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FALLOUT: EQUESTRIA

PROJECT  HORIZONS

Written by: Somber        Edited by: O.Hinds, Bronode, swicked, and Heartshine (formerly also by Snipehamster and Hidden Fortune)

Significant consultant work done by Icy Shake and the rest of the Cloudsville PHCC



Welcome to the Project Horizons index page! Chapter links can be found below.

Note: While the story is written as a continuous narrative, here it has been split into volumes due to its length. Feedback, discussion and constructive criticism of Project Horizons are encouraged at the Project Horizons page on Equestria Daily or the new Cloudsville thread.


Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, the virtues of friendship were cast aside in favor of greed, suspicion and war. Finally, the world itself was ravaged by the fires of countless megaspells; civilization, as it once was, ceased to exist. The city of Hoofington, however, did not die easily. Even with the world shattered, the ominous, irradiated towers of the Core remained standing. Formerly the center of Equestria’s wartime research and development efforts, the ruined city now slumbers, a place of poisoned secrets and perilous treasures. One unicorn mare, already burdened by guilt and self-doubt, finds herself thrust into the center of Hoofington’s web of intrigue. With a diverse and dysfunctional band of companions at her side, she must unravel a mystery over two hundred years in the making -- if the trials of the Equestrian Wasteland don’t unravel her first.


Volume One - The Security Mare (1-16)   Volume Two - Blood and Stars (17-33)   Volume Three - Second Chances (34-48)

Volume Four - Homecoming (49-62)   Volume Five - Horizons (63-xx)   Links and Downloads   Notes from the PH team


Hub page created by: Snipehamster, modified by Hinds                                Cover image by: Sw1tchbl4de


Volume One - The Security Mare

Blackjack, an incompetent security mare from the dystopian Stable 99, suddenly has her monotonous life turned upside down when the stable is invaded by vicious raiders. In a daring plan to save her home, Blackjack flees the stable with EC-1101, a valuable data file. With an enormous price on her head and a deadly cyberpony out for her blood, the struggle to survive in the blasted ruins of Hoofington tests her resolve and courage to their limits.

Chapter 1 - Inception

“Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria…”

Chapter 2 - Trust

“In the end, we all have to trust in something…”

Chapter 3 - Learning Curve

“I’m so sorry…”

Chapter 4 - Innocence

“Another donut!  Extra sprinkles!”

Chapter 5 - Work

“Step one… stay alive.  Step two… I dunno.  Step three… profit!”

Chapter 6 - Play

I know lots of other ways to take care of you.  Don't worry.  You're gonna get better.

Chapter 7 - Prices

YOU TOUCH IT, YOU BUY IT.  We take cash or credit.

Chapter 8 - Long Roads

Are you sayin' my mouth is makin' promises my legs can't keep?”

Chapter 9 - Stone

There was no talking.  There was no smiling.  There were only rocks.

Chapter 10 - Ante Up

“Oh yeah.  You think you can do better, cowgirl?”

Chapter 11 - Peace

“Sweet Celestia, she’s drunk!”

Chapter 12 - Denial

“Obviously, that’s why I zipped my mouth closed, then locked it with a key, then dug a hole, then buried the key, then built a house on top of the hole where I buried the key, then moved into the house on top of the hole.”

Chapter 13 - Turnabout

“Ahem… hint hint?”

Chapter 14 - Strength

“THAT was a truly feeble performance.”

Chapter 15 - Flank

“That wasn’t the doozy?  How could that not be the doozy?!”

Chapter 16 - Walk the Hard Road

“We’re… gonna… run!”


Volume Two - Blood and Stars

Free of pursuit for the time being, Blackjack sets to finding out more about the mysterious data file that the monstrous Reaper, Deus, invaded her home stable to find; a task made easier by powerful and enigmatic new allies. More and more, however, thoughts of her past mistakes weigh heavily on the Security Mare’s conscience, and the hunt for answers soon transforms into an impossible quest for redemption.

Chapter 17 - Identity

“It’s all secrets and lies with those ponies!!”

Chapter 18 - Monsters

“It seems like the only thing royal about you is that you are a royal pain!”

Chapter 19 - EC-1101

“Does my crown no longer count, now that I have been imprisoned for a thousand years?”

Chapter 20 - Mercy

“Tough love, baby!”

Chapter 21 - Waterfall

“I shall save you!  Show yourselves, you dogs!  You curs!  Ha!  There you are, you mangy mutts.”

Chapter 22 - Damned

“You’ve got to get into the spirit of things!  After all, this is your new home!”

Chapter 23 - Walkabout

“When all the truth does is make your heart ache, sometimes a lie is easier to take.”

Chapter 24 - Hell of a Night

It's the horrifying story of the messy inconsiderate ghost, who irritated everypony within a hundred miles!  OoooooOOOwwwwOOOoo...

Chapter 25 - Competition

“I was gonna say ‘In all of Equestria,’ but that might be gilding the lily.”

Chapter 26 - Descent

“Curses are artificial, fake magic.  It’s conjured with potions and incantations, all smoke and mirrors meant to scare.  But curses have no real power; they’re just an old pony tale.”

Chapter 27 - Salvage

“Bah!  Trixie is exhausted from performing feats beyond imagination.  Begone with you until morning!”

Chapter 28 - Orientation

“Thanks guys, you’re all great friends too, even when I don’t understand me!”

Chapter 29 - Mortality

“Now listen here.  What I’m sayin’ to you is the honest truth.  Let go, and you’ll be safe.”

Chapter 30 - Allegiances

“What I meant is, you should get to know these tribes and decide which ones you like and which you don't!”

Chapter 31 - Battle

“Just because you’ve failed the sonic rainboom a hundred thousand times in practice doesn’t mean you won’t be able to do it in front of an entire stadium full of impatient, super-critical, sports-fan ponies.”

Chapter 32 - Choir

“Though quarrels arise, their numbers are few.  Laughter and singing will see us through.”

Chapter 33 - Black

“…”


Volume Three - Second Chances

Events build towards their inevitable climax in Equestria at large. Meanwhile, in Hoofington, rumors spread far and wide about the sudden disappearance of the notorious Security Mare. Strange groups accumulate outside settlements throughout the region, bearing an ominous standard. Life-stealing Enervation fields are on the rise, and something terrible stirs beneath the ruins of the Core. One way or another, the fallen city’s dark secrets will soon come to light, and dramatic changes are in store for a certain group of friends...

Chapter 34 - Birthday

“This is the greatest day ever!  We need to celebrate your birthday, babies, ‘cause you were just born today!”

Chapter 35 - Learning

“And I saw the most amazing, most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen.  I poured myself into learning everything I could about magic.”

Chapter 36 - Victims

Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my--- ARRRGH!

Chapter 37 - Winning and Losing

“Clock is ticking, Twilight!  Clock!  Is!  TICKING!”

Chapter 38 - Blood

“You should see the looks on your faces!  Priceless!”

Chapter 39 - Wages of Sin

“I hope you’re happy!  Both of you!  You’ve ruined my very first slumber party.  The makeover, the smores, the truth or dare, the pillow fight!  I mean, is there anything else that could possibly go wrong?!”

Chapter 40 - Recovery

“Nice work, Rainbow Dash!”

Chapter 41 - Paths

“Biting off more than you can chew is just what I’m afraid of.”

Chapter 42 - Reaper

“Twenty stalks?  Bean or celery?”

Chapter 43 - Lucidity

“So... got any problems, troubles, conundrums, or any other sort of issues major or minor that I as a good friend could help you solve?”

Chapter 44 - Mares and Stallions

“It’s awfully pretty."

“Yes, she was.”

Chapter 45 - Meatlocker

“These ponies don’t want a party.  These ponies want a PARRR-TAY!”

Chapter 46 - Caper

“I dunno why we have to wear these things either...”

“Aren’t we wearing them for fun?”

Chapter 47 - Hightower

She might banish you from Equestria. Or throw you in a dungeon. Or banish you and then throw you in a dungeon in the place that she banishes you to!

Chapter 48 - Inferno

Listen up!  Smoke is spreading all across Equestria.  But don’t worry, I’ve received a letter from the Princess informing me that it is not coming from a fire.


Volume Four - Homecoming

The trials of the Wasteland wear everypony down with time, but with shadowy agendas coming to the fore and EC-1101 approaching its final destination, there’s little opportunity to rest. Pursued by the Harbingers, the Remnant, the Enclave, and worse, life just keeps getting harder. And as she faces these challenges, the bearer of Equestria's destiny finds herself doubting the very quest upon which she's embarked.

Still, there's no place like home... right?

Chapter 49 - Consequence

“You have a lot to think about.”

Chapter 50 - Selfishness

“I am going for a hooficure and that is that!”

“You are not going-”

“I am!  I am!”

Chapter 51 - A Good Day

“Hey, you know what this calls for?”

Chapter 52 - Reunions

“I put two and two and two together and it added up to Matilda!”

Chapter 53 - Upgrades

“The war brought misery and death all over the world.  I sure hope that something like that never happens again.  But from what I’ve seen, there’s not much hope for ponykind.”

Chapter 54 - Fate

“Oh, my fortune telling has nothing to do with my Pinkie sense!  It’s only good for vague and immediate events.  Like that, see?  ...where did that even come from?”

Chapter 55 - Noblesse Oblige

“They are not slaves, they are our “servants.”  We have given them homes, food, clothing, and a purpose.  We have given them a life.”

Chapter 56 - Royal Pains

“Stay back!  I just had myself groomed!”

Chapter 57 - Best Night Ever

“I can’t believe we’re finally here. With all that we’ve imagined, the reality of this night is sure to make this... The Best Night Ever!”

Chapter 58 - Departures

“You and I have some unfinished business.  My magic’s gotten better since I was here last.  And I’m going to prove it!  Me and you.  A magic duel.  Winner stays, loser leaves Ponyville forever!”

Chapter 59 - Turbulence

“I simply cannot imagine why the pegasus ponies would schedule a dreadful downpour this evening and ruin what could have been a glorious sunny day.”

Chapter 60 - Civilization

“Here it is: the greatest city in the sky!”

Chapter 61 - Action, Reaction

“You saved my reputation with Princess Celestia, and more importantly, you saved Ponyville! ...Or not.”

Chapter 62 - Between the Wolf and the Lion, Part One

Chapter 62 - Between the Wolf and the Lion, Part Two

“I’ve learned that one of the joys of friendship is sharing your blessings, but when there’s not enough blessings to go around, having more than your friends, can make your feel pretty awful.  So, though I appreciate the invitation, I will be returning both tickets to The Grand Galloping Gala.”


Volume Five - Horizons

[placeholder]

Chapter 63 - Perceptions

“I’ve got my eye on you.”

Chapter 64 - Labyrinth

“To retrieve your missing Elements, just make sense of this change of events.  Twists and turns are my master plan.  Then find the Elements back where you began.”

Chapter 65 - Knowledge

“Hello everypony! Did I miss anything?”

Chapter 66 - Ruin

“Well, there’s something here about a dragon, the kingdom falling, chaos reigning… Okay, apparently it was all because the prince and princess were so lost in each other’s eyes that they couldn’t perform their royal duties.”

Chapter 67 - Goldenblood

“No. You won’t. You may have made it impossible for Shining Armor to perform his spell, but now that you have so foolishly revealed your true self, I can protect my subjects from you!”

Chapter 68 - Morning

“We must escape before it’s too late

Find a way to save the day”

Chapter 69 - Whiplash

“Well, just tell me what you really think.  Tell me, tell me, tell-me-tell-me-tell-me!”

Chapter 70 - [Coming Soon]

“[Placeholder]”

Links

Fallout: Equestria - The original story, by KKat.

Fallout: Equestria Resource - Fallout Equestria fansite, with art and media of Fallout: Equestria, Project Horizons, and more.

Equestria Daily IRC - Join us in #FalloutEquestria.

Fallout: Equestria Wiki

Fallout: Equestria Deviantart Group

Fallout: Equestria and Project Horizons on TV Tropes. Warning: TV Tropes may ruin your life.

Cloudsville's Fanfiction section, within which are, generally near the top, the Project Horizons primary forum threads.

Downloads

Note: The files below are updated independently and may not be up to date.

Project Horizons .epub - With thanks to Scorch_Mechanic.

Project Horizons LaTeX ebook .pdf - With thanks to thePowersGang.

Shujaa’s PDF and MOBI Versions (Up to Volume V - Chapter 69, updated 2014-08-10)

Nallar’s Fic Collection - A large selection of MLP fanfics, including Project Horizons, in Kindle, .epub, and .txt formats.


Notes from the PH team

Snipehamster -- 11/3/13 -- Due to internal disagreements, I’ve resigned from the editing team. Ownership of this document has been passed to Somber.

Snipehamster -- 21/11/12 -- A passage has been added to the tunnel scene in Chapter 39, which should set some ground for the future and clarify the events of that chapter just a little. Apologies for the sporadic chapter releases; real life obligations have eaten into writing and editing time quite substantially.

Snipehamster -- Hub Page Release -- Testing, testing, one two three. This hub page was strongly inspired by the fantastic hub page of Murky Number Seven, by Fuzzy. A story I highly recommend. Also, for those wondering about when, specifically, new chapters of PH are released: each chapter typically takes 1-2 weeks to write. Editing sessions take place during weekends due to timezone conflicts and work schedules (Somber and Hinds live in the US; Bronode and I live in the UK), so new chapters are almost always released on saturdays and sundays.

“Snipehamster is best pony!”  -Somber.


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 1: Inception

“Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria…”

        War.  War never changes.  It had consumed our home, a war fought by foreign aggressors until great and terrible magics had been unleashed to burn all the world to ash and dust.  Only our constant devotion to the Princesses had carried us through that terrible war, just as our unwavering faith in the Overmare maintained our continued survival within the earth.  Trust in the Overmare; obey the Overmare.

        The grating buzz of my alarm yanked me away from sleep.  I stuck my left foreleg out from under the blankets, away from my head, felt around for the end table next to the bed, found it, and proceeded to whack my PipBuck against the tabletop until the right button was hit and the noise stopped.  I groaned and smacked my lips, tasting the sour gunk in my mouth before rolling onto my back and huffing softly, “Good morning, Blackjack.  Welcome to another thrilling day in Stable 99.”  I half crawled, half rolled, half fell out of bed and gave myself a vigorous shake.  Life in Stable 99 was routine, with any deviation punishable by the security mares.  I had half an hour to wash, half an hour to eat, and an hour to report to my duty station.  The same as it had been every day since I’d gotten my cutie mark.

        Slowly, I shuffled through the copious junk I’d accumulated.  It was mostly recycled food chips and old drink bulbs, though I liked to pretend that some of the open bottles on the dresser were some sort of fermentation experiment...  Maybe a pet?  Colonization by our future fungal overlords?  Heh.  A mare could dream…  My horn glowed white as my magic lifted my uniform from one of the heaps.  I gave it a test sniff… ew…  unacceptable.  I tossed it back on its pile and sifted around for another.  Sniff… sniff… yeah, this’d work.

        Trotting down to the showers, I passed the murals designed to inspire camaraderie and cooperation… at least, according to what I’d been constantly taught in classes.  ‘We are all the Overmare’s foals’ declared the caption of one picture of an abstract white unicorn hugging dozens of tiny ponies in her hooves.  Another showed one lone weeping mare under the caption ‘Selfishness Separates’.

        I trotted into the sector’s communal bathroom, and immediately my ears perked to a familiar giggling.  Walking past a stall, I glanced in at two mares employing unauthorized and probably ineffective washing techniques.  According to the training manual, behavior like that in public spaces was punishable by whipping and restriction to C class rations, so it was pretty understandable that the pair looked up with some trepidation when they spotted me.

        “Oh, it’s just Blackjack,” the dappled mare, Pastels, said in relief before flushing and snapping at her partner, “I swear, you are trying to get us flogged!”

        “Fun,” giggled the white mare, Misty Hooves from the bakery, nuzzling her.  Misty was a chronic repeat offender.  I didn’t know if she liked the kiss of the whip or if there was something else wrong with her.  Or both.

        I sighed.  In theory, I was supposed to discourage this kind of thing.  However, it fucking sucked being the mare who was supposed to discourage this kind of thing.  “You won’t think so if its Daisy doing the flogging,” I commented, and instantly their smiles disappeared.  I couldn’t blame them.  With the constant duty and honor bullshit, a little flank spank was one of the few reliable means of recreation, and a lot of the security mares got really... enthusiastic about it.  I stepped under the spray and immediately jerked.  “Cold!”

        “Yeah.  Heating talismans are really slow today,” Misty said.

        “Well,” I said after a moment, “go back to your quarters and finish up your fun.  Make sure you’re back in your beds by curfew.”  That’s me, big badass security pony.  The pair glanced nervously at each other and then quickly finished their showers.

        “I wonder if we can do it in the atrium and not get caught,” I heard Misty mutter to Pastels as the two trotted out.  I rolled my eyes and shook my head.  Some mares have all the luck.  Not that they were the only two, or even the worst two.  Half the ponies in the stable seemed to have at least one flavor of crazy.  I supposed it was only inevitable when half your day was devoted to keeping this place going.

        And we had to keep it going.  If we didn’t… don’t think about it.

        Stable 99 was all that was left.  Every filly learned that as soon as they could read; the megaspells unleashed across Equestria had sterilized the surface.  Radioactive death was all that awaited us outside.  So we kept the stable working.  We kept order.  We kept loyalty… because at any moment… any moment…

        “Fuck, Blackjack.  Don’t think about another Incident,” I muttered softly.  “The Overmare Protects”… but I felt a gloomy specter rising inside me at the thought of the entire stable being in the hooves of a filly a year younger than me.

        There were exactly five hundred jobs to be filled in Stable 99.  Four hundred and something were covered by mares like myself who inherited our jobs from our mothers.  My mom was security.  I was security.  When I had my daughter, she would be security.  And so on and so on.  In the rare event of a mare dying before she could breed, a lottery would be held for some other mare to produce an extra filly for the spot.  Because the population had to stay at five hundred.  Everypony had to behave and follow the rules.  Otherwise… there’d be an Incident.

        Stable 99 couldn’t take another Incident.  This bathroom alone showed the flickering lights from overtaxed generators and the water that couldn’t settle on whether it wanted to be freezing or boiling.  You couldn’t think about it; all it would take was one thing to go wrong and we’d all die.  One busted generator… one broken recycler… one accident, and we’d all be choking on our own unrecycled breath.

        “Fuck!  Don’t think about it…” I said, trying again to shove it from my mind.  That was made ridiculously easy by Midnight trotting past me towards the atrium.  Instantly, my ruby eyes popped wide at her cute flank and graceful tail.  Black on black and oh she needed to be mine!  “Hey!  Midnight!  Midnight!  Hey!  Hey!  Wait up!” I shouted as I tripped and raced to catch up with her.  Of course, she didn’t wait; she never did.  Instead, she picked up her pace.  “Damnit, Midnight!  No running in the halls!” I shouted as I ran after her.  What?  I was security!  I was allowed to break the rules when pursuing a fine flank!

        Unfortunately, there was a flash and a pair of hoofcuffs materialized around my forehooves.  “Oh sh--“ I barely got out before rolling head over hoof.  I glared around at the source.  It could only be… “Daisy.  Marmalade.  Excellent cunt block… top notch.”  The pale earth pony mare and honey colored unicorn both smiled at my predicament.  

        “No running in the halls, Blackjack,” Daisy said, stepping out of the side hall she’d been lurking in.  When Stable-Tec made the stable, clearly they hadn’t had mares of her size in mind.  Her ears nearly brushed against the ceiling as she looked down at me with her snide little grin.  “Not even after pussy.”  Marmalade gave an echoing little snicker.

        “Right.  You got me,” I said as I held up the hoofcuffs.  “So?”

        “Aww… don’t know the spell yourself?  I thought all the security unicorns did.  Marmalade does,” Daisy taunted as she stepped over me, making her way towards the atrium stairs.  The vapid unicorn gave a slack grin and nodded, and then both of them had a good laugh as they trotted away.  I rose, glaring at their backs before hobbling after the pair.

        All security unicorns were supposed to know a selection of spells for policing the stable.  Me… I had telekinesis… and telekinesis… and oh!  Did I mention telekinesis?  I couldn’t cuff or stun or do interrogation spells to save my life; all the practice I’d put in merely gave me a migraine.  I’d have been better off being in maintenan-- wait, that would mean I’d be responsible for the stable.  Strike that… better I were in food prep.  Nice, low-responsibility food prep.  That was the life for me…

        But I was security.  Because Mom was security.  Because her mom had been security.  All the way back to the legendary Card Trick, the one who’d carved ‘Security: We Save Ponies’ above the entrance to the security level.  Hurray for completely irrational expectations!  I knew I’d never save 99.  I couldn’t even get out of these hoofcuffs.

        Woah, pity party; table for one!  Or not.  I didn’t have any time for the poor me routine.  Never played well.  Nope!  I just had to get out of these cuffs… and I had an idea how…

        The huge atrium was the heart and soul of pony life in 99.  Almost half the stable could fit in the room for large events, more if everypony was really friendly.  Huge support pillars had been sculpted in a parody of tree trunks, and the support beams had been fashioned to resemble branches.  That was about the extent of trying to make 99 look like something outside.  Besides, the effect was ruined by the huge banners of the Overmare smiling down at us all and her stupid patriotic slogans of ‘Help the Overmare, help 99’ and Stableity over all’.  I mean, really.  ‘Stableity’?  The music piped in was half parade march and half hymn.

        Any wonder I tried to stay out of this place?  There was also the fact that most ponies refused to look at me.  They’d drop their conversations, look aside, or leave.  It didn’t matter that I tried to be nice; the fact was that all I had to do was drop a name and they’d be hauled in for interrogations.  I’d witnessed enough to know I didn’t want to drop a name… besides, I’d already tried it once.  Never worked for the ponies who deserved it.

I passed the cafeteria where ponies loaded bowls with green recycled algae slime, scooped recycled fungus cubes onto trays, collected synthetic recycled carrot sticks and apple flakes into bowls, or heaped up stacks of green recycled grass chips, brown recycled hay chips, and white recycled cake chips upon their plates.  All the food in 99 was recycled into more food.  All the waste in 99 was recycled.  We were recycled.  And yes, even having lived here my entire life, I still found it easier to pretend that the machines just magically made the food poof into being.  Still, despite being made out of recycled poo water, the chips were pretty tasty!

You just had to not think about it.

Midnight was talking with Rivets and Textbook, and the black unicorn’s eyes widened at the sight of me hobbling to her table.  “Mind if I join you?  No?  Great!” I said as I set my hooves on the table before she could shoot me down.  “Hey, Riv.  Hey, teach…” the earth pony school mistress sniffed disdainfully at my intrusion.

“We were having a private conversation,” Textbook said sullenly as she glared at me.  Rivets, an older gray earth pony, showed far more amusement at my predicament.

“Great.  Do I have a story to tell!  Here I was, just minding my own business, hurrying to catch up with a particularly lovely mare, when these hoofcuffs appeared on me like magic!  Can you believe it?” I asked with a grin as I tapped them on the table.  “So, there I was, pondering and bemoaning my fate, when I remembered a certain vision of angelic equinity whose magic far outshines my own and whose kindness and generosity would surely compel her to free me from my predicament!” I said, grinning ear to ear as I fluttered my eyes at Midnight.

“Blackjack, I’m a PipBuck technician…” she began.

“Which means you’re intelligent.  Skilled!  That you possess far more competence than a lowly security pony like myself!” I said as she hesitated.  I almost had her convinced!  “I’ll pay you in oral sex!” I blurted.  Textbook turned the shade of a spoiled apple, and Rivets covered half her face as she chuckled.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” Midnight said to Rivets as she trotted to another table.

“I’ll be telling your mother about this,” Textbook added to me before going to join Midnight.

I groaned and pressed my face into my bound hooves.  Rivets patted my shoulder.  “Oral sex, huh?  What’s the going rate on that?”

“I’m an idiot,” I muttered.  Rivets chuckled, certainly not arguing.

“I had no idea.  I didn’t think you were into mares,” Rivets said with a smile, munching on her grass chips.

“Eh…” I shrugged.  “It’s more the fact she always tells me no.  I glared down at the cuffs on my hooves, growled, and then bit the conjured metal.  “She always plays hard to get…” I said around the mouthful of metal.

“Well, it’s your time to waste.  Her spot on the queue’s up, though, so I really doubt she’ll have time for you,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Really?”  My red eyes widened and then drooped along with the rest of my body.  I slumped till my chin rested on the tabletop.  “Bummer.”

“We all have our little trials,” Rivets said with a sigh.  “I’ve got to get Duct Tape’s filly on the duty roster.  She’s taking over for her mom.”  She sighed.  “Hopefully she knows which end of the wrench goes on the nut.”

“Duct Tape died?  How?” I gasped.  She was one of the nicer ponies in maintenance.  I frequently bumped flanks with her on C shift, though never actually talked with her, of course.  After all, I was security and she was scared to death of me.

Rivets snorted in irritation.  “Don’t you ever pay attention?  She died a week ago.  Tried servicing the Overmare’s terminal and it blew up in her face.  Power junction wasn’t closed.”

“But Scotch Tape doesn’t even have her cutie mark yet, right?  She’s still in school,” I pointed out, twisting my hooves errantly in the cuffs to try and free them.

“Does that matter?  I’ve got a hundred and fifty maintenance mares to manage and I’ve got a hole on the C shift and she’s got to fill it,” Rivets said firmly, narrowing her eyes as she pressed her lips together.  “I feel for the kid.  Really.  But the stable takes first, last, and middle priority.  She’ll just have to get over it.”

“Really?  I thought it was Overmare first, last, and middle,” I replied, enjoying a little smack talk.  Normally it would get a grin.  The look on Rivets’s face now, though… I’d never seen her look so angry in my life.  My black-and-red-striped mane itched terribly and I just wished my hooves were free so I could scratch it.

Rivets groaned.  “Don’t talk about the Overmare to me.  She’s been throwing all kinds of special work orders and studies my way.  The little foal is demanding peak efficiency and she’s countermanding my work assignments to make damn sure it doesn’t happen.”  She reached into one of the many pockets on her utility barding and drew out a notepad.  “Last month she ordered the stable recreation broadcaster in Maintenance One overhauled, but then she collected every piece of scrap electronics and conductor for inventory and kept the entire terminal crew occupied with ‘searching and cleaning’ the stable databases!”

Maintenance One was the little closet of a utility space next to the stable maneframes and the massive Stable-Tec hatchway right outside the atrium; I sometimes used it for naps when I knew the Overmare was out.  “Did she say why?”

“Do overmares ever?” Rivets countered with a snort.  “Her mother was bad enough; I sure didn’t shed any tears when she died last year.  But that little tyrant is going to…” and she drew herself up short, realizing that even though I was the most irresponsible mare in security, I was in security.  She coughed and then gave a little shrug.  “I’m just concerned about the stable.  That’s all.”

And that was the story of my life.  No matter how friendly I was, I was security.  She wasn’t.  I enforced the Overmare’s rules and punished those who didn’t.  I sighed, my ears drooping a little.  “Well, see you at the card game tonight?”

There was some considerable doubt in her eyes as she stared at me.  She rose with a cool, “Of course.  You’re always welcome at the game.”  Not because I was actually welcome welcome, but more because having me there would assuage fears that the game would be raided.  After all, I was the only pony in security who liked associating with the maintenance mares after hours.  “It’s in Atmospheric Maintenance Three this time.  Bring your bits.”  Because I would be leaving with exactly as much as I came with, because I was tolerated.  Not wanted.  Goddesses, why was my mane crawling thinking about the look that she’d just given me?

I looked at the cuffs on my hooves, feeling as if there were something I was missing, then growled as I narrowed my eyes and bit them again!

*        *        *

        There were five hundred ponies in Stable 99, and one tenth of them were resigned to the duty of protecting and safeguarding the stable and executing the will of the Overmare.  Unfortunately, we also had to frequently tackle the question of which one took priority.  The briefing room was festooned with graphic reminders that ‘Service to the Overmare is Service to the Stable’.  I hobbled in just as the security head started with the evening briefing.

        The security head was Gin Rummy, a middle-aged unicorn who still looked better than several of the younger mares.  Her purple and red striped mane contrasted well with her lavender coat and bright pink eyes, and those pink eyes looked right at me with immediate disapproval the second I hobbled in.  

        Gin Rummy trotted up to the podium and flipped through the notes organized on her PipBuck.  The microcomputer on the leg of everypony in the stable had a ridiculous amount of data storage space on it, but I wagered hers was nearly full.  She’d been head of security for longer than I’d been alive, and I’d never known her to not be organized, confident, and secure in her knowledge of what was going on in Stable 99.  Daisy and Marmalade snickered as I limped in, and I gave the rest of the security mares a sheepish grin and a shrug before taking my seat.  Gin Rummy just sighed and looked at me with a slow, disappointed shake of her head.  Still, wasn’t much she could do.

        “So, everypony.  I want to thank you for your hard work.  Stable incident reports are down to under five percent this month.  There hasn’t been anything more severe than a few class C incidents of violating curfew.  Springs was caught this morning hoarding Med-X, but she surrendered her stash willingly.  Punishment will be twenty lashes in the atrium tomorrow morning.”

        “Ohhh!  Ohhh!  Pick me!  Can I do it?” Daisy asked with a grin, waving her hoof in the air.  Gin Rummy did not share her humor.

        “Punishment will be administered by a random pony from A shift, Daisy.  You know that,” she replied firmly.  Daisy snorted, glaring at me.  I responded with my best ‘what?!’ expression.

        “In other news, medical reports that we’re missing a male.  There’s a new P-21 to round up for retirement, but he hasn’t reported back after his last breeding assignment.  C shift, your job is to sweep the stable.  If a mare’s sheltering him, write up the incident and escort him to detention.  If not, find him,” Gin Rummy said firmly.  Daisy rubbed her hooves together gleefully.  Most mares simply looked bored.  I tried my best not to squirm.  Damn it, why were hoofcuffs so hard to get out of?

        Everypony in Stable 99 had a job assigned to them from birth.  Maintenance ponies maintained, security ponies secured, and baker ponies baked.  The forty or so males in Stable 99 were no different: they were breeding equipment.  From birth, they had their segregated quarters in medical and were signed out by mares for reproductive purposes and, more frequently, recreational.  There were twenty unicorns and twenty earth ponies on the breeding rotation.  Once a male reached… how old was it?  Twelve?  Fifteen? -- they were put into breeding.  Of course, to keep the number in rotation the same, that meant that a male had to be taken out of breeding and retired.

        “So, if there’s nothing else?”  Gin Rummy’s pink eyes scanned the assembled security ponies before landing on me.  “Very well.  Oh, and tomorrow, I’d like any ponies confused about how to dispel a hoofcuff spell to please report to security at twelve hundred hours for remediation.”  Maybe I could do more than telekinesis after all.  I was in the front row, and yet, magically, I still knew that every eye was on me.  Amazing.  “All right.  A shift and B shift are off-duty.  C shift, stable is yours.”  Daisy nodded in response.  And with that, the mares dispersed to get their last shot at dinner before curfew went active.

        “Thanks.  I really appreciate that,” I said as I looked at the head security mare sourly.

        She returned the look coolly.  “You’re not a blank flank anymore, Blackjack.  You have duties and obligations to this stable.  If you can’t fulfill them, then it’s my obligation to train you to meet them.”

        Yeah, except nopony ever asked me if I wanted them.  She started for the exit.  “Hey…” I called after her, and when she looked back, I sat down and raised my cuffed hooves.  “You mind, Mom?”

        She sighed as she looked at me for a long moment and finally went from being head security mare to being my mother.  Trotting back, she lowered her horn to the cuffs, and with a flash she dispelled the summoned restraints.  Technically, every security unicorn was supposed to be able to do that.  Technically, every unicorn, much less every security unicorn, was supposed to be able to do a whole slew of spells that I couldn’t.  Maybe Mom would get lucky and outlive me.  One thing was sure: the second I became head security mare, Stable 99 was doomed.

        “Marmalade’s work?” she asked in that tone that always seemed to prelude her fighting my battles for me.  It was really tempting, I admit.  Of course, this was why even most of the security ponies gave me a lot of space; nopony wanted to offend the boss’s daughter.

        “Don’t worry about it, Mom.  I can handle it,” I said, trying to put on my big girl look.  Okay, I was definitely old enough to have it by default, but she always looked at me like I was her little blank flank… when there was nopony else around to see, of course.  Thank the Goddesses.

        I trotted out after everypony else, pretending not to hear her sigh.  Yeah, that just about summed up my feelings on the subject as well.

        Outside, I glanced down the hallway.  The uppermost levels held security, the armory, the Overmare’s office, and all the maneframes that ran the stable.  Down at the end of the hall were the Overmare’s office and the maintenance room with the maneframes.  The Overmare was talking very agitatedly with Midnight and a few of the other mares responsible for the information systems.  The dirty white unicorn filly who was our supreme leader looked mad; there was nothing new about that, but tonight she seemed like she was in a grade A pissed mood and was determined to share it.  I’d never seen Midnight looking so upset.

        “Get out!  Get out get out get out!  Leave before I have you all shot!  You’re useless!” the Overmare concluded in nigh-hysterical shrieks.  It was at moments like this that I was glad the laws didn’t allow summary execution.  Really glad.

        “Midnight!” I shouted as the Overmare returned to her office.

        She looked back at me, ears drooping as she rubbed her eyes furiously.  “I don’t have time for your flank spank right now, Blackjack.  The Overmare’s pissed.”

        “Yeah, I got that around ‘have you shot’,” I said as I fell in besides her as we trotted back downstairs towards the atrium.  “Why?”

        Midnight looked at me, then sighed and shook her head, “She wants a data file.  An old one.”

        “And you couldn’t find it?” I said with a frown.  Unlike me, Midnight was actually competent.

        “No, that’s just it.  It was already found by Duct Tape weeks ago.  The thing was buried deep in the stable’s archives, but she found it.  Goddesses know how,” Midnight said as we stepped into the large chamber.  The stable chimed out that curfew was about to begin and all mares not on C shift were to report to their quarters.

“So what’s the problem?”

“It’s encrypted,” she said with a sigh.  “We can’t get it to open up for transfer.  She wants us to break the encryption, but we haven’t been able to all week.”  She chewed on her lip.  “I thought that if we got it ready to transfer into a PipBuck she’d be… well… less pissed, but she was hysterical!  I’ve never had the Overmare say I should be shot!”  Clearly, Midnight was shaken.  I could relate.  There was bitchy Overmare, and then there was whatever I’d just witnessed.

“Mom wouldn’t let her,” I said, and for the first time in about forever received a small smile in return.  “Look, don’t worry about it.  You’ll get it eventually.”

“Thanks, Blackjack,” she said with obvious relief.

Okay, this was my chance!  I grinned.  “So… I’ve got ten minutes before I have to start my rounds.  Can I swing by your quarters on my way for that flank spank?”  I gave her my best ‘I promise you’ll enjoy it’ look.

She snorted, looked at me, and gave a flat ‘in your dreams’ “No.”  Then she trotted away from me as I sat down hard, watching her go.

“Oh come on!  I was being sympathetic!  Nice!  Midnight?”  But she didn’t look back as she disappeared down towards the residential quarters with the rest of the mares.  “Ugh, what does a mare have to do to get a little service in this place?!”  I sighed, head hanging.  “So unfair…”

*        *        *

        Stable 99 was arranged with one level atop another.  At the apex were the Overmare’s office, security, the armory, and the maneframes.  Underneath that were the atrium, cafeteria, stable entry, and the two dozen or so recreation, education, and medical facilities.  Underneath that were the residential quarters for the stable’s population.  And underneath it all lay the utility and maintenance levels, a section larger than all the rest of the stable combined.  The recycling systems were all found down here, as were the magical generators that kept everything going.  Manufacturing equipment, storeroom after locked storeroom, and, of course, all the little hidden fun spots: the makeshift stills, the love nests, and the nooks for gambling.

        Most security ponies stayed at the top of the stable.  The tunnels below were dark, undecorated, and filled with the stench of all kinds of foul leaking fluids and chemicals used to keep the stable habitable.  The Overmare might have had complete authority over the top half of the stable, but this was Rivets’s domain.  She and her maintenance mares were always the most rebellious and independent element of the stable.  One day… no, don’t think about it.  If there was an Incident between the Overmare and maintenance… well, I knew which side had all the guns and which side knew how to keep the stable alive...

        “Hit me,” I shouted over the hum of machinery as I looked at the worn playing cards.  They were so old that I’d bet Rivets could tell them by the wear patterns.  Good thing this wasn’t poker.  Rivets dealt me a four of spades; I really had no idea how earth ponies managed cards.  They just did.  Me, I levitated them around as I looked at the other players.

        Tonight I was even less welcome than usual.  The other four ponies kept muttering to each other, telling jokes and stories that left me out, and my winnings were virtually frozen.  Nopony mentioned the Overmare; clearly, they were watching themselves around the security mare.

        Because one word of sedition or talk about getting at the armory and we’d have an Incident.  Please, don’t say something that would cause an Incident…

        “So, Blackjack, I notice you keep getting shit from Daisy and the others,” Rivets said amiably as she smoked on her cigar.  She’d offered me the cigar at the start of the game, a blatant class B violation that I’d never ever report her on.  I had no idea how she manufactured them, but it was just another indication that things were painfully tense in the stable.  After one puff, I’d coughed so badly that she’d taken it back.  “They’ve been doing that for… what… three years now?”

        “Oh, longer than that,” I said with a small smile.  Ever since my first big fuck up.  “But what can you do?”

        “Well, that is the question, isn’t it?” Rivets asked with a spread of her forehooves before dealing out the cards.  “We can’t do anything.  Daisy is security.  You get your job and it’s yours, no matter how you abuse your position.”  She chuckled, friendly like, but I knew enough laughs to tell it was an act.  “Don’t get me wrong, your momma is a fine mare.  She’s always tried to do right by the stable.  She just won’t do more.”

        Oh, Rivets, please don’t go there.  “Well, it’s the way of things, isn’t it?”

        “Is it?” Rivets asked in return with a look that made my mane crawl.  “You think it’s right that ponies like Daisy and Marmalade get to give you that ration of shit day in and day out?”

        “Well… no.  But what does it matter what I think?  It’s the way things are,” I swallowed, noticing that nopony else seemed to be interrupting.

        “But does it have to be?” Rivets asked.  There was one answer she wanted to hear and a whole slew of wrong answers.  I shrank back; why did she have to be asking me stuff like this?  Couldn’t we just play the game?  

        I needed to change the subject, fast.  “So… what is the Overmare up to?” I asked as I glanced at the others.  They looked at one another, then at Rivets.  She was still smoking her cigar with slow, steady puffs.  I snorted.  “Look, I know everypony’s a little more on edge than usual, but this is Blackjack asking.  Come on, Rivets.  I got my cutie mark here.”  In fact, I got my queen and ace of spades playing this very game.  “You can talk to me.”

        Rivets chewed slowly on the end as her eyes measured me up.  Finally, she gave a minimal shrug.  “You tell me.  Overmare has us running like crazy for a month updating her on the stable, seizes inventory, and Duct Tape dies doing work for her.  Now she’s screaming at Midnight that she’s going to shoot her and has her own little guard of security ponies following her around tonight.”

        “She what?”  I blinked, having left with Midnight so quickly that I hadn’t heard anything about that.

        Rivets nodded slowly.  “She’s got all of us really concerned.  Really concerned.  Some of us wonder if we’re all safe with her in charge.”

        “She’s the Overmare.  It’s her job to keep us all safe,” I replied, almost by rote as my red eyes looked from one to the next.  Only Rivets met my gaze.

        “Some ponies don’t think she has a clue what her job is.  Heck, some ponies don’t think she even knows herself.  And some ponies have to wonder why Blackjack’s so insistent on coming to this game.  Maybe to keep tabs on all of us?” Rivets asked as she nodded to the equipment around us.  “After all, with all the interference, I doubt you can track us by our PipBucks.”

        The foreleg-mounted minicomputers were marvels of arcane technology; even if I didn’t understand the first thing about how they worked, I had to admit that they were useful.  One of the functions most used by security was the ability to, if you had the correct address tag, track any other PipBuck.  All I had to do was put in their name and I could find their location almost anywhere in the stable.  Down here, though, it was another story.  Probably why the missing male had gone to ground down here.

        “Look, I just wanted to have some fun!” I protested.  Was it really that hard to believe?  I looked from one to the next; these were all mares I’d known my entire life.  Heck, Rivets was virtually my godmother from all the time I spent down here!  But from the looks I got… yes, yes it was.

        I slowly slipped back from the table, leaving my bits behind.  “I’m going to go… you know… do security stuff.  Got a stallion to round up and… um… stuff,” I finished lamely.  All of them watched me back slowly out of Atmospheric Maintenance Three.  Not one took their eyes off me.

*        *        *

        Several minutes later, I took a breather.  Rivets was just pissed.  She always bumped heads with anypony in authority, always sure nopony knew as well as she did how to run the stable.  As soon as the Overmare calmed down, everything would settle down and we’d be able to get back to normal.  Don’t think about it.  It was how everypony in  the stable survived.  I’d just forget about it and, in a week, Rivets and I would be laughing as usual!

        Please, let everything be alright.

        Well, with the game a complete fiasco, Midnight continuing her cold shoulder, and me with six hours left in my shift, I might as well actually do some security work.  Mostly the ten or so of us on C shift patrolled and wrote up any mare violating curfew.  Down here, I might find more interesting violations, but it was rare that I’d ever run into anything major.  I snapped on another function of the PipBuck: the Eyes Forward Sparkle.

        Instantly, a number of yellow bars filled my vision as the arcane device detected the number of ponies within a few hundred feet.  It also had a few red bars, likely a few hungry radroaches looking to take a bite out of me.  The E.F.S. was a function few ponies used regularly.  After all, it only gave direction and hostility, and the indicator didn’t even tell you how far above or below you the bar was.  For all I knew, that yellow bar was around the corner or a floor up.  I entered in the P-21’s PipBuck address, but the little icon twitched around spasmodically.  Likely he was down here… somewhere.

        It wasn’t often that we had a buck who tried to hide from retirement.  Most just reported to security or medical to get their shot and that was that.  Occasionally there’d be a crying or screaming fit in the atrium.  Rarely, they’d suicideugh, please don’t let me find him hanging or poisoned down here.  The plain fact was that this was a stable; the only exit had been sealed four generations ago during the last Incident, and eventually he’d starve to death.  It wasn’t like bucks knew how to get into food stores and the like.  They just bred.  That was all they knew, all they needed to know.

        Right?

        I trotted past a row of gurgling pieces of equipment barely lit by wan yellow spark lamps.  Knowing my luck, the yellow bar ahead of me was actually one or two floors above me.  If I was lucky, I could get through this shift without any more disasters and, if I was really lucky, talk to Mom and not the head security mare about the rising tension.  The former might be able to do something.  The latter would have to crack down on Rivets, or, worse, tell the Overmare.

        Then I heard a faint sniff and soft sobs over the hum of the equipment.  Looked like I’d found my pony.  “Okay, come on out and let’s get you up to security.  A quick shot and it’ll be all over.”

        The sniffling stopped, and then a tiny olive filly with teal eyes peeked out at me.  My jaw dropped as I saw the pain and fear in her eyes.  “Oh!  Ah… you’re not… ahem…” I sat hard and rubbed my head.  Could this night get any worse?  “You’re not supposed to be down here.  It’s dangerous and after curfew.  Where’s your momma?”

        She just stared at me, and her eyes dropped to her hooves.  “Recycled…” was all she blubbered.  She touched her PipBuck and her ID flashed.  ‘Scotch Tape, Maintenance Shift C’.

        Oh… I tried to think up some creative profanity but… eh… I got nothing.  “Oh… well… ah…”  What was I supposed to do?  If this was Duct Tape’s kid, then she was supposed to be here.  Should I say something about her mom?  Give her a hug?  Tell her she’s doing a good job?  Tell her not to be a cryfilly?  “Um… sorry about your mom.  Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it.”  I grinned at her as she clenched her eyes closed, pulled a wrench from her barding, and nodded before trotting back between the massive round machines.

        I trotted away as quickly as I could.  “Wonderful, Blackjack…  ‘You’ll get the hang of it?’  What is wrong with me?” I berated myself as I glanced back over my shoulder.

        I really wasn’t good at this whole life and death thing.  Really.  You just didn’t think about death in 99.  It wasn’t really like ‘death’ so much as one day you’re there and the next day you’re replaced by your kid.  And someday they’ll be replaced by theirs.  I was glad that Mom would probably last forever.  I didn’t know how I’d handle the stable with her gone.

        I couldn’t help but reach out and touch the steel walls of the stable.  Somepony had daubed ‘Fuck the Overmare’ on the gray metal in flaking white paint.  A shout of rebellion from the Incident almost a century ago, the last time the stable had torn itself apart.  Back then, it’d been bucks challenging the Overmare and the rules imposed by Stable-Tec when the stable had been established.  Today, it was Rivets against the Overmare.

        Why’d I have to get stuck in the middle of this shit?

        And, just as I was getting a nice batch of self-pity whipped up, I stepped right in a puddle of leaking sewage.  My hooves slipped in the slippery mung and I went over, getting a faceful of the cold sludge.  Coughing and retching I kicked away, wiping my face furiously.  My red and black striped mane and tail were smeared with grunge as I leaned against the wall, coughing and spitting.  How nice that the Goddesses were making my metaphoric life literal.

        I tried to think about what I knew of the newest P-21.  He was green… no… brown?  Ugh… I paid more attention to the unicorn breeding population than the earth ponies.  I’d heard that this P-21 was already notorious for ‘disappearing’, though, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that he’d pulled another vanishing act.  Nopony was sure how he managed to get out of medical.  Males weren’t supposed to be smart enough for that.

        Wait… what was that?        

It was another yellow bar, but one that, when I moved my head, changed direction far faster than any of the others.  That meant that it was a lot closer.  As in right on the far side of a door marked ‘Emergency Storage #3’.  I frowned, tried the handle with my horn, and was astonished to find it unlocked!  Not even Rivets left these unsecured.  Slowly, I levitated out my baton, opened the door, and flipped on the lights.  Row after row of metal boxes lay on dusty shelves for the day another Incident occurred.  Of course, there weren’t any weapons or ammo, but clearly some of these boxes had been opened.

        I toggled the lamp on my PipBuck, flooding the far depths of the chamber with light.  There, in the corner, hid a blue earth pony mare in ugly gray utility barding.  I immediately relaxed as she watched me with worried blue eyes.  “Sweet Celestia, what are you doing in here?  I thought Rivets kept this place locked up tight.”

        She just looked at me with wary eyes.  “Just... getting some stuff for Rivets.”  Her soft voice was surprisingly deep for such a puny pony.  “I’ll just get it to her,” she said, slipping on her saddlebags and starting slowly towards the exit.  But as she drew close to me, I frowned.  I knew all the mares on the C shift, and the only blue earth pony was a medical mare.  “What shift are you on?” I asked with a little frown.

        “Um… C shift… of course…” she swallowed as she turned, facing me and backing away.

        “Right,” I said as I frowned at her, slipping into full security mode.  I might not have found the missing male, but hopefully this would redeem me a little in Mom’s eyes.  Still, why anypony would want to steal century-old supplies was beyond me.  “Identification please.”

        She gave it by turning to bolt for the door.  Now, I might not be very good at magic, but I definitely knew how to swing a baton and tackle a fleeing thief.  She made it a half dozen steps out the door before my glowing stick swept her legs right out from under her.  As she went down, I jumped on her back and was amazed when she went completely still.  “Okay!  Identification!”  She didn’t move, didn’t respond in the slightest.  She just lay there, shaking and crying silently.  I frowned and reached over to use my security override.

        ‘P-21: Breeder.  Retire from service immediately,’ flashed on the screen of her… no… his PipBuck.  “You’re the new P-21,” I muttered, staring down at his saddlebags and clothing.  Keeping him pinned with my hooves, I stripped him of his stolen goods.  Sure enough, those were parts that didn’t belong on any mare!  “What… what the hay is going on here?”

        He didn’t move.  He simply lay there with his eyes closed, curled up.  Saddlebags full of food.  A utility mare’s outfit.  Had he planned on trying to actually live down here?  Like all bucks, his cutie mark was a white male symbol with dots underneath it; his had two rows of ten white dots.  Below that would go one more dot… though I was never sure why, since after that he'd be heading straight to retirement.

        Well, time for the next bit.  “Ahem… according to Overmare and Stable-Tec bylaws, you are to be escorted to security for final processing and chemical retirement.  You are obligated by stable laws to accompany me or you will be compelled.  Do you understand?”  Goddesses, I hated playing the security mare part.  He knew the rules.  I knew he knew.  He knew I knew he knew.  Why did I have to pretend?  Meanwhile, he just lay there like a blue doll, his eyes wide and glassy.

        “Just kill me… it’s what you do, isn’t it?” P-21 muttered.  

        I blinked down at him in confusion.  “Um.  It’s not my place to kill you.  I’m not an executioner.  You’re going to be… ah… retired.”  I tried to grin and put him at ease, because bucks sometimes did stupid things.  It wouldn’t be the first time one attacked me without provocation.  He looked back, and his eyes slowly drew into focus.  I’d never seen a male look at me like that before.  The cold anger inside made me wonder if he really was going to do something crazy.

        “Like you retired him,” he replied softly, his storm blue eyes darkening as he stared at me.

        “Uh… I think you’re confused.  Medical takes care of the actual retirement process,” I said as I backed away.

        “You’re all murderers,” he muttered as he rose to his hooves and looked back at the stolen clothes and supplies.  “I was so close, too…”  With that, he started to walk slowly towards the stable’s central staircase.

        “Close to what?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.  I couldn’t blame him.  If I were about to be retired, I doubted that I’d be in a chatty mood.  Still, it was hard to take him calling me a murderer.  I’d never killed anypony!  I followed him closely, baton ready in case he came back at me.  We trotted past an open doorway to a storeroom, and the olive filly peeked out with a sad eye as we walked by.

        I wish that that was all that happened.

        Just as we reached the stairs to the higher levels of the stable, a baton wielded by a pale yellow mare whirled out from a side hall and struck his rear knee with the sickening, tearing pop that signalled a damaged joint.  He fell to his side, screaming in pain as Daisy and Marmalade stepped out.  The huge pale mare spat out her baton, caught the strap on the end of her hoof, and twirled it.  “About time we found the missing penis.”  She slammed her hoof into his face as he tried to curl up into a tight ball.  “And he’s with you,” Daisy added with a grim grin.  “Bonus.”

        “Daisy!  Marmalade!  What the fuck are you doing?” I asked as Marmalade’s floating baton thumped hard against his ribs and Daisy smashed him with her hooves again.

        “Saving medical some work.  This little fuck’s had us down here for hours,” she said as she grinned at Marmalade.  “So I figured we’d take care of him ourselves.”

        What the fuck!  “You can’t fucking do this!  Medical retires ponies, not security!”  Was I actually quoting stable bylaws now?  The worst security pony in the stable?  What the hell was happening here?

        “Oh, he’s fighting us,” Daisy said as she circled him, and brought her hoof down on his swelling knee.  “Resisting security.  A real dangerous case, right Marmalade?”  The honey colored mare nodded with a dumb grin.

        And just like that, they set themselves to beating him to death before my eyes.  I wondered if this was some kind of nightmare that I’d wake up from… but as he cried out in pain, I clenched my eyes closed.  Just wait a few minutes and it’d be over.  Just do nothing, Blackjack.  Don’t think about it…

        Don’t think about it.  Don’t think about the thumps and the cries and the sobs and the begging.

        No.  

Security saves ponies.

        I looked at the pair beating him in glee and charged Marmalade first.  Last thing I needed was another pair of hoofcuffs on me!  Her orange eyes widened in shock as the baton cracked loudly against her skull with such force that she tumbled over.  Goddesses, I hoped I hadn’t killed her.  

Daisy’s shock transformed into rage much faster.  “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?  He’s a fucking worthless male!  He’s disposable!”  She charged, and while normally I’d back away from her kicks, this time I charged to meet her.  Our chests slammed together, and it was all I could do to keep from being crushed under her.  Sweet Celestia, how much did she eat to be this strong?

As we struggled, though, I still had one advantage she didn’t.  My horn flashed white as I wielded the baton in my magical grip.  And one more thing I could do with telekinesis: with another thought, I triggered my PipBuck’s ‘Stable-Tec Assisted Targeting System’.  The S.A.T.S. was a magical spell that momentarily slowed time almost to a stop and let me line up my attacks perfectly.  Each attack cost some spell charge that had to build back up over time, but right now I wasn’t going to waste any of it.  Three baton strikes to the head.  The spell even gave me the probability of each strike landing!

Triggering the spell, time sped up but still seemed to move at a crawl as my baton rose and fell soundly upon her head.  The first split the skin above her eye.  The second busted her nose.  The third… missed.  Still, when the spell faded and time fully resumed, she staggered back in shock.  I stood over the fallen stallion, swinging the baton with all the force I could as she retreated for once.

Then Marmalade rose, looking at me with a hurt, betrayed expression.  Suddenly, this looked bad…

Then our PipBucks crackled, the built-in radios squawking, “All C shift security personnel are to report immediately back to security.  Repeat.  All C shift security personnel are to report immediately back to security.”

Daisy stared into my eyes as we both panted, my baton trembling in the air before me as I stared at her, heart racing.  This wasn’t training, with Mom watching and other mares keeping an eye on me.  If they came at me, it would be to kill the male beside me.  Even if he was slated for retirement, he didn’t have to die like that!  Nopony should have to die like that.  Period.

“Forget it.  You can handle the little cock.  I’ll report you’re bringing him in,” Daisy said sourly as she touched her bleeding nose and then glared at me.  “One day, I’m going to have your fucking head on a stick, Blackjack.  Promise you that.”

I swallowed, doing all I could to keep my magical focus on my baton.  “Maybe, but not today.”  The metal rod wavered in the air, my heart thundering in my chest.  Despite the fear in my gut, the baton remained upright.

She harrumphed and made her way up the stairs.  Marmalade gave me one last confused, injured look before following her up.  I felt bad for that.  I doubted Marmalade would have ever hit anypony if Daisy hadn’t hit him first.  Once I felt that they weren’t going to double back, I knelt and began to see to the buck.  Aside from his swelling bruises, the worst thing was his rear leg.  Limbs really weren’t supposed to bend that way.  I swallowed as I looked around, feeling panic rising in my throat.  I wasn’t a medical pony.  I couldn’t do a healing spell to save a leg!

Then I spotted the olive filly watching us from down the hall.  “You!  I need a first aid kit, please!  Right away!”  She gasped, and for a moment I was sure she was going to run.  “Please!  Help me!”  She swallowed, gave a nod, and disappeared.

“Why?” he asked softly, eyes clenched in pain.  “Why did you stop them when they’re just going to kill me anyway?”

“Because…” I felt lame and confused.  “Because… I had to.  All right?  Now stop thinking about it and just hold on.”  He didn’t say another word, instead simply looking at me with confused anger.  I needed to keep him talking.  “What’s your name?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot, despite the pain in his eyes.  “I’m P-21.”

“That’s your designation, right?  What’s your name?” I asked as I looked in the direction the filly had gone.  It was more to stall for time than out of any real interest; after all, he was going to be retired soon.

“P-21 is my name,” he replied softly, with a touch of irritation.

“Oh…”  Males in 99 lived in medical and were identified on their breeding roster by their designations.  P for earth ponies, U for unicorns.  Don’t ask me why the former wasn’t E; I’d never gotten a straight answer.  Maybe the Overmare who set up the system was a lot like the current one.  1 would be the newest buck on the breeding roster, 20 the oldest.  Being 21 would mean that a male was to be retired.  Somehow, though, I always figured they had their own names in their quarters.  Names were like cutie marks; everypony had them, even males.  Then again, looking at the breeding mark on his flank...

Funny… but when I was with a male, conversation was the last thing on my mind.  Heck, this was the most conversation I could recall ever having with one.

I thought for a moment that maybe the filly had run off, but she returned a minute later with a small yellow medical case marked with pink butterflies.  Setting it next to me, she opened it up and I was at once glad to see that nopony had cleaned it out.  The cases were supposed to stay stocked at all times, but sometimes ponies would steal the contents for one reason or another.  There were two healing potions, small bottles of rich purple fluid capped in plastic.  All a pony had to do was to bite hard on the end, crack the seal, and suck down the magical healing contents.  As he gulped down the contents of the bottle, the bruises immediately began to disappear.  His leg, however…  “I’m going to have to set this,” I said as I looked at the limb.

“You know how to do that?” the olive filly asked.  P-21 just groaned as he clenched his eyes shut.

“Nope,” I replied and took out the syringe of Med-X painkiller.  I yanked the cap off the needle, jammed it into his leg, and squeezed the soft plastic tube to force the drugs into his system.  ‘For all your hurting ouchies’.  Well, this was one doozy of an ouchie.  He relaxed a bit as the drugs took effect.  Then I looked at the leg, bit my lip, and hooked it with my forehooves and magic.

“On three…” I said as I looked at him.  “One.  Two…”  And on two I pulled and pushed to bend his leg back into proper position.  There was a pop from his knee like a gunshot as he screamed, the limb jerking back into place.  The poor olive filly looked like she was going to be sick.  I didn’t think it was broken, exactly, but it sure didn’t look good.

“Was that the plan?” he asked weakly.

“I never was good with waiting,” I replied before shutting him up with the other healing potion.  Unlike the beating, his knee didn’t seem to heal much.  When he tried to move it, he cried out despite the painkiller.  I looked at the filly, “Is there a brace or anything in there?”

“Oh… um… maybe!” she said as she set aside a second syringe of Med-X and a container of Buck labeled with a muscular mare flexing.  It was technically a class B controlled substance; I’d be scrubbing the bilges for a month if caught with it.  Surprising to see it outside medical or security.  Then she pulled out a black leg brace for broken limbs.

He jerked away from me as I grabbed his uninjured haunch to pull him around.  “Oh, stop it, you baby,” I muttered, but he simply closed his eyes and shook as I strapped the brace in place.  Bucks were so weird; would he have preferred hobbling up the stairs to medical with a bum leg?  Finally, I moved away from him and shook a tablet of Buck out of the jar.  “Here.  Eat this,” I said as I pressed the carrot-flavored medicine to his lips.

        Slowly, warily, he chewed it.  I looked at the filly.  “Thanks for your help.”  

        She gave me the first hint of a smile since I’d seen her.  “Sure.  I better get back to work before Rivets blows a seal or something.”  She gave a little wave before running back the way she’d come.

The chems fortified him enough for him to get to his feet.  “Why do you keep helping me?” he asked as I supported him enough to get his legs under him.  “You’re just going to kill me…”

I lowered my gaze.  “Well, I can’t stop that.  But I can at least try and help you.  It’s what security mares are supposed to do.”

*        *        *

        Security during C shift was normally a place of quiet tedium.  Reports for the next day had to be filed and firearms practice had to be carried out, but neither of those were what anypony would call exciting.  As we finally reached the top of the stable, though… something felt very wrong.  There were only ten security mares on C shift, including me, and, for the first time since I’d started working security a few years ago, we were all in here together.  The seven other mares clustered around Daisy and Marmalade, talking in low voices as I limped in with P-21.

        Worse, they all stopped talking as soon as I entered.  Great.  My mane itched fiercely as we walked slowly past them to the cells.  I got the PipBuck key and magic-male-dot-maker-pen-thing from Mom’s desk drawer, then carefully removed his PipBuck and added the last white dot.  I could wait until morning to notify medical, though.  No need to rush with everything being weird.  I took his PipBuck and closed the cell door just as the Overmare stalked out of her office.

Some ponies liked to say she looked like my little sister, though never in earshot of Mom, of course.  The Overmare’s white hide was a little more dingy than mine, and her eyes a were a lighter pinkish color.  Her mom had once styled her mane in elaborate curls and dressed her up in fancy outfits, but, since her death a year ago, the Overmare had chopped her dove gray mane short and worn nothing save her PipBuck, almost flaunting her Stable-Tec logo cutie mark.

        I always assumed that being Overmare was a stressful condition.  You had the whole stable on your shoulders.  Despite that, the Overmare usually managed to keep a neat appearance.  Now, though, she looked like hell; her eyes were bloodshot with huge bags beneath them, her mane resembled tangled wool, and she smelled.  But there was one thing above and beyond all that which made my blood run cold: she was smiling.

