A rewritten version of this chapter is available at FiMFiction.net. See the description below for a link.
Something was definitely odd, Lee thought as she lay there, eyes shut. The first big question was - where was she? The surface she was lying on was rough, irregular and not particularly comfortable. If that was her floor, it was damaged beyond belief: gone was its silky smoothness. And there was the air - cool, dank, and somewhat odorous. It smelled of decay. Nothing in her ship should be capable of making those odors.
Lee could remember the fight, the crash, and the invasion, if three raiders could be considered an invasion. Those raiders were unlike anything she had seen before, and neither her skill or weapons were very effective against them. Two of the raiders had eventually fallen, taken out by her remaining comrades. Moments later they had been slaughtered by the third raider, and then that raider had turned her weapon on Lee. Pain had exploded out from Lee's chest as the slug blasted its way though, shattering or destroying whatever was in its path. Her body had became unresponsive, and her vision lost stability, then focus as oxygen starvation shut down her brain. After that was nothing. She hadn't felt it. Time hadn't crawled past. There was simply nothing between then and now.
Gasping with shock, Lee sat bolt upright, feeling her chest with her hoof.
Her train of thought was derailed, as she dangled the offending appendage in front of her face, contemplating what it could mean. It was dark brown, chipped, a little grubby, with a worn rubber shoe attached to the sole, but generally in good condition. And there was no blood on it. She felt her chest again. She felt hair - a little sweaty, and needing a good brushing. There was no pain, or for that matter, any sign whatsoever of the fatal wound. That was good: confusing, but very good.
"Oh Mum, you had that dream again, didn't you?" a voice to her right asked.
Lee's head snapped around to locate it's source. A younger unicorn pony lay there, beige with a chocolate mane and tail, and only three legs; three and a half to be exact. Her right hoof and fetlock were missing. Lee moved her head a little to see if it was an illusion caused by the way the younger unicorn was sitting, but decided that the hoof was indeed missing.
"Yes, you had that dream again. I can tell by the look on your face," the younger unicorn stated, nodding to herself.
"But... but this isn't right..." Lee stammered, holding up her hoof as if it were an exhibit.
"Clearly we are not bipeds. We are quadrupeds, or a triped in my case, anyway," the younger unicorn stated, proving that she did indeed have some idea about what Lee's dreams had been.
"How...?" Lee managed before she choked. She tried again. "How could you know what I was dreaming?"
"This isn't the first time. You've told me about the dream before. And then we go through this again."
Lee lowered her hoof. The coloring of her leg matched that of the younger unicorn's coat, and what she could see of her own mane, dangling before her eyes, matched that of the younger unicorn's as well. She shook her head and took a deep breath before clambering to her hooves. She shook hard, willing the tangles, sweat and grime away. Surprisingly, with a gently glow, they obliged, leaving her feeling fresh and neat.
"Best magic ever," she heard the younger unicorn quietly comment, as she too clambered to her hooves.
Lee watched, puzzling how well she would manage with her handicap, and was slightly surprised to see the same glow she had experienced a moment ago emanating from the younger unicorn's horn, wrapping around her shortened foreleg, as if she were lifting herself by her own bootstraps. Even if it looked unlikely, it worked, and she stood. The horn's glow spread to cover the younger unicorn's whole body and she too shook, transforming as she did from a ruffled bed-head to a runway model.
"How other ponies manage without that magic, I will never know." she commented, then after a moments thought added, "well, a lot of them don't, do they?"
"How did I do that?" Lee puzzled. "I didn't use any magic. It was... instinctive."
"Oh Mum, don't be silly. Of course it was instinctive. We don't need to wave around wands like those show ponies. It's part of being a unicorn."
Lee shook her head, not to disagree, rather to try and shake some sense into it. This whole world just didn't sit right.
"Why do I have these dreams?" Lee asked. "Why don't I remember this world?"
"Because..." The younger unicorn paused. She had been through this many times, and it was still unpleasant, both for her mother, and for her, because she did remember, and only too well. "Sorry Mum, there is no nice way to say this. It's because you were shot in the head. Sometimes your memories get disconnected."
