.”

“Goodness, why did you even have ecstasy loaded in her life support?” Probably in case of hug emergency, honey. Hey, I should ask her if it was true what they said about pegasuses wings. Pegasi. Pegasusi. Whatever. “Now we need to get her out of here fast. Since it’s an IV, the rush is not going to last very long. You don’t want her to still be in Tenpony when she crashes down.”

“I hear you.” Saios-buddy had a kind-of-sad voice. I didn’t want him to be grumpy. Sure, the Wastelands were a shitty place, but it was a wonderful shitty place! “Spring, are you still with us?”

“Well, no,” I chewed on my lower lips. “But I’d like to. I so want to hug you. You’re, like, the most cleverer pony I know. Person. AI. Whatever.”

“How much did you give her?” Evey sounded alarmed.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get hugs too,” I added. “Like, a metric ton of hugs!”

“Fifteen milligrams,” Saios answered. “I don’t understand. By all means, this should be a small dose.”

“I’m feeling just fine,” I interjected. “Don’t argue on me. Pretty please?”

“Let me guess: you are still talking from your ‘personal experience’.” Evey was… angry? How could Evey be angry? She was the super-duper-most emphatic pony in the world. Woah. Emphatic. I liked that word. “But did you take into account Spring’s body mass relatively to yours? Or even her sex?”

“Wait, what has my sex anything to do with anything?” I blinked puzzled. “I mean, you can talk about my ass if you want, but… I don’t get it.”

“All right, all right, I fucked up,” Saios admitted. No you didn’t, silly. I fucked up. “You’ll berate me later. We need to get her out of there. Spring, girl, do you hear me?”

“Yeah. I’m peachy.” I stood up. My head spun for a bit, but I felt like I could run a marathon or two. And hug the universe! “To be honest, I’m not sure I’m thinking totally straight.”

“You are right. You are not in your normal state of mind.” My gaze drifted to my armored hoof. I wondered why so many ponies had gone so far to design weapons to kill ponies. Pinkie Pie had it right all along. Why couldn’t everypony just-“Hey, listen to me! Spring!”- I snapped to attention. I had to focus. Fuck, I was wasted wasn’t I? “Good. I need you to get a visual on Homage. Be careful not to touch the door.”

“Saios, no offence, but shouldn’t I be the one guiding her?” I heard Evey asked. Focus. Get a visual on Homage.

She was still at her desk, oblivious of my presence. No, she had moved! She was toying with some dials in front of a screen. She was watching… something.

Then, she stood up and stretched, before casually walking toward the door.

“I know I just messed up pretty bad, but trust me when I tell you I have quite the experience when it comes to handling ponies on drugs,” Saios answered. “You are doing great, Spring. She is leaving. You can go home soon.”

“And hug po- gah shit what’s wrong with me?” I shook my head. My breath felt so hot in that damn mask. I removed it, pulling it down on my neck.

“Nothing too serious. Don’t worry, you are fine,” Saios soothed me. It’s funny. I didn’t know AI could have soothing voice. Did they have programs to make their voices more sooth-y? “But you need to get out of here. Get into the control room.”

“All right, buddy.” I pushed the door open and pranced on the floor. Hey, I should ask Saios if he liked to prance. Prance! Get it? No? Okay, nevermind.

“Wait, wait, wait, give me a visual on the screen Homage was watching earlier,” Saios instructed. I turned my head.

I blinked. The room on the display seemed familiar.

I looked up to see the security camera in a corner, then down to the room I had been hiding into.

I felt just like I had been plunged into a pool of ice-cold water.

Fuck love and tolerance. That world was nothing but a huge stack of shit.

“She saw me.” This was a statement, not a question.

“It is likely.”

“Fuck me.”

Gun blazing, I ran toward the door to the Athenæum – the very same door Homage had taken. I couldn’t use the elevator. I needed to get to the stairs. Then, I’d hug or shoot my way to the base of the Tower.

I rammed the door like a madmare; didn’t bother to take the stairs; just jumped to the lower level.

I burst into the library, hooves skidding to a halt on the carpet.

Homage was there, standing on a chair in front of an open mural safe. She brandished a plasma defender toward me. My pistol moved on its own volition.

The trigger squeezed under the telekinetic pressure. I felt the pistol recoil under the pressure; the spent case fly through the air; the bullet soar toward the very last mare I wanted to kill.

But I never miss. That’s my special talent. It founds its target all right; hit it spot on.

Homage toppled from over her chair. Fell down backward as in slow motion.

My pistol’s slide resumed its shooting position. The noise of the 9mm subsonic round had not even stopped echoing in the room.

Homage’s limp body hit the floor. Evey swore on the radio.

Far, far away, the plasma defender hit a book stack, a deep indent now adorning its metal frame.

Time resumed. I lunged forward toward the fallen mare, keeping my barrel pointed toward her.

Homage looked up, a mix of puzzlement and relief briefly flashing on her face.

“Don’t move,” I growled. She stared at me, frowning. Obviously, she did not fear me.

“Do me a favor and make it quick,” she gritted her teeth. “Then tell Red Eyes he can go fuck himself with a cement truck.”

“I’m not…” I began, before doing a double take. “Wait, a cement truck?”

“Yes, a cement truck.” Homage repeated. She blinked. “You ARE here to kill me, aren’t you?”

“No.” I waved my pistol, scanning the room for other potential weapons. As I glanced over the nightstand, my drugged mind wondered if you could beat somepony to death with a pink vibrator.

“No?” She backed up a bit, sitting against a bookshelf. She froze once again when I sent a deadly glare in her direction.

“I said, don’t move,” I growled again. Luna fuck me, it’d be so easy to kill her right now. The aftermath, however, was another kind of shitstorm altogether. “I’m not here to kill you. I’m here to… rob you.”

Smooth.

“No you’re not,” she didn’t buy it a single second. “Tell me, how much is my head worth?”

I bit my lip. “Five hundred.”

“Five hundred caps?” Celestia damn me, she seemed offended. “Now you got to be shitting me.”

“No. Five hundred thousand,” I corrected, waving my pistol dismissively.

“Now that’s more like it,” she smiled smugly. “You are aware your patrons never intend to pay you, aren’t you?”

“Spring, she’s stalling for time,” Saios warned me. “You need to make your mind – shoot her or incapacitate her, whatever you want, but you need to do it quick!”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” I grumbled, ignoring him. “The contract never mentioned I was to shoot both DJ-P0n3 and the Stable Dweller’s marefriend. Get on the bed.”

“That had to be a shock,” Homage nodded, slowly sitting on the mattress. “I know it surprised LittlePip both times.”

I had to swallow back a low chuckle. It was actually pretty funny to imagine the legendary Lightbringer being hit on by a very cute mare.

My mind’s gears grinded to a stop. Nuh uh, I totally did not think that.

“I am not going to kill you,” I repeated a second time. I needed to find something to restrain her.

“How did you get in this time?” she asked, making me froze.

“‘This time?’” I repeated. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play ignorant with me.” She frowned. “I know you’re the one who killed Van Graff and shot Liberty Shield. Autumn, am I right?”

“That’s not my name,” I mumbled. “That wasn’t me. You can’t prove it. Besides, it was an accident.”

“Accident?” Homage blinked in disbelief. “You break into Tenpony to murder two ponies… By accident?”

“Hey, shut up,” I waved my pistol in what I hopped looked like a menacing manner. “Believe me. I went in to get a key, and I went out with half the tower after me.”

“So, you went to Van Graff’s to rob him,” she resumed. “Just like you came here to ‘rob’ me.”

“Spring, you need to get out of here!” Saios urged.

“No, I came here to kill you,” I sighed, suddenly weary. I just wanted to talk with her, damn it. Why couldn’t she be nice?

“So you are here to kill me!” she exclaimed, triumphal. “I knew it! Though the stealth suit and the suppressed pistol were a dead giveaway.”

Was. As in, past tense. Look, why don’t you just…”

“Spring, I am dead serious,” Saios interrupted me. “You need to get out now.”

“All right, all right, I’m on it.” I mumbled. I swear, ponies those days… “Listen, Homage, do you have… Wait, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

‘The fuck’ included her standing up from her bed and casually moving toward the phonograph.

I threw a nearby book at her. My aim was off, but that got her to stop.

“What part of ‘Don’t fucking move’ don’t you understand?” I tried to sound intimidating, but the heart wasn’t there. Shit, I really didn’t want to be here.

“I just wanted to put some music on.” She pointed toward the antic music device. “You seem a little… tense. Besides, you said you weren’t going to kill me.”