        When she saw P-21 and me, her smile only widened.  “Oh… you found my trick pony!” she said, clapping her hooves together in glee.  Her trick pony?  P-21 stared straight ahead, his eyes unfocused pinpricks as she walked up to the bars.  “Oh we’re going to have so much fun.  Oh yes we are.  Yes we are.  You’re going to be mine forever.  Yes you are.”

        I glanced at the other security mares.  Not one looked back at me.  The Overmare suddenly seemed to remember I was there and glared at me.  “So.  Have a nice time in the bottom levels?  Have a nice meeting with Rivets?”

        “I… wasn’t meeting with Rivets,” I said, trying to look more clueless than usual.

        “Lies,” the Overmare hissed.  And then went back to smiling.  “But that doesn’t matter.  Not anymore.  This is my stable.  Mine.  And I’m not going to let that gray nag run it any longer.  It’s mine!” she declared as she she looked out the window to the atrium.

        I caught P-21’s look.  He was glancing at my PipBuck, then his… then mine… then his…

        Huh?

        He swallowed and mouthed the word, ‘copy’.

        I glanced at the Overmare as she addressed the others, thanking them for their loyalty and devotion.  Once more, I’d seemed to have slipped her mind.  I quickly connected the two PipBucks with a cable.  I hit the ‘Copy All Files’ button and dumped the data into an evidence file.  I might not be able to manage a security spell to save my life, but I could at least move bulk files from A to B using the clearly labeled button for it.  In my E.F.S., I saw the progress bar slowly fill.

        “Is that his PipBuck?” the Overmare asked with a snap.

        “Um… yes,” I said lamely as I cuddled it in my hooves, hoping she didn’t see the connection.

        “Give it to me,” she replied imperiously.

        “Um… certainly,” I asked, wondering how I could stall as the little bar filled up.  “What for?”

        “That is stable security business,” she replied in a low, dangerous voice.

        Almost done.  “Aren’t I in stable security?”

        Her lips turned up in a nasty smile.  “I don’t know.  Aren’t you?  Why don’t you tell me where Rivets and thirty other maintenance mares are hiding?  Do they have weapons?  Are they planning on sabotaging my stable?”

        “I… don’t know?” I muttered lamely.

        “Lies,” she hissed, and her magic reached out and grabbed his PipBuck from my grasp just before the files finished transferring.  A big error message flashed across my vision.  She tossed it to Marmalade.  “Make sure everything on there gets deleted.  I don’t want anything going wrong,she said as she trotted to the armory door and opened it with her PipBuck.  “Everypony get armed.”  And then she looked right at me.  “Except for you.”

        “What are you doing?” I asked as Daisy came up and shoved me hard into the cell with P-21.  The PipBuck key fell out of the pocket I'd stuffed it into and clattered to the floor, making me wince; if it was damaged, I'd get another speech from Mom about taking care of our tools.

        “Taking back the stable,” the Overmare said with a satisfied smile as everypony else armed themselves with shotguns and security barding.

        “With nine security ponies?” I gaped.

        “I can’t be sure of your mother.  I’ve ordered Rivets arrested several times, and she always gets in my way.”  Because without Rivets, the stable was doomed.  “I don’t know who I can trust on the A and B shifts.  Who will side with me and who won’t.”  She smirked as she looked at Daisy.  “Fortunately, some ponies have proven themselves far more loyal.  So you just sit tight.  This will all be over in a few hours.”

        After that, the ten of them marched out of security.  Daisy looked back at me with a decidedly nasty grin.  Why’d I suddenly feel like P-21 wasn’t the only pony in deep in the recycler?

*        *        *

        Whatever they were doing, they were certainly taking their time.  I was left in one corner while P-21 sat silent as a blue statue in the center of the cell.  I looked at the diminutive pony; there was something vaguely familiar about him, but I felt that way about half the stable.

        All I knew was I needed to get out of here and… what?  Tell Mom?  Would she actually stand against the Overmare?  I wanted to say yes, but the more I thought about it, the less certain I was.  She’d never countermanded the Overmare unless she had some clear evidence that what the Overmare was doing would endanger the stable.  She always put the stable first.  Always.

        That left me locked up with a buck who wouldn’t say two words to me, flipping through all of P-21’s files trying to find something… anything… that I could use for when Mom got here at the start of A shift.  Unfortunately, the broken connection had given me a whole slew of static and corrupted files.

        “Do you know what she’s doing?” I asked for the umpteenth time.  But he just looked at me and then looked away again.  Given he was set to be retired in the morning… unless the Overmare did what she was planning… whatever that was?  “Arrrrgh, why couldn’t they do this to a smart pony!?” I insisted, getting a small smile for my trouble.  No answers, though.

        His breeding queue for the last few months had been booked almost solid by the Overmare, and then… Duct Tape?  No mare ever got exclusive access to a buck like that.  I glanced at him and stumbled across an intact audio file.  I didn’t have anything better to do, so I played the intact section.

        It crackled once and then began to play the noises of two ponies bumping flanks.  I felt my mane crawl as I heard the Overmare’s joyous shrieks and a male’s grunts of… something.  Then her door chimed, and a moment later a mare asked, “Overmare?  You wanted to… oh… my…”

        The sounds of coupling trailed off, and the Overmare grunted, “You’re early, Duct Tape.”  There was a strange wet noise I didn’t even want to imagine and the sounds of belabored male breathing.

        “I… I didn’t want to be late,” she said in a worried voice.  “Is he… is everything all right?”

        “Tisk, it’s nothing serious.  He’s such a good little pony,” the Overmare said in tones that made my mane crawl.  “Now, were you successful?”

        “I… ah… I… did as you asked.  I’ve a list of…  of everything you need for it,” Duct Tape said in a little, timid voice.  “But really, this is something you should talk to Rivets--

        “No!  No, thank you.  Rivets has so much going on that I wouldn’t want to trouble her.”  The Overmare continued smoothly, “The question is, will you be able to carry out the repairs?”

        “Me?”

        “Yes, Duct Tape.  You.  This is a special project for the wellbeing of the entire stable.  You’re the only maintenance mare on C shift I can trust to carry this out… with care.  After all, I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”

        I didn’t have any trouble imagining the mousy gray mare blinking at the word ‘surprise’.  We didn’t know each other well; I think I scared her just by being in security, but I remembered that she always liked nice surprises.  “I… but… I mean… I suppose I could, but--“

        “Excellent.  Excellent.  I can’t tell you how relieved I am to find a mare willing and able to help the stable.”  Then the Overmare hmmmed softly.  “You deserve something special for all your hard work!

        “I… don’t think so.  I mean… um… shouldn’t we get him to medical?” Duct Tape said in clear worry.

        The Overmare didn’t answer for a second.  “You like this buck?”

        “Well… I suppose.  He helped me with Scotch, after all,” she replied in far softer and warmer tones than ‘suppose’.

        “I see.  I see.  He is a gem of a pony.  Wonderful technique.  Truly,” she said matter-of-factly.  “If you’re doing such excellent work for me, I see no reason not to put a word in with medical.  You might be able to spend a lot more time with him.”

        “Really?”  There was no missing the eagerness in Duct Tape’s voice.

        “Really.  Provided you keep it from Rivets and everypony.  This is a critical project.  Without it, I fear, the stable will not survive.”

        “I… well… I mean… that might be very… nice… I’ll give it my best!  For... for the stable, of course.”  Oh Goddesses, I could practically hear her blushing.  The Overmare’s titter offset the warm and cozy feeling.

        “Good.  Everything you need will be provided for--” and with those last words from the Overmare, everything dissolved into static.  I thought about that.  If I hadn’t just seen the Overmare… ugh, but that wasn’t enough!

        The Overmare’s position could not be challenged at any time.  Period.  That was the law.  A stupid-ass law, but my mom always honored the law.  Sometimes she seemed a little neurotic about it, actually, and a sneaky conversation between the Overmare and a dead maintenance mare didn’t seem like anything that would get her to violate the law.  It would have to be something big.  Damn big.

        I wished I could just tell my mom things, but there was always a line.  She would be my mom until a point was reached, and from then on she was firmly ‘Head of Security.  And that always came first.

        I glanced at the silent blue buck.  “It sounds like Duct Tape was fond of you.”

        “She was fond of anypony who gave her love and attention.  It’s why she had her foal,” he replied quietly.  “They didn’t even need to force her.  I was just bait to shut her up while the Overmare worked.”

        “There’s something important on here, isn’t there?” I said as I waved my PipBuck at him.  “She knew you had something, didn’t she?  That’s why she made sure to have it erased.”  He grit his teeth, closing his eyes; I imagined he wasn’t feeling too good right now with the Med-X wearing off.  “Help me!” I finally exploded at him.  “Why won’t you help 99?”

        “To hell with you, this stable, and everypony in it!” he shouted back at me, his eyes blazing as he looked for a moment like he wanted to attack me.  Then he slowly relaxed, fighting for calm, “My whole life, you mares have fucked me.  Now you’re getting fucked by your own.  It’s nothing less than what you deserve.”

        I blinked at him in shock.  “How can you say that?  This stable is your home!  We’re your family.  We’re all that’s left in Equestria!”  He gave me a sharp, angry look.  I couldn’t believe how selfish he was being!  “If that’s how you feel, then why tell me to copy the files at all?  Why not just let her destroy them?”  His angry eyes looked away.  Slowly, I approached him, and he winced as he backed away into the corner.  His eyes kept twitching from mine to the floor and back again; it was annoying!  “Look.  I’m sorry the rules are what they are.  If I could just let you go, I would.  But I can’t.  If you know what she’s doing or what’s going on... something I can bring to the head of security… then help me.”

        He clenched his eyes shut.  “If I help you… you have to help me.”  He looked at me again with a ferocious glare.  “You have to let me leave this place,” he said in slow, even tones of carefully measured control.  “Even if I die outside in ten seconds, at least it will be ten seconds free.”  What, he wanted to die outside rather than be retired?  Ooookay…

        “I… if there’s any way I can… I will.”  I nodded.  He stared back at me, and I gave him the most sincere smile I could.  Finally, he nodded as well.  “Sweet.  It’s a plan,” I said as I clopped my hooves together in glee.  Okay, my only ally at the moment was a reluctant, wounded, pissy male, but I’d take what I could get.

        He stood, then lifted his tail, carefully pulled out a bobby pin, and extracted a small screwdriver from his body cavity.  I blinked, realizing that I’d botched search protocols.  “Listen to the last recording I made with Duct Tape,” he said as he walked to the lock, wiped off the screwdriver, stuck it into the lock with his hooves, fed the pin in with his teeth, and began wiggling them around.  So that was how he’d gotten into the supply room.  I wondered what else he’d broken into, or out of.  Also… ew.

        I flipped through the files, looking at the tags and scanning for ‘DT’.  I might not be able to do magic to save my life, but I only slept through half my PipBuck training (in my defense, it was the boring half).  Finally, I found the last file tagged DT; it was dated a few weeks ago.

        It began, as I expected, with the sound of slapping flanks.  I blushed… listening to Duct Tape doing it was different than listening to the Overmare.  She actually sounded like she really liked it.  Funny, I never expected her to be so… loud.  Afterwards, they settled down into the little kisses and nuzzles.  Then her soft sigh.  “This has been so wonderful.  It feels like a dream come true.  The Overmare’s been so wonderful lately.”

        P-21 said nothing right away, but then muttered in a low, flat voice, “Yeah.  She can be nice… sometimes.”  From the way he said it, I expected that sometimes meant ‘the times when she wanted to get something from somepony’.

        Duct Tape gave a little giggle.  “I was talking about you to her the other day, P-20.  She says that, when her plan is over, you can stay with me forever.  You can be my… my… what was it again?  Oh yes… husband.  We can be the first ponies married in 99 since… you know… the bad thing happened.”  That had to be the Incident she was talking about.

        P-21’s response was a monosyllabic ‘mmmm’.

        “And we can have another foal together.  Or two.  Because once we’re out, we won’t need the quotas.”

        “What?” P-21 said softly.  “Out of what?”

        Duct Tape cussed softly under her breath and then sighed.  “Well… I guess you won’t tell anypony.”  She gave a little giggle, but P-21 remained silent as Duct Tape went on.  “The Overmare has gotten in contact with Stable-Tec!  The outside is safe and clean and we’re all going to be able to leave the stable soon!”  She gave another joyous giggle.  “In fact, she’s getting a broadcast from Stable-Tec right now!

        What the fuck?

        Stable-Tec built Stable 99 and set up the rules and the Overmare.  Going outside?  But every day, the stable broadcasts told us that the outside was a death trap.  

        “How?  The door to the outside was sealed after the Incident…” he muttered softly.

        “Well, just because it was sealed once doesn’t mean it can’t be unsealed.  You know all the parts that the Overmare is inventorying?  Well… I fixed the door!  I even programmed the Overmare a special code to open and close it.  See?”  I heard the sound of a PipBuck beeping.

        “And she said that the outside is safe?”

        “Mhmm!  I even took a little peek myself.  I think it’s… what did Text call it… winter?  It was all cloudy… but I saw trees.  They didn’t have any leaves, but they were trees!”  I couldn’t imagine a tree… not really.  Trees were pictures in books, so I could only picture grainy green blotches as far as the eye could see.  “You could survive out there.  We all can.  We don’t have to stay here anymore.”

        “But… why keep the secret?  If the door is open and it’s safe outside…”

        “Well, Stable-Tec is afraid that all the ponies in here will freak out.  The Overmare wants to avoid a panic, so she’s only told a few ponies.  I don’t even think Gin Rummy knows.  Stable-Tec says they need a special data file from the stable that will tell them how we’ve been doing the last two centuries.  EC-1101.  So she’s had me extracting it from the system.  It’s a doozy of a file, and buried pretty deep.”

        There wasn’t a response from P-21.  Then she said softly, “I thought you’d be happy.”

        “What?  Oh… I… it’s just a lot to take in,” he said quietly.  Then he said softly, “Duct… do you trust the Overmare?”

        “Of course!  We all must trust the Overmare.  She’s our protector and our guardian.  We’d be lost without her,” she said in rote fashion like half the mares in 99.  Of course, I’d say the same, but I’d be thinking sarcastic thoughts while I did.

        P-21 was quiet for a minute, then said softly, “Don’t trust her.  Not for a second.”

        “What?  How--“

        “You remember how you saw me in her office?”

        “I…” she trailed off.

        “Don’t trust her.  You’ve been… nice.  One of three.  And so I’m telling you… don’t trust her.  Protect yourself.  Protect your filly.”

        There was an uncomfortable silence.  “I… I suppose I could throw an encryption on it.  Something she can’t crack till she promises to let us out…” she mulled softly.  “Maybe make the password that name you liked so much…”

        “Huh?  Which name?”  But she was going on about algorhyming or something, and a few seconds later the recording cut off.

        Stable-Tec!  Going outside!  This was huge!  Epic!  A real game changer!  With Stable-Tec here, all the Overmare and Rivets’s ponyshit didn’t matter.  Maybe I wouldn’t have to be security anymore.  Maybe…

        Don’t trust the Overmare.  That was what P-21 had said, and that was the look in his eye right now as he worked on picking the lock on the door.  And suddenly, I remembered an old pony saying: if something sounds too good to be true… it probably is.  If the Overmare were serious about this, she would have told Mom.

        She’s getting a broadcast right now…  I glanced at my PipBuck.  There were dozens of radio channels on it, but only six were used by the stable.  I clicked to security, but it was dead during C shift.  Then to maintenance and the dry chatter about a recycling pump malfunctioning in the bilges and that Scotch Tape should get right on it.  Service was dead since the cafeteria and food recycling were shut down during curfew.  Medical just had the automated message about locating P-21 for retirement.  Recreation had the regular looping brass band and glory to the Overmare.  Education had a dry recording about how Stable-Tec had placed the Overmare for our protection… which would be suspicious if I hadn’t heard it a million times.

        Then I clicked over to the next channel.  Static.  The next… and the next… and next…

        “Beep be booop beep be beep boop bip beep…” suddenly streamed out of my PipBuck.  I had no idea what it could be; some sort of PipBuck jabberese?  It was faint, though, and with many little crackles and breaks in the signal.  That meant that it was probably coming from outside the stable.  It was so weak that I doubted the signal would be detectable on the lower levels even if a pony was bored enough to go flipping through the static.  I recorded about a minute of it, hoping it would be enough.

        That was it.  I needed to get out of here.  I needed to talk to Mom…

        Except… would it be enough?  Mom… I wanted to think that she’d believe me.  That I’d be more than ‘Blackjack the screwup’.  That she’d take it seriously because it came from her ‘little blank flank’.  Or that she’d stay in ‘security head’ mode but accept the evidence I had… and would do something about the Overmare.

        Then there was a soft click and the door to the cell opened.  I gaped in astonishment as P-21 put the bobby pin back in his tail and… okay, closing mouth before it becomes an escape route for my stomach contents.  “You did it.  How… where did you learn that?”

        “Have you ever spent a week with a bobby pin, a screwdriver, and nothing to do but wait for a mare to want to breed you?” he asked back.  “I’m sure even you could figure it out eventually.”

        “Don’t count on it.  If I need a lock opened, I get a key,” I countered as I pushed open the grate and trotted into the deserted security section.  Oh, key; reasoning that I might as well not make things worse, I scooped up the PipBuck key and pen-thing and put them back in the drawer.  Right, back to the Overmare going crazy.  I could try and get Mom on the radio, but I knew Daisy and the others would be listening to that channel.  Everypony else would be asleep or under curfew.  “Look.  I need to get down to tell Gin Rummy about this.”  Then I looked down the stairs… I also needed a gun.

        Goddesses, was I really thinking of shooting security ponies?  Even Daisy… the thought of such a thing made my stomach churn.  No crime was worse than murder in the stable.  Killing another mare was robbing the stable of somepony needed to keep everypony alive!  But if the Overmare was up to something… I trotted to the armory door and hoped I wasn’t going to set off an alarm or something.  Normally Brandybuck would be stationed outside it during C shift, but she’d left with the others.  “Can you open this?”

        He glanced at it and then moved over to the terminal next to it.  “Um… maybe?  With some time?”  Unlock the door with the terminal?  He caught my surprised look and rolled his eyes.  “Look, don’t you have a mare to warn?”

        Right.  Right.  He was a smart pony who knew about locks and terminals and, despite being a male, probably a lot of other things I didn’t.  Great, even the males were better than me.  Enough of that!  Now was definitely not the time for self-pity.  “Okay.  I’ll be right back.”  Oh, how I hoped I’d be right back with Mom and all of A and B shifts behind me.

        I picked my way down to the atrium and heard the Overmare and Daisy’s voices raised in argument, but with the echoes and distance I couldn’t make out specifics.  I crept across the wide open space, trying to use the reinforcing columns as cover.  Then Marmalade glanced back across the atrium at me.  She blinked, then gave a simple little smile and a little wave of her hoof.  Smiling slackly, I returned it and nipped into the cafeteria before anypony else noticed.  My heart hammered in my chest, and I didn’t dare glance back towards the tiny chamber off the atrium.  I didn’t know what the Overmare was planning, just that it was time for the shots to be called by a smarter pony than me!

        I scrambled down the stairs past the medical clinic, school, and other support rooms.  I was in such a hurry that I smacked my head on the door to the living quarters before it fully recessed into the ceiling.  Eyes watering, I rubbed my noggin and clenched my teeth.  “Mom!  Moooom!” I shouted as I raced to her room.  Then I saw that her bed was still neatly made, and for a moment I felt my heart stop.  She wasn’t here?  Why wouldn’t she be here?  She was always here!

        Except now.  I sat hard on my rump, thumping my head with a hoof and not helping my headache at all.  “Think, Blackjack.  Think think think!”  Unfortunately, saying it didn’t really help my brain any.  Her tag!  I punched it into my PipBuck and brought up my EFS.  Then I turned in a circle, looking for the little arrowhead.

        Nothing.

        I screamed a little in frustration, beating my hooves in front of me!  Of all the times for her to disappear!  She could be blocking her tag.  The head of security could do that, I think.  Or she might be somewhere in the stable where she couldn’t be traced.  Oh… what if something happened to her?

        All that didn’t mean anything.  The Overmare was doing something.  I needed to know what.  I needed to know what all those signals the Overmare received meant.  I needed a smarter pony that actually knew something about PipBucks.

        Well… I’d been looking for an excuse to bug Midnight in her quarters for months.  Looked like I finally had it!  I stopped only long enough to write a note; ‘Overmare up to something.  Stable in danger.  Gone to Midnight’s!  BJ.’  Then I was hurrying down the residential quarters to Midnights.

        Being a security mare, I had certain privileges.  Like being able to override most residential door locks with my PipBuck when the stable was in danger and I didn’t have time to knock.

        I wish I’d knocked.  Actually, I wished I knew another mare in data systems I could go to.

        The sight of pink U-10 huffing and rutting away froze me in my tracks.  Oh, yeah… she was on the breeding queue now, wasn’t she?  I blinked and tilted my head.  U-10 certainly went at it with enthusiasm… ugh!  What was I doing!  “Midnight…” I muttered as she gave a little whinny.  “Midnight.”  They still slapped flanks.  I rolled my eyes; for the love of Celestia… “Midnight!” I shouted.

        She shrieked as he finally stopped ploughing her plot and the two gawked at me.  The pink buck pointed at me in confusion and Midnight’s pupils constricted.  “B… Blackjack?”

        U-10 pointed his hoof at me.  “I didn’t know I was scheduled for a double,” he said as he checked his PipBuck.

        “Midnight, I need your help,” I said as I approached her bed.  Unlike my room, she kept hers spotless.  Her terminal and workstation were both sparkling clean.

        “Get out!” she shrieked and charged me, hammering at me with her hooves.  “Of all the times to come to me for flank spank you choose now?  Get out right now or I’ll--“

        I grabbed her shoulders and stared right in her eyes.  “This isn’t about flank spank, okay.  It’s not about sex of any kind.  And if you help me I promise I will never try to get under your tail again, all right?”

        She closed her mouth, looking annoyed, then troubled, then a little pouty.  “Alright.  What do you need?”

        “The Overmare is getting a signal from outside the stable,” I explained as I found the recording on my PipBuck.  “I need to know what it’s saying.”  Playing the odd string of beeps and boops seemed to finally convince her I was serious.

She gave me one last long glance and then sighed, trotting to her workstation.  “You are going to owe me so much for this, Blackjack,” she muttered as she activated her terminal, her horn’s magic pressing keys infinitely faster than I could.  She attached a cable to my PipBuck.  U-10 hummed to himself as he stood patiently off to the side by the door, looking over Midnight’s knickknacks.  Midnight’s roommate was nowhere to be seen; no surprise.  I knew I wouldn’t want to be around another mare on the queue…  Probably.

“It’s a Stable-Tec transmission code all right.  Old one, too.  None of our stable security modifications,” Midnight said softly as she worked.  Time was crawling by, and I kept swapping my tag back and forth.  Mom was off the system.  Daisy was... by the main entrance, I thought.  So was the Overmare.  Now Daisy was moving… back to security?  My ears twitched as I thought I heard… something.  One benefit of life in Stable 99 was that the quarters were nearly soundproofed.  “Shouldn’t be hard to clean it up,” she said as she manipulated the file in her terminal.  “And… done!” she said triumphantly.  Then she frowned.  “Wait… it’s a text file.”

I blinked, leaning in to make sure I didn’t mistake it: Stable-Tec security forces incoming tonight, 0100 hours.  Have EC-1101 prepared for extraction.  You’re doing the right thing, Overmare.  You’ll be getting control of your stable back.  Deus.

“Stable-Tec wants that program?  Why?” Midnight blinked.  “We haven’t removed the encryption on it yet!”

“I have no idea,” I said with a sigh.  “Where is this EC-1101?”  Wait… forget the file.

“In the stable’s communication maneframe; you can access it in Maintenance One outside the Overmare’s office.  Since we couldn’t break its encryption, I had it bundled for transfer to a PipBuck.  It’s a weird file.  I had to package it in a permanent rewrite protocol,” she said in a rush.  My ears twitched again at a distant sound.  What was that noise and why was my mane crawling?  She must have taken my look for confusion, because she simplified herself for me.  “Once you put that file on your PipBuck, there’s no way to take it off.  It’ll be permanently etched into a PipBuck’s data matrix.”

I looked at her.  She was still talking about the file?  I looked at my PipBuck.  One of the most commonly used features was the chronometer.  The time?  0122.

There was a beep of an override on the door, and it hissed open.  U-10 smiled genially as he turned to face the door beside him.  There were five hundred ponies in Stable 99.  I might not know them all by name or even quite all of them by sight, but looking at the mare in the doorway, there was no possible way that she could have been from our stable.  Her mottled hide was a stained and blemished yellow decorated with scars and bite marks.  The whites of her eyes were stained a solid piss yellow.  Her mane had been pulled into bloody spikes.  She wore barding made of strips of leather and tires and decorated with countless nails jutting out.  Her reeking brown teeth curled in a grin of pure glee.

And if any of us had the slightest doubt remaining, she blew off U-10’s head with the sawed-off single-barreled shotgun clenched in her jaws.  Bits of blood, bone, and brains splattered over both of us as the pink unicorn dropped in a thrashing heap.  The mare spat out the gun, casually reloading it as she giggled.  “Bang… yer dead…” she slurred around a bloody tongue; it looked… chewed.

Midnight stood there stunned and wetting herself.  I was not far from that state myself, but, unlike her, I was security.  The fear and horror I felt were unceremoniously shoved into the closet in the back of my brain where I put all the things I didn’t want to think about, leaving me with enough wits to telekinetically pull out my baton just as the mare snapped the shotgun closed.  With a crack, the glowing metal rod tore the bite grip from her rotten teeth and, from the sound of it, probably broke the firearm.

Unlike Midnight, this mare wasted no time in counterattacking.  Rearing up, she slammed me to the ground next to U-10’s body with enough force to make me see stars.  The baton went bouncing away somewhere out of sight.  Then she was on top of me, drawing a rusty carving knife from a sheath at her shoulder.  She jabbed the dull tip into the neck of my security barding, twisting her head back and forth as she tried to work it through the tough fabric and into my throat.  I glanced at the slain unicorn beside me and at the paralyzed Midnight who’d be next.

I looked down at that knife and applied all my magic to the blade, fighting to twist it away.  The rusty metal shook as the mare bit down even more tightly.  Then the rusty knife snapped in two and I reversed the tip.  With a telekinetic shove, I rammed the sharp metal as deep into her throat as I could.  Her yellow eyes shot wide as her sliced throat spurted blood over my chest and neck, smearing my barding with her gore.  Finally, something gave inside the nightmarish mare, and she slumped limply against me.

I gasped, my heart hammering as I kicked my way clear.  I’d just killed a pony… a diseased and demented pony, but a pony nonetheless.  Before I let that train of thought go any further, I wrestled it into that closet with the rest of the things I didn’t need in my head right now.  Because right now, Midnight was going into shock as she stared at the corpses in her quarters.  I looked at the bloody PipBuck on the murderess’s foreleg; it was from Stable 99, and from the gore covering most of it, I doubted it had been removed or donned with a key.

“#340,” I said softly.  “Snowdrop.”  A loyal, quiet security mare who’d always been cool to me.  One of the nine that’d been with the Overmare.

“You!” rasped a pony from the door, a unicorn floating a rusty razor blade in front of her.  I found something better… I hoped… in the rusty twenty gauge shotgun dropped by the earth pony I’d just killed.  I didn’t even need to use the mouthgrip.  I slipped into S.A.T.S. as she charged, the blade slashing wildly in front of her, the world dropping to a crawl.  In the spell, I could target her legs, body, or…

Time crawled forward, and the cone of lead blasted out the end of the shotgun.  I watched with sickening clarity as the lead abraded her face.  She screamed, slashing blindly, kicking and biting in a frenzy.  I grabbed her with my hooves to hold her still, reversing the butt of the gun and bringing it crashing down on her skull.  Again.  Again.  Then two things broke: the butt of the gun and her skull.  She flopped over limply, twitching spasmodically as I fought furiously to keep my focus.  Don’t think beyond right now.  That closet was getting pretty full, though.

Midnight was making little screams in her throat and I stood, blocking the sight of the bodies.  Two… had I really just killed two?  No.  Don’t think about it.  I should be good at that.  “Midnight…” I said sternly, staring into her pinprick eyes.  “Midnight!” I shouted, and because I’m not a medical pony and couldn’t think of anything else to do, I smacked her hard across the face.  That snapped her out enough to look at me.  “The stable is being invaded.  You’ve got to find security ponies and my mom and get everypony else down into the maintenance tunnels.  Find Rivets.  She can take care of everypony.  Okay?”

“Find security… get everypony down below…” she muttered weakly and then nodded.  “What are you going to do?”

That was a very good question.  Fortunately, there was a simple answer as I found my baton and levitated it up.  “Well… guess I’ll thump em with my stick.”  Goddesses, it must have sounded sick to crack jokes now, but I had to ignore everything I’d stuck in the back of my head.

Of course, as good as my stick was, a gun was better.  Sadly, the shotgun was out of commission; the broken butt had bent and unseated the breech.  That was probably for the best, though; I'd been lucky it hadn't blown up in my face.  There was an easy way to tell which way the raiders had come: they’d left a trail of blood from residential door to residential door all the way down the hall.  Since there wasn’t any blood past Midnight’s, I hoped it was clear.  “Go, Midnight.  Go,” I urged as I made my way carefully down the hall, trying to be as quiet as possible.

I didn’t understand these ponies, if they really were ponies and not some sort of mutant pony-shaped predators of some sort.  They reeked.  They seemed to revel in bloodshed.  I had no idea how they could have penetrated the stable... unless they’d come in when the Overmare opened the door.

Inside one room, I saw a red bar moving towards the door, and I slipped into S.A.T.S. the second her head was in view.  My glowing baton crushed her windpipe in a single lucky hit.  Her yellow eyes bulged and rolled as she dropped a .38 revolver from her mouth; hey, I might have slept through two thirds of my classes and Textbook’s lectures, but I paid attention to my firearms training!  My backswing smashed her temple, sending her slumping against the door frame.

She was so dirty I couldn’t tell what color she had been originally.  She’d mutilated her own cutie mark.  I hesitated as I pointed the baton at her.  “Who are you?” I asked as she choked, coughed, and inexplicably started to giggle between gasps as she looked at me... and insanely went for the gun!  I kicked it away.  “Who are you?  Why are you here?”

Then I saw the blood smeared over her grimy lips and took my eyes off her to look into the room she’d been in.  Air Duct and her filly Vent were laying still on the floor… but the smears of blood… holes chewed in the blue filly’s side… the blood splashed about.  The psychotic mare finally gasped one word, “Yummy!”  Then she lunged, grabbing my leg and trying to bite through my security barding!

“You!  Sick!  Fucker!” I yelled, bringing the baton down with each word.  Her skull finally cracked, blood leaking from her orifices, and with a sigh she went still.

        Okay… murderous?  I got that.  Crazy I could deal with, too.  But how the fuck did these ponies get into the habit of eating other ponies?!  I looked at Vent… had she been dead when…

        Oh, puking now.  I couldn’t help myself, my lunch coming up in the doorway.  When I finished, I did all I could to lock that thought in with the others and push a mental dresser against that closet door in the back of my mind.  I could freak out and deal with this later.  I checked the revolver.  Four rounds… and six more on the earth pony mare.

        Three down… how many to go?  There was an awful lot of red in my E.F.S. as I made my way towards the stairs to the Atrium.

        “I can’t stand these sick fuckers,” a buck said from the stairs above me.  That it was a buck made me guess that they weren’t quite the same ponies as before.  “Murdering, psychopathic rapists the lot of em.”  Maybe there was the possibility of negotiation?

        “Look at it this way: they’ll exhaust themselves killing every last motherfucking pony in here, and then we can get rid of them easily,a mare answered, snuffing any thoughts of working out a deal before continuing callously, “Deus gets that program he wants so desperately.  My boss is happy.  The Reapers are happy.  Everypony wins.”  Except my damned stable, you mule.

        “Makes me wonder what’s so damned special about it,” the buck muttered as I crept up the stairs.  “Deus just grabs a dozen of us at random from the arena, trots us out here, fetches these nutjob raiders, and waits for the stupid cunt to open the door?”

        “It’s smart.  He knows a Filly Flasher like me would never work with a Halfheart Gang loser like you to screw him.  This way, everypony gets their caps and everypony’s happy,” the mare said matter-of-factly.  I could make out her head now, and I pointed the rusty .38 revolver at it.  I licked my lips and swallowed.  All I had to do was pull the trigger.  Just pull the trigger…

        But she wasn’t like the other murderers.  She seemed sane, if callous and wicked.  Somehow, I had no doubt she would have the same hesitation if I were in her sights.  But that was the difference.  If I killed her…  I tried to push myself.  The pale mare was dirty and streaked with blood, her shaggy black mane smeared with gore and some kind of grease.  She had a necklace of cheap looking gemstones.  She was a pony, a person.  How could I just… just shoot her?

        Then she glanced at me, and her eyes widened and then narrowed as she smiled.  “Awww… stable pony’s got a piece.  Bet she can’t fire it,she said as she ducked her head to a leg holster and… drew a weird metal box with a mouthgrip?  It didn’t matter, though; if she was pointing it at me, I doubted it was anything good.  And from the look in her eyes, the pale earth pony was dead certain I wouldn’t fire back.

        I wasn’t sure I could either.

        The shot was luck.  Pure luck.  It caught her in the left eye and blew a bloody chunk out behind her left ear and over the buck.  Sprayed with brain and skull, the brown stallion staggered back as the pale mare dropped to the floor, muscles writhing a moment before going still.  The buck levitated a piece of sharpened rebar like a spear as I tried for another shot, but the revolver gave an unhealthy ping of rust and stopped, hammer drawn back.

I ducked under the deadly spur of metal and scrambled for the mare’s strange box… weapon… thing!  There wasn’t even a trigger!  What was this thing supposed to do?  “Never seen a beam gun before?”  A what gun?  Then the metal was whipping towards me again and I barely brought the beam thingy up in time to block the tip.  There was a flash, a fizzle, and the metal spur continued on with no hesitation right into my flesh.

I screamed as the sharpened steel caught me above my collar and ripped a hoof-long tear along the side of my neck.  Again it was only luck that protected me as I fell back, tumbling down the stairs as my own blood smeared my barding and spattered the steps.  I landed on my back as the scraggly brown buck descended with the crude but effective weapon ready to spear me like a radroach.

        “Stupid soft stable ponies…” he said as he raised the sharpened bar.  I watched, unable to move, sure I was about to die.

Then there was the resounding sound of a gunshot in the halls, and a hoof-sized hole appeared in his chest.  His eyes popped wide as he jerked back, staring down the hall past me.

“Nopony kills ponies in my stable,” Mom said firmly, her sidearm floating precisely over her eye.  As her second bullet caught him in the face and tore off half his head, I doubted that she even needed S.A.T.S.

I stared at his body as all those thoughts I’d stuffed into that mental closet started to tear down the door.  My throat began to work as I stared at the draining holes in his head.  I had to do something… something… scream… vomit… wet myself… curl up in a ball sucking my hoof till this was all over.  Something!

“Blackjack.”  Mom’s voice cut through all that, and I tore myself away from the blown-open corpse.  “We still have a stable to save.”  Her calm words were a layer of concrete across the closet door in my mind.  As much as I’d love to fall apart, I couldn’t.  Not now.  Not in front of her.  Even if I was the worst security pony in Equestria, my stable was in danger.

“Yeah.  Sure…” I said as I stood on my hooves, and in her eyes I saw her overwhelming pride.  It helped reinforce that concrete.  “So… is there a plan?”  A plan would be nice, so long as it wasn’t my plan.

        “I still don’t know what’s going on or how these… things… got in here,” she said as she checked her sidearm.  “Somepony taught them the basics of how to use PipBucks.  They went right for security ponies’ quarters.  I’m just glad they didn’t get far.”  Distracted by all the foals to slaughter.  Damn it, if I’d just been faster I could have… done… done something!

        “Yeah, but how’d they get them on?”  They would have had to… oh, don’t think about that.  “Okay, well, they’re here because the Overmare let them in.”  And in that comment I saw several fuses blown in my mom’s mind.  “I’m pretty sure she wanted to use them to take on Rivets.”

        “Take on Rivets?  Rivets is the head of maintenance!”  

        “Well, tell it to the little psycho when we find her,” I countered.  “She got Duct Tape to open the hatch and find something these invaders wanted.  These ponies didn’t just come here to kill.  They came here for some program the Overmare found in the stable.”

        “A program?” my mother asked with a frown.  “Why don’t they just take it and leave?”

        “Cause they’re evil?” I suggested, looking up the stairs towards the atrium.  She didn’t laugh, but she did give me a ghost of a smile.  “If I can get to the terminal in Maintenance One, I can put it on my PipBuck and then… do… something.”  Something to get them to leave the stable, but what?  Throw it out the main hatch and close it behind them?  No… that wouldn’t work!

        “Ugh, why can’t a smart pony figure this stuff out?” I whined as Lock and Barrel, two A shift security mares, came up with batons out.  For them to leave, the program would have to leave too.  Somepony would have to take it out.  “What if I took EC-1101 outside?  They’d have to follow me then, wouldn’t they?”

        “Don’t be ridiculous, Blackjack.  It’s certain death outside,” Mom retorted immediately.

        “It’s pretty reliable death in here, Mom.  Erm… I mean… Miss Head Security Mare… ma’am…” I fumbled, blushing a little.  She swept me up in a hug.  Okay, now I was blushing a lot.  She quickly let me go, reddening herself.  Mom never was very good with being Mom.  Not that she was a bad mom, just…. Ugh!  Why’d I have to get so many conflicting things going on in my brain right now?

        Gin Rummy took point, going up to the atrium.  As we advanced up the stairs, I heard a filly squeal.  Harsh laughter filled the air as we reached the doorway.  Carefully, we peeked around the corner.  The invaders were on the far side of the atrium, right outside the door to the stable entry.  At least a dozen mares were dead; from the smears of blood, they’d been dragged here from their quarters below.  The door to security was clear.

        “Come on.  We can run for it!” Lock said eagerly, then without waiting jumped out the doorway.  The blue mare was fast; in recreation, she could do a lap around the exercise grounds in under a minute.  This was at most a hundred feet.

        Thunder filled the atrium, and Lock exploded in bloody chunks.  The wall behind her buckled.  But despite all that, I didn’t stare at the heap of her remains.

        I stared at where the thunder had come from.

        From the midst of the staggered invaders rose… a thing.  A thing of pony and metal.  Hydraulics braced the metal plates attached to its hide as it stepped forward.  For all its mass, it seemed to trot almost effortlessly.  Red eyes stared at where Lock had been blown to pieces.  Two huge guns pointed over its shoulders, cannons built into its body.

        Then it slurred in a metallic sounding voice, “Cunt thought she was fast.  Cunt was wrong!”  The invaders laughed in agreement.  “Now, watch that door.  Might need to go get another batch of raiders.”  Go get more?  As long as that thing was here and the door open, why not?  It could just keep sending in more of these killers.  A half dozen moved forward, one of them wearing a bloody PipBuck.

        “Hey!  Red bars!” he crowed in glee.  “These fuckin things are great!”

        “Cunts still got some fight in them!  Cunts are fucked.”  And from the laughter of the others, I really couldn’t disagree.  We fell back.

        “Now what?” Barrel asked, the green mare visibly shaking in fear.

        “I’m open to suggestions,” Mom said grimly.

        I frowned, then looked back at the landing.  “I’ve got an idea…”

*        *        *

        This was a terrible idea… but it was mine and the only one we had.  I’d shucked my security barding and was now putting on the ratty clothes of the unicorn mare.  Our coloring was close, and Mom was blackening the red in my mane with grease from a maintenance closet.  “Good thing your horn is so small, little Fishy,” she said, finally past all her arguments about why this wouldn’t work.  Mom was lavender, Barrel was greenI was the only filly that looked close to the mare I’d killed.

        “Mom, I’m about to pretend to be a psychopathic wild pony,” I replied flatly.  “Please don’t call me that.”  The last thing I needed was that stupid name… and her talking about my horn.  Which wasn’t that small, anyway... it was just... compact.

        “This is suicide,” Barrel muttered as she smeared more dirt in my mane and tail.

        “Then they won’t expect it,” I said.

        “How are you going to get past their E.F.S.?” Barrel countered.

        I rounded on her.  “Barrel, do you want to do this?”  The green mare looked like she wanted to crawl under her bed and cry.  I knew I did.  I looked at Mom.  “How am I going to get from security to the entry, though?  Folks will notice too soon if I just trot out past them.”

        “There’s a passage from the Overmare’s office to the entry chamber.  The Overmare’s grandmother used it to sneak out of her quarters after curfew,” Mom said as she transferred a code to my PipBuck.  “That should get you through.  I doubt the Overmare even knows it exists.”  She sighed as she looked me in the eye.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

        “I’m the only one who can,” I replied evenly.  It wasn’t like there were countless pale security mares.  The only other two were Daisy and Snowdrop.  “So… if I make it… close up the stable as quick as you can.  Heck, I’d reseal it if I were you.  If that door opens again, 99 is doomed.”

        I floated the weird box gun into my holster and checked one more time in the mirror to make sure my horn was covered by matted mane.  This wasn’t even barding!  It was… clothes.  Rummaged together clothes to try and make a sort of intimidating outfit.  I felt like a two bit trick pony.  The only good thing was that it covered my cutie mark.  There was no way I could mimic the two gold coins on the dead mare’s rump.

        Making my way back towards the atrium I heard a pony scream and somepony else cackle, “She bit it off!”  I didn’t have any time to speculate on who was biting what as I approached the door.  Another pony yelled, “Here comes another one!”

        “Don’t fucking shoot!” I bawled as I stepped out.  There were a whole lot of guns and eyes on me and I gave up any and all thought of shooting.  Hell, I didn’t even have a weapon.  “It’s me,” I said, encouraged by the lack of gunfire.  The feeling of pieces of Lock under my hooves was simultaneously trying to make me throw up again and giving me a really, really good reason not to do anything that might break my cover.

        “Two Bit?” the buck wearing the bloody PipBuck said.  “That you?”

        “Of course, who the fuck do you think it is?” I countered, and my belligerent tone seemed to put him at a sullen ease.

        “What the hell is going on down there?  I thought the scum had taken out all their fighters,” he said sourly.

        “They got security ponies and are putting up a fight,” I countered.

        Then a metallic voice grated, “Then what are you doing up here, Cunt?”

        I stared up at the metallic monster, and our eyes met.  I heard a tiny whirr as its red, glowing eyes tracked my movements.  “I… I…”  I nearly died right there, because in that instant I almost forgot that I was supposed to be an earth pony.  I ducked my head, bit the mouth guard, and pulled the damaged weapon from my holster.  Apparently, something about that struck half the ponies as hilarious.

        “Flasher lost her flash!  Ha!” the buck wearing the PipBuck roared in glee.  I wanted to balk.  Instead, I glared over the mouth guard.  But the metal monsterpony didn’t find it funny.

        With shocking speed it swatted the gun out of my mouth, and suddenly the only ponies laughing were the yellowed-eyed mangy ponies with their insane giggles.  “Cunt doesn’t have her gun.  Cunt is useless, then.  Cunt should be fucked, huh, Cunt?”  He placed an armor-plated hoof on the dropped weapon and leaned on it.  The casing gave and flattened with a crunch.  At the moment, I was pretty sure that I knew how it felt.

        I suddenly became very aware of one part of him that wasn’t mechanical.  A part that I was fairly sure was going to be inside me in a few seconds.  I became aware of a whimper and looked over at a prone white shape.  The Overmare.  One of the filthy, yellow-eyed ponies was pinning her down and raping her, her mouth and flanks bloody.  The idea was utterly alien to me, and I did all I could to tear my eyes away and hide my horror.  Mares might occasionally force another mare against her will, a class A crime, but for a buck to do that to a mare was… focus, Blackjack!

        “I’m not useless,” I answered as evenly as I could.  “I heard one of these stable ponies talk about the program you want and where to get it.  It’s set for a one time transfer onto these PipBuck things.”

        He looked over at the Overmare.  “So the little cunt wasn’t lying.”

        “I told you,” she sobbed as she lay like limp meat, blood streaking her muzzle and flanks alike.  As much as I didn’t want to get blown into pony pieces, I’d take it over that.

        “I’ll go get it for you,” I said evenly.

        His red glowing eyes drilled into me.  “I’m getting bored, Cunt.  Fifteen minutes, then I’ll make my own door,he said with a nod at the huge cannons.

        A brown unicorn buck stepped forward.  “You can’t, Deus!  If you destroy the terminal, then Sanguine will never get the file!”  This unicorn didn’t fit in with the others.  Despite the fact he wore the same dirty clothes, he still seemed cleaner.  Healthier, though still scrawny.  The PipBuck on his leg didn’t look like it’d been stripped from another mare.  Then I glanced at his flank: a blue male symbol with twenty-one dots beneath it.

        A Stable 99 buck?  How?

        “I don’t care.  I want these cunts dead.  Fucked and dead or dead and fucked, I don’t care.  This is taking too long!” he said almost in pain before he stared at me.  “Fetch, Cunt!  Kill the ones left up there and bring me the program!  Do it now, Cunt!”  Wow, Deus sure had a favorite word, didn’t he?

        “I should go with her.  I should be the one who gets it,” the brown unicorn whined.  Now I recognized him.  He’d been in my breeding queue once.  The whimperer.  U-21 now.  I’d never signed up for him again.  I’d thought he’d been retired a month ago…

        “I don’t care who gets it!  Get it!” he bellowed, and now seemed like the perfect time to run to security.

U-21 scrambled past me to get through the hatch first.  “Okay… get the program… don’t get killed… get the program… don’t get killed…” he muttered.

        I stopped him at the foot of the stairs, hearing banging from above.  “What’s going on up there?”

        “What’s going on?  Those two security mares who escaped barricaded themselves inside!  That’s what.”  He stared at me in confusion.  I felt a little stir of glee.  And Deus, massive as he was, couldn’t fit through the door and couldn’t blast it bigger without risk of breaking the program.

        “Daisy made it?”  Of course she made it!  She was too tough and mean to get killed by anypony!

        “Daisy?”  His eyes popped wide, and he reached up a hoof to brush my matted mane aside to uncover my lit-- my compact horn!  “Blackjack!”

        “That’s me.  How did you end up with--“ but my attempts at interrogation were for naught as he opened his mouth wide to yell.  I shoved my right hoof in his mouth.  “Really sorry about this,” I apologized, then swung my PipBuck hard.  The reinforced casing smacked his head once, twice… thrice.  Finally, he went down in a quaking ball; not concussed but too traumatized at the moment to bring shit down on me.  “Like I said: really sorry.”  Unless he was involved in all this…

        I ran up to the security level and heard the yelling and banging.  There was a door that divided the Overmare’s office, armory, and some utility rooms from detention, briefing, and the gun range.  The door itself had been forced open, but Daisy had barricaded it with a desk.  Now a huge red mare with a fire axe was chopping her way through it.  Three more cheered her on, shouting encouragement as they either brandished their own weapons or giggled in glee.  One dingy unicorn mare chewed on her own bloodied hoof as she rocked in place and fiddled with the security shotgun in her faltering magic glow.  A second earth pony buck brandished an automatic pistol as he growled and spat cheers around the mouth grip.  The last was another yellowed buck grinning in glee and anticipation and knocking a baseball bat between his forelegs as the red mare chopped again and again.

        “Hey, can I see that?” I asked as I pointed a hoof at the shotgun and a grin at the mare.

        The pupils of her yellowed eyes were pinpricks.  Who the fuck gave this mare a gun?  She was chewing on the end of her leg so much that I thought she was going to gnaw it right off.  She gave a delighted giggle and pointed it at me.  “See?”  I nearly soiled myself as she pulled the trigger.

        At least nopony had been dumb enough to give her ammunition.  “Give me that!” I said as I grabbed the floating weapon with my hooves.  Her magic was shit and collapsed as I tugged it from her grasp.  “Where are the shells?” I asked the automatic-wielding buck.  He arched a brow skeptically, looking at my empty holster.  “It broke, okay!”

        He snorted and tossed me a small bag of twenty gauge buckshot shells.  My horn glowed as I loaded the rounds into the gun.  He spat his pistol into his holster to speak.  “Just make sure you keep it away from that psycho," he said, not taking his eyes off the barricade and waving a foreleg at the mare I'd taken the shotgun from.  "Why the hell Deus brought them along, I’ll never know."

        “What’s wrong with her?” I asked.

        “Who knows?  Raider scum like her are all alike,” he muttered.  “Once they get that way, they’re as good as dead.”  He looked at me as I racked a shell into the chamber.  “You know how to use that thing?”  Then his eyes widened as he took in the glowing shotgun.  “Wait… weren’t you…”

        “Yep,” was all I replied.  I looked him right in the eyes as I slipped into S.A.T.S. and realized what I was about to do.  What I was really about to do.  The sane raiders I’d killed had been attacking me, and she’d died more by accident than anything.  But now, with time practically frozen, I looked into his eyes and deliberately toggled two shotgun blasts to the head.  It was still self-defense.  I was security and I was protecting my stable.

It didn’t make it any easier, but it did make it possible.

Time returned, moving as if in molasses.  The Stable-Tec Assisted Targeting Spell slowly discharged, and I watched the cone of lead fan out in a narrow wedge of death.  I watched his flesh pulverize and tear away around each pellet, his head deform, and blood and bone fly away behind him.  The second shot repeated the devastation, and I watched in horrified fascination as his head detached completely and he dropped like a sack of meat.

I stood there for a second, staring in shock.  I’d just decapitated a pony!

It was a second too long.  With a scream, the mare with the bloody hoof launched herself at me as the buck with the baseball bat swung it wildly.  The clothes I wore were little protection against the heavy impacts of the bat; sweet Celestia, he’d driven nails through the end!  I cried out in pain as the rusty lengths pierced deep into my shoulder.  This seemed to make the mare enter into a frenzy of biting and chewing, snapping at my neck as I tried to shove her away.  The only upside was that, with the two crowding me, the mare with the fire axe couldn’t chop me down.  Unfortunately, she had the presence of mind to dive for the dropped automatic.

S.A.T.S. took a while to recharge, so in the meantime I backpedaled for the stairs, firing wildly at the maddened pair.  One of the perks of a shotgun was that ‘close’ was good enough in tight quarters like this.  The shotgun held five more shells, and I pumped them out as rapidly as I could, the buckshot peppering them with oozing wounds.  It was nowhere near as effective as those first two shots, though; S.A.T.S.’s accuracy was truly terrifying.  I was glad that none of these ponies seemed to have access to it or knew what it could do.

The buck went down with the fourth round, giggling even as foamy blood poured out of his mouth.  The fifth shot missed the mare entirely, and she slammed her bloody hooves against me in a frenzy, cackling all the while.  I saw the red mare pick up the dropped automatic pistol and turn towards me.  “I don’t have time for this!” I shouted, throwing my hooves around the frenzied mare’s throat and twisting as my horn furiously scrambled to reload.

The pistol’s nine millimeter rounds thumped into the mare with abandon; clearly, these psychotic mares were disposable.  She didn’t even seem to realize she was shot, but I certainly did as I felt the bite of one that travelled through my temporary shield.  “Hugs,” the mare rattled in my ear before she slowly slumped down out of my grasp.

Fortunately, I’d reloaded my weapon, and the red mare seemed to realize that shotgun trumped pistol and axe.  I fired as rapidly as I could as she snatched her axe in her mouth and raced across into the briefing room.  Reloading, I ran to the door.  There were a few offices and detention through there.  She could be--

                   Then there was a bang behind me, and ten red hot needles stabbed into my rump.  Screw this plan!  I was never ever going without barding again.  I saw the honey yellow glow around the shotgun and cried out, “Marmalade!  It’s Blackjack!  Stop shooting me!”  I could feel the burn of the pellets in my backside.  Sweet Celestia, I’d never get shot again if I could help it!

                   I slumped as I heard the barricade being drawn back.  The red bar wasn’t moving towards the door.  Maybe she was waiting for help to arrive?  It didn’t matter.  In just a second, Daisy would--

--smash my rear legs out from under me, kick me on my back, and knock the wind out of me with a blow to my gut.  Okay, not what I’d been expecting!  I screamed as I rolled over onto my back just in time to block her next strike with the reinforced casing on my PipBuck.  “Daisy.  It’s me!  Blackjack!” I coughed and sputtered.

            She looked at me coolly, spitting out her baton and twirling it on its loop around her hoof.  “I know.  If we’re all about to die, at least I get the pleasure of finishing you off!”  I stared up at her, and oddly, the word Deus was so fond of roared through my mind.  My anger was enough to get a little more oomph from my horn, and I grabbed her baton, using the loop to twist her foreleg in and up.  Overbalanced, she crashed forward on her side and I rose, pressing the shotgun to her face.

            “I don’t have time for this,” I said, my heart thundering in my chest.  The shotgun shook as my magical focus was rattled and I hoped that closet would stay sealed closed.  “I know we got problems, but I have a plan to save the stable.  So please cut the ponyshit, and you can just kill me when I get back.”

            “Back?” Marmalade blinked slowly.  She’d been badly beaten and had blood matted around her mouth.  “You’re going somewhere?”

            “Outside,” I said as I turned away from Daisy.  I couldn’t kill her.  I had a better chance of killing her by accident than intentionally.

            “But you’ll die,” Marmalade said softly.  “I don’t want you to go.”

            I rose to my hooves, my backside really complaining as I limped to the door.  “Really?  Why?”

            “Cause you’re my friend,” Marmalade said simply with her wide, vapid smile.  “Why else do you think I fooled around with you all the time?”  She levitated a trio of healing potions from a medical kit.  “Here.  I was gonna use em, but you’re all shot up.”

            I stared at her with a worried frown.  Marmalade?  Friend?  She’d always been the slow pony in Daisy’s shadow.  Too stupid to work alone, so simple she was annoying… nopony I’d ever called a friend.  I drank the potions, glad for the cooling, healing sensation on my hindquarters, and looked at the honey colored mare with unease.  “Well… thank you, Marmalade.”  She smiled and gave a little nod.

            Daisy shoved past me.  “Yeah yeah yeah.  Sunshine and hugs and all that horseshit,” she said as she slammed the barricade back into place.  Her angry scowl turned skeptical as she regarded me.  “You’re really leaving?”  Was I about to faint, or did she really sound the tiniest bit concerned?

            “The raiders are here for a program.  I’m going to steal it and hope they all come chasing after me.  Then Mom and you can retake the stable,” I said with a little nod, stripping off the useless clothes.  Marmalade gave a soft ‘ooh’ of comprehension and, without another word, shrugged out of her security barding and handed it over.  

“P-21?  Are you here?” I asked as I pulled it on.  I gave Marmalade a grateful smile.

“That useless cock pony?” Daisy snorted.

        “You called?” P-21 said dryly as he stepped out of the door to Maintenance One.  There was an unmistakable smug look on his face at the shocked expression on Daisy’s face.  His eyes met mine and his smug expression disappeared.  “You changed your mind.  You’re retiring me after all,” he stated flatly as he glared at me.

            Daisy chuckled in glee.  “Now we’re talking.  Just hold still...” she said, taking a step towards P-21.

        P-21 slowly limped backwards.  “You never pass up a chance to break a male, do you?”

“Male?  Pssh... I never miss a chance to break anypony...” Daisy said with a sharp grin.  Okay, this nonsense needed to stop now!

            I racked a shell into the shotgun, and Daisy turned to look at me.  Had to be careful.  I only had a dozen or so shells left and wasn’t going to rob Marmalade.  The armory door was still closed tight.  Probably needed the Overmare’s or Mom’s personal codes to open it.  I thought of the cornucopia of weapons stored for an Incident and thumped my hoof against the floor.

            “Look, now really isn’t the time,” I said firmly.  Okay, if I was being the voice of maturity, then Stable 99 was officially doomed.  I looked at P-21.  “The plan’s changed a little.  You’re still getting out of here, but I’m going with you.”

            “Not happening.  You’re big.  Noisy.  Obnoxious,” he stated flatly.

            “Ugly.  Oh, and fat,” Daisy threw in.

            “Really lazy… a bit of a letch…” Marmalade added.  “And her horn’s so tiny…”  Hey!

            “And female,” he concluded in a tone of finality.

           Okay.  Didn’t I have an ego?  Oh, yeah, there it was.  That mashed up thing on the floor.  “Maybe, but I’m also the pony with the plan.  Here it is.  I get the program.  I run out of here with all of them chasing me.  Mom and the rest of security push them all out.  Door gets sealed forever.  If you think you can sneak past and make it outside on your own at any point in that plan, feel free.  Otherwise, I’m going with you,” I said as I thumped his chest.  P-21 glared in return.  Sweet Celestia, what was his problem?

                   “Fine,” he finally muttered.  “But after we’re out, you’re on your own.”

            Right.  Probably for the best, anyway.  “So, Midnight said that there was a program on the terminals up here.  EC-1101.  I need you to transfer it on my PipBuck.”  He nodded with a scowl and led me into the little closet dignified with the name of Maintenance One.  There was barely enough room for both of us as he connected my PipBuck to the machines.  I noticed Daisy following, walking a little stiffly.  “What’s the matter with you?”

            She flushed furiously.  “Go buck yourself, Blackjack.”

            “Sodomized,” P-21 said simply.  I was really glad that Daisy didn’t have a shotgun at that moment.  She did, however, launch herself at P-21 with the clear intention of smashing him into blue jelly.  I was barely able to stop her.  What, was he trying to get killed?

                   “How’d you know?” Marmalade asked curiously, but he just gave her a flat look and went back to work.  “Rude.”

                   I watched him work.  “I wonder what it does.”

                   “Opens a camera,” Marmalade said, looking hopeful that she was being helpful.  “Well, that’s what they said it did.”

                   What?  I shook my head; this was Marmalade, after all.  “Nevermind.  Is it transferred?”

                   “Almost.  And there’s a whole bunch of Overmare files here I’m adding.  Just in case…”  I always thought it was cute how it looked like earth ponies were prancing on the keys with the tips of their hooves.  Then he pushed one more button.

            The stable around me vanished as my E.F.S. went crazy!  “Whoa whoa whoa!  Hey, what’s going on!”  Columns of numbers and diagrams and maps and -- what the hell was that supposed to be?! -- all flashed by one after the other.  Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.  A tiny cursor appeared.

>Permanent transfer completed.

>EC-1101 transferred.

>Warning: unknown encryption detected.

>Warning: biomedical peripheral insufficient.

>Warning: navigational data unavailable.

>Warning: Equestrianet data connection not available.

>Please commence manual transmission.

            Please what?  I opened my mouth to see if a smart pony might have an explanation for what just happened, but at that moment there was a roar from the atrium followed by an explosion that shook my teeth.  I suspected that Deus had gotten tired of waiting.  “Okay!  The running part of the plan!”

            “Problem,” he muttered, pointing at his injured leg.  Oh, yeah.  That.  

I pulled out another syringe of Med-X, jabbed it into his leg, and injected the painkiller.  “Problem solved.”  I could have used some myself; I had a hell of a headache from that light show!

            We moved into the Overmare’s office.  The room looked ransacked; it had probably been searched before Daisy and Marmalade got away.  They hadn’t guessed that the program was in a little room right next door.  Though it looked like somepony had pissed all over the Overmare’s huge ring-shaped desk, it was still intact, as was an old piece of paper taped behind it.  The title caught my eye: ‘Enemys’ was crookedly scrawled at the top of the page in large, block print.  There were a lot of names on that list.  Topping it, and circled: ‘Overmare.’  She counted herself as an enemy?  Rivets’s name was right underneath it.  Mom’s name had question marks around it.  Daisy was on it?!  Not me, of course.  Oh, wait!  There I was... at the bottom...

            Uuugh!  Focus!  No time for this!  I accessed her terminal and used the code Mom had given me.  The desk hissed as it slowly rose into the air on hydraulic legs, revealing stairs disappearing into the gloom below.  I activated the lamp on my PipBuck and threaded my way down with P-21 right behind me.  A minute later, the desk closed behind us as another impact reverberated through the stable.  We moved down the hall to a second door, and I used the code again.  Slowly, it opened.  Very thankfully, the noise it made was relatively quiet compared to the racket in the atrium.

            The entry hatch to the stable, a massive cog-tooth-edged slab of metal, was rolled away to one side, and a long rough-rock-walled tunnel led up beyond.  Bones lay crushed on the other side of the door, mashed by the entry of Deus and his raiders.  “Better get a head start,” I warned P-21, nodding to the tunnel.  He nodded back and began making his way out.  I wondered if he’d stay with me longer than ten seconds.  Probably not.