"Oh." Lee murmured. "That would be unpleasant."
The younger unicorn sighed with relief. Lee was taking it in her stride today. That was her best reaction.
"Okay Mum, a couple of easy questions to help things along. Who am I, and where are we?" the younger unicorn asked.
Lee looked around the dimly lit room twice before she realized the dimness was not due the walls, which had significantly more openings than when it was built, but rather the cloudy gloom that pressed down all around them. She and the younger unicorn were obviously sheltering in a decaying building, the wooden floor rotten, and covered in assorted grime and gravel. That would explain the roughness she had felt when she woke, Lee thought to herself. That they were sheltering here at all told her they had nowhere better to sleep.
Lee's eyes moved to her companion. The three legged unicorn was no child, but; she had that youthful freshness of one just short of adulthood, attractive, and thanks to her magic, well groomed. Her hooves also showed signs of wear and chipping, though it was more obvious on her sole remaining fore hoof. Her cutie mark was a spanner crossed with a screwdriver - obviously she was technically adept. Lee risked a quick glance back at her own cutie mark, only to discover it was identical. This filly really did take after her mother.
"Okay..." Lee drew it out. "You are my daughter...." Lee focus on the younger unicorn again, and for a moment a secondary image pushed itself into her mind - one of the people from a dream within her dream. "You are Anne! Hmm, that doesn't sound like a name for a pony."
"Don't blame me." Anne shrugged. "You named me after all."
"But my name - Lee - is also unusual for a pony."
"Again, your doing. It's not your birth name. It's the name you chose after... you know... after your second life started." Anne paused. "So where are we?"
"Equestria," Lee stated. That was about as helpful as saying 'the universe', "Oh, I know! This is Ponyville - or what is left of it." And what a mess it was. A coat of paint... and a bulldozer would do it the world of good.
Anne nodded. "And it looks rather like someone went through here with an army recently, or we wouldn't be sleeping in such an insecure place."
Lee was suddenly worried. "Status. Sweep." she muttered, and her Eyes-Forward Sparkle activated, the glowing grid forming around her field of vision. It was free of any of the glowing dots that indicated other creatures. After a few moments of toggling through detection modes, she relaxed again. "We are still alone. I really would not like to meet whoever did that to the raiders!" she stated emphatically, then added as an afterthought: " I wouldn't have wanted to meet those raiders either, for that matter, not while they were still alive."
Anne shuddered, recalling the mess they had encountered while looking for any signs of inhabitance the evening before. What externally appeared to be the old library had proved to be more of a slaughterhouse, the former occupants killed by either gunfire or high explosive. Lee and Anne had considered setting the place alight to burn the horrors within, but decided against trying when they realized the explosives had already failed to do so. Surprisingly, whoever had turned the place over had left the currency. They did not make the same oversight. A little unicorn magic had freed the bottle caps of their coating of gore.
"Hey, welcome back Mum!" Anne chimed when she suddenly realized her mother was again playing with a full deck.
"We are a fine pair of walking wrecks, aren't we," Lee commented. "Come on, lets get going before these bodies fail on us again."
Lee tapped the metallic blue bracelet on her left foreleg, putting her Pipgirl into standby. The Pipgirl was probably her greatest invention. It was the next generation beyond the Pipbuck, and unlike the former, it was attractive to look at. Back at the stable it had become quite the fashion statement, with all the fillies and mares rushing to trade in their old Pipbucks as soon as the Pipgirls became available. The stallions wanted the extra functionality of course, but chose to preserve the aesthetics of their trusty old Pipbucks. Many of them had been retrofitted with the newer circuitry.
Lee levitated her barding from where it was draped, dropping it over herself before securing its belts around her chest. The battle saddle was next: a pack saddle which had been fitted with two weapons - a Cybercorn carbine to the left, and a combat shotgun to the right. Also part of the saddle were the auto loaders for the two guns, and bags for spare ammunition, medical supplies, food and tanks for water, none of which were present in particularly significant amounts. Her tools were also there, but in a kit that could easily be pulled from the saddle when needed.
