Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter 21: Chapter Nineteen: Betrayal

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Chapter Nineteen: Betrayal

“Tell me that my friends are all lying to me and avoiding me because they don’t like my parties and they don’t want to be my friends anymore!”


How do you know when you’re trapped? When you want something more than anything else? When you find yourself lying to your friends and hiding things from them because you don’t want them to know? When you can’t go a week without indulging? A day?

Or simply when you insisted that because none of the above really applied to you, you were fine?

We had crashed and everything went black, like somebody blowing out a candle. I was lying on the street, knocked out and badly hurt. But in the depths of my unconsciousness, I was still crashing. Pinkie Pie’s last message plagued my dreams. By the time I regained consciousness, the Party-Time Mint-al had worn off, and I was back in the mire of my own feebleness. Even the multi-colored pyrotechnic display that consumed three city blocks behind us failed to fully pierce through my mental fog with its brilliance. As I peeled myself off the rubble-strewn street, my mind’s eye could still see that skeleton, alone in a corner… a clutched figure of a friend having fallen into her ribcage.

And still all I wanted was another Party-Time Mint-al. To clear the fog and confusion. To make me brilliant so I could help my friends.

In that moment, I realized that even if I didn’t meet any of the criteria on my own mental checklist of “warning signs”, I risked losing control. I still chose whether I took a PTM or not, and I could refuse at any time. But… I had reached a point where I didn’t feel right -- didn’t even feel like myself -- unless I had that clarifying and enlightening boost from Party-Time Mint-als.

Maybe, just maybe, I did have a problem?

*** *** ***

“Yee-HAW!” Calamity cried out triumphantly as he fluttered back to the rest of us. “Now that’s how ya do it Dashite-style!”

SteelHooves groaned deeply as the metal-clad Steel Ranger pushed himself to his armored hooves. “For the record,” he grumbled, “Nopony here is allowed to complain about my battle tactics being excessive ever again.”

“Aaaaugh!” one of the griffins (Butcher, I think) cried out. “My wing! I think it’s broken…”

Velvet Remedy dragged herself out of the wreckage of the overturned wagon she had landed in. Her own body torn and bleeding, particularly a deep gash on her forehead, but she ignored her own wounds, hobbling towards the badly injured griffin. About halfway to the griffin, she stopped, standing shakily as she gazed at the swirling, prismatic fire behind us.

“Merciful Celestia. I hope nopony was living in any of those buildings!”

Calamity landed proudly next to her. “Of course not. Cleared the raiders out of that pit yesterday evening, remember?”

We did what when?

Velvet Remedy swayed a bit and reached up to wipe the stream of blood out of her eye. “Oh… You mean when you flew off and left the rest of us worried sick about you?” She put her hoof down and took one more step towards her intended patient, saying, “I… I’ll help. Hold still…”

She made it three more steps before fainting. “Whoa there!” Calamity exclaimed as he caught her before she could hit the pavement. He held onto Velvet as she slumped.

I tried to trot over to her, only to find I was lying down. That seemed surprising. I tried to get up, and sharp agony lanced through my right foreleg. I lifted it, trying to understand what was wrong… it felt heavy. My eyes took in the spear of rebar jutting through it, just above the dead screen of my PipBuck.

“oh. That’s not good…”

I looked up to see the dark form of am armored griffin approaching me, then my eyes rolled up and I lost consciousness again.

*** *** ***

“…had already acquired the codes when they started boxing us in. We thought it was a stroke of luck that they were pushing us towards the roof, but those bitches had turned our escape route into a trap.”

I woke up for the second time to the sound of Blackwing and SteelHooves deep in discussion. I didn’t think I had passed out for more than a few minutes. I felt weaker than I had back when I was sick in SteelHooves’ cabin, deeply ill, and my right foreleg throbbed with such pain that I couldn’t hold back my tears.

“My team noticed alicorns checking out at least one other safe in the building,” SteelHooves pointed out. “Did they know you had the codes already?”

Blackwing laughed. “Well, we sure didn’t advertise it!”

My attention drifted. The beauty of Velvet Remedy had settled down next to me while I was out. Velvet Remedy was kneeling over me, her healing horn glowing. It was a position that even I was getting tired of seeing her in. Her head was wrapped in magic-laced bandages, a large patch of red seeping into them over her mending wound.

“I hope you like the taste of RadAway, Littlepip,” she said, smiling and trying to sound casual. I could detect the strain in her voice no matter how well she hid it. “SteelHooves is the only one of us who won’t be guzzling a crateful if I can get Doctor Helpinghoof to sell us his stock.”

“Velvet… are you all right? You fell.”

Velvet smiled softly to me. “I have a concussion, but it shouldn’t be too serious. I’m more worried about you, Littlepip.”

Pfft. I’d be fine. A few healing potions and I’d be good as new. I told her so. Velvet winced. Why did she wince?

“Littlepip… You can’t take a healing potion. Not while that thing is still in you.” I looked at the bloody, ribbed metal javelin that grotesquely skewered my foreleg. Velvet Remedy continued, “My magic and our medicine can patch you up, yes. But that metal rod has to come out first.”

This was going to hurt, wasn’t it?

Velvet Remedy assured me that it was going to hurt a LOT.

I floated out the memory orb from Horseshoe Tower, contemplating it a moment. The lock on that safe had been the hardest I’d ever tried to crack. It had been beyond the magical abilities of two alicorns. What secrets could it have been hiding. According to Blackwing, the mercenaries had already found the codes they were looking for elsewhere in the building. Of course, the alicorns didn’t know that for sure. They were probably just being thorough.

“On the count of three?” I suggested to Velvet Remedy. She nodded, her lips pressed into a thin line.

“One… Two…”

I reached out with my magic and touched the orb. Even as Velvet Remedy’s horn flared and the shaft of rebar was enveloped with light, all my senses dropped away into another world.

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

I was sitting before banks of terminals, between two other ponies that I paid absolutely no attention to. There was an earbloom buzzing softly in my ear. The screen on the terminal was nothing but a little balloon icon expanding until it popped, then filling again.

The pony I was riding was achy from sitting in the same position for too long. Her mane itched, as did…

Yikes! Okay, his mane itched. As well as other places. And I suddenly very, very much wanted to be back in the Manehattan Ruins feeling rebar being yanked through my leg instead.

The little balloon popped again and then was replaced by text.

> Audio transmission intercepted.
> Transmission Originates: Orange Residence, Horseshoe Tower, Manehattan
> Transmission Received: [][][][][][]
> Transmission Destination Encrypted. Logging call. Operation Oversight Required.

“Perfect,” I heard and felt the buck say through my mouth in an utterly bored voice. I felt my hoof punch a button without looking at it. The static in my ear was replaced by voices.