“I can still blow your kneecaps off,” I frowned. “Get back on the bed.”

“The blood loss would be the death of me,” she pointed out with a smile but complied nonetheless.

“Then I’ll just bludgeon you into submission,” I shrugged. Then, I spotted the medical bag near the bed. I slid it toward me before tearing it open.

“What are you-” Homage began.

“Shush, you.” I cut her before emptying the medical supplies all over the floor. It wasn’t just any first aid kit, I realized. It had surgical tools I didn’t even know existed.

“Good thinking,” Saios approved. “Evey, what can she use as a sedative?”

“It’s not a sedative she need,” the alicorn answered. “There! The blue box and the white box with orange stripes.”

I levitated them in front of me. “Detomodine and Butorphanol,” I read aloud. The best-before dates had expired sometime in the last two centuries, it seemed.

“They’ll do. Find a sterile syringe.” Evey instructed. I didn’t know she could be so assertive. I kind of liked that. I wondered if she would agree to prescribe me a hug.

“Got them.” I walked toward Homage, pistol and medical supplies in tow.

“W-wait,” she backed up on the bed, suddenly forgetting her bravado. “What’s that?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” I chuckled. Oddly, that did little to calm her down. “Relax. That, my friend, is the alternative to ‘me shooting you’ and ‘you following me’. You’ll be fine.”

I plunged the syringe needle into the first bottle, drawing it out under Evey’s instructions. Meanwhile, Homage was growing restless as I plunged it into the second bottle, mixing the two drugs.

“Look, I swear I am not going after you,” she flinched when I brandished the syringe in front of her. “I won’t even tell a living soul you were here. Not even LittlePip. Especially not LittlePip. Consider it a ‘thank you’ gift for not killing me. Or, you know, drugging me.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t exactly the kind of pony who kidnaped targets. Bullets were easier to handle than needles, nuff’ said.

“All right. I trust you.” I said, lowering the sedative. “I just got one question.”

“Ask away,” she sighed, relieved.

“Is that dildo yours?” I pointed toward the nightstand.

Blushing pink, she turned toward the incriminating object, and that’s when I planted the needle into her sweet, curvaceous flanks.

(** **)

I threw the now empty syringe away. Whatever Detomodine was, it made Homage sleep like a rock.

“Well played. Taking into account how old they were, you have less than twenty minutes before she wakes up,” Evey congratulated me. Oh, the things I could do in that time~

“She is likely going to be quite angry, so I cannot stress enough the urgency of getting the hell out of here,” Saios added. “Spring. SPRING.”

I shook out of my torpor and realized I had been staring at Homage’s unconscious forms.

Form. Singular.

“Sorry,” my teeth gritted. My jaws felt numb for some reason.

“I don’t know what you gave me, but it… is…” I trailed. “I got… a feeling…”

“We are losing her again. Spring, focus!”

“Yeah, yeah.” I blinked. My head turned toward the open mural safe. “Score!”

“Damn, now is not the time, Spring,” Saios pressed on. “Just leave it al- wait, are those gold ingots?”

“Yup.” I was grinning like a schoolfilly. I had just struck gold! Ah, get it? Gold!

Oh, nevermind. I’m so fucking happy I could shit rainbows and hug the crap out of the Wastelands anyway.

“Are you two serious?” Evey’s voice asked in the earpiece. “Goodness, I used to know a psychologist who would have had a field day with that kind of behavior.”

“Not listening~,” I sing-songed, levitating the empty medical bag in front of the safe. “Too busy getting rich~”

“She has a point, Spring,” Saios noted. “Make haste.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” I pulled the four gold bars into the bag. “Gah, those things are heavier than I suspected.”

“Carry them or drop them,” he answered, “either way, you should have been out thirty seconds ago.”

I attached the bag upon my shoulders and bolted out toward the stairs.

(** **)

Screw stealth. I galloped through the corridors, occasionally leaving a dumbfounded resident in my wake. By the time they’d realize I was on the run, I’d be long gone. Hell, perhaps they’d even make rumors about me – stories of that shimmering ghost who bolted past them a Friday afternoon, cutting through their security as if it wasn’t even there.

I laughed heartily at the prospect. Damn, I would have laughed at anything. I fuckin’ loved everything.

That reminds me – I should have hugged Homage when I had the occasion. Oh well. I had the feeling that wouldn’t be the last time our paths crossed.

I was running through the third level. One last staircase to go. I turned over the corner, and…

A stallion was walking in the middle of the way. Tall. Black coat, silver mane. Absurdly sexy flanks.

I skidded to a halt. Of course, of all ponies in Tenpony, I had to run into Liberty fuckin’ Shield. As in, that one guard I shot by mistake last time I came here.

Honestly, I had never been so glad of failing to kill somepony. He was a fine piece of a stallion that did not deserve to go to waste.

He heard the sound of my course coming to a halt and turned toward me.

I’ll admit the look of abject horror on his face right then hurt my feelings more than a little. Meh. He did seem to like me before I shot him nevertheless. Funny on some pony would hold up silly grudges like that.

I, for one, felt like I could hug and forgive anypony.

Especially Liberty. On a one to ten on the huggable scale, I’d give it a couple thousands. That’s how cute he is.

“Why hello there~” I sing-songed, drawing my pistol. He made a move to grab his, just to realize he was naked like a worm.

Not that I complained.

“You’ve come here to finish the job.” Liberty stated, standing tall. I noticed the long scar ran along his neck. Even with a gun pointed in his face, he wasn’t flinching. Seriously, that stallion oozed virility.

“Depends on the job you are talking about~”, I answered with a coy smile. For some reason, Saios had decided to turn up the internal heating system. “You know, we did not part on the best terms.”

“Spring, what are you doing?” the AI asked as on cue. Duh, hot stallion emergency, smartass.

“On the best terms?” Liberty repeated in disbelief. “You shot me! Twice!”

“Yes. Sorry. That wasn’t my best day ever,” I sighed, biting lower lips. “How about I make it up to you?”

“What.”

“Weeell,” I strolled closer, poking his oh-so-manly chest with a hoof. I could see his jaw clench. That was a good sign… right? “Let’s say I owe you one. A favor, from me, to you. Anything you want.”

“I don’t want anything from you, murderer.” He took a couple steps back. Yeah, as if he hadn’t bludgeoned ponies to death by himself already. He was just playing hard to get.

“Murderer?” I took another step forward. “Please. I already apologized for shooting you. As for Van Graff, if anything, I did you a favor. The Twilight Society wanted him dead anyway. I was but a convenient scapegoat.”

Oh I so wanted to leap on him and just-

“The what now?” he interrupted my fantasy. Ooh, that’s it buddy, you’re so gonna get it. “All I see is an assassin ready to do anything for a quick cap! Tell me, who did you murder today?”

“Well, nopony, actually,” I frowned. He kept walking backward; I kept pressing forward. Bah. He’ll run into a wall eventually. “That contract was lined with shit. As you see me here, I am but an upstanding citizen of the Wastelands who wants to make it up to you for oh so carelessly harming you.”

“Celestia have mercy on our souls, Spring, what in TARTARUS are you doing?” Saios blurted into my earpiece. I had to find a way to turn the volume down on those things. “This is not the place nor the moment to flirt!”

“Ha, and what do you have to offer me?” Liberty finally hit a wall with his sexy flanks. I wasn’t used to cornering hot stallions. I didn’t know it could be so fun… and arousing. “You could, what, bring criminals to justice?”

“I could,” I poked his bare chest again. This time the hoof stayed there, against his warm flesh. “After all, I’m a bounty hunter. Come on. Use your imagination.”

“You know, we had a grand total of one murder in the past decade in this tower,” he growled. “You are the only pony I want to see brought to justice!”

“Well, that’s one of the few things I can’t grant you,” I inched closer. “My hide is quite valuable to me. I only got one.”

“But that,” I purred, “wasn’t the kind of favor I was thinking of.”

“Spring, seriously now. What. The. Fuck.”

Liberty face went blank as he realized where I was getting at.

“I’m married.” He flatly stated to my great disappointment. “With two children, to a wife I adore. If you want me, you’ll have to-”

I interrupted his nonsense with a deep kiss. It wasn’t as enjoyable as I had expected, mainly because of a total lack of engagement on his part.

Oh well. I guess a girl just can’t have it all.

I pulled back. There was shock in Liberty’s eyes. Oh yeah, he definitively wanted me. He just didn’t know it yet.