When she was happy with how her equipment was sitting, she checked on Anne's progress. Her daughter was almost ready, needing a few moments more to adjust the balance of her load. Anne's saddle was much like Lee's, apart from being lighter to accommodate her slighter build. She was armed with a single saddle mounted Cybercorn carbine, and an automatic pistol which she would manipulate with her telekinesis as needed. When not in use, it was holstered to the left side of the saddle, close to where the carbine was mounted. Their combined weight helped to move Anne's center of gravity over her remaining fore hoof. The Cybercorn carbines were another invention to come out of their stable. Unlike regular guns, they relied on telekinesis instead of gunpowder to propel the projectile. Usually they fired slugs that were essentially the same as used in regular bullets, and were available in the same basic types - armor piercing, hollow point, explosive tipped and so on. In desperation, they could fire just about anything you could get to fit down their bore. Balls of soft clay worked well for non-lethal ammunition, a foal's glass marbles made for a nasty slug against those with minimal or no armor, and ball bearings were a good all-round choice. Only trained unicorns could use them. They used channeled pushing magic. In the case of Lee and Anne, it was derived from the magic they used to groom themselves, and that particular magic was native only to some technicians not, as some wished, to the glamour set. That particular magic was used when they needed to be perfectly clean for working in the sterile environments of the clean rooms, or to clean themselves of the toxic muck or regular grime they sometimes had to expose themselves to while doing maintenance or repairs around the stable. Whether anyone outside their own stable had ever developed similar skills, they did not know; they had never met anyone with it in their travels.
"We get ourselves all fresh and pretty, then hide ourselves under all of this ugly barding," Anne shook her head. "It's a sad life."
"Even with all the discomfort and difficulties, it is still much better than being trapped in that stable though," Lee reminded her.
Anne nodded. "At least there are breaks between the hell out here, even if the general level of unpleasantness is fairly high."
"If you are ready, we should get moving," Lee responded, "before any of that general unpleasantness decides to come visit us. Who knows who or what usually sleeps here."
Bringing her Eyes-Forward Sparkle back online, Lee walked cautiously through one of the larger holes in the wall, checking for any movement. There was none. Whoever it was that cleared out the raiders nest the day before had either got them all, or scared the remainder so badly they weren't planning on returning any time soon. An arrow indicated the direction of Sweet Apple Acres. It would not take them too long to get there, and they would be able to investigate the rumors of a stable being in the area.
Stables were the best places to raid for old technology. Many were afraid to go into them, so more items survived than did on the surface. Added to that were the lesser seen areas of the stables - the service tunnels, junction boxes and so on. Some were well hidden enough that only stable technical staff knew where they were. The general stable populace had no need to access them, and being hidden stopped the foals from playing hide and seek in them - well, mostly. Lee had soon worked out how to gain access to them in her foal-hood, and like her mother, Anne had done so too. When two security stallions brought Anne home after she was caught playing in them, Lee had waited until they had gone before turning to her daughter. Anne had expected a lecture, but instead had to contend with a mother that wanted all the gritty details of her adventures. Once the story was shared Lee had made it clear that no punishment was coming because she had enjoyed doing the same as a foal herself.
*** *** ***
Lee surveyed the mess at the bridge they were about to cross. Broken barricades, bodies and the occasional crude weapon were scattered about. Raiders often didn't take the time to bury their dead, but they did usually clear them out of an area they wished to hold. A bridge like this would be of some strategic value, if for no other reason than to extort tolls from any trying to cross it. Noticing the freshly splintered railing Lee looked closer, seeing the scoring of a bullet. Estimating its trajectory, she looked in the direction, having her Pipgirl scan for life signs. What she saw was the library balcony.
"Oh. Well, I guess we know what happened there then." she muttered to herself as much as anyone, wondering what sort of unstoppable force had come through in the opposite direction in the days before. She returned her attention to the railing. The slug was still embedded there, and not too firmly. She used her magic to work around the slug and push it back, out of its resting place. When it popped free, Lee levitated it up before her face, rotating it. It wasn't perfect, but it would fit down the bore of her Cybercorn carbine with no trouble. She flipped open a pouch on her saddle and dropped the slug in with the collection she had salvaged from the library the previous day.