“…staying with mah Uncle and Auntie Orange.”

I immediately recognized Apple Bloom’s voice. There was an odd timbre and hoarseness to it, like she had been crying a lot, but was now all cried out.

My host picked up a pencil in his mouth and started doodling on a notepad. I could taste the eraser, and feel the little bite marks on the wooden shaft. I tried to focus on taste and sight and sound, ignoring other senses sternly.

“Is there any word?” The other voice was that of Sweetie Belle. She sounded nervous? Worried?

More words materialized on the screen before me.

> Illegal Encryption Broken.
> Transmission Received: Pony Perfection, Canterlot
> Proceed with voice analysis?

The buck I was riding sighed loudly and hit another button. Then went back to doodling, only half-watching the screen.

> Voice Analysis in progress.

“No,” Apple Bloom claimed dourly. “The doctor ponies say sis will pull through, but…”

“…But?” Sweetie Belle sounded like she was afraid to hear the answer. “I mean, that’s wonderful news, right? Why don’t you sound happy?”

Apple Bloom’s voice dropped low. I felt myself sitting up a little. Apparently, ponies who were trying to be quiet warranted at least a little attention.

“There’s… a rumor,” Apple Bloom confided to her friend. “Some folks ‘re sayin’ that maybe t’wasn’t so much of an accident.”

“What?” Sweetie Belle gasped, her voice dropping to a whisper even in her shock. “Who would want to hurt Applejack?”

The screen flashed as new information spilled out rapidly. Somewhere, a maneframe had just figured out who was talking, and about what. Now the screen and the earbloom had my host’s full attention.

“They say… that maybe t’was somepony within ‘er own Ministry.”

Sweetie Belle was silent on the other end. In the background, I could hear somepony crying, a soft, heartbreaking weeping; but I couldn’t tell whether it was from the unicorn’s end or the earth pony’s. I didn’t have to wonder long.

“What the hay’s goin’ on over there? Sweetie Belle, where are ya calling from? Is everything all right?” And then, as a darker thought seemed to hit the mare, “Did yer sister have an ‘accident’ too?”

“What? Oh, oh no. My sister is fine. We’re… we’re at that spa on Leaf Fall Lane. Rarity’s been here all afternoon trying to get Fluttershy to stop crying.”

“What… about Applejack?”

Sweetie Belle sounded guilty. “uh… no. I don’t think they even know about what happened yet. Rarity called me over a few hours ago. Apparently, when Fluttershy missed their weekly treatment, Rarity went looking for her. She found Fluttershy curled up in a corner in her office at the Ministry of Peace. I don’t really know what happened, but…”

And now it was Apple Bloom’s turn. “But?”

“Fluttershy says that Rainbow Dash called her a traitor!”

“What?!” Apple Bloom wasn’t able to keep her voice down like Sweetie Belle could. I heard someone in the background call out questioningly.

Apple Bloom’s voice became murky as she called back, “No, nothin’s wrong, Uncle Orange. It’s not the hospital. Ah’m just talkin’ t’ Sweetie Belle.” Then, after a pause, she thoughtfully added, “Sounds like Rarity an’ Fluttershy ain’t gonna make it up right away.”

Apple Bloom spoke clearly once again, addressing Sweetie Belle.

“Uh… I ought t’ go. Twilight Sparkle’s s’posed t’ be ‘porting in any minute now. She’ll be staying with us until Applejack’s outta critical,” Apple Bloom explained, “An’ you know how those teleports wreak havoc with these here terminals. Ah really think I could design one better in mah sleep… ‘Sides, Scootaloo would have a right fit if she knew Ah was talkin’ on an unsecured line.”

A traitor?! Apple Bloom, can you imagine? Rainbow Dash is her oldest friend. And even worse, she’s the bearer of the Element of Loyalty!” Sweetie Belle sounded deeply pained. “That’s kinda like… having loyalty itself call you a traitor!”

“Wonder how she’d like it if somepony called her a traitor,” Apple Bloom seethed gloomily.

“How could Rainbow Dash say something like that?”

“I dunno,” Apple Bloom replied, sounding offended. “Ah’ve given up tryin’ t’ understand anymore. Ah just want all this to be over.”

“I know. It… everything… Sometimes I just want to dig a hole in the ground and hide until this whole stupid war is over.”

The screen flashed.

> Transmission Terminated on Receiving End.
> Content Analysis proceeding.
> Content Tagged Alpha Priority.
> Oversight Memory Confirmation Required.
> Please Report to your Supervisor.

I felt myself get up and shake loose the earbud. “Dammit. I hate memory extraction,” I heard him grump from what felt like my mouth. “Hope those mares die in a fire.”

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

I returned to a world of darkness and incredible pain. But at least I was a mare again. Biting back a scream, I smiled weakly up at Velvet Remedy who was wrapped my foreleg in healing bandages.

“That was clever,” Velvet Remedy complimented as she floated a couple rejuvenating potions out of a medical box resting beside her. I noticed she wasn’t wearing hers and looked around. I could have sworn she was wearing them before I blacked out the second time, but I couldn’t remember if she was when I woke up.

Not far away, I saw Calamity working on her “saddlebags”, replacing the battle damaged boxes with newer ones he had scavenged from… somewhere.

“Anything interesting?” Velvet Remedy asked, nodding her horn towards the memory orb.

I glanced down at the memory orb; the thoughts that it provoked battled for dominance in my head:

I had glimpsed hints that all was not well inside the Ministry of Technology before, but for anypony within the Ministry to have enough drive and animosity towards Applejack to plot her death… that took the conflict to a whole new level. That placed the call sometime after the death of Applejack’s big brother and her corresponding exertion of greater control over her own Ministry. Probably even after Applesnack’s memory. A new generation of magically-hardened terminals would explain why I kept finding functional ones in the Equestrian Wasteland. And if that call took place when I thought it did, that would explain why the vast majority of terminals were destroyed hunks of scrap. Only the ones deemed most vital or owned by ponies of wealth or prominence would have been upgraded.

I was also beginning to see the possibilities that Gawdyna Grimfeathers had recognized in an entire vault full of memories.

But those thoughts were distractions.

Most importantly, Velvet Remedy must never see this memory.

“Just some buck having a really boring day at work,” I lied, floating it up and back towards my saddlebags. “How’s the griffin with the broken wing?”

“She won’t be able to fly for a while. Her injuries were much worse than when Calamity’s wing got shot…” Velvet said, glancing towards the griffin in question. As soon as Velvet looked away, I gave the memory orb a telekinetic fling, sending it soaring into the night air. With luck, the toss would put it close enough to our Dashite’s miniature armageddon that at least the poisonous memory would die in a fire.