“Homage has probably woken up by now,” Saios warned. “Your window is closing very fast. And we’ll need to have a serious talk once you get to safety.”

“Fine,” I pouted. “My offer still stands, hot stuff. Give me a call when you’ve changed your mind.”

“I’ll find you,” Liberty breathed. “And when I do, I’ll-GAH!”

A ten thousands volts shock from my claws cut him short. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

“I’m counting on it,” I smiled devilishly.

(** **)

Side quest failed: Last homage
Objectives:
[X] Meet with Covett Sharpclaws to be briefed (Optionnal)
[ ] Kill your target in Tenpony Tower (Failed)



Side quest added: Don't tread on the griffin!
Objectives:
[ ] Meet with Gawdina Grimfeather about the job you failed. (Primary)



Level up!

New perk:
Chem Resistant: As it turns out, administrating drugs is a science. Who would have known? The presence of a competent medic in your team make you less likely to feel the downsides of drugs. You are half as likely to get an addiction and unpleasant aftereffects.

“I don't do drugs. I am drugs.”

Chapter Fifteen: Afterglow

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Read it on Google Docs for improved formating.


Some people get so rich they lose all respect for ponykind.

That's how rich I want to be.

Chapter Fifteen: Afterglow

Constancy. That’s what the pony mind lacked: constancy.

We lived our whole life in the false belief we were in control. Nothing could be more remote from the truth; and while my pure conviction in the sanctity of free will always kept a warm fire burning deep inside my chest, sometimes an unexpected turn of events would shake me down from my pedestal.

I would turn back upon myself in introspection and what would I see? A puppet, a frail construct battered by the harsh winds of the Creation. Dirty secrets piled upon shameless lies; a blood thick with vices and sins. There lied the unforgiving irony of ponykind, in its impotence to ripe itself from this original mud. To know of the light, to touch it perhaps, yet never to be free.

“Spring, are you feeling all right?” Saios asked, the poor fool. “You have been silent ever since you left Tenpony.”

“Why is the world so grey?” I whined. Gone were the joy and the communion with the world, leaving in my chest a frozen void that could never be filled. “What have we done with the Equestrian dream?”

“Yes, she is all right,” Saios sighed, insensible to my woe. “The MDMA has run off, leaving her… grumpy. So much for the afterglow.”

“I am not grumpy,” I growled before stifling a yawn. “The world sucks. It is but a fact.”

“You know, I almost liked her better when she wanted to hug the transistors out of me,” he chuckled. “Do you think I should?...”

“Do that, and I will personally make sure static electricity become the very least of your troubles,” Evey cut him out. Did I miss the moment the girl grew a backbone?

“I kid, I kid,” Saios backpedalled. “I sure would not want to reenact the Liberty incident.”

“The what now?” I perked up as the name triggered a memory in the fog. “Wait. Didn’t I… kiss him?”

“I would say he-” Saios began.

“This should wait until you are safe and sound,” Evey interrupted him. “In fact, this is a conversation I would like to have eye to eye with you, if you don’t mind. In private.”

“Yeah, I did kiss him…” I shook my head. My brain felt like half-thawed porridge. The more I tried to reach out to something, the deeper I sunk.

Yet, a feeling – the warm, soft sensation of Liberty Shield’s lips against my own, barely more than the wisp of a memory, lingered, pulsating slowly, sending chills from between my ears to between my thighs.

Alone in the tunnels, I suddenly felt nauseous. I reached out for the nearest wall, and down my breakfast went.

“Easy there,” Saios seemed uncertain. “Evey, perhaps you should?...”

“Of course,” the alicorn’s kind tone was back. “There, there. Let it all out.”

My mouth moved to formulate a response, only for a flow of bile and half-digested food to flood it.

Carrots. I couldn’t remember eating carrots.

Tears pooled in my eyes, dropping on my goggles’ screen. I removed them. My eyes blinked in the newfound darkness.

“I feel… empty,” I mumbled. My voice sounded barely more than a whisper, even in the eerie silence of those forsaken tunnels. “Moments ago, I felt like I could understand the world… And now it’s gone. The colors have faded. Grey is all that remains. Is that how you see us all, Evey? Is that how Equestria used to be?”

“Drugs often give us a false sense of understanding,” the alicorn nuanced. Yet, even in my sorry state, I could hear the doubt in her voice. A drunken man’s speech is a sober one’s thoughts, indeed. “You are not well, but it is only momentary.”

“That wasn’t the question,” I chucked darkly. “What’s your take on the matter, Evey? What is somepony like you even doing with somepony like me?”

“I do believe there cannot be shadow without a light,” she answered after a short pause.

“There is no light in this world,” I whispering, closing my eyes for a second. “Not anymore. Not for a long time. Not with people like me living their life unhindered.”

What you do – what you see in the mirror is but a subjective perception. I sincerely believe you have a good heart, Spring.”

“Ha. I ain’t Meridian, Evey,” I whipped my mouth with the back of my hoof. It tasted like dirt. “You and him both, you should team up and save the Wastelands from us murderers.”

“I killed many a pony myself,” she answered after a short pause as I put my googles back on. “Many a father. Many a mother. All of them were some zebra’s child.”

“You did?” I sniffed, resuming my walk toward the exit. “I though you couldn’t remember anything from your past.”

“Amnesia is not a simple pathology. It goes far beyond the simple loss of memory,” Evey explained patiently. “I suffer from some kind of post-traumatic dissociative amnesia, one that I may never recover from. All my knowledge, all my memories are still there, somewhere. I simply cannot remember it.”

“Fuck. And here I am, complaining,” I whispered. How could she be so calm about such a topic? “Shit. I must really sound like an egocentric jerk, now ain’t I?”

“To be fair, you are the one in a dire situation,” Evey’s motherly tone was back for good. “I understand your concerns. There is no reason to keep them bottled up.”

Fuck, how did she do that? That tone, that voice, it beaconed to trust her unconditionally. After all, I had known her for what, a week? I would have spilled my guts to her if she had asked me to. Cradled between her legs, sleeping safe in her warmth. Fear no more.

Yes, indeed. In a mother’s embrace, fear no more.

(** **)

I hardly recall reaching the end of the tunnel, but there I was, standing right outside the underground’s shadows. The ruins of the city and of the world beyond lay before me. What shall I do now? I asked myself. Where would my path lead me? Should I run from the earthquake I would have no doubt created? Should I carry on as if nothing happened, meeting with Chrystal and working to be rich beyond measure?

Perhaps starting with the three raiders in front of me was the better option, though.

“Them again,” Saios noted, a slight hint of worry in his voice. Don’t you worry, friend. I couldn’t possibly be in a better mood for a senseless bloodshed.

Then I noticed the rain falling upon my shoulders, soaking me to the bones even through the thick material of the suit. Thunder cracked in the distance.

Never mind, then.

“What do you want?” I barked toward the mare I recalled being the leader. A step behind her, the two muddy stallions shared an apprehensive look.

“Is it done?” she asked, eying me suspiciously. Her acolytes visibly strengthened their hold on their weapons. C’mon, shoot me, I dare you…

“Yeah, I’m done here,” I answered, moving to get around them. A stallion took a step in my direction. “Don’t get the fuck in my way, twat. Tenpony didn’t kill me, what makes you think you got a chance?”

Now that got him to back away.

“Hey, keep it cool, will ya?” the mare intervened with a forced chuckle. Oh, I’d cool you off all right. I’d cool you off dead cold. “The boss said we were to, uh, prevent any pony from exiting that tunnel, but ain’t applying to you, huh? I mean, we’re on the same side, so we’re cool.”

It was then I noticed the discarded chariot a few paces from there – the chariot, and the bodies that surrounded it. I couldn’t see their faces from where I stood, but there was no mistaking who they were. Looked like the delivery ponies I had seen on my way in hadn’t made it very far after all.

A fourth pony – a red mare with an orange mane and a deep gash running across her right eye – appeared from behind the hole-riddled cart.

“This shit ain’t worth a single cap,” she began before setting her eyes on me. “Hey, Cut, who’s that?”

“She… she’s the mare we’ve talked about earlier,” Cut – the unicorn mare – answered. “She’s done.”

“Oh. OH.” Realization dawned on her. “The boss’ gonna be happy. How d’you get in anyway? That place is locked tighter than my ex’s ass!”

“Trade secret.” They really didn’t need to know.

“Well, you don’t have to tell us, but I don’t think-”

“Guys! GUYS!” A unicorn colt barely high enough to reach my shoulders popped up out of freakin’ nowhere in between two concrete blocks further away. He was running toward us, a half-destroyed radio in toe. “You’re not gonna believe it!”