            Going to the door from the entry room to the atrium, I saw the Overmare lying limp against the larger room’s wall.  I supposed the raiders had gotten tired of her.  Even she didn’t deserve that… but I had bigger problems.  Or, rather, I was about to.

            “Hey, doofus!” I bellowed across the atrium, and to my shock, he froze completely.  Then his head slowly turned to look at me.  I saw certain annihilation in those eyes.  “I got your program here, jackass!”  The raiders around him looked even more shocked than Deus!

            Then he was turning and I suddenly had a vision of a cloud of Blackjack settling around a PipBuck and hoof.  ‘Ohshitohshitohshit!’ I thought as I turned and raced for the stable door.  “Cuuuuuunnnnntttt!” he roared, and the shells detonated behind me.  Luck saved me from a messy splat as bones churned beneath my hooves.

            I caught up to P-21 and shouted, “Running now!”  From the roaring behind me, the plan had worked.  I was leaving the safety and security of my stable with a pissy, hostile male, an unknown destination ahead, a mechanical nightmare pony of death behind, and a mysterious program that apparently sparked it all.  Odds were that, if I survived the next five minutes, I’d be wishing I were dead inside a month.

            So why was I smiling so much?

 

---------------------

Footnote:  Level Up.

New Perk: Rapid Reload - All your weapon reloads are 25% faster than normal.

 

            (Huge thanks to Kkat for creating FoE.  Huge thanks to Hinds and Bronode for making this worth reading.  Huge thanks to the readers who supply the feedback that keeps this whole thing going.)

            (Author’s note: When I started Project Horizons, I had an ending and a beginning, and I wasn’t putting any thought into Chapter 1 beyond ‘Okay, how does BJ leave the stable?’  I never really gave it the time or tightening it deserved.  So, now I’ve gone back and fixed some things, added others, and taken out a few to hopefully make the rest of the story more enjoyable.  Doubtless this is going to have a ripple effect, so please bear with me till the ripples are brushed out.)


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 2: Trust

        “In the end, we all have to trust in something…”

Outside.  Everypony in the stable imagined it at some point.  According to the Overmare, it was supposed to be an irradiated desert, a death quick enough to doom anypony caught beyond the main door but slow enough that you’d wish you could put yourself out of your misery.  To be honest, I’d imagined the outside to be a really big atrium.  Just a huge flat space with better air and better lighting.  Of course, we knew that the outside hadn’t always been deadly, but there wasn’t much in the school about how it used to be except grainy pictures in books.  Apparently, recycled wafers grew on things called ‘trees’ while there was an edible carpet called ‘grass’ everywhere.

Me?  My first impression of the outside was made simple by the presence of two invaders standing on the other side of the boarded-over hatch.  The two ponies were just starting to turn towards the exit when we burst out, taking both by surprise.  If it hadn’t been for S.A.T.S., I never would have been able to take the shots.  It was just pure luck that the first shell from the pump action delivered a hit to the first raider’s throat and the second wounded his companion enough that she turned to run for her life.

Running!  Excellent idea.  We set off in the general direction of ‘away’; that was all I could think of as Deus thundered up after us.  There was some… stuff?  Shrubs?  Trees?--that I hoped would make us harder targets when he did eventually step out.  For now, our direction was ‘downhill’ and our speed was ‘for our lives’.

At least, it was for five minutes.  Then P-21 started limping.  Soon, he started slowing down.  I passed him and glanced back.  Our eyes met.  There was no animosity, just a question: ‘Is this the plan?’

I could leave him, I realized.  Deus wanted me.  They might just ignore P-21 altogether.  Then I mentally hit myself as I remembered little Vent lying next to her momma.  If these ponies killed foals so casually, P-21 would be no better off in their hooves.  It would be more merciful if I just shot him myself and made it clean.

No.  I couldn’t do that.  I slowed and enveloped his leg in the faint white glow of my telekinesis, trying to add support; he looked panicked for a moment, then realized that I was trying to help.  His pace didn’t pick up, but at least he wasn’t slowing down as much.

“Turn left,” a voice buzzed to our left.  Left was nothing but rock and more of these gray bushes and a… bug?  A metal bug that was bobbing in the air before us with little fluttering wings.

Wha... huh... talking metal bugs?  I had about a hundred -- okay, a dozen -- questions pop into my head, and the dumbest spilled out first.  “Why?” I gasped, panting.  I didn’t think that I was in that bad shape, but then there wasn’t much need for running for my life in 99.

“You want to live?”  And it zipped away through the bushes.  I could hear Deus now.  It was like the rapid thumping, grinding noise the old food wafer stamping machine was making before it blew.  From the snapping and crunching, I wondered if he was even bothering to go around the trees or just running straight through them.  Come to think of it, I did want to live.  I glanced at P-21, who shrugged at my look, and we turned to the left and raced in the direction the weird metal bug had taken.  

We came to a house.  Well, if you could still count two standing walls, a toilet, and a bathtub as a house.  I tried to ignore the pony skeleton curled up in the tub as we ducked behind the wall.  “Hide,” the strange metal bug said, and then it zipped away into the underbrush.

“But--” I started to say when I heard a panicked cry to the south.  Not my voice, but definitely a terrified mare.  I almost started after it when I realized that it had the same tinny buzz as the bug.  A second later, Deus and four raiders galloped past.

        We didn’t move for a minute or two, but then, finally, I laughed.  “Well, that was exciting.”  Then I choked.

        I was gonna die.

I can’t explain it, but when I looked into the sky, I thought it’d be like the atrium ceiling.  Instead, there was just this great big emptiness above me with distant gray that blurred into obscurity.  Despite my head being tilted back, I felt like I was looking down.  My brain screamed at me that if I took so much as a step I was going to fall into that immense nothing.  I hate to admit that, after everything I’d been through, it was just the simple sky that made me wet my barding.

“Blackjack?  Blackjack?” P-21 said, first with annoyance and then with growing alarm.  I barely heard him.  I couldn’t move.  I could only breathe as fast as possible.

Slowly, he reached up with his hooves and covered my eyes.  Immediately, the sensation of up being down ended and I fell over.  I wanted to retch, but there was nothing to bring up.  I made sure my eyes were on the dirt when I opened them.  I could finally lower my breathing rate to normal levels. “Thanks,” I said softly, sincerely.  He could have just trotted off and left me like that.  If I’d left him behind, that’s exactly how Deus would have found me eventually.

There was another faint buzzing, and I raised my gaze enough to look at the little flying bug.  Had I been out of it for that long?  Now that I could look at the bug while not running for my life, I could see that it was actually just a flying robot made to look like a bug.  Well, that was at least less weird than a non-robot metal flying talking bug.  There was a faint crackling noise, and the tinny voice spoke again.  “Well, he was sure in a hurry.  Don’t worry, I’ve sent him off on a wild sprite chase to the south.”  For some reason, though, I couldn't shake the feeling that it had somehow also been watching us.

“Thanks,” I said, and I meant it.  “Now, I hope you don’t mind, but just who and what are you?”  I was more curious than suspicious; I was fairly confident that, if the metal bug thing wanted us dead, it could have just let Deus catch us.

“You can call me Watcher.  As for what, this is just a spritebot.  You’ll find them wandering all over the Wasteland.  I just took some in this area over when I noticed you two helping each other.”  So, ‘Watcher’ wasn’t this machine thing?  She... he -- the voice didn’t sound very mare-ish; I sort of imagined a robotic P-21 behind that speaker -- he was just controlling it from afar?  I really wanted to know how anypony could do that… and I put that question somewhere in the forties or fifties on my rapidly growing ‘What the fuck?’ list.

“Thank you,” P-21 said calmly, as if he wasn’t fussed at all with meeting a robotic talking bug, the dry yellow stalks of grass, or that entire great… big… empty…

I gave myself a shake to try and ignore it, but it was like the sky was Deus hovering above me.  I couldn’t freeze up like that every time I looked up, though!  “Yeah.  Thanks for all your help.  I don’t suppose you can magically make shotgun shells pop out of that thing, can you?”

There was a soft chuckle.  “No, but you’ve got the right idea.  Believe it or not, you’re better off than some ponies I’ve met.”  Then, in a softer tone, as if to himself, “Though she didn’t have raiders hunting her right out of the stable…”  Who?

“So what should we do?” P-21 asked respectfully.  The little machine seemed to be regarding us, and I suspected that this Watcher pony was deciding something about us.

“You’ve got one gun.  Get more and all the ammunition you can put your hooves on.  One of you has decent enough armor, but keep your eyes out for more and better.  Now all you need is some direction.  Might I suggest west?  You might find something useful that way.  Lastly, make friends.  The more ponies you have looking out for you, the better your chances.”  Another metallic chuckle.  “Though I suppose the two of you have a head start on that one.”

“What?”  I looked at P-21 and gave an awkward laugh.  “Oh… no no no.  We’re not friends.  In fact, we really just met today…” when I rounded him up to be retired.  My laugh withered as P-21 just looked away.  “Okay, awkward.”

“Oh.”  For some reason, the spritebot sounded disappointed.  “Well… for two ponies who aren’t friends, you might want to think about it.”  The spritebot gave a sharp crackle and buzz and began to bob and bounce in the air to the hefty ‘ooompha-ooompha’ of a tuba.  Then it wandered off into the Wasteland.  O...kay.

I looked over at P-21 and then looked down at my PipBuck.  Watcher had said we should go west?  I knew that my PipBuck had a navigation function, but until now I’d never actually needed it.  Loading the map, I noticed two interesting things.  First, there was a little icon of a gear marked ‘Stable 99’, and secondly, there was a location tag off to the west.  I looked around for the spritebot to ask Watcher if he’d done something to my PipBuck, but it was already out of sight in the underbrush, the music lost to the soft hiss of wind in the dead grass.

“Well, I guess west is better than south,” I said as I rose, keeping my eyes firmly towards the dirt.  I took a half dozen steps before I realized I was alone.  Looking back, I saw P-21 on his knees in the dirt, eyes clenched shut.  “What’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer.  It was then I noticed his tears.  Oh, damn… good thing I hadn’t said I was his friend; what a shitty friend I would have made.  “Your leg?” I asked him as I knelt.  Stupid question, Blackjack!  He was injured and just took his injury out for a ten minute sprint!  He swallowed hard and looked away from me.  Aside from the most basic first aid, I didn’t have a clue what to do.  I had healing potions, but they were for immediate injuries.  The kind of damage that had been done to his knee needed major magic.

“Well, lean on me,” I said as I pressed my white shoulder against his blue one, and together we started hobbling in the direction marked on my PipBuck.  For a few steps.  He jerked away from me, then cried out as he fell on his side.  I knelt beside him, “What’s wrong?  You’re not shot or something, are you?”

        “I don’t...” he muttered.

“Don’t...?  Don’t what?” I said with my ears twitching.  Voices...  P-21 started to answer, but I grabbed him and clapped my hoof over his mouth.

        “There!  That way!  Please listen to me,” came the plaintive whine of U-21.

“Shut up!  Do all stable ponies whine this much?  ‘Please don’t kill me, I don’t wanna die.  Please don’t rape my ass!  It hurts, don’t do that.’  Bitch bitch bitch...” a buck said sharply.  “Now hurry up.  When we find the big guy, he’ll decide what we do.”  U-21 shouted off a few more protests as they continued off to the south.

I finally relaxed again... and then I noticed the blue pony shaking hard in my hooves.  It looked almost as if he was having an attack or something.  Oh, crap!  “Your leg!  I’m sorry,” I said as I got off him.  Yet for the longest time, he didn’t move.  He just lay there, shaking.  I swallowed, looking to the south.  “Come on.  We can’t stay here.  We need to get going.”  Do not tell me I have to leave you here.

He started to rise, his braced leg sticking out to the side as he started to hobble... east?  “Hey, where are you going?  Watcher said to go west.”

He didn’t look back as he slumped against a dead gray stump.  Pain in his eyes, he glared at me.  “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

I stared at him.  “Really?”  I pointed my shotgun in the direction that the invaders had gone.  “You want to wait here for them?  You heard how they were treating U-21.  Is that what you really want?”  He hung his head, hissing softly through his teeth as he clenched his eyes.  “Look... you’re a smart pony.  Smarter than me.  How long are you going to last on your own, injured like that?”

He took a long, slow breath.  “What should I do?” he said so softly that I wasn’t really sure if he was talking to me or not.  “What would he want me to do?”  He?  He who?  But before I could ask, he said to me, “Fine.  Till I can go on my own, I’ll go with you.”  He tried to take a few steps, but at this rate we’d manage fifty feet in an hour.  I moved up beside him and leaned my shoulder against his again.

“Don’t touch me!” he blurted.  Funny.  I would have thought a male would be used to being touched.  Of course, when I pulled away, he nearly fell over.  Again.  He flushed, closing his eyes.  “Please don’t touch me... a lot.”  Wow, he sounded like he was begging; maybe he was hurt worse than I thought?

“I’ll try not to,” I promised in a softer tone.  I did my best to support him, and we hobbled to the west.  Maybe we’d get lucky and run across a miraculously skilled unicorn surgeon who worked for free?  I could keep my mind off the sky above trying to work out the odds for that one!

*        *        *

We’d been travelling for almost three hours, and it felt like a lot longer; there was no sense of time in the gray twilight beneath the rolling clouds.  Walking shoulder to shoulder with P-21, I knew we weren’t making good time, but it was increasing the odds that Deus wouldn’t find us.  I spent a little bit of time thinking about Mom and the stable.  Had they cleared out the raiders?  Who had died?

It didn’t matter, as I’d never see them again, but I felt homesick.  I wanted to be able to look forward to Rivets’s next game.  I longed for my boring and uneventful night shift.  I remembered how thrilled I had been at the idea of being on the surface and wanted to kick myself.

We hadn’t come across anything too serious yet.  Some fat bloated fly things had spat nasty thorns at us.  I didn’t waste rounds after the first one; the butt of the pump action was more than sufficient.  When I put their carcasses in my bag (well, we’d have to eat at some point; not that I was at all confident that they were edible, but they’d be better than air or dirt and quite possibly better than two-centuries-dead grass), my PipBuck’s inventory system labeled them ‘Bloatsprite Meat’.  There was even a ‘value’ next to it.  How the heck would my PipBuck know the value (in a totally unknown economic situation) of a bug it’d never seen before?  I should ask Midnight how--

        Damn it.

I had to remind myself that this was my life now, but my mind kept going to the past.  As lousy as things were in the stable, they were better than this.  I once complained… okay, whined… to Mom about not wanting to be in security.  It wasn’t any fun.  ‘Sometimes survival comes before fun,’ she’d told me.  I wondered if fun would be anywhere on my priority list for the foreseeable future.

Ahead, the dead trees parted to reveal an immense, soggy field.  Flooded squares housed patches of thick weeds around scummy pools of muddy water.  Still, that water did look incredibly inviting after over three hours struggling through the filthy Wasteland.  Then I heard the ticking.  That was new and strangely ominous.  I’d only heard it the one time I’d gone near 99’s magic generators.  I looked at my PipBuck and stared at the sight of the little radiation needle bouncing back and forth in the green.

“Oh, that’s not good,” I muttered as I took some more steps forward and the clicking increased.  This wasn’t the ‘flesh stripping radiation’ I’d been warned of in school safety courses, but suddenly the pools seemed as inviting as a raider’s welcome mat.  Moving up the hillside, we could see a small still-intact farmhouse next to a barn.  I could also make out the rainbow swirl on the pools and several rusted barrels sticking out of the water.  More barrels were spilling from a large smashed vehicle that looked as if it’d just fallen from the sky into the center of the fields.

Clearly, this sturdy farmhouse had been built by somepony who took pride in their work, and the building was just far enough from the water that the clicking from my PipBuck stopped.  The door and windows were all intact, and, unless I was mistaken, this would be a good place for P-21 to rest.  Who was I kidding?  I needed the break as much as he did!  I needed a roof over my head desperately.  I kept imagining suction tugging at me towards the clouds.

Inside, the place had been ransacked.  Most of the furniture had been tossed about, the shelves were mostly bare, and the floors were covered with broken dishes and garbage.  Some old bones and rags had been tossed in one corner, and a few newspapers lay in grubby heaps in another.  ‘Hoofington’s Angel of Death strikes again!’ declared one headline.  ‘Four foals filleted’, said the one beneath.

I spotted some pictures that had been knocked off of the wall and turned over the cracked frames with my hoof.  The photographs were badly faded, but there were some I could make out.  One of a mare and a huge buck wearing some sort of harness around his neck and a bandage around his waist.  Kinky sex?  Somehow, I doubted it.  There was something off in the images for that.  A picture of that same teenaged mare with the apples for a cutie mark carrying a filly with a bow.  Foalsitter?  Again… something about the image didn’t sit right.  An old mare smiling sleepily as she stood behind three foals dressed… what were they wearing?  They looked like little monsters.  Another of a filly wearing an old, battered hat so enormous it covered her head completely.  But the two pictures that really threw me had the old mare next to a buck.  That it was a buck didn’t shock me.

An old buck.  He was every bit as wrinkly and crooked as the mare.  Clearly, the massive old hat eating the filly’s head was his.  In another picture, he was kissing the shocked-looking old mare on the cheek!  Two mares, looking like older versions of the pair from before, stood side by side in smart looking business attire.  The large buck in the harness now wore a smart military uniform.  The old buck pushed the old mare in a wheelchair…

Family.  They were family.  Not the mother-daughter dynamic of Stable 99, but a family.  I could vaguely remember hearing about the old ways in history class, but seeing an actual, happy family like that…

P-21 was looking at the pictures of the old buck and the uniformed stallion with a shocked expression, one he quickly covered up the second he caught me smiling at him.

“What?” he said defensively as he looked away.  Goddesses, was he blushing?  The mares were cute enough, I supposed.  Something about the one with the three apples made me imagine a little fun flank spank.  The male... no... what was the word?  Brother?  He was pretty delicious.  I could really eat his apple.

“Awfully cute,” I said, giving him a playful wink.  I needed to get his mood up.  Hopefully, it would take his mind off his leg, which was so swollen at the knee I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to wear the brace.

        Of course, my intentions went down like a radroach sundae.  “Are all mares sex fiends?  Is that it?”

        “Huh?”  Where did that come from?  “I was just trying...”

“Don’t you get it?”  He lifted the black and white photo of the calm buck in the uniform.  “Males as soldiers.  Husbands.  Brothers.  Not as breeding equipment.”  I tilted my head to the side as I was now completely lost.  “You see them, though, and... and... cute?  That’s all you can say about them?”

Pissiest... male... ever…  “I was just trying to lighten the mood,” I said in a softer voice.  He blinked, then resumed his grumpy frown.  Midnight.  Why couldn’t I have run out of the stable with a beautiful dark unicorn mare?  Really?  If you were going to have a travelling companion, it’d be hard to beat that.  Or a pony with a sense of humor.  Was that too much to ask?

There were a few other things in the room.  A terminal set atop a desk.  P-21 had to smack it with a hoof a few times before the green screen lit up.  Next to it was a small safe set in the floor.  From the scorch marks in that corner of the room, it looked as if somepony had tried to blast it open!  I guessed it was a miracle the terminal still worked.  I also found a locked ammo container that was way too heavy to be empty.

        “Can you get that to work?” I asked him as he started to tap on the keys.  The work seemed to calm him down.

“Maybe,” he said quietly, “Duct Tape showed me a few tricks, and it looks like it’s still pretty much intact...”

           “You two close?” I said, now feeling genuinely curious.  Maybe it was the pictures.  Both Watcher’s comment and what we’d been through had made me wonder about this odd blue pony.  

For a moment, I thought he was going to launch into a new tirade of anger, but it seemed like I’d exhausted his supply for now.  Instead, he looked almost... guilty.  He didn’t answer for a minute as he tapped the keys, and then said softly, “She was close to me.”  He suddenly shut down the terminal and then started it back up again.  Meeting my surprised look, he said in his calm voice, “I have to close it out… too many wrong answers and the terminal could lock me out permanently.”

        And this was why I didn’t touch terminals.  “So, she taught you how to do this?”

He sighed and closed his eyes.  “I’d rather not talk about it.  She’s dead.  I’ve escaped.  I don’t want to remember that place.”  He looked at the screen, his voice level and cool.  “Now, if you don’t mind, I need to focus on this.”

Well, so much for friendship.  I sighed and stood.  “Well, I’m going to check to see if the sink in the bathroom still works.”  I needed a bath.  I desperately, terribly needed a bath.  The blood I’d rolled in had hardened like black paint.  I smelled of blood, urine, and feces.  I’d take one of Rivets’s icewater baths right now if I could.

Still, I hesitated a bit when my PipBuck notified me that the water in the sink was also radioactive.  ...I wasn’t going to drink it, though.  That’d cut down on some of my exposure, right?  I found a rag, soaked it, and tried to scrub myself off as well as I could.  By the time I finished, my PipBuck radiation meter bounced back and forth in the middle of the green gauge.  I guessed that that meant that I wasn’t near flesh-stripping radiation levels yet.  

        Returning to the living room with the terminal, I smiled.  “So, am I glowing?”

        For the first time ever, a look of absolute, incredulous shock settled on his face.  “You’re pregnant?!”

I laughed as I flopped on the couch.  “Oh, Goddesses, I hope not.  I just washed in some water that was a little more radioactive than I’d like.”  Of course, if I were pregnant and irradiated… okay.  Not thinking about that now.  It definitely killed the joke though.

“Oh.  You look… cleaner,” he replied with a flush as he returned to the screen.  He hit a few more keys and suddenly smiled.  “Finally.  ‘Granny’.  Interesting password.”

“Nice,” I said as I looked at the safe.  “Can you pick the lock on that, too?”  I suspected it wouldn’t be easy for him.  It was a safe, after all.

“Why?”  He hit a key on the terminal and a click came from the safe.  Okay, now he looked smug.  It was a nice change from the stoic or pissy looks he normally wore.  Then he looked at the ammo crate.  “Now that I’ll have to try and pick.”

We swapped seats, him dragging the ammo box to the couch while I investigated the safe and terminal.  Inside the safe were two stacks of bits, a small bag of bottle caps, another healing potion, another syringe of Med-X, some food that simply had to be past its expiration date, a revolver, and a half-empty box of ammo.  I just dumped it all in my bags for now, my PipBuck tallying my inventory automatically.  Then I turned to the terminal.  There was a series of log entries.  The dates after each were so much gibberish, though.  Oh well, I had nothing better to do while P-21 opened the ammo crate.

Entry 1) Well hello there.  Not exactly sure what I’m supposed ta be writing about.  Doctors said it’d keep my noggin from falling apart if I write stuff down.  ‘It’s important to keep a journal, Hoss.’  Personally, I think it’s a bunch of hooey, but since Apple Bloom went through the trouble of sending Granny this contraption, I may as well learn to use it!

Entry 2) Well, in a time of one boneheaded decision after another, one more shouldn’t be much of a surprise.  Celestia’s out and Luna’s in.  A thousand year rule’s a goodly stretch, I suppose.  Unfortunately, I doubt that this whole shake up is gonna do anypony a lick of good.  Ministries?  What are they doing that wasn’t done before?  Heard they’re gonna remove the gardens cause each one has to have their own headquarters or some such.  Glad I retired when I did.  Don’t think I could stand the hurt of seeing it all torn up.

Entry 3) Big Macintosh is dead.  I know they said he died a hero saving Princess Celestia.  I’m glad that Celestia’s alive and all, but I also wish Granny’s grandson were still about.  Instead, they’re going on and on about how heroic he was.  Makes me want to spit.  Big Macintosh wasn’t a hero for saving Celestia.  He was a hero because he’d have tried to save anypony who didn’t deserve to die.  Granny’s not doing too well since the funeral.  I don’t think any statue in Ponyville’s gonna make up for this.

Entry 4) Buried Granny Smith behind the farm.  Apple Bloom sent her condolences.  I dunno if Applejack’s heard.  Getting a message through to the Ministry of Technology’s a hassle and a half.  It’s been a long time coming, watchin’ her slip away.  Somehow thought she’d last forever, though.  Things are getting so bad that I‘m feeling like I want to join her some days.  This world’s so angry.  It’s so full of hatred that all I can do is shut it out and try and keep this little corner green and healthy.  It’s all I can do anymore.  Made a new friend, though.  Marigold at the garden club.  Kind filly.  Said she’d stop by and show her foal the farm.

Entry 5) World ended today.  Thought that was worth writing down.  I guess the war is over.  Hurray.  Load of ponies streaming through my fields to get up into that stable on the hill.  I sent Marigold and her foal up that way since they can’t reach 90 in time.  Hope it does some good.  Hope there’s some good left anywhere.

Entry 6) Sky carriage crashed in the fields last night.  I figger that’s it, then.  Dunno what that sludge is, but it melted those two pegasuses.  Liquefied ‘em.  There’s some kind of green snow starting to fall.  Pretty sure it’s going to kill me.  Done killed everything else.  Ain’t seen anypony since that black mare snuck in the barn.  Invited her inside, but she just skedaddled.  Feeling tired now, but maybe that’s just my age.  Never wanted ta live long enough to see all this.  Just wish I had the strength to rest with Granny.  Fels wrong dyin lie tis.

        Entry 7) one genration pases away and anothr genertion comes, but Euestra abides fore

        Log-in time out.  Disconnecting.

*        *        *

I didn’t know how long I sat there reading the entries over and over again.  It wasn’t until I heard the pop of the lid coming off the ammo box that I looked over at P-21.  I felt completely torn, on one hoof feeling bad for the old pony who’d lived just long enough to see his world blasted apart.  On the other, he hadn’t lived to see just how bad things would get.  Seeing me blubbering, P-21 suddenly looked uncomfortable as he opened up the case.  “Um.  Want some more bullets?” he asked as he tilted the ammo container.

“Yeah.  Thanks.”  I didn’t want bullets.  I wanted seven entries of Hoss telling me how wonderful life was.  I rose to take the loose, shifting rounds out of the case and dumped them unceremoniously into my bag.  I had no idea what kind of gun they went to.  Perhaps a rifle?

As I scrolled through my inventory to distract me from the bones in the corner, P-21 read through the journal entries himself.  I don’t know what I expected.  Tears like mine, I supposed.  I wanted to know my reaction wasn’t weak or wrong.  When he finished, though, he didn’t cry.  He simply looked at me with that even blue gaze.  “Do you want to do something about it?”

“Do?  What do you mean?” I asked in confusion.

“Well, you can sit there and cry,” he said as he rose with a groan, leg brace squealing softly before he limped towards the door, “Or we can do what he asked.”

Confused, I stood and walked out after him.  He looked around at the grass around the farmhouse and then slowly limped out.  Was it just me, or was it getting darker?  About fifty feet up the slope was an odd squared-off stone.  Some wit had used it for target practice, and the marble was so chipped as to be illegible.  “Start digging.  Carefully,” he said before he returned to the farm house.

...Oh.  Slowly, I started to scrape away the soil with my magic.  It was hard work, and I was glad.  Focusing on this, I felt my horror of that open darkness above me fading away.  The nightmares of the attack dwindled away.  I didn’t see Air Duct’s foal lying with her head nearly sawed off.  I didn’t think about Hoss’s last moments.  I simply thought of dirt as my horn’s magic scraped away layer after layer.

He returned just as my magic brushed against something more substantial.  With great care, I levitated the dirt around the buried bones of the pony.  Finally, I stopped.  My horn hurt.  My head hurt.  My eyes burned.  But I did feel a little better as P-21 laid old Hoss next to Granny.  Then I noticed something in Granny’s hooves: a little figurine of a cheerful orange pony I recognized from the pictures.  Her hooves kicked at the air above her as she grinned confidently at me.

Carefully, I levitated the little statue from the grave and gently brushed the dirt away from a tiny plaque at the base.  ‘Be Strong’.  Looking at the orange pony, her little cowboy hat and three-apple cutie mark, I couldn’t help but smile.  I wanted to be strong.  I needed to be strong.  I glanced at P-21, but he was simply placing the bones.

“Would it be okay?” I asked softly.  He glanced at me, then at the figurine, before going back to placing Hoss’s remains in the earth.

“I’m curious why you’re asking me,” he said as he finished laying out the bones.  He finished by placing a brown moth-chewed hat atop the old skull.

“Because you seem to know what’s right,” I replied.  I felt so confused right now, I’d welcome any advice.

“I guess that depends on why you want it,” he said as he sat on the edge of the grave, looking at me.

I hesitated before I answered.  For some reason, I wanted to be completely honest with him right now.  If I’d come across this beauty just hours ago I’d have swapped it for some treats, drinks, or sex.  But now, everything was changed and different.  “Because.  I want to remember him… because no one else does but us.”  I looked at him and gave a snotty sniff.  “And I’ve got to be strong…”  And I wasn’t strong.  Not really.  I had a shotgun and an overactive proclivity to using it.

He looked at the figurine in my hooves for a long moment, then said softly, “Then I guess it’d be all right.”

As I looked at the figurine, a sensation settled around my shoulders.  A focus driving away some of the terror and worries that were nibbling at the back of my mind.  I carefully placed the figurine into my bag, and I was oddly happy that it didn’t instantly have a value assigned by my PipBuck.  Then we both stepped clear as I gently pushed the soil back into place around their bones.  I even tried to put the yellowed grass back down.  When I finally finished and my glow faded, only the faintest red smudges of light remained on the western horizon.  Together, we returned to the farmhouse.

*        *        *

                  The familiar alarm on my PipBuck woke me.  I swung my limb at the end table once… twice… and then opened my eyes and blinked.  There was no end table because this wasn’t my bed, nor was it my bedroom.  I looked up at the ceiling… how strange to see one that wasn’t dull gray metal.  Lying on my back, I traced my eyes along the cracks, and that was when it really sank in.  I was outside.

At once, I regretted leaving so soon.  I’d been in such a hurry to get out with EC-1101 that I hadn’t realized it might be the last time I saw Mom.  Without Deus there and with the stable sealed, I knew that eventually Mom would retake it.  They’d do something about the Overmare if she was still alive… big ‘if’… and get on with life.  

But could I go back?  With Deus still out looking for me, what was to stop him from following me back in?  He’d probably have somepony watching the stable and would come back the second I returned.  I barely escaped once.  Could I just ‘lose’ my PipBuck?  I didn't have any way to get my PipBuck off… and if I could, I probably wouldn't be able to find my way back.  And it was possible that I'd annoyed Deus enough to have him be after me personally.  And, even if I dealt with Deus somehow… another big ‘if’… there was still the pony who sent him.  If she could send one small army to invade my stable just to get the file, she could probably send another.

No… I couldn't go back.

Crap… why was I missing home now?  My body wanted a hot shower.  It wanted a meal in the atrium.  It wanted to report to the shift change briefing.  It wanted to find Midnight and see if saving her life got me under her tail.  But all that was over.  Done.  I’d never see Midnight again, or Rivets… Daisy… the Overmare… Mom…

                  And just like that, being outside sucked.

                  And speaking of sucking… why were there red bars on my E.F.S.?

                  Shit.

Slowly, I rolled to my hooves.  P-21 had to be the yellow bar next door.  He refused to share my bed, looked pissed that I’d even joked about it.  Did he really prefer to sleep alone?  I retrieved my shotgun and carefully opened the door a crack.

           “I’m telling you, she’s here,” a vaguely familiar voice said.  “I have her PipBuck tag.”  Shit!  I knew that whine: U-21.

           If he had my PipBuck tag, he could find me… was there a range on these things?  Everypony in security was locatable anywhere in the stable, if there wasn’t local interference.  I activated Mom’s tag… nothing.  Maybe it was blocked by the stable walls.  “She better be.  I’ve never seen Deus this pissed before,” a mare muttered softly.

           “If he’d listened earlier, we’d have had her hours ago,” U-21 started to grouse.

           “Will you two shut up?” a different mare hissed.  “Let’s finish this and get the damned thing.  This is raider territory, and unlike Deus, we’re tasty snacks to the freaks out here.”

           They were coming down the hall.  In a few seconds, they’d be at the door.  Correction, two were coming down the hall.  Two were back in the living room.  They reached P-21’s room.  I heard the door open, my heart suddenly pounding.  “Empty,” one mare announced.

           I stepped to the side, and slowly the door creaked open.  I saw the barrel of an automatic pistol.  The mouth biting the grip.  The eye searching me out.  And then our eyes met.  I suddenly saw a buck decapitated by my shotgun.  I saw his head blown into chunks.  I saw the terror in the mare’s blue eye as she saw with certainty her own demise.  I wanted to scream at her to run.  My throat sealed shut.  I wanted to shoot right above her head and make her flee; I couldn’t move my aim.  She turned that barrel towards me, and in her eyes I saw the doomed look of a pony knowing they acted in futility.

           I pulled the trigger.  Eight pellets of lead travelled less than two feet, turning the firearm into scrap and her lower face and throat into pulp.  She made a noise; not exactly a scream, with all the bubbly froth coming from her.  Her whole body whipped wildly, flinging gore before she collapsed in a thrashing heap.

           “Fucking hell!” shouted a mare as I moved into the doorway.  She had a security saddle with two single-shot rifles connected to it and a welding helmet protecting her head.  Her gang colors didn’t do shit to protect her, though; I knew the difference between barding and Wasteland ‘armor’.  We fired almost simultaneously as she backpedaled, yanking on her bridle.  One bullet slugged my hide but didn’t penetrate.  I slipped into S.A.T.S. and aimed for her… chest.

           So I didn’t want to blow another mare’s face off... call me a wuss.

           Three rounds of buckshot turned the hall and most of her front into blasted ruin.  As that accelerated time wore off, she slumped to the ground, her last shots chewing up the floor before she fell over in a bloody mess.  I looked down at the mare still thrashing on the ground as she tried to breathe through the ground meat of her throat.  I wanted to put her out of her misery.  From the tears in her eyes, she wanted it too.  I pointed the shotgun at her head; she stilled a little.  Just pull the trigger.  End her pain…

                   …I couldn’t do it.  “Sorry…” I muttered to her.  She shuddered and closed her eyes.  I hoped that that was that.

And a second later, I’d have bigger worries as a unicorn mare floated another automatic pistol around the corner and fired blindly.  A lucky shot nicked my ear, which probably saved me by getting me to duck down.  The mare then stepped into the hallway with two automatic pistols floating before her, aiming them right at my head.

The shotgun blasted a cone of leaden destruction that had her scrambling for cover again.  Her shots were wild, but I only had three more shells in the shotgun and no time to reload.  I tripped over the bloody mare’s corpse at the end of the hall, rolling over it as the remaining mare fired at me.  U-21 was behind her, apparently learning about a little firearm feature called a ‘safety’ the hard way.

“You’re dead!  Fucking dead!” screamed the mare as she pointed her automatics at me.  S.A.T.S. was still recharging.  We were going to make a mess of each other… and then my magic reached out.  There was more than just a safety on an automatic.  I fought to split my attention to hit those nubs directly beneath the safeties.  A push, and the magazines slid out of the guns.  Two bullets, and only two, punched my barding hard.  Two shells, and only two, turned her chest into a bloody hole.  She died with a confused look on her face, her fading horn still pulling the triggers.

Then the brown unicorn got his weapon working, putting a round in the wall.  He took one look at me and screamed as I brought the shotgun around, firing his weapon wildly in my general direction.  He was the pony that had told the raiders how to use the bloody PipBucks to find the security mares; no other raider could know.  And he’d been working with Deus.  And he was shooting at me... okay, trying to shoot at me.

This was a shot I could take.  Red bar.  Red and it’s dead.  The last shell in the pump action shotgun blasted out.

In his final second, he’d raised his hoof to shield himself with his foreleg; he’d have been toast but for one thing: he was wearing a PipBuck.  This one might not have a reinforced case, but PipBucks were tough suckers.  The blast was virtually point blank and the lead shot didn’t have time to spread, almost entirely ramming into the device.  The unicorn found himself peppered with wildly flung shrapnel but not turned into a smear on the floor.  Screaming, he raised his hooves to his ears and rolled back and forth.  The arcane device still attached to his leg was now so much sparking metal.

Breathing hard, I reloaded as quickly as I could.  He’d flung his gun when his focus snapped.  I couldn’t risk him getting it again.  I lifted the reloaded shotgun.  P-21 was shouting something, but there’d be time for that later!

Then I got shot in the ass.  The sudden bloom of pain in the back of my leg scattered my thoughts as well.  Damn it, hadn’t I decided back in Stable 99 not to get shot any more?  I looked back, and my eyes met the shocked face on P-21.  He was shaking as he bit down on the brown unicorn’s gun.  I calmly put the safety back on, and just in the nick of time, as he pulled the trigger a few more times.  The friendly fire had turned my E.F.S. red.  I supposed it was the first time he’d shot a gun.

“Aim.  Then fire,” I said through the haze of pain.  I turned back to U-21.

“Blackjack!” P-21 yelled in a strangled voice behind me, and I looked back at him.  There was a look on his face; strained and anguished. “He’s done!  Please!  Don’t murder another 99 male.”

What?  Still, U-21 did look pathetic.  The blast had probably temporarily deafened him.  I sighed.  “Waste of ammo anyway.”

P-21 let out a held breath, then frowned at me.  “Yeah, thank goodness you didn’t waste the ammo on that mare.”  I glanced down the hallway with a frown at the mare in the door to the bedroom.  That was completely different.

Wasn’t it?

I checked U-21 but only found something that looked like a weak healing potion.  It barely took care of the shot to my rump and my other nicks and injuries, but it was something.  I knelt down and said loudly, “Where’s your boss?”

U-21 whimpered, curling up into a fecal-smelling ball.  He was going to be useless.  “Let’s go.”

P-21 stared at me.  His features slowly hardened once again.  “No.”

“Huh?”  I blinked back at him.  “What do you mean ‘no’?”  Were we back to this again?

“It’s a pretty simple word.  Two letters.  Pretty sure even you can figure it out.”  He pointed a hoof at the other male.  “Help him right now.  Give him one of your potions,” P-21 said firmly.  “Otherwise, get going.”

Suddenly, the thought of being on my own loomed inside me.  It was a feeling I didn’t like one bit.  One of the most effective forms of punishment in 99 was isolation.  I’d gotten it twice: twenty-four hours in a virtual closet for mouthing off about the Overmare.  It was worse than detention; at least in there you could hear ponies through the bars.

“P-21…” I said softly.

“You said I know this stuff better than you, right?  Then help him.  Otherwise, you’re on your own,” he said firmly, his lips pressing together.  He meant it too.

I floated out one of the potions Marmalade had tucked into her barding pockets and set it next to him.  He could use it when he pulled himself together.  I felt a little ashamed, a little annoyed, and a lot confused.  Did he think I spared the mare because I wanted her to live?  Did he think I favored mares over bucks?

That was just crazy.

With a sigh, he gave one last look at U-21, and together we left the farmhouse.

*                 *                 *

We continued following the PipBuck’s directions west.  I took it for a good sign that neither that metal abomination nor any raiders had found us since.  Walking under the open sky, I still felt the pit of my stomach drop when I glanced up, but I didn’t lapse into bladder weakening horror like I had before.  I didn’t stop keeping my eyes down at my own level as I looked for something more hazardous than bloatsprites, though.

P-21 was walking on his own, but slowly.  I’d given him the Med-X, but after a long hesitation he simply put it in his pockets with a mutter about how he might have to run again.  The pain was obvious, but he bore it as stoically as possible.

        The issue of him taking the revolver or one of the pistols, on the other hand…

        “No,” he said simply.

        “But you remember what Watcher said.  If you can’t protect yourself, then you’re going to die.”

“Then I’ll die, but I’m not taking it.”  He stared me right in the eyes.  “And if you were smart, you wouldn’t want me to have it.”  Ugh, more cryptic, angry statements...

That had started the disagreement.  No matter what, he refused to take one of the guns.  I didn’t want to fight right now, not after everything he’d done for me the night before.  Still, it bothered me.  I also didn’t like the idea of him being unable to protect himself or to save my butt if things went bad.  I couldn’t get him to open up about anything.

        We weren’t friends.

That was the truth of it.  He was smart, clever, and resourceful, but we were not friends.  Was that really so surprising?  Clearly, there was far more bothering him than just his injured leg.  Yet he wouldn’t talk.  It’s like he hated me or something, but hadn’t I saved him from Daisy?  Didn’t I help him escape from 99?

I had to admit, I was glad when we finally reached the destination on my PipBuck.  The sight of the small town warmed my heart greatly; of course, that was before I realized it was abandoned.  The dozen or so buildings along the road were mostly intact, but scattered further away were the ruins of thrice that number that had been all but demolished by time.  In the middle of town was a large two-story building made of brick.  As we got closer, my PipBuck chirped; I looked at it and I saw two new icons.  ‘Flooded Fields’ lay behind us, and this town was apparently called ‘Withers’.

Suddenly, red icons began to appear on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle, and we moved to take cover behind a standing wall.  I peeked around the corner, searching for the source.  Then I spotted the two raiders on the roof of the large square building.  From their mottled appearance and black leathers, it was pretty clear that these were similar to the breed that had attacked our stable.  It helped that they’d decorated the roof of the building with a variety of severed pony heads.  Both raiders were armed with rifles.  I really didn’t want to pit the accuracy of a shotgun, revolver, or auto pistol against them until I was close enough to make it not matter.

Their patrol along the roof would take them out of sight for a minute or so.  I could run for the front doors then.  There was just one catch.  I looked back at P-21.  “Well?”

He didn’t seem to know, himself.  Finally, though, he looked at me and nodded once.  I watched the two, and when they were out of sight I hurried towards the front door.  P-21 managed to keep up for the short sprint.  Then I glimpsed the word above the front door: ‘School’.  Somehow, I didn’t like this one bit.

Stepping inside was like entering a mouth full of rotten meat.  Flies buzzed everywhere around coagulating pools of blood.  Bodies… no, these were body parts… lay strewn and scattered like gory decorations.  I nearly slipped on the layer of sludge covering the floor.  Glancing behind me, I saw P-21 looking with his stoic expression at the butchered corpses draped across the front desk.

Then the raider stepped around the corner.  Her eyes widened and the brown mare ducked her head to pull an automatic pistol from a holster on her left foreleg.  She didn’t even aim before starting to fire wildly.

I only had thirteen or fourteen shells and... and I hadn’t bothered to check how much ammo I had for the revolver or auto pistols.  As she started to fire, I triggered S.A.T.S. and placed two shots in her pockmarked face.  Executing the spell, I watched in slow motion as her face disintegrated in chunks of bone, blood, and brain.  Unfortunately, as her corpse fell to join the others, I heard yells from within the school.  The shouts, cackles, and errant gunshots left no confusion as to their intent.

One raider holding a magically levitated knife and another with a sawed-off shotgun raced to the front door of the school.  S.A.T.S. was still recharging, so I narrowed my eyes and filled the doorway with spray after spray of buckshot.  The bucks finally dropped, but I definitely didn’t like the five rounds it had taken.  I began moving to check Sawed Off for more, but the sound of another raider approaching sent me ducking behind the counter.  I levitated a stream of shotgun shells from my bag, each one clicking into place inside the magazine tube.  I racked the pump action shotgun as I rose and spotted the fourth raider advancing with steady shots that chewed through my cover.

P-21 reached over and lifted a dismembered pony’s head.  He looked at me grimly and then pushed the head above the counter’s edge.  Instantly the head jerked as the raider swapped targets.  I rose, hit S.A.T.S., and ended his barrage with two solid shots to the torso.  P-21 immediately dropped the head and wiped his hooves on my barding.  I just looked at him a moment, wondering if he really just did that.  Then he flushed.  “Sorry.”

There weren’t any more approaching at the moment, though my E.F.S. detected at least a half dozen further in.  It also identified some non-hostiles.  I went from slain raider to slain raider and simply unloaded whatever they had into my bags.  At least half of it seemed to be trash, but my PipBuck handled the inventory well enough.  It even displayed the approximate weapon quality; no surprise that most of these weapons were junk.  Unfortunately, Sawed Off had apparently never heard of proper ammunition care, and the few shells he had would probably be more dangerous to anypony trying to fire them than whatever they were being aimed at.

Glancing back to make sure P-21 was behind me, I advanced down the central hallway, looking to the left and right and trying to keep track of the red marks ahead of me, alert for rapid movement that suggested they were charging.  The raiders had spared little effort defiling the school.  Most of the posters meant to motivate learning were defaced or torn down.  Ruined books covered the floors in heaps of moldy paper.  I peeked into one classroom that had been turned into a slaughterhouse, the foals’ desks transformed into butcher’s blocks.

I was so fixated on the room, I almost missed the butcher.  He, however, didn’t miss me.  I turned just in time to see a gore-coated raider emerging from a bathroom swinging a cleaver at my neck.  Once again, my security barding saved me from being crippled or decapitated, but by the Goddesses, it hurt.  I entered S.A.T.S. and hit him point blank with a shotgun blast to his head; much more effective.

Much more noisy, too.  Two more raiders came running, and they had rifles.  I was at the wrong end of a shooting gallery.  I leaped into the butcher shop, finding cover behind the stout teacher’s desk.  My neck throbbed terribly, but I couldn’t look away.  I waited for a head to come around the corner.  Instead, there was a laugh and two round metal apples clanked through the doorway, rolling around the floor.

The explosion was more stunning than the blow from the cleaver.  The desk deflected a little of the blast, but my entire left side was coated in blood.  Personally, I was amazed at how little pain there actually was.  Strike that.  I was amazed that I was actually alive.  The fact that they hesitated before rushing in gave me the time to drink down a healing potion.  That, unfortunately, resulted in me making noise.

        Another metal apple came in through the doorway.  Not this time.  As it hit the ground, I wrapped my magic around it and tossed it back out the door.  A yell and a muffled crump sent rattling chunks of metal back through the doorway.  I was limping as badly as P-21 when I stepped out.  They were still moving.  Two shells fixed that.

I glanced down the hall.  No reinforcements.  Were they deaf, waiting, or running?  No, the three marks were steady.  I guessed that they were setting up some kind of trap.  Good.  I looked over at P-21, who’d survived the explosions unscathed.  My horn glowed as the revolver floated to him.  “Take it.  I need your help.”

        “I told you…”

“Unless you give me a reason right now, I don’t care,” I shouted at him.  My barding was half shredded, and my hide wasn’t much better.

        “If you give me that gun, I might shoot you again,” he replied softly, not looking at me.

“If you don’t know how to fire a gun, it’s not that hard.  You point the end with the hole at the bad guys and pull the trigger.  The bad guys, not my butt,” I added for emphasis.  Okay, there was a lot more to it than that, but I finally got him talking.

        “I know the basics.”  And now he looked at me with that calm look.  “I mean that, if I have a weapon, I might kill you.”

        ...Okay, what?

I looked at the remaining three hostiles.  They were still holding steady.  I wondered if they could have imagined why we were holding back.  Probably not.  “Okay.  Elaborate for me?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he replied firmly.  “I don’t want to think about it.  I don’t want to remember it.”  He clenched his eyes shut and started to shake.  “Just... I can’t.  I don’t know what I’d do with a gun right now, Blackjack.  Please... don’t make me use one...” he begged softly, keeping his eyes squeezed shut.

I opened my mouth with a hard comment in mind, then closed it with a grimace.  No.  Watcher had suggested we become friends.  I really never had any in 99.  Not till Marmalade... and that lasted all of five minutes.  Being in security, I always made folks nervous that I’d bring trouble on their heads.  I thought about Rivets and Midnight.  I’d have to talk to him like I talked to them... minus the whole sex thing.  Pity, but for a breeder, he didn’t take that well.  “You don’t want to talk… all right.  I’m not going to make you talk.  It’s just that there’s two of us here and only one of us shooting.”

There was a guilty look in his eyes.  “I don’t trust myself with a gun right now…”  He looked away.  “I’m glad you know who you’re supposed to shoot.  I feel like I want to shoot everypony.  You know who to shoot.”  Somehow, I suspected he wasn’t talking about my PipBuck’s Eyes-Forward Sparkle.

        Him shooting me in the farmhouse... and trying to fire again after I hit the safety... those had been accidents... right?

        I remembered back at the flooded fields farmhouse looking at the figurine in the dirt.  Because you seem to know what’s right.  That... don’t think about it now, Blackjack.  You’re in the middle of a nightmare.  Try to focus.

I took a deep breath and did my best to summon my most Nightmare-Moon-may-care smile.  Now was no time to show doubt; hell, I needed to convince myself as much as him.  “Oh, well, that’s simple.  We just need to get you another PipBuck.  Yellow, be mellow.  Red, it’s dead.”  I was glad to see him return my smile… okay, it was a half-assed smile, but right now I felt like half my posterior was blasted off.  I noticed a red line creeping slowly towards us.

“I don’t think that would help much.  In 99, all the PipBuck showed me was red,” he said as he looked at the revolver and pushed it back towards me.  “I’ll try and back you up however I can.  Just please don’t ask me to do this.”

I could try and force him to carry the revolver.  It seemed so ridiculous here in the Wasteland.  We were sitting in a school that had been transformed into a grisly morgue, but he still refused.  Somehow, even in all this, he wouldn’t cross that line.  I doubted that when Watcher talked about us being friends, it involved me shoving a gun into P-21’s mouth and sending him to kill ponies.

        “All right.  Just promise me you’ll tell me why some day.  Okay, P-21?”

Relief flooded his features.  “You’ll be the first to know.  Probably because you’re the only pony in the Wasteland who has a clue what 99 was like, but still… first to know.”  He was trying for a joke!  It was so precious.

Great… I almost couldn’t help but laugh.  Almost.  I watched as the sneaking raider poked her face around the corner.  I had to admit, the expression on her face was pretty funny.  I smiled right at her, despite the apple-shaped bomb in her hooves.  I looked right into her jaundiced face and yellowed eyes with their tiny, pinprick pupils and gave a little shake of my head.  The shotgun floating three feet from her head probably helped.  Instantly, my PipBuck tag swapped from red to yellow as she dropped the bomb and raced for the exit as fast as her legs could carry her.

Somehow, the sight of a raider running from the two of us struck me as unbelievably funny, given that I was half blown up and P-21 was unarmed.  I couldn’t imagine what the sound of my laughter would mean to the raiders.  “All right.  Let’s finish this,” I said as I walked past the apple bomb, carefully moving it inside the classroom.  Sure, it looked simple enough, but I sure didn’t want to touch it.  I had no idea how big a boom it would make.  I preferred weapons with a more predictable area of destruction.

I made my way towards the second classroom.  As I neared the door, one knife-wielding raider sprang at me.  Knife vs. shotgun.  Really lousy odds for her, but it cost me two of my four remaining shells.  Only one raider remained with the friendlies.  I trotted past more scattered filth, heedless of the risk.  At this moment, I just wanted it over with and cleared.  The other classroom had a pen of sorts constructed of chain-link fence in the far corner.  Within were a half-dozen filthy, terrified-looking fillies.  The raider crouched behind them.

“Cunt,” he said, then gripped the stem of an apple bomb with his foul brown teeth.  What was it with raiders and that word?  Still, something felt off.  He wasn’t acting suicidal.  He was acting cocky.  Then again, if I shot him and that apple thing exploded, then this would definitely have an unhappy ending.  Carefully, I shifted the shotgun into my front hooves and turned it to place the trigger in my mouth like I’d seen other ponies do.  Then I slowly advanced.  It had to be the most awkward approach attempted in pony history, but it was working.  His grin wavered as he looked confused and then worried.  Finally I took a step too far and he yanked the stem from the apple.

Or, rather, tried to.  My horn glowed as I focused all my magical strength on that little stem and keeping it connected.  Step by step I moved up till the barrel of the pump action pointed through the chain link.  I tried to make eye contact with the foals, looking to the floor.  One or two caught the look.  “Met downd, girs,” I said around a mouthful of trigger.  They hit the deck, and his eyes widened in panic.  S.A.T.S. ensured the shots would go where they were needed.

My last two shots rang out, and his ribcage vanished.  The assorted viscera within came slithering out in a messy heap over his hostages, but at least they were still alive.  Suddenly, the girls started screaming.  Then there were two bangs from behind me and an explosion and everything turned white and then dark.

*        *        *

I was still alive.  This hurt way too much to be death.  I was stripped and face down on a mattress.  He’d warned me that he’d try to kill me.  I just didn’t actually expect him to do it...

I heard voices and glanced over to see P-21 surrounded by the nervous fillies eating some of the two century-old food from the farm, as well as what I assumed were the raiders’ supplies.  Apparently, it was still edible.  A small fire crackled in a trashcan next to them.  The foals all wore ragged cloaks draped over their flanks.  My back was wrapped in layers of medical bandages and movement made everything hurt.  My low groan tipped P-21 off, and he rose to trot to my side.  “How are you feeling?”

        “You shot me in the back,” I groaned.

        “I didn’t...” he stammered.

        “Somepony shot me.  In the back.” I growled, glancing up at him.  Was I going to have to get used to this?

        “He really didn’t, ma’am,” a little filly said, trembling slightly.  “See?”  She pointed with a hoof towards the door.

There were some extra raiders in the hallway.  “The one you spared must have gone for help.  They snuck up behind you, and I thought they’d killed you,” P-21 said quietly.

“And who killed them?” I asked as I looked at him with a cocked brow.  He suddenly looked sheepish.  I looked at the scorch marks around the body parts of the raiders.

“Well, they walked right past me after you, and they were just standing together, and that apple bomb was just sitting there,” he said, looking troubled.  “I didn’t realize just what it would do.”

“It’s called a grenade.  It blows ponies up!  Everypony knows that!” a pink filly called out as she lifted her face from her box of cereal, her muzzle coated in sugary dust.  It was a little disturbing how she cleaned it all away in one lick.

“He’s funny,” a teal filly said as she grinned at P-21.  “He was actually apologizing to ‘em after they was blowed up!”  One of the girls laughed.  The rest had expressions ranging from pained to tired to even happy.  They didn’t look scared.  Though with how I must have looked right then, it’d be a miracle if anypony was scared of me.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do that again anytime soon,” he said softly, flushing as he looked at the girls who were tucking into the raiders’ supplies.  There were boxes of it tossed in the corner.  Food that old couldn’t possibly be healthy, but it was apparently quite tasty.  Why were the raiders butchering ponies if they had other food, though?  It was just crazy.

I looked at the teal one, who, aside from looking very sore under her tail, seemed the oldest and most composed.  “So, what’s your name, how did you get here… and how loudly do I have to whine before you share some of that with me?” I said as I pointed at a box of dried apple shavings in her hooves.

She blinked, then grudgingly parted with half the box.  I was a little skeptical till the first bite, and then my eyes went wide.  I’d never tasted anything so sweet and tasty in my life.  My PipBuck’s little radiation clicks went unnoticed as I chowed down.  Sugar Apple Bombs leaped right to the top of my favorites list!

        “As for my name, I’m Scoodle.  Them raiders grabbed us while we was out lookin’ fer stuff fer the Finders.”

        Scoodle?  Well… who was I to judge?  “My name’s Blackjack.”

        “P-21,” he chimed in.

“Y’all got funny names.”  That seemed to count in our favor.  The teal pony lifted the box of Sugar Apple Bombs and poured them into her mouth, chewing frantically before letting out a loud belch, much to the giggles of the other fillies.  She pointed at P-21.  “He’s got a great nose for findin’ stuff.  Got into that safe in the office and everything.  Just click and open!  Y’all should join up with ‘em.”

He nudged a duffel bag closer to me.  “There weren’t any shotgun shells, but there’s another automatic pistol and some ammo.”  He seemed a bit put out about finding a gun in a school.  “The nurse’s office also had some bandages and stuff, but we used most of it on you.”

“Thanks.”  I looked at Scoodle.  “So what’s a Finder?” I asked as I felt the most wonderful buzz running through me.  The look she gave me suggested I was an idiot for not knowing this bit of information.  “We’re not from around here.”

“Stable ponies, huh?  Don’t know nothing.”  She shook her head in disappointment, then adopted a lecturing posture and a tone so like the Overmare that I fought not to giggle.  “Finders are a buncha ponies what find stuff.  They trade and swap fer the darnedest stuff.  Even junk, but they pay good for ammo, weapons, or anything we find that we don’t use.  They’ll trade with almost anypony.”  

        “So you’re Finders?”  Apparently they were not, from the sour look I received.

“No...” she said as she stood with pride to show the tiny patch crudely sewn onto the ragged plaid cloak.  It was a little soiled white cloth showing a rearing filly.  “We’re Crusaders.”

“But… where are your parents?”  Immediately, they all looked sad or angry.  I got the distinct sensation that I’d just fucked up, but I couldn’t see how.  If they were kids, they had to have... somepony?  Right?

P-21 answered me in a whisper, “Blackjack, they’re orphans.”

*        *        *

I really didn’t want to move, but the sugary goodness compelled me.  That, and I wanted to peek around Withers real quick and see if there were any more red marks on the E.F.S.  I still wouldn’t look up at the sky.  It made me feel silly.  These children had been captured, tortured, raped, and had watched some of their colt friends get killed, and here I was scared of the sky!  Still, I had to admit, the cool air was quite nice.  I’d never realized till now how thick and humid 99’s air had been.

There was a billboard at the edge of Withers where the road straightened to the southeast.  ‘Welcome to Hoofington, city of tomorrow!’ read the caption over an image of soaring gray towers connected by bridges.  In the sky above, seven pegasi flew like an arrowhead trailing crackling thunder.  ‘See Shadowbolt Tower!’ declared bold words in one starburst.  ‘Home to the Hoofington Reapers!’ announced another burst next to a grinning gap-toothed cartoon buck in a black helmet.  ‘Tour Robronco’s Headquarters.  Free for fillies and colts!’ a little robot pony said with a wide smile.

There was one thing off, though.  Written across the billboard, in faded red spray-paint, was, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’  Not exactly the best advertisement for the city.  I could barely make out an eerie green light far in the distance down the road.

The plinking of a piano and the twang of a banjo filled the night, preluding the spritebot’s arrival.  I narrowed my eyes as it bobbed through the air past me.  For just a moment, I thought it was going to continue into the dark when it paused and turned towards me.  “Watcher?” I asked, sitting up a little.

The obnoxious music cut off at once, and the little flying machine flew in front of me.  “Well, you’re alive,” said the tinny little voice.  “Glad to see it.”

“Glad to be it,” I replied with a wince.  I smiled as I looked at the bandages that half covered my body.  “Half blown up, but yeah.  Alive.”  I looked back at the bot.  Something niggled in my mind and I frowned.  “You put this location tag in my PipBuck, didn’t you?”

There was a long, awkward silence.  “Well, raider bases are a good source of ammunition and other goods…” the voice said awkwardly.

“No doubt, and I bet there are lots of those all over the place.”  I lay down, folding my hooves in front of me.  “You knew, didn’t you?  About the Crusaders?”

The spritebot hesitated, and I felt he was picking his words carefully.  “I might have had some intelligence about them being held till slavers could pick them up.”

        I was angry, but I wasn’t sure exactly why.  “Why didn’t you just tell us?”

“Please, don’t.  Do you have any idea what it’s like to tell people six fillies are being held by raiders only to have them turn and run the opposite direction?  Or, worse, kill the raiders and sell the foals to slavers themselves?”  There was anguish in his voice that said he knew all too well.  “I just wanted to point you in the right direction and hope it would work out.”

        I sighed as I lowered my chin to my hooves.  “Do me a favor.  Next time, tell me.  Alright?”

        The spritebot hovered a moment longer, then resumed playing the banjo as it bobbed into the night.

---------

        

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Telekinetic Precision - You’ve got a steady horn on your head for when you need to count sand, thread a needle, or keep a pin in a grenade.

(Great thanks to Kkat for creating FoE, and huge thanks to Hinds and Bronode, without whose help I would never be able to finish.  Also, thanks to everypony for reading and providing feedback.)

(Note: This chapter, too, is not its original version, though it is closer to it than the revised Chapter 1 is to its.  Regrettably, though, our time is not unlimited, so we ask that you please bear with us through the slightly lower quality of the next few chapters.  It gets better.)


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 3: Learning Curve

        “I’m so sorry…”

        We waited in the Withers public school till morning.  Really, once the flies and the reek of rotting meat reached a certain point, all of us were glad to get out of there.  I still resembled a mummy with all the bandages coiled around me, but their healing magic was doing the trick.  Though it’d taken two healing potions to bring me back from the gunshots to my back and the back of my head, my luck was still holding out.  The first had just grazed my skull rather than turning it into all kinds of bloody brains, and the second had been slowed by what was left of my barding and lodged in the muscle at the base of my neck.  Fortunately, even P-21’s minimal medical skills were up to removing it.