*** *** ***

“DJ Pon3 isn’t telling the whole story,” Blackwing insisted, speaking to SteelHooves. My metal-shrouded companion had oh-so-casually asked about the massacre of the ghoul ponies on the Celestia Line station. “Sure, Grim Star wanted them dead, but a few of the folk in Tenpony Tower, like that doc, were interested in a more amiable solution.”

“Amiable?” SteelHooves said with disgust-tinged disbelief. “With ghouls?

Blackwing hunched. “Yeah, well I’ve met a few ghoul-ponies in my day that were more respectable than most ponies out in the wasteland.” The griffin’s tone suggested there was more she wanted to add, but wasn’t going to insult the Steel Ranger who had just helped save her life. “They aren’t like zombie-ponies; although eventually… well, Sheriff Rottingtail was diving towards zombiehood, I’m pretty damn sure.”

“Oh?” SteelHooves asked in a manipulatively conversational tone I was beginning to recognize. I wondered if I should be worried. Did Blackwing or her griffins have anything to fear from SteelHooves? How about the ponies of Tenpony Tower?

I didn’t think so, but how well did I really know SteelHooves? How well could somepony know him when every show of opinion or emotion could be a cleverly crafted deception?

“Yeah. Sheriff Rottingtail didn’t want cohabitation, even if some of the Tenpony folk were willing to give it a go. That bastard had plans to wipe out everypony in that Tower and take it for himself and his crew.” Blackwing slashed at the air in disgust. “There’s a whole flock of zombie-ponies in the maintenance tunnels near Tenpony Tower. He tried to pay us to unlock an old tunnel entrance so he could let them swarm the place.”

SteelHooves was deathly silent for a moment. Then, “He tried to bribe you to break contract? Surely he had to know a griffin’s honor wouldn’t stand for that. Why didn’t he just do it himself?”

I saw how Blackwing puffed up with pride. “The fool couldn’t. Only unlocks from the inside.”

“By Luna!” SteelHooves gasped. “I hope you told Chief Grim Star about this?”

A grimace formed on Blackwing’s beak. “Actually…” She clawed at the ground. “I didn’t see any point in fueling that jerk’s bigotry after Sheriff Rottingtail had been taken out. Truth was, we didn’t even go in with the plan to take out more than him and his thugs, but the whole damn place fell upon us the moment we took him down. Didn’t have a choice but to kill them all.”

SteelHooves nickered. “Well, who can blame you. But Grim Star needs to know about that potentially fatal flaw in Tenpony’s security. Where is this old tunnel entrance, exactly?”

*** *** ***

Butcher dropped her dismounted AA cannon battle saddle at my hooves. I blinked at her, not comprehending.

“Look, you saved our lives up there. We owe you,” Butcher explained. “Blackwing would probably make you an honorary Talon if you were at least a pegasus. But since you’re a unicorn, that just won’t fly.” She smirked at her own pun.

I stared down at the ridiculously huge gun. “I couldn’t, really,” I stammered, wondering just what the hell we would do with the thing if I accepted it. “You might need it.”

“Yeah, well, I need my life more. And I have that thanks to you lot. Blackwing’s Talons pay back their debts. And don’t you deny that you could use her. Little Gilda here will beat a hole through an alicorn’s shield if you can keep her on target for four or five shots of concentrated fire.” She cocked her head. “Besides, the other idea was a set of our armor, but I don’t think it would fit a pony.”

Calamity flew up and hovered, staring at it. “Actually, Ah bet Ah could mount that girl onta SteelHooves’ battle saddle…”

“Where?” SteelHooves’ huge saddle already had a grenade machinegun on one side and a missile launcher on the other!

“On his back!” Calamity tipped his hat, warming to the idea. “Sure, she’d hafta be mounted aft-wards, so SteelHooves would hafta turn his tail t’ the target t’ shoot it, but if we rigged it into that fancy targeting magic…”

Oh no. I was stopping this insanity right there. SteelHooves, if anything, needed a weapon that was less overpowered; something he could safely shoot in hallways. “No… actually, how about you just owe us a favor?”

“I’m not much for owing favors that might come back to pluck my tail-feathers,” Blackwing, finally done talking with SteelHooves, broke into the conversation. “But if you can think up something more acceptable by the end of the week, we should still be in the area.”

Butcher looked to her team leader. “What’s the plan?” She laid down next to her battle saddle and started pulling it on. It was clearly far too heavy to lift without telekinesis.

“Finish the contract. Deliver the codes and get our payment. After that?” Blackwing looked behind her at the one other remaining member of her team, who was being virtually mummified by Velvet Remedy.

“By the Egg,” Blackwing swore, “I’ll figure something out.”

Calamity looked disappointed as Butcher re-saddled Little Gilda. “Ah dunno. How are we s’posed t’ find ya?”

Blackwing fished a small device from her saddlebags. It looked a lot like a StealthBuck. “Here’s a broadcaster. You can attach it to your PipBuck and use it to transmit radio messages as well as receive them. Your PipBuck isn’t a radio tower, so you won’t have much range, but if you picked up our transmissions, you already know what frequencies to call on.”

I nodded, floating it into my own saddlebags. First, I had to restore the spell matrix of my PipBuck. I could do it from SteelHooves’ suit just as I had the reverse. But it was a complicated procedure that I couldn’t do while hurt. Or in the dark. Or probably without Party-Time Mint-als.

No… No, I could do it without them. Even if I didn’t feel like I could. I’d done it before, dammit.

SteelHooves trotted up to join us. I was tempted to ask him about his somewhat ominous conversation with Blackwing, but he drew my attention elsewhere. “We’re being watched. There’s a sprite-bot that’s been trying to get your attention without letting me know it’s there.”


*** *** ***

I excused myself to the little fillies’ pile-of-rubble. Sure enough, the sprite-bot floated up to me, silent as the sunset.

“Hello Littlepip!” Watcher tried to sound casual, but this wasn’t a chance meeting. If it was, I would have heard music first. “What are you all doing way out here? And what was that explosion?”

I wondered if Watcher was the shy follower SteelHooves and I had noticed before. I decided to try the theory.

“Well, Calamity has been playing with fireworks and SteelHooves has been letting you secretly follow us around all day without his knowing,” I said darkly. “What are you doing?”

“All day? I don’t know what you mean, Littlepip. I just got here.”

Likely story. Didn’t matter. I needed Watcher’s help. “Watcher, I need a favor. I need you to contact Gawdyna and tell her about Blackwing’s Talons.”

Watcher was silent long enough that I felt pressed to explain.

“Gawdyna’s gathering up griffins who aren’t currently under contract. Blackwing lost half her griffins to those alicorns and the survivors are badly wounded. They could use more help than we can give them. We ought to at least let Gawdyna give them the option…”

“No,” the sprite-bot’s mechanical voice intoned.