Everypony in the audience turned toward him with the same look of exasperation – but not for the same reasons. Unbeknown to the others, I stepped back behind Cut and un-holstered my pistol.

“Mash, y’all supposed to watch the fuckin’ road!” The red mare stepped toward him and almost lifted him off the ground by the ear. “We talked about this already!”

“But mooom,” he whined, waving his radio around. “The DJ! He’s talking about our killer! She chickened away!”

It is funny how a couple words can flip such a situation around in a few painful seconds of silence. Ever so slowly, all of Red Eyes’ raiders turned their eyes toward me. In their astonished gaze shone a wide spectrum of emotion, from anger, to betrayal, to an utter primal fear. Had they been given a few more seconds, I am sure the two stallions would have wetted their barding.

Sadly, as Cut realized a bit too late as she stared down my pistol’s barrel, they did not have that much time left to live.

“Well, back to plan A it is,” I smirked evilly before blowing her brains out.

Then, everything went lightning fast. I darted against a raider, gutting him with my hoof-mounted blades ; his body deflected most of the shotgun pellets his friend shot at me. A couple ricocheted harmlessly on my suit’s plating.

I promptly returned fire with much more success. Down he went.

Still holding the agonizing raider by the guts, I spun toward the last mare standing. She had dropped the colt, was reaching for her SMG. Bullets flew by, hitting the concrete behind me, grazing my mane, perforating my meat shield through and through.

Four quick squeezes of the trigger, and she was biting the dust.

My claw struggled to retract because of the gore now smearing my foreleg and my whole body in general. Grunting, I pushed the raider away from me. Amazingly, he had survived being turned into a bloody chunk of pony meat. Reaching out with a mutilated hoof from the crimson-covered mud, he muttered something, terror and agony in his eyes.

My gun put him out of his misery.

My legs were shaking from the adrenaline surge ; the continuous hammering of the rain had been toned down to a distant hum. Then, time’s flow returned to normal, and I stepped back, overlooking my fine work.

“Holy…” Saios didn’t find the strength to finish his sentence.

“Ain’t the same when it’s for real, eh?” I chuckled, wiping some of the blood that smeared my goggles. To my great dismay, I only managed to spread it out a bit more.

I stepped over the corpse in front of me. Out of habit, I reloaded my trusty nine mil’; it was then I noticed the pain in my right shoulder.

“Ah, fuck, the bitch’s got me,” I winced as I eyed the damage between the suit’s bullet-resistant plating. Thankfully the thick material (and my unwitting meat shield) had absorbed the brunt of the impact, shattering the SMG bullets. I had been lucky she had been using hollow points. FMJ or armor piercing would have really gotten through and done some serious damage.

I looked up to her still warm body and froze up. There, bent over his mother’s body, the colt was crying her name softly, shaking hopelessly her lifeless corpse.

Luna fuck me to the moon and back, not again

He looked up to me; reached for the nearby shotgun.

“Don’t, kiddo,” I raised my pistol. Fuck, he pointed it toward me.

“He’s just a foal, Spring!” Evey’s voice stopped my trigger a hair away from a shot. I could feel the resistance of the firing mechanism on the tip of my telekinetic grasp.

“Don’t,” I reiterated between my teeth. Shit, had I been alone, I would have shot him right there and be done with it. Why couldn’t bear to act before the eyes of my newfound friends – to let them watch as I shot down a colt barely out of childhood?

“You killed her,” he stammered, the gun shaking in his weak grasp. The rifle was almost as big as he was. Truly, I would have found it hilarious if it hadn’t been aimed in my general direction.

“Didn’t have much of a choice.” Did he even know how to use it? Had I been much older when I had gotten my cutie-mark in sharpshooting? I couldn’t see his from where I stood. Moving would have been quite unadvised.

“You killed her,” he repeated, a bit louder. This was getting nowhere. Even if he did not find in himself to kill me dead today, it wouldn’t be long before I had to add yet another angry relative to my ever-growing list of mortal enemies.

“Just disarm him and let him be,” Evey pleaded. “He is but a child.”

Yet, perhaps she was right. If he couldn’t shoot me out of anger right now – then he would probably never be a threat to me.

“Listen, I-”

And that’s when the bastard shot me.

(** **)

I can’t remember the last time I took the full brunt of a twelve gauge shell. It may be due to the fact it had never happened to me before.

Nevertheless, this particular feeling of being both stabbed and bludgeoned at the same time is not one I would come to enjoy and look forward to in the future.

The sheer strength of the impact sent me tripping backward against a corpse. I fell in the damp mud, but I couldn’t feel it. A claw of steel was clamping my throat; I couldn’t breathe. An eternity went by.

And then I coughed, sending spasms of pain throughout my breast. My holster and my front pouches had been shredded – that idiot had shot me in the torso with birdshot. Fuck, without the armor, he would have torn me apart.

I looked up. The colt was fidgeting with his shotgun. Perhaps he was out. Perhaps he had managed to jam it. Either way, next time he’d probably aim for the head.

Stumbling on my knees, I looked around for my pistol. He noticed it, thrashed his gun’s pump some more, then weakly threw it at me. I deflected the blow with my foreleg and was rewarded with another wave of agony.

Meanwhile, that sneaky bastard had begun to make a move on his late mother’s SMG.

Still weary, I threw myself at him, pinning his head on the ground. I had the advantage of the size; still his blows against my bruised breast were strong enough to make me want to bash his skull in.

“Spring! Enough, you won!” Saios exclaimed.

But no. No more. I hadn’t survived so far in the Wastelands by being a two-caps pacifist. He had shot me. He was fair game.

That in mind, I cut his throat wide open.

(** **)

Meridian was sitting under a half-collapsed wall, waiting for me where we had agreed. I had half expected him to crack a joke at my sorry state – mud and blood and gore maculated my suit and my fur. It didn’t take a genius to guess I looked like I had been through hell and back – and if he had any doubts left, the way I dragged my hooves into our improvised shelter washed them away. Sighing of relief for being out of the rain, I slumped against a dry wall and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, a full hour had gone by. Meridian was sitting a couple meters from me, eying me worriedly. Oddly, I failed to spot any trace of the weariness he had when I left him earlier to assassinate Homage. If anything, he seemed almost… proud.

“This is getting old real fast,” I chuckled heartlessly. “You, picking me up after a screw up in Tenpony Tower. I’m not certain I want to make a habit out of it.”

“To be perfectly honest, you are faring much better than last time,” he smiled softly. Damn, in the darkness of the downpour, I could have mistaken him for my dad. Not that I remembered much of my parents, anyway. “I listened to the radio, you know. DJ-P0n3 has… well, you should probably ask Saios and make your own idea. He probably has recorded it.”

“Yeah, I’m a celebrity,” I cheered flatly. “Woohoo. The Stable Dweller’s probably already on her way to give me a fucking medal.”

“I’m afraid that is likely,” Meridian winced. “I don’t know if that’s why you stayed your hoof, but that mare you were after, Homage – she is LittlePip’s love interest.”

“It ain’t even the worst of it,” I sighed. “As it turns out, there’s a reason nopony knows what DJ-P0n3 looks like. He’s not even a stallion. Guess what her name really is.”

Meridian gawked at me in disbelief for a solid ten seconds.

“Homage.” He finally stated. “Homage is DJ-P0n3.”

“Yup. In retrospect, I should have known better. Half a million caps? You were right all along. That was fishy as hell.”

Silence fell back between us, only punctuated by the unending pounding of the rain against the century-old concrete. A weather tailor-made for my mood, really. Cold. Unforgiving.

An exhausted sigh escaped my lips as I resigned myself to remove my chest-held barding. A single close-range 12ga birdshot shell had utterly destroyed the holster and the various pouches holding my spare magazines and half my lock picking kit. Luckily, the pellets hadn’t set off the live ammo, but that was where the good news ended. All of my polymer pistol magazines had been damaged to some extent. One had been almost cut in half; another had been so bent I couldn’t even unload it anymore. The tin three-o’-eight clip had somewhat fared better – it was the only one still safe to use.