        I’d taken some time looking at a map on the wall of the classroom.  It was badly stained and aged, but I could make out the name of Withers and a road leading to what seemed like a big city.  Hoofington.  One of the cities Hoss had mentioned when he described the balefire bombs going off.  There were other strange posters rotting in their frames.  In the office, a pink pony with her mane striped almost identical to mine, but pink and gray rather than black and red, stared out with a grin above a caption that read ‘Trouble can start in the smallest places’.  A purple unicorn sat on the library wall, looking clever and surrounded by floating books, saying ‘We need every idea’.  Well, that’s what I thought it said.  Some wit had scratched out ‘idea’ and written ‘penis’.  I got the joke.  In the nurse’s office, a soulful yellow pegasus hugged a bunny while telling me ‘Little ouchies are still ouchies’.

        I knew there had been a war.  Even security ponies had to learn history in 99.  Zebras had attacked and attempted to exterminate all of ponykind.  There’d been six ministries that had done all they could to end the war and find peace for ponykind.  They’d failed.  It might have been unfair of me, but I hoped that they’d done more to try and end the war than just make pithy quotes for posters.

        It had been a little amusing, and a little disturbing, to see Scoodle handling the revolver from the farmhouse as casually as if it were a toy.  No.  Not a toy.  She wasn’t playing with it.  She understood it was a weapon.  She understood how to use it.  She didn’t even have her cutie mark yet and she was better with guns than P-21.  There was something profoundly depressing about that.  When we’d gathered the weapons and ammo from all the raiders, it’d proved a somewhat daunting amount of firearms.

        “How are we going to carry all that?” I asked as I looked at the heap.  There were at least four rifles, a shotgun, a revolver, the automatic pistols, two knives, a cleaver, two grenades, and the assorted junk we’d taken from the raiders.  Between P-21 and me, we’d be able to do it, but it would still be quite a weight.

        “Ya don’t need ta carry all of it,” Scoodle said as she looked at the heap.  “Well, ya wouldn’t if ya had some tools.  What ya can do is take em apart and just put the best pieces together.”

        “Take them apart?”  I levitated a rifle and concentrated.  It was tough to telekinetically hold an object while messing with one small part of it, but I was able to unscrew and disassemble the various portions of the weapon.  Immediately, I saw what the teal pony had been talking about.  Some of the screws on one rifle were almost rust-free.  Another had an intact slide.  One had a superior barrel.  Of course, I had to listen closely to her directions as I assembled one weapon from four.  When finished, my PipBuck suddenly showed a much higher value for my new rifle than any of the original four.  How it knew that was slowly driving me crazy.  When I finished I loaded five rounds into the clip and heard a comforting click as it loaded smoothly.

        “What about the rest of this?” P-21 asked as he opened up the duffel bag.  To be honest it looked more like a garbage bag with all the junk inside.

        Scoodle looked at it with a smirk.  “Well, if it’s light, take it.  There’ll be somepony that’ll buy it for caps.  If it’s heavy and worthless, just toss it unless yer close to a buyer.  Most ponies haul around as much as they can carry and when they find something good they’ll drop some more junk.  Otherwise let the Finders worry about the coffee cups and stuff.”  She looked in the bag and the teal pony frowned, seeming to be thinking of something unpleasant, and then smiled.  “Oh.  And keep the caps.  They’re money.”

        Bottle caps?  Did they really use bottle caps for money?  From all the glares Scoodle received from the others, it was pretty clear they weren’t happy with her for mentioning it.  “Scoo!” shouted the pink pony, Boing, “We’re supposed to tell stable folk they’re trash, remember?”

        I saw that the teal pony that had been so helpful was getting upset so I adopted my easiest smile as I looked down at the fillies.  “Well, I’m pretty sure she just wanted to be helpful after all the things that happened last night.  Remember?”  Scoodle definitely perked up at that, but the others still didn’t look too happy.  I couldn’t blame them.  I’d be ticked too if I saw some rube talked out of unloading a stack of bits back in 99.

        Once we were outside and under the clouds I felt a little vertigo.  I still didn’t look up.  I’d have liked to think that I’d get over this eventually, but somehow I didn’t think I would.  Not completely.  Still, as long as I kept my gaze at or below the horizon I felt with it enough to move on.  The road we walked along was faded and crumbly, but I felt a little more confidence with a clear path in front of me.  While the open spaces to my sides weren’t as overwhelming as above, I still liked to pretend I was surrounded by nice straight halls.

        At first I’d been nervous about accompanying the Crusaders in my current condition, particularly with P-21 being so stubborn about not carrying a firearm.  Scoodle assured me that the Crusaders could handle themselves and that the raiders capture was simply a case of bad luck.  I passed out what weapons and ammo we had, saving the rifle for myself.  I might not have known the specifics, but I knew which end went bang.  I admit, I was skeptical as many of the Crusaders chattered quite openly about what would happen when they got to ‘town’.  Then I noticed that Scoodle and Boing weren’t joining in the conversations.  When we encountered some strange spiny animals rooting through the rotten ditch beside the road, all they had to do was stop and the conversations ended.  The five unarmed fillies disappeared into cover on the far side of the road.  In fact, given how quickly P-21 disappeared as well, I was feeling just a little bit exposed standing alone in the middle of the road!

        Only once Scoodle and I had finished off the last of the strange mutated animals did my worries about them fade.  If it hadn’t been for my E.F.S. I wouldn’t have known where any of the others were hiding.  Once the danger was past the Crusaders came out and at once carefully carved off some pieces of meat, wrapping them in some scrap paper from my duffel bag.

        I tried to hide my disgust as I asked, “What are you doing with that, Scoodle?”

        “Huh?”  She looked up with a bloody knife clenched in her jaws; I did my best not to shudder.  She stuck the tip in the corpse and answered brightly, “Oh, this?  Radhog is good eatin!”

        I just turned my back and busied myself with not being nauseous or watching them finish their work.  I’d stick with the Sugar Apple Bombs.

        The trip along the road was made far easier by my E.F.S. picking out threats before they actually engaged us.  The most prevalent were the bloatsprites and radhogs.  The wildlife seemed incredibly aggressive and even lone radhogs didn’t hesitate to charge our group.  I took the opportunity to talk with Scoodle about the Wasteland.  She seemed to delight in knowing more about the wastes than P-21 or myself.

        “See, there’s three kinds o folks.  You got folks that’ll help ya out, folks that’ll put a bullet through yer noggin, and folks that won’t lift a hoof fer ya, but probably won’t kill ya less they got reason.  Make sense, Blackjack?”

        “Plenty.  So which are the Crusaders?” I asked with a little smile, half teasing and half curious.

        “We’re the third, less yer on yer own.  Most folk are,” she said without hesitation.  “Crusaders look out for our own and any filly or colt what needs protectin.  Past that we take care of ourselves.”

        “Not to insult you, but how do you take care of yourselves at all?” P-21 asked in his calm voice.

        “What, ya think because we’re young we’re helpless?”  And with a flick of her head she scooped the pistol out of her holster and pointed it right at his head as if she had a S.A.T.S. spell herself.  Then she grinned around the handle before spitting the pistol back into her holster.  “We don’t fight lest we gotta.  We stick together and hide when we can.  We got lots of forts all around we can hole up in if we need ta,she said as she trotted along.  “See, we can get in places big ponies like yerselves can’t.  We find all kinds o good stuff in cellars and tunnels and stuff.”

        She sure seemed confident, and I reminded myself that these children lived in a brutal environment.  Weak things didn’t seem to last long in the Wasteland, that was for sure.  “What about these Finders?”

        “Shoot, Finders care only about the caps.  You got caps, they’re yer best buds in the world.  Ya got nothing and they’ll piss on ya soon as look at ya.  Finders ain’t nopony’s friends and don’t you believe em when they say otherwise.”  Scoodle and the other Crusaders definitely didn’t seem very happy, even though we were apparently heading towards their town.

        “So who might help us?” I asked her.

        “Help ya with what?” she asked in return.

That was a very good question.

        P-21 and I hadn’t really talked about what our next step was.  I had one goal, but I didn’t want to involve P-21 just yet.  I wasn’t really sure how he’d handle it.  Beyond that… “Information.  Somepony attacked my stable.  I want to know why and what for.”

        I described Deus and the filly immediately looked concerned.  “Well from what you said, I’m guessing he’s a Reaper.”

        “Why does that just scream ‘bad’ to me?” I asked sarcastically, getting a smirk in return.

        “Reapers is what happens when raiders grow up.  They’re the baddest of the baddest.  Don’t take shit off nopony.  There’s only a hundred of em, cause the only way to join is ta kill another Reaper hoof to hoof.  Monsters one and all,” Scoodle said darkly.

        “Arloste’s a Reaper now,” Boing said to Scoodle.

        “Arloste’s too nice ta be a Reaper, so it’d never happen,” Scoodle countered.

        “Arloste?” I asked, curious about this little digression.

        “Crusader.  One o the first.  Got us started with the reverend,” Boing said as she bounced on her hooves in glee.  “I heard they had a thing but then they had a fight and she went to join the Reapers.”

        “So what, I should go and ask a Reaper for info?”  That sounded just a little suicidal to me.

        “Well not unless you want a busted leg.”  Scoodle looked down at P-21’s limp and flushed a little.  “Sorry.”  Looking back at me she went on, “Reapers is folk though.  Gotta cozy up to em, or pay em off in caps.  The only time Reapers join up is if somepony’s crazy enough to attack em at the Arena.”

        “Anypony else that might help?  The first kind?” I added with a small smile.

        Scoodle seemed to mentally scan her list.  “Well there’s DJ Pon3 on the radio.  He’s off in Manehattan, but he knows stuff what’s going on everywhere.  You can hear him all over the place.”  P-21 and I shared a look and added it to the mind bogglingly long list of ‘what the fuck are they talking about?  “There’s also them Society ponies.  I guess they technically count since they do help.  Bunch of stuck up thoroughbreds that give ya a meal and then tell ya how thankful ya should be for getting it.”

“They sound like a joy,” I muttered.  “Anypony else?”

“Well, ya can talk ta the college ponies.  Call themselves the coll… co… um… well most folks just call em Eggheads.  They’re way over past the Core, but you might run across em.  They wanna fix Equestria.  Dunno how.  They’re nice to us most often.  If we ever come down with worms we always ask them fer help.  They got this medicine that’ll clean ya out lickity-split!”

        I winced at that.  “Thanks for the tip.”

        “Oooh, you forgot the Steel Rangers!” Boing said as she made machine gun noises.

        “I didn’t forget em.  Wasn’t gonna mention em,she said sourly at the pink filly.  “Rangers might help ya.  They might not.  Might shoot ya.  They got their own things going on, mostly trying ta figger out how them roboponies work in the Core.  I can tell ya they won’t give us a glass o piss.”

        “Roboponies?” P-21 asked, curiously.

        “That’s what they are, so don’t you laugh.  Pony gadgets wandering all over the Core.  Dangerous critters, too.  You see a pony made of wires and lights, you best run.  Can’t kill em.”  Scoodle frowned in thought.  “There’s the ‘Clavers, if you want, but I don’t trust em one bit.”

        “The Enclave are pegasus ponies!  They’re gonna swoop down and save us all!” Boing cried with a little cheer.  A few of the other fillies also looked hopeful.

        “I’ll believe em when I see the sun,” Scoodle replied sullenly.  “They give me the willies.”

        “They’re no worse than ghouls!” Boing countered, “And ghouls will eat ya!”

        Scoodle caught my look.  She sighed and rolled her eyes, explaining to the clueless stable ponies, “Ghouls is ponies that are… well… they look dead.  But they ain’t!  I been to Meatlocker, and they wasn’t nothing but friendly to me.”  Her certainty faded a little and she amended, “Well, some of em might try and eat ya, but they ain’t no different from raiders.”

        Ghouls.  Enclave.  Steel Rangers.  Eggheads.  Society.  Reapers.  Finders.  Crusaders.  I was suddenly getting a picture of Hoofington as a city with different stables all around it, each group fighting against the others for control and dominance.

        P-21 looked at Scoodle as he asked, “You mentioned the Core?  What is that?”

        “The Core?  It’s what got blowed up in the big war.  I heard there was all kinds of tech and stuff being studied there.  Least it was before the zebras blowed it ta smithereens.”

        “Wasn’t the zebras!” Boing jumped in.  “Them ponies made something what blowed up in their faces!”

        “I heard that Princess Celestia sent the whole city to the moon right before the bombs went kablewy,” offered a gray unicorn filly.

        Another quickly shook her head.  “Nuh-uh.  It was a dragon.  Biggest, scariest dragon of all.  He breathed green fire.”

        “That’s what the bombs did, ya ninny!” Scoodle roared.  I winced at their noise, wondering if this was how they had gotten caught in the first place.

        I drifted a little to the side to let them argue over what, precisely, destroyed Hoofington while I leaned towards P-21.  “So what do you think?”

        He looked at me with his level, cool gaze.  “I think they should be quieter.  Unless they’re trying for more radhog meat.”

        “I mean about what we should do?  While I don’t mind helping ponies who need it, I doubt that Reaper has given up.  We need information.”  I lifted my PipBuck.  “We need to learn about that Reaper.  We need to find out what EC-1101 is.  Why it was worth attacking Stable 99.”

        “Did the Overmare say anything about it, Blackjack?” P-21 asked as he looked at the bones of ponies lying along the road.

        Oh.  I’d completely forgotten about the files he’d transferred to my PipBuck.  “Um… not yet?”

        “There might be a clue about EC-1101,” he pointed out in his calm, reasonable voice that was just a little aggravating.

        “I know.  I know!  I’ll check it when we stop,” I said in a soft huff.  Then I noticed Boing listening in.  “Something up, Boing? I asked, not sure if I should be angry or not.

        “Hmm?  Oh, nothing!” she said with a giggle as she bounced along back over to the other Crusaders.

        That’s a lot of bones.  As we proceeded southwest along the road, the skeletal remains grew thicker and thicker, and the Crusaders grew quieter and quieter.  Rags and rusty bits intermixed with the bleached bones as scattered white lumps turned into nearly a solid sheet.  Then mounds and piles of gleaming white remains rose to either side of the road.

        My PipBuck chirped.  ‘Boneyard’ appeared on the map.  I noticed the girls weren’t talking anymore.  Now they looked wary, and walked right in the middle of the road cleared of the remains.

        “What happened here?” P-21 asked, keeping his voice low.

        Scoodle looked at us and then pointed ahead.  “When Hoof went boom, lots of ponies tried ta run for it along the road.”  She pointed the way we came.  “That way’s Manehattan… and when Manehattan went boom, lots of ponies from there came running fer the Hoof.  Thousands and thousands.  They all got bunched up here, and died.”  She glanced warily at the heaps of bones around us.  “Don’t touch anything.”

        “Why not?”  As far as I could see there was lots of stuff for the taking, and not a single threat to be seen.

        “There’s bad stuff here.  Ghouls.  And Tiara.  That was all she said before she bit down on the pistol again and continued walking.

        The whispering was beginning to creep me out, but I wasn’t about to raise my voice not knowing what might be around.  There were hundreds of busted wagons and carts scattered amid the skeletal remains.  Lot of boxes, even some ammo crates.  I looked at the Crusaders keeping an eye all around them and ignoring the ammunition right beside us.

        “We should take some of this,” I whispered as we passed a tipped-over wagon half buried by bones.  I couldn’t see a single target on the E.F.S. aside from the eight of us.

        Scoodle looked at me with an expression of horror and outrage, shaking her head.

        “There’s nothing here.”  I couldn’t explain the PipBuck’s targeting system to somepony that had never worn one before.

        “I think you should listen to her,” P-21 murmured.

        That did it for some reason.  Fillies scared of bones I could accept, but being told what to do by a pony that wouldn’t carry a weapon himself just annoyed the shit out of me.  My mane was itching in irritation and I wasn’t about to pass up something that could keep all of us safe.  “It’s fine!” I said as I reached out with my horn, grabbed a nice heavy ammo box, and pulled it from the bones.  The bones clattered in to fill the void left behind, filling the still air with a dry rattle.

        Then I saw the creature within the heap of bones.  It looked like a pony that had been cooked past well done, and now that it was exposed it began to move!  It reared up and opened its maw wide, letting out a scream that no living pony could make.  And then, it was answered.

        Instantly, my PipBuck came alight with red bars as horrific screams raised in the air.  The mounds around me shifted and from the depths emerged chunks of rotting meat clinging to pony frames.  Shredded lips allowed jagged mouths to open far wider than any living pony’s could.  There was nowhere to run; they stepped out onto the road in both directions.

        “Heads!” was all Scoodle shouted before drawing her gun and taking aim at the running forms.  I wasn’t familiar with a rifle at all, but I knew I should use it before they closed the distance.  I popped S.A.T.S., but the rifle required a great deal more energy per shot than my pistol or shotgun.  I carefully lined up my shot in that moment of frozen time, then released the spell.  I could almost see the bullet as it spun through the air, striking the ghoul pony in the head and blasting it apart into meaty chunks.  Without S.A.T.S. I had a harder time lining up the shots.  What took one round to the head would require four to the chest.

        The Crusaders were holding up better than I’d anticipated.  Maybe the fact we were ridiculously outnumbered and probably going to die helped them focus on putting every round in the screaming ghoul ponies’ heads.  P-21, unarmed, simply kicked and shoved to try and keep the ghouls off the Crusaders.

        Scoodle’s revolver blasted ghoul after ghoul, not firing till she had a head shot.  She would be an amazing markspony when she grew up; a pony to be feared and respected.  But as she turned to gun down one, two others pounced upon her.  S.A.T.S. recharging, I tried desperately to line up the rifle, but the shots failed to drop them.  One ghoul pony gripped Scoodle by her haunches, the other by her shoulders.  With monstrous strength they each pulled their half.

        The teal filly was ripped in two before my eyes.

        I fell into a moment of horror that felt like a S.A.T.S. that would never end as I saw with terrible clarity the organs and viscera pouring out over the asphalt.  I smelled the wash of blood even over the unnatural reek of the undead monsters around me.  I saw the stunned look on her face as she slowly fell, and a pony that had weathered raiders and who knew what else died because of my stupidity.

        I knew that I would never stop seeing that image for as long as I lived.

        “No!” I roared, rage seeming to guide my shots.  Despite my tears blurring my vision, I laid down a rain of fire such that even the ghouls were momentarily beaten back.  Every other bullet seemed to find skulls and vulnerable joints, though my horn ached from the effort.  When the rifle clicked on an empty chamber, a telekinetic stream of bullets flowed from my bag into the magazine, and my attack continued.  But there were more ghouls than I had bullets, and every second it seemed like more of the mindless monsters emerged from the bone piles.

        Soon the rifle went from firearm to club; there were just too many and too close for it to be effective.  I’d have given my teeth for some shotgun shells.  The monsters were starting to surround and overwhelm us, snapping with their broken teeth and kicking with shattered hooves.  I would happily have stayed there till I was torn to pieces, but there were five more Crusaders and P-21 on the line.  They were all going to die, and it was my fault.

It couldn’t get any worse than this, I thought.

        I’d soon think to myself, ‘Oh, silly Blackjack, it can always get worse.’

        The scream from a nearby bonepile froze us all in place.  A luminous green light spilled forth from a ghoul pony that at once started my PipBuck clicking.  “Tiara!” the ghoul screamed, looking down at us with its baleful gaze.  The presence of this glowing abomination was tempered by one saving grace: its presence made the hordes of ghouls back away momentarily.  “Tiara?  Is that you?”

        Step by step, it approached, and my PipBuck began to click faster and faster.  I glanced behind me at the scratched and clawed Crusaders.  If there was any way I could get them out of this nightmare, I’d take it.  I put on my best smile and approached the glowing ghoul pony.  “Um… yes.  It’s me.  Tiara.”  I looked at the glowing cutie mark etched in her blackened flank.  Was it a mirror?  No…  A rattle?  No…

        “Really?  I think I lost my glasses.”  Up close, I could see that the glasses weren’t lost: they were melted.  Glistening glass clung in cracked, fluid shards, the blackened metal frame now seared to the flesh.  Behind them, eyes glowed.  She raised both her hooves with a creepy smile, then frowned as I hesitated.  What was she doing, holding them up like she was going to do a… a hoofshake!  I immediately tapped my hooves against hers.  Instantly she smiled.  “Bump, bump, sugarlump, rump!” she intoned, not seeming to notice me scrambling to match her moves.  “Oh, it is you, Diamond Tiara!  I’ve missed you so much!”  She pulled me into an embrace, my PipBuck clicking like mad.

        “Um… yes… it’s been a long time...” I held the hug for as long as I dared before backing away.  A glance at my PipBuck saw the needle entering the yellow.  “Yes, it has been much too long.  Work and all.”  Once more luck saved us as my eyes glanced at some of the rusty debris around us.  A brown metal spoon caught my eye.  “How have you been… ah… Spoon?”  I prayed to the Goddesses that it was a part of her name and not something like ladle.

        But my guess had been lucky enough to get a sigh of frustration.  “Oh, it’s been terrible since I lost my glasses.  I think something very bad happened, and I was looking for somepony who might be able to direct me to the Ministry of Peace for a new pair!  I simply can’t process all these stable orders for Golden without my glasses.”  She leaned towards me and missed me leaning away.  “Do you know what that pink hag told me?  She said ‘Silver Spoon, if you can’t bake cupcakes, then you’ll have to clean the pans!’  Like, what does that even mean?”

        “Well there’s just so much… ah… work to do.”  I glanced over and saw a trio of ghouls devouring Scoodle while I chatted with the monster that was slowly irradiating us.  “And speaking of work, I really should get back to it.  Busy busy busy!” I said as I grimaced, fighting the urge to charge down the ghouls defiling the slain filly.

        “You work far too hard at that silly prison.  They should give you more time off.”  Her glowing eyes turned to the Crusaders and P-21.  “Is that what you’re doing now?  I didn’t think that you had to escort them yourselves.”  I opened and closed my mouth, at a loss, and simply gave a smile and an exaggerated shrug.  She sighed.  “We really should get together next week.  You know, sometimes I think something terrible is going to happen.  I really do.”

        Something terrible did happen.  And a small part of it was my fault.  “Well, take care of yourself, Silver Spoon.”  Then I looked at all the ghoul ponies waiting around us.  “I don’t suppose you could ask them to step aside?”

        “Oh sure!” she said brightly as she faced the ghouls.  “Like, get out of her way, losers, and find my glasses!”  Slowly the yellow dots began to disappear as the ghouls dug their way into the bone mounds.  “Well I’d better keep looking.  Otherwise, that hag is going to have me scrubbing pans again… or whatever.”

        I dared to look back at Scoodle; nothing remained but bloody bone and scattered flesh.  I tried to find an excuse to go and collect the remains.  In truth, with my PipBuck’s needle in the red, I almost wanted to stay a little longer, chatting with Silver Spoon till I was just as dead.  I couldn’t.  I had six others who might need my protection, flimsy as it was.

        We walked silently for several minutes before from behind us came the plaintive wail of “Tiara!  Tiara!  Where are you?”

*        *        *

        It was half an hour before we exited the boneyard.  It didn’t take long for the radiation I’d been soaking in to catch up with me and have me puking up my lunch.  I felt like crap.  I deserved to feel like crap.  My guts gurgled and every square inch of my body felt like it’d been beaten.  The Crusaders didn’t say a single word.  They didn’t look at me or each other, but I could almost hear their thoughts in the back of my mind saying over and over again ‘She killed Scoodle for a box of bullets.’

        Finally clear, I looked behind me, trying for some kind of smile… something… to make this not the utter disaster it was.  “Safe and…”  Only P-21 was behind me.  “Sound…”  I looked at the long dead grass and bare bushes along the road.  There was no sign of the Crusaders to be had.  “They left…”  How profoundly insightful I’d become since I’d fucked up.

        “Yeah.  A little bit ago,” he replied evenly as he looked along the road.  “I think there’s a house up there.  We can rest and take care of you.”

        “I don’t want to be taken care of,” I muttered softly.

        “I’m sorry, did you say something?”  P-21 walked in front of me, his sure blue eyes bearing down into mine.  “Sometimes we don’t get what we want, he said as he nudged me towards a single story house beside the road.  “Sometimes we don’t get to sit around and have pity parties for our mistakes.  Sometimes we just have to keep going because, otherwise, we might as well just die.”

        “That’s what…” I started to say.

        He hit me hard enough to knock me on my side.  I stared up into the sky and felt my guts churn and my pupils contract.  “I’m sorry.  Were you about to say you wanted to die?  Is that it?” he said as he glared down at me.  “If you were this weak, you should have just given yourself to Deus and been done with it.”

        “I killed Scoodle!” I yelled up at him.  It felt like a confession.

        “Yeah!  You did, you fucking idiot!” he screamed back down at me.  “Didn’t I tell you to listen to her?  Didn’t you say to me that I know what’s right when it comes to this sort of thing?  But she’s dead, Blackjack, and unless you wallowing in pity or dying will somehow magically bring her back to life then this is accomplishing nothing except indulging in your own selfish wishes!”

        I slowly opened my eyes, looking into his.  He hated me.  I hated me.  Yet no matter how much I wanted to be done, I had to admit that he was right.  Me dying right now wouldn’t bring back Scoodle.  It wouldn’t right some great cosmic wrong and fix anything.  It would just be another corpse in the wastelands.  “I’m so sorry,” I whispered softly.

        “Then prove it, Blackjack.  Live and don’t ever fuck up like that again.  Learn from this, because if you ever kill another pony through stupidity then I will fucking end you.”  He shoved his head under my shoulders and turned me over so I no longer stared into that terrible void above… only now I had an equally vast void within and I couldn’t look away from it.

        *        *        *

        When I had been a little filly, I’d been drilled on the various stages of radiation poisoning.  Nausea arrived first, followed rapidly by diarrhea, headache, muscle weakness and fatigue, bruising, mane loss, neurological disorders, and at the most extreme end, being cooked by the prolonged exposure.  That was the ‘flesh melting radiation’ I was so concerned about.  P-21 managed to get me into the derelict house after I’d shat myself but before I collapsed.  Lying on my side on a filthy mattress, I felt like I was rotting from the inside out.  That wasn’t completely inaccurate, as the next time my bowels moved it was to dump blood over my hind legs.  I drifted between guilt-ridden consciousness and blissful unconsciousness.

        The worst was when I was stuck between the two.  I saw Deus laughing at me as he sawed off my PipBuck with a chainsaw penis.  The Overmare reminded me that I was ultimately disposable.  The little orange pony figurine told me that she could only help so much; I’d have to get up and be strong on my own.  I felt eyeglasses melting on my face and covering my cheeks in cracked glass.  Scoodle’s severed head lay on the bed next to me and whispered softly over and over again, “Stable ponies don’t know nothin.  Don’t touch anything!”

        All the while, P-21 nursed me back to health.  He’d disappear for hours on end and I’d lie there wondering if he’d died or simply moved on.  I didn’t understand why he wasted his time with me, and yet he did.  He didn’t say a word of complaint, nor did he mention anything more about the events in the boneyard.

        When I awoke to lucidity, feeling like a clogged up toilet, I saw the spritebot hovering before my face.  Watcher cleared his throat.  “So.  Is this it?”

        I carefully raised my head.  The spritebot wasn’t transforming into some face eating nightmare.  “Watcher?”

        “Yeah.  That’s me.  What about you, Blackjack?  Is this it?  Is this the point where the Wasteland breaks you?”  The spritebot looked particularly solemn as it hovered before me.

        Carefully I pushed myself up and covered my face with my hooves.  “I fucked up, Watcher.”

        “You’re not the first.  And if I can be blunt, your fuck-up only killed one filly.  I’ve known ponies whose fuck-ups killed millions.  So on the grand scale of fuck-ups, I think you’re overrating yourself.”  Slowly I dropped my hooves from my face to look at the little machine as it went on.  “So I’m asking you: is this it?  Are you just a pony that wallows in self-pity and kicks herself for a mistake, or not?  Because if this is it, then I’ll leave you be.  I can’t help you.  You can’t help anypony.”

        It would have been easy to just fold right then.  But as I sat on the edge of the bed, damn me, I couldn’t help smiling as I looked at the machine.  I reeked of vomit, crap, blood, and despair but I still felt my lips curl mirthlessly as I looked at the device.  “Are you on that grand scale of fuck-ups too, Watcher?”

        There was a long pause, and I wondered if I’d offended him to the point that he would just wash his hooves of me.  “Yeah.  I am.”

        “Did your fuck-up kill someone who didn’t deserve it?”  There was silence and I knew he wouldn’t answer.  He didn’t have to.  I sat there for a minute longer, looking at my hooves.  “I was so proud when I saved those girls from those raiders.  Now…”  I closed my eyes and grit my teeth.  It would be so easy just to give up.  Fold the hand.  Cash in the chips.  Quitters might not go bust, but they’d also never make it big.  I opened my eyes as I looked right at the machine, wondering what Watcher’s face looked like right now.  Finally, I asked softly, “So how do I move on, Watcher?”

        “You do everything you can to make up for it, knowing that you’ll never succeed in getting rid of the guilt.  You devote yourself to spending every second trying to do better despite the fact that it will never be enough.  And you pray with every single good act you do that somehow when your life is over that your lifetime will come close to making up for the wrong you committed.”  Watcher spoke so clear and true that I couldn’t stop smiling and crying at the same time.

        “Well.  That sounds like a plan,” I whispered.  “So where do I start?”

*        *        *

        Turns out, starting involved me getting off that filthy bed and finding some Rad-Away before I either died outright or grew a second head.  While that might have doubled my smarts, it wasn’t something I was exactly looking forward to.  On the plus side, Watcher knew a possible source of the radiation-purging drug.  A sky carriage had crashed with a load of Ministry of Peace supplies that hadn’t been scavenged.  The reason was simple.

        “Those are some nasty looking reptiles,” I muttered as I looked down at the lake surrounded by dead trees and gangly weeds.  A small island on a cove was connected to the mainland by a rotten bridge.  I could barely make out the sight of the upside down sky carriage mixed in with the remains of a gazebo.  P-21 and I were crouched in the flattened remains of a small cottage a small ways above the gray waters of the small lake.  ‘Lake Macintosh’ appeared on my PipBuck map.

        I had no idea what the reptiles might be.  No doubt if I put a hunk of their remains in my bag something would pop up.  In his scavenging, P-21 had rounded up six rounds for the rifle and six shotgun shells.  It would have to do.

        “You’re being stupid again,” P-21 warned me.

        “Ending me stupid?”

        “No, just standard stupid.”

        “That means I’m improving,” I said, and even he smiled at it, shaking his head.  I looked out at the gazebo and crashed carriage.  The E.F.S. informed me that there were three, but, after the boneyard, I wasn’t going to take it for granted.  “I’m dying without that Rad-Away,” I said as I slumped against the mossy foundation stones.  “A few more days and I’ll go like Hoss did.  Say I’m wrong.”  He pressed his lips together as he scowled at me.

 

        “So let me sneak over there and get it,” he pressed.

        “No,” I replied firmly.  “I appreciate all the help you’ve given me, P-21.  I’m not going to let you risk your life for mine over this.”  He might be sneaky, but I had no idea if those mutated animals could sniff him out; I wasn’t about to let him take that chance.

        “Let me?  You’re dying of radiation poisoning, Blackjack.  How are you planning to stop me?” he asked as he turned towards the ruined gazebo.

        I just looked at him, then down at the lounging mutant alligators.  The rifle came up and without any hesitation I fired a shot right into a mutant gator.  It gave a bellow and rose out of the water, charging towards the two of us.  P-21 stared at me with a scathing look that would do any raider proud, eyelid twitching, before he turned and ran for cover.  “Sorry, P-21.  I’ve got to save my own life this time,” I said as I faced the enemy.

        One way or another, it was about to be resolved.  I triggered my S.A.T.S. and placed two rounds exactly in the forehead of my target.  The fourth round caught his eye, and the beast staggered.  The fifth missed.  The final round, three past what I’d hoped to use, dropped the beast in its tracks.  I discarded the rifle and backed away up the hill as rapidly as I could.  The radiation poisoning and fever were slowing me down, but it still kept the gators in front of me.

        Out came the shotgun as the two closed in.  The recharge on my S.A.T.S. slowed to a crawl as I unloaded shot after shot into the leading crocodile.  Three shots left.  Two.  One.  The buckshot of the final round scattered its brains across its back.

        Unfortunately, I was now out of ammo.  This would normally be the point where I would die and P-21 would take over and probably do the Wasteland a lot more good.  There was just one catch: I wasn’t done paying for a little teal pony.  As the gator lunged, my magic flipped the shotgun vertical and rammed it into the gator’s mouth.  It hissed and tried to claw at the pump action, the weapon bending under the ferocious strength of its jaws.

        From my saddlebags I floated an apple-shaped grenade and plunged it straight into the radigator’s maw.  My telekinesis plucked the stem from the tip as it disappeared down the gator’s throat.  Five… four… three… two… one… huh.  The shotgun snapped in two and immediately I backed away, trying to draw out my last grenade.

        The mutant gator exploded in a nice spray of faintly radioactive blood.  Given the massive dose I’d already taken, I quickly moved away before I simply keeled over dead.  I really didn’t want to win and then fall over.  Slowly I staggered my way down towards the rotten bridge and the gazebo.

        P-21 emerged at my side.  “Feeling better?”  His tone might have been snide, but there was some sincerity in his question.

        “A little bit,” I replied.  The wastelands were giving me a brutal education, but I would rise to the challenge.  I’d be stronger, and I’d try to never let my stupidity endanger another pony if I could.  “I know you wanted to help me, P-21.  I’m sorry that I couldn’t let you this time.”

        He rolled his eyes and gave a long sigh.  “I’m back in the stable again.”  I detected more than a little bitterness in that comment.

        I looked over at him in confusion as we walked over the bridge.  “Huh?”

        He rounded on me, teeth bared as he glared with undisguised anger.  “My whole life, I’ve had mares telling me what I can and can’t do.  I wasn’t even allowed the option of turning a mare down if she was on my breeding rotation.”  He gave a little snort.  “Did you know some males in 99 would cut or beat themselves just to get a break?  Just to do something we wanted instead of what we were instructed to do?”

        I honestly didn’t have a clue.  I could barely imagine.  “We all had to do things that we didn’t want to do in 99.  I didn’t want to be in security.”  That was how 99 went.  You did what you were told, filled your role, and never thought outside it.

        “You didn’t want to be anything, Blackjack.  If there was a ‘sit on my tail and play cards all day’ job you’d have been fine, but otherwise you wouldn’t have been happy doing anything,” he said as we approached the wrecked gazebo.  The rusty sky wagon still had bright yellow paint and a pink butterfly visible.  Inside were a number of rotten and rusty boxes, but there were at least three that appeared intact.  “Tell me you had some pining need to be an atmospheric maintenance mare like Rivets.  Did you curse your rotten luck that you missed out on protein recycling duty or an exciting future in waste management?”

        “Well…” I stammered.

        He stood there, staring at me with his lips pressed together.

        “Can we hold this conversation until after I’m not irradiated?” I asked with a feeble smile.

        “No.  No, I don’t think so.  I think I want to have this conversation now,” he said in his firm and irritated voice.  I could see that now the dam had been cracked, and nothing was going to stop this deluge.  “So what is it, Blackjack?  If you had a choice to not be in security, what would you do?  Huh?”  He stomped to the first box, clenched his teeth on the bobby pin, and started on the lock.

        And to be honest, I didn’t know what to answer.  I’d always thought that I was stuck with security, which meant I resented it.  To be honest though, it hadn’t been a bad job.  Taking males out of the population was about the worst it got.  There was dealing with the Overmare more closely, but there were plenty of ponies that worked a lot harder than I had whose jobs were far more critical to the survival of the stable.

        “I guess you’re right.  I guess security wasn’t that bad for me,” I admitted.  I was also too tired and feverish to do more than sit on my butt as he worked.  “What about you, P-21?  Tell me what you wanted to do.”  He kept his glare on the lock.  I sighed.  “If you want, that is.”

        He glanced at me and then opened the lock.  Inside were two healing potions and some Rad-X.  ‘Don’t let radiation get you down’, the label read.  “I wanted to be a teacher,” he finally said softly.

        “A teacher?” I winced at the skepticism in my voice.  I just couldn’t imagine a male doing… that.  

        “Yes, a teacher.”  He examined one rusty lock on the second, jammed in the screwdriver, and gave it a hard twist.  With a pop, it opened right up.  “Before I was P-1 I tried to learn all I could about arcane sciences.  That was how I knew Duct Tape so well; I studied off her as she went through training.  I thought that if I knew enough that maybe the Overmare would let me teach.  I would have been fine doing both jobs.”  He opened up the crate and took out two empty syringes and two boxes of some kind of canned meat.  “Know what the Overmare said?  She said she’d let me teach sex education in my breeding rotation.”

        I winced.  That sounded just like her.  I lay down, feeling lightheaded.  My eyes stared at the third container as he attacked the lock with bobby pin and screwdriver.  “Still… a teacher,” I said as I closed my eyes, feeling exhausted.  “I bet you would have been good at it.  I saw how you were with the Crusaders.”

        He glanced at me and then carefully adjusted the lockpick.  There was a quiet scraping noise as he worked whatever magic he did, then a soft click as the top opened.

        Inside were three clear plastic pouches filled with amber fluid.  ‘RadAway, your source of radiation relief’, it proclaimed.  “Well, if it’s any consolation, I think you were one of the best mares in security.  Nopony else would have tried to stop Daisy and Marmalade from beating the snot out of a male.  And you were the one who came up with the idea to lead Deus out of the stable.”

        “You have no idea how depressing that statement is,” I said.  He hoofed me the first pouch and, after fiddling with the straw for a moment, I slurped it down.  Ooh, orangey!  On my PipBuck, the rad meter dropped a bit closer towards yellow.  By the time all three doses were inside me, the needle hovered around the middle of the yellow band.  I still felt crummy, but a little better than I had before.  With luck, I wouldn’t lose my mane or turn into one of those ghoul things.

        “I was just being stupid,” I muttered, keeping my eyes down.  “I have a habit of doing that.”

        “You have a habit of being reckless, Blackjack.  What you did was brave, even with that glowing ghoul.  I never would have thought to talk to it or do hoof bumps,” he said calmly as he proceeded to dig through the remains of the cart as the drug did its work.  Sadly, there were no bullets to be found on a Ministry of Peace sky carriage.  He did, however, find a glowing marble in the wreckage of the gazebo.  “What’s this?”

        I held out my hoof and looked at it.  Well, it wasn’t radioactive, didn’t go bang, and didn’t seem edible.  I dropped it in my bag and frowned as ‘Lake Macintosh Memory Orb’ appeared in my inventory.  How the heck did my PipBuck know what it was when I didn’t?  “No clue.  I’ll worry about it later.”  Standing, I had to admit I felt stronger… not 100% yet, but better.  “So.  Does this mean next time I see Watcher I can tell him we’re friends?”  I was only half serious, but the other half was curious about his thoughts.

        “No,” he replied firmly, and then gave me a grudging smile, “but we’re closer to it than we were.”

        “Well.  That means I’m improving.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

        Footnote: Level Up.

        Skill Note: Guns (50)

        New Perk: Run and gun - Better accuracy with ranged weapons while moving.

Quest Perk: Minor Mutation: Rad Sight -  When under the effects of minor radiation poisoning, gain +1 Perception in low light conditions.  -15 to sneak, speech when not wearing sunglasses, authority glasses, or mirrored sunglasses.


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 4: Innocence

               “Another donut!  Extra sprinkles!”

                Stable Overmare’s log 11-#231: There is a threat to my stable and my ponies.  A threat within that must be dealt with.  Numerous problems plague the stable, and I am certain of the cause: her name is Rivets.  When I assumed the Overmare position, as per my right, she resisted me from the very beginning.  Patronizing.  Insulting.  Countermanding and fighting me at every turn.  I am the Overmare!  Stable-Tec created my position, gave ME authority, but she believes the stable is hers.  Worse, she has a significant following among the security ponies.  The head of security herself dared countermand my arrest order!  Oh, she claimed there was no law, but I am the law!  Something will have to be done about the nag.  I won’t let her do it to me again.

               “Ugh,” I muttered as we walked through the constant drizzle.  I’d hoped it would have stopped by now, but it seemed like this rain stuff was going to be going on for a while.  “You know, I knew that the Overmare was a neurotic little trotter, but I never realized she thought of herself as the princesses reborn.”

               “Nopony knew the Overmare,” P-21 muttered.  He’d been in a snit all morning, grumbling to himself and giving me sullen looks.  Really, was shooting a bunch of radigators so bad?  He scowled at every lump of dead grass beside the road.  What was he worried about?  My E.F.S. would pick up any threats.

               Except buried ghouls… I started looking a little more closely at those lumps, too.  When they continued to not be zombie ponies in hiding, boredom crept back and I hit play for the next audio log.  Maybe it’d give me a hint.  At least they’d help pass the time.

               Stable Overmare’s log 11-#233: If help cannot be found within the stable, then it must be found without.  To do that, I’ll need to make contact with the outside, and I think I’ve found a pony to help me with that.  Duct Tape from the night shift.  She’s quiet, well trained, and obedient.  Above all, she’s lonely and naïve.  I just need to find the correct leverage to use against her.  Perhaps her foal?  Or maybe I won’t even need that; I had her move some stable broadcast equipment to Maintenance One, and she did so without question or speculation.  Best of all, it infuriated Rivets.

               Through her foal?  What the hell, would she actually hold a filly hostage to get Duct Tape to cooperate?

               I snorted softly.  “I don’t get it.  I mean, she always seemed to have it good.  The best food and fanciest clothes... why the hell did she turn so crazy psycho like that?”  All my memories of the Overmare were of her trotting around next to her mom like a little white shadow dressed all in frou-frou girly dresses and fancy makeup.  She was the only filly who got to do that.

P-21 looked at me and then gave a disinterested shrug.  “Don’t ask me.  There’s nothing in 99 I want to remember.”

The next few recordings were little more than rants against… well… just about everypony.  Rivets featured extensively, but my mom was referred to in unflattering terms more than once.  Surprisingly, I heard myself mentioned, too.  ‘Put on C shift to keep an eye on me for her mother.’  I could have told her that Mom put me on C shift because that was when I’d be least likely to embarrass her.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#238: Duct Tape has successfully unsealed the stable.  I’ve placated her by giving her unrestricted access to P-20.  I will miss my trick pony.  He always knew exactly how to relax me.

My companion froze in his tracks.  I glanced over, but his blue eyes stared straight ahead like he was in shock or something.

I need somepony to go out and find assistance, but who?  Her absence would be noticed immediately when she failed to report to her duty station.  Oh, of course.  A male.  He wouldn’t have to do anything hard, merely find somepony and help them make contact.  I’ve set up the radio for communications.  Oh, I can’t wait to see the look on Rivets’s stupid face when I retake my stable!

He didn’t move a muscle, and I cleared my throat.  “Um… so… since you were in the stable, I’m guessing she didn’t send you?”  He blinked, then scowled at my PipBuck.  “Hey, you’re the one that copied the files!” I said defensively.  He huffed, glowering at the city barely visible far down the road.  I reached out a hoof to nudge his flank.  “P-21?  Are you okay?”

He actually jumped away from me, shaking.  His leg almost collapsed under him, making him yelp in pain, but he waved me off.  “Just!  Just listen to your stupid recordings and leave me out of it, Blackjack.  I don’t want to remember her or that place.  Leave me out of it.”  He dug out a syringe of Med-X and injected it in his leg with a sigh.  That always improved his mood.

I almost stopped… but fuck it.  He was going to be in a bad mood either way.  Why’d I have to leave Stable 99 with the pony carrying a whole stable’s worth of issues?  Why not U-14?  Least then I’d be in the Wasteland with some fine flank.  Sighing at the injustices in my life, I listened to the next few entries.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#240: Success!  U-21 made contact with Stable-Tec almost immediately.  He has put me in touch with Stable-Tec’s director Sanguine… a male, apparently.  He verified his position by accurately identifying several Stable-Tec passwords from when the stable was first sealed.  He was quite sympathetic to my needs and assured me that, once the stable was back in my hooves, Stable-Tec had no interest in interfering.  His only price for assistance was a file in my databases.  I suspect deception, but I have no alternatives.  I will put Duct Tape on extracting this file.

I wondered why the Overmare made these recordings in the first place.  Each of them was damning… but maybe she’d been so power-mad that she didn’t care.  The next ten were all boring rants about just how the Overmare planned to punish us for our disobedience.  Even I got mentioned once for failing to lower my eyes respectfully.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#250: Duct Tape’s progress has been infuriatingly slow.  I’ve filled her head with all kinds of ideas about her life outside the stable, as if she’d ever have such a thing.  What would be the point of such a life?  Who would do her duties here?  Still, the foal is besotted with ideas that may be distracting her from progress.  Perhaps I should allow her a step outside to refocus her efforts.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#251: What a difference five minutes can make to a pony’s focus.  I truly believe Duct Tape will extract this EC-1101 for Sanguine now.  She’s determined to get her reward: a life on the surface with my trick pony.  Good.  Sanguine is becoming impatient about the delays.  I don’t want Stable-Tec to do something premature…  The less shock to my stable, the better.  I’ve already approached Daisy and the other C shift security ponies and made sure that they’ll aid me… except Blackjack, of course.  Fortunately, Gin Rummy’s daughter remains as oblivious as ever to the stable around her.

I snorted.  “I am not oblivious!”  Then I tripped on a chunk of asphalt and went sprawling on my face.  Okay, maybe a little oblivious.  I glanced at P-21 again, but he was doing his best to ignore me now.  I remembered Duct Tape being so perky and focused.  I’d never have guessed the reason why she was so glad to spend hours in Maintenance One.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#259: Finally… success.  Everything is ready.  Duct Tape has completely extracted the files from the Stable-Tec system into one terminal.  She nattered on for hours about the size, complexity, and difficulty of extracting the files.  I’ve notified Sanguine that everything is ready.  He’s sending a representative, Deus, along with his own security ponies.  So nice to see another Over… stallion… extending me proper courtesy.

As I recalled, Deus’s courtesy involved a few pints of semen.  Likely not what she had expected.  After listening to this, though, my sympathies were pretty played out.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#260: The traitor!  The little traitor!  I select her, let her go outside, and she dares insist that I give her her reward?  How dare she?  How DARE she!  She’s placed some sort of encryption on EC-1101 and refuses to lift it.  Even when I threatened to throw her and her little filly into the recycler!  Silence may stay her for now, but Deus is on his way!  He’ll be arriving any day now!  What to do?

“Sounds like Duct Tape took your little ‘don’t trust her’ speech to heart,” I said with a chuckle.

“Yep…” P-21 said mirthlessly as the next recording played.

Stable Overmare’s log 11-#261: Duct Tape has been disposed of.  The sabotaged terminal worked far better than I anticipated.  I had to finish her off with my own hooves, but I doubt anypony will check the body.  She’ll be in the recycler by morning.  I’ve now tasked the entire data management team of the stable with breaking the encryption.  I have no time to waste.  Deus is outside the stable!

P-21 sighed softly.  “And my advice cost her her life.”

I watched him, his odd mask-like expression.  What was he thinking?  “Did you... like her?”

He glanced at me with a cool look.  “She liked me.  That was all that mattered.”

“That’s not what I meant.  I mean...”  Goddesses, could I slog through an awkward conversation or what?

He looked at me and sighed.  “She helped me.  That’s something only one other mare’s done.  So I’m thankful for that and sorry she died, but no.  I didn’t like her.  Not like you’re asking.”

The next few recordings became more and more hysterical.  Screaming, crying, and desperate rants.  Half of them involved the Overmare begging somepony not to hurt her.  The other half about how killing ‘her’ was the only thing she could do.  Finally, the last log.

My log… it’s time.  Sanguine can worry about the encryption himself.  Blackjack is meeting with Rivets as I record this; I have no doubt that the coup is imminent.  Deus has several dozen ponies ready, and now I must take back what is mine.  If I don’t act now, then I’m certain that tomorrow I’ll not have a stable.  I will not be the final Overmare of Stable 99.  This is my stable.  And nopony shall ever hurt me here again.  Not her.  Not anypony.

“Hurt her?  Who hurt the Overmare?  She’s the Overmare!  No pony could ever touch her!”  I sighed and shook my head.  P-21 walked pensively beside me, hanging his head a little.  “You’re blaming yourself for Duct Tape?”

He looked at me sharply, then sighed.  “If I hadn’t prompted her to act, I wonder if she might have survived the attack.”

“From Deus and the others’ actions, I don’t think any of us were supposed to survive.”  I sighed as I closed the Overmare’s logs.  I’d hoped that they’d… I dunno.  Give me some kind of hint about what I was supposed to do next.  “Well, that sure was worthless.”

               “Worthless?”  P-21 sounded surprised.  “That told us a good deal.”

               Huh?  “Well, it just confirmed to me that the Overmare was crazy.  What did all that tell you?”

               P-21 sighed.  “First, that this ‘Sanguine’ was probably watching the stable before U-21 left it.  You know how dangerous this place is.  A lone stable unicorn wouldn’t have lasted long.  Second, Sanguine has some links to Stable-Tec; the Overmare confirmed that with his codes.  Third, he clearly had a grasp of the Overmare’s psychology.  I suspect we’re looking for somepony who’s spent time in a stable themselves.  Fourth, he’s got established contacts with Reapers and raiders.  Deus might have been brutal, but he also showed restraint rather than charging through and killing everything.”

               “So we find and kill Sanguine and we win?  Sweet.  I love a simple plan,” I said with a smile, hoping to get one in return.  Even a little one?

               He gave me a flat look.  Was he born with that face?

               “Okay.  So, probably not simple.  What about Deus?  What if we find him?”

               “Did you forget those guns he’s carrying?  Not to mention that he might have another small army of raiders and Reapers with him.  I’m happy never seeing him again,” P-21 said firmly.  “I think our best bet is to try and find out what the heck EC-1101 is.  If we learn that, it might tell us who Sanguine is.”

               “Well, you’re better at the thinking thing,” I admitted.  There was one other goal on my list, but I really didn’t want to talk about it just yet.  If I could, I’d make it a surprise.  “For the moment, we need guns, bullets, and caps.”

        “Yeah, but it’s not like we’re just going to happen across some place we can just…”  He trailed off as he saw my grin.  His blue ears drooped.  “Red bars?”

        “That way,” I said, pointing off the side of the road with my security baton.  I gave the baton a swing with my magic.  The metal was definitely dinged up, but still serviceable.  I definitely would have preferred a firearm of some sort, but this would do.

        He sighed and shook his head as he followed me.  “Seeking out death and danger for fun and profit.  What a life.”

        “It’s a life,” I replied, “and that’s what you wanted, as I recall.”  That drew a small smile.  Keeping a tight grip on the end of the baton, I prowled through the woods and underbrush.  “But just in case this is something nasty, be ready to run!”

        “Again with the running plan.  Always a running plan.  Never a sneaking and avoiding a fight plan,” P-21 whispered as he limped along behind me.

        Then I heard the sound of something moving through the brush.  Not a bloatsprite buzz or a radhog snuffling or a ghoul’s scream.  It was… clicking with strange beeps.  Step by step I advanced through the dead trees.

        Suddenly a metallic equine head emerged into a gap between the trees.  Then it swiveled and looked at both of us.  Its eyes flared like a pair of angry rubies, and from a port atop its head flashed a bright red beam that left a smoking black line on the leafless trees around us.  I remembered Scoodle mentioning roboponies.  Well now I had a real killer robot in front of me.

        “Keep back,” I said quietly, having no clue how well it could hear us or understand us.  Then I hustled to the side, trying to move close enough to bring my baton to bear while avoiding the flashing lines of fire.  The rad sickness wasn’t helping, but the machine was slow and its magical energy beam had a few secondsrecharge time between shots.

        The baton made a resounding clang of metal on metal as I ran around it as quickly as I could.  Despite being made out of metal I could definitely hear the sounds of more brittle interior parts crackling with each strike.  Finally my telekinetic backswing crushed the firing port over its head.  Something inside whined, and then there was a small internal explosion.  It popped and crackled, and then slowly fell over as acrid smoke rose.

        “Huh… I think I prefer raiders.  They at least carry loot,” I said sourly as I looked at the plate on its chest that read ‘Robronco’.

        “Well, there might be something worthwhile,” P-21 said as he drew his screwdriver and carefully removed a smoking plate.  He carefully withdrew several components: small containers of crushed crystals that were apparently ammo of some sort, something called a ‘spark battery’, and quite a bit of ‘scrap electronics’.  Still, it was better than a poke in the eye.

        Argh, why’d I have to think that?  My eyes were itching like mad!

        While he finished, I continued forward towards more red dots.  The dead wood ended abruptly at a crumbling concrete wall.  At least four more red bars crawled around in my E.F.S.  I could hear their dull metallic footsteps on cracked concrete.  Slowly I made my way around the wall till I spotted a rusty gate hanging open.  Keeping the E.F.S. on the robot I heard on the far side of the wall, I waited till it was passing before stepping into sight.  Its eyes flashed red as its head rotated to face me.

        I hit S.A.T.S. at once and, as before, unleashed three blows on the machine’s head.  Fast as I was as I made the attack, the beam proved faster and scorched a line across my neck.  The third blow snapped something vital, and the entire head peeled off.  One down, three to go.  I carefully peeked around the gate.  The three remaining robot ponies were walking much closer together.  I swallowed, rubbing the burn along the side of my neck.  I’d just gotten my head together.  I didn’t want to lose it entirely.

        I pulled out the last grenade and swallowed.  I could see their bars on the E.F.S., and soon I heard the slow plodding steps.  I pulled the stem and telekinetically dropped it on the far side of the wall.  There was a muffled ‘crump’ and two of the hostile marks disappeared.  Stepping around the gate in the wall, I wasted no time finishing the last one off.

        As P-21 emerged from the yellow underbrush, he looked at the wreckage.  “These have been outside for a while,” he commented as he nudged the rusted plate with his hoof.  All the ponies had dented plates from bullet impacts.  “I guess they weren’t made to resist being attacked by some pony with a heavy metal stick.”

        “Design oversight,” I agreed as I looked at the large concrete building on the far side of the wall.  Two stories and apparently reinforced.  Then I noticed the bodies at the door.  Not decades or centuries old, these were fresh, pungent, and swollen.  I approached the two corpses while fighting the urge to retch, but even that was suppressed at the sight of the wings sprouting from their sides.  “Pegasi…” I murmured, having seen them only in books.

        They wore simple utility harnesses that seemed pretty pathetic armor.  Carefully I searched their bodies, and was rewarded with some tools and a strange boxy object shaped like a pistol.  They even had some bottle caps on them and some strange flimsy paper money I’d never seen before.  There were also more of those powdered magic gem cartridges.

        “Any idea what this is?” I asked, pointing the boxy pistol at the wall.  My telekinesis pressed a small button on the handle.  With a sharp pop of expanding air, a red bolt of energy shot out and left a singe on the concrete wall.  A glance at my PipBuck confirmed: magic beam pistol.  I also noted our location: Weather Monitoring Station 4.

        “A beam pistol or an overpowered flashlight,” he said as he checked it with a soft sigh.  It’s been through the wringer too.  Starting to rust.”  He handed it back to me.  “Well, you wanted a gun.”

        “A gun comes with some recoil, sights, magazines, and rounds.  This is just weird,” I said as I levitated it in front of me.  “How am I supposed to aim it?”  I sniffed the tip, wrinkling my nose at the tang of ozone instead of the stink of cordite.  “It doesn’t even smell like a gun.”

        “Isn’t there a firearms rule about not putting the barrel up your nose?” P-21 said as he examined the tools, his muzzle breaking out in a smile.

        “It doesn’t have a barrel!” I countered, but l took his point to heart.  “Well, better than nothing.  Ready to go in?” I asked, nodding to the doors.

        He looked at the dead pegasi in their black utility barding.  “I’m pretty sure these two died trying to get out.”

        “Well since they didn’t have anything expensive on them, we can assume that anything valuable is still inside.”

        “As well as whatever they were running from,” he added.  When he saw my grin he gave a soft groan.  “Try to be careful, Blackjack.”

        “Sure.  Be back in five minutes,” I replied, grabbed the door handle with my magic, and pulled.  It barely squeaked open enough for me to squeeze through, and when the door slammed shut I found myself enveloped in pitch blac-- no, not pitch black.  There was some light, despite there being no windows.  Everything was outlined in a strange dim amber glow.  Emergency lighting?  Maybe the pegasi had done something?  Thin, delicate bones crunched underhoof, making me wince at their loud snaps.

        I didn’t take much time to explore the reasons as red bars began to move ahead of me.  The robotic ponies clanked in my direction with more haste than I expected.  Nothing for it, I’d have to use the strange energy weapon before they turned the hall into a shooting gallery.  I ran towards the first as it stepped into the hallway, hoping to close the distance as much as possible before jumping into S.A.T.S.  Unlike the robots outside, these hadn’t been softened up by time and previous attacks.

        I was amazed to get four shots programmed with the S.A.T.S., and, while the blasts were definitely not as tightly placed as with a normal gun, my luck didn’t seem to care what weapon I shot.  A round went through the beam gun atop the robot and made the machine’s head explode in a flash of sparks.  As I came out of the accelerated state, another robot walked up behind the remains of the first one.  I kept moving, not letting its head lock on as its weapon flashed back and forth across the hall.  Blast after blast of my gun’s crimson beam melted small glowing holes in the robot’s chest.  Finally, it too popped and went still, smoking with an acrid reek.

        A third was clanking closer from a nearby room.  The little dial on the back of the pistol was hovering on E.  I backed away, using my telekinesis to try and figure out how to reload the damned thing!  Finally I must have pressed something right as the rear of the boxy weapon opened and ejected a smoking cartridge.  I levitated out a fresh cartridge of glittering crystals, slammed it into the space, and fumbled to get it closed up and zapping again.

        I’d been still for too long.  The robot’s red searing beam struck me in the chest, scorching my barding and reminding me to move my ass!  I zigzagged, my hooves slipping and sliding on bones scattered across the hall, but I succeeded in getting closer and jumped into S.A.T.S. a second time.  Four shots transformed the robot into a smoldering ugly statue.  Wincing, I took a healing potion to alleviate the burn on my chest.  Damn thing hurt.  I carefully watched the remaining red tags, but their wanderings were slow and predictable.  Not coming to attack, I supposed.

        There were more pegasus corpses in the hallway; I found a second energy pistol and more of the magic powder cartridges.  I carefully made my way through the ruins of the bottom floor, the magical beam box pointed ahead of me at all times.  I found a safe, two ammo boxes, and a locked medical box that I made sure to remember for P-21.  I also lucked into a cafeteria and found some delicious Big Mac n Cheese and a working vending machine.  Sitting at a desk, I had myself a snack and pocketed the rest.  Soon as we ran out of recycled wafers, my cohort would be getting hungry.

        Why are there so many bones in here?  We’d come across so many remains that it was hard for me to think of them as ponies.  With the exception of Hoss, Granny Smith, and Scoodle, the remains of the dead were so numerous and so prevalent that I just couldn’t feel for them as I should.  Yet even I felt something off with this concrete building.  There were enough bones for a hundred ponies, and lots of them were quite small.

        As I reached the stairs at the end of the hall I heard the scrape of P-21 entering.  No doubt he’d start on the robots in the hall.  Trying to be stealthy, I climbed up the stairs and round the corner at the top.  A robot pony immediately turned and started blasting away with its beam of light.  I leaped to the side, held down the trigger, and washed my beam over its head and chest till it popped and collapsed.

Another dead pegasus lay nearby.  I pocketed his weapon cartridges, a gun that looked better as a blunt weight, and another strange apple grenade with a bright blue band around the middle.  The last two red bars were close together, and as I watched them separate I saw a tiny yellow line almost directly between them.  What the heck did that mean?

        Slowly, I advanced down the hall with the energy weapon floating before me.  I couldn’t hear anything but an odd humming noise, like a vent fan.  Reaching the door at the end of the hall, I bit the handle of the pistol, gently gripped the doorhandle with my magic, and slowly turned it, wincing at the grinding noise.  I heard the whirr of a robot’s magic weapon charging on the far side.  I didn’t know where the yellow non-hostile was in the room, and I’d be damned if I tossed a grenade around a non-hostile.

        “Fuck it,” I muttered and ducked down, kicking the door open.  Instantly a fusillade of crimson beams swung back and forth across the hallway as I backpedaled and ducked as fast as I could to the next doorway.  Two robots stood shoulder to shoulder as they filled the hall with sweeping flickers of death.  I fired wildly back at them, hitting but not doing anything critical.  By the time I reached the open doorway behind me, I had angry red burns all across my chest and forelegs.  I hissed in pain as I took a healing potion and waited in the small closet.