“No?” I sat back, surprised. “Look, we can help these people. Or do you only care about ponies?”

“I’ve been willing to help you before because it was to save lives. This isn’t saving lives. It’s more like a… vanity project. I don’t reveal myself for a reason. Every time I do, it puts me at risk!”

Oh for the love of Luna. I turned away from the floating robot.

Then Watcher surprised me. “Fine. I’ll do this for you. But you have to agree to do something for me. I have a quest for you.”

“You have a what now?” I blinked, turning back and staring at the sprite-bot.

“There’s a Black Opal in Tenpony Tower. It was stolen from me. I want it back.”

Tentatively, I asked, “What’s a Black Opal?”

“It’s a special gemstone. It’s like a memory orb, but used in a Recollector.” Before I could ask what a Recollector was, Watcher enlightened me. “Memory orbs hold memories taken from others by unicorn magic, usually through force. A Recollector is an enchanted crown that someone can wear when they want to record what they are experiencing. Or to re-live such a recording. Even if the wearer isn’t a unicorn.”

I nodded. That sort of advancement made perfect sense. Like Apple Bloom’s magic-resistant terminals, I suspected it was a step forward in arcano-technology that came awfully close to the end. Otherwise, I’d have been stumbling over them everywhere.

“So you want me to get a memory orb, sorta, out of Tenpony Tower and bring it to you. What, do I look like a courier pony?” I glowered. “But if this is what you require of me in order to be helpful, I’ll do it. Where is the thing?”

“I believe it was taken by that radio pony, DJ Pon3. Retrieve it for me and I will relay your message.”

Wait. What? Watcher wanted me to steal from Homage!?

“I… I…” I fought down a sense of inarticulate rage. “Okie… dokey… lokey. I’ll see what I can do.” My voice was sharp and even. “But you send the damn message first.”

The sprite-bot hovered while Watcher seemed to contemplate this.

“Of course. Trust goes both ways.”

Well, maybe. But Watcher just asked me to betray the trust of somepony I cared about. And right now I cared for and needed Homage a whole lot more than somepony hiding behind a spirte-bot and demanding favors in return for taking action. So I would ask Homage for the Black Opal. Nicely. And if she said no, Watcher was out of luck.

Suddenly, something else occurred to me. My eyes widened as I stared at Watcher’s sprite-bot.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You haven’t disappeared. All your little visits have been getting shorter. It’s almost like every time I start to ask a question that you’re uncomfortable with, your time in the sprite-bot conveniently ends. But now that you want something from me, you’ve…”

There was a burst of static and then happy marching music (heavy on tuba, drum and harmonica) poured out of the sprite-bot as Watcher ran out of time.

I wasn’t buying it.

*** *** ***

The sun was beginning to rise, painting the clouds above with magnificent colors and plunging the city into a maze of deep shadows.

I would have enjoyed the walk back if the lack of my Eyes-Forward Sparkle wasn’t making me dread every corner and shadow, unable to tell where enemies were lurking. If my foreleg wasn’t throbbing. If my head wasn’t pounding and my stomach twisting and clenching brutally. I had already vomited up everything I’d eaten ever.

I had come to a conclusion: I hated radiation sickness. Quite a lot. Tenpony Tower, Homage and bed seemed forever away.

Velvet Remedy had passed the RadAway out between us (excluding SteelHooves) before Blackwing’s Talons took their leave. What wouldn’t quite have been enough to purge the radiation from three of us was spread far too thin serving six. Velvet Remedy kept assuring us that we would be fine once we made it back to Tenpony Tower and she could get more supplies. Even though we weren’t saying anything. Which made me even more worried.

I distracted myself by thinking about the memory orb. And that lead me to thoughts about the Ministry of (Wartime) Technology. Which lead me to recall SteelHooves’ comment about the Ministry. And who they helped.

Companies like Ironshod, Four Stars, Equestrian Robotics and even Stable-Tec.

Ironshod Firearms: where I first learned that all was not well in Applejack’s world. Equestrian Robotics: I really knew nothing about them for sure, but I heavily suspected the nightmare fuel that was brain-bots could be laid at their hooves. Four-Stars: the traitorous ponies who sheltered and worked with zebra infiltrators and who were largely responsible for the deaths of millions. And Stable-Tec… and I already knew how that worked out.

Under the Ministry’s guidance and support.

I was brought out of my thoughts by Velvet Remedy’s gasp. I had fallen behind, due as much to my mental wanderings as my size and physical state. I tried to gallop up to where the rest of them were crouched behind a shattered wall, peeking out of half a window. Instead, I lurched and discovered that I actually did have just a little bit more I could throw up.

Wiping the sick from my muzzle with weak disgust, I approached a second window, not wanting to press close to the others after what I had done. Beside it was a metal desk; we were technically on the “inside” of the building, looking “out”. I paused to open the desk, finding a dozen bottle caps.

My fogged mind insisted on asking why I kept finding bottle caps in places like this. Desks. Trash cans. Lockers. Filing cabinets. What kind of pony went around putting money in random spots? What thought process leads to: Oh, look! A desk in the urban wilderness. Let’s put some caps in there. Not much -- just enough to buy a sandwich…?

I shook my head, trying to rid my mind of the cobwebs that entangled such thoughts. The thudding of my headache spiked, letting me know that was the wrong thing to do.

Blinking back tears, I looked “out” at the street. I heard the odd, fluttery commotion before I saw the source. When I did, my eyes went wide. A moment later, a ball of green flame lit up the street as the balefire phoenix set one of the bloodwings attacking it ablaze. I stood there, gaping.

Not all my companions were content to just watch. Levitating out her combat shotgun, Velvet Remedy stepped through her window, much to our surprise.

Velvet Remedy was never the first into combat. The range of creatures she was willing to use lethal force against was growing, and now included alicorns. But it had always been in self defense, or the defense of other ponies. As I saw Velvet take a battle stance, lifting the shotgun towards the aerial skirmish, I remembered what Monterey Jack had said, and wondered if I was slowly losing her to demands of the Equestrian Wasteland as well. Was she losing herself?

Velvet Remedy waited until the sight of the balefire phoenix was entirely blocked by the body of a bloodwing.


The giant bat let out a piercing screech and fell to the ground. Velvet Remedy turned her aim to another one, waiting for the opportune moment.

The bats weren’t going to give it to her. One of them broke off, diving at my friend. There was a twin gunshot as Calamity entered the fray, and the bloodwing crashed meatily at Velvet Remedy’s hooves.

The sky flashed with gouts of green as the balefire phoenix tried to swoop back around on its attackers. One of the bloodwings turned and collided with the majestic green and golden bird, and the two ploughed inside of the hulk of a delivery wagon, crashing through crates filled with destroyed books. Part of me wondered if the books had been headed towards Twilight Sparkle’s Athenaeum.