Lee's horn gently glowed as she lifted each of the crude weapons she found and dropped them into the murk that flowed under the bridge. She pushed the owners of the weapons into the water after them. It wasn't that she particularly cared about the dead raiders and was giving them any sort of send off. She just didn't like the idea of them fouling up the bridge for the next poor pony that had to cross. It would smell bad enough until a few day's rain had managed to wash away the bulk of the remaining gore.
"Mum, you are being too tidy again," Anne commented.
"It's not like we are on a timetable," Lee responded to her daughter, who had now made it to the other side of the bridge.
"Oh, come on, I'd like to look for this stable in the light, if you don't mind. Unlike you, if I trip in the dark, I'm guaranteed to face-plant."
Lee laughed as she let the broken barricade she was moving drop where it was. "As you wish, as you wish."
Turning their backs on the river crossing and former toll-way, they headed in the direction their Pipgirls indicated Sweet Apple Acres lay. They passed the remains of more ponies as they left, raiders and slavers, both, judging from the scattered equipment, but of any slaves there were no signs, apart from some hoof marks left in the mud. A stallion and a filly, by the looks of it. Perhaps the unstoppable force had freed them on their way though. That would be nice - someone out here who though of someone other than themselves for a change.
After a while of trudging and hopping along a former road that had degraded though time into a rough path, the two ponies found themselves passing though orchards of apple trees, none of which looked healthy enough to risk eating the fruit from. Not long after, they found themselves staring at the somewhat substantial remains of a former farm building. Bring her Eyes-Forward Sparkle online, Lee scouted around the area, again finding no signs of significant life, either friendly or hostile. She switched off the Sparkle, turning her eyes to the ground, looking for tracks. She found two sets. One looked like those of the filly they had seen earlier that day, while the others were of an older pony, probably a mare. Those prints appeared to be older than those of the filly. Both had come from the barn, or mansion, or whatever it was meant to be. Following them to the doorway, Lee saw the tracks passing both ways. She followed them into the building, Anne hopping along behind her.
Anne took one look at the steps and balked. "I'll take downstairs, thanks!" She bounced off to investigate what little clutter remained.
Upstairs proved to have only one item of interest - a functional terminal. Lee devoted a couple of minutes to it, and was surprised to find a recent entry from someone called Velvet Remedy. "To any pony who has left Stable Two in search of me:" it read. Was Stable Two a functional stable? If it was, why was there so little evidence of it up here. Surely it wasn't still sealed? Lee thought about it for a moment. At least one, perhaps two ponies had left it recently. Obviously it had been opened, but the message implied that leaving it was frowned upon. Okay, Lee could understand that. She and Anne had to escape from their own, after all. Now Lee suspected she and Anne were the only two survivors from that stable. There were others like her that had hated the place, and rumor had it that some of them had chosen suicide as the way out, taking everyone else in the stable with them. A travelling merchant had described what he had found the last time he had approached the small trading settlement that had hidden the stable - a new sink hole where the settlement should have been. Lee had not been back to investigate.
Concentrate on the present, Lee chided herself, abandoning the terminal and climbing back down the stairs. She hated stairs. She emerged into the main room of the building to find her daughter looking somewhat amused.
"Would you believe, I found some soap!" Anne exclaimed. "It's a bit old though."
"It's not a lot of use to magically groomed ponies, is it?" Lee frowned.
"Maybe not, but if we ever find ourselves needing to keep company with the usual unwashed sorts out here, it may come in handy!" Anne explained.
"Pfft." Lee responded. "You know as well as I do that we could easily blow the muck off them too."
"Oh, you're no fun Mum," Anne complained, lowering her one salvaged cake into her saddle bags before following her mother out of the building.
The followed the hoof print trail to an open horizontal cellar door. Lee created a luminescent ball with her horn and lowered it through the opening. More stairs. "The vault must be down this way," she told Anne, "though I suspect we have wasted our time coming here. I found a message up there that implied Stable Two is still occupied, and does not like it's residents leaving."
Anne froze solid where she stood. Lee turned to face her daughter. "No?"
"Never into that hell again." Anne insisted. "I won't even risk being caught."