        Clicking and clanking, the robot ponies approached towards the doorway.  My sole saving grace was that this door was too narrow for them to pass through in unison.  When the first came into view, my magic beam weapon was at point blank range.  S.A.T.S. assisted in four energy shots decapitating the machine.  As it fell, the last came into view.  I screamed as I moved back and forth as much as the closet allowed and held the trigger down with my magic.  It didn’t help much as more lines burned my limbs and shoulders.

        The red bolts of energy chewed through the metal plating of the Robronco sentry, and a white glow spread along its frame.  It collapsed into a pile of warm ashes and smoldering metal.  Letting out a sigh, I collapsed onto my haunches, looking at the energy pistol with a new appreciation.  “Well, that’s new.”

        I holstered the energy pistol and trotted into the room the robot ponies were guarding.  There were a few more ash piles lying about the interior of the room; I guessed they had to have been either more pegasi or bots.  In the room were a half dozen little bays large enough to hold the sentries, so I doubted they were the latter.  One wall was dominated by a massive terminal that had clearly seen better days, while a corner held shelves with an automatic pistol and two ammo boxes.  I couldn’t help but smile as I lifted the far more familiar weapon and checked the slide.  Fair condition.

        Then I looked at my PipBuck and at the non-hostile reading.  It pointed right at the terminal.  “What the heck?” I muttered, looking it over with the strange amber glow that filled my vision.  That’s when I noticed the grate the terminal sat on.  Slowly I looked down through the grate at a crawlspace just barely large enough for a pony to fit.  “Hey?  Hello?”

        “Are you okay, Blackjack?” P-21 shouted from the hall behind me.

        I walked along the grate to the corner of the room where a little hatch lay open.  “I think somepony’s in here,” I said as I carefully lowered my head and peeked into the space.

        My amber gaze saw the many cables of the terminal, but hiding behind them was a small pony shape.  She peeked out around the corner at me, and I gave her my most comforting smile.  “Hey.  There you are.”

        Her eyes widened in terror and she moved her head completely out from behind the cable.  My smile vanished as I looked at the boxy business end of a magic beam pistol.  The yellow mark turned red as she screamed around the clenched handle and my world became filled with red light.

*        *        *

        “She shot me,” I groaned, my face sporting an ugly black burn that ran from jaw to ear.  It looked like my luck was enough to preserve my eye; was not getting shot in the first place too much to ask?  I looked at the pegasus, scowling.  “You shot me!  In my face!”  I pointed at the burn, making her wince.  My already messed up vision was even more out of whack as I waited for the healing potion to take away some of the pain and injury.  “What is it with people shooting me when my guard is down, huh?  That’s twice in two days.”

        “Blackjack,” P-21 said softly.  “She was alone, starving, dehydrated… and to be honest I probably would have done the same.”

        “Is this more of that ‘I can’t trust myself with guns around you?’” I asked as I sipped the Sparkle-Cola.  Given how much radiation I’d sucked up recently, the trace amounts didn’t worry me.

        “There’s a bathroom down the hall.  Go look in the mirror,” he said as he took out my last bottle of purified water and rolled it to the pegasus curled up in the corner of the room next to the hatch.  I had no clue how P-21 got her to surrender her weapon, but she did.  It was all she’d done since P-21 had patched me up.

        I walked down the dimly lit hallway and into the bathroom.  Most of the mirror had been broken out, but there was enough left for me to see… what the fuck?

        Since when did my eyes fucking glow?  Now that I was paying attention to the amber light, it wasn’t the result of light slipping through boarded over windows or emergency lighting.  The light came from my eye sockets as if I had a little PipBuck lamp glowing in the back of each.  “Well… fuck…” I said lamely as I finished the bottle of lukewarm soda.  After everything that had happened in the last three days, I’d finally reached the point of numb acceptance.  My eyes were glowing.  What could I do about it?

        I returned to the terminal room, looking at the pegasus in the corner.  “Given that my eyes are glowing, I’d say shooting me was no harm, no foul.  This time,” I said as I looked at her while she sipped the water slowly.  She looked pretty ragged.  Her black coveralls were torn and stained with waste.  She didn’t look like a wastelander.  In fact, she looked more rattled than the Crusaders.  “I’m Blackjack.  He’s P-21.”  She didn’t say anything as she stared at me with wary, bloodshot eyes.  I glanced at P-21 as he struggled with the locks on the cases he’d found downstairs before looking back at her.

        She didn’t say a word.  Even with my PipBuck lamp lit, my eyes must’ve still been glowing.  “Look.  I’m not going to hurt you.  If you want to go, then go.”  I stood and carefully stepped aside.  The silver-gray pegasus slowly started to crawl for the exit as I walked to P-21 on the far side of the room.  I waved my hoof as if coaxing her to go if she really wanted to.  I didn’t envy her odds alone but…

        She disappeared down the hall.  I let out my held breath.  Well, good luck, I silently wished.  P-21 glanced up at me and shook his head.  “What?  Do you think I should have shot her or something?”

        “You spared that raider and got shot in the back,” he said softly.

        “Yeah, and I tried to help her and got shot in the face.”  In my fucking face!  “Still not going to tie her up and keep her as a prisoner.  She wants to go, then she should go.”  I rubbed the burn, feeling the magic healing the damage quickly.  I tallied up how much I owed him just on healing potions he’d found stashed away or locked up.  I looked at the massive terminal.  “So… any clue what that thing is for?”

        “No idea,” he said as I started on my last Sparkle-Cola.  Darn things were addictive!  Enjoying the warm carroty taste, I glanced back down the hall.  Our pegasus hadn’t run far.  I guessed she had probably encountered those pegasi in the hallway.  “It’s on a security lockout.”  He glanced at the piles of ash and the robot recharge bay.  “I guess they failed to enter the right password.  That activated the sentries.”

        And that meant there was no chance to hack the terminal without ending the lock-out.  “Great…” I muttered as I spotted another pegasus skeleton in the corner…  It wasn’t the species, though, that made me curious: it was the sight of the weathered recording cartridge under the bones.  Carefully, I levitated it and connected it to my PipBuck.  “Maybe somepony happened to mention a security override,” I said as I started the playback.

        The recording was clearly old, but I heard a dull chuckle.  “Yeah dude.  Rainbow may be hot but, like, you got no chance man.  Dude, isn’t she like the spokespony for mare riders?  Heh… yeah I hear that.  So you check out my score on the last basketball match with monitor one?  Shyeah, we kicked tail thanks to yours truly.  Hey, what happened…?”  Suddenly I could hear a noise with a deep reverberation and a sucking sound that transformed into a roar.  

The recording crackled and snapped with static and buzzing voices.  Suddenly a male spoke out in a tense, thick voice, “… this is crazy.  The Hoof is fucking gone, man!  It’s fucking gone!  There’s green… fire shit… like… everywhere!  Nopony knows what’s going on.  Fuck man!  Game over!”  The recording broke off in a harsh crackle that made me wince.  After some more static, the buck’s voice returned.

        “I got a whole bunch of kids from the Fluttershy clinic south of here!  We need ponies to fly them out!  Get them to the Shadowbolt Tower?  Thunderhead?  Somewhere!  Come on you fuckers, I know you can hear us.  I got a transmitter and power!  Fuck!  Answer me you fuckers!” he screamed into the recorder, his voice breaking into a peal of static.  When it returned he was coughing.  “Fuck.  It’s so quiet outside.  I think the fucking radiation’s getting in somehow.  If anypony can hear this, this is Brolly in Hoofington Weather Monitoring 4.  I contacted Thunderhead, but they haven’t sent shit to help.  They told me to come home.  There are kids here who need to be evacuated.  Can anypony hear me?  This is Brolly in Weather Four!”  There was a long pause and then he screamed once again, “Answer you fuckers!”

        I stared at the PipBuck, feeling dread prickle up and down my spine.  The static crackled for the longest time and when it returned, his voice was a raspy whisper.  “Kids aren’t doing so good.  I’m not doing so good.  Fuck.  Couldn’t get to Thunderhead now if I wanted.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  I contacted Jack Knife at Weather One and Bluebells at Weather Three hours ago.  They were told to abandon too.  Think Jack left, I dunno.  Nopony’s answering anymore.  Somepony help us.  Anypony.”  The recording gave one last crackle and I heard him whisper, “Fuck… they’re fucking kids… fuck…”

        For the longest time I thought that was it.  Then I heard a grating rasp that rose and fell.  It wasn’t static.  “Fuckers… fuckers abandoned us… told me… told me to stop transmitting… switched channels on me… fuckers… didn’t give a shit for the kids.”  There was a spate of coughing.  “Is that blood?  Shit… it is, isn’t it?  Fuck… Dash was right… I thought… shit…  Fucking right… fuck…”  With that, the recording continued playing silently for several minutes before I finally stopped it.

        Damn it!  I’d been fine when the bones were just bones.  I didn’t want to think of dozens of foals dying slowly of radiation poisoning while someone, somewhere, casually let them die.  “How could they?”

        P-21 stared at his hooves with his inscrutable expression.  “Maybe... maybe things were so chaotic…”

        “They told him to stop transmitting,” I said as I stood.  “They told him to shut up and die along with dozens of young ponies!  They were organized enough for that!”  I sighed, rubbing my stinging, itching, mutated eyes and feeling the tears start.  “Fuck.  I’m going to have to dig another grave.”

        I spotted her hiding in the doorway, sitting down on the floor looking at her hooves.  “There was nothing we could do,” she said in a soft, buzzing drawl.  “After the bombs went off… every pegasus that could get home was recalled.  We had to save as much as we could.”

        I felt my temper spike, but P-21 limped in front of me and shook his head slightly.  Swallowing what I’d been about to say was like vomiting in reverse, and just as unpleasant.  He took a seat, stretching out his injured leg with a sigh.  “Come on in here.  We’re not going to hurt you.”  I forced myself to relax as well.

        “Yeah,” I said as I kept the pistols away.  When she stepped back in I marveled at how compact and delicate she appeared.  Her coat was a soft gray and her purple mane cut back into a buzz.  I supposed it was some sort of military look or something.  I looked at her uniform and remembered what Scoodle had said.  “You’re Enclave?”

        “Morning Glory, serial number 221-12-9921, first Volunteer Corps,” she said as if reciting the information.  She licked dried lips and I floated what remained of my Sparkle-Cola to her.  She took it hesitantly and then drank it slowly.  Still, it made her smile.  That helped me to relax.  “Thank you,” she murmured.

        “Volunteer Corps?” I asked.

        “The Volunteer Corps enlisted with the Enclave to help with restoring contact with the surface,” she said in a shaky voice.  “It wasn’t… wasn’t supposed to be like this.  They warned us…”  She looked at the ash piles.  “But I didn’t believe them.”

        “Warned you?”  P-21 gave me a concerned look.

        “That the surface was deadly and savage,” she said softly as she rubbed her face with her hoof.  “That all surface ponies do is rape and murder and then rape what they murdered.”  She looked at the ash piles with a little shiver.  “I… all my friends… we were sent to make contact… we had gifts… no heavy weapons.  No power armor.”  She began to shake and clenched her eyes tight.  “Oh Celestia!  The things… they did such horrible things!”

        “Sounds like you ran into raiders,” I replied.

        “Half of us they slaughtered and ate.  Some were still alive.  We fell back here when I detected the transmissions.  We couldn’t access the system though, and the sentries activated.  I…”  She clenched her eyes shut.  “I’d crawled underneath to connect the power.  I heard them all die.”  She started shaking again.

        “Hey.  Hey.  Breathe, Glory... just take some deep breaths.”  I gave P-21 a long look before I tried to put her at ease.  “Sounds a lot like what the two of us just went through.  Wasteland seems to love tossing one nightmare after another against a pony.  So why don’t you just, you know?”  I gestured skywards with a nod of my horn.

        She flushed and looked away.  “I… I just can’t.”

        Okay.  Psychological trauma and distrust.  I knew exactly what this called for.  “Want to do something about it?”

        P-21 looked at me and just groaned.  Morning Glory glanced at me, then at P-21 in confusion.  “Do?  What do you mean?”

        “If you ran here, those raiders’ camp can’t be far.  I say we go and make sure they don’t eat any more ponies,” I said with a sure little grin.  “Trust me.  Hunting raiders is pretty…”  I rolled my eyes, tapping my hoof thoughtfully.  “Help me out here, P-21.”

        “Asinine?  Juvenile?  Hazardous?” he suggested as he passed me the weapons and ammunition he’d scavenged.  A nice replacement automatic pistol and some clips of ammo; finally, something I could aim that went bang!

        “Nah… fun!” I said as I clapped my hooves together.

        P-21 sighed, looking mournfully at Morning Glory.  “You get used to the madness.”

        Clearly Morning Glory hadn’t quite figured out our style of banter just yet.  “You want to kill the ponies that killed my platoon… for fun?”

        I let out a long sigh.  “Actually, no.  First, I don’t want anypony caught by raiders if I can do something about it.  Secondly, I don’t like the idea of raiders having beam weapons taken off your comrades.  Thirdly, there might be five young fillies in this area and I don’t like the idea of them getting captured again.  Fourthly, I need caps and ammunition and taking it from murdering scum sounds fine to me,” I said as I listed them all off, rolling my eyes in thought.  “Oh yeah, and its fun.  You’ll find that out if you come with us.”

        “Come with you?” she asked in complete shock.

        “Sure.  Your friends were attacked and killed.  You’ve been trapped in a coffin under a terminal for a week.  I’m pretty sure some part of you wants some payback.”  She just stared and shook her head.  I grimaced.  “Not even a little?”  Another shake of her head.  “A smidge?” I offered, holding my hooves a millimeter apart.  She finally gave me the ghost of a smile but still shook her head.

        Great.  I wagered I was the only pony in the Wasteland who could attract pacifists.  “Okay.  Well you can stay here and we can come back for you, come with us, or else good luck.”

        “I’ll… I’ll come with you.  I don’t want to be alone,” Morning Glory said warily, clearly not trusting me.  I levitated her beam pistol back over to her.  Still looking uncertain, she took the weapon and slipped it into her holster.  That put her a little more at ease.

“Not to be nit-picky, but are all of you armed with… well.”  I nodded to the dinged up beam pistol.  “Seems sorta poor quality.”

“Oh no.  The Volunteer Corps are issued surplus arms and armor separate from security and scouting forces.”  Armor?  She counted that uniform as armor?  My security barding was better armor than that!  “May I see some of the others beam pistols?  I might be able to improve things,” she asked warily.  I remembered what Scoodle had done with the rifles, so I put the four other beam pistols down and let her get to work.  P-21 looked on in interest as she skillfully broke the weapons down and repaired the best of the lot.  When she finished, it looked much more impressive.  She didn’t even have to slam the cartridge container closed.

“Nice work.  Do you normally fix stuff?”

“I… I was a student at the Thunderhead academy,” she flushed.  “There were some protests… nothing serious.  Just a lot of us wanting to come down.  That’s why the Volunteer Corps were established.”  And ripped to pieces by raiders.  Convenient.

Something about all of this stunk.  “So… the Enclave came here to help the Wasteland.  They let volunteers like you come and help out.  Then they give you old weapons and uniforms… did they even train you how to use them?”

“I… I had a two week training and survival course,” she said defensively.

Right.  And then they sent these volunteers on a peace mission to raiders?  If that was incompetence, they deserved an award for the sheer scale of it.  I had a real bad feeling it wasn’t incompetence.  Did their scouts miss the severed heads and mutilated corpses?  I glanced over at P-21, but he looked grim as well as he gave a little shake of his head.  Morning Glory was young, traumatized, but still innocent.  Maybe it was just paranoia, but suddenly I understood why Scoodle had been wary of the Enclave.  

“Well, your call,” I said, gathering up Brolly’s remains in a bag.  Outside, I found a tree and cleared out a hole at its base with my horn.  There wasn’t room or time to do anything fancy, so I set the bag into the depression and covered it once again.  I levitated a pointed rock and scratched out ‘Brolly’ and ‘He tried.’ on the trunk.  I spotted both of them staring at me oddly; P-21 had an approving look and Morning Glory simply seemed confused.

“So.  Coming with us?” I asked as I checked the automatic pistol and my ammunition.  Morning Glory nodded and I looked to her beam pistol, floating several cartridges to her.  “I know you might not like the idea of shooting raiders, but trust me… try.  Especially if you see me shooting.”  Red, it’s dead.  Yellow, be mellow.

*        *        *

As we journeyed back towards the west, I let Glory take some potshots at the bloatsprites.  She could shoot when she worked up the nerve.  I couldn’t begin to guess how she aimed a weapon like that with no sights, but between a half dozen bloatsprites and one radhog I was pleasantly impressed.

“So just how is the Enclave trying to help?  I mean, I haven’t seen signs of swooping pegasi flying over and laying waste to every raider that pokes their heads out,” I said, glancing to the sky.  Mistake.  I staggered so hard I ran into Morning Glory and nearly knocked her over.  “Sorry,” I muttered, getting my gaze below horizon.

“Well.  We’re trying to assist by providing food and clothing to the locals around the Skyport.  There’s been diplomatic missions as well.”  Like her mission to get friendly with a bunch of raiders?  What genius thought that up?  “We also offer free medical assistance.”

That got my attention as I glanced back at P-21’s limp.  “Really?  That’s generous,” I said.  He was in such pain that he just grunted his agreement.

“Unfortunately there’s many factions that appear to be quite hostile to Enclave activities.  The Steel Rangers in particular have attacked us at the Skyport.  There’s a lot of distrust I simply can’t understand.  Why won’t ponies let us help?”  Morning Glory’s frustration was clear.  Personally I wasn’t opposed to the idea of helping folks who needed it, but there was something off with the Enclave’s offer.  I kept thinking back to the Overmare’s recording about this Sanguine giving her everything she wanted.

Generosity didn’t come cheap here.

There was some irony in that the raiders were based out of a donut shop along the road from Withers; if I hadn’t made that detour, we’d be facing much stiffer resistance.  A faded brown unicorn held a ring and the chipped lettering read ‘Pony Joe’s’.  How cute, they’d nailed body parts to the hoof as sprinkles.  Artistic and grotesque.  The PipBuck detected only a sole hostile wandering out the back door.  I glanced back at P-21.  This would be a lot easier without him giving the alarm.  I slowly slid the baton out of its holster.

“What if he’s…” Morning Glory whispered hoarsely.

“Innocent?  Unarmed?”  I looked at the raider as he squatted beside a ditch.  PipBuck read as red.  I closed my eyes.  What was the difference between me and the raiders, besides that I seemed to have a little more discretion as per my PipBuck?  If I didn’t have that convenient red bar, would I be as much a murderer as the raiders?  “If he gives up… fine.”

I approached as quietly as I was able, baton floating beside me as the raider let out a rather epic bowel movement.  He’d probably have to kill it with a shovel afterwards.  Fortunately, he’d brought one with a jagged bloodstained edge.  The reek made me gag, but I closed the distance and was quite glad he finished.  He muttered something sounding like a language of strung together obscenities as I gripped the baton even tighter and poked him with my hoof.  “Hey.”

He froze and slowly turned to stare at me.  One eye was a swollen, pus-dripping mass that couldn’t close.  The other pupil was so contracted I wondered if he was blind.  He slowly grinned, revealing teeth sharpened to points as he started to giggle.  “Don’t…” I warned as his giggles grew louder and louder.  “Don’t,” I repeated through grit teeth, but it was too late.  He jerked his head, grabbing the handle of the shovel.  I had no choice as I brought the baton down on the back of his head with all the strength my horn could muster.  A pulpy noise that oddly matched his bowels filled the air and his whole body jerked and fell flat next to his reeking pile of filth.

        I looked at Glory watching in horror and frowned at her.  “Happy?” I asked as I pointed at his frozen maniacal grin with the baton.  She looked away, and P-21 gave me a look that read simply as ‘not fair, Blackjack.’  I didn’t care; I didn’t want to discuss the equinity of any pony so crazy they adopted radical new styles of dentistry to suit their dietary habits.  “Now, I’m going in there.  If I have to get out fast I’d really appreciate if you could be ready to cover me.”  I didn’t look to see if she’d nod or not.  Hopefully P-21 would get through to her.

        She’d shoot me in the face but didn’t want to kill a raider.  Fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck…

        I carefully opened the back door to the diner.  Old donut making equipment stood coated in black and crimson sludge.  The stench coming out the door was so intense that I almost retched.  Flies buzzed over every surface, and there was an industrial mixer with limbs sticking out.  There seemed to be more than a few wings.  Maggots thrived in great squirming lumps that popped underhoof as I moved in as carefully as I could.  The knot of raiders seemed to be concentrated in the dining area.

        “Squarr!  Finish shittin and get in here!  Squaaaaar!” a mare shrieked from the front.  “I’m gonna make him eat it.  Anyone wanna see him eat it?”  Raucous laughter filled the air as one bar detached from the mass, coming towards the doorway.  I looked left and right, and then tried my best to squeeze into the fetid corner between the wall and mixer.  I couldn’t help but glance in and wish I hadn’t.  There was some kind of jelly in there.  It was moving...

        When the mare walked past my hiding spot I saw the floating beam pistol in front of her.  Knowing how fast they shot, and really sick of burns, I hit S.A.T.S. at once and brought the metal curve of my baton across her throat.  Any warning she was going to make died as the second swing smashed across her face, and I saw with disturbing clarity the orb of her eye burst and spray viscous yellowed jelly across her cheek.  I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, and I really didn’t want to as the final swing finished caving in her eye socket.  I grabbed her with my hooves to keep her from falling and lowered her to the floor of the kitchen.  The laughter from the far side had drowned out her collapse.

        I glanced at the beam gun: just like the ones at the monitoring station.  I counted four more bars moving.  I doubted I’d be lucky enough to catch another alone.  P-21’s method had dropped two; time to finish it Blackjack style.

        Coming around the corner, pistol raised, I wasted no time going into S.A.T.S. and putting all four rounds into the nearest raider’s skull.  The third round effectively turned his skull into chunks and I immediately backed away.  Red blasts of light peppered the doorway as I waited.  Sure enough, one came around wearing a welding helmet.  The automatic roared along with me as each round scooped out great bloody hooffuls from his chest.  After the fifth burst he finally went down.

        A metal clang and clatter beside me was all the warning I needed; I dove back into the dining area and crouched low.  The grenade’s explosion made my eardrums throb and blew pieces out of the remaining mare’s neck and head.  She tried to draw a beam pistol, but my bullets bit into something arterial and a bloody spray spewed out from her neck as she collapsed, twitching.  That left… oh fuck!

        This raider had something new; over his raider armor he was wearing a harness that slung his weapons at his sides.  Said weapons were two large, long, boxy things, bigger versions of beam pistols.  I tried to kick into S.A.T.S., but the spell still needed time to recharge.  I fired wildly as I dodged back into the kitchen as the beam rifles mounted to his sides ignited a smoking line where my head had been a second before.

        I couldn’t counter that firepower!  I gave ground as he pursued, his shots melting the festering equipment in the kitchen as I emptied my clip.  Still backing up, I ejected it and levitated a new one into the mag well before diving out the back door.

        “Flash!  Flash flash flash!” he screamed in glee over and over again as he stepped outside.  My automatic suddenly seemed woefully inadequate as he pointed both barrels at me.  I kept trying to drill his head with the automatic, but the metal helmet he wore deflected most of my shots.

        Suddenly, Morning Glory appeared on the roof of the donut shop, pistol clenched in her teeth as she stared down at him.  She was shaking so badly I was sure she was going to drop the weapon!  She fired a shot that had to be by accident, smoking the gravel beside him.  Slowly he turned, looking up, bringing the beam rifles to bear.  We’d already established that my automatic wasn’t of sufficient caliber to threaten him.

        “Shoot!” P-21 and I shouted in unison.

        “Flash!” screamed the raider.  The air filled with red beams.

        Suddenly the raider’s backpack let out an immense spark and crackle as Glory’s shots tore into it.  He screamed as burning components cascaded down his sides.  The two beam rifles smoked as he tried to fire at the shaking gray pegasus.  “Nooooo!  Flash!  FLASH!” the raider screamed as he looked at me rising.

        “Stop it!  Just run away!” Glory screamed down at him.  The raider wasn’t listening and bolted for the sharpened shovel.  Damn it!  I raised the gun again, trying to find some vulnerable place to drop him with as he picked the shovel up in his jaws and began to swing it at me.

        I went through a second clip before the sharpened edge sliced almost exactly opposite the burn that Glory had given me.  Fuck!  Was it too much to ask them to watch the face?  I drank my last healing potion and went to reload… two bullets?  Two fucking bullets!

        Not good.

        I used S.A.T.S. to place the shots in his head.  Effective, but not fatal.  He seemed to not feel the slightest bit of pain as he stabbed the shovel edge into my upper foreleg.  I drew my baton, hoping it could finish him off.

        Suddenly Glory appeared above him and fired every single shot left in the beam cartridge.  One shot seemed to consume him in a bright red glow that fully engulfed him and sent him collapsing into a heap of ash at my hooves.  I scrambled back as Glory continued to fire, tears on her cheeks as she landed.  When the gun was empty she spat it out, screaming at the smoking pile of ash, “I only wanted to help!  I wanted to help!”  She then shook and voided her stomach as she staggered to the side, weeping.  I did the only thing I could; I put my hooves around her and held her close as she shook and whimpered over and over again that simple plea.

        Me too.  The Wasteland made murderers of everypony.

*        *        *

        “She’s an emotionally unstable and naive liability, Blackjack,” P-21 said when we’d found a trailer to hole up in for the night.  It didn’t do more than keep the rain off us.  P-21 had only been able to strip the weapons off the raiders and find a number of mixed rounds and other lousy weapons before he’d gotten sick.  I’d try using a beam pistol for now; we had twice as much ammo for that as we did for the automatic.  How I missed my shotgun.

        “Perfect.  She’ll fit in fine then,” I replied.  My leg burned terribly from the untreated slash.  Without healing potions all I could do was hope we came across some help.

        “I’m not saying leave her here.  I’m saying don’t let her carry a gun.  She nearly shot you as much as that raider,” P-21 argued softly.  Glory lay curled on her side on the far end of the trailer in her smelly uniform.  I’d give sexual favors for a laundromat right now.

        “I’m not disarming her either, P-21.  There are three of us and I can’t be the only one shooting.  So, unless you’re going to start packing…”

        “You know I can’t do that.”

        “Right.  Well, she can.  She just needs to get her hooves under her and some training discipline.  As for her ideals… what can I say?  I might think there’s something off with this whole Enclave business, but she wants to help.  I do too.  I think it’s the only difference between us and raiders.”  I had to admit that in three days I’d fallen into a somewhat frightening eagerness to shoot ponies.

        P-21 sighed and looked out the window at the drizzle that clanged against the roof in a soft staccato.  “How long is it supposed to keep doing this?”

        “Glory said it could go on for hours or even days.  Pegasi don’t try and control the weather anymore, remember?”  That had been a shock to me.  I’d thought that interminable gray-black layer was the sky.  Learning that it wasn’t, that it was a mass of clouds perpetuated by the pegasi, really undermined the whole ‘Help Wastelanders’ argument.  Glory hadn’t been too happy to admit it either.

        I didn’t particularly mind the rain.  It was cold and wet, sure, but the steady noise reminded me of the hum of ventilation recyclers constantly turning over the thick, stinky air.  Even though it was depressing, I liked to think the rain was doing all it could to wash away the bloodstains.

        Listening to rain, though, was hardly stimulating, and I quickly found myself bored.  I didn’t want to listen to the Overmare’s craziness, though.  I switched over to the radio channels, doubting that there was a chance I’d pick up 99’s internal radio signals.  Still, I slowly clicked one channel after the next, and then blinked as music filled the dingy trailer.  Music in 99 was all stately pomp reminding us how we should all be loyal to the stable and Overmare.  It was never this sweet, pining music that seemed to drive out the gloom before it.

        “…let it go.  Let it go.  Let it go.  Let it go…

When pain is all you have, let it go.”

        The voice demanded every iota of my attention and I gave it happily.  I had no idea who she was or what she was singing about, but I knew pain.  All of us did.  And as she sang on I felt my chest relax just a little bit.  For a few brief minutes I was able to leave the Wasteland behind and be someplace else.

        It finally trailed away, and a buck gave a long sigh.  “That was Sweetie Belle with ‘Let it go’.  Just giving us all a reminder that sometimes, when things are at their worst, it’s best to just forgive and forget.  This is DJ Pon3 with a shout-out to all my listeners back east around the Hoof.  I know some of you feel like you don’t get as many headlines out there, but it’s a great big old wasteland.  So this news is just for you, Hoofington.

        “Turns out the road between Manehattan and the Hoof is just a little safer now thanks to a pair of ponies fresh from a stable.  You’re gonna love this… looks like the Hoof has just a little more Security than a few days ago.  That’s right, she’s got it displayed loud and proud.  She’s already carved up the raiders from Withers all the way to Megamart, and she doesn’t look like she’s going to be stopping any time soon.  So here’s a big thank you from DJ Pon3 to the Security Mare.  Looking forward to seeing what law and order you bring down next.”

        What the fuck?  “What the fuck?  Who the hell was that?  How does he know what I’m doing?  What…”  Suddenly I knew.  “Watcher…”

        “Watcher?” P-21 said with a little frown.

        “It’s gotta be.  Who knew we left a stable and took down raiders in Withers?”  I crossed my hooves and nodded.  “It makes perfect sense.”

 P-21 looked skeptical but didn’t argue.  Then he cracked a smile.  “Security Mare, huh?  Catchy.”

I didn’t feel catchy.  I felt pissed!  “He just told Deus where we are!  The road…”

“Is really long and even Deus probably can’t search the whole thing,” P-21 interrupted reasonably.

“Well… what about that bringing down law and order’ stuff?  I’m not doing that.  And he didn’t even mention you beyond ‘pair of ponies’!”  I had to admit I was more than a little paranoid now.  Why had Watcher just told Hoofington what I was up to?  “It’s like he’s making me out to be some kind of law pony!”

“Well, aren’t you?  You attacked those raiders without hesitation in large part because what they’re doing is wrong.  You might not be upholding a written law, but you yourself said what they’re doing is wrong and you were going to stop them.”  P-21 seemed to enjoy needling me.  “So what’s wrong?”

Cause he’s skipping the parts where I fucked up.  No mention of what I did in the Boneyard or how I got Scoodle killed.”  It was like he was making me into some damned folk hero.  I didn’t want that.

Of course, the question was: how could I stop it?

------------------------------------------------

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Friend of the Night - Your eyes adapt quickly to low-light situations.

(Huge thanks to Mr. H for helping me make this ten times better than I could on my own.)


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 5: Work

        “Step one… stay alive.  Step two… I dunno.  Step three… profit!”

        So.  That’s Hoofington.  The Hoof.  Or ‘the Core’ if you were talking about the inner city where all the technological marvels were supposed to be.  Glory had been filling us in all morning as we continued along the decayed road.  But now, as it rose into an overpass, I had my first look at the city.  And I didn’t like it one bit.

        The Core of Hoofington lay on an island surrounded by sluggishly flowing green fluids swirling with noxious pink contaminants.  With such limited space, the buildings within the Core rose higher and higher until the tops disappeared into the cloud layer.  Some buildings ended in broken-off spars, while others leaned precariously against their neighbors.  Clouds of green clung to the black, crumbling spires, and if there were pegasi in those clouds… well, good luck to them.  The entire Core was backlit by a perpetual green glow that pulsed and flickered like a heartbeat.  I could barely make out the skeletal remains of a bridge several miles ahead of us beside a large oval structure.

        On the sides of the river were the boroughs, the suburban sprawls that had once held the populace.  Far less resilient than the skyscrapers of Hoofington proper, they formed a thick belt of crumbling buildings and blocked roads.  With the exception of the highway cutting towards the Core, I couldn’t see a way through it.  The river flowed to the north on our left, the sprawl changing into more industrial-style buildings.  To the right were more dead trees and raider territory.  I could barely make out the top of a large building to our southwest.

        But what mattered to the three of us was the massive square building beyond the overpass.  The building was surrounded by a berm of scrapped carts, sky carriages, and other debris.  Four large turrets clung to the corners, sweeping their long barrels back and forth.  Bright neon lights flickered in the rainy gray weather: ‘Megamart’, they said, and beneath that in bright red paint was ‘Finders Keepers’.  Unless I was mistaken, this was the headquarters of the Finders.

        We approached under the ominous gaze of the turrets.  Each barrel seemed a match for Deus as we walked along the crumbling highway towards the gate.  The half dozen ponies looking boredly at the small trickle of traffic perked up at the sight of the three of us.  “Entrance fee,” a unicorn mare said as she looked over my barding.  Her green hide was mottled with the oddest brown and gray splotches.

        “We have to pay to get in?” P-21 said skeptically.

        “Five caps a head.  Ten per Bessy.  Or you can just become a Finder for the discount price of a thousand caps.  You don’t like it, pick a direction and start walking,” she said matter-of-factly.

        One of the guards looked closer at me and then broke into a grin.  “Hey, Keystone!  It’s her.  Security Mare!”  The others took note as well and immediately started to chuckle and talk to each other.  I could have found DJ Pon3 and punted him clear over the Core.  They were saying it like I was Superpony.  “Bottlecap wouldn’t mind if we gave her a pass.”

        The camouflage mare looked at me coolly.  “So she killed those psychos at Pony Joe’s.  That’s not so much,” she said as she looked me over.  I half wanted to agree with her.  I also didn’t want to give up any caps just to get inside.

        “Hey, I couldn’t just let them hang out along the roads.  Pretty sure you folks need them,” I said as if it wasn’t anything at all, but from the looks I’d scored a win.  I grimaced, not happy with the role, but if it’d save me some money…

        It looked like I’d managed to say the right thing.  “Go in.  Make sure you talk to the manager.  She was talking about you earlier,” Keystone said as she stepped aside and let us in.  “Fire a weapon and bring the wrath of Gun down on you.”  

        “Nice job, Security Mare,” P-21 said once we were past, as we approached the front doors beneath the buzzing neon sign.

        I snorted.  “Shut it.”

        “You can be sore about the reputation or you can use it.  Not both,” P-21 replied casually.  I stuck my tongue out at him, much to Glory’s surprise.

I was surprised that the interior more resembled a junkyard than anything else.  Piles and pallets of scrap lay in carefully stacked rows.  There were perhaps a dozen booths with vendors hawking their wares.  I saw a drum-fed shotgun and promptly started salivating.  There was a crude medical clinic set up over by the pharmacy, and their advertisement of radiation purging appealed more than the shotgun.  A row of cots served as a hotel of sorts, and there was a kitchen.  Overhead rested ‘Gun’, a huge cannon mounted in a ceiling turret.  I didn’t even want to imagine… okay… in my imagination the sight of it firing was pretty cool, but I’d be happy putting off witnessing the reality.  Thing looked like it fired I-beams.

        There were also probably as many ponies here as there were in Stable 99.  They moved in small clumps, keeping a wary eye as they looked around.  Some were obviously raiders, and I had to glance up at Gun to remind myself to behave.  Most appeared to be fairly benign, talking and laughing with each other while they swapped stories and goods.  Two well-dressed fillies were escorted by a dozen bodyguards as they chattered on about ‘slumming’.  Six ponies stomping in full power armor were given a wide berth as they seemed dead set on buying every grenade and missile they could get their hooves on.  I felt a stab of guilt at the sight of four Crusaders walking out with a bag full of canned goods, though at least they weren’t the ones I knew.

“It’s a regular slice of the Wasteland.  I wonder where the Enclavers are?” P-21 said, frowning as he looked at a bin full of grenades.  “Where do they find this stuff?”

        “All over,” a lemon-furred blue-maned mare answered brightly as she approached us.  She had three bottle caps for her cutie mark.  She wore a slightly off-color navy blue vest with a name tag that read ‘Hello, my name is Bottlecap, your Megamart Manager.’  “Hoofington had more military bases around it than any city in Equestria, on account of the enemy constantly attempting to disrupt research and development.  After the bombs fell, the ordnance just sat around in hidden caches and arsenals.  We pay top caps for any and all war materiel.”  Her eyes looked at my security barding and she smiled.  “Ah, you’re the mare who cleared the Manehattan highway!”

        Okay.  Maybe there was a security discount or something.  It was the only silver lining I could see.  “Yeah.  It’s not a big deal.  It just sort of happened,” I said with an awkward smile.  She gave me a very calculating look that made me shift awkwardly.  “I mean, they were just raiders.  Anypony would have killed them.”

        “I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” she said as she looked at me with a cool little smile.  “Anypony would have given them a wide berth while they tried to extort my caravans.  You were the one that shut them down.  Perhaps not a big deal to you, but we’ve lost six caravans in as many months.  Trade to Tenpony and Gutterville was down to a trickle.”  She reached into her vest and took out a small plastic bag filled with caps.  “Consider this a thank you from the Finders,” she said as she tossed it to me with a smile.

        

“Wow.  Very generous,” P-21 observed curiously.  There was a clear look of suspicion on his face.  Was I the only pony in our merry band that tried to look open?

        “Well, it was a standing contract.  I am fairly sure you’ll spend it here, so I’ll recover some of it from the vendors.  And if it outfits you, well, the more likely you’ll bring in profitable goods in the future,” Bottlecap said, regarding him with an even look as her explanation mollified him.

        I glanced at my PipBuck and saw the amount.  Five hundred caps, not counting the miscellaneous junk we’d acquired.  I glanced at P-21 and Glory, both of whom were looking around in surprise.  I counted out two groups of twenty-five caps each and handed them to Glory and P-21.  “Why don’t you two get something to eat and look around?  Maybe you’ll find some Enclave ponies,” I suggested to Glory.

        “No.  We’re not allowed here.  This place is restricted,” she said sullenly as she took the caps and turned to walk along the rows.  P-21 gave me a curious look before he followed her.

        “She’s Enclave?” Bottlecap asked with a frown.  I nodded hesitantly and she immediately scowled.  “Be careful then.  You may not realize it – she may not realize it  but she’s trouble.”

        “I doubt she’s very dangerous,” I replied and got a dry look in return.  Okay, Enclave a sore topic.  I looked back at Bottlecap and gave her my surest smile.  “Sorry about P-21’s suspicion.  He’s dealing with a lot of pain.  It’s been a rough few days for us.”

        “Just a few days, imagine that,” she replied dryly, arching her brow in a way that suggested I hadn’t seen anything yet.

        “Yeah…”  Okay, try not to sound like a complete idiot.  “I was wondering if we could get some information.”

        “Information is a commodity like bullets and armor,” she answered back.  “Simple questions are easy enough, but if you’re looking for something specific then it’ll be pricey.”

        I winced at that.  “I have a data file.  EC-1101.  I need to find out what it is.”

        “Data analysis?  Sweet Goddesses, you know how to jump to the top of the price list,” she said, looking slightly pleased at this fact.  I showed her the file and she frowned at my PipBuck.  “Encrypted?”  I nodded and she closed her blue eyes, swaying her head back and forth a little before she concluded, “Ten thousand caps.”  She looked at me with an even, sober expression.  “That includes our processing fee.”

        Had her expression been anything but professional and serious I would have laughed.  “Ten thousand?”

        “If you want a safe and reliable job, yes.  I can think of cheaper sources, but they’d more likely shoot you and take the data themselves.  If you want to buy an answer, ten thousand caps,” she said with a conciliatory smile.  “Sorry, but that’s the honest answer.”

        Great.  The ‘get the info quick’ plan just went swirling down the toilet.  Now I needed to work on a ‘get rich quick’ plan.  “Thanks.  At least I have a number to aim for,” I said with a sigh.  A five-digit number.  I gave my best ‘Nightmare Moon may care’ grin.  “So, any suggestions on a way to get ten thousand caps?”

        “I assume you want this money relatively quickly, rather than over the course of a lifetime?” Bottlecap asked with an arch of her brow and an approving smile.  When I nodded she looked me over.  “Well, competent help always demands a price,” she said as she walked to a large bulletin board that was covered with pieces of paper.  Some were printed documents, but most were hoof-written.  “We don’t just find things.  We also handle ponies looking for special help.  Sometimes it’ll be retrieving goods, other times its contract work like clearing out nests of dangerous wildlife or bounty hunting.”

        “Bounties?” I said as I looked over the papers.  “You mean killing ponies for bottle caps?”

        “Oh yes.  That can be quite lucrative… provided you don’t mind letting another decide if somepony should die,” she said as she pointed at a section with a hoof.  “Don’t let the language fool you.  They’ll all be described as raiders, murderers, thieves, and killers… whether they are or not.  Some are.  Some aren’t.  You decide.”

        I needed ten thousand bottle caps, and in front of me I had a wall of opportunity.  “Thanks.  I’ll have to read these closely.”  Actually, P-21 reading them would be a safer bet... P-21...  I looked back at the yellow mare.  “One last question.  My friend was injured a few days ago.  It’s really hurting him and he’s going to need some substantial healing.  More than just a standard healing potion.”

        “Magical surgery’s almost as expensive as data decryption and analysis.”  She regarded me for a long moment.  “However, west of here is the Fluttershy Medical Center.  If there were something salvageable, it would be there.  The upper floors haven’t been thoroughly looted or explored.  It’s a… difficult place.  But shy of going to the Ministry of Peace’s hub in the Core I can’t think of any place it would be available.”

        “Thanks, Bottlecap.”

        “Don’t thank me, Security.  I just gave you a direction.  You’re the one that actually has to do the work.  Good luck,she said as she walked off, hailing two ponies encased head to hoof in metal armor with some impressive multi-barreled hardware strapped to the sides.  “Welcome, Steel Rangers!  Missiles, grenades, or 5mm ammunition today?”  So they were the Steel Rangers?  Well it was good to know Deus wasn’t the only one packing cannons.

        I stopped by the clinic, where prices were scratched out on a busted slab of blackboard in chalk.  ‘Patchwork:  50c.  Rad purge: 100c.  Teeth pulled, 10c each.  Worm and parasite removal: 25c.  Ask about our stock of drugs, certain to pick you right up.  Specials: Dash 75c.  Amputations in under a minute or half off.  The doctor, and I use the term lightly, was a scrawny old brown unicorn with a bonesaw for a cutie mark and wearing a white coat covered in old yellow stains.

        I opted for the ‘patchwork and purge special’ for 125c.  I unbelted my barding and let the blue and yellow padded armor be lifted from me.  Beneath it my white hide was a roadmap of bruises, yellow discolorations, angry red lines, and half-healed strips of medical bandages.  My neck still ached from the shots in the school and my cheek throbbed from Glory’s welcome present.  Bonesaw levitated a pair of spectacles onto his muzzle as he blinked at my injuries.  “Well now.  Somepony’s been busy?  Rad burns.  Beam burns.  Bullet holes.  Lots of healing potion fixes.”  He shaded my eyes with his hoof and gave a grim nod.  “Interesting.  I’ve seen eyes like that before.”

        “Really?”  Maybe he could fix them?

        “Yup.  See em all the time on ghouls,” he said with a grim chuckle.  “Looks like Security doesn’t come easy.”

        “That’s not my name,” I said as my ears folded.  “I don’t know why DJ Pon3 called me that, but it’s nonsense.”

        He looked at me coolly.  “Girl, I’ve been in the Wasteland a while now and outlived my children and grandchildren.  If there’s one thing more precious than clean water and bullets, it’s the feeling that tomorrow you’re less likely to die than today.  Those raiders might be replaced by some other band, but yesterday we nearly had a party when we’d heard we could send caravans safely to Manehattan again.  That might be nonsense to you, but it means the world to us.”

        I didn’t know if I should feel encouraged, annoyed, or embarrassed, so I settled with shutting up and letting him get to work.  P-21 and Glory stopped by, the former sipping water through a straw as the latter enjoyed a Sparkle-Cola.  Both of them seemed a bit taken aback at the sight of me in my hide.  Not that I was too embarrassed about that; clothing in 99 was a matter of duty and I’d been fine trotting around off-duty with my mark just hanging out.  Bonesaw gave me a cup of some chalky gloop as he went to work with his magic.  I had to admit that as scraggly as he was, Bonesaw knew his trade.  By the time he finished I felt like I’d just received treatment at 99’s medical center.

        “Ten thousand caps?”  Glory gaped at the pair of us once my treatment was finished.  The doc had given me something called Buck, and I had to admit I felt more energized than ever.  Glory frowned.  “Is that a lot?”

        “That Sparkle-Cola was ten caps.  So it’s the equivalent of a thousand colas,” P-21 said calmly.

        Glory winced.  “Yeah.  I guess that is a lot.”  Then she thought for a moment.  “Well.  There might be a cheaper option.  I’m pretty sure that if we got to the Skyport, the Enclave might be able to crack the encryption for free.  I’m sure they’d be happy to in exchange for returning me.”  She frowned, rubbing her mane as she rolled her eyes a little.  “I’m… just a little unsure of how you get to the Skyport from here though.  I think it’s east…ish?”

        “That’s… a possibility.”  Maybe once I knew more about the Enclave than just two opinions.  Morning Glory, I knew, would have happily helped.  When I thought about Brolly’s last broadcast, the clouds, and what had happened to the Volunteer Corps, I had doubts about the rest of the Enclave.  Then I remembered something.  “Glory, who is Rainbow Dash?”

        Her eyes went round with shock, lips pressed close together as if trying to keep from blurting something out.  Finally she stammered, “Rainbow Dash?  She… ah… oh my…”  Clearly this wasn’t a topic she expected to discuss.  “Well, she was the greatest heroine of the pegasi during the war… but… well…”  She looked at me sadly.  “When the bombs fell, she wanted us to go down to the surface and help.”

        P-21 looked at her in confusion.  “So what’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that why you’re here?”

        She shook her head firmly.  “I want to help now, but she demanded the pegasi fly down and help despite the magical radiation of hundreds of balefire bombs poisoning the atmosphere.  Tens of thousands of pegasi would have died, or more…  We’d already lost Cloudsdale, so the pegasus council refused.  She left… and probably died of radiation poisoning,she said quietly, looking at her hooves.  “Some ponies really respect her for that, but…”

        “I’m guessing you don’t?” I asked with a little smile.  

        She sighed with a little frown, shaking her head.  “If she’d stayed and listened to the council, she could have shaped things for the better.  The Enclave was established to protect the pegasus people, and they do.  But…”  She glanced around the Megamart.  “Well, maybe if Rainbow Dash hadn’t left then the Enclave would have started helping the surface sooner.  Instead she left and it took two hundred years of petitions and peaceful demonstrations for the Volunteer Corps to do what she’d wanted us to do right after the bombs blew.”  She finished drinking her Sparkle-Cola.

        I had to admit my mane was itching in curiosity.  “So, what’s life in the clouds like?”

        Again, clearly not a question she expected.  “Um… it’s different.  That’s all I can really say,” she said softly.  “We’re not supposed to discuss Thunderhead.  It’s all classified.”  Huh, go figure.  Secrets for her, suspicion from him.  I could tell I had a long way to go on this whole making friends thing.  P-21 still wasn’t even willing to carry a gun; he still saw me as embodying all the fucked up shit he’d endured in Stable 99.

        Time for a topic change!  “So, P-21.  Have you seen their little bulletin board?  I’m pretty sure if we can knock out some jobs, sell any salvage we don’t need, and get lucky then we might be able to get that ten thousand caps pretty quick.”  Quick hopefully meaning that we wouldn’t need months of searching.  I really doubted we could evade Deus that long, particularly if that stupid DJ was giving my position away every other broadcast.  I pulled out a couple of slips of paper and slid them to him.  “I was hoping you could help me pick?”

        “Right.  Get rich quick.  That’s a plan that always works out,” he replied sardonically, but took the papers.  “Okay… kill so and so… no.  No.  No.”  He looked at one oddly, arching a brow.  “Okay… kill and defile… no.  Defile and kill?  Ugh.  What is wrong with these ponies?”  He then frowned as he smoothed out a rumpled note written on the back of a lottery ticket.  “This might be okay.  Some mare wants us to collect radscorpion venom glands.”

        “Oh?  To make anti-toxin?” Glory asked curiously.

        “Casserole,” P-21 answered with a small roll of his eyes.  Glory mouthed the word in bafflement as P-21 went on.  “Apparently they’re delicious and nutritious.  She’s paying twenty-five caps each.  Six hundred caps if we can bring her twenty.  Apparently there’s a pit west of here that’s full of them.”

        “What’s a radscorpion?” I asked, glancing at Glory.

        “Well, I heard they’re like scorpions… only bigger.”

        “Great.  So what’s a scorpion?” I asked with a crooked little smile.

        Clearly she wasn’t used to facing my level of professional ignorance.  “Um… a bug.  Well, technically an arachnid, but…”

        I stomped my hoof, cutting her off.  “Ahah!  Bugs.  I can kill bugs.  Bring on the caps!”  No moral ambiguity there.  “What else you got?”

        He sifted through more.  “Murder… murder… not enough caps… murder… murder…  Wait.  Salvage.”  He lifted the yellowed printout.  “Ironshod Firearms R&D center.  The poster wants us to get some components from their maneframe.  Bonus if we can extract any blueprints still within the system.”

        “Great.  So we get to the maneframe, rip out the blueprints and yank any spare parts, and get rich!” I declared, getting winces from both of them.  “What?”

        P-21 looked at Glory.  “Can you remove the parts?”

        “Well… I mean… I know the basics.  Maybe?” Glory said with a sheepish smile as she tapped her hooves together.  “Probably better than just yanking them out.”

        “That would be a thousand caps, plus two hundred per blueprint,” P-21 said calmly as he fished through some more.  “Huh.  This is a recent one.  ‘Time sensitive.’  Two thousand caps to remove squatters at the Fluttershy Medical Center.”

        My ears immediately perked.  “Remove?  As in kill and mutilate?”  Glory looked at me with some concern.  “What?  You’ve heard these contracts.  The mutilation’s always implied.”

        “It just says remove.  Doesn’t say they’re raiders like all the rest so it might be legit.”

        “Well, we should give it a shot, then.  After that, we can poke around.  We might find something valuable.”  I tried to keep my voice as calm as possible, but P-21 still looked suspicious… okay, he usually looked suspicious.  Honestly, what was the deal?  You round up a guy for summary execution and they never trust you again?  Well, if we found something to help his bum leg, maybe then he’d start thinking of me as a friend rather than ‘stable reminder’.  

        “Okay.  So we stomp some bugs, yank out some wires, and roust some squatters.  How hard can that be?” I said with a grin at the other two.  P-21 covered his face with his hoof while Glory clearly seemed to have some doubts.  “What?”

        “She just had to say it,” P-21 muttered.

*        *        *

        “I just had to say it!” I shouted over the chittering, snapping horde that was advancing at me.  The drum-fed combat shotgun I’d picked up for a hundred caps roared over and over again as I retreated around the gravel pit, a half dozen of the radscorpions clawing at me with their pincers and stabbing with their venom-tipped stingers.  I couldn’t miss at this range… but I also wasn’t having the best of luck piercing their hides.

        S.A.T.S. had finally failed me, too.  The targeting and time manipulation spell might have slowed things down, but it didn’t stop time.  By the time it finished, two of the radscorpions were dead, but the remainder had put new holes in my forelegs with their razor-sharp pincers.  I was going to have to visit Bonesaw again when this was all done.  Fortunately, their barbed tails hadn’t penetrated my barding yet.

        The gravel pit was filled with rusted machinery that made Morning Glory’s job infinitely harder.  She had to swoop under and around the girders, busted conveyors, and decaying equipment to try and follow me as I blasted ammo like crazy.  She proved much more adept with the beam pistol fighting insects than ponies.  I had no clue how she could aim the boxy contraption clenched in her teeth, but the soft ‘crak’ of each shot mixed well with the throaty ‘boom’ of my shotgun.

        “This is getting out of hoof!” P-21 called from the lip of the pit, watching through a pair of binoculars.  While I really wanted him to get a gun and join in the fight, I was glad for any help right now.  “More are coming out of that cave, Blackjack!” he yelled as he gestured to the far wall of the gravel pit.

        “Glory!” I shouted, leaping aside as one got close enough to jab me with its stinger.  It was with some satisfaction that my return shot took its tail off.  Now if it just didn’t have claws, pincers, or razor sharp mandibles…  “Flash ‘em!”  

        The small pegasus blushed furiously, but the term was appropriate enough.  The radscorpions didn’t seem to know how to attack a flying enemy.  Meanwhile, her beam pistol rained down more shots to keep them off the grounded and more munchable pony.  The flashing shots kept them disorganized, and I took some satisfaction when her shots killed one of the smaller varieties.

        I tripped over some rusty equipment and flailed as I struggled to stay on my hooves.  One of the radscorpions pounced, and I rolled onto my back while kicking with all four hooves to try and keep all its nasty pointy bits out of myself.  Fortunately, I didn’t need my hooves to fire my gun.  I floated the barrel right against the scorpion’s head; a single shot transformed the head into a spray of green globules and shattered chitin.  If I could just keep them off me, this could be easy; they didn’t seem to realize the shotgun was the real threat, not me.  I kicked the corpse off, and the remaining radscorpions shied aside long enough for me to get my hooves under me.

        I turned and ran, feeling nicks to my flanks as I took a healing potion, telekinetically unloaded the spent drum, and levitated a fresh one from my pack.  Smacking it in place, feeling the magic take away some of the pain from my injuries, I turned once more and laid down a rain of buckshot that eroded the tenacious arachnids.  Finally the last one dropped and I was able to go help Glory.  I was quite glad she’d managed to keep them off me as I ran in towards the confused, milling mass.  They were already worn down by the time I got there, too; half a dozen shots finished the rest of the chittering vermin.

        “Okay.  That wasn’t so bad,” I said with a laugh as Glory landed beside me.

        “That was terrible!” she countered.  I decided not to tell her what I’d seen inside Pony Joe’s.  I’d take fighting bugs over smelling that any day.

        Why’d the ground just move?  “Look out!” I screamed, seeing flashbacks of ghouls exploding from heaps of bone as I knocked Glory aside.  From the middle of the pit heaved the largest radscorpion I’d ever seen!  It was as large as three ponies combined, with pincers large enough to snip my limbs and head like a daisy… well… pictures of daisies.  I always thought they were flimsy looking flowers… but why was I thinking about flowers now?  Its tail struck with such force that I could imagine it going right through me.

        “Run away!”  We didn’t have anything that could harm something like this.  The problem was, for me at least, that the only way out was behind the giant radscorpion.  Worse, the thing was fast!  I’d expected something so big to move ponderously, but it skittered after us with tenacity and swiftness.  The only thing we had going for us was its size and the wreckage in the base of the gravel pit.  A few shots revealed that I was right that the shotgun and beam pistol did nothing to it.

        Still, I had one ace in my pocket.  I fished out the grenade with the blue band.  “Eat this!” I shouted as I telekinetically shot it right at the beast’s maw.  Eating was this thing’s forte, and I pulled the stem right before it disappeared into the radscorpion’s mouth.  Five seconds.  Ten… why was Glory looking at me like that?  “What?”

        “That was a shock grenade!” she yelled as the giant radscorpion scurried around towards us.

        “A what?”

        “It only works on robots!” she screamed at me.

        “Who makes a bomb that only works on robots?” I screamed back at her.  “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever… look out!” I yelled as its tail shot out through the wreckage and nearly took Glory’s head off.  I kept looking for some opportunity to get past it and run out of the gravel pit, but it kept moving left and right.  I could only fall back as it moved me towards… the cave… oh hell no!  “It’s herding us!”

        “What?”

        “It’s pushing us back towards that hole.”  And once in there I seriously doubted I’d last long.  

        “Let me fly you out!” Morning Glory yelled as the giant radscorpion was tangled in some rusty cabling from a steam crane.  There weren’t enough words to express my skepticism, but then there also weren’t enough words to stress how much I really didn’t want to be in that pit.

        “If you think you can,” I said as it scurried towards us.  I felt her bite the back of my barding behind my neck and felt her hooves hook into my straps.  Her wings beat furiously and I was stunned as we slowly rose up into the air.

        Rising: good.  Slowly: not so good.  The giant radscorpion jumped up on the side of the steam crane and snapped its tail out.  Morning Glory cried out as the barbed tip bit deeply into her flank, and gravity returned with a vengeance.  Had I fallen to the ground I probably would have broken something vital.  Instead, I landed on the roof of the huge steel crane.  I looked back to see Morning Glory fluttering down to the floor of the gravel pit.  The radscorpion turned and started to scuttle towards her.

        I saw a teal filly torn in two before my eyes.

        “No!” I bellowed as I ejected the drum and slammed in a fresh one.  I only had a dozen or so slugs.  They’d do the job or it wouldn’t matter.  I jumped from the roof of the crane and landed right in the middle of the giant monster’s back.  Crouching low on the middle of its heaving back, I triggered S.A.T.S. as I pressed the barrel against its tail.  The slugs tore into the meaty appendage with a spray of sour yellow flesh and greenish-black ichor.  A third shot severed the tail entirely, and more importantly made me its first priority.

        I jammed my front hooves into a groove in its armored carapace, feeling my limbs squeezed almost to breaking as it bucked and squirmed wildly.  Its claws weren’t quite agile enough to simply pluck me off, so instead it swept the claws back and forth over its back to knock me loose.  I ducked my head down, gritting my teeth as I waited for S.A.T.S. to recharge enough to chance a shot.  I locked in a blast that caught the radscorpion at the base of the pincer and took it completely off.  When it finally flipped over on its back to scrape me off, I kicked free and rolled in the loose gravel, screaming as I rose to my hooves and charged the monster.  I wanted every remaining slug to matter as I closed to point blank range and opened fire.

        It attempted to shield itself with a claw, and I had just enough charge in S.A.T.S. to target that limb as well.  The shotgun’s roar stretched out as the black pincer spun off in a slow arc.  “Die!  Die!  Die!” I screamed again and again as I pulverized its head with my three remaining slugs.  Finally I reversed the spent weapon and smashed the butt against whatever goop might have constituted a brain stem.  I didn’t stop until it did.  In fact, I might not have stopped even then if P-21 hadn’t yelled to snap me out of it.

        “Ow… ow… ow…” Morning Glory cried as she limped over to us.  “No offense, but I really am starting to dislike the surface.”

        “Join the club,” I remarked, then saw their looks.  I was splashed almost head to hoof in radscorpion bits.  P-21 gave Glory one of our healing potions, but even though the hole in her flank right above her sunrise cutie mark closed, she still didn’t look so good.  “Are you okay?” I asked her.

        “Yeah, sure.  I’m just a little lightheaded; hope it’s just blood loss.  I’ll be fine,” she said as she took a seat.

        “When we get back, I’m going to find you some decent armor,” I promised.  “That uniform you’ve got is worse than useless.”

        I had no idea what constituted a ‘radscorpion poison gland’, but apparently P-21 did.  He and Glory went from scorpion to scorpion collecting them.  It looked like we’d be making that bonus.  Meanwhile, I headed over to the cave… more of a pit in the wall, really.  Dozens of bones and other debris filled the cavity.  Mostly earth and unicorn ponies, but there were two picked-over pegasi too.  I took the time to sift through with my telekinesis and was rewarded with an assortment of ammunition, two energy cartridges, and a workable bolt-action rifle.  I also found a Crusader’s cape.  There wasn’t much of it left, but I still saw the rearing white filly on the stained blue patch.  Carefully, I tore it from the scrap.

        Part of me wanted to wear it.  Even though my mother was still alive, I doubted I would see her again, but then I thought about Scoodle and Boing.  I thought about asking P-21, but… I couldn’t keep using him as my ethical barometer.  I owed the Crusaders.  Carefully I took the patch and slipped it into a pocket.

        “Blackjack!”  I was really starting to hate people shouting my name.  I ran back out and saw P-21 kneeling over the prone gray pegasus.

        Damnit!  She wasn’t fine.  “She’s poisoned, isn’t she?” I demanded as I ran to them.  I wanted to hug her and kick her.

        “Sorry,” she said weakly.  “I said I hoped it was just blood loss.”

        I hissed softly through my teeth.  I couldn’t shoot, kick, or beat poison out of her.  “What can we do?”  Because we had to be able to do something.  If I just had to sit here and watch her die then I would completely lose it.

        “I could synthesize an antidote.  One poison gland… one healing potion… but I’d need lab equipment…” Morning Glory said softly, her breathing labored.

        I looked up to the west at the large brown building that my PipBuck identified as the destination for the next job.  “P-21, R&D means research and something, right?”

        “Development, yeah,he said as he followed my look.