The balefire phoenix was pinned under the bloodwing. I could see it struggling to get out. Another bloodwing fluttered down to the mouth of the delivery wagon, then flapped back quickly as the phoenix spat green balefire at it. The beautiful creature let out a mournful cry as the bloodwing twisted its head about to sink its fangs into the bird. The second bloodwing descended into the opening.

“Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy shouted in dismay. “Your zebra rifle!” I started, looking to her in confusion as my PTM-less brain struggled to parse what she wanted me to do.

Velvet Remedy wasn’t willing to wait. Her horn flared as she wrenched the zebra rifle out of its holding straps and started firing it wildly into the back of the wagon. In seconds, the entire interior was ablaze. The bloodwings screeched in agony. One of them stumbled out, walking bizarrely on its burning wings, a living inferno. It collapsed in the street.

Nothing else, neither balefire phoenix nor second bloodwing, emerged from the raging furnace that the book wagon had become.

I looked from the wagon to Velvet Remedy and back blankly. “But the…” Velvet Remedy gave me a strained glance, then returned to staring into the fire.

As I struggled to finish the thought, a blast of ash shot from the flames. It swirled in the morning air, catching the rays of sunlight as they pierced through the apocalyptic cityscape, spinning on a wind all its own. Then with a blinding burst of emerald light pierced with gold, the balefire phoenix appeared.

Velvet Remedy gave a joyous squee. She watched as the strange but magnificent creature circled around us thrice, let out a musical cry, and soared off.

Floating the zebra rifle back to me, she smirked. “Not the same relationship with being burned alive, remember?”

*** *** ***

“When we get back, I’m taking a long bath,” Velvet Remedy announced. “I’ll get the RadAway as soon as Doctor Helpinghoof’s clinic opens. At this rate, it won’t be long after we return.”

“Gaul-dangit, when we get back Ah’m takin’ a long bath!” Calamity exclaimed, prompting Velvet to mock-faint.

I just wanted to sleep. Preferably beside Homage. “I’m…” I stopped, my mind fighting sickness, PTM-withdrawl and now sleep deprivation. “I dunno. I need sleep. But we don’t have much time.”

“Don’t ‘have much time? B’fore what?”

“Before Monterey Jack is executed,” I told Calamity bluntly. “We have to save him.”

The others, all of them, stopped in their tracks.

“We have t’ what now?” Calamity asked, as if I’d told him we all had to get bitten by rattlesnakes.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean that,” I said, realizing my error. “I have to save him.”

“Pardon, but Ah still don’t think Ah heard that.”

“May I ask why?” Velvet Remedy questioned.

“Not to mention how?” SteelHooves added.

I turned to look at my surprised and uncooperative friends. It dawned on me that I had never mentioned to them my intention to save the unpleasant beige unicorn.

“Ah say let ‘im hang!” Calamity said, landing with an authoritative all-hoof stomp.

“You just met…” Velvet Remedy began, then stopped. “You’re going to get us all kicked out of Tenpony Tower to save the pony who tried to rob you? That is, if the guards don’t simply gun you down. Even though he confessed?”

I felt myself shaking. I was in no condition to be having this argument. Couldn’t they all just see that this was the right thing to do?

“Dammit, Littlepip!” Velvet Remedy was suddenly mad at me. Why was she mad at me? “Monterey Jack doesn’t get to do this! You saved that miserable bastard’s life, and he repaid you by trying to screw you! He doesn’t get to cheat you out of happiness too!”

I recoiled from Velvet Remedy’s language as much as her anger.

“I agree,” SteelHooves said simply.

Finally, I shot back at them, focusing on Velvet Remedy. “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter if he’s worthy of saving or not. Everyone on the battlefield, Fluttershy said, right? That buck has kids! Two colts and a filly. What do you think will happen to them if he dies? Does Tenpony Tower strike you as the sort of place that comprehends charity? Did any of you see an orphanage in there while you were shopping around?”

I turned to Calamity and SteelHooves. “It doesn’t matter what I could lose if I do. But how about what I’ll lose if I don’t even try?”

Sometimes, to do what’s right, you have to become the villain of the piece.

My friends all took a step back from me. They looked to each other as if wondering who should speak first. Finally, SteelHooves stepped forward. “Well then, what’s the plan?”

Breathing a huge sigh of relief (and feeling suddenly so dizzy I had to fight not to drop to my knees), I explained:

“I have one StealthBuck left. I sneak in. Shoot him with a dart. Just one; the poison will paralyze him for a few hours but have no lasting effects. Then I pick the lock and float him onto my back. I’ll use my levitation to lessen his weight. As long as I’m actually carrying him, the invisibility spell should cover both of us, just like it covers my saddlebags.”

Velvet Remedy’s eyes were wet, but she stepped forward. “In that case, we have something we must do before I can take my bath.”

I looked to her questioningly, hopefully.

“We need to stop by that workstation so you can build a new dart gun.”

*** *** ***

I was dead on my hooves.

I could barely stand up; the workbench seemed to swim before me. Velvet Remedy was by my side though, encouraging me gently. Her attitude seemed to have completely changed after I mentioned the children. I was surprised but unquestioningly pleased.

“It’s okay. You can do it. Just focus.”

I nodded to Velvet’s voice as I wonderglued the pieces of seemingly random junk into a potent hoof-made weapon. “There… it just needs to dry now.”

Velvet Remedy nodded and gave me a little nuzzle. “Your heart is always in the right place, Littlepip.” She backed up, giving me a sad smile. “Your mind maybe not so much. But I’ve learned to believe in your heart…” She looked down, scuffing the floor with her hoof. “I do care about you, you know.”

I felt my heart flutter and my head swim. What was this? This wasn’t her trying to hurt Calamity. Was she coming on to me? After pushing me towards Homage yesterday? No… I had to be reading this wrong.

I looked away, aching because I knew Homage was so close. My eyes caught a bit of red in the far corner under a blanket. “Hey…uh… Velvet, is that your wagon?” I asked, suspecting she had left it up here the morning before. I pictured Homage finding it and carefully setting it aside, even covering it... although I couldn’t remember Velvet bringing it in the first place.

I looked to her again, and the thought left me. She looked beautiful and heart achingly sad. Her eyes were glistening again, but she changed the subject. “How long?” she deflected, glancing again at the dart gun.

“Oh, wonderglue is…” I searched for a good word and failed. “Wondrous. No time at all. Hell, it’s probably ready now.”

“You have all the darts you need?”

“Only should need one.” Although, I had to admit, I’d need a few dozen in the state I was in. I would be lucky to hit a barn door.