"I'll just be a moment then." Lee said as she swiveled and descended down the stone stairs, creating another luminescent ball with her horn.
Lee emerged a couple of minutes later, and flicked the old cellar door shut behind her. "Come," she called Anne. "There is nothing here for us." When they were a few paces from the door, Lee used her telekinesis to obliterate the tracks around the door. "It's a tomb down there. The stable is locked up tight. It does appear a couple of ponies escaped, but beyond that, it's the same as it has been for many years, skeletons of those who didn't make it inside in time and all."
"A private universe." Anne mused. "Let's hope it's a happier one than ours was."
"They'll need to come out soon though, or we'll have a breed of two headed ponies to go with the two headed cows." Lee mused.
*** *** ***
The two black, armor clad ponies appeared rather menacing, the one behind Lee and Anne sporting a mini-gun and a rocket launcher, while the one to their front had grenade and rocket launchers. Lee figured that either they relied on intimidation, or that they simply didn't care that their weaponry was useless for precision operations. She could picture it: "Sure Ma'am, we killed the perp. No, there are no witnesses. There are an awful lot of bodies though!" Lee couldn't decide whether she'd rather take down their kind with a single, efficient bullet to the head to show them how it should be done, or with a very messy tactical balefire bomb, to demonstrate to them their foolishness. The latter, she surmised would only work well at a gathering of them. So much for her fantasies, this pair were quite real and just as annoying. What they were doing in New Appleloosa, Lee had no idea. As to why they had approached, Lee thought she knew.
"I am sorry, ladies, but you are not authorized to carry this sort of equipment," the armored horse stated, in his boomy, military voice as he eyed the Pipgirls the two remarkably clean and well groomed mares were wearing. Clearly, to his eyes, this pair had just crawled out of a nice safe burrow, though he couldn't think of any that were in this area, and that made them ripe for the picking. He had not seen a Pipbuck that looked like the ones these mares were sporting before, and that made them a valuable find. Why they had ventured out onto the surface when of them was lacking a hoof was puzzling. Why would someone with disabilities would risk leaving the security of a functioning a stable?
"Not authorized? Says who?" Lee responded, her tone none too respectful.
"We do - the guardians of this land. We cannot afford to have civilians wandering about with unapproved technology, endangering others."
Lee laughed. "Do we look like we crawled out of a stable yesterday?" she asked, snidely, glancing across at her beautifully presented daughter. "Hmm, I guess we do at that."
The Steel Ranger looked at them expectantly. Damn sneaky bastards, Lee thought, cornering her and Anne like that. The number of people wandering around this town had made it difficult to work out who was who, and all they had seen were fairly ordinary ponies. They had approached in the hope of trading. The two rangers had remained out of sight until the girls were near the store, one appearing ahead of them, and one behind, moving to corner them.
"You have no authority here. Now if you and your canned buddy would kindly get out of our way, we will be going on with our business." Lee growled.
"Please ladies, let us not make a needless scene. All we ask is that you remove those bracelets and give them to us." The Steel Ranger tried again. His companion had moved right up behind Lee, effectively pinning her between the two of them. Clearly they considered Anne, who had simply remained quiet and immobile since the beginning of the encounter to be of little threat and an even lower escape risk. That they were so close to Lee herself definitely showed their overconfidence.
Lee lowered her head, hunching, feigning fear, but in reality preparing for her first strike. She really hated fighting and avoided it if possible, but sometimes there were blockheads like this pair of low ranked Steel Rangers that simply left her no choice. "Do you honestly thing you are the first Steel Deranger that has tried to get this from me?" she growled. "By the way, there are some things in life that are best left unknown. And I just happen to be one of those things. If you are smart, you will turn and walk away now. NOW. "
The rangers pressed closer, heedless of her warning, so Lee unleashed herself. Her horn flared as she brought up her magic in its crudest form, the basic push. The ranger in front of her rocked a little as he held against it's force, but Lee really didn't care, as she was only leaning on him - using him as an anchor for her first strike. Simultaneously she lashed back with both rear hooves at a speed and power greater than any ordinary pony could ever hope to match, her hooves striking the chest of the armored pony behind her. Her break-away hoof walls sheered off, exposing the armor piercing edges of the duralloy cores below.