        “Let’s go,” I said as I loaded a fresh drum into my shotgun.  Morning Glory needed a lab, and I would find one.  We weren’t going to lose another pony on my watch.

*        *        *

        Ironshod Firearms; I could have worked for these ponies.  I really could have.  Just looking at the faded pictures of firearms sitting over desks was enough to make my insides moist.  Especially at the sight of the clip-fed IF-88 ‘Ironpony’ combat shotgun.  Now that was a glorious-looking weapon!  Still, I had no time to admire their works when it seemed like every automated turret and Robronco sentry was out to render us into glue.

        “I want that gun,” I shouted, my buckshot peppering the head of a sentry pony as I embarked on a grand unofficial tour of the premises.  “I want a lab first, but after that I want an IF-88 ‘Ironpony’.  Can I have one?”

        “I’m sure you do,” P-21 said as he carried Morning Glory on his back, watching as my second shot destroyed the sentry.  “Ask your mother.”  

“She’d never let me have one.”  It was crazy.  I was crazy.  Every second I had to keep moving or I’d look at Morning Glory.  I had to joke because if I thought about Glory… without waiting for S.A.T.S. to recharge, I hopped right over the blasted sentry and into the next room.  A sweep with my gun and a check with my E.F.S. and I was moving on to the next hallway.  Jumping through the next door I heard an ominous beep underhoof.

        I glanced down just in time to hit the override button on the mine with my magic.  That sent prickles up and down my spine.  I’d help nopony if I got us blown up.  Levitating the mine into my gear, I moved through this hallway with more care, finding two more mines hidden under debris.  The two were so close together I detonated them with a shot just to move faster.  Passing bathrooms, I moved into a large production area.

        “Greetings, zebra scum!  Time to get wiped!” a metallic voice cheered with gusto as a multi-limbed hovering robot lowered down and sprayed fire across the doorway.

        “Wipe this!” I shouted, the moment’s levity leaving me feeling raw as I moved under the bot, firing into the levitation talisman built into the base.  With a sizzle of sparks it collapsed behind me, and I finished it off with some more bullets to the central processing matrix.

        “The labs might be on the second floor,” P-21 suggested as he looked up the stairs with their narrow catwalks.  What kind of pony designed places like this?  Still, we’d only seen offices and this manufacturing space on the first floor.

        “I’ll take her,” I said as I carefully transferred her from his back to my own.  She felt like she was burning up.  That was good… I’d take feverish and alive over cold and stiff.  Using my telekinesis to hold her in place, I ran up the steps as fast as I dared.

        For once something went our way.  Passing through a door, we found ourselves surrounded by lab equipment… and spent shells.  Lots of spent shells.  I almost dropped Glory as my hooves skidded beneath me.  There were reloading benches, work tables, and lab equipment.  Some of it was smashed but...  “That’s the stuff you need, right Glory?  Glory?”  I gave her a telekinetic slap.  “Glory!”

        She stirred and looked around in a daze, muttering softly, “No.  I don’t want to do this anymore.”  Her pupils were unfocused as she stared around.  “No more weapons.  Please…”

        “Glory!  Antidote.  You said you can make one?”  I gave her a little shake.

        “Antidote… why… wouldn’t make any sense… it’d need to be an antibiotic…” she muttered weakly.  I gave her another slap and relaxed a little as her eyes focused on me.  “Stop… stop slapping my face…”

        “You shot my face.  Tell us how to make an antidote,” I said as P-21 checked the lab equipment and burners.

        “Poison gland… mix with a type A or B healing potion… simmer… filter the extract… inject…” she murmured in a daze.

        “Please, please tell me you understood that?” I asked P-21.

        “I think so,he said as he got to work.  He dug through his bags and extracted a used needle, sterilizing the tip on a burner flame.  “Did you get the impression she’s more than just a good-intentioned idealist?”

        “I don’t care.  She helped us.  We’re going to help her,” I said sharply as he worked.  This was not the time to bring this up with me.

        “But…”

        “Enough with your suspicion!” I yelled as I rounded on him.  “Right now she needs our help.  I know you don’t trust anypony, but we are going to do this.”  Clearly my outburst shocked him.  I took a deep breath and sighed.  “Look.  I know she’s Enclave.  I know she says she wants to help.  I also know I’d love to see what the sun is really like.  But letting her die isn’t an option for me.”

        “I…”  He looked over at her and then sighed.  “I wasn’t going to let her die.  I just… why do you trust her?  You trust everypony.  Watcher.  Bottlecap.  Even the Crusaders.  Morning Glory.  You even trust me when I’ve told you that I want to shoot you.”

        I looked at him as he worked to mix the gland and the healing potion.  “I don’t know.  I can’t help it.  I just accept people until they try to kill me or hurt somepony else.”  Maybe it was an effect of 99.  With the exception of the Overmare, there was no real chance for guile there; everypony knew everypony and even deep secrets were common enough knowledge.  The closest you came to deception was bluffing at poker.  I probably knew the dirt and flaws on a hundred different mares in 99.  “I just believe that ponies are more likely to help than screw each other over.”

        He chuckled softly.  “Just what the wasteland needs: an optimist.”

        I sighed and rolled my eyes.  “P-21…”

        “I mean it,” he said seriously, surprising me.  He instructed me to fill the syringe since my magic was a touch more precise than his mouth and hooves.  Once it was full, we injected it into her leg.  A minute later she shuddered as her breathing deepened.  “You frustrate me, annoy me, and sometimes scare me half to death, but you also impress me terribly from time to time.”

        “So does that mean next time I talk to Watcher I can tell him we’re friends?” I asked with a smile.

        “Closer to friends,” he said as he held his hooves a millimeter apart.  “About this much.”

        I laughed and shook my head.  “Okay.  Good to know I’m making progress.”  I sighed as I finally returned to actually paying attention to my surroundings.  There were a number of red marks on my E.F.S.  “I’m going to clear the lab and see if I can find the maneframe.”

        “Right.  Don’t try and take parts out of it,” he said with a half joking, half serious smile.

        I proceeded further into the lab, kicking brass and shotgun hulls with each step.  I had to admit I was glad nopony had made it up here before us.  There was a veritable cornucopia of ammunition up here.  I passed by ammo crates with pistol, revolver, shotgun, and rifle ammunition.  Several of them had markings I’d never seen before: red, orange, green, blue, and black bands.  And here I had a number of sentry robots to try them out on!

        Red proved to be some sort of incendiary that seemed rather futile.  An orange shotgun shell, on the other hoof, exploded on contact like a grenade!  Perhaps not as large a blast radius as the thrown variety, but still impressive!  Green just splattered some sort of goo all over the metal.  Then I fired a blue shell at a turret.  There was an electric flash and then the turret just stopped.  I looked skeptically at the disabled device and then at my gun.  At first I’d been impressed.  Then a minute later, the damn thing powered back up again, and I had to disable it the old-fashioned way: with buckshot.  Black simply fired a bunch of tiny sharpened nails that bounced right off the armor of the few remaining sentries.

        I got to one door and immediately froze.  I could feel the tingle in my skin even before I could hear the clicking of the PipBuck on my foreleg.  Whatever was behind the locked door, I could live with the mystery.  Finally I cleared the last turret and discovered an office.  ‘Dr. Trottenheimer.  Research Lead.’ was written on a tarnished plaque on the front.  Inside were a safe and terminal; I’d leave them to the more reliable hooves of P-21.  A unicorn skeleton sat in the chair, an unusual pistol on the floor next to it.  

As I looked, however, I noticed the bones appeared… wrong.  Like his skull was made of wax and left too long near a heating duct.  The hole in the skull didn’t look blown out, but instead appeared melted.  I reached out with my magic and carefully lifted the gun.  I’d never seen its like before, but something about it made me squirm.  I put it in my duffel bag.  Most ominously, perhaps, my PipBuck identified it as simply ‘Trottenheimer’s Folly’.  Then I looked at the wall the exit wound pointed at...

Like most buildings in the Wasteland, Ironshod Firearms R&D was ridiculously overengineered.  I might not have known the first thing about construction, but there were some walls with three inches of armored plate squeezed inside a foot of reinforced concrete.  It was made to withstand missiles.  So when I walked to the hole in the wall, I could only stare through the glassy tunnel that passed through the armored office and the exterior wall of the room beyond that.  I glanced back at Dr. Trottenheimer’s corpse, then looked back at the hole.  What the fuck kind of bullet had done that?

*        *        *

        It was an hour later when I swapped shifts with P-21 so he could work his lockpicking magic.  He passed me a ratty old magazine with half the pages falling out.  Apparently, it was some sort of ‘cookbook’, though it had some pretty odd articles like ‘Plastic explosives and you’ and ‘How did Pinkie Pie foil the Prance bombing?  Three theories’.

Glory’s breathing had slowed and deepened, and it was a few minutes after P-21 left that she finally opened her eyes.  “I’m alive?” she asked quietly.

        “Does this look like the afterlife?” I said with a snort.  “Yeah.  We flipped a bottle cap and it landed carrot up, so we had to save you,” I said with a flippant grin.

        “You flipped…”

        “A joke,” I explained.  “Don’t Enclavers joke?” I asked, arching a brow.

        “It’s just Enclave ponies, Blackjack.  Not Enclavers...”  Morning Glory looked away.  “And no.  I don’t suppose that we do,” she said as she slowly sat up, holding her head with her hooves.  “Ow… ow…”

        “Headache?”  Stupid question.  I fished in my bags for a bottle of Sparkle-Cola and levitated it to her, deftly flipping off the top and pocketing it.  She smirked as she held it in her hooves and took a drink.  “So.  You said some things while you were out of it that made P-21 curious.”

        Instant evasive look.  Not good.  Worse, she looked upset.  “I did?”

        “Something about ‘no more weapons’?  I mean I just found it ironic given the nearest lab we found was a munitions laboratory, but P-21 was a little more curious,” I said softly, hoping to coax her into opening up a little.

        She closed her eyes, looking away.  “I… I don’t want to talk about it.”

        “That’s fine.  Just fine.”  P-21 wants to shoot me for reminding him of home but he doesn’t want to talk about it.  She did something with weapons in the Enclave and doesn’t want to talk about it.  I’d give one of my left legs for somepony without a dark and troubled past.  “Just, if you ever do, I know that I’d be glad to hear it,” I said as I rose, leaving her to her Sparkle-Cola.

        “I didn’t have a choice,” she said to my back, softly.

        “Excuse me?”  I looked back at her with a politely curious expression.

        She stared down at the fizzy carrot flavored water.  “I didn’t have a choice.  In the Enclave… if you have aptitude then you’re... encouraged... to accept training and an assigned job in your field.”  She sighed and closed her eyes.  “My aptitudes were in technical engineering and medical procedures.  I never worked on anything critical, but there was always… talk.  Talk about how something could be weaponized.  Talk about how something could be used for the Enclave’s security.”  She looked back at the bottle.  “I didn’t like it.”

        “So you couldn’t just quit?”  Gee… looks like Stable 99 wasn’t so unique after all.

        “I could, but… it would have been complicated.”  I could tell she wasn’t going to elaborate past that.  “So I transferred into the Volunteer Corps.  Got my two weeks training and came down here.”

        

        I gave a crooked smile.  “You know, someday I’d really love to hear about life in the Enclave.  Compare notes and all that?”

        “It’s… I can’t.  Please… it’s not that I don’t want to,” she said softly as she stared at her hooves.  “It’s that I can’t.  If they ever found out I broke that protocol… I have family.”  Her lavender eyes begged me to understand.  “They’d be investigated.  There’d be inquiries.  My sister might lose her job.  My father would certainly be disgraced.  I can’t talk about it.  Not about Thunderhead or what I did there.  Nothing.”  She covered her face with her hooves.  “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you.  I can’t,” she said as she gave a snotty sniff.

        I felt that if I pushed right now I could make her crack.  My mane itched just right to get some solid answers.  Instead I sighed and brushed my magic along her purple mane.  “Don’t worry about it.  I get it.  And I’ll tell P-21 to drop it as well.”  So it looked like I’d be putting up with secrets for a bit longer.  I rose and stretched.  “Finish that off, and then do me a favor; take three or four of those glands and mix up a few more doses of antidote.  I’d like to avoid doing this again.”  She smiled and nodded.  Sure, we wouldn’t get the full bounty, but I’d live with that.  We might not live without it.

        “I’m going to go find P-21.  Find out if he needs any help.”  I had no idea how I was going to help him crack terminals or locks, but hey.  It sounded better than saying ‘I’m useless unless there’s something to shoot.’  Leaving her to recompose herself, I headed back to the doctor’s office.  While I walked I levitated out the pistol.  I’d never seen its like, and the design was absolutely bizarre.  I couldn’t find a place for a clip, so it couldn’t be an automatic as I had assumed.  The caliber was huge; almost as big as my horn!  It seemed as if the pistol had been armored.  It loaded from a breech like a break-action shotgun, but clearly it’d been engineered for precision.

        Well, worse came to worse I could hit someone with it.  It had a value of more than two thousand caps, but I couldn’t imagine it would fetch that price if I didn’t find bullets for it.

        “So… any luck?” I asked as I sat on the desk, crossing my rear hooves as I perched upright, getting a distinctly odd look from P-21.  I noticed a little plaque on the desk.  I have become death, destroyer of worlds.  Creepy.

        “I’m on attempt sixty-one,” he replied with a soft sigh, returning his gaze to the terminal.  After a moment, he suddenly brightened a bit.  “And… apparently sixty-two is the charm.  There was a click, and the safe in the corner opened up.  “There are some journal entries here.  Want to read them while I see what we have?”

        “Ugh… I probably shouldn’t.  It’ll just depress me,” I said, but did I mention I hate being bored?  I really couldn’t help myself as I rocked forward onto my hooves and trotted around the desk to read the journal entries off the terminal.

Entry 1> I am writing these entries in the event that I am detained or have my memory modified by the MoM.  My move from Horizon Labs to Ironshod Firearms is jarring, to say the least, but vital to my safety.  G.B. is doing everything he can to protect myself and S.S. from the director.  I fear it may not be enough.  B was quite thankful to get an intellect such as mine on his R&D staff, but I’ve noticed considerable resentment of my addition from the old team.  That doesn’t matter; though the new work may be far below my abilities, it is at least enough to provide for myself and my family.  And, considering the current circumstances, it is probably better for me to keep my genius to myself for a while anyway.

Entry 2> T.B. came by trying to convince me to work with the new director.  Odious mule.  He has no loyalties to anypony but himself.  It’s clear that he feels quite superior for his betrayal; he kept going on about ‘the winning side’.  P.P. sent more MoM goons to search my files, but they did not find these records.  I hope I will be safe, if only for the moment.  G.B. is fighting for us all.

Entry 3> G.B. came to me last night.  I’ve no idea how he bypasses security.  I’ve never seen him so… disturbed.  For once, G.B. appeared quite at a loss, and he was truly desperate for my expertise.  After P.H. and P.S., haven’t I done enough?  No.  For him, for his faith in believing in me when none would… I owe him this.  He swore it would never be used on P.L. or P.C.  He said the most peculiar thing: ‘There are greater threats.’  I am uneasy, but I will do this for him.  Fortunately, I’ve grown quite adept at keeping secrets from my loved ones; this would only worry them, and the less they know, the safer they’ll be from the MoM.

Entry 4> I fear that my security may be compromised.  Another conspicuous visit by the director again.  He may be quite amiable, but I cannot allow him to sway me.  He promised me a transfer to the M.A.S. if I agreed to work with him.  It was tempting.  I was destined to work with the greatest forces known to ponykind, not to make… bullets.  As glorious as it would be to work under T.S. again, I had to decline.  The director was quite put out.

Entry 5> G.B. has provided the metal, flux, and cores necessary.  As I am working for a firearms manufacturer, I craft the devices in the shape of bullets and guns.  It is true enough to their function.  I warned G.B. of the risks, but he was quite dismissive.  I am not certain of him anymore.  Is his agitation paranoia or legitimate alarm?  Am I crafting another ‘Dragon Killer’ bullet like the ones that slew B.M.?  I do not know any longer.  Four Leaf wants me to spend more time at home.  She says the girls miss me terribly.  I hope that, after this, things will finally settle down.

               Entry 6> We are undone.  G.B. has been arrested.  My lab was raided by MoM officials.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen P.P. so happy.  She questioned me personally.  I told her precisely what I had done; it was not my fault that she lacked the intellect to understand me.  I foiled her interrogation spells and sent her mind-digging lackeys on a tour of the Trottingham countryside.  They’ve seized all my work, but they missed bullet #9 still in the fabricator.  It was quite pleasing to watch them gape at my art like stupid mules.  Still, I am feeling quite ill from the flux.  I should go home but... there’s still so much to do.  Even with G.B. gone... there are others he trusted, and I know how important he thought this was, even if I don’t know why.

               Entry 7> There’s something going on in the city.  I thought it was just another attack when the sirens went off, but this was something different.  Something far more substantial.  For a moment I heard the most horrible scream.  After that, the entire building went into security lockdown.  I can’t leave my own office for fear of being vaporized by our own security ponies!  There is no line out of my office.  I suspect something quite terrible has happened.  I fear the illness from flux contamination is progressing.

Entry 8> There is no more point in waiting.  Nopony is coming.  I’m not going to wait days for flux contamination or dehydration to claim me.  The BGP, and one BBP.  Ironic.  So much work and sacrifice for it these past weeks, so much concern for the vitally important need G.B. never bothered to tell me the details of, and this will be its first and only use.  I’ve decided to rename it ‘Trottenheimer’s Folly’.  I am sorry, Four Leaf.  You always said I was an unlucky pony; I don’t know about unlucky, but I feel that I have been incredibly stupid.  If anyone should ever discover this hidden log, please know that I always endeavored to serve Equestria with diligence, dignity, and honor.  If by some chance my family should read this, know that Daddy is sorry.  Farewell.

Okay.  Well, at least I was right about one thing: it had depressed me.  Also confused me out of my horn.  I looked at the hole blasted through the wall and floated Folly in front of me.  No shell casing remained in the breech.  “What do you think did this?”  I couldn’t think of anything that could have caused that kind of damage.  With bullets that ignited, exploded, shocked, perforated, or poisoned, what did you need that could do more than that?

“No idea,” P-21 said as he put some gold coins in my duffel bag.  There were tons of finance reports and other papers in the safe, as well as a strange black case.  It was a little longer than my hoof, but skinny.  As I touched it, there was a soft pop and it opened.  He immediately looked a little agitated.  “Wait.  How’d you open that?  I didn’t see a lock or a seam or anything!”

I furrowed my brows as I smiled at him.  “Um… P-21?  I shoot things.  You’re asking the wrong pony,” I said as I flipped open the lid and looked down at the empty interior.  “Well, that’s anticlimactic,” I muttered as I looked at the orange velvet-lined space, showing it to him.  He looked equally baffled.

After carefully going through the lab and the downstairs offices, I found myself sitting on more ammunition than I’d encountered yet.  I even had a sizable collection of the specialty rounds, but nothing marked ‘BBP’.  Despite my reservations, P-21 opened the locked door and discovered a room filled with dozens of containers.  One labeled ‘Biomagical Flux #13’ had broken open and oozed strange rainbow-colored fluid that glowed softly.  My PipBuck clicked ominously, and I closed the door once again.  If there was anything valuable in there, some other, more radiation-proof pony could benefit.

We found the Ironshod Firearms maneframe in the basement.  Of course, all I really did was sit there while P-21 entered the doctor’s password and downloaded the contents into my PipBuck.  EC-1101 could have some company.  I looked at the musty poster that read ‘Ironshod Firearms: How do you like them apples?’ and chuckled at the joke.

Then, with nothing in particular to do, my mind wandered back to the journal entries from Trottenheimer’s terminal.  Just what had been going on in this place before the bombs fell?  “Hey, Glory, who was running this place during the war?”

“Well, probably the Ministry of Wartime Technology, ultimately.”  I looked at her blankly and she back with unease.  “The Ministry of Wartime Technology.  One of the six Ministries that ran all of Equestria?”  I smiled and cocked my head to the side.  “Didn’t they have a school in your stable?” she blurted.

“Does Blackjack strike you as very studious?” P-21 asked with a thin smile.

Glory sighed.  “Well... in a nutshell... the Ministries ran the war effort.  There were six of them, and the Ministry of Wartime Technology was in charge of Equestria’s private companies, particularly the defense contractors.  The Ministry Mare of the M.W.T., the pony who ran it, was Applejack,” Glory supplied as she peered into the guts of the machine.  “I don’t really know much about her personally, I’m afraid.  There was apparently plenty of friction between her and the ponies under her, though.  Half of Hoofington was probably connected to the M.W.T. in some way.  Ironshod.  Robronco.  Flash Industries.  Aegis Security.  Boom Incorporated.  They were all developing weapons for the war effort.”

        “All in Hoofington?” I asked as I found a desk and sat my haunches on it, facing her and earning an amusingly baffled look.

        “Hoofington was the war research effort.  I understand it used to be a college town, but when the war picked up, the old town was leveled in a surprise zebra raid early on.  The survivors swore to rebuild, and they did with a vengeance.  Hoofington existed to invent things to kill zebras.  And they were very good at it.”  Carefully, she deactivated the power and started to remove some internal components.  “Hoofington was a strange city, though.  All the Ministries were involved here.  Even the Ministry of Awesome, since Hoofington housed the Shadowbolts.  Still, according to the official records, Hoofington was almost like a country unto itself.  Lots of secrets.  Manehattan might have been bigger, Canterlot the capital, Fillydelphia the industrial nexus, but Hoofington was the city of the future.  Small wonder the zebras never wasted a chance to attack it.  No other city in Equestria was targeted more.

        “And then everything blew up,” I commented softly.  “Along with the future.”

----------------

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Shotgun Surgeon - When using shotguns, regardless of the type of ammunition used, you ignore an additional 10 points of a target’s damage threshold.

(Thanks to Kkat for creating FoE. Props to Hinds for helping me make this halfway decent.)


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 6: Play

        I know lots of other ways to take care of you.  Don't worry.  You're gonna get better.

        The rain had returned while we were in Ironshod Firearms R&D; this time it was a seemingly endless drizzle that cut the world down to a thirty-foot bubble around us and rendered the ground a layer of slippery muck.  It made what should have been a simple trek southwest to the Fluttershy Medical Center a real toil.  I wasn’t going to discard a single bullet or bit of loot that might contribute to our ten-thousand-cap goal, though, and with P-21’s injured leg and Glory’s lack of pockets, I was left slogging through knee-deep mud while they trotted ahead.

        I didn’t worry quite so much with my EFS and compass.  In fact, with the navigation tag up I couldn’t get lost.  The rain gave me time to think, which is always a bad thing.  Ten thousand caps just to find out what EC-1101 was, and once we found out, what then?  Deus was still out there, somewhere.  So was Sanguine, who directed him.  Then there was Hoofington, a city of technology and a city built on its hatred of the zebras.  A country within a country, as Glory had described it.  A place of secrets.

        “Ugh.  I am not a smart pony.  Why do I have to deal with all this complicated shit?”

        “Stop whining, Blackjack,” P-21 said from ahead.

        “I am not whining.  I am complaining.”

        “No.  I’m fairly sure that’s whining,” Glory commented overhead.

        No respect.  I tell ya, I get no respect.

        Never had I been so happy to reach a parking lot.  The rusting carts and sky carriages slowly decayed in little heaps across the cracked, weathered, and uneven asphalt.  Still, it wasn’t mud, and that was all I cared about at the moment.  Okay, that was a lie, but if I actually thought about all the things in the back of my head I’d get a migraine.  So I was in denial.  Who could blame me?

        And that’s a really big building.

        Even through the veil of rain, the Fluttershy Medical Center rose before us like an immense tree stump.  Multiple wings branched from the central structure.  I’d never seen a structure like it before, which admittedly wasn’t saying much.  I simply couldn’t help but think of twenty Megamarts stacked one atop another.  If Bottlecap had been right, this was my best shot at finding something to fix P-21’s leg.

        The yellow bars on my PipBuck gave me pause.  One day, I’d find somepony who could explain how the magical cuff could tell if something was going to shoot me offhand or not.  Maybe P-21 could figure it out.  Still, might as well be friendly, so I holstered the shotgun across my back and shouted into the hazy rain, “Friendlies coming!  Don’t shoot!”

        The yellow bars immediately started to mill about as we approached.  P-21 gave me a look, but personally I would be less inclined to shoot a pony who asked me not to.  True, I was an idiot, but still.  As we got closer, we came across a low barricade of rusted sky wagons and, behind the barricade, four ponies pointing rifles at us.  Pointing, but not shooting.  I could live with that.  “Somepony needed some squatters removed?”

        “Yes,” a buck called out into the rain.  His tone sounded dignified and just a bit like the Overmare. “I’m so grateful somepony decided to come.  Please, come and get out of the rain.”  I immediately looked at P-21 in surprise.  Manners?  In the Wasteland?  I walked past the barricade and towards the center of the encampment, where, I now saw, a long sky trailer had been draped with canvas to create an island of dryness in the middle of the drizzle.  The first thing I took in about the ponies sheltering there was they were clean, and not clean in an ‘I was just rained on’ way.  Their clothes were trimmed and patch-free.  They wore some sort of light armor similar to my security barding and their weapons were of distinctly higher quality.

        Then I saw a unicorn inside the trailer who had to be the pony in charge.  Charisma and charm seemed to drip from his ivory hide and cobalt mane, and he gave the impression of illuminating the dim interior of the rusty trailer.  His smile made my knees feel like I’d just glanced up at the sky.  “Greetings.  I am Prince Splendid.”  You bet you are!  “I’m glad somepony responded to my requests in a prompt manner.  Would you care for some refreshment?”

        “Sure.  Refreshment sounds great.”  Hot body, manners, and feeding us?  This day just got a whole lot better!  In fact, I was pretty sure that this was the high point of my entire experience in the Wasteland.  Heck, of my life!

        Refreshment involved chilled Sparkle-Cola RAD, which had a delicious sharp radish flavor – and more clicks on the radiation sensor – and some fresh carrots and apples.  I could only imagine where he’d gotten fresh produce from.  “So, excuse me for wanting to talk business while we eat, but who exactly are we evicting from that building?” P-21 asked as he batted a half-eaten carrot around his plate.  I gave him a sharp glare that hopefully said ‘do not piss off the nice unicorn with the hot flank’.

        “Members of the Collegiate that have some academic interest in the site,” Splendid said calmly, without showing the slightest bit of umbrage.  “We’ve tried to negotiate with them, but they’ve adamantly refused.  You know the Collegiate.”  Actually, I didn’t.  “There’s nothing in Hoofington that they don’t want to study.  So we need somepony to convince them to leave until my business is concluded.”

        “And just what is your business here?” I asked, giving him my winningest, flirtiest smile.  True, I’d only employed it on Midnight with little success.  “It must be important for somepony like you to be here.”

        He looked at me with momentary consideration, his smile softening before he sighed.  “My father is old and very ill with a wasting disease.  Fluttershy’s Ministry of Peace pioneered revolutionary medical technologies and procedures, from simple healing potions to megaspells that could resuscitate entire battlefields.  I believe there must be something here that will restore my father to health.  Without my father, I fear the Society will tear itself apart.”

        Society ponies will give ya a meal and then tell ya how grateful ya should be ta get it.  “The Society?”

        “Ah, yes.  You’re from a stable.  I should have remembered that you’d be unfamiliar with the various political factions of the Hoof.  My apologies.”  He stood and said with great pride, “The Society members are the descendants of the aristocracy of Equestria.  Our king and leaders are related to Princess Celestia, and thus we are the rightful inheritors of Equestria.”  He gave a great sigh.  “Sadly, few in the Wasteland will acknowledge our bloodline claims.”

        I tried to keep a pleasant smile as Stable 99 returned with a vengeance and the Overmare popped into my mind.  “So… you think you should get to rule because your ancestors did?”  He smiled and nodded, pleased that I’d gotten it.  Great.  That splashed ice water on my hot, steamy fantasy.

        He seemed to detect my skepticism and smiled graciously.  “I understand that the burden is on the Society to prove its worthiness to lead.  We don’t expect everypony in the Wasteland to bend knee to us simply because we say so.  But for a thousand years and more, Equestria knew peace and harmony under an autocrat.  Why should it not be so again?”

        Somehow, the fact we were in a rusty sky trailer drinking two-hundred-year-old soda and finding fresh food a luxury made such a simple nostalgic desire both tantalizing and disappointing.  Worse, Prince Splendid seemed to believe every word.

        “So you want access to the clinic.  If I can convince these Collegiate ponies to let you in, would that be okay?” I asked, tapping hooves before me.  Things were so much easier when I could just shoot ponies.  If I lived, I won.

        “If you can, it would be a miracle, but an acceptable one.  We have no argument with the Collegiate and their naive ideals.  I merely want access to find something to cure my father.”  Still, a solution with nopony getting killed was preferable.

        Prince Splendid was a gracious host, but there was way too much awkwardness.  I had to admit, I was impressed by what I saw; his ponies were better armed and equipped than most.  He had fresh food; that was a miracle in and of itself.  It was simply the fact that the Society seemed to believe it had some inherent right to rule.  Even if he got this super cure for his father, who would it help besides ponies who already had so much?

        We stepped back out into the rain with our stomachs fed, but my head, already struggling with earlier doubts and questions, now throbbed.  Plus, it didn’t help that my loins were very interested in Splendid, and I had no clue how to address that; in 99 I’d put myself on his breeding queue.  No doubt Splendid would have had a backlog of years.  Now, I doubted it was just as simple as getting him alone and lifting my tail.

        “So, what do you think?” I asked P-21, and then frowned as I saw him staring out into space as he limped along beside me.  “Yoo-hoo… Equestria to P-21…”  I swished my tail through his field of vision.

        He blinked out of his reverie, looking… embarrassed?  “Yeah?  What?  Oh, think?  I think… ah...”  I stared in fascination as he actually stammered!  “I… I’ll leave it up to you.”  Rarely have such ominous words been uttered by so level-headed a pony.  I didn’t think he could stammer!  

        “What’s gotten into you?” I asked, and grinned as he went even redder.

        “Nothing.  I mean… I’m just thinking about what he said to you…”  He scowled and then clenched his eyes closed.  “Never mind!” he said as he limped ahead of us.

        “What was that all about?” I asked Morning Glory.  Prince Splendid had been rather gracious to me.  “Is he jealous?”  I looked back at Splendid’s encampment and then at P-21’s backside.  He was!  It explained everything.  I couldn’t help but nicker.

        The gray pegasus looked up at me in confusion and a touch of worry.  “You’re asking me?”

        Good point.  We crossed the parking lot, heading towards an entrance surrounded by sandbags.  And two turrets… hello!  Still, the bars remained yellow rather than red.  “Hey!  Don’t shoot!”

        “One day you’re going to give somepony ideas,” P-21 muttered.

        Ponies scrambled at my call, and soon three pointed weapons from behind the sandbags.  “Go away!” a buck yelled, his thick glasses looking almost like goggles as he gaped at us standing in the rain.

        “Calm down!” I said as I sat.  “We don’t want trouble.  We just want to talk.”  Preferably out of the rain.

        “Are you with the Society?” he asked at once and then blurted nervously, “Tell them we’re not leaving!”  Their beam rifles looked like they’d fall apart with a sharp kick.  Those turrets on the other hand…

        “I’m here to talk.  If I can work out a deal where nopony gets killed, even better,” I said truthfully.  “My name’s Blackjack.”  Incomprehension.  I sighed and added, “Security?”  Comprehension dawned and they started to relax a little.  Urgh… as much as I hated to admit it, that little title of DJ Pon3’s was making my life easier.

        “I’m Archie.  Come on in,” goggle buck said as he turned and trotted back into the hospital.  It looked like this was some sort of emergency ward or the like.  It’d seen much better days.  The butterfly wallpaper was peeling off in brown strips, a layer of muck coated the floor, and it looked like the emergency beds had been converted into sleeping quarters.  A strange drum hummed softly in the corner, providing power to a number of flickering terminals.  There were a dozen or so ponies working in the dingy space.

        “So are you the pony in charge?” I asked.

         The brown buck with the scraggly black mane nodded.  “For now.  My boss went upstairs a week ago and hasn’t come back,” he said nervously as he looked at the three of us.  “Prince Splendid’s tried to take over more than once.  First he tried to sweet talk us, then bribes, then he attacked.”

        “Must be something really worthwhile here, then,” I commented lightly, and got a worried look from the twitchy brown buck.  “Something that a lot of ponies need,” I amended quickly, and he noticeably relaxed.

        “There is.  When we got here, we found that the upper levels are completely untouched.  They must have sealed hermetically when the bombs fell and only disengaged when the radiation dropped to survivable levels.”  He looked at several racks with medical goods stacked on them.  “Unfortunately, the team who went up there didn’t come back.  Neither did the team that went in to look for them.  Now we’re stuck here till the Collegiate can send reinforcements.”

        “Prince Splendid thinks there’s something here that will help him with his sick father,” I said as neutrally as possible as I saw Archie frown.

        “There is!  Well… probably,he said as he turned to the terminal.  “We’ve found notes on several new healing potions.  Targeted antibiotics.  Even regeneration spell infusions.”  He pointed at the terminal.  “If we could find samples and study them, we might be able to discover how to make more.  That could take years though.  The prince just wants to take the samples and use them.  Even offered to buy them, as if you could put a price tag on this knowledge!

        Great.  It looked like what everypony was after was above us.  My mane started to twitch.  “Well, how about this, then: my friends and I take a peek upstairs, see if we can find your teams, maybe find something to make both you and the Society happy, and everypony lives?”  What were the odds that I’d only find one dose of magical experimental super heally stuff?

        Damn, my mane was itching like crazy.

        We left the emergency room and walked into the central atrium, stepping into a virtual forest.  The interior of the massive structure was hollow, and far above us the domed skylight had shattered, allowing rain and runoff to cascade down into the fountain set in the center of the chamber.  Chipped and faded concrete vines coiled up the interior, giving the impression of being within some mythical wood.  Butterflies and birds perched, frozen and forgotten for two centuries.  Glass tubes had once held elegant brass elevators, but now they were smashed or leaned out over the interior.

        In the center of the fountain rose the bronze statue of a pegasus pony, one hoof around the shoulders of a young unicorn filly, the other stroking the mane of an earth pony colt.  On her shoulder perched an elegant bird.  At her hooves, a small rabbit seemed to glare rather insolently out with his forelegs crossed.  A plaque at the base of the statue read, ‘We Must Do Better’.  Looking at the pegasus’s gentle smile, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the statue wept for all the decay around her.

        “Who was she?” I asked Glory softly, feeling a strange sense of reverence and sadness.  

        “Fluttershy.  She was a ministry mare, and a friend of Rainbow Dash.  She founded the Ministry of Peace and dedicated herself to helping the ponies of Equestria throughout the war.”  Morning Glory looked wistful as well as she looked up at her.  “As the war progressed it took its toll on her.  Some claim she aided the enemy, despite orders to the contrary, and gave zebras medical supplies and other care.  At the end... well… I was taught she went mad with grief and wandered out into the Wasteland to die.  She simply couldn’t live with having failed Equestria.”

        I stared at the bronze statue a moment longer.  “If she failed, I can’t believe it was for lack of trying,” I said softly as we headed towards the stairs.  Morning Glory, however, examined the remaining elevator curiously.  “Something wrong?”

        “I think it’s still functional.  It just needs a spark battery and some scrap metal,” she said as she pried up a panel in the center of the platform.  I looked at P-21.  No need to make him climb ten flights of stairs if we could avoid it.  I checked my inventory and nodded, floating the components to her for the repairs.  A few minutes later the brass platform hummed softly inside its tube and an eerie noise filled the air.

        “What is that?” I asked as the three of us stood upon the metal disk.  It wasn’t music but… similar.

        “Birds,” Glory replied simply as we lifted into the air.  Higher and higher the platform rose, and I suddenly had to clench my eyes tight.  There was way too much open space around me, and the glass walls didn’t help.  I levitated out my shotgun and reloaded the drum, checking the wear and tear that had built up over the last day.  I was definitely doing a number on it.

        When the doors to the fifteenth floor opened I jumped through, breathing hard as I fought the urge to be sick.  When my heartbeat slowed I looked back at the elevator where P-21 and Morning Glory were frozen in place.  “What?” I asked as they stared at me… no.  Not at me.  Slowly I turned and looked at the wall opposite the elevator.  In flaking black-maroon letters, a single word was written as if with a paintbrush.  ‘PLAY’.

        Oh horseapples…

*        *        *

        Time had stopped as effectively as if I’d triggered S.A.T.S. and simply left it there.  My PipBuck’s chronometer might’ve still marked the time, but every minute felt like an hour.  Normally I’d be bored to stupidity, but here my every nerve was screaming at attention.  Step by cautious step we walked together, me first, then P-21, and lastly Glory watching behind us.  The word was painted every few feet, sometimes in elegant cursive and sometimes in wild, broad letters.  The lights flickered and dimmed, but I was used to dim and uncertain light.  I was not used to the soft, chiming melody that played all around us like an invisible music box with a cylinder that turned just a touch too slowly.

        “Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to lay your sleepy head…” a filly sang softly in the hallway behind us.  Slowly P-21 and I turned and looked back at Morning Glory without saying a word.  Our combined look was enough to silence the pegasus.  “Sorry,” she muttered.  I did not want to hear my childhood lullabies right now.

        There were other little variances.  Dolls hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the hallway.  A stuffed rabbit tucked into a hospital bed… no, not tucked.  Strapped.  Two dozen bed sheets stretched across the hallway, decorated with maroon houses and stick figures.  And more detailed paintings of ponies.  And… fire.  And ponies fighting.  Ponies dismembered.

        Something moved beyond the sheets, but when I yanked them aside I saw only empty hall.

        “What the hay is going on here?” I muttered softly.  I suddenly found myself longing for Pony Joe’s.  “Give me bodies… or something shooting at me… or something.  Not freaky pictures and words written in dark paint.”  I glanced back and saw both of them staring at me.  “What?”

        “She doesn’t know?” Glory whimpered to P-21.

        “Apparently not,” P-21 said as he looked behind us.

        “Know what?”

        Glory swallowed.  “That isn’t paint, Blackjack.”  She pointed at the black-red letters on the wall.

        I closed my eyes.  Oh I really really wish she hadn’t said that.  “Right.  Of course it isn’t.”  I looked down yet another empty hall and shouted, “Okay!  You’re officially sick fuckers!  Now come out so I can shoot you!”

        Then we heard a soft ‘thump, thump, thump, thump’ in the hallway ahead of us.  A bright red ball bounced down the dimly lit hall towards the three of us.  No… not a ball.  It was too irregular for that.  It rolled to a stop at my feet, leaving bright wet splotches on the floor.  The face on the severed head was a mask of terror.

        A foal giggled in the darkness.

        “Cute,” I muttered.  This head was fresh.

        “Shit.  Shit.  Shit,” P-21 repeated over and over again as he stared down at it.

        “Calm down,” I muttered, trying my best not to freak out.  “It’s just a head.”  As we watched, a knee-high door in the wall opened up and a small mechanical pony trotted out and washed off the smears of blood with rotating buffers on its hooves.  It ignored the severed head.  Now that was some shoddy programming.  Then it turned and disappeared back into its little door.

        “Maintenance robots,” Morning Glory whispered as we continued down the hall past empty hospital rooms.  The music box tune continued its soft, too-slow melody as we reached a nurse’s station.  Everything neat.  Everything put away except for the creepy little artifacts and associated body parts.  After so many ruined buildings, the cleanliness disturbed me almost as much as the music.

        I tried my radio, but the only channels I could find had the same music box melody.

        We came across an active terminal.  “Finally!  Maybe there will be an inventory,” P-21 said with some relief as he focused on the terminal.  I slowly panned the E.F.S., but my vision kept flickering as if something here jammed my signal.  I knew that head didn’t come from nowhere though.  He struggled for several minutes as the music box looped over and over again.  Then there was a soft beep as he cracked the password.  I looked over his shoulder, and then frowned as the screen went blank.

        >Peek-a-boo.  I see you.

        The scream that began to play from the terminal rose and fell at earsplitting volume.  “KILL ME!” she screamed over and over again between agonizing cries.  I grabbed P-21’s mane in my teeth and pulled him away from the terminal.  Then I put an explosive orange shell into the thing.  Silence dropped around us till our ears recovered and picked up the sound of the music box.

        “What the fuck is going on?” P-21 whispered, staring down the empty halls.

        “Want a gun?” I asked softly.

        “I’d just start shooting wildly,” he muttered in return.  Well, that was an improvement over saying he’d deliberately shoot me.  We resumed our search.  ‘PLAY’, the sanguine words demanded.  Yellow and red bars flickered so wildly in my PipBuck’s E.F.S. that I deactivated it before it made me sick.

        We came across a door with something new carved in the wood paneling.  ‘Ollie Ollie Oxen Free’.  I carefully opened it telekinetically, revealing a desiccated corpse rolled in a fetal position in the tiny space at the bottom of the linen closet.  She wore a nurse’s uniform.  Scratched in the wood before the body was a simple eulogy: ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’

        Morning Glory hyperventilated as P-21 talked to her in a hushed tone, holding the young pegasus to keep her from falling over.  Given that she herself had almost died of thirst in an equally tiny space, it was understandable.  That left me with the task of checking the body.  Her hide had dried to a leathery texture that crackled when I carefully swept it with my magic.  I found an ID card that read ‘Chief Nurse Tenderheart’.  A little magical glyph glowed on the bottom of the badge.  “What’s this?”

        Morning Glory refused to look towards me, so I floated it to her.  “It’s a key for special door locks.  The kinds that can’t normally be picked and need magic to bypass them.”  Hopefully door locks like the kind that protected experimental healing goods…

*        *        *

        Going up a floor hadn’t helped.  If anything, the scenery worsened.  We came across storage rooms that had been raided.  A cold room that Glory had described as a blood locker was completely empty.  Drained potion containers were stacked from floor to ceiling.  We found what I guessed was one of the Collegiate ponies… he’d been skinned and bristled from head to hoof with spent syringes.  ‘Mr. Needle is your friend’ had been written above him.

        I really wanted to introduce somepony to Ms. Shotgun.  

        We encountered a box in the hall, a large metal cube with small pink hearts painted on each side.  I couldn’t explain why, but I had the strangest fondness for the box.  There was a little handle sticking out of the side.  I glanced at the others, reached out slowly with my magic, and began to turn it.  “All around the mulberry bush… the monkey chased the weasel…” Glory sang softly, and I couldn’t bring myself to stop her.  I knew what was coming, but I was powerless to stop.  When the note hit ‘pop’, the metal top snapped open, and out flew a pony.  No… half a pony.  The skinned front half bounced back and forth on a heavy metal spring, front hooves crossed as if hugging itself.  Bony wings flopped around behind it.

        “A pegasus?” gasped Glory in horror.

        Then the box suddenly played the rest of the tune and there was a second metallic boing as its front legs popped wide and dropped three metallic apples.  Through reflex more than thought my telekinesis flung them away as the three of us hit the deck.  Silence.  Silence.  Silence.  Slowly I lifted my head and carefully turned the nearest grenade with my magic.  A hole had been neatly drilled in the bottom of each.

        Sick fu-- wait... not sick enough.  “Run!” I yelled as I grabbed P-21 with my magic and scooped Glory up as I bolted down the hall.  A few seconds later the bombs hidden inside the box exploded.  The three of us landed in a heap.

        “How’d… how’d you know?” P-21 muttered in shock, blood dripping from a nostril.

        “The only thing more messed up than scaring us with duds is scaring us with duds, letting us have a moment of relief, and then blowing us up with the real bomb.”

        “I don’t know which concerns me more.  That someone thought of that, or that you figured it out,” P-21 said with his usual dry smile.

        I stood and carefully trotted back towards the box, not sure how to take that.  I doubted there’d be a second bomb.  It wouldn’t be as much fun.  Far more effective, yes, but whoever the fuck was behind this wasn’t trying to kill us.  That wasn’t the point.  I found the pegasus torso and head.  “Is he Enclave?”

        Glory glanced at the body, shuddered and looked away, then looked again with a small frown.  “I…”  She swallowed and walked closer.  “I think so.  He’s slightly desiccated… maybe dead a month or so?  But we weren’t supposed to go anywhere near the clinic.”

        Only near raider nests.  “So this guy’s not with the Volunteer Corps?”

        “No.  He must be with security,” she said softly.  Surprise surprise...

        I looked ahead with a scowl.  “Whatever’s in here had better be worth it; I’m in a shooty kind of mood.”

*        *        *

        Things didn’t improve as we encountered more bodies.  A tea party of four bony ponies around a petrified cake with their hooves nailed to the table and party hats on their heads.  A body dressed in a foal’s tutu impaled on a turntable.  I was starting to become numb to the next horror around the corner, yet I couldn’t stop looking.  The music kept playing; I could barely hear things moving around out of sight.

        We found ourselves in a staff lounge.  Everything was neat and clean and tidy; I was starting to hate the cleanliness.  I longed for a wrapper.  An empty tin can.  A soda bottle left on a shelf.  Anything that was a sign that at one time normal ponies lived here.  I was getting sick of wooded wallpaper and frozen birds and butterflies.  Oh… and grotesquely posed corpses.  I longed for the boring gray walls of 99.

I used the bits we had to clean out the soda machines, sharing two of the fizzy drinks with Glory and P-21.  Anything that might have been a personal item was by and large missing.  I did find a newspaper clipping posted to the bulletin board.  It was so yellowed and brittle I feared even touching it with my magic as I read.  The beginning had fallen off, but the remainder I could just make out.

        …intosh was ninety minutes from Ministry of Peace care following the assassination attempt on Princess Celestia at Shattered Hoof Ridge.  Thousands of soldiers and countless non-combatants suffer while waiting for medical care.  Today, the Ministry of Peace, working in concert with the Ministry of Arcane Science and the Ministry of Wartime Technology, has devised a means of preserving injured or sick ponies until such time as treatment is available.

        No small measure of thanks goes out from the Ministry of Peace to the Office of Interministry Affairs.  Without their tireless work bringing together ideas from all across Equestria, we would never have been able to complete this new facility.  Countless young lives would be cut short or left to misery.  They are a testament to what needs to be done to end this war and open a new chapter for us all.

        -Fluttershy

        A means of preserving injured or sick ponies.  “This is it,” I said in excitement.  “If Splendid can bring his father here, they can keep him alive till the Collegiate makes a cure.  Heee!  I love it when a plan comes together!”

        “Blackjack,” Morning Glory said softly.  I glanced at her, and followed her gaze into the top corner of the room where a carved white bunny watched us sternly.  There was the tiniest little hum, and I watched a camera in one eye of the bunny slowly focus.

        “We should get going,” I said softly, leading us back out into the empty hallway.  As soon as we were through it, the door to the staff lounge closed behind us and locked with a solid click.  “Oh, that’s not good.”

        Suddenly the lights clicked out, plunging the hall into absolute darkness.  Then a red light appeared at the end of the hall.  “What the heck is…?” I started to ask, taking a step forward.  From the ceiling came a sharp flash, and I felt the bite of a beam weapon hit my chest.  Suddenly, the red light turned green, and from the hallway behind us something metallic screeched, coming closer.  I fired blindly down the hall, but the muzzle flashes only illuminated something big and bloody.  Suddenly the light turned red and it stopped.  We all froze.

        Oh Goddesses… it’s a game.

        The light turned green and I screamed, “Run!”  My magic grabbed P-21 and dragged him along beside me as the machine crashed along behind us.  Red light.  “Freeze!” I bellowed and everything stopped.  One second.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Green light!  We raced ahead as fast as we could, but the crashing behind us grew closer.  Red light!  Silence.  Green light!  Red light!  Green light!  Red light!  Morning Glory staggered a half step forward and cried out as the beam turret struck her leg.

        This red light I could feel the soft tickle of a breath on my hindquarters.  I just stared at the red light as I floated out a little disk and set it beneath me.  My magic hovered on the button.  Green light!  I pushed the frag mine’s arming tab and wasted no time dragging P-21 closer towards a door beneath the green light.  The mine beeped immediately and a second later there was a resounding PONG of metal being struck.  Three feet.  Two feet.  One foot.  I was through the door, and pulled P-21 after me, but Morning Glory was a few feet behind us.  Red light.  In the sanguine glow I could see the vaguely canine grin of metal right behind her as she trembled, frozen in terror.

        Then the door closed in our faces.

        “Glory!  No!  Glory!” I screamed as I fired several rounds into the door.  It didn’t even dent.  I beat it with the butt of my shotgun and kicked it with my hooves.  “What the fuck do you want, you fuckers?!  What!” I screamed down the hall.  “Whaaaaat?!”  My own voice echoed back at me.

        ‘PLAY’ answered the blood on the walls.

*        *        *

        Do you want to come with us?

        I’d killed Scoodle through ignorance.  Now I’d killed Glory through incompetence.  How could I have gone through the door without making sure she’d been through first?  I’d seen her get hit by the beam.  I should have known she’d be a few steps slower.  I’d sunk down with my back against the door, knocking my head against it with the shotgun cradled in my hooves.

        “Come on.  We need to keep going,” P-21 muttered softly.  I levitated the shotgun, shoving it controls-first towards his mouth.  “What are you doing?!” he stammered in shock, trying to push it away.

        “You said if I ever got another pony killed by being stupid that you’d end me,” I muttered, looking at my hooves.  “Time to make good on it.”

        “I’m not going to kill you for this, Blackjack,” he said softly.  “This wasn’t your fault.”

        “I’m the leader.  Whose fault is it if not mine?”

        “Whatever sick fucker is behind this,” he replied.  I didn’t move, still just trying to give him the gun.  His stoic mask crumbled as I saw fear creep into his features.  “Blackjack, I can’t do this without you,” he said softly as he sat down beside me.

        “Either I’m incompetent or I’m cursed.  Either way, you’re better off without me,” I muttered.  Is this it?  Is this the part where the wasteland breaks me?  “I don’t know what to do and I keep getting ponies killed that don’t deserve it,” I whispered.

        P-21 sighed, hugging the shotgun with his hooves.  “I don’t know what to do either.  If there isn’t a terminal or a lock I might as well be back in 99.  I’m so scared right now that the only thing I know for sure is that I’m going to die, and it’s going to be ugly.  I’m not you, Blackjack.  I might be smarter than you, but I’m not as brave as you are.”

        It hurt so much, but what could I do?  Give up and die… that was the easy out.  The contemptible way out.  Give in to hatred and just kill and kill and kill?  That was so tempting right now.  A bloody part of me craved it.  Kill the Collegiate, take their stuff, kill the Society ponies and repeat the process.  Kill, take, kill, take, and never feel again.  It was a more thrilling form of suicide.

        You keep going, knowing that it will never be enough.  You spend every second trying to make it right, knowing you never can.

        Slowly I reversed the pull on my horn and took the gun from him.  I rocked forward and stood.  I wasn’t quite done just yet.  Despite everything, despite the fact I was not a smart pony, a plan crept out of my meager brain.  Worse... I was looking forward to it.  “P-21… you’re ten times sneakier than I am.  You know terminals.  You can open locks and get where you need to go.  Somewhere in this place is someone controlling everything.  You’ve got to shut them down.”  I passed him the keycard.

        “You’re splitting us up,” he said flatly.  “You know nothing good can come of this, Blackjack.”

        “It’s the only way I can think of.  Together we’re a big target.  Alone… you might be able to shut them down.  I’ll be a nice, big, stupid pony to keep their attention,” I said with a grin.  I tried to keep it as I added, “You might also find Glory.”

        “You really think she might be alive?”

        No.  “I’m not going to give up hope just yet.”  Giving up hope was so ten seconds ago.  “Just do what you do best and leave being a decoy to the not smart pony.”

        “You’re not stupid, Blackjack,” he said quietly, then caught my arched brow.  “Okay.  Well.  Good luck.”  I loaded up the drum with orange shells and spun it once loudly as I trotted in the opposite direction.  As I trotted I felt an old song nibbling at the back of my mind.  I started to hum the tune as I slowly smiled.  It was phenomenally stupid, but that was something I excelled at!

        “You put your right hoof in… you put your right hoof out… you put your right hoof in, and you shake it all about,” I sang, tired of the music box playing in the background.  Okay, it was more shouting than singing as I charged down the hallway.  “You do the pony pokey and you turn yourself around.  That’s what it’s all about.”  I paused and grinned as I heard the music box cut off, replaced by the very tune I was singing!  That’s it, you sick fucker.  Pay attention to the crazy filly with the shotgun!

        “You put one shell in!  You take another one out!” I shouted as I blasted another bunny camera.  “You load another shell in and you blast it all about!  You do the pony pokey and take the fuckers out.  That’s what it’s all about!”  Move fast, shoot, and shoot some more.  If a turret popped out of the ceiling I popped it before it got to fire more than twice.  Don’t think.  Don’t let the fucker mess with me with spooky fucked up shit.  Shoot… shoot… kid.

        I froze in the hallway, and the music cut off as if with a knife.  The foal stood there in a strange pink dress.  Her lavender hide sported a massive scar running up her side and disappearing into her pink mane that fell across her eyes.  Her mouth was sewn in a grotesque grin as she stood before me in a doorway.  

Shoot, Blackjack!  “Play?” she whispered without moving even her lips.  Shoot her!  “Do you like my costume?”  Slowly she tilted her head up towards me.  Shoot shoot shoot!  Her mane fell aside, revealing two red lights for eyes.  Her mouth wasn’t sewn in a grin.  It was sewn shut!  “I wanna be a unicorn,” she hissed.  The gun shook in my magical grip as my focus wrestled with what was before me.  “Can I be you?”

The filly’s dress ripped as two metallic tendrils burst from her shoulders.  A razor sharp scalpel gripped in one slashed across my face, and I barely blocked it with my PipBuck.  The shotgun roared, and the shell struck the filly in the face.  The lavender hide ripped like cloth, revealing the smoking head of a small maintenance robot within the sewn together skin.  I put a second round into it and it crackled softly before collapsing.  “Tag!” I shouted down at the thing.  “You’re it!”

“We’re it,” a voice whispered down the hall.  “We’re it…”  In the dim light I saw two red eyes looking at me.  Four.  Six.  Lots.  “Play!” they whispered in delight.

Okay.  I definitely had their attention!  Now it was time to run!  “Catch me if you can!” I laughed as I ran like I’d never run before.

*        *        *

        I had no idea if I’d evaded the abominations, if they’d gotten bored, or if they were setting up more games.  I’d moved up a floor, and there weren’t any more hospital rooms.  This floor was for surgery.  The lights kept flickering on and off, making me jump as entire hallway segments appeared and disappeared.  The music had returned, this time a cheery tune about cleaning up winter.  Not only was it creepy, it muffled what little noise the abominations made as they moved.

        I found an office and pushed my way inside.  I was heartened to see the lock on the safe had been opened and the terminal decoded.  Whatever else had happened, P-21 was still out there.  The safe held a few healing potions and some gold bits.  I walked behind the desk, setting the shotgun down in front of me.  The specialty shells had one downside I hadn’t realized: they wore down my weapon like mad.  I really didn’t want to try and fire it again if I could help it.  Not without some significant repairs.  That left me with the automatic pistol from the weather station and Folly, which had no bullets.  Carefully, I took out the pistol and loaded the blue spark rounds interspersed with normal lead rounds.

        This office had been thoroughly trashed, but I really couldn’t tell if this was the result of the abominations’ vandalism or if the owner had just been particularly sloppy.  The stacks of papers were almost as high as my horn.  With a wry smile, I picked up a file on top of one of the towers.  ‘Marigold: PH medical authorization: Denied.’  Only the Ministry of Peace could have a form denial stamp with frowning bunnies, I supposed.  Then, stamped on top of it in pink ink with butterflies: ‘Medical waiver: Approved.’

        “Lucky Marigold.  I could sure use some of that luck now,” I said as I flipped through the first few pages and glanced at the picture of a blue unicorn with bright glasses standing in front of some kind of missile.  I was sure that, if I didn’t have monsters after me, I’d somehow be even more bored.  I tossed the file back on top of the stack and then started as the entire pile collapsed to the floor with a rustling, sighing soft crash.  “Great,” I muttered, rubbing my eyes and hoping P-21 could find a way to stop all this.  I sure wasn’t smart enough to.

        I noticed a sound file loaded on the terminal.  Why not?  I hit the playback as I prepared my clips.  At least it would give me something to do.

        Entry one: We’ve taken control of the facility here.  Data files have all been corrupted or deleted.  We need to find the central maneframe if we’re going to find anything worthwhile.  Took us forever to get in through the roof, but thank Celestia this place is intact.  We’ll probably move our entire biomedical team in here once it’s secure.  I’ve never seen so many medical supplies in one place; nothing special but we’ve got healing potions to burn.

        Entry two: Found the stasis chamber and the maneframe.  Dozens of pods still with power.  They can just stay asleep for all I care.  Some idiot severed the maneframe control  …kzzzzzzt… scalpel and got electrocuted for her trouble.  Shouldn’t be a hard fix.  Once it’s connected we’ll bring in the biomedical team.

        I stood and looked at some of the pictures hanging askew on the wall.  Fluttershy looking rather terrified on a stage in a weird dress; goddesses, she looked adorable!  The yellow mare smiling shyly beside a purple unicorn with a pink streak in her mane and an orange-coated, blond-haired mare in a cowboy hat; the construction site in the picture looked like it might be that of the Fluttershy Medical Center.

        Entry three: Everything is up and running.  Still some kinks to work out.  We’ve got to kill the sound system; that music box is driving me crazy.  Is this what they actually listened to two hundred years ago …bkzzzttt…

        Entry four: Brighthoof and Sky Sparkle are both AWOL.  Probably fucking in the staff lounge again.  Toys keep on showing up in the hallway; I think the soldiers are starting to get antsy.  I need to organize some …kzzzzzzt...  should be okay though.  The biomedical team found the …kkkkzzztt… experimental of course, but it’s almost a megaspell-level infusion.  Practically a cure for death.

        Looking at the computer terminal, I spotted a little square of note paper, ‘Please don’t ask about that procedure again, RH.  We’ve only had one success.  I won’t risk any more babies.  I can’t.  I’m sorry.  F’

        Entry …bkzzzzt… gone.  Something cut them apart.  Skinned them alive.  They were... posed.  It’s got to be Morn… kzzzzt… or Nigh… kkkztttt… find them, they’re arrested and command can figure out who to shoot.  Fuck it.  I’ll shoot em myself and save command the trouble.

        Skzzzzzzt… roof access is sealed.  The biomedical team is just gone.  Somehow he took them out. He’s the only one not accounted for.  Somehow he got control… kzzzzztttt… fuck… I’m tired of this game.  How the fuck could anyone in my team crack this hard?

        ….zzzzzzt… tired of playing…

        I finished loading the last drum and clip for the shotgun and automatic pistol: shock rounds in the latter, slugs and explosive shells in the former.  Then the recording started screaming.  I didn’t pale or freak out or shoot the terminal.  I simply sat there a moment listening to the screams.  Then I stretched out a hoof and clicked it off.  I loaded a clip into the automatic, worked the slide, and walked to the door.  I stood in the hall, looked left and right, and then shouted at the top of my lungs, “Play time!”

        It started as a whisper.  Then a mutter.  Then a roar.  Pick a hall.  Any hall.  I started running, but I was done with running away.  Keeping the automatic in a careful grip, I fired the rounds ahead of me at any nightmare stepping into my line of fire.  The maintenance robots sparked and jerked, ripping apart the skins that had been sewed around them.  “Bad pony!” they cried as I used S.A.T.S. and dumb luck to chew my way through them.  I paused only long enough to smash in their heads with the baton, just to make sure they didn’t start moving again.

        “That’s right!  I’m a bad bad pony!  And I’m coming to spank you!” I yelled out, half mad and all furious.  I giggled as I saw some turn and totter away.  “That’s right!  It’s time for spankings!” I screamed as I chased them down.

        “Bad pony,” a deep voice said from the doorway.  I turned and looked at a huge heavy robot draped in slabs of meat.  “Time out,” it said firmly as, with shocking deftness, it flung a glowing white ball of glass at me.  A grenade or… something.  I reached out with my magic to swat it back at the machine and…

oooOOOooo

        What the fuck was going on?  Why couldn’t I move?  Why couldn’t I talk?  Why couldn’t I scream?  Instead, I was lying on a couch and reading a newspaper about the continued outcry over the assassination attempt at Shattered Hoof.  It was as if I’d somehow been shoved into this strange mare resting on the couch.  The only thing vaguely familiar was a PipBuck, a far fancier version than my own, strapped to her hoof.