“Let me see,” Velvet cooed. I floated out one of my poisoned darts and set it into the dart gun. Velvet Remedy wrapped her telekinesis around it and lifted it to her eye, checking the alignment. It occurred to me that a non-lethal weapon like the dart gun should hold quite the appeal for my more pacifistic friend.

I remembered my earlier worries. How much would Velvet Remedy benefit, psychologically and spiritually, from being able to handle enemies without further soaking her own hooves in blood and death? Dammit, why didn’t I think of this before?

I turned to her, the promise to make her a dart gun of her own wet on my lips. And froze in bewilderment. Velvet Remedy had the dart gun pointed right at me. Didn’t she know that wasn’t safe?


Ow! I opened my mouth, words of surprise frozen on my tongue.

Velvet Remedy shed a tear as she said, “I’m sorry, Littlepip.”

What…. What was happening?

Velvet Remedy’s horn glowed a little brighter. I heard the squeaking as the small red wagon rolled over, stopping behind me. Velvet Remedy stepped closer and gave me a gentle nudge with one hoof, tipping my paralyzed body onto the wagon.

She’d shot me on purpose!

As Velvet Remedy floated the blanket over me, covering my body, I swore I’d kill her.

*** *** ***

I don’t know when I lost consciousness. The last moments I remembered were of feeling the vibration of the elevator through the metal edges of the wagon. A wagon which I should note had been very uncomfortable. I hadn’t been able to see anything, and the only thing I could smell was the damn blanket. Mentally, I had realized I should be either seething with rage or sick with worry, perhaps even fearing for my life. But I had been too ill and too exhausted to have any emotions left.

I probably fell asleep.

Now, I found myself waking to the horrifyingly familiar sensation of being strapped to a medical table. A shot of panic went through me, driving me to struggle against the straps holding me down as I imagined that the psychotic ghoul doctor had somehow regenerated and captured me again. With Velvet Remedy’s help!

I collapsed back, a black ache growing in my heart. How could she do this? She was supposed to be my friend!

I realized just how utterly horrible I felt. Beyond heartache, beyond headache and physical illness. I felt deeply and unbearably wrong inside. Was this how Taint felt? I tossed my head back onto my pillow (a little surprised my captors had thought to give me one).

Above me, somepony had nailed a poster to the wall. A very young mare dressed in a pink and yellow-striped nurse’s uniform stared back at me, telling me how I didn’t need to be a Steel Ranger to be a hero. Apparently, heroic positions like “Bedpan Unsullification Technician” and “Cancer Ward Clown” awaited me.

Not the Red Racer factory. My eyes strayed around. The medical bed I was strapped to was partitioned off by screens. I could see the silhouettes of ponies moving about beyond. The only thing in here with me was a strange, beeping terminal and several plastic tubes that were delivering fluids into and out of my body.

One of the shadows was Calamity. I could tell by the shape of his hat.

Dammit, NO! Not him too! Celestia and Luna damn them both to the burning…

“Dagnabbit,” I heard Calamity speak, addressing one of the other ponies in the room, “Remember when we talked ‘bout doin’ this the right way? Well, this. Ain’t. It.”

“Do you think I wanted to do this?” Velvet Remedy’s voice carried through the gauzy screens that locked me away. There was heartache in her voice. Good! “Littlepip forced my hoof.”

“And how ‘xactly did she do that? Ah seem t’ recall her bein’ barely able t’ walk straight.”

Suddenly, my body started to feel really heavy. Like a great leaden blanket was pressing down on me.

“Don’t be naive! You heard her. Monterey Jack’s execution is tomorrow. She was going to get herself kicked out of this place before we had any chance to persuade her to seek treatment.”

Oh. That’s what this was.

I opened my mouth to say something, but that heaviness washed over my eyelids and I couldn’t keep them open.

*** *** ***

When I awoke again, I felt… better.

I was tired and weak, weary to my very bones, but in a way that felt normal. The headache and sickness were gone. I could see, hear, feel, think. Clearly. There was no fog to fight through.

I tried to sit up, but I was still firmly bound to the medical bed. A shot of panic went through me, but I fought to stifle it. I wasn’t back there. I wasn’t in the mad ghoul’s lab. This was different. And if I kept telling myself that, maybe my body would listen and my heart would slow to normal.

I laid back, already feeling exhausted by my effort to rise. I didn’t have the energy to fight it, but I did have enough to start to get mad. The only friends I’d ever had in my life had conspired against me. Velvet Remedy had paralyzed me. They had me strapped to a bed in a clinic barely a day after my terrifying experience with the ghoul doctor. They had force me into…

By the mercy of moon-banishment, I knew I had a problem. It wasn’t as if I was stupid. I just… Hell, I would have come here on my own. Eventually. I would have; I just had more important, pressing things…

A shadow moved up to the partition, and one of the screens was pulled away. A dark tan earth pony trotted into my little prison. Beyond him, I could see Velvet Remedy curled up on a bench. Her horn was glowing and a memory orb lay on the bench in front of her. She had retreated into the Fluttershy Orb again.

Goddesses! As if Velvet Remedy didn’t have problems of her own.

I felt something hard in the pit of my stomach. I had every right to be furious with her, and I was. But I couldn’t be hateful. Instead, even with my anger on, I felt a pang of worry for her.

“Well, good morning,” the stallion said. “I’m Doctor Helpinghoof. And you, I’ve been told, are Littlepip. How are you feeling this morning?”

I turned my anger towards him. I didn’t know quite how much of it he deserved, but it was at least some. After all, he’d agreed to put me through his addiction cure very much without my permission; I was paralyzed at the time. Plus, he was very, very convenient.

“That’s a really stupid name.”

The doctor took none of the intended offense. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. I changed my name when I decided to take over the clinic. The Helpinghoof Clinics were prewar centers for aid and rehabilitation. Maybe it was presumptuous of me.”

I sighed and shook my head. “No. That... makes sense.” Doctor Helpinghoof was a…. homage to the Helpinghoof Clinics. I felt a smile curling my muzzle despite myself. I fought it off, finding my righteous anger again.

“Why am I strapped down?!” I demanded.

Helpinghoof genially answered, “The addiction treatment involves a complete flushing of your system. You really don’t want to pull out any of the tubes while the process is in progress. You could cause yourself permanent harm.”

Oh. “But, why am I still strapped down?”

“Well, honestly, because the first reaction of most patients in your position is to gallop off. And all too often, imbibe more of whatever drug I just cleaned them of.”

“My choice, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s certainly true. And with friends like yours, I have no doubt that you’d find yourself back here tomorrow if you did. I could make a tidy profit off of you.”

I glared at the ceiling. “I need new friends!” I was rapidly running out of ones who hadn’t shot me.