A pair of almost simultaneous cracks echoed off the walls of the nearby buildings, causing the more wasteland-wise to flatten them selves against the ground, or duck for cover. The rest, panic in their eyes looked for the source of the sound. What they saw was a mare stretched out, her front hooves firmly on the ground, and her rear hooves buried deep in the chest of the Steel Ranger behind her.
Lee was at a disadvantage now, with both of her rear legs hock-deep in the body of the collapsing ranger behind her, but at least her odds of winning had just doubled. She released her magic, and was pivoting it around to push the body clear of her when the other ranger struck, his fore hooves smashing into her right shoulder, cutting through hide and hair, spinning her, and throwing her against the nearby wall of the store. Blood sprayed, both from the injured mare, and from the dead ranger behind her as her legs pulled free.
Meanwhile Anne had used the distraction to her advantage, and had turned tail and rapidly bounced a short distance, swinging back to face the Ranger at her selected range - just a little further than the blast radius of one of the ranger missiles or grenades. Immediately, she had seen her mother was down, and damaged, the alloy of her cyber frame quite visible through the massive hole the ranger had ripped in the flesh of her shoulder. Anne knew an injury like that was inconvenient, but certainly not crippling to her mother. None the less, she was angered by the stupidity and selfishness of these Steel Rangers. As the ranger readied himself for a second strike against Lee, Anne fired. She didn't stop, keeping up an ongoing bombardment of whatever ammunition was loaded into her Cybercorn carbine, peppering the enemy pony in various places, some carefully chosen, others, seemingly random, in the hope that he would just assume her a poor shot with a second-rate weapon. Glass marbles shattered when they hit, leaving little white marks of powdered glass. Steel ball bearings made a very annoying "crack" as they bounced off his armor. The odd salvaged slug fared little better. Finally annoyed at the bombardment that was little more than an annoyance, he decided to deal with her before finishing Lee. That was when Anne fired one of her two remaining armor piercing rounds, aimed directly at the ranger's visor, and at the maximum output of her horn. The slug failed to make it all the way through the material, but the rear of the visor exploded inside the ranger's helmet. peppering one of his eyes with fragments, blinding him in that eye.
Screaming in a rage, he aimed one of the rockets from his twin tube launcher at Anne and fired, and that was his fatal mistake, the one Anne had been planning on. The rocket failed to make it out of the launch tube before becoming wedged against the shrapnel Anne had deliberately fired into it earlier - pieces of gravel embedded in sticky clay. The blast from it's engine cooked off the second rocket in the launcher, and with an ear-damaging boom, the ranger was thrown violently to one side. Crashing to the ground a number of paces from where he had been standing, he lay there unmoving. Anne checked her S.A.T.S. and noticed with some satisfaction that it had changed his icon from red to amber - no longer an immediate threat, and possibly no threat at all. She cautiously hopped over to where he lay, keeping her target lock on the hole clearly visible in the side of his armor - the rocket launcher was no longer anywhere to be seen, parts of it scattered around, and fragments of it buried deep in his body. Clearly he was beyond fighting. She lowered her Eyes Forward Sparkle, and looked across to where her mother had fallen. Lee was already back up on her feet, staring with some annoyance at the fallen ranger. She began to hobble towards them.
The ranger coughed. Anne returned her attention to him. "Silly boy," she reprimanded him, as she stared at his damaged body though the missing section of armor, noting the erratic rising and falling of his ribcage as he struggled for breath. Death would not be far away. His powered armor was no longer in any condition to administer medical aid, and neither Anne or Lee had the medication needed to even try to stabilize him.
"How?" he managed to gurgle. "did you... did she?"
"Your technology is old, its weaknesses well known. To assume you are superior is arrogant, and stupid." Anne explained as Lee moved along side her. Anne turned to look at her mother, but was unable to assess the damage to her as the mare was facing the wrong way. The two tenderly touched noses with each other for a moment. "Are you okay mum?"