The rest of my stuff took the hit pretty hard too. My flashlight wouldn’t probably light anything anytime soon – not that I needed it anymore. Unsurprisingly, the lock picking set survived the lead onslaught. Honestly, I would have been quite pissed off to loose yet another kit at that Celestia-damned tower. As for the barding itself, I had seen colanders with fewer holes. Thanks Luna my pistol had not been in its holster, or else…

I froze and did a double take. I hadn’t noticed when I picked it up from its mud pit, but something was clearly off about the way the frame wiggled on its own. As I wiped it clean to assess the exact extend of the damage, entire chunks of pulverized polymer dropped on my laps. The frame had been utterly busted from the tip to the hammer. Shaking the chamber downward, I spotted two or three lead pellets falling from the firing mechanism. That gun wouldn’t fire anything ever again – it wasn’t even worth the repairs.

“Wonderful,” I threw the useless piece of junk away. Tenpony had reclaimed yet another of my firearms. As if I didn’t owe Chrystal a metric fuckton of caps anyway.

“What happened to you anyway?” Meridian inquired carefully. My terrible mood was probably not lost upon him. “The radio did not mention a firefight in the Tower.”

“Got attacked by raiders on my way out,” I mumbled, massaging my breast. It still hurt like hell. Hopefully I hadn’t broken anything important. “I had to kill the five of them.”

“Oh.” He tilted his head, frowning. “Still, that doesn’t explain your injuries. Really, I haven’t fought by your side for years, but I do know you are not one to let somepony hit you with a shotgun.”

“I hesitated,” I stated angrily, kicking a discarded round away. A jolt of pain startled me – but this time it came from my old wounds in my back. Just my luck. “And that was a mistake.”

“I see.” Meridian said simply. He waited for me to carry on, but I somehow did not want to tell him I had mercilessly gutted a colt barely old enough to hold a rifle.

“So, Homage talked about me on the air,” I changed the subject. “What did she say anyway?”

“I recorded it, if you wish to hear it yourself,” Saios intervened. His voice was unsurprisingly completely devoid of warmth. I just couldn’t wait to hear about Evey’s reaction…

“I really don’t want to, but what choice do I have?” I sighed. “It’s not like I can hide in a hole to let the dust settle this time.”

“Good afternoon Wastelanders!” DJ-P0n3’s masculine voice blared in my earpieces. Perhaps it was just my imagination playing tricks on me, but I could almost hear Homage’s accents in it. “I got breaking news from you. From the looks of it, Red Eyes’ employment policy is so terrible even his assassins’ don’t want to work for him no more!”

What the…

“How do I know that? Well, you all probably heard the tale of that mare that shot two ponies in Tenpony and had the guts to get away with it. Don’t you know it, she came back to us! She strolled in my office, had a little chat with my assistant, robbed her blind and walked out like a Ghost!”

Okay, now that was clearly exaggerated.

“So, my faithful listeners, that’s my two cents: if you see a young mare in a fancy spy suit pop out of nowhere and point a silenced pistol at you, well that’s probably your cue to run. Oh, but I see something’s happening to our dear guests at the gates! I’ll be back to you with more news. Meanwhile, it’s Maybe, by Appaloosian Paint!”

Static replaced the cheerful stallion’s voice. I waited a couple dozen seconds but the record didn’t go any further.

“That’s it?” I lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “That’s all she said?”

“Yes,” Saios answered. “I assume she did not want her audience to know how close you came to killing her. As for the disturbance she mentioned, it syncs up with your firefight perfectly. It is safe to assume she did not miss a second of it.”

“You’re angry at me.” It was a statement, not a question. “For that colt, I mean.”

Meridian looked up from whatever he had been staring at. Yeah, he probably wouldn’t let that one slide…

“… no.” The AI finally answered. “No, I am not.”

“Really?” Well, color me surprised. “You do sound angry, though.”

“I… I don’t really know what I’m feeling, to be perfectly honest,” he admitted after a short pause. “On the one hoof, I cannot be angry at you for doing what had to be done, yet I’m revolted by the fact you actually did it.”

“What had to be done,” I repeated softly. “I wonder how much you can actually get away with that kind of excuse, really. And what about Evey? What’s her take on this mess?”

Silence.

“Hey, Saios?” I repeated, “Are you still there?”

“Evey and I had an… argument,” he hesitated. “She left for the surface. I believe she wanted some time to herself.”

“She left!?” I exclaimed. “What in Tartarus did you tell her?”

“Nothing!” he claimed. “No, really. You were back in the tunnels, wondering whether you ought to spare that last raider. She advocated in favor, I made a case against. We did not go very far, though, because she got cut mid-sentence by a shotgun going off.”

“Yeah, I guess that made a pretty good point in your favor,” I winced. “I know that turned the table around for me.”

“This is no laughing matter, Spring,” Saios retorted, serious as ice. “We thought you died. She thought you died. Believed that you got killed because of her. I saw her face turn white. Then, she ran off.”

“Humor me, you did tell her I am alive and well, didn’t you?”

“Of course, but the harm is done.” He sighed. “She really cares about you, and so do I. Had I not been an AI, I would have punched the screen through and through out of anger and pain. I guess I should be glad she has more control over her emotions.”

“Shit. Having friends is really harder than it seems,” I hung my head low. An irrational part of my mind just wouldn’t stop repeating it was my fault, somehow.

“Spring, what really happened?” I looked up to see Meridian sitting right in front of me. Right, talking of friends…

“One of the raiders…” I hesitated. I was treading on ice there. “One of them was just a kid. He belonged to a playground, not a bandit squad.”

“So that is why you hesitated,” he nodded in understanding. “You gave him a chance.”

“Yeah.” I coughed uneasily. “Didn’t stop me from cutting his throat once he shot me.”

The earth pony stepped back a bit. There was no anger in his eyes – only sadness.

Then, he turned around, and sat a bit further, right at the edge of the rain. He stared at the misty silhouettes of the Manehattan streets, shaking shadows in the distance.

So, that was it. The crossroad. To him, I had gone beyond a point of no return – perhaps he had seen, at last, what had always been under his muzzle; that I wasn’t to be reformed, that there was no getting out of the depths I had sunk to. I had known all along, I realized, that I had never been a good pony. From the moment my eyes set down my faithful rifle’s sights for the first time, lining up to a hastily painted target on a broken down wagon, my fate had been decided for me. That day, in some nameless place between Baltimare and the Badlands, I had earned my cutie-mark in killing things. No good could have possibly come out from that. Perhaps I had a conscience, long ago, but I had lost it somewhere along the road.

“I should have come with you,” Meridian finally whispered. I looked up; his eyes hadn’t left the blank spot he had been staring at for minutes.

“Don’t be thick, Meridian,” I answered. “I went in there to murder an innocent. I’m actually surprised you followed me this far.”

“But Homage still breathes,” he shook his head slowly. “You changed your mind.”

“I almost killed her.”

“Yet you didn’t,” he turned his blue eyes toward me. There was… hope, in his gaze. Perhaps he hadn’t thrown the towel in, after all. “You chose not to. This is what really matters.”

“Yeah, well, it’s more self-preservation than anything,” I chuckled darkly. “Kill DJ-P0n3, earn yourself a personal piece of Tartarus, no extra charges.”

“If I may, I pointed out in the MASEBS you could have got away with it,” Saios intervened to my great surprise. “You alone decided it was the wrong thing to do. In retrospect, you were right. Given the circumstances, I don’t think you would have lived long enough afterward to spend your hard-earned bounty.”

“Yeah, but still…” I trailed uneasily. “I gutted that colt. Doesn’t it…”

“Why are you so eager to see yourself under a bad light?” Saios cut me mid-sentence. “Self-pitying hardly ever solved anything.”

“Tell me, Spring,” Meridian continued, tipping his hat up from his eyes, “a couple months ago, when I met you, would you have even hesitated killing him?”

I opened my mouth, let my jaw hang it there a few seconds, and closed it without saying a word. I looked away from his face. I couldn’t bear to watch him in the eyes.

“… no, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to it,” I finally admitted. “And I would have killed Homage too.”

“See?” Meridian gave me a tired smile. “You’re getting better every day. Trust me, the day I leave you is the day you’ve become the one you were meant to be. There’s hope for you yet, filly.”

“Yeah, I guess you guys have a terrible influence on me,” I sniffed. Damn rain, I probably caught a cold. “Come on, let’s get moving. It’s getting darker and I can hear the beds in Liberty City’s inn calling my name.”

(** **)

A few years ago, I would have literally killed anypony for the kind of fame that made assault rifle-wielding guards glance left and right for moral support. In my line of work, when you got a reputation as a ruthless badass, nopony ever dares crossing you; nopony ever questioned your prices or your ability to get the job done. Who you gunned down along the way mattered little when you were respected. Or feared. Depending on the point of view.