        A white mare with graying pink hair stood behind the desk in... an undamaged version of the office I’d just been in?  She had a bright red cross on her flank and a white lab coat draped over her shoulders and forelegs.  She fidgeted with her pencils on her desk, nudging them back and forth.  I looked over at her.  “Calm down, Doctor Redheart.”

        “Calm down?  How can I calm down, Garnet?  She’s coming here.”  She tapped her hooves against the desktop.  

        “It is her hospital, after all,” Garnet said, and I could feel her smiling.

Redheart sighed, frowning.  “Still, I can’t believe Cheerilee went straight to the Ministry Mare for this!  I thought all objections had been dealt with.  How could she bring this up now?”

“I’m more impressed that the Ministry Mare is coming all the way here to talk with her about her reservations.  It can take days to arrange a conference with Applejack or Rarity.  And forget Rainbow Dash or Twilight.”  The pony I was in sighed and folded the paper, her sparkling red hooves glittering from her pony pedicure.  “They’re almost inaccessible, even for the O.I.A.”

“Are things that bad?  I hadn’t heard,” Redheart said in concern.

My host waved a glittering hoof dismissively.  “Oh no.  I wouldn’t say things are bad.  Just… tense right now.  Everything would be so much easier if we could just disband the Ministry of Awesome and tuck whatever she’s doing into the Ministry of Wartime Technology.  But Luna won’t hear of it.”

Then the door opened and admitted a purple mare with smiling flowers on her flank.  She had wrinkles around her eyes and her hair was completely gray.  Garnet watched as the two mares looked at one another with clear dislike… and yet I could tell there’d once been the foundations of friendship between the two.  Nopony shows that much regret without having lost something dear.  “Cheerilee.  So good to see you again.  How are things at the education bureau?” my… host? inquired, rising and giving a polite hug.

Cheerilee seemed quite relieved to have somepony to talk to.  “Things are… well… like they are everywhere I suppose.  Thank you for working with the Ministry of Image for us, Garnet; sometimes it seems we always get bumped down the priority queue.  If it wasn’t for your help, we’d probably never get the materials we need.”  Then Cheerilee frowned.  “Though, could you please tell them that the Ministry of Peace’s schools don’t need their more… creative… history books?  I received a text telling how ancient zebras drank blood and practiced ritual pony sacrifice!”

“Ah, yes.  Sometimes the Ministry of Image can get a touch… inventive with their textbooks.”  I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.  If zebras didn’t drink blood, why say they did at all?  Since I couldn’t get off this ride, though, I thought I might as well pay attention to it.

Then the door opened and all the talking stopped.  I’d seen her cast in bronze; now I was seeing her in flesh.  The yellow pegasus may have been smaller and less dramatic than her statuary counterpart, but as I watched I couldn’t shake the grace and beauty and aura of kindness that seemed to radiate off her.  She greeted everypony by name, shook hooves, and talked with clear sincerity and interest.  Just touching her hoof made me feel special, and it wasn’t even me!

        Once everyone settled into a little circle, Redheart immediately spoke to the purple mare beside her.  “I know you’ve had second thoughts, Cheerilee, but we’re already committed to their use.”

        “Redheart.  We can’t use these devices yet.  We don’t even know all the spells that have gone into them!”  Cheerilee looked across at me as she said that.  “We have no idea what the long term effects will be.”  She turned to Fluttershy.  “You need to stop until we’re sure they’re safe.”

 

        “I know that you’re upset, Cheerilee, but we’ve tested them for three months with no ill effects, aside from a few complaints about boredom.”  The mature mare’s tone reminded me of Mom saying ‘trust me’.

        “You’ve tested them on animals and adults.  These are children, Fluttershy.  Three months being trapped in your own body might be tough for an adult who understands what’s going on, but what about a child?  They want to run and play and talk.  They can’t simply be locked up for weeks on end.  Fluttershy, it’s cruel!”

        Then Fluttershy spoke in a soft and gentle voice, “Are you saying I should leave children to die when I have a way to keep them safe and alive until they can be healed?”  At that instant I knew that Cheerilee was screwed.

        Cheerilee paused and then let out a struggling, “No… but… Fluttershy...”

        “Tell me that I should let children die and I will stop the use of the pods right now and start long-term testing.  A year at least,” Fluttershy said in that soft, reasonable voice.  A pony would need a heart of stone to say those words.

        “Fluttershy, I don’t want any colt or filly to die.  You know I don’t.  But I know kids.  I know this isn’t an answer.”

        “I know children too…”

        “No, Fluttershy.  You like kids.  You don’t know them.  You never even had one…”  Cheerilee cut off at a soft gasp from Redheart.  Awkward silence.  “…I’m sorry.”  Fluttershy simply closed her eyes as if bracing against an inner hurt.  Cheerilee looked horrified at what she’d said, but the words were spoken.

        More silence.  Then Fluttershy spoke softly, “Me too.  I’m sorry, Cheerilee, but I can’t delay using something I know can help.”  Slowly she stood.  “Excuse me.”  

        “Damn it… why did I say that?” Cheerilee asked with a snotty sniff.  I saw the specter of Redheart and Cheerilee’s friendship appear as the former walked over, bit a box of tissues, and offered one to the other mare.  She took it and blew her nose.

        “Don’t worry, Cheerilee.  It’s not as if the children will be left alone.  They’ll have constant interaction with the staff, me, family, and teachers.  They won’t be neglected,” Redheart assured her.  “Most of the time they won’t even be awake.  We can keep them sedated and dreaming sweet dreams until they can be woken up.  Beautiful dreamers.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.  Children don’t stay children forever.  They always become something else.”  The purple mare rose and quietly left the room as well.

Redheart shook her head.  “I’m sorry you had to see that.”  She put the tissues away and looked to me.  “She’s a teacher, and a good one.  I think she’d been much happier staying a teacher rather than working with the ministry’s schools.”

Garnet nodded.  “I can appreciate her concern.  I’m glad she hasn’t found the report of the subjects developing resistances to the sedative over time.  Certainly twenty years is a long time, though.  It’s not as if we’ll keep them in stasis for centuries.”

        “She was right about there being some confusion regarding the spells involved, though.  Some of the nursing staff is concerned.  There was a memo about spells from the Ministry of Image being involved, but that couldn’t be right.”

        “No no.  I’m sure that it was an error, Redheart.  Some days we can’t tell what’s coming out of the Ministry of Technology and what’s originating with the Ministry of Magic.  We just do our best.  Still, we’re quite glad to see the Ministry of Peace going ahead with the facility.  I’ll try and get more specifics sent your way.”

        “Thank you, Garnet.  I appreciate it.”

        “Oh, don’t worry about it.  Oh, just a heads-up that Robronco will be here to tie the maintenance robots into the system maneframe.  Once their control system is linked to the bots, your nurses shouldn’t have to worry about them causing messes.”

oooOOOooo

        I returned to my body, screaming as fire roared from crotch to ribcage.  I lay on my back, strapped to an operating table, pulling against the restraints on my limbs.  Overhead, a robotic spider on a white boom hovered over my body.  Little scissors were slowly snipping open my belly as I screamed and thrashed against the restraints.  “You fuckers!” I hissed through clenched jaws as spit ran down my chin.

        “Bad pony.  Potty mouth pony.  She said a bad word!” gibbered the sewn-together abominations around me as the scissors went ‘snip snip snip’.  “She needs a time out.  She needs to be punished.  Bad pony!”

        The children were sleeping.

        All around the perimeter of the room were metal pods with observation windows and padded interiors; at least forty was the best count I could make under the circumstances.  In the pods were foals.  Some were missing legs and eyes.  Others appeared burned or worse.  Others appeared intact, so I could only guess they suffered from some internal disease or condition.  They all lay so still they might as well have been corpses.  Each had a tiny monitor with zigzagging lines on it that was too far beyond my intelligence level to understand.  The cables all ran to a central drum decorated with a dozen terminals.  Running from this drum was a thick cable that disappeared into the floor.  Blackened marks showed where the hoof-thick connection had been mended.

        I wouldn’t scream.  Crying was unavoidable, but that helped me focus.  “What do you want?” I yelled as I focused every bit of magic on the scissors and pushed the arm away, leaving the foot-wide incision.

        “Mommy!  Play!  Die!  Live!  Cry!  Hug!  Blood!  Mommy!  Please!  Cookie!  Fuck!  Daddy!  Pain!  Skin!  Mommy!  Toys!  Puppet!  Doggies!  Birthday!  Outside!  Home!  Die!  Kill!  Costume!  Sleep!  Hurt!  Out!  Play!  Die!” the robots around me chanted.

        We’re not going to leave them in stasis for centuries, Garnet had said.  What if they were left anyway?  How many years had it taken before the children became resistant to the sedative?  How many more before the handful of survivors had been unable to keep the children focused?  How long before they went mad and sought ever bloodier and more terrible games?

        Somepony, I suspected Redheart, had cut the connection between the repair bots and the facility maneframe.  They’d sat here alone, incapable of any interaction at all.  Unable to sleep.  They couldn’t even kill themselves.  Then the Enclave arrived and connected the maneframe again.  The children had resumed their games, honed after decades of being trapped within themselves.

        Now I was next.  My telekinesis pushed against the medical robot as I clenched my teeth so hard that I felt a tooth crack.  It wasn’t enough.  A three-fingered hand reached in and pulled out a loop of gray-pink intestine like a thick noodle.  I wouldn’t scream.  I might choke on the vomit rising in my throat as I felt inch after inch slipping out.

        Then I heard a sharp crack from the ceiling directly above me.  An air vent cover collapsed onto the robotic arm, jamming its metallic hand deeper into my innards.  Glory poked her head in, eyes wide, teeth clenched on her beam pistol.  Right now, she was a more welcome sight than Splendid stepping out of a hot shower.

        “Bad.  Bad.  Bad ponies.  Bad,” the robots chanted as the medical arm released my guts and reversed to slam itself against the fallen grating.  Glory dived from the ductwork, circling the arm as she looped above me.  All eyes were on her, except for mine, which noticed the small blue shape of P-21 slip in through a door.  Carefully he picked his way towards the terminal.  Glory wouldn’t be enough.

        I lifted my head and looked at the buckles on the straps holding my limbs.  Pain made the world black out around the edges of my vision as I fumbled with my magic.  One of the buckles came free.  Then another.  Then another.  Slowly I kicked myself free as the abominations surged forward.  “Bad ponies.  Bad ponies.”  I sat up, spotting my shotgun.  I could make out the orange shells in the drum.

        I levitated the gun to me and slowly rolled off the table.  And then I discovered something truly disturbing: I could either handle the shotgun or hold my guts in, and I wasn’t doing the latter.  A hot, wet slipperiness moved out of me combined with a sensation that made me want to put a shell through my skull.  It was only twenty feet to my target, but that was the longest twenty feet of my life.

        P-21 typed desperately.  Glory flew desperately.  I tried to walk desperately.  Had the abominations realized what I was trying to do, they could have stopped me easily.  I think they just took glee in watching me struggle.  Maybe they thought I was trying to help P-21 or run.  Instead I staggered my way to where the cable emerged from the rear of the machine.  Suddenly my intestines went taut and I almost blacked out again.  “Would you mind getting off my guts?” I croaked.

        The cable was thick.  Even with the explosive rounds it’d take me several shots to chew through.  The shotgun didn’t have that many shots left in it.  That was okay.  I only needed one.  I grinned back at my abomination audience.  “Playtime is over!”  I ejected the drum and kicked it underneath the cable.  One round remained in the chamber.  I pressed the tip of the shotgun to the ammo drum and fired.

        The explosion was barely equivalent to a grenade, but it did the job.  The cable snapped once more as I was showered with shrapnel.  With a soft hum the arm froze in its pursuit of Glory.  The abominations froze in place, puppets with their strings cut.  The zigzagging lines went crazy as darkness finally caught up with me.

        Heh, crazy kids.

*        *        *

        When I came to, I felt good.  Great.  Wonderful, in fact.  I opened my eyes, and immediately felt my midsection.  Only an ugly red line remained, and that was healing before my eyes.  The table I was lying on had a strange talisman that covered me in a pink glow.  Some kind of regeneration magic pulled my torn body together.

        “Oh, good.  You’re awake,” Glory said from beside the table.  The pegasus looked like she needed a few days sleep and a few years of therapy.  Maybe we could get a two for one special.

        “Oh good.  You’re alive,” I replied, and got a little smile in return.  I looked at the strange egg-like talisman.  “Please tell me there are more of those.”

        “There are more of these,” she replied softly.

        “Oh thank goodness--” I began, then saw her looking away.  “There really aren’t more of these, are there?”

        “You told me to tell you…”  But I shut her up with a hug.

        “I thought you were dead.  I was so sure I got you killed,” I said as I hugged her tightly.  “How’d you get away?”

        “Red light,” she said softly with a little shiver.  “It went on and on.  I think they were paying attention to you on the other side of the door.  The vent was right above me, so I shot through.  They called me a cheater.  After that it was just following the shouting and gunshots.”

        The wound across my middle had completely healed.  At once my eyes widened.  “Get P-21 in here!  We can heal his…”  There was a buzz and the pink glow disappeared.  “…fuck.”

        “The talisman only works on one subject,” P-21 said as he limped in from the doorway.

        “I wanted to heal your leg,” I muttered softly.

        “Why?  You didn’t break it.”

        I sighed as I climbed off the bed, looking at the burned out talisman and feeling as if it’d been wasted on me.  “I thought if I healed your leg I’d stop reminding you of 99.  Then maybe we could be friends.”

        He arched a brow and smiled, shaking his head.  “Ever think it’s not about you, Blackjack?”  I blinked stupidly at him and he sighed softly.  “Guess not.  Come on.  We’ve got one last thing to deal with.”  He started back out the door.  “And it’s going to suck.  It’s going to suck a lot.”

        We trotted back into the operating room.  I tried to ignore the drying bowel strung over a quarter of the room.  He stopped in front of the large central terminal.

        Ofillia Stasis System Review:

        >Current patient survival prognosis: 0.00%

        >Patient intercom system: Error.  System disabled.

        >Terminate Power: Y/N?

        No.  “No no no… fuck no.  Fuck!” I yelled as I looked at the pods around me with their wildly zigzagging readouts.  I could imagine their screams as they were locked up once again.  I rounded on P-21.  “I’m not killing forty children!  Are you out of your mind?”

        “No.  I’m not,” he replied as looked at the terminal.  “We have two choices: we leave them in stasis, or we shut down the whole thing and they die.”

        “Wake them up!  See if they’re crazy.”  I could kill crazy foals… I hoped.  Oh Goddesses, did I actually just think that?!

        “We can’t, Blackjack,” Morning Glory said softly.  “They were dying when they were put in the pods.  They’re still dying.  Some wouldn’t last a day, according to their records.  If we leave them… maybe… I don’t know.  Maybe someday the Enclave can do something to help them.”

        P-21 shook his head firmly as he looked at the wide-eyed pegasus.  “The Enclave lost a biomedical team to these kids.  And they’ve been trapped here for two centuries.  Are you willing to leave them trapped, again, on the hope that someday they might be able to be saved?”  He sighed.  “I told you this would suck.”

        “Why are you asking me?” I said softly as I looked at him.

        “Because there is no right answer here.  Because she’s right.  Because I’m right.  And no matter what, they’re going to suffer.”  He sighed.  “I want to do one.  She wants to do the other.  You’re the tiebreaker.”  ‘And you’re the leader’, his eyes seemed to say.

        No.  Fuck him!  Fuck me!  No!  Put me back on the table and rip out my guts, but don’t leave the decision up to me!  I slowly looked around at all the pods.  “I can’t… I don’t… fuck!” I shouted, clenching my eyes closed.  I wanted back into that dream the orb had put me in.  Neither of them would look at me.  I gazed at the pods.  There was no right answer here.  I was damning myself either way.  I thought of flipping a cap, but what if it came to the shutoff and I tried for two out of three?  Or vice versa?  Damn me!  Damn me…

        Slowly I straightened as I looked at all the pods.  “I don’t know if you can hear me, or understand me.  I don’t know who any of you are or what you want.  I only know you didn’t deserve being trapped like this.  I’m sorry,” I whispered as tears ran down my cheeks.  “I don’t know…  I don’t know what’s going to happen yet.  Where I’m from, when you die, you just go away.”  I sniffed as I bowed my head.  “I hope… I hope that if you do go somewhere… I hope that it’s some place better.”

        I turned and looked at the terminal.  ‘Y’ and ‘enter’.  The hum of fans died one after another as I murdered forty children.  I swallowed, knowing there was no forgiveness possible for this, and sang softly, “Hush now, quiet now.  It’s time you lay your sleepy head.  Hush now, quiet now…  It’s time to go to bed.”

        I choked, but then Glory sang after me, “Drifting off to sleep, exciting day behind you.  Drifting off to sleep.  Let the joy of dreamland find you.”  She was falling apart as badly as I was.  The only light in the room was the jagged readouts on each pod that became less and less erratic till they became flat lines.

        P-21 then shocked us both as he raised his voice and finished, “Hush now, quiet now.  Lay your sleepy head.  Hush now, quiet now.  It’s time to go to bed.”  With that he bowed his head as well as I sank to the floor.  Finally the flat readings winked out one after the other.

        Damn me.  Damn me.  Damn me…

*        *        *

        Redheart had crawled into the storage room that had held the regeneration talisman.  Half her hide had been skinned off before she’d severed the connection.  Had she come in here to try and save herself?  To protect the various talismans and experimental goods?  Did it really matter?  If there’d been a cure in here for any of the children, I had no doubt she would have used it.  She lay curled on her side, covered by a bloody, shredded lab coat.  The body had mummified in the sealed storage chamber.

        I noticed she seemed to be cradling something protectively in her hooves.  Given what I’d already done, robbing the dead was icing on the proverbial cake.  To my bewilderment, Redheart yielded the object to my magic surprisingly easily.

        It was a figurine of Fluttershy.  Her soulful blue eyes looked up at me as she hugged a disgruntled white rabbit beneath her hooves.  So gentle.  So forgiving.  ‘Be Kind’ was written on the base.  Her head was cocked just so, as if she knew I desperately needed to talk to her.

        “I’m sorry.  I tried.  I tried to do better.  I tried to help…”  Slowly I held the Fluttershy figurine to my chest as I slumped over onto my side, weeping and blubbering like a foal.  “I’m so sorry.”  As I lay there alone in the storage room, I suddenly knew exactly why Redheart had come here:

        To beg for forgiveness she would never receive.

-------------------------------------------------------

Footnote: Level Up.

Skill Note: Speech (50)

New Perk: Foal at Heart - This perk greatly improves your interactions with children.

(As always, thanks to Hinds for helping me edit, and thanks to Kkat for helping me write at all.)


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 7: Prices

        YOU TOUCH IT, YOU BUY IT.  We take cash or credit.

        

        I’m a killer.

The first pony I killed had been a male unicorn getting removed; that had been before I even got my cutie mark.  I’d been told to tell him that he was now U-21 and ask him to report to security.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time.  I took my sweet time doing it, going to the atrium cafeteria for a green gel smoothie, poking in on Midnight trying to learn her PipBuck routines, and taking a nap on a humming moisture condenser before I finally found him.  He’d just smiled sadly and walked back with me.

        I remember his white and red striped mane, like a candy cane.  I remember his laugh.  How sad his eyes looked as he walked beside me.  Mom read the formal statement, I gave him his last dot, and then we stood by as the medics gave him a shot.  He closed his eyes.  Let out one last breath.  That was it.  I could almost imagine he was sleeping, except I knew he’d never wake up.

        I know the excuses.  I was just doing as I was told.  We were just following the orders of the Overmare.  We had no choice.  There was nothing we could do.  We had to prevent an Incident.  I never actually gave him a shot.  It was peaceful.  It was merciful.  I didn’t know any better.

        Horseapples.  I killed him because I never once asked the question: is this right or wrong?  I killed four other males in exactly the same way.  I would have killed P-21, too, if the Overmare hadn’t let Deus in first.

        The first pony I killed with my own horn had been a raider.  She’d surprised me.  She’d had a shotgun and nearly used it on me.  She’d killed others in my stable, one right in front of me, and would have killed more.  Again, I know the excuses.  It was self-defense.  I was protecting Midnight.  I was defending my stable.  There was no time.  There was nothing else I could do.

        Raiders.  At first, I didn’t think much about them.  They were mangy, psychotic killers or ponies who’d decided to be evil.  Killing them had been required.  My PipBuck turned every moral question into a simple answer: red its dead, yellow be mellow.  The next time I’d faced them, I’d killed many.  Then I’d spared one, for the simple reason that the PipBuck had gone from red to yellow.  Suddenly, she wasn’t a raider anymore.  Suddenly, she was free to go.  I even laughed while she fled.

        I’d deserved to be shot in the back.

        Scoodle was the next pony I’d killed.  Hers was the first death that actually got to me.  Before that, all I’d demonstrated was that I was a slightly more effective killer than the diseased and maddened raiders I’d faced thus far.  I hadn’t listened to her… no, that wasn’t true.  I’d listened.  I hadn’t believed her, and I’d been so full of myself that I was sure I could face anything the Wasteland had to offer.  I thought that after forty-eight hours I knew more than a filly who’d spent her entire life on the surface.  I was wrong.  Dead wrong.  But I was "lucky" enough that somepony else had been killed by my pride, arrogance, and stupidity.

        At Pony Joe’s I’d tried to turn Glory into a killer just like me.  Mad?  Upset?  Scared?  Kill somepony.  Pick you right up.  Of all the ponies I’d faced, though, the one that stuck with me was that poor bastard shitting himself, and me feeling so clever and cocky for sneaking up on him while he was occupied.  I hadn’t learned one thing.  I thought I’d changed.  That I’d devoted myself to being the better pony.  And then I smashed his head in with a baton.  I’d thought he’d yell or attack or something.  Red is dead.  Execution by PipBuck.

        Now I’d just killed forty more colts and fillies.  Some had been sick; there was no question of that.  Letting them live would have been… what?  Who the fuck am I to judge if a pony deserves to die?  How did I know the Enclave couldn’t have helped them?  Or the Collegiate?  Or… somepony?  Fluttershy said to do better.  Better for me was increasing my body count.  And the final twist?  I ended up with my body completely healed.  I felt great.

        “Hey, Blackjack.  Are you okay?” P-21 asked as I tightened up the brace on his leg.  He looked down at me with some concern as I buckled the straps.

        No.  I’m not okay.  I’m a killer.  I’m a cleaner, healthier raider with better aim.  “Yeah, sure,” I replied with a smile.  “Not too tight?”  He shook his head.  “Did Glory get her healing potions, antidotes, and drugs squared away?”  The gray pegasus had found some Enclave remains with a flight harness that doubled her pockets and holsters.  He nodded again as I straightened and walked to the exit into the stasis pod chamber.

        “Blackjack.  Are you sure you’re okay?”  P-21 repeated the question, his dark eyes locked on mine, lips curled in a worried frown.

        “Yeah.  Just fine.”  Shoot me now P-21.  “Let’s grab Glory and get paid.”  Shoot me before I kill somepony else.  “Come on.”  Please, P-21.  “Let’s go.”  Please.

*        *        *

        Prince Splendid was not happy.  The Collegiate ponies were not happy.  I really couldn’t care less, but I didn’t want them killing each other once I left.  “The Collegiate can figure out what systems work and don’t work and see if they can reproduce some of the more powerful spell talismans.  The Society can feed them and keep adequate guard so that they can work without being harassed.”  I looked at Splendid with a level stare, seeing him start to fidget and frown.  “They can also see about getting the stasis pods to work again to deal with your problem, and you’ll have first dibs to their findings.”

        He opened his beautiful mouth and closed it once more.  I stared into his eyes, unblinking as I felt my horn twitch.  Finally, he smiled and said graciously, “That will be acceptable to the Society.”

        “And you,” I said as I looked at Archie sharply.  “If somepony comes needing medical help, you try and help them.  You’ve got a whole hospital to scavenge; I know you’ll find enough.  Charge caps if you want, but help.  Do better,” I said as I glared into his eyes, stressing each word.  He swallowed hard and backed away so quick he landed on his rump.

        “Right!  Sure.  The Collegiate is always happy to help.  I’ll make sure my superiors know when they get here,” Archie stammered quickly.

        I looked up towards the broken dome atop the interior chamber.  “Also, keep an eye out for Enclave.  I don’t know why they were here, but they were after something and they may be back.”  Hopefully Glory would fill me in soon on what that something might be.  I knew she’d found more than just parts for her beam pistol.

        Prince Splendid signed the note to Bottlecap to pay me for his contract, and with no further delay we were on our way back.  I took point, as usual, letting the pair trail behind me.  Glory was showing off something she’d found.  “It’s called a battle saddle.  Most of the security forces use them.  They let us handle larger guns without occupying our mouths,” Glory said as she fiddled with the strange harness she’d found.  It looked more to me like some kind of weird bondage gear with beam pistols attached.  I wasn’t quite sure she knew how to work it.

        As we followed the road back east, I walked slow and steady.  My head crashed over and over with what I’d done, pushing the mystery of EC-1101 from the forefront of my thoughts.  Maybe I should have turned the kids over to the Collegiate.  No… while they’d been fascinated by the notes I’d found, they’d been relieved that I’d disposed of the foals.  Not their problem.  The Society?  Same.  Everypony was glad they didn’t have to deal with forty traumatized and dying young.

        “She’s not okay,” P-21 muttered softly.  My jaw set.

        “I thought she was going to shoot both of them if they argued,” Glory replied in her own whisper.

        I glanced back at the pair and didn’t say a word.  Glory immediately took a few steps back.  P-21 just looked sad.  “Blackjack…”

        “What?”  There was no good answer to my question.  I was so angry I felt like a broken Sparkle-Cola bottle.

        It wasn’t your--

        “Shut up,” I snapped, and I was glad to see him angry.  Because he was about to say it wasn’t my fault.  If it wasn’t my fault, was it his for leaving the choice up to me?  Glory’s for not stopping me?  The Enclave for reconnecting the maneframe to the maintenance robots?  Redheart?  Fluttershy?  Should I just blame ponies who fucked up two centuries before I was even born?  Celestia?  Zebras?  Who was to blame?  Who had to pay for what I’d done?

        Somepony had to pay the price.  Better me than P-21.  Maybe if he was smart he’d ditch me before I got him killed.  They’d be better off together without me.  Perhaps in a few months they’d find me frothing mad, psychotic, and put me down.

        I was so preoccupied that I walked right into the ambush.  It didn’t help that I hadn’t reactivated my EFS after the interference in the hospital.  As I walked past an overturned sky trailer there was a resounding bang and the familiar shove of buckshot against my barding from behind.  Tally up a new bruise, but nothing penetrated.  I looked up at the two ponies in the trailer, Shotgun reloading as another gripping a pool cue jumped out at me.  Two more stepped out of another overturned carriage.

        Out came the automatic pistol and S.A.T.S. popped up.  Four shots to Shotgun’s head.  Execute.  Then I noticed that instead of turning his head into meaty goo, the two shots that hit just sparkled off his hide.  Shit.  I’d forgotten I’d loaded the clips with shock rounds: great against robots, but lousy against everything else.  Pool Cue swung with all the strength she had, but I raised my PipBuck and let the wooden shaft shatter on its casing.  My horn glowed as I plucked a foot-long shard with my magic, seized her shoulders with my hooves, and drove every inch into her eye socket.  One.

        Glory flew above, her aim wild as she tried to get her battle saddle to work.  P-21 had his binoculars out.  “Blackjack!  Fifth one on the hill!  Sniper!”

        I wasted no time.  When Shotgun reloaded, I heaved the female’s body into his line of fire and felt only a sting of a pellet or two.  Then I was in the trailer with him.  I had no wish to use a whole clip of ammo, so out came the baton.  He backed away, but there was nowhere to go; his hiding spot was also a dead end.  He tried to say something, but simply gagged as I shoved him hard against the wall and magically swung the baton till his head went from convex to concave.  Two.

        One look at the shotgun and I tossed it aside.  A single shot between reloads?  My baton was better.  I did levitate a clip of lead rounds for the automatic pistol out of my pocket and swapped ammunition before running back at the second pair Glory was keeping occupied.  Her aim was horrible, but the beam pistols she’d hooked to the battle saddle were quite effective at keeping the pair moving as she circled overhead.  One with an automatic pistol didn’t even see me coming.  Automatic turned his head just in time to see me take a stance, pistol raised, and aim five shots into his noggin.  There was little left.  Three.

        The fourth one with a baseball bat tossed his weapon at me.  At first it seemed nonsense till I saw him duck his head for a grenade hooked to his vest.  His mouth closed around it just as my magic flicked the tab right off the end.  His head lifted, tongue working to remove the pin that was already gone.  I just stared into his eyes as his gaze widened in horror.  Then his head exploded.  Four.

        The rifle round struck me in the neck at the line of my security barding.  Sniper was already running for his life now, though.  My PipBuck showed a red bar.  Red is dead.  Without listening to the shouts behind me, I tore up the hillside after him.  A large concrete tower stood at the apex, with dishes pointed every direction.  He could run, but not hide.  I wove up through a gap in the dead trees, putting my gun away so I could telekinetically push dead bushes and branches out of my way.  I saw him, and he saw me coming after him.

        So did his friends.  I staggered into the camp at the base of the tower with four more red bars and a number of yellow.  “Granite, you dumb fucker!  It’s Security!” a unicorn screamed as she levitated an SMG at me.  I’d seen a brief demonstration at Megamart.  No time to use my gun against that rate of fire.  Instead I snapped out the baton again with a very specific target: her horn.  The swing fell just as she started to fire.  With a purple sparkle and a spray of blood the lavender spire shattered and the SMG fell uselessly into the dirt.

        Sniper tried to put another round in my back, but I’d ducked for the swing and his shot went wide.  The others drew a knife, baseball bat, and tire iron.

        I levitated up her dropped SMG.

        I braced my magic and legs as I stood over the squirming, dehorned unicorn and unloaded a spray of lead that started with the sniper and then washed over the other three.  Five.  Six.  Three seconds later the clip was empty.  Thirty-five bullets in three seconds?  I gaped at the weapon.  The only way I could waste ammo faster would be to just dump it down the barrel of a shotgun and pull the trigger!  Two ponies were still squirming; my automatic stopped that.  Seven.  Eight.

        What the fuck am I doing?  What the fuck am I doing?!  The automatic started to shake in my telekinetic grip and I dropped it into the dirt.  They had been done!  Why did I just kill them?  Just… killed.  Eight.  Eight.  Eight.

        “Thank you,” somepony whispered from nearby.  That was when I noticed that these raiders hadn’t been alone.  There were at least a dozen ponies chained together in a row by collars.  They were filthy, many bloody.

        The dehorned unicorn lay curled up, hooves pressed to the sheared-off stump of her horn as she shook.  I’d once heard getting your horn smashed was like having all four legs cut off.  It’d take some serious magic for that injury to heal.  “What the fuck is going on here?”  I’d seen plenty of raiders.  These weren’t raiders.  Not unless they were going for a full-on twelve course banquet.  P-21 and Glory ran up from the road.

        “They’re slavers,” the lead pony in the chain said as he stared hard at the unicorn.

        “Slavers?” I asked, frowning in confusion.  The lead pony looked a little concerned that I didn’t recognize the term.  “I thought they were raiders.”

        “Not much difference except in levels of crazy,” he muttered.  “Not every wastelander is a psychopathic cannibal,” he said as he looked at my stable barding.  “Slavers round up ponies and sell us to places like Paradise, Appleloosa, or Fillydelphia.”  The gray pony glared at the squirming unicorn.  I knew that glare.  “They work a pony to death, and it doesn’t take long.”  Nine, my head started to count.

        “Blackjack,” P-21 said in worry as I lifted the SMG, ejected the clip, and loaded it with explosive rounds.  

Glory landed next to me.  “Blackjack, stop.  Please!”

Red rage boiled in my vision and I ignored them as I pressed it against the unicorn’s head.  Nine…

        “What the fuck is wrong with you people?  Aren’t fucking raiders enough?  Why the fuck are you doing this shit?  Why!” I screamed in her face, pressing the short barrel against her clenched eye.  “Am I going to have to kill every single fucked up pony in the Goddesses-damned Wasteland just to end this shit?  Am I?” I roared as I stared into her terrified eye.

        “I just… gotta survive,” she whimpered as tears ran down her cheeks.  “I have a kid…”

        If I pulled the trigger I wouldn’t stop.  Nine.  Not ever.  Make it nine.  But here was a pony willing to sell ponies for caps.  I could almost forgive raiders now; they were at least crazy.  She’d chosen to perpetuate this nightmare.  Her life was forfeit!  I just had to end her.  End everything.  Make it nine!

        Be strong.  Be kind.

        My grip on the SMG trembled as I slowly pulled away from her eye.  “Well how’s that working for you?” I snapped.  Eight was enough.  One was enough.  Fuck, I was crying now too.  I tossed the SMG aside, grabbed her head between my hooves and clenched it as I stared into her eyes.  “Get the fuck out of here.  Find another line of work.  Tell every slaver you know to find another line of work.  I see you doing this shit again and I will turn you into paint!  Do you understand me?” I shouted into her face.

        “Yes…” she whimpered.

        “Do you fucking understand me?” I roared.

        “Yes!” she screamed.  I shoved her away from me.  She took one last look and ran as fast as her hooves would carry her.  I saw fourteen pairs of eyes all staring at me.  Some looked just as scared of me as the unicorn had.  Others appeared angry I hadn’t ventilated her.

        Fuck them if eight wasn’t enough.  My death count was one less than it could have been.  I looked to P-21, saying in a shaky voice, “Unlock them… please…”  I walked away from the slaver camp.  I found a rock, pressed my face to it, wrapping my forehooves around it, and I wept, choked, and sobbed.  Then I felt a hoof stroking along my mane.  I peeked up at Morning Glory as she gave me a soft smile.

        “You did the right thing,” she said gently.  

I lifted my head.  “I wouldn’t know the right thing from a hole in the head,” I said as I curled up on the rock.  “I wanted to put every round into her, reload, and do it again.”

“Blackjack,” Glory said quietly.  “I wanted to kill her too.”  Slowly I raised my head to stare at the delicate, compact pegasus as she closed her eyes.  “At first it was because I thought she was a raider, but when I saw they were slavers I wanted them dead.  How dare they buy and sell ponies for bottle caps?”  She sighed softly as she looked away in the direction the maimed slaver had taken.  “I couldn’t have.  I don’t think I could ever kill a pony that wasn’t trying to kill me first.  But I wanted to.”

“But you said I should have let her go.”  Now I was just confused.

“Yes,” she replied as she looked back at me.  “What she did was wrong.  Killing her won’t undo it.  But she’s still alive and she’ll have to make a choice.  Maybe she’ll choose to stop.  Maybe she’ll convince others to stop.  Maybe she won’t.  No matter what, we’re not going to make the Wasteland any better by killing everypony.  Even if we really think they deserve it.”

“I’m no different from her,” I muttered softly, voicing the poisonous words.

“How can you say that?”

“Because it’s true.  I’ll kill anypony if my Eyes Forward Sparkle says to.  Red its dead.  Yellow be mellow.  Right?”  I felt disgusted at my supposed wit.

“Was she red or yellow?” Glory asked as she lay down and crossed her forelimbs.

“Huh?”

She nodded in the direction the slaver had fled.  “Was she red or yellow when you spared her?”

“I…”  I frowned.  “I don’t remember.  I don’t think I checked.”

“So you chose to spare her.  Not your PipBuck,” Glory said with a little cock of her head that made me smile.  “You’re a killer, Blackjack, but you’re not a raider.  You can choose.  You care enough to choose.”

“Right,” I muttered, and I gave her a smile.  Clearly it was what she wanted.  “Well, we should probably head back then.”  She rose to her hooves and flew up and over the trees back towards the camp.  I hesitated.

She was right.  I could choose.  I chose to kill forty colts and fillies.  No pep talk or show of mercy would change that.  There was a price to be paid for being a killer.  I was going to pay for it.

*        *        *

It took about an hour to get the captive slaves freed and distribute the slavers weapons.  I’d thought the dozen freed ponies would travel together.  Instead they began to bleed off in ones and twos.  Many shot me nervous glances; apparently my little display proved just as unnerving as the slavers themselves.  The gray colt in the lead got the SMG, though I’d replaced the bullets.  The explosive rounds would probably detonate if fired on full auto.  I probably could have sold it for enough to replace my shotgun, but at the moment I felt so damned numb that I couldn’t care less about caps.  They headed off to the north, perhaps because I’d already wandered around it and cleared most of the raiders.

The gray pony with a bow tie cutie mark was the last to go.  “I’m heading down to Flank,” he said with a grateful smile.  “If you get that far south, look up Frisk.  I’ll see about putting a good word in for you.”  I didn’t deserve a good word.  I deserved a good warning.  Blackjack: contents under pressure.  Highly volatile.  Reacts poorly to bullets.

Once we were alone again Glory took her time seeing to my spreading bruises.  Nothing serious, but I was thankful for the relief.  Then I watched with a detached, surreal feeling as she took the dropped knife, tested the edge, and started to saw off the head of one of the slavers.  My eye twitched slightly at the sight.  “Um… Glory?  What are you doing?”  She didn’t seem like the kind for desecration.

        She jammed the knife between vertebrae and gave a sharp twist.  I winced at the loud pop.  “Well, you were talking about raiders, right?”  Was this a rehearsal?  “I got to thinking… why are raiders so aggressive?  They attack everypony on sight.  Even if they already have food, they attack.  The only time they flee is in the face of overwhelming odds.  So I was thinking that if I could examine a raider’s brain compared to a non-raider’s brain I might be able to detect something.”

        “Um… I doubt Bottlecap will be okay with us bringing in heads,” I pointed out as she wrapped up the intact noggin.  “Besides.  What are the chances we’ll run into raiders between here and Megamart?”

        I had to ask.

        The fight with the raiders proved terribly short.  Nine.  Almost disappointing.  Ten.  There were only four of them and they didn’t have a gun between them.  Eleven.  Glory got her second head and looked decidedly happy about the fact.  Twelve.  Walking back, P-21 asked about the radio.  I hadn’t turned it on since that broadcast by DJ Pon3, but it’d be hours to reach the Finders.  Nothing hostile on my EFS.  No excuse to not turn it on.

        I had to admit, I liked the music.  So much of it was upbeat.  The parts that were sad were also a relief.  When DJ Pon3 came on I cringed, but he just warned folks around New Appleloosa to keep their eyes out for trouble and to watch out for each other.  Occasionally he referenced other ponies fighting the good fight all across Equestria.  One that he called the ‘Stable Dweller’ seemed to have completely shut down a town of slavers.  Now that was impressive.  I doubted the Stable Dweller would ever kill a room full of helpless ponies.

        “And for all you folks out east who feel like you don’t have a ‘Stable Dweller’ of your own, here’s a little heads up on what Security’s been up to.  Yes, Hoofington, she’s been busy busy busy.  If you thought cleaning up the Manehattan Highway was impressive you should see what else Security is doing for the Hoof.  It looks like the Fluttershy hospital is open for business again, courtesy of… whoa, can this report be accurate?  It must be!  Looks like Security actually got the Eggheads and the Bluebloods working together.  Talk about a miracle.  And it seems like she’s got a bone to pick with the slavers in Paradise.  Let’s play the audio!”

        I froze dead in my tracks as my voice, slightly strained and tinny, played out from my PipBuck.  “Get the fuck out of here.  Find another line of work.  Tell every slaver you know to find another line of work.  I see you doing this shit again and I will turn you into paint!  Do you understand me?  Do you fucking understand me?!”  Followed by her cry of ‘Yes!’  Did I really sound like that?

        “Looks like the Security Mare is just reminding Paradise that ponies selling ponies to ponies who work ponies to death is wrong.  And Security doesn’t like wrong.  So in light of that, Hoofington, this is just for you from Sapphire Shore’s hit…”  Whatever else he said and the heavier beat that started went ignored as I felt numb from horn to hoof.

        I sat down right in the middle of the cracked road, then turned the radio off.  Looking at P-21 I gave my sweetest smile.  “Shoot me?  Please?”  Please please please…

        “Like it or not, you have to admit DJ Pon3 is helping you.  It’s clear that the Finders and the Collegiate only were willing to work with us because he told them what you’d done,” Glory said with a curious smile and tilt of her head.  “So why resent it?”

        I sighed.  How to explain it without saying the wrong thing?  “It feels like a lie.  Like he’s playing up all the best parts and overlooking what really happens.  Sure, I got the Society ponies to work with the Eggheads, but what about all the other stuff that happened?  Would DJ Pon3 give me such high praise if he’d known what I did back in the hospital?  Even playing that recording… like I’m going to take out every slaver I come across…”

        “Are you saying that, if you did come across a band of slavers and your PipBuck labeled them yellow, you’d let them past?” P-21 asked skeptically.

        “No.  Of course not.  But…”

        “And… how did DJ Pon3 put it?  Ponies selling ponies to ponies that work ponies to death need to be stopped?”  Damn it.  They were both smiling.  I felt my heart start to pound.

        “Yeah… but…”

        “Then what’s the big deal?  Let him call you a hero,” P-21 said with his sure little smile, “and just be a hero.”

        “I’m not a fucking hero!” I yelled at him, so angry I was glad that I wasn’t holding a gun.  Thirteen.  Oh wait… I was…  “I kill ponies that try and kill me or try and kill ponies who don’t deserve it!  I didn’t kill those slavers because they were evil and wrong!  I shot them because they shot first and my PipBuck was red.”  Thirteen…  “If I hadn’t chased after that sniper I wouldn’t have had a clue there were slaves up there at all!” I said, watching their smiles vanish, seeing the gun tremble in my magical grip.

        I couldn’t catch my breath as I covered my face with my hooves.  Thirteen.  I felt my magic tighten more and more on the automatic’s handle.  Every part of me was shaking as my breathing became louder and louder, faster and faster.  I saw the snapped-off tip of a knife rammed into a neck.  One.  I saw a teal foal torn in two.  Twenty.  My body felt like it was burning up as I felt P-21 shaking me… or killing me… whichever he decided.  I saw a skinned pegasus pop out of a box on a spring.  Everything started to spin as I felt like I was falling off the world.

 I clenched my eyes shut but all I kept seeing was ponies dying.  An eyeball popping under my baton.  Twenty-two.  A head disintegrating as I raced out the tunnel.  Nine.  Guts spilling out amid bones.  Twenty.  Automatic fire tearing holes in three ponies.  Seventy-three, four, five…  Pushing a button.  Twenty-seven to sixty-seven.  My heart beat harder and harder and I could make out the distant noises of them saying things to me.  Guts spilling from my torso; I felt like I was falling into the sky to break against the dark clouds overhead.  The roaring in my ears chased me into the blackness.

What was the price for killing so many?

*        *        *

I awoke to the steady tap of water falling into a coffee tin near my head.  My head pounded as I opened my eyes.  I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, only that I was alone.  For once I didn’t feel like crying.  It felt as though something inside me had snapped.  Maybe I’d finally gone off the deep end and killed both my friends.  Wouldn’t that be something?  Water dripped through a hole in the roof into the tin, and I could dimly hear the sound of rain.

The room was small but neatly organized.  A desk in one corner with a terminal.  A safe.  A shelf holding numerous books.  A refrigerator in the second corner.  Wastebasket.  Then the cot I occupied in the third corner.  I saw a toilet and sink through one open door.  A faded plastic banner hung near the ceiling reading ‘Megamart, always lowest prices, always highest quality’.  Lowest prices…

There were other things too.  Little hints of a world before this one.  The Megamart employee of the year had been somepony named Boxcars.  There was a little award for record profits selling ‘canned and preserved foods and ammunition’.  A strange photograph of two groups of soldiers in the parking lot, one in green combat armor and the other… zebras with red stripes?  A curly-maned mare with purple glasses bumped hooves with a red zebra filly.  The caption read ‘Macintosh’s Marauders invade Megamart with the Red Stripes.  Great deals ensue.’

        I was back with the Finders, which meant that my friends were probably alive.  I felt a little relieved at that thought.  I should have felt more relieved.  Slowly I rocked back and forth before tipping over onto my hooves.  I could only assume that this was Bottlecap’s office, though why I was here I didn’t have a clue.  My stomach felt like a pit, but there were some biological urges that needed addressing.  Once I’d flushed, a drink of rainwater from the tin helped alleviate some of the pounding in my skull.

        “Welcome back,” Bottlecap said softly from behind her desk as she casually turned the pages of a book, making me jump.  My magic immediately grabbed for weapons that weren’t there.  It took me a moment to finally sit back on my haunches and blink at her as she scanned a hoof along the page.

        “You are a very quiet pony,” I muttered, feeling embarrassed by my alarm.

        “Not really.  You have very noisy bowels.  Leave the fan on and close the door,” she said as she continued to read.  I reddened but did as she asked, feeling apprehensive.  I expected a question or comment but Bottlecap didn’t say a word as she just read.  Then she said softly, “Your friends handled the transactions while you’ve been indisposed.  They took your barding to be repaired.  I recommend some additional protection.  Four hundred and twenty-five caps for the glands.  Twenty-five hundred from the Society account.  Twenty-two hundred from Orion’s Herd.  You’re halfway to your goal, minus the cost of resupply.”

        News that we’d amassed a small fortune in caps didn’t do much for me.  “Did they… did they tell you what happened?” I asked as I sat back down on the cot in that vertical fashion that drew a curious look from Bottlecap.

        “Should they have?  You were unconscious when the three of you got here.  I felt you’d recover better with some privacy.”  She looked up from her ledger and gave a little smile and shrug.  “I’m usually too busy to sleep, so it was no trouble.”

        I rubbed my face.  “I fell apart out there,” I admitted.  “I must have gone a little crazy.”

        “Perhaps, but I doubt it.  I suspect it was simply the result of you throwing yourself at a bit too much wasteland.  I take it that, DJ Pon3’s accounts aside, your experience has been somewhat terrible?”  I cringed in anticipation of the h-word, but it never came.  Instead Bottlecap looked back down at the book.  “I never understood his habit of casting ponies in the role of hero or villain.  It seems a bit immature.”

        “So you don’t think I’m a hero?”

        “Hero.”  She said the word almost with disdain.  “The Wasteland is no place for heroes.  It chews heroes up and swallows them.  They burn out, burn up, or change for the worse.  The price of being a hero is just too high in the Wasteland,” Bottlecap said as she sat, looking at me with a warm smile.  “I think you are an individual and judge you accordingly, instead of holding you to some romantic ideal of how I think you should act.”

        I gave the yellow mare a grateful smile in return.  “Well, thanks for loaning me your bed.  I’m better now.  I should probably check in on P-21 and Glory and look for more work.”  Yup.  All better now.  Whatever had happened on the road was done with and I didn’t have to worry about it.  Nope.  Not at all.

        Guts spreading over cracked asphalt…

        Not at all.

        “It’s three in the morning,” Bottlecap said simply.  “Your friends, and most of the Megamart, are asleep.”

        “Oh.  I didn’t mean to keep you awake,” I said as I looked over the ledger, but it made little sense to me.  “What are you working on?”

        “Finding a way to keep the Megamart in business,” she replied as she looked at the numbers.  “The same thing I do every day.  Your work on the Manehattan Highway gave us some wiggle room, but we’re bleeding trade month after month.”

        “Really?  I’m sorry you’re losing money.”  I knew less about business than I did terminals and medicine.  My condolences seemed to amuse her.

        “Money comes and goes.  What we’re losing is trade,” she said as she closed her ledger.  “There’s three trade hubs for the Finders and we’re all in competition with each other.”

        “Competition?  If you’re Finders shouldn’t you work together?”

        Bottlecap sighed and walked to the fridge, taking out two Sparkle-Colas.  She bit the caps off and spat them into her desk drawer.  I levitated one over and enjoyed chilled carroty goodness.  “It’s more complicated than that.  You see, my father is the owner of the Finders.  He has three daughters, one of which is me.  Each of my sisters controls the other two hubs.  Unfortunately my sisters and I have… differing economic philosophies,she said with a scowl and a regretful sigh.  “When Father dies, one of us will assume control.  I’m sure you can see the dilemma.”

        “I’m afraid I still don’t get it,” I replied.  “Sorry, I wish I was smarter about this whole marketing stuff.”  One good thing about talking with Bottlecap: it occupied all of my brain power.  I barely thought about pushing a button… barely…  I swallowed as I felt my hooves shake on the bottle.  “What, you don’t get along with your sisters or something?”

        “Caprice is of the opinion that the Finders should diversify away from pure salvage.  She peddles sex and chems to anypony willing to pay for it from the Finders hub in Flank.  She sees nothing wrong with sucking every last cap out of an addict.  She’s quite experienced at that.”  She scowled in thought, then glanced at me with a small smile.  “As you can guess, she thinks I’m simply a prude.”

        “I don’t understand.  Isn’t getting caps the point of business?”

        “What would be the point of having a pile of caps?  To swim in it?” Bottlecap said with a smile as she dug out one of the caps and held it up.  “This is just a stamped piece of metal.  What matters is trade.  Taking goods for caps.  Selling goods and getting caps.  The amount of caps doesn’t matter compared to the trade.  If anything has a chance of holding us together, it’s trade.  After all, everypony wants something.”

        I laughed softly, hoping I wasn’t being too rude.  “Sorry, but you sound so serious about it.  How do merchants save Equestria?”

        “Is that so shocking?  Trade requires rules, understanding, and agreements.  It demands a certain level of respect and acknowledgement for others.  I suppose I could have pushed my profit margins a little more aggressively, but that would strain trade even more.  This way I help contribute to the peace and order of the Wasteland,” Bottlecap said as she finished her Sparkle-Cola.  “I know it might seem silly, but it’s a big wasteland and I’m absolutely lousy with a gun.”

        I remembered how often I thought I was useless because all I could do was shoot things.  “Trust me, being good with a gun isn’t much better.”

        “I disagree.”  Bottlecap cocked her head with a pleasant smile.  “You do things, Blackjack.  By your hoof and your will, ponies live and die.  That’s a power that…”  Her eyes looked at me solemnly and sadly.  “I see…”

        My heart had redoubled its pounding.  I struggled for breath.  The bottle of Sparkle-Cola slipped from my magic and the brown fluid sloshed over the floor.  I did everything I could to stop the shaking in my forelegs.  “It’s not  It’s not a power I should have.  That anypony should have.”

        She looked at me steadily and didn’t say a word.  She waited for my heart rate to slow; for the vertigo to pass.  Then she spoke in a softly respectful tone.  “But it is a power you do have, Blackjack.  And it’s a power that many ponies are willing to use.  Eager to use.”

        “I used my power to kill children,” I said as I clenched my eyes shut.  I could still hear the singing.  Why had we sung as they died?  Forty…  I couldn’t help myself.  I poured out every terrible event that occurred, finishing with what happened with the raiders.

        Bottlecap closed her eyes, seeming to ruminate on everything that I’d told her.  Then she said quietly, “There was no right choice, Blackjack, but I would have done the same thing.”  Slowly I opened my eyes to look at her solemn features.  “The Collegiate are fine ponies, but they don’t care for fixing ponies broken centuries ago.  They’re more interested in discovering lost spells and technology.  Those foals would have remained as you left them for centuries.  They wouldn’t have pulled the plug.  They simply would have closed the door.  As for the Enclave helping… why would they?  They weren’t pegasus foals.”

        “Maybe.  The blood is on my hooves though.  I’ll have to pay for it someday,” I muttered.  I levitated the bottle up, drank what remained inside, and then carefully levitated the fluid off the floor.  I wasn’t very sure I could do it, actually, but I managed to get most of the spilt soda into a fizzy, dirty, faintly radioactive ball and down the sink.  

        Bottlecap waited for me to finish before continuing.  “Yes.  You will.  You’re paying for it right now.”  I looked at her in shock.  I’d expected… what had I expected?  “And you’ll keep paying until you don’t care anymore.  You’ll pay for that blood even if you do nothing but sit back in a glorified store.”

        “You?  But… unless your employee discipline policy involves executions, who have you killed?” I gasped.  Bottlecap, a killer?  I wasn’t seeing it.

         “You’ve seen the bounties posted.  I’m not naïve enough to believe they’re all guilty and deserving of death, but I connect bounty hunters to bounties.  I sell the ammunition and weapons that kill them.  In my own way I’ve facilitated the death of thousands of ponies.  But I have to hope that in the end I’ve helped more than I’ve hurt.”  She looked at me, saying levelly, “If I lose that, then I’m no better than my sister Usury in Paradise.”

        “Usury?”  I straightened as I remembered the freed ponies mentioning Paradise.  I might not have been a smart pony, but I made the connection.  “Your sister runs the slave market?  The Finders are involved in the slave trade?”

        “We are now,” Bottlecap said as she closed her eyes with a reserved frown.  “Usury believed it was a mistake to ignore the slave market.  That ponies are every bit as much a commodity as salvage or sex.”  She sighed softly.  “Like I said, Megamart is losing trade.  More and more ponies go to Paradise and Flank instead of here to exchange goods.  And when Father dies I’ll either be selling drugs and flesh, or ponies.”  She smiled grimly.  “Though, more likely, I’ll simply quit and set up shop in Tenpony or Friendship City.  Some things I’m not willing to buy or sell.”  Somehow I figured she wasn’t talking about salvage any more.

        I looked at Bottlecap for the longest time, feeling odd emotions churning inside me.  Respect… no.  Admiration.  Here was a pony that had lived in the Wasteland her entire life and refused to sell out her integrity.  Even when it hurt her business, she insisted on doing the right thing.  I didn’t really think it was possible for businesses to care more about their effects than wealth.

        I suddenly had a feeling about how I could pay off some of my debt.

“So… how do I hurt her trade?” I asked quietly.

        “Are you able to?”  Bottlecap stood and walked to me with a probing expression.  “Because if you want to do something in the Wasteland, somepony is going to get hurt.  Maybe you.  Maybe your friends.  Maybe somepony who deserves to hurt.  Maybe somepony who doesn’t.  Can you handle it?”

        Then I realized what she was asking me.  Could I hurt?  Could I kill?  Could I handle paying the price for being a killer, or would I keep breaking over and over again till there was nothing left?  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “I thought I was.  Now I don’t know what to think.”

        “Guess we’ll find out,” Bottlecap said softly.  “You already struck a blow against her, thanks to DJ Pon3.  I’ll never know how he got that recording, but I’m sure every slaving band is wondering just how much of a threat you really are.  The more you disrupt supply, the better.  But, eventually, you’ll have to tackle the demand.  Some, like Red Eye in Fillydelphia, probably wouldn’t stop unless he died.  But there are others, like Brimstone's Fall, where the slave operations are smaller and more manageable.”

        I glanced at my PipBuck and noticed that it had added a square far to the south and west of Megamart.  How did it do that?  Bottlecap noticed my look and smiled.  “I can’t, of course, offer you a contract for this.  If my sisters thought I was deliberately undermining them, it would be all-out war within the Finders.”

        I looked back at her.  Do better.  Could I?  I had to.  Otherwise I’d be nothing more than a killer.  “Know of any contract work in the area?”  I offered a tense smile.  “After all, trouble seems to find me easily enough.  When it does, who can say what’ll happen?”

*        *        *

        The jobs were simple and legitimate.  Patrol the Sunset Highway between Megamart and Flank, poke through the Miramare Air Station for some electronic parts, and deliver some mail to Flank’s residents.  The route would also take me within spitting distance of Brimstone's Fall.  If something should happen that put a dent in the demand side of the slave trade, then it’d not only help the people of the Wasteland but Bottlecap as well.

        I wasn’t sure if I was good with this or not.  Unlike my first talk with Watcher, I didn’t feel much more confident.  I still wanted to do better, though.  Watcher, DJ Pon3, Bottlecap… even the figurine of Fluttershy all extolled me to do better.  Do more.  Help others.  If I did, maybe I’d be able to come to terms with all the wrong things I’d done.  Pay my price.

        Still, first things first: get a new shotgun and pick up my barding.  The specialty rounds were effective, but hell on the workings of a gun.  I’d need to save them or start carrying backup shotguns.  Actually, given that everypony was asleep at this hour, what I should have done was go back to bed till dawn.  The thought of trying to take a nap didn’t appeal much, though.

        “Ante up,” I heard a mare, Keystone, I think her name was, say from the entrance.  My ears stood right up and I moseyed over to where five ponies sat around a table.  And they had cards and colored chits.  A true, real smile crossed my face.

        “Deal me in?”  I gave her my widest and sincerest ‘I won’t tell the Overmare’ smile.  

The mottled gray and green mare looked up in surprise, and a little suspicion.  “You know Head and Hoof style?”  I shook my head, but I guessed that they knew we’d gotten paid today.  It was actually really similar to a style of poker Rivets had been fond of.  You got two cards face down (your head) and then two cards were turned face up (your hooves).  Every round you added a card to either your head or your hooves as you raised the bet.  Everypony made the best hand out of seven.  With six players, that meant keeping track of forty-two cards.  With half a deck in play, it was more gamble than figuring out the odds.  They forwarded some chips for me and we got to playing.

In two hours, the game broke down more and more between me and Keystone.  She was a lot smarter than me, and she kept making smart bets.  Me?  I won big.  I lost big too.  Still, I won just a bit more than I lost with each hoof dealt.  The cards and the winning were only half of it, though; contrary to what I’d thought, I’d missed this.  The banter.  The jokes.  The remembrances of a life where I didn’t expect to kill somepony every day.

Then, of course, there was the whiskey.  I had to admit that I’d never really drunk before.  We didn’t have legal alcohol in Stable 99, so my first drink went down like a Sparkle-Cola.  Once I’d stopped coughing and choking, I figured out that whiskey was supposed to be drunk slowly rather than fast, and soon I had a pleasant warmth in my belly that quickly drove out all the fears and doubts rolling around in my skull.  I felt happy.

Then I saw a ghost.  The unicorn buck stood at the end of a row of scrap metal.  His tan mane and brown hide were nothing spectacular.  The only thing that stood out was an odd cutie mark.  A cutie mark identical to P-21’s.

U-21.  I rose to my hooves as he disappeared out of sight.  “Deal me out this round.  I need to… take a leak.”

“That was information I did not need to know,” Keystone replied, happily taking my cards.  When I ran down the row… okay, weaved down the row… she called after me, “Hey!  Toilets are that way!  Don’t be pissing on the merchandise!”

“Heeere… pony pony pony…” I called out as I made my way to the end of the row and turned.  “I just want to ask you a few questions about Mr. Deus and Sanguine.  I’m not gonna hurtcha.”  I really hoped I wouldn’t have to hurt him.  It’d be nice to get some answers without hurting anypony.

I spotted him fidgeting next to two pallets stacked high with rusty generators or electrical equipment.  He stared at me, swallowing as he trembled.  “Hey.  U-21.  You met somepony named Sanguine.  I really want to meet him too.”

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, and then his shaking stopped.  His lips curled in a small satisfied smirk.  “But he only wants your PipBuck.”  His horn flared brightly.

“Oh horse--” I started to say, when a powerful telekinetic field wrapped around my throat and squeezed tight, lifting me into the air.  Then what I’d taken for a heap of scrap slowly rose to his hooves.

“Hello, Security Cunt.”  In the stable, he’d looked big.  Now, he looked huge.  Even ignoring the metal plates fused to his hide and the pistons supporting his weight, he stood a whole head higher than me.  The sight of metal plunging into flesh, distorting it as he moved, would normally have turned my stomach.  Just at the moment, though, I had enough sobriety to notice but more than enough inebriation to not care about it.  Or that I was dangling helplessly between his massive guns.  “You have no idea how aggravating it’s been to find you.”

“Hasn’t been fun for me either,” I gasped with a forced grin.  “So.  Heard you want a certain computer file I’ve got?  Won’t do you any good.  It’s encrypted.”

“Sanguine doesn’t care about that, cunt.  All he wants is your PipBuck.”  He reached out with his hoof and caressed my cheek… it was like being touched by manufacturing equipment.  “If you’d given it to me right outside that damned stable, I might have let you walk away.  Eventually.  Crawl, perhaps.  But after leading me on a chase for nearly a week?  I’m afraid I’m not in the mood anymore.”

“Funny.”  I laughed in his scowling, ugly face.  If you’d pulled this a few hours ago, I’d probably have just given you my PipBuck.  Probably the leg too,” I said as I gave him a little smile.  He blinked in confusion as he looked at me.  “There’s just two little problems right now: one, I dunno if you noticed, but I’m really stupid.  And two”  I paused as I looked over at the cannons.  Yup… that was probably it right there.  Least I knew my guns.  “Two… I’m pretty sure I’m drunk.”