"There is some damage to the mechanics of the shoulder." Lee muttered annoyed, "and I must get this mess attended to immediately if I don't want necrosis to set in." The rate of blood escaping from the would was nothing more than a slow ooze, her cybernetics already rerouting the flow to bypass the damaged areas. That would preserve her blood, and thus her life in the short term, but unless the damaged areas had blood flow restored soon, they would die, and that could be just as fatal in the long term. "And I have to repair my rear hoof walls."
Another gurgle brought Anne's attention back to her previous conversation, or perhaps more accurately, lecture.
"We, on the other hand, are both combat cyborgs, and were made a mere twenty years ago, using leading edge technology, with the Steel Rangers as one of our intended targets," Anne informed him, "though fortunately for the Steel Rangers, neither my mother or I will do any pony's killing."
"But you... cough... just...," the Steel ranger managed.
"We merely defended ourselves from a couple of thieves," Anne informed him, "and if you don't like how that sounds, I suggest you spend your last few minutes doing some deep soul searching."
Anne turned away from the dying pony, glancing around at the ring of onlookers that was forming. "Is there a doctor here? My mother needs assistance," she stated. Another gurgle returned her attention to the fallen ranger. "And so does this guy, I guess." No one answered, but most looked away as Anne's gaze came to rest on them. One eye remained looking directly at Anne - a sickly looking yellow eye. Its counterpart was wandering. The eyes belonged to the ghoul pony who owned the store, Ditzy Doo. They had met last time Anne had shopped here, though she couldn't place exactly when that had been. The ghoul reached down and nudged the ear of the filly who was standing next to her. The filly looked up at Ditzy and their gazes met, Ditzy's second eye actually facing where she wished momentarily. The filly tilted her head, and the old ghoul nodded. Understanding Ditzy's meaning, the filly took off.
It was several minutes before the filly returned. Several paces behind her was a grey-coated earth pony with black mane and tail, a candy striped nurse beside him, and several other staff behind them. Lee had taken advantage of the delay to crack the wounded Steel Ranger from his armor. The pieces she had removed lay about them, leaving the wounded pony lying like an oyster in a half-shell. His breathing was shallow, but somehow he had not succumbed to death.
The doctor, seeing Lee's gaping wound and the dangling flesh that should have been in its place, stopped to look her over. On noticing the metal of her skeleton within the gory mess, he turned from her to the ranger. "Lady, you are in no immediate danger, are you?" he asked as he began examining the other pony.
"I'll live, though a sterile location to repair the damage would be good. Once that has been dealt with, I'll be needing the assistance of yourself or one of your staff to stitch the flesh back together." Lee responded. "But what about this fellow here? Does he have a chance?"
"Weren't you and your friend the two who put him in this condition?" the doctor asked. "Why would you care what happens to him."
"I care because he is a living being," Lee responded. "A stupid, arrogant and greedy one, perhaps, but I will not hold that against him. Maybe he can learn from this and live a better life. It was my daughter who dealt with him, for doing this to me."
"And the other fellow?" the doctor asked, looking at the other fallen Steel Ranger, still fully dressed in his armor, lying in a large pool of darkening blood.
Lee shook her head sadly. "Unfortunately, I was the one who dealt with him, so he won't have that opportunity." Lee hated killing, and had since her escape from the stables. She did her utmost to avoid confrontation when she could. It wasn't always possible in world as foul as this. Several raiders and slavers alike had met their ends in confrontations with her and Anne. Anne's missing hoof was testament to one of the more recent encounters with a group of raiders who had lost all contact with decency. That time, Lee had chosen to saves the lives of ponies who had not yet fallen victim to the raiders by killing the raiders there and then. Despite what they had done to Anne, it had not been an act of revenge. They had been unable to recover the missing part of Anne's leg. In their travels they had yet to find anything they could use to replace it. That was one of the reasons behind their recent visit to Stable 2.
"Excuse me." the doctor said to Lee. "We will speak more later. Candi can assist you now." He indicated to the staff that he had brought with him that this was going to be the operating theatre, if this pony was to survive. Rapidly they converted the area into a makeshift surgery, and the doctor began his work.