Yet now I had little to gain from making stallions twice my size squeeze their ass shut as I waited on the ‘welcome’ rug for them to clear me in. They wouldn’t dare arrest me. The sceptics wouldn’t believe I could have made fools of Tenpony’s security twice in as many months; the believers would fear me too much to do anything about it. So there I was, at Friendship City’s doorstep, taking refuge in audacity.

At last, the gate opened and two ponies stepped out. I muttered an unholy curse under my breath.

One of them was Sure Shot, Friendship City’s sheriff. Right behind her stood Chief Lantern, her boss.

They were obviously none too happy to see me. It did not bode well.

“Hey, Sure Shot,” I forced a smile upon my lips. “Long time no see. What’s going on?”

She exchanged a quick but meaningful glance with Chief Lantern. Internally, I cursed one more time at that colt who’d broken my nine mil’.

“We’ve been hearing rumors of Red Eyes’ goons moving in Manehattan,” she squinted almost imperceptibly. “One of them broke into Tenpony to murder DJ P0n-3’s assistant. You wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you?”

“Who, me?” I chuckled uneasily. “Look, I don’t work with Red Eyes and I love his raiders as much as you do. You got the wrong mare.”

“And what about that fancy armor?” Chief Lantern intervened. “I find it mighty suspicious a lone wolf like y’a can find that kind of gear without getting into some dirty business.”

“Well, that’s because I sold it to her!” A marvelous voice sang from behind them. Sure Shot moved aside to face the newcomer, giving me a good look on the incoming alabaster unicorn. Turn up the heat, Chrystal’s in the place.

“Oh.” Chief Lantern gulped uneasily. “You did?”

“Of course, dear,” she pinched his cheek before turning toward me, leaving a very flustered head of security behind. “Where else would she find such fine equipment?”

“Yeah, where else?” I grinned sheepishly. Since all the ponies there but Sure Shot were all too busy getting an eyeful at Chrystal’s curvaceous forms, my terrible piece of acting went on unnoticed.

“Oh, my, whatever happened to you honey?” she crouched in front of me, eyeing my battered breastplate a bit closer.

In her back, Chief Lantern turned crimson. I even saw a couple mares bite their lower lip in envy, as their male counterparts uneasily crossed theirs legs to try in vain to hide the obvious. One could mistake Chrystal’s outrageous behavior as misplaced candor, but I knew her all too well. The moment she walked in, she owned the place.

“Got in a fight with Red Eyes’ raiders,” I took a deep breath to hide my growing discomfort. Chrystal’s scent was intoxicating – a subtle mélange of lilac, jasmine, and something else that I really did not want to think about.

But already she was standing back up again and turned toward Chief Lantern.

“Now, what seemed to be the matter, Chief?” she gave him a very warm and engaging smile.

In the background, the guards seemed both disappointed and relieved at the change of stance. Meanwhile, I found myself facing her back. For once, she was not wearing saddle bags, giving me a clear view of her… nicely… shaped Cutie Mark. Biting my lower lip, I averted my gaze. I wouldn’t want her to get the wrong idea about me, now wouldn’t I?

“Spring here is suspected of working with Red Eyes and committing heinous crimes in Tenpony Tower, among other things,” Sure Shot intervened. Surprisingly, Chrystal’s show had left her unfazed. Everybody else was going to need a cold shower very soon.

“Now that would be very surprising,” Chrystal let out a delicious chuckle. “You see, Spring is working for me, and I take good care of my employees.”

“And can you testify of what she does when your back is turned?” Sure Shot frowned. She really didn’t want to let me get away with that one, now did she?

“Oh, I know many things happen when my back is turned,” Chrystal gave her a devilish grin. “Yet, if you are referring to the morning Van Graff was so dramatically murdered, I can assure you I had been monitoring Spring’s back very closely, if you see what I mean. As I said – I take very good care of my employees.”

“Wow. Way to go, Spring!” Saios cheered in my earpiece. Right to my left, Meridian barely lifted an eyebrow, breaking the stoic façade he had been keeping since our arrival. I was pretty much sure Chief Lantern’s guard would be reduced by half by the end of the day – Chrystal was about to see a lot of hopeful applicants. Almost all of them were shooting me looks of envy, anger and incredulity.

Even Sure Shot had the decency to blush. She stepped back a little.

“All right, you’re clear to go,” Chief Lantern shot me an apologetic smile. It felt a bit forced – he was still sweating bullets. Then, turning toward Chrystal, he added: “My deepest apologies milady. I hadn’t made aware you two were…. Friends.”

“You are all forgiven,” she answered coyly, brushing seductively past him. “Come, Spring. Let us see if those ruffians haven’t damaged anything beneath that armor of yours…”

Absolutely not blushing like hell, I deftly followed her.

As I walked by her, Sure Shot gave me a deadly glare.

“Chief, you just can’t…” she began before being cut off.

“Enough.” Chief Lantern’s stern tone left little room for ambiguity. “Come to my office. Now. We need to talk.”

For a split second, it looked as if she was going to object a second time. Then, she swallowed her pride.

“Yes, sir,” she mumbled.

Behind Chrystal and I closed the gates of Friendship City. I was in.

(** **)

I have never been very attractive, nor ugly for that matter. Most ponies would have described me as ‘average’ – then again, I had never really tried. This kind of things really wasn’t my cup of tea, that is all.

Yet, even I couldn’t help but feel a tiny-tipsy pang of jealousy as Chrystal strolled through Friendship City like a midnight queen, her swaying hips irresistibly attracting dreamy gazes from left and right. Some stallions would shamelessly stare, until a mare – often a wife or a sister – snapped them out of their trance with a vigorous smack behind the ears.

Walking besides me, Meridian seemed unfazed, paying all in all very little attention to the outrageously arousing spectacle in front of him. Come to think of it, I didn’t even know if he was into mares. Then again, I, for one, was straight as a wooden board, and still I could hardly keep me eyes away from Chrystal’s oscillating tail.

Before long, we reached Chrystal’s shop. To my great surprise, the front windows had been almost emptied of their wares.

“I’ll wait for you outside,” Meridian announced as I walked in after Chrystal. I nodded in approval. Knowing him, he probably had some ‘business’ to attend in town anyway.

The inside of the shop fared no better than the storefront. Countless weapons used to adorn the walls, lined on metallic racks. Dummies in shinny armor used to stand guard between them. Now, very little remained on display. Heavy sealed crates were piled here and there, the care they had been packed with leaving very little mystery to their contents. Only a hooffull of the less valuable goods remained on the lonely shelves – article of clothing, pouches, spare magazines and other auxiliary gear, it seemed.

Entranced that I was from the change of scenery, I almost failed to notice the door close behind me. Chrystal casually walked out to the window and drew the store’s curtains.

Then, she turned toward me, and I took an involuntary step back. Gone were the seductive smile and the subtle manners. She looked like a queen about to bring down the unforgiving hammer of Justice upon me. A cold fury burned deep in her eyes as she stepped toward me in the semi-darkness.

Oh boy, was she pissed.

“You did not tell me you were working for Red Eyes.” Her voice cut like solid steel. Not missing a beat, she levitated a sword from behind her desk.

“I wasn’t! I swear!” I backpedalled, almost tripping on a weapon crate. No doubt she had locked the door – not that Meridian and his improbable lack of marksmare skills would be of any help. My rifle was useless in close quarter combat and the suit’s claws sure did not have the reach to be any threat to that very sharp-looking ninja sword. The irony of being trapped weaponless in an armory was not lost upon me.

“Don’t lie to me.” The blade’s tip was only inches away from my muzzle now. I could see its perfect edge glittering evilly in the dim light, as if it hungered for my blood. “I know you were at Tenpony.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that contract was Red Eyes’!” I tried to swat the sword off my face, only for it to circle in the air right back to it.

“Really now?” Chrystal seemed somehow even more suspicious. “You are asked to take out DJ P0n-3’s very own assistant out of the picture, and you don’t even- how much were you offered anyway?”

“Half a million,” I gulped uneasily.

“Half a…” She stared at me in disbelief. “Seriously? And that did not ring any bell in that pretty head of yours?”

“Well, it was backed up by-” I bit my tongue just in time. Gawd wouldn’t forgive me for ratting her out on that one. “-by respectable individuals with a decent reputation. They got fooled in the first place. I just assumed some wealthy nutheads had pooled together to get DJ P0n3’s head on a silver platter.”