“That attitude is not unexpected. No good deed, and all those horseapples,” the doctor said. “But in your case, I’m keeping you strapped until I’m sure you’re not going to do something too exertive.” I gave him a dark look, but he shrugged it off.

“When you came in here, Party-Time Mint-al addiction was hardly your only ailment. You were suffering severe radiation exposure. Not to mention a small dose of manticore poisoning. And your body had clearly been through enough traumas in the last few weeks that it was on the verge of giving out. I had to do a lot of work before I could risk even beginning the treatment.” The doctor spoke with earnest warning, “These procedures have left you in a weak and fragile state. You’ll heal properly now. But you need to take it easy for the next few days at least. No strenuous activity.”

I remained quiet as that soaked in. How bad a shape had I been in? And if I was that messed up, how bad were the others. “Doctor, my… ‘friends’? They’ve been through as much as I have. Please, they need your help too.”

Helpinghoof nodded. “I know. Your unicorn friend already insisted. The Steel Ranger won’t even let me take a look, but I’ve had both Calamity and Velvet Remedy on my table while you were in recovery.”

Of course. SteelHooves wouldn’t want anyone here realizing what he was. “Will they be okay?”

“Physically, yes,” the doctor said. “Although I suspect how well they heal emotionally will be more up to you than to me.”

Great. Drop that load on me too. I wasn’t even going to get to be mad at them.

“Now, I want to talk to you a little bit about addictions,” Helpinghoof informed me.

Perfect. And now the lecture. And he even had me strapped down for it.

“You should have noticed by now that your senses and thought processes seem clearer and cleaner. Not as hyper-enhanced as when you are on the drugs, but still a lot better than when you were off of them. Am I right?”

Grudgingly, I nodded.

“That’s the nasty double-edge of Party-Time Mint-als. They are a brain accelerator made from mystical plants native only to zebra lands and perhaps the Everfree Forest. No matter how often you use them, they will always be just as effective as the first time. What most addicts don’t realize, however, is that the withdrawal degrades your mental facilities. The more you take them, the worse you are when you’re not on them. Ponies who have been taking them for years have reached the point where they can barely function without the drug in their system.”

Helpinghoof smiled thinly. “The enlightened state in which you find yourself now is actually the way you always had been before you got hooked on Party-Time Mint-als.”

What? I was like this before? But I felt so much more alert. Everything was so clear. It was so easy to think. Not hyper-fast like I could when I was on a PTM, but still easy. If this was what I was like before PTMs, why did it feel so new? And why wasn’t I able to tell…

But I had been able to tell. I had known something was wrong for a long time. I felt a tear in my eye and I wondered where it had come from. I looked to the doctor.

“Now, I can give you advice, but I can’t make you take it,” the doctor continued. “You absolutely need to stay away from Party-Time Mint-als. It won’t be easy. Your body and brain might no longer crave or need them, but most drug addiction is as psychological as it is physical. So I can’t tell you this won’t be difficult. But from what I hear, you have a strong will, and you have strong friends who can help you through it.”

I nodded slowly, not really wanting to hear this, but knowing I needed to.

“And I highly recommend staying away from normal Mint-als, or for that matter any other addictive substances. Buck, Rage, Dash… all of them. Party-Time Mint-als is the most addictive drug out there, but many of the others aren’t much better. And with your family history, you are more susceptible to addictions than most ponies; so my advice is to just stay away.”

I started to nod again and stopped. Wait. “What does my family have to do with this?”

“Predisposition towards addiction can be hereditary,” Helpinghoof informed me. “Your friend Velvet Remedy told me about your mother.”

“My mother?” She had no right!

“She was an alcoholic, was she not?”

I ground my teeth, staring everywhere but at the doctor. He waited patiently until my spit and fury subsided enough to answer, “Well, her cutie mark was a glass of hard apple cider. What else was she going to do?”

“You do know that cutie marks don’t control your destiny, right?”

I just looked away. I wasn’t going to be roped into a discussion of my mother. Even if they kept me tied down for days.

Oh crap. Monterey! How long had I been out?

I tried to look at the time on my PipBuck but my foreleg was strapped down. And, I remembered swiftly, my PipBuck was dead anyway.

“Doctor,” I said, trying not to sound too anxious. “How long until Monterey Jack is executed?” Please, Luna, give me the strength…

The doctor blinked. “The cheese shop owner? That was two hours ago.” I felt an weight the size of a flower pot drop in my stomach. Followed by an anvil. “Why, did you know him?”

I had failed.

*** *** ***

Velvet Remedy was the first to visit me, fresh from Fluttershy-land. She spoke cautiously, trotting on eggshells. As she did so, her horn glowed as she removed the straps holding me down, one at a time. I resisted the urge to go for her throat. No strenuous activity, the doctor had said.

“I don’t expect you to forgive me…” Velvet was saying.

“Good,” I interrupted harshly. “Because I don’t.”

She winced at my words, but obstinately continued, ”…or that things will be right between us. But I do expect you to understand why. And to understand why I had to do it now.”

“Why you felt you had to do it now, you mean,” I spat. “And against my will.”

“You wouldn’t have gotten the help you needed on your own. This might be the only place in the whole Equestrian Wasteland that could help you, and you were about to throw it away.”

“I had already realized I had a problem,” I retorted. “I was going to ask for help.”

“Oh?” Velvet Remedy asked, trapped somewhere between shock and disbelief. “When?”

“After we crashed. I realized it then. And I was probably going to ask for help after I’d had some sleep.”

“Convenient.” She turned away from me. I didn’t need to see her face to tell she was hiding tears. I could hear them in the tremble of her breath, see it in the shudder of her breast.

Arrrgh! I wanted to tear her to pieces with my teeth… and yet I couldn’t bear to see her hurt. And I knew that if talked to her any more, I’d just hurt her more. Maybe she deserved it, but I didn’t want to inflict more wounds.

“Velvet, you need to not be here.”

She wiped a hoof across her face before looking at me. Her eyes were red and puffy, but she didn’t let me see the actual tears.

“Because of what you did, Monterey Jack’s children are without a guardian and will soon be without a home,” I said sternly, staring at her. To her merit, she stood and took it.

I had asked the doctor what would become of them. I had been right that Tenpony Tower has nothing like an orphanage; I recalled the doctor’s words: Tenpony Tower is a “meritocracy” according to Helpinghoof, not a socialist commune. Those who have not earned their right to be here, and who cannot afford the privilege to be here, have no place here. The colts and filly would be kicked out of the Tower at the end of the month.

“So you have to help fix it. Send SteelHooves in here. I need to talk to him. And have him bring my saddlebags and utility barding. I need to get my PipBuck running so I can send Blackwing’s Talons a message. I’m calling in the favor they owe us; I’m going to have them take the children to Shattered Hoof.” I frowned. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a damn lot better than what those kids would face alone in the Manehattan Ruins.