And my own magic reached out and deftly depressed the trigger mechanisms on those two cannons pointing to either side of me.  The roar of the shots blasted second by second just feet away.  Shells sent pallets of scrap flying and tumbling down on U-21, breaking his magical grip on me.  I landed in a heap in front of Deus, curling into a little ball.  I couldn’t hear anything as my ears rang and l went fetal.  Oh thank you sweet merciful whiskey for you have taken the concussive beating that comes from hanging a few feet from a firing cannon muzzle and rendered it into a nice full-body numbness.

He stood over me, his mouth working as his metallic hoof pressed down right over my leg.  It sounded like he was screaming at me from under water.  “What did you think that accomplished, huh, cunt?”  He started to apply pressure; I wondered if he could just stomp my leg clean off.  Probably.

“Wrath of Gun,” I muttered, and then he looked up.  The massive turret was swinging the barrel around to point right at Deus.  He stepped back, eyes widening, and I curled up as tightly as I could, giggling, “Mine’s bigger.”  Gun fired.

Wee… I’m flying!

Whoopsie.  Never mind.  Gravity works.

        I crashed through the chain mesh draped across a firearms stall and landed behind the counter.  Ammo boxes weren’t particularly soft; actually, they were the antithesis of soft.  But they did hold ammo.  And so, as I lay there behind the counter, marveling at the many painkilling properties of alcohol, I took said ammo and loaded said firearms.

        It was crazy time in Megamart.  I could make out the long, drawn-out noise of ‘Cunnnnnt!’ being shouted by Deus.  Keystone and the other ponies were scrambling.  Gun was tracking Deus, but not firing.  And me, I was staggering out from behind the counter with my new… shotgun?  Rifle?  It was all kinda blurry at the moment.  Oh well.  I could tell the business end from the trigger and that was all I needed.  “Hey Deus!  You still want my PipBuck?  You can have it when you pry it off my cold… dead…”  Oh.  Vomiting.  Not nearly what I’d been going for.

        Oh look!  There was Deus.  Minus one gun.  It looked like he’d missed getting shot by Gun, but his gear hadn’t.  That made him keel over with each step as he fought to keep his balance.  I blew him a kiss.  He blew one back… wait, no.  That was a shell.  It was only luck and him being so off balance that kept me from turning into a Blackjack colored stain.

        Another low, deep crump from overhead and the shell buried itself in the concrete, throwing rocky debris everywhere.  I guessed Gun’s shells didn’t go boom like Deus’s… made sense being inside and all.  Off balance and heavy as he was, Deus was still a quick pony!

        “Hey Deus.  I got a gun too,” I shouted, or I think I shouted.  I might have just said, ‘Hadahhhhsss!  Mwahhhguaaataaa! but he was charging and I really had no time for elocution.  Instead I pointed my gun thing and fired, hitting S.A.T.S. as the shell left the barrel and rocketed towards him.  Wait?  S.A.T.S. then fire… S.A.T.S. then fire…  Canceling S.A.T.S.  I watched as the shell hit Deus right in the chest.  Darn.  I’d wanted to aim for his head.

        Then Deus exploded!  I looked down at the weapon in my magical grip, focusing on the blurry letters.  Grenade… launcher?  I thought you just threw em!  Unfortunately Deus was not a dead pony.  He wasn’t a happy pony either.  Actually, looking around, there were a lot of unhappy ponies.  Well, not me.  I was happy.  I had a tummy of whiskey residue and my head was going around and around and whee.

        P-21 and Glory found me and immediately started dumping healing potions down my gullet.  Funny, but why did I hurt more when I was healed?  The spinning and the underwater noise receded and I became aware of the copious amounts of blood coming from my ears and nostrils.  Heck, I looked like I’d gotten peppered with concrete buckshot.  Suddenly I didn’t feel so good.  In fact I was rapidly going from good to ‘aw fuck’.  Why couldn’t I stop shaking?

They helped sit me up as Bottlecap, flanked by Keystone and the rest of her security team, kept weapons trained.  “This is done, Deus.  I’ll send the bill to Big Daddy.  You two can settle it between you.”

“This isn’t done yet.”  He pointed a hoof right at me.  “Hand her over, Bottlecap.  I’ll pay fifty thousand for her right now.”

“You don’t have that kind of money,” Bottlecap said, but I could hear her doubt.  “Besides, even if you did, some things aren’t for sale.”

“Bullshit, Bottlecap.  This is a store.  Everything’s for sale!” he said with a wide grin.

Bottlecap looked at him with complete disdain.  “You’ve got me confused with my sisters.  You don’t have a clue what it is you’re trying to purchase from me.  Now get out, Deus, or I’ll sell what’s left of you to the ghouls.”

He glanced up and around, then scowled.  “Fine.  But I got one last piece of business here.”  He pointed his hoof at me and yelled, “Bounty on Security.  Fifty thousand caps.  You want to collect, bring her head and her PipBuck -- intact -- to the Arena!  If she’s alive, one hundred thousand bottlecaps!  Usury will back me up on payment.  After all, she’s the sister who doesn’t give a fuck,” he added, sneering down at Bottlecap.  He grinned at me one final time and then the cybernetic pony walked for the exit.  U-21 limped after him, smirking at me with malicious glee.

Suddenly more ponies were glancing at me and muttering to each other.  “Come on, Blackjack.  Let’s get you to Bonesaw,” P-21 said as he shoved up underneath me.  “Ugh, good Goddesses, we just fixed you up, Blackjack.  It’s like there’s some universal rule that you’ve got to get hurt all the time.”

“Just the price I got to pay,” I muttered softly as they helped me away.

*        *        *

I was getting pretty familiar with Bottlecap’s office by now.  Deus had come in like any shopper and simply waited, knowing that I’d arrive eventually to collect on my contracts.  Now that there was a price on my head, Keystone and Bottlecap had thought it best I recover out of sight before I started a riot.  Without putting up a single piece of paper, Deus had created the largest bounty in Hoofington history.  And that was me dead; me alive was twice as much.

“Most ponies are lucky to see a thousand caps in their life,” Keystone said with a scowl as she brought me my barding.  “We’ve got to get you out of here or they’ll tear the whole place apart looking for you.”  My whole body throbbed, most particularly my head.  I’d thought that Bonesaw took care of patching me up, but the throbbing in my head made me wonder if I had a skull fracture he missed.  Even with everything he’d done, I still felt like I’d been shoved in a dryer set to spin.

 I regarded Megamart’s security chief with a curious half-smile.  “Not looking to collect yourself?”  Keystone didn’t smile back.

The mottled gray and green mare gave a snort.  “I’m not an ungrateful shit.  You helped us and helped others.  I get my paycheck the honest way now,” she said as she tossed the barding down on the cot beside me.  “Courtesy of your poker winnings.”

I levitated it and then frowned.  Why was it heavier?  “What happened to it?”  I felt stiff plates sewn underneath the kevlar weave.

“Armor plates.  I thought you needed something a little more substantial.  You get shot way too much,” Keystone said with a small smile.  “I also included something special.  Hurry up and kill Deus so we can have another game.”

“Any clue where I can find him?”  And head in the opposite direction?

“He’s a Reaper.  If he’s not killing somepony, he’s probably at the Arena.”  I looked at my PipBuck… yup.  ‘Hoofington Sports Arena’ was now on the map.  If I wasn’t wrapped head to hoof in healing bandages I’d be screaming about how.  “He’s one of Big Daddy’s Four Horses of the Apocalypse… and yeah.  They really do call themselves that.”

P-21 and Glory had spent a sizable amount of our caps on a new drum-fed shotgun.  I’d take better care of this one.  There was also a backup automatic pistol and a brand spanking new baton.  “Thanks.  It’s not even my birthday.”  I looked over at Bottlecap.  “So I’m guessing those jobs are going to be on hold for a while?”

The lemon mare smiled.  “Why?  Your bounty doesn’t disqualify you from getting paid for other jobs.  Every trade hub is supposed to be neutral ground, and you can send Glory or P-21 in to collect payments.  Just be careful.  That is a lot of money for a bounty, and I know many ponies won’t care if you’re Security or not.”

“Not to be a wet blanket, but how are we supposed to get out of here without said hordes of avarice descending on us the second we set hoof out the door?” P-21 asked, in perfect deadpan wet blanket fashion.

Bottlecap just smiled, and my mane proceeded to itch.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Quick Draw - Holstering and drawing weapons is 50% faster.

Quest Perk: The Stare (Level 1) - You can intimidate non-hostile contacts through eye contact.

(Once again, thanks to Kkat for inspiring me to write.  Thanks to Hinds for making all this 120% cooler.)


Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons

By Somber

Chapter 8: Long Roads

        Are you sayin my mouth is makin promises my legs can't keep?”

        The word spread like wildfire.  Did you hear about the bounty?  What bounty?  The bounty.  The bounty of the year.  The bounty of the century.  Fifty thousand caps dead.  A hundred thousand alive.  A hundred thousand caps, imagine it!  All for the head and PipBuck of some stable dweller?  A stable dweller?  Yeah, Security.  Security?  The mare DJ Pon3 talks about?  Yeah, she’s somewhere around Megamart.  Are you going after her?  Are you?

        The answer had been yes.  As I watched through P-21’s binoculars I saw them drawn by the promise of easy money.  That very morning a camp formed outside the main gates; only a half dozen.  By noon it was twenty.  By sundown, fifty.  Most of them had pathetic weapons, rusty rifles and barely mended work implements.  But that was changing.  The professionals were starting to arrive.  Professionals who were asking questions.  What did Security look like?  What weapons did she carry?  What foods did she like to eat?  Who were her friends?

        By morning the next day, Megamart found itself inundated with ‘customers’.  Keystone made sure every one of them paid the toll, and even restricted weapons in case Gun wasn’t enough deterrent.  Each of the ‘shoppers’ kept an eye out for the mare with the black and red mane.  Had a single one of them laid eyes on me I think they’d have torn me to pieces and hauled me to Deus in a bucket.

        Still, for all the watchful eyes, nopony seemed too interested in the four wastelanders and their brahmin.  Dressed in rags and cloaks, reeking of brahmin droppings, their packs rattled with salvage from all across Hoofington as they slowly crept north.  Reaching the overpass, a gang of ten stopped them.  “We’re looking for Security.”

        “Oh, Security escaped last night.  Didn’t you hear?  She was an Enclave agent.  Cut her wings off ta fool us all, the old buck leading the caravan of wastelanders cackled.

        “Horseapples,” spat another caravanner, a gray mare with crossed knives for her cutie mark.  “She’s still in there.  Security’s from Tenpony.  Got enough money ta buy the Finders.  They’re finally making their move on the Hoof!”

        “She’s travelling with a pegasus and an earth pony,” the crème buck gang leader said as he glowered at the caravanners.

        “Ain’t no turkeys here,” the old buck cackled again as the gang searched the packs.  He was obviously telling the truth; clearly none of the travelling ponies could be hiding wings beneath their dusty robes and cloaks.

        The leader of the ten looked at his fellows.  “Yeah, well, we think Security might try and sneak out.”

        “Shit.  Ya caught me,” the left head of the brahmin muttered.

        The other head gasped, “You’re Security?  You fucker.  What’d you do with Hank?”

        A few of the bounty hunters snorted at the two jabbering heads.  The leader looked at the remaining buck and mare.  “You.  Get over here,” he demanded briskly of the mare.  “Get over here and get those rags off.”

        “Don’t you lay a hoof on my girl!”  The olive green buck glared, his eyes drilling into the leader.  His wild black mane rose in a mad tangled ridge from brow to tail.  A trio of varmint rifles fixed on him, making him bristle but step back.

        The purple mare gave a coy giggle.  “Oh, don’t worry hun; I’m sure they’ll be gentle.”  She wiggled out of the robe, revealing a petite body dressed in frilly, if slightly worn, lingerie that covered both flanks and back legs.  Quite a cute mare, if you overlooked the male bits between his haunches.  He fluttered his lashes at the leader.  “Happy?”

        The ten immediately lost interest and returned to looking at Megamart, scrambling as they realized three more caravans were leaving for three other directions.  The caravan continued north, laughing and sharing jokes.  A few miles beyond the overpass the two ponies following them turned back.

        I never thought I’d be glad to see Pony Joe’s again.  As our ‘caravan’ walked around the back of the donut shop I glanced behind us once again before cackling with glee.  “Ya caught me… you nearly made me laugh,” I said fondly to Hank and Tony.

        “I do standup,” the brahmin’s left head said with a chuckle.

        Bottlecap smiled fondly as she reached back, licked over the crossed blades, and then carefully peeled off the cutie mark decal, spitting it into the garbage.  “Are you sure you won’t keep the disguise a little longer?”  Bonesaw didn’t really have much to remove from himself, as all his disguise entailed was his robes, so he helped me pull off the wiry black hair that’d been stuck to me with wax.

        “Folks need to start spotting Security somewhere other than at Megamart.  If they think we’re still hiding there, sooner or later they’ll try and storm the place or burn you out.  If I know DJ Pon3, soon as I plug a raider he’ll be all over it.”  Plug a raider… cause killing them was a joke.  I really was that callous.

        “You’re lucky you’ve got such a puny horn.  Never woulda been able to cover it otherwise,” Bonesaw said as he magically yanked the clump of hair-coated wax off my brow.

        I frowned, feeling a little hurt.  “My horn isn’t puny.”

        “It’s barely bigger than a foal’s!” he cackled.  

I feigned an injured yet dignified expression.  “It’s not puny.

P-21 removed all his wastelander garments, frowning as he glanced at me with a small, almost amused smile.  “Bonesaw, does the size of a unicorn’s horn have any indication of their magical prowess?  Because, Blackjack, I have to admit that I’ve never seen you do magic before,” P-21 teased.  The wrinkled old buck rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“My horn isn’t puny!  I just wasn’t taught any magic.  That’s all,” I said defensively.  “I was supposed to learn spells once I took over for Mom.”  Okay, that was a lie, but it was the best excuse I could manage.

The truth was that I couldn’t really do magic.  Oh, I could levitate guns and swing batons as well as any unicorn, but my telekinesis was hardly all that impressive.  In medical they concluded that my magic hadn’t fully developed yet.  I still had bad dreams of spending hours with Marmalade trying to summon magic hoofcuffs or cast a stunning spell.  Trying to get interrogation spells to work had been an absolute nightmare, particularly when my mom decided that it might help if she demonstrated them by using them on me.  Having your mother dig through your porn stash was bad enough, but having her dig through the memories of how many times you put yourself on the breeding queue?  And having her critique your performance and offer suggestions?

        P-21 was looking at me in concern.  “Blackjack?  You okay?”

        “Yeah.  Just… yeah…”  Oh Goddesses, was I really becoming that much of a basket case?  “I didn’t freak out, did I?”

        “Well…”  He gave me a definite smirk… oh yes, he was really smirking!  That was a Blackjack kind of smirk, instead of a sullen, P-21 smirk.  “It seemed like you were turning pretty interesting colors under that paint job.”

        “Ugh… leave the mental patient alone,” I countered, but I was glad I wasn’t thinking about Mom recommending I raise my hips--Goddesses, I was thinking it again!  Groaning, I fished around for any other topic I could think of.  “Hey, Bottlecap.  Are ponies like Deus common in the Wasteland?”

        She took out a bottle of mildly radioactive water--no way you’d waste filtered stuff for washing--and starting scrubbing the gray paint off her hide.  “There’s always been Reapers around Hoofington, but most aren’t as strong as Deus.  When you become a Reaper they do something to you, make you stronger and tougher.  But the oldest Reapers like Big Daddy and Deus have potent internal healing talismans and the like; the only ponies that come close to challenging their firepower are the Steel Rangers.”

        “Oh, why is that?” I asked as I peeled off my cutie mark decal and started scrubbing off my olive paint.  For some reason wearing it made me… twitchy.  I liked seeing my ace and queen of spades.  Then I glanced over at P-21’s male symbol and twenty-one dots before he covered them up with his saddlebags.  What would his cutie mark have been?  A book?  A candle?  A stubborn jackass?

        “Steel Rangers have the Ironmare naval station.  The HMS Celestia’s tied up there.  If they get the guns working on that ship, they’ll be able to lob shells across half of Hoofington.  They’ve got numbers and ammo and they’re stocking up on every missile they can get their hooves on.”  Bottlecap looked to the east, but highlands to the north and east of us blocked our view.  “Most Steel Rangers just worry about stockpiling weapons and technology from the past.  I’m pretty sure Star Paladin Steel Rain plans on something bigger.  Fortunately, the Reapers love to pick fights from the west and the Enclave has them bottled up from the south, leaving them mostly stuck in Ironmare.”

        “You think they’re going to try and take over Hoofington?” P-21 asked.

        Bottlecap chewed her lip.  “Elder Crunchy Carrots… never.  But Elder Crunchy is growing increasingly old and feeble, and I think Steel Rain would just love to show Equestria what the Rangers can actually do.  Unfortunately, the Enclave’s of similar feelings.  If they go to war, a whole third of Hoofington might be lost.”

        I frowned as I scanned the skies.  “Speaking of the Enclave, where is Morning Glory?  She left before us.  She should be here.”  I glanced behind me at the door to the donut shop.  “No.  She wouldn’t have actually gone inside…”

        I walked to the back door and carefully opened it, expecting a wash of pure nausea.  Instead, all I smelled was hot air.  DJ Pon3 played calmly from within.  Inch by inch I opened it and peeked inside the kitchen of horror, only to find…  “It’s clean.”  Well… clean in a figurative sense.  The industrial mixer had been removed.  The ovens and food preparation surfaces were so clean they sparkled.  The bodies were all missing.  Somepony had come by in the last day or two and scrubbed away every sign of atrocity.

        Okay, this was one of the more creepy experiences I’d had in the last week.  Not as bad as a few places, but still.  I walked inside and found Glory reading a magazine in one of the booths, the radio in the corner filling the dining area with soothing music.  A Sparkle-Cola sat on the tabletop beside her.  If she hadn’t been wearing that Enclave uniform and battle saddle, I would have thought she was a ghost, a pegasus filly from two centuries ago sitting here and waiting for her date to arrive.  “Hey, Blackjack.”

        “Hey.  I don’t suppose you’ve been holding back a shocking talent at housecleaning, have you?” I said as I sat in the booth opposite her.

        “Um, nope.  You mean it wasn’t like this before?”  She gestured with a hoof.  The duffel bag with my shotgun and reinforced barding rested next to her.  She also had P-21’s things in a sack.

        I gave her a skeptical look.  “This was a raider nest.  You saw how they lived.  This place should have bodies for decoration and guts for streamers.”  Fuck, did I really say that?  I took a deep breath, feeling my head start pounding.  “Somepony cleaned this place up.”

        “Well, it wasn’t me.  I’ve been waiting all morning,” she said with a little smile, gesturing at some empty bottles of cola next to her.  “There’s running water in the sinks, but I think it might be radioactive.  You should have P-21 check in the ladies room.  There’s a locked first aid kit in there.”  She sighed, propping her hooves under her chin as she looked back down at her Scientific Equestria.  “Though why anypony would lock up emergency medical supplies is beyond me.”

        “It does seem counterproductive,” I agreed, then went out to tell the others they could come inside.  P-21 went right to that locked first aid kit.  The bathrooms were much more effective at removing the rest of the paint, even though Glory was right about the radiation.  My eyes started to itch and my vision turned distinctly more amberish: minor magical radiation poisoning for sure.  No patch and purge special this time.

        I left the bathroom decidedly cleaner, went to the duffel, and sucked down a pack of RadAway, enjoying the tangy orange flavor.  They could have bottled this stuff!  Then I put on my new and improved… and heavier… armor.  It certainly felt much more substantial.  There was also a reinforced helmet made in the same blue and gold motif.  I could feel the metal plates sewn inside.  Hopefully it would prevent more ‘Blackjack got blown up within an inch of her life’ mom--

        Somepony had sewn the Crusader patch on the left flank of my barding, right below the word ‘Security’.  It might have been dingy, but seeing the little gold filly pawing defiantly at the air made me smile and choke up at the same time.  Somehow I’d pay back the Crusaders as well.  The faction everypony forgot about deserved help the most.

        Stepping out, I saw Morning Glory talking with both Bottlecap and Bonesaw.  I hung back, pretending to be interested in Glory’s scavenged magazines.  “Once the slides are prepared, please see they get to Dr. Morningstar at the RDSP with my notes.  I’m sure he’ll be interested in more.  Let him know I’m travelling with Blackjack.”

        “You could just take them yourself,” Bottlecap pointed out.  “It’s hazardous, but Keeper’s caravan goes by the Skyport every two weeks.”

        Glory looked over at me with a small smile.  “Well.  As terrifying as it’s been, I think I’ll stay with Blackjack.  She’s saved my life and she’s trying to do the right thing.  Maybe I can find more samples, too.”  Daww, watch me blush.

        “Well, glad to have you with us,” I said, and I meant it.  She was a little… literal, but she’d seen a lot of the same horrors I had and hadn’t fallen apart nearly as badly as I did.  And she could fly.  Her Enclaveness was certainly concerning, but I was convinced her heart was in the right place.

        Once everything was squared away, the three of us headed west towards Weather Monitoring Four, the broadcast tower a handy landmark.  Now that I had shed the disguise, I felt a definite twitching between my shoulderblades.  I also felt… good.  Maybe it was just the day of downtime not killing anypony or Glory’s vote of confidence or just the fact that I’d run into Deus and come out alive.

        “So did your brains tell you anything?” I asked her, half teasing.  I figured anypony after my head would show up as red on my EFS, but the only hostiles in these woods were bobbing bloatsprites.

        “Yes.  The raider sample had numerous lesions in the frontal lobe…”  She caught my ‘I’m not a smart pony, remember?’ look and coughed.  “The fronts of their brains were full of little holes.  It looked almost like a sponge.”  See?  Translate smart into stupid and I had no problem following along.  “The front of the brain is where most of your impulse control and long-term decision-making happen.”

        “You’d probably see the same thing with Blackjack’s brain,” P-21 said, grinning at me.  I did all I could to not say a word, feeling my heart throbbing in my ears.  “So what do you think causes it?” he continued, not noticing my discomfort.  “There’s lots of ponies that live in the Wasteland who manage to stay sane.”  Sure, they might kill us anyway for a mountain of caps, but that was sane.

        “Some bacteria or virus, I think.  The decay is progressive; likely it takes months or years for full psychological breakdown to occur.  Given that raiders are so aggressive and cannibalistic, they might spread it through eating infected ponies,” she replied.  “The Enclave reports that there’s something down here that turns all ponies into raiders, but we’ve come across plenty that aren’t.  The slaver brain was perfectly healthy.  No lesions at all.”  She looked positively ecstatic.  “More samples are needed, of course, but the Enclave can get that.  If I’m right, once they lock down the source, they can work on a treatment.  Imagine a Wasteland with no more raiders!”

        “That just leaves radiation, ghouls, bandits, killer robots, slavers…” P-21 listed.  I gave him a little shove.  Taking raiders out of the equation would go a long way towards making Hoofington a safer place to live.  He was right, but if she was right and the Enclave could come up with a cure, I’d sure be happy.  Then they could just do something about those clouds…

        While I wasn’t exactly thrilled about resting at the weather station, I knew there was food we’d left behind, and unless the robots rebuilt themselves we should be safe.  By the time we reached the station, the rain had started to pick up and turn the ground into mud soup.  We slipped back into the reinforced structure and I carefully and respectfully cleared out a room for us to use; I might not have been up to burying dozens of skeletons, but I didn’t have to toss their bones around like garbage, either.  I levitated some mattresses over and we got settled in for the night.

        …Have I mentioned I hate being bored?

        I had one little curiosity sitting in my bag.  Slowly I pulled out the glassy memory orb I’d received from the broken gazebo beside the lake.  Lying on my mattress, I batted it back and forth between my hooves.  Bonesaw had explained how they worked: a trip down somepony else’s experiences.  See what they saw and feel what they felt.  I assumed the first orb had been Miss Glitterhooves’s memory: Garnet, recalling an actual meeting with Fluttershy, Cheerilee, and Redheart.  Granted, this time I probably wouldn’t wake up with my intestines… okay.  Not thinking about that now.

        “I think I’m going to take a peek inside,” I said as I looked at the orb.

        “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” P-21 asked with obvious skepticism.

        “It’s one of my ideas.  Of course it isn’t good,” I said as I lifted it in my hoof.  “As soon as I go into this thing we’ll be stormed by bounty hunters, ghouls, and Deus.  But I’m bored and I’m curious, so I’ll need you two to protect me from Deus raping me with his cannon.”

        Glory frowned, rubbing her chin with a wingtip.  “I really don’t think it’d fit.  That bore has to be a hundred and twenty two millimeters and that’s almost the width of a mare giving birth so figuring in the thickness of the barrel…”  She finally caught my look.  “Oh.  Blackjack humor.  Sorry.”  She smiled sheepishly.  “Yes, we will protect you from a hypothetical Deus and his hypothetical cannon.”

        “Next you should teach her about innuendo,” P-21 observed dryly.  Then he looked at me in concern, “I’m not sure exactly how that thing works, but be careful if you can.”

        “Heh… it’s probably a nightmare phantasmagoria of blood and death, the way my luck’s been.”  I touched the tip of my horn to the glowing orb and made the magic connection.  The world faded to black...

oooOOOooo

        Stars.  They’d been a five letter word and a black page covered in white speckles in a history book I’d been too bored to really read.  Now a million points of light filled the heavens above me.  That was nothing compared to the moon: luminous and white like a polished bottle cap.  Ugh, had I just used junk money to describe the moon?  I had no poetry in my soul.

        The lake before me looked as if it were a piece of the night sky: no scummy gray water, swampy weeds, or radigators fouling its flat peacefulness.  The air was filled with the sweet smell of clean water and delicate fragrances I could only imagine were flowers.  The unicorn mare I occupied fit so well I felt as if I myself were standing there.  I wanted to taste that water and explore those sweet scents.  Sadly, I could not, as she stood underneath a gazebo roof that hadn’t yet been crushed by falling sky wagons.

        I heard hoofsteps on the bridge to the shore and I felt her lips curl.  “You’re going back again, aren’t you?”

        “Ayep,” a deep, mournful voice said softly.  I felt him brush up against her flank, felt her body lean against his, her eyes closing as she took in his rich smell and felt his strong body beside hers.

        “Isn’t fifteen years of your life enough, Macintosh?” she asked softly, stroking her cheek against his neck.

        “They need me,” came his slow reply.  “The Princess will be there.  I think this might finally be over.”

        “Over...”  She opened her eyes to look up at his powerful jaw and those soft yet so wonderfully strong eyes gazing down at her.  “Will it ever really be over for you, Macintosh?”

        He smiled and lowered his head to nuzzle me with shocking tenderness for so powerful a stallion.  “Now that I’ve got you, I reckon so.”  Oh how I adored this… she adored… oh Goddesses, it was getting hard to tell where she ended and I began.  “I gotta do this.  For my sis.  For all my friends I’ve lost.  For the Princess.  Heck, for you.  Gold says the zebras respect me.  If I’m there… maybe they’ll be more likely to go for a ceasefire.”

        I felt her lean against him.  “Then I guess you have to do it,” she whispered.  A soft sigh, and then she asked in a much firmer tone, “Have you told your sister about me?”

        He jerked and gulped, “Well… um… she’s busy… and… ah…”

        “Big Macintosh!  We’ve been together for a year and you still haven’t told her?”  I kicked his leg with a forehoof, but felt myself smiling.  He was far too strong for my hoof to hurt him.

        “I’m sorry.  I just hoped that if we were together long enough that she’d figger it out.”  He gave a sheepish smile.  “I’ll tell you what, Miss Maripony.  When we’re done at Shattered Hoof I’ll hand over my resignation then and there…”

        “And?”  I felt myself arch a brow.

        “And I’ll tell my sister and everyone who this wonderful pony is…” he added as he lowered his head to my own.

        “And?” I asked softly.  He looked apprehensive for only a moment before he sighed.

        “And… I’ll tell em we got to start planning for a wedding.”

        I melted against him once again, kissing him and feeling him hold me.  Finally, like trying to tear out my own heart, our lips parted.  “Well… all right then,” I whispered, tears running down my cheek.  There were the sounds of a sky carriage approaching and landing by the house on the hillside beside the lake.  “I’ve waited this long.  I can wait a little bit more.”

        “I love you, Maripony,” he whispered in my ear.

        “I love you, Macintosh,” I replied.  We stood together like that for a moment or two longer, and then parted.  I hadn’t realized how cool the night was till I stood there alone beneath the stars.  I listened to his fading footsteps across the bridge, glancing back to see him looking at me.  Then he boarded the sky carriage.

        Then my eyes closed and I felt my lips move; a whisper so soft that I could only make it out from the shapes of my lips.

        You’re going to be a father.

oooOOOooo

        I came out of the memory at once, staring at the softly glowing curve beneath my horn.  Love.  It was like stars.  I’d never seen it before, not like that.  Not love so obvious it made my chest hurt.  Glory and P-21 looked at me in concern.  “You… are you all right, Blackjack?” P-21 asked.

        Was I?  I had no idea.  Could I do anything without having my brain or emotions wrenched in an entirely new direction?  I sat up, trying to sort my emotions into the correct holes.  “Who was Macintosh?” I asked, looking at both of them.

        “Did you sleep through all your classes?” P-21 asked with a still concerned frown.  “Big Macintosh was the hero of the Equestrian Army.  He never became an officer, but he was pivotal right up to his death at the Shattered Hoof assassination attempt.”

        Assassination?  Suddenly I remembered old Hoss’s journal entries at the flooded field farmhouse.  “He died saving Princess Celestia,” I said as I looked back at the innocuous orb.  “Did he have anyone?”  They looked at me in confusion.  “Did he have anyone?  A family?  A kid?”  I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat.  “Somepony named Mari?  Maripony maybe?”

        “His younger sisters were Applejack and Apple Bloom… but other than that, no.  I don’t think so,” Glory said as she shook her head.

        Shit.  Now I knew how to feel.  Was there some sadistic being out there beyond the stars serving up a buffet of misery and regret for me to wallow through?  No… I couldn’t let myself start thinking that way.  There was no way out of that hole.

 “I’m sorry.  I guess it was bad,” Glory said softly in concern.

        “No…” I said quietly.  He’d died and left her alone with a child, completely forgotten by everypony.  “It wasn’t bad.  It was wonderful.”  And that made it so very much worse.  I closed my eyes as I walked out of the room to step outside and let the rain wash some of the sorrow away.

*        *        *

        When I’d come in out of the rain, I shared what was on the memory with both of them.  Surprisingly, P-21 looked more touched than Glory that the hero of Equestria had a love that never made it into the history books.  I wondered why she had been forgotten.  Had she remained silent, bearing a colt or filly free of the stain of that tragedy?  Did she try and connect to Applejack?  Had some editor just thought she wasn’t worth printing?  And, most pernicious of all, what had been her ultimate fate?  Had she died beside that lake with Big Macintosh’s child, the waters fouled by radioactive fallout as the world crashed around her?

        I knew that I shouldn’t care.  She’d been gone more than two centuries.  So why care about a pony that no longer existed?  Was it vanity?  Did I want somepony to remember Security two centuries from now?  Was it loneliness, now that my world had gone from a stable of a few hundred to less than a half dozen ponies, and was I desperate to connect to somepony good?  Somepony that could teach me about positive things in life?  Just seeing Fluttershy’s statue had inspired me to do better.  I needed to do better.

        I watched the memory three more times, but there was nothing there but regret.

        I’d like to say that in the morning the rain stopped.  Actually, I’d like to say the rain stopped and for the first time I saw the moon and stars and maybe the sun too.  The reality was the rain slacked up enough to travel, but drizzled enough to turn everything into wet muck.  We were north of Ironshod R&D, but I wanted a good look around with P-21’s binoculars.  A hill rose to the west and I guessed that we might be able to see the Sunset Highway from the top.  It’d be nice to find out just how many bounty hunters were on our tail.

        The slope wasn’t anything terrible and it was covered by patches of yellowing grass and thorn bushes.  Still, the saturated ground sometimes slumped alarmingly underhoof as we made our way upwards.  My PipBuck mapping tool chimed: Hill 255.  Suddenly there was a metallic groan beneath us.  The entire hillside started to slide out from underneath our hooves.  Glory took to the skies as I wrapped my magic around P-21’s leg and we scrambled to the side.

        To my amazement a vast metal shape turned over as it breached the water-drenched surface.  Slowly it came to a stop behind us, and I stared at the mud-slathered turret of a two-hundred-year-old tank.  Around it and beneath it, poking from the slumping mud, were hundreds of rotten bones freed from the earth.  Slowly, I swept my eyes across the field to the west of us.  There rose the mountains, stark and sheer.  North lay the lake; was it my imagination, or could I see the tiny remains of the gazebo from here?  South I could make out the many wings of the Fluttershy hospital.

        But immediately south and west lay only battlefield.  Even two hundred years hadn’t obscured the battle lines.  Armored skeletons lay next to strangely graceful zebra weapons.  I made out one large glowing crater southwest of the hill; it wasn’t alone.  Small lakes and ribbons of contaminated water lay everywhere; even atop the hill my radiation scanner ticked softly.

        A ring of concrete crumbled at the top of the hill and I could make out something spray-painted on it: Take care of… but the rest had been lost to time.  Taking out the binoculars, I scanned the terrain behind us.

        “Wow… there’s a lot of folks between here and Manehattan.”  I could see them moving like bugs along the two lines of asphalt between the Boneyard and Megamart.  South of us there seemed to be quite a few wandering eastward from the clinic.  Past the clinic, though, it looked like most of the road was abandoned.  I made out a few large rectangular buildings beside the winding highway.  I smiled a little.  “I think if we just skirt around the Fluttershy Clinic and keep our heads down we might be able to get past.”  Then I noticed P-21 wasn’t listening as he looked down at the tank.

        P-21 rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a hoof as he looked at the wreck now lying on its muddy treads.  “Think we could get it working?”

        “You want to fix the tank?  It’s a two-hundred-year-old relic that’s been buried upside-down in a hill!” I said incredulously.  Then I blinked and looked at Glory.  “Think we could get it working?”

        Thank Celestia the gray pegasus simply gaped at the wreck.  “I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin!”  Leaving the wreck and visions of rolling along in an armored war machine behind, we picked our way south.  The PipBuck mapping function just labeled the entire battlefield as ‘No Pony’s Land’.  Given the number of decaying zebra weapons and sets of armor, I’d say it was accurate.

        I clicked on the radio, glad to have the music to cut some of the gloom.  We didn’t have long to wait before the DJ -- Bottlecap had finally explained what a DJ actually was yesterday -- came on.  “Can’t beat Sapphire Shores for sass and spunk.  That was ‘Ain’t gonna hang my head’.  Well, if you were listening earlier you probably heard Security Mare’s little declaration of war against Paradise Mall.  It looks like Paradise has responded in kind by putting a big bounty on Security.

        “Now I know times are tough.  I know a number like that is bound to turn anypony’s head.  But given where the money’s coming from I just gotta ask: what’s to stop em from turning around the second you step out the door, taking the money back, and tossing your tail into Brimstone's Fall?  Even if they do let you walk away, enjoy spending every day of your life keeping an eye out for bandits and slavers.  Oh.”  There was a shaking of paper and a conspicuous clearing of his throat, “And I got a little memo from the Tenpony Tower management: those caps count as raiding activity should you collect, so don’t plan to come here with em.

        “We’re never gonna do better if we kill everypony trying to do the right thing.  Ponies selling ponies to ponies who work ponies to death is just wrong, no matter how you buck it.  So with that in mind,” the music began again, “here is Sweetie Belle with ‘Priceless’.”

        For the first time, I was starting to warm a little to the DJ.  I had to agree, making me out to be a hero was annoyingly helpful, but it was good to hear anypony arguing against fifty thousand caps for my head.  I just wish he’d got it right that it was Deus that made the bounty… though on second thought that bastard would probably enjoy it.  It also explained why so many hunters were watching every inch between Megamart and Manehattan: if DJ Pon3 was in my corner, maybe I was running there now.

        Somepony started shooting.

        First, it wasn’t any of us.  Second, it wasn’t at any of us.  I relaxed as I took out the shotgun.  The gunshots came from the south, and moving quickly I could make out lots of yellow bars on my EFS.  Glory glided carefully between the hills as we came across a siege.  A dozen ponies fired potshots at a bunker that returned fire through armored slits.

        “Getcher tails outta there!” shouted a mustard brown pony in a battle saddle armed with two automatic rifles as we circled around behind them.  “We’re gonna skin ya for them brahmin ya eet!”

        “Not a very convincing argument for them to get out,” P-21 said as he glanced at me.  “We could just go around and let them shoot it out.”

        That would be probably the smart idea.  Unfortunately, I am not a smart pony.  I moved up behind Assault Rifles and levitated out my baton.  “Hey.  What’s up?” I asked brightly.

        “Got a bunch o them thieving Crusaders holed up in there.  Ate three of our brahmin,” Assault Rifles said as he scratched his pockmarked hide with a hoof.  I might not have cared for his hygiene, but I had to admit that I liked the mirrored sunglasses he wore. Very snazzy.

        “Twelve adults shooting at Crusaders?” I said incredulously.

        “Yeah… well, it’s our third brahmin they eet.”  He glanced at me and then at the door of the bunker.

        “And you’re sure it was these kids and not, say… a radigator or something else?” I said as suggestively as possible.  Doubt flickered in his eyes as his scowl turned sourer.

        “Well… I guess.  Maybe,” he muttered, and then he looked over at me.  He lowered his glasses to stare at my barding.  Then his eyes widened as dreams of avarice bloomed in his eyes.

        “Don’t do it,” I warned, giving him the look, pressing the tip of the baton against his chin.  “You won’t live to get your share.”

        “Right.  Well.  Guess we might as well git outta the rain.  Come on boys,” he said with a sickly grin.  The other ponies gave a few more shots, but quickly they moved off into a clump, talking between themselves and looking back at me more and more.

        “I’ve got a distinct feeling we’re going to have to fight them pretty soon,” P-21 said sourly as the mob moved further south.  “That bunch is just screaming ‘ambush’ to me.”

        “Then when they shoot first they can find out how bad an idea it is,” I said as I approached the door to the bunker.  “You can come out, Crusaders.  They’ve gone.”

        The rifle shot against my barding told me they weren’t convinced.  It stung like mad, but no penetration.  The bars were still yellow, so I could only guess that that was a warning shot.  I reached out with my magic and gave a hard yank on the muzzle.  The rifle came flying out the slot in the door.  “Hey!  Not fair!” somepony protested inside.

        There was some tense muttering inside and then one by one fillies and colts stepped into view.  All wore the same cloak with the same patch on it.  A chartreuse unicorn’s eyes widened at the sight of me.  “Woah… it’s Security.”  A little bit of pride blossomed inside me.  Then she turned to the other three, “If we take her out, we can get thousands and thousands of caps!”  That pride shriveled and died and rotted in a pernicious cloud of decay.

        If I had to kill Crusaders, I’d just put my head on a platter for Deus and give em the full bounty.

        “Don’t be an idjit, Medley,” a rose colt with magenta mane snapped.  “She kills raiders by lookin at em.  Besides, she helped Boing’s band out of a pinch.”

        “And got Scoots ate by ghoulies, Allegro,” a lackadaisical blue colt with a purple mane replied.

        “And she got us outta a pinch too.  Or you think them brahmin farmers were gonna just let us outta here?”

        A purple filly with a silvery-white mane looked curiously at the patch on my barding.  “And she’s a Crusader too.”  She easily had to be the youngest of the four.

        “What?  No she isn’t, Sonata.  She’s too old!” Medley said as she scowled at me, walking around to look at the Crusader patch.  “Wha… what are you doing wearing our patch?” she demanded crossly.  “You’re old!”  I wonder if she thought there was a certain age that the patch would just pop off.

        “How old do I have to be before I can’t be a Crusader?” I asked her and she scowled, opened her mouth, then closed it again in confusion.  “I do want to help the Crusaders if I can.”

        “Well… don’t hear that often,the rose colt said with a grin.  “I’m Allegro.  That’s my bro Adagio.  Over there is Sonata.  And the horn head is Medley.”  He leaned towards me and added in a stage whisper, “Don’t worry about her.  She’s a pill.”

        “I am not!” she shouted back at them.  “I just don’t think we should be nice to her.  She got Scoodle eated!”  Medley pointed an accusatory hoof at me.

        I sighed, sitting down in front of the four.  “I did. I was stupid.  She tried to tell me what to do and I didn’t listen.”  Medley’s scowl faded a little.  “I thought she was stupid and frightened.  I was stupid.  I should have been frightened.  If I would have died it would have been fair, but I didn’t.  She did.  For that I’ll always be sorry.”  I could only hope that they’d believe me.  I don’t think I could have fought them if they didn’t.

        Medley frowned but looked away with a huff.  The three earth ponies seemed to accept my apology.  “It’s okay, miss.  Ghoulies what don’t talk’ll munch most anypony,” Sonata said solemnly.  

        “So why were those ponies after you?” P-21 asked with a nod of his head in the direction the dozen ponies had taken towards the south.

        “Oh, those lot think we’re poachin brahmin,” Allegro said with a snort.  “We got one rifle and brahmin ain’t stupid!  Well… not as stupid as radhog.  But they got it out fer us.  Bad blood and all.”  He pointed a hoof towards the crater.  “There’s a bunch o mutant critters livin in them old bunkers what got blowed up.”

        “They’re dragons,” Adagio said lazily as he lay down next to the rose colored colt.  “All mutanted up.”

        “Dragons?” Glory said in alarm.

        “Mutanted up.”  The blue colt gave a slack grin, “Ain’t nearly so big and dumb as mud.  They come out, snatch a brahmin that’s strayed, run back inta the rocks.  Some breathe fire too.  But Crusaders is easier than going huntin fer dragon critters.”

        I looked to the south.  “Are there a lot of ponies at this ranch?”

        “The Stockyard?  Oh yeah.  Biggest town on Sunset till Flank,” Allegro supplied.  “Twenty… thirty ponies?”

        I didn’t want to have to add twenty or thirty ponies to my list.  I looked at P-21 and Glory.  He sighed, “You want to go dragon hunting, don’t you?”

        “If we don’t we might have to shoot our way through a whole bunch of ponies.  I’d rather avoid it if I can.”  I looked over at the Crusaders.  “And besides, maybe we can patch up some of the… uh… bad blood?”

        “Blackjack, do you even have a clue what we’re going against?” he asked plaintively, cocking his head.

        “Yup,” I grinned as I sat with the Crusaders.  “Dragons.  Mutanted up.”

*        *        *

        Okay.  I admit it.  I had no idea what I was facing.  I didn’t know how tough they were or how many of them there were.  All I knew was that for a change I had an option to help ponies instead of shooting them.  That was what I was going to do.  I didn’t want to die.  I just wanted to do the right thing.

        If these dragons turned out to be sentient and starving with a pitiful sob story… well, then I’d want to die.  Till then…

        The cave the dragon mutants lived in was a crevice in the ground that I almost fell into before spotting.  Just to the south stretched the pasturelands and their brahmin.  I could make out a few ponies with rifles, but either they hadn’t seen us or weren’t that fussed about us being on the north edge of their land.  I loaded the shotgun with a drum of slugs and a second drum with black needle rounds and orange explosive rounds.  I had no clue how tough the dragons’ hides would be.  Just another reason why this was a bad idea.

        I was going anyway of course.

        I dropped carefully into the crevasse, sliding down ten or twenty feet.  Glory carried P-21 down with her.  I didn’t like him going in unarmed, but that was nothing new.  Inside the crevasse my rad meter started to click.  Glory deftly pulled three syringes from one of her many pockets and gave us each an injection.  The clicking slowed to less worrisome levels.  “Let’s go quick,” I said as I took the lead.  As the light dimmed, my vision turned amber and the interior of the cave grew in sharp relief.

        We didn’t have to go far.  As we slid down a slope, my EFS lit up with eight or ten red bars.  The first two picked over the bones of a slain brahmin.  They were much smaller than I anticipated: barely larger than foals.  Their heads were flat and topped with wide staring eyes that glowed bright yellow.  Sharp claws tipped their fingers and toes.  Thank the Goddesses they didn’t appear sentient at all, just dangerous.

        Soon as I stepped around the corner they opened their toothy maws wide, hissed, and charged, gnashing their teeth ravenously.  At such close range I hit S.A.T.S. and placed both shots right in the closest one’s mouth.  The buckshot easily took its head clean off.  These things might look like dragons, but they weren’t nearly as tough as in the stories.

        Glory’s beam pistols slammed into the other and the fourth soft beam ‘krak’ transformed it into a heap of popping ash.  I chuckled, looking at P-21.  “Piece of cake.  These things aren’t nearly as tough as dragons.”

        “Or they were babies!” Glory cried out, as from the tunnel emerged one twice the size of the first two.  Its mouth looked large enough to bite me in half.  Glory leaped up to a ledge a few feet higher as I tried to move to the side and find more room.  The shotgun blasts did little to its hide and it bit down, grabbing me in its mouth.  Its little forearms tried to tear through the barding as its teeth scraped against the steel plates.

        “Stop chewing on me!” I yelled as S.A.T.S. recharged and I swapped out the baton.  I levitated it right above the thing’s head and targeted four blows, then released the spell.  As resistant as the mutant was to bullets, its neck smashed just fine.  On the fourth strike something in the dragon mutant snapped and it fell into a twitching heap.

        Unfortunately, more were coming up the tunnel.  I swapped drums, mourning the damage the specialty rounds would do to the weapon.  Then I noticed P-21 sneaking closer to the dragons and tossing two mines out in the middle of their path.  Why was he carrying mines?  He fell back and covered his head as the first mine beeped, then the second a moment later.  The explosions blew the legs off two leaders.  “Yes!” I cheered at P-21, who now did all he could to disappear against the cave wall.  I charged forward, screaming, grinning like a madmare as Glory nimbly sprang along the rock ledges above me.  Her beam shots did little, but I’d take all the help I could right now.

        S.A.T.S. let me target two shots to one mutant’s chest.  The first explosive round blew out a plate-sized circle and showered me with shards of shell.  The second shot fired a hoof-sized spread of the finned darts into the hole.  Blood sprayed from the creature’s chest wound and mouth as the flechettes tumbled through its meaty interior and shredded vulnerable organs.  Maybe it was just luck, but the dragon mutant went down in a heap.

        With no time for S.A.T.S., we wore down the sixth dragon through a barrage of shots.  It died messily; I was plenty beaten and bruised under my barding.  I definitely owed Keystone for upgrading it.  I slugged down a healing potion and then turned to look coolly at P-21.  “Okay, Mr. I-don’t-trust-myself-with-guns.  What are you doing with mines?”

        He shifted a little in embarrassment.  “Well they’re not guns, are they?”  He opened his saddlebag to show a number of the round tins.  And some grenades.  And round sticks tipped with brass caps.

        “What are these?” I asked as I lifted one out, casually flipping off the brass cap as I did so.  It instantly started to hiss and smoke.  Oh that can’t be good.

        “Toss it!  Toss it!” P-21 shouted, diving for the ground.  I threw it as hard as I could down the tunnel.  The boom was both sharper and quieter than the detonation of a grenade.  He firmly closed his saddlebags.  “It’s called dynamite; as explosive as a grenade, but a lot cheaper.”

        “Right.  Pop the top, throw.  Simple enough.”  I found myself unsurprisingly unnerved by the explosives.  “So why are you carrying them again?”

        “Because I’m sick of being useless,” he replied sharply, closing his eyes, pressing his lips together.  “I still don’t like firearms, but explosives take more… deliberation.  It’s harder than just pulling a trigger.  So I think I’m safer with them.”

        He’s safer with explosives than with something that puts a nice, neat hole in things?  Why did that not make me feel better?  “Well… please don’t blow us up, okay?”  He nodded.  I still didn’t feel much better!

        “We’d better hurry,” Glory said as she landed beside us.  My rad meter now crept into yellow.

        I could still make out two or three further in.  Theoretically we could have taken one corpse, left, and said ‘Huzzah, proof!’ but it’d be head and hooves better if we could say ‘Huzzah, they’re all dead!  Please don’t shoot at me for the bounty.’  So without further ado we moved forward as quietly as we were able.  The path sloped downwards and after several twists and turns disappeared into a hole in a concrete wall.  Inside was a bunker of some sort, half filled with rubble and numerous crates and containers.  Most of them were all manner of smashed, but a few looked intact.  Of more immediate concern was the beast charging at us.

        Glory immediately took to the air and began strafing maneuvers while I stepped forward with S.A.T.S. ready.  Then I noticed a stick of dynamite fly over my head and directly into the path of the mutant dragon.  My mane rose on end, but the detonation sent the charging monster sprawling on its face.  I glanced back at P-21 with a wide-eyed look; clearly this would take a lot of getting used to!  With S.A.T.S., I finished off the torso.  I winced at how loose the feed felt as I reloaded.

        Some of my luck must have rubbed off on Glory because one of her beam pistols neatly incinerated the remaining dragon mutant.  She landed beside me.  “That it?”

        No… actually it wasn’t.  There was one red bar remaining in the room, but all that lay in that direction was a big heap of rubble.  Then I cocked my head and groaned softly, “Aww… fuck me…”

        The rubble shifted and rolled, and from behind it stirred a gray shape even larger than the ones we’d just finished off.  I watched in horror as it climbed out of a depression in the floor; this was clearly much more dragon than mutant.  The creature's back legs had atrophied almost to nothing, but its swollen forelimbs were more than capable of dragging its hulking mass over the ground.  It let out a mindless shriek and opened its maw wide to spray flame across the three of us.  We managed to jump behind the cover of some storage crates, but there was definitely some scorched mane smell in the air.

        “Okay.  Beam guns.  Shotgun.  Explosives.  What sounds best against a dragon?” I asked, looking from one to the other with wide, bulging eyes.

        “I don’t think I have a bomb big enough.  Even all my bombs!” P-21 shouted.

        It was crawling towards us, making the bunker shake and sending rocks and pebbles raining down on us.  I looked up.  The ceiling was a mess of cracks and gaps.  I grinned.  “Wanna do something stupid?”

        P-21’s mouth hung open for a second.  “Sure!  Why not?” he said, throwing his hooves up in a shrug.

        “Use those explosives of yours to bring the roof down.”

        “On top of us?” Glory said, her eyes wide with shock.

        “There’s more of him than us,” I pointed out as her brows furrowed together.

        P-21 looked at where the cracks snaked down the walls.  “I’ll need some time.  These bombs will have to be deliberate.”  He reached into his barding, drew a syringe of Med-X, and jammed it into the side of his leg through the brace straps.  Then he sighed and… pulled out a magazine?

        “You’re reading now?!” I shouted as I saw the dragon was coming after us.  The magazine seemed to have something to do with explosives.

        “I am if you want this to work!” he shouted, not taking his eyes off the diagrams of the article.  “Keep it busy!”

        “I love when a plan comes together.  Let’s do this!” I shouted and ran out to the side, ejecting the drum with explosive rounds, snagging it, and taking out an empty drum.  As I raced ahead of the spewing flame, a stream of green-banded rounds slipped into the drum.

        I saved S.A.T.S. and shouted, “Go for the eyes, Glory!”  I went for everything else.  I began to fire the green rounds.  They didn’t penetrate in the slightest.  Instead, green gunk spread over its limbs, then flared bright green and sank through the thick hide.  The dragon lurched, now looking a bit ill as the toxic rounds went to work.  I had no idea if their effect was cumulative, but it seemed to slow and disorient the beastie as P-21 raced around the edge of the room.

        “Hey!  Hey dragon!  Hey!  Yo ugly!” I shouted and shrieked as I kept light on my hooves.  Glory buzzed around, her battle saddle strafing him with little effect.  The dragon’s mouth opened wide, and she tucked almost into a ball to avoid being bitten in half.  Me?  I had to worry about a tail thicker than I was snapping out and sweeping around.  Unfortunately, even though I dodged it, it created a wave of debris that swept me off my hooves.

        Come on, P-21!

        “Blackjack!” he shouted from the crevice leading out.  I dared to take my eyes off the dragon long enough to see the dynamite he’d stuffed into the cracks.

        “Get out, Glory,” I yelled as I focused my horn.  Trying to flick a brass cap off a stick of dynamite from across a room while a dragon wanted to pulp me wasn’t exactly easy.  I holstered the shotgun and raced around the perimeter of the room ahead of another massive tail sweep.  Every cluster of dynamite I passed, my magic swept out and popped off a half dozen caps.

        The debris carried by its tail caught me just as I finished arming the last row of caps.  Knocked off my hooves again, I rolled along with the dented crates and hunks of mutant dragon spawn.  BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!  BOOM!  Suddenly the air filled with dirt and rock as the cracks gave way and the other half of the bunker fell in.  I found myself crouched in the tiny gap between a block of concrete rubble and a heavy steel crate.  Clouds rolled overhead and rain trickled in.  A half dozen farm ponies poked their heads over the edge, looking down at me laughing like crazy.

        Then the dragon got out.

        Okay.  Not completely out.  I should have been clued in when I saw it slept underneath these armored crates.  But it was definitely not going to stay pinned long.

        “P-21!  Grenade!” I yelled as I rose to my hooves.  Wooo… not steady.  No time for that.  I hit S.A.T.S. but this time I queued up a little improvisation.  The first attack involved a six foot piece of rebar.  I had so much radiation poisoning my vision was perfect and the jagged metal pierced its eye like a knife.  Steaming yellow mung immediately spurted out as the second attack triggered.  P-21 pulled out a grenade and tossed it towards me.  I flicked off the stem of the grenade and magically plunged it deep into the eye.

        The blast covered me head to toe in mutant dragon eye gunk.

        It also didn’t kill the dragon.

        Of course it didn’t fucking kill the dragon!

        “Die!  Die!  Die!” I screamed as it worked itself free and I charged towards its snapping head.  Luck kept me from being bitten in two as it spasmed.  I leaped into the hollowed-out eye socket and jammed the muzzle of my shotgun into the tiny bloody hole in the back of the eye cavity.  Round after poisoned round deposited the toxin directly into its brain.  It reared up, clawed at the wound, then gave one last shudder and collapsed.

        Slowly I stepped out of the dragon’s skull.  Blood and yellow vitreous fluids dripped from my security barding.  My eyes glowed like mining lamps as I looked up at the farmers and Crusaders with a wide grin.  “Now who wants to try and collect on that bounty?” I yelled up at them, waving my steaming shotgun overhead and laughing wildly into the rain.

        There weren’t any takers.  Honestly, P-21 could have finished me off with three hooves tied behind his back.  The dragon, curiously enough, had been the source of the radiation in the cave.  Seems crawling into the irradiated body cavity of a dragon was as smart as climbing into a barrelful of magic waste.  When I emerged I was radsick.  Oh sweet Celestia I had radiation oozing out of every hole.  I felt like I could piss balefire at that moment.  I wondered if it’d be better to just keel over dead or try out ghouldom.  

Fortunately, Stockyard had their own medic.  Okay.  She was a vet.  At this point I’d take medical care from Deus.  Her local remedy of brahmin milk, RadAway, and Rad-X along with a healing potion did the trick.  Okay.  It got me off death’s door, and stopped the more embarrassing side effects of radiation poisoning before I was shitting myself.  A plus.  Really.  I was also fairly sure that once word of this got around I wouldn’t have to deal with swarms of poor desperate ponies.

I really didn’t want to deal with killing poor desperate ponies.  Sweet Celestia, please don’t make me have to kill poor desperate ponies!

Roundup, the buck with the assault rifles from earlier, was apparently the leader of Stockyard and gave some mutters of thanks, along with some apologetic sounding words to the Crusaders.  Then he told me to leave.  Given that he wasn’t trying to shoot me in the back, I considered this a fair enough trade.  I did make one small demand.  I took his snazzy mirrored sunglasses and slipped them over my glowing eyes.  “Thanks, Boss,” I said as the seven of us continued down the road.

*        *        *

“Then she was like ‘Die die die!’ and the dragon was all like ROAR and she was all ‘Who wants some!’ and they were all like ‘not me’ and that was so awesome!” Sonata shrieked as she bounced in glee around me on the tips of her hooves.  Clearly the event of her life.  Adagio hummed along with Sapphire Shores on the radio.

“We know, Sonata.  We were there, remember?”  The chartreuse unicorn certainly hadn’t repeated that if they turned me in they’d have enough caps to swim in.  Now that my body was far less radioactive, I had to admit that the fight with those dragon critters hadn’t gone that badly.  I may have been battered and bruised, but I hadn’t gotten burned or munched.

“You know, I got to wonder… how’d you four hear about the bounty?  It’s only been two days.”  I couldn’t believe word got out that fast.  

“Oh.  Redbeard was going on about it on Paradise Radio.  You can pick it up this far south,” Allegro said as he pointed at my PipBuck.  “Gotta warn ya, he’s a bit o a jerk.  We just listen ta him cause sometimes he’ll talk about a big score.  We make sure we ain’t tha score.”

I frowned and switched channels, getting a sigh of disappointment from Adagio.  After two channel changes there was a sharp crackle, and then a buck’s harsh and grating voice filled my ears.  It sounded like the voice of a rusty bucket.  “…know what I think?  I think it’s a scam, that’s what I think.  We’ve got it pretty good around the Hoof.  We got better tech, better food, better water, better everything.  In bad times we’re on top.  So what does Tenpony do?  They dig up some cunt, dress her up, and send her here to stir up trouble.  We already got Enclave poking their snouts where they don’t belong.  We got Steel Raiders… oh, sorry.  Rangers… threatening to blow up half the city.  One outsider after the next coming here stirring up trouble.

“And now Security.  Either she’s a Manehattan thug with an itchy trigger horn, or she’s one of these brain-damaged stable ponies now out in the wide world and can’t help but fuck with us.  This is our home!  Our lives!  She butchered Roses’s group, smashed her horn clean off, and then gave her a five second head start before siccing the goons on her.  Oh, yeah, Security is all up in arms against bad things happening to ponies, unless you’re the pony she doesn’t like.  Then she doesn’t give a fuck about you!  That’s why I’m glad Usury didn't just back Deus’s bounty but matched it.  The sooner this hypocrite is out of our manes, the better.  So, someone put Security to rest and collect yourselves a hundred thousand caps.  Or, better yet, give her skanky ass to Deus and double that!  What do you say?  What do you fucking say?!”  The sound of cheering and stomping hooves answered him.

I switched the radio off, feeling like I was going to be sick.  Okay.  I hadn’t expected that.  I’d thought that DJ Pon3 was bad enough.  “Two hundred thousand caps…”

“Yeah.  That’s pretty amazing actually,” Adagio said lazily.  “I thought that 10k for Bill the Slasherpony was a lot, but that’s nothing.”

Honestly, I had no idea how many monsters I could kill that would be a deterrent for desperate ponies after my head.  Ponies after a lucky shot.  Ponies who’d kill me in my sleep.  Worse… I had to agree with him.  If you were red on my PipBuck, there was no mercy or consideration.  I’d basically threatened every slaver with death, but like Roses had said: she had a kid.

Then P-21 smacked the back of my head.  Hard.  I hissed, hugging my throbbing skull.  “What’d you do that for?”

He rounded and looked me square in the eyes.  “I know that look.  I’d rather not have you pass out again.”  His blue eyes narrowed, “What was Miss Roses doing when you ‘butchered’ her group?”

“She was… slaving?”

“As I recall, she was trying to kill you, Blackjack.  Remember that machine gun?  But yeah, she was slaving too,he said with a huff, sitting in my path.  “So to review, she was trying to kill you while slaving.  Do you think when she started that career she was aware that maybe somepony might kill her for that?  Or did somepony issue some sort of slaving license to her that makes her immune?”

“Actually, Paradise does that.  Slavers ain’t allowed to shoot slavers what have a Paradise license,” Medley offered with a smile.  She received a number of dirty looks and the unicorn filly gave an injured, “What?  They do!”

P-21 took a deep breath.  “Right.  So unless you started working for Paradise slavers, you have no reason to blame yourself for any of that.  You are not responsible for the grief and blood that others bring on themselves by being greedy, cruel, or stupid.”

“I don’t want to kill ponies that just want a better life.”

“I do!  Especially if the way they’re trying to get that better life is by killing my friends!” he shouted at me.  “Anypony that takes a shot at us has forfeited any right to live, Blackjack.  You have got to learn this!”

“No!” I shouted back.  “I can’t do that!  I can’t just kill somepony because they’re red on my PipBuck.”  I took a step back, trying to get my heart and breathing under control.  “If somepony comes after me… I kill them if I have to.  If I