“DJ P0n3’s head?” Chrystal repeated, the sword’s tip now right under my chin. “You didn’t go in there to murder him, now did you?”

“No!” I vigorously shook my head. “I mean, yes. Kind of. As it turns out, DJ-P0n3 never was a stallion in the first place. Homage, his so-called ‘assistant,’ has been playing as him the whole time. Nopony told me!”

A pregnant pause fell back on the shop, not even disturbed by the crowd of passers-by outside. Chrystal, unmoving, gaped at me with her best ‘are you serious?’ face.

Then, she lowered her sword and burst into laughter. T’was a marvelous sound, really. Too bad it clearly was at my expense.

“Okay, I don’t get it,” I finally uttered once it became clear she wasn’t going to explain the joke. “What’s so funny about that?”

Chrystal motioned me to wait with a forehoof as she leaned against a shelf with the other. Her hilarity somewhat subdued, then she looked up at me – and there she went again.

“If that is of any consolation,” Saios whispered in my ear, “I fail to see the joke in this either.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Chrystal finally managed to catch her breath. “You truly are something, do you know that?”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I narrowed my eyes, not sure whether she had just complimented or insulted me.

“Well, let me sum this up,” she bit her lower lip to fight back another fit of laugher. “You signed for a totally legit fifty hundred thousand caps’ contract, broke into Equestria’s second most secured place behind the Goddess’ ass, somehow managed to get your target at gunpoint, and bailed out because that Homage told you she was DJ-P0n3?”

She snorted and brought a hoof up her mouth. “Oh, that’s just precious.”

“Homage didn’t tell me squat,” I answered in a flat and clearly unamused voice. Chrystal looked up, probably realizing I was serious. “I even got it recorded to back it up.”

“You know me all too well,” Saios mumbled. I paid him no mind.

“So, it is true?” Chrystal asked in disbelief. “Sorry, but I just find it a bit hard to… swallow.”

“I know, right? He wasn’t even a stallion in the first place. I could hardly believe my eyes…”

“What? No, no,” she dismissively waved a hoof in my direction, suppressing a new fit of laughter. “Trust me, I wrote the book when it comes to deception. Gender-swapping is a great classic.”

“No, what really surprised me is you,” she moved toward me, “strolling in Friendship City…” she was just a couple meters from me now, “knowing you were a wanted mare…” Her muzzle stopped inches away from mine. I was mesmerized – I don’t think I could have moved even if I wanted to. “carrier of perhaps the most valuable piece of intelligence in Equestria…” Her left hoof sensually underlined the edges of my chin. I couldn’t look away from her pink, beautiful eyes. “And you gave it to me for free, just like that.”

Then she broke the spell and stepped back, chuckling.

“You know, it’s almost too easy bartering with you.” The room went back to its normal (if slightly above average) temperature. I shook my head to try and dissipate the fog that had fallen upon my poor brain. Chrystal sighed. “You are lucky you have hired me to be by your side, really.”

“I haven’t paid you yet,” I pointed out. “For that matter, how do you even know I can afford your overpriced services?”

“Call it a hunch,” she blinked seductively. Then, she turned tail and headed for the back shop. “Come. I got a little something for you.”

“Spring, I may sound like I am stating the obvious, but she is definitively flirting with you,” Saios intervened quite needlessly.

“Yes she is,” I mumbled. Honestly, I would have been more worried if she hadn’t been.

Right on cue, the mare in question shot me a glance over her shoulder, followed by a knowing smile. She was toying with me, that much was certain.

The back store had been filled to the brink with crates, dismantled weapons and gear of all kind. My scavenger senses went ballistic. There was a fortune lying right there just in shiny spare parts.

“You’ve been packing,” I stated more than asked. “So much for the loss of income. I guess I walked right into this one, didn’t I?”

Chrystal winked before digging into a crate. It allowed me to get a good look at her exposed cutie mark. It looked like a grey stylized spearhead, or perhaps some kind of silver crown. For the death of me I couldn’t get what it was really supposed to represent.

I realized the rummaging sound had stopped. Chrystal was looking back at me, devilish smile on her lips and rump shamelessly held up high.

“Like what you see?” Her predatory smile somehow got even scarier. She shook her hips left and right. “I have been told it’s a view to kill.”

“What? No, I… Just…” I facehooved, my cheeks probably turning crimson. “Get your mind out of the gutter, will you? I was just looking at your Cutie Mark. Nothing more.”

“Relax, honey,” she finally turned her smoking ass away from me. “I am merely teasing you. Don’t you think after all this time I am used to ponies staring at me?”

“Me. Looking. Cutie Mark.” I repeated, punctuating each word with a hoof for emphasis. “Seriously. I like my mates with more balls and less tits, if you know what I mean.”

“We shall see where you stand in a week’s time,” she chuckled, levitating a medium-sized black case in front of her. “As for my Cutie Mark, I could tell you many tales about it. Many of which are not true in the slightest. Let us just say it symbolizes my stature and my natural grace, and leave it at that.”

“It used to be an emblem for the highest class of nobility,” Saios didn’t seem any closer to solving this mystery than I was. “Somehow I believe there is much more to it than she let it show.”

And she already showed way too much, in my humble opinion. I wouldn’t be very surprised if her special talent was into defiling young minds with the most perverse thoughts.

“It was not lost upon me you are in need of a sidearm… again,” Chrystal chuckled, setting the case on a nearby crate. “You know, I am starting to believe you lose your weapons on purpose, just because you can’t get enough of me.”

“Trust me, I take very little solace in being scammed, however pretty the shop owner may be,” I mumbled under my breath.

“Why, thank you,” she winked playfully. I didn’t say that out loud, now did I? “Alas, I know my charms are wasted on you, so I had to get… creative.”

On cue, she opened the case.

Inside, sitting on a velvet pillow like a lily on a pond, laid the most beautiful thing I had ever see, save perhaps the armor I was wearing then. Chrystal inclined the case expertly, making the wonderful pistol – for indeed it was one – catch the dim light on its matte polymer. The finish was incredible ; it shone softly before my eyes, begging me to load it and make it sing its deadliest song. Dark as the night from the threaded, chromed barrel to its tactical rail to the adhesive grip, it waited for me.

Shaking slightly, I extended a hoof toward that jewel, only for Chrystal to snap the cover on me.

“My, my, now that’s what I call love at first sight,” she sighed as I pouted slightly. “I wish you could give me that kind of lusty gaze.”

“How much?” I sighed, not even bothering to pretend I wasn’t interested. I needed a gun, I wanted that gun, and Chrystal was bound to scam me in the end anyway. Might as well cut to the chase. “For the pistol, plus six magazines and the best suppressor you got.”

“Mmh, well, this beauty is not exactly for sale,” Chrystal circled a hoof on the case’s top. “It is truly pristine. Never been fired, never been handled: it went straight out from the factory to a vacuum chamber in which it spent the last two centuries… untouched. And, I might add, some would have dared called it one of the best handgun in the world back in the days.”

I gawked at her in silence for a solid thirty seconds.

“You are evil.” I finally concluded. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Now, you wound me darling,” she answered in mock offence. “But perhaps I could bring onto myself to sell it to a mare who will love it as much as it deserves – says, a close collaborator...”

“I already owe you twenty-three grand,” my teeth gritted in my mouth. “Is there really no limit to your greed?”

“Don’t be such a spoilsport,” her toothy grin clearly answered by the negative. “Plus, you haven’t paid me yet.”

So there we were. No turning back now.

“But I will.” Craning my neck backward, I reached for my saddlebags – more precisely, to the unusual weight I had been carrying since Tenpony. “There. Happy now?”

I dropped a heavy ingot on a crate. It landed on the plastic cover with a loud bang which made the both of us wince.

“Mmh.” Chrystal hummed softly as she levitated the gold in front of her. She observed it from all angles, giving a particular attention to the symbols on the top. “Stamped by the Royal Treasury. Quite an oddity outside of Canterlot. Courtesy of your friends in Tenpony Tower I presume?”

“Well, you heard the broadcast, didn’t you?” I winced. I hadn’t realized the marking could trace them right back to the ex-MAS hub. “Still, it’s solid gold. And it’s heavy.”

Chrystal turned around and delicately put the bar down on a scale. It read three kilo, one hundred and ten grams.

“A hundred ounces,” the salesmare nodded in approval. “It matches the stamp. Now, it could still be filled with tungsten –” she eyed me from the corner of her eyes “– but I don’t think anypony in Equestria still have the knowledge to do it without leaving a single mark, let alone the furnaces to deal with tungsten.”