“It will be your job to break the news to Monterey’s children, and persuade them to go.”

Velvet Remedy’s eyes widened, immediately recognizing how emotionally painful the task I had given her would be. But she nodded, accepting the burden as due reward.

*** *** ***

“Ah’m so sorry, Li’lpip,” Calamity said, head in his hooves. He had slipped inside the partitions as soon as Velvet Remedy had left.

I took a deep breath and gingerly sat up. It was an effort to do so, but my head remained clear and my gut didn’t lurch. It was blissful to not be sick or under the effects of withdrawl.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Calamity,” I said, although the angry pony in the back of my head had a few differing opinions. “Velvet Remedy did this. And she… was right to want to help me. I needed help.”

Calamity looked up to me. I was shocked to see deep pain in his eyes. “No, Littlepip. Ah have the most t’ apologize fer. This is all muh fault! Ah’m the one who gave ya those zebra-damned mints in the first place.”

Flaming sun-farts. Calamity was right. For the first time, I considered what seeing me losing it to those things must be doing to him. Had he been tearing himself up all this time? Oh merciful Celestia, what had I been doing to my friends?

Strenuous or not, I pushed myself from the medical bed and threw my forehooves around Calamity, nuzzling against his neck. I had no words, no idea what to say. But I hoped that if I hugged him long enough, he’d understand how forgiven he was, and how sorry I was.

*** *** ***

I had a lot of apologizing to do.

“How are you doing?” I asked SteelHooves as I plugged my PipBuck up to his magically powered armor using tools from my utility barding.

“Shouldn’t you be the one everypony is asking that?” SteelHooves deep voice questioned.

“I’ve been… out of it for a long time,” I admitted. “I’ve missed things. Obvious things. Or, at least, been too slow in coming to them.” I swallowed. “For example, you told me that the Ministry of Technology funded Four Stars. And then you discovered what they did. I can’t imagine how that must have hit you…”

“I’ve been… dealing with it,” SteelHooves cut me off.

“But you shouldn’t have had to deal with it alone.” I shook my head. “I’d focused on Velvet Remedy and Calamity, and I didn’t even see that all my friends were hurting. Not just the loud ones.”

SteelHooves nickered. “Thank you, Littlepip. But like I said, I’m handling it.”

I nodded, respecting his determination. My PipBuck beeped, demanding my attention. “Okay. But I am here for you. Really here, now,” I added. “If I can help at all. If you just need somepony to talk to.”

“I’d rather not.”

I shut up. For the next half of an hour, I focused on getting my PipBuck working again. By the time I was done, the little leg-worn device was operating more smoothly and efficiently than it had in months. I floated the broadcaster out of my saddlebags and sent Blackwing the message. She was annoyed by the task I required of her but more relieved that I’d contacted her so quickly, calling in the favor for something that didn’t amount to anything worse than an annoyance.

“By the Great Egg, kid, I’m half tempted to call this three favors. But then, I’d have to figure out how many more I owed you for hooking us up with Gawdyna’s Shattered Hoof operation. I was feeling like my wings had been pulled for a bit there.”

“Thank you, Blackwing. Velvet Remedy will have the little ponies waiting for you at the Four Stars station at Tenpony Tower.”

I cut the broadcast. SteelHooves remained silent for a while longer.

“Are you sure…?” I began to ask as I put my tools away.

“Littlepip, you’re the sort of mare who makes me wish I was a better pony.” He sounded… sad? “Only one other mare has ever made me feel that way. And sooner or later, you’re bound to learn, just like she did, that I’m not a better pony.”

SteelHooves walked out of Helpinghoof’s clinic.

*** *** ***

“Where’s SteelHooves?”

“Should ya really be up, Li’lpip?” Calamity asked, his eyes widening with concern as I burst into the suite.

“Do you know where he is?” After SteelHooves had left, I had just stared. It took several minutes for the sinking sensation to fully prompt me to action. And by then, I had lost track of him.

“uh… well, last Ah saw, he was talkin’ t’ Chief Grim Star.”

No! I turned and galloped for the elevator.

*** *** ***

It took me too long -- way too long -- to find the door to the basement. I pushed myself beyond the point where I should have collapsed, racing an invisible clock. When I found the door, my state of alarm intensified. It should have been locked. Instead, the door hung slightly open. I dashed inside, then stopped, leaning against a cold concrete wall, fighting loss of breath.

The basement was a cluttered maze. The walls down here were too thick for my Eyes-Forward Sparkle to detect ponies, friend or foe, beyond the room I was in. I was forced to search by sight alone. Finally, in a back room, I found a heavy set of doors under an ancient warning sign whose paint was peeling:

Emergency Shelter

Authorized Unicorns Only

Like the door to the basement, these doors were open. My PipBuck lit up. One friendly pony.


I turned on the light of my PipBuck and saw the Steel Ranger standing in the gloom, facing another large door made of thick steel, inset with a tiny window of armored glass. There was a control panel inches from his raised right hoof.

“SteelHooves!” I called out, panting, a burning stitch in my sides. “Don’t do it!”

The Steel Ranger lowered his armored hoof and turned to look at me. “Don’t do what?” he asked so casually I wanted to scream.

”Don’t let them in!”

The Steel Ranger cocked his head. “Oh. Don’t worry, Littlepip. Nopony’s getting in through this door. I’ve made sure it can’t be used ever again.”

What? Oh. Oh thank the Goddesses! I collapsed on the cold stone floor, feeling like I would never be able to stand again. But it was okay. All my fears had been in my head.

SteelHooves trotted up to me. “Did you really think I’d let in the zombie-ponies. That I’d allow all the innocent ponies in Tenpony Tower to perish? You really don’t know me at all, do you.”

He trotted past me, leaving me there.

No, I admitted, feeling utterly ashamed as well as beyond exhausted. No, I didn’t know SteelHooves. And maybe it was time that I stopped thinking ill of my friends. Start trusting them more. They really are good ponies. And they really are trying to help.

My thoughts were interrupted by a thud. Chief Grim Star’s face appeared on the other side of the window. Flesh had been torn from the side of his head. I could see him staring in with desperation and horror, pounding on the other side of the door.

Then the zombie-ponies fell upon him once again, pulling him away from the window as they tore him to pieces, eating him alive.

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Reaper Pony’s Gallop – If you kill a target while using S.A.T.S., 25% of your AP are restored after dropping the spell. This will usually refresh your targeting spell enough to use it again immediately for at least one more attack.

Next Chapter: Chapter Twenty: Behind the Curtain Estimated time remaining: 30 Hours, 39 Minutes
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