“Yeah. Obviously.” I chuckled uneasily. Didn’t Saios say something about that metal a couple weeks back? I reckon I would remember him telling me it could be used to make fake gold bars. “But one could use lead, right?”

“Not really, no,” Chrystal smiled knowingly. She reached for something under her workbench and handed it to me. It roughly matched the ingot in size. “There. That’s lead. Take it.”

I complied. It was heavy, for sure, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling something was off.

“Now lift this,” she hoofed me the gold. Almost instantly it dropped a few inches from my telekinetic grasp.

“It really feels heavier,” I noted, eying the two chunks of metal a bit closer. The lead bar seemed even bigger than the ingot, but I could swear it felt twice as heavy. “Gold is denser, isn’t it?”

“One and a half times denser,” she nodded with a wry smile. “Honestly, if you are fooled by that kind of fakes, or even worse, by steel-filled fakes, you don’t deserve the gold bars in the first place.”

“Lead is 1.702 times denser than gold at 20°C,” Saios whispered the much not-needed information in my ear. “Steel is 2.4 times less dense than gold. Tungsten and gold have the same density to the third decimal.”

“So, we’re good then.” I hoofed the gold back to Chrystal. “That ought to cover all your expenses, and then some.”

“By weight? Oh, yes, surely.” She had her predatory smile back on – the same one she had harbored when she announced us her price and conditions the other day. “Yet, you see, there is an… issue.”

“It’s gold.” I flat-out stated. “Pure gold. In a gold bar. It’s as close as being the ultimate form of money as any form of currency as any right to be. Take it, or leave it. I’m done playing your little games.”

“Well, all right then.” She levitated the ingot right back into my saddlebags. “I wish you the best of luck selling your hundred-ounces bar of solid stolen gold out there. I am certain many ponies out there have enough caps in stock to give you change, and none are dishonest enough to kill you and rob your still warm body.”

I halted as I was crossing the back store threshold. Fuck. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Fine!” I finally turned around. Her smile hadn’t moved an inch. I swear, if she hadn’t been the one who sold me my guns in the first place, I would have blasted it right off her face with a three-o’-eight. “How much is it worth to you?”

“Ten thousands.”

“Twenty-five,” I countered.

“Eleven.”

“Twenty-three.”

“Eleven and half.”

“Twenty-one.”

“Twelve.”

“Nineteen.”

“Twelve and half.”

“Eighteen, and no lower!”

“Deal.” She was grinning from ear to ear now. Wonderful. She wasn’t even bothering to hide the fact she had scammed me – again. “Now, I reckon two of those ingots of yours should stack up nicely to pay your bill. I’ll even throw the pistol of your dreams in the package.”

“Wait a minute,” I frowned. “I owed you twenty-three thousands for your so-called expertise-”

“Twenty-three thousands and five hundred caps,” she corrected.

“- twenty-three thousands and five hundred,” I resumed, shooting her a death glare, “but two ingots are worth thirty-six thousands. Are you really trying to sell me a pistol for eleven thousands caps?”

“Twelve thousand and a half more precisely,” she gave me the most shark-looking I had ever seen since I had been coursed by radigators a few years before. “See? You are getting better with numbers every day.”

“No deal,” I narrowed my eyes. “You wanted twelve grand up front, didn’t you? So here’s my proposal: you take one gold bar, I take the pistol, plus suppressor, plus a solid dozen mags, plus the best holster you have, and, hum…”

I looked around uneasily. Was I punching it too far, or?...

“You’re nowhere high enough!” Saios picked up on my hesitation. Thanks, buddy.

“So-” Chrystal began.

“I’m not done!” I cut her mid-sentence. “I want you to throw something else in.”

“Well, sadly most of my wares are already packed up,” she motioned toward the crates. “I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer as of now but a discount on your next purchase.”

“I saw something in the store proper,” Saios whispered. “Do you mind getting back there?”

Grunting lowly in approval, I returned in the shop and took a good look around. Chrystal followed me, a perplexed look on her face.

“There is nothing here,” she lifted an eyebrow. “Nothing that could spark your interest, that is. I daresay I quite managed to learn your tastes over the years.”

“Right there, on the left,” Saios ignored her, highlighting a dummy in a corner instead. Curious, I moved closer.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of the set of armor displayed there. Unlike most of Chrystal’s wares, it was covered in a fine layer of dust. While well preserved, it fit the dummy very loosely and it somehow lacked part of the protection a proper combat armor should have offered. The ceramic plates weren’t simply removed – they seemed missing by design around the back, replaced by large pair of saddlebags. I didn’t know what to make of Saios’ suggestion. It wasn’t camouflaged either. The only trace of paint was on the saddlebags – a faded trio of pink butterflies. Go figure.

It was then Saios popped a 3D rotating figure on my display. It took me a couple seconds to recognize Evey – the oversized armor fitted her large stature perfectly.

“I’ll be honest, if you were to take it you’d be doing me a favor,” Chrystal stopped right beside me, oblivious to my silent conversation with my silicon-based friend. “It is too large even for me, and bulky stallions have very little need for an armor designed for a Pegasus medic. I had half a mind to strip it down for spare parts.”

“A Pegasus medic, uh?” I repeated softly, my eyes not leaving the tiny rotating Evey a single second.

“Spring, I may not be an expert when it comes to apology gifts, but I think she would like it very much,” Saios argued. “If anything, it will show her you care.”

I opened my mouth to answer, then remembered where I was. Chrystal was eying me quizzically.

“Okay, I take it,” I finally stated. “At the sole condition you keep it with you for the moment being.”

“Alright,” Chrystal blinked, puzzled. Now that she hadn’t been expecting. “If I may, what are you even doing to do with it?”

“It’s for a friend,” I answered cryptically, walking back to the back store. “A gift, long overdue.”

A lone gold ingot floated from my saddlebag onto the scale.

“Very well, then.” Chrystal barely glanced at the reading before pushing the pistol’s black case toward me. “I believe this is yours.”

So that was what getting a Hearth Warming Eve present felt like! Even if I paid for it, technically.

Shaking slightly, I opened the case. The weapon beckoned me. I lifted it from its velvet pillow; it felt very light in my grasp.

“Hello, beautiful,” I crooned, pulling the slide backward. It moved softly, without any kind of resistance. “I can’t wait to show you the world.”

Chrystal chuckled, but I paid her no mind. Instead, I focused on the writing on the side.

“Wait a minute,” I frowned. “It’s not even chambered in 9mm!”

(** **)

Someday, I shall walk out of Chrystal’s shop without the feeling of having been scammed the shit out of me by the ever-greedy shopkeeper.

Someday – but it wasn’t that day.

As I stormed out, Meridian followed suit without a word. He was wise enough not to ask me if everything went as planned. Then again, I reckon the way the corner of my mouth twitched sporadically gave quite easily my fool mood away.

We walked all the way to the Warm Smiles Inn without sharing a single word. I cut the innkeeper mid-sentence by dropping the twenty-five caps for a room on the counter, grabbed a key and directly headed upstairs. I was not until I had locked the door behind me and sat on the dirty mattress that I gave up pretending and dug my head between my forelegs.

“That bad, uh?” Meridian asked with a wince before sitting next to me. “I’ll admit, I have never met a mare quite like her.”

“That could’ve gone better,” I grumbled, not even looking up. “By Luna’s freaking moon, she even managed to charge me extra for ammunition! After I gave her a fucking three kilo gold bar! How did that ever sound like a good idea anyway?”

“I thought it went pretty well, all things considered,” Saios objected. “I had feared you would walk out poorer by three ingots.”

“Your faith in my bartering skills is legendary,” I deadpanned. “Fine. Let’s talk about something else then. How are things going on your side?”

“Evey calmed down and moved back to her room. Do you want me to patch you through?”

“Not now.” I bit my lip. I really wasn’t in the mood to explain myself to her. “Just tell her I say ‘hi’. What about my drive? Is it ready yet?”

“The APC is almost done being reassembled,” Saios sent me a picture of the aforementioned vehicle. “So far, tests are conclusive. I still need to get it to pass a few bench tests, but I doubt there will be any glaring issue.”

“Good,” I nodded in approval. At least, something that didn’t go south as soon as it could. “Do you think you can pick me up on my way to JR-7?”

“Perhaps,” he answered cautiously. “Assuming I do not encounter too many obstacles on the road. I had hoped to use old military satellites to map the itinerary, but…”

“The cloud layer’s too thick,” I finished his sentence. “Told you so.”

“That, and