*** *** ***
In the surgery a little while later, Lee lay on operating table while Anne adjusted the repaired parts she was fitting back into Lee's shoulder. Candi had already cleaned and sterilized Lee's wound, and was now assisting Anne with the procedure.
"Tell me," Candi began, "how did you two become cyborgs. You are both cyborgs aren't you?" she suddenly added glancing at Anne.
"We are, and we are also mother and daughter," Lee replied. "Until about fifteen years ago, we lived in one of the Ministry of Awesome's research and development stables, a stable populated by the descendants of a hand picked selection of scientifically inclined unicorns...."
*** *** ***
"This place has the worst safety record," Teresa thought to herself as she read the daily notices. Another unicorn had been critically injured while moving stores in the warehouse. Luckily for them, this stable had a well advanced cybernetics division, and so far every critically injured pony had been saved. Occasionally they only needed a new limb to be able to return to a satisfactory life, but usually their injuries were far too great, like this pony's. She had been crushed under a heavy crate, shattering shoulder bones, hip bones, and breaking many ribs. The only way to save her would be to go full conversion, a new cyber frame replacing all of the ponies bones and muscles. Inside the alloy frame, the pony's own vital organs would be placed, and there they would be much safer than in their original body.
Once healed, these ponies underwent rigorous physiotherapy and training, after which their body movements could not be distinguished from those of any ordinary pony's. They were, however, capable of so much more. They could run faster, jump higher, and excelled in martial arts, which was taught to them as a part of their rehabilitation. So successful were these conversions, that there had been a volunteer program for those who wished to be upgraded themselves. One entire graduate year of colts, and a number of their filly classmates had taken that option. A very vocal protest group objected to the practice, so after a year of constant rallying, they managed to get the bulk of stable residents behind them, and as a result, the volunteer program was scrapped. Teresa wondered how many of the accidents that had occurred since then were from ponies who were denied the chance to volunteer, and had taken the matter into their own hands.
Teresa was a successful scientist and inventor in her own right, being happily married to one of the senior stable administrators, and with a wonderful teenaged daughter. From this perspective, Teresa could not imagine why these ponies were doing such a thing to themselves. So far none of the female conversions had maintained their ability to have children. Perhaps their lives were not so happy, but to sacrifice so much for physical strength? Teresa sincerely hoped the way she had brought her daughter up, Anne would not voluntarily take part in the program, either officially or "by accident".
That evening Teresa's perfect life became the perfect nightmare. After work, Teresa meet up with Anne and the two headed around to her husband's office to see if he would be working late that night, or if he was free to eat out, not that eating out resulted in much difference to the available selection of food, but the change in atmosphere was always great. When they arrived, Teresa found her husband's work place was relatively deserted, which was not unexpected for that time of day. She could hear shreds of conversation coming from her husband's office so she and Anne walked over there to wait for him. As they got closer, the words became distinguishable.
"... but I say it again," Teresa's husband's voice rang out, "if we don't overturn the ban on conversions, we will fall irrevocably behind schedule. We are meant to have produced an army of cyborgs by now - not a bloody Pony Scouts group."
Teresa's eyebrows shot up at that. She had never heard her husband ever mention such a schedule before.
"We will have to revert to surreptitious harvesting of donors again," the Overmare's voice responded. "Perhaps an explosion at the next meeting of 'concerned citizens' would do the trick. And then we save their sorry asses using the very technology they object to."
Teresa did not like what she was hearing. The Overmare too? It seemed the Overmare and her husband were plotting terrorist activities. Who else was involved? So were these accidents really being orchestrated? Teresa sincerely hoped that what she was hearing was out of context. She looked around at Anne, who was standing there, frozen, wide eyed. That proved they had both heard the same thing. It was time to get out of here, Teresa thought to herself, gently nudging Anne with her nose. Anne didn't respond. Teresa tried pushing harder, whispering "we must get out of her now, Anne. Quickly!"
"That will take a little while to organize." the male voice stated. "If you were to announce that the policy was going up for review, maybe we can force them to meet again soon."
"That I can do. I will leave it to you to arrange the rest of the details." the Overmare stated.
"Allow me to see you out, Your Honor," Teresa's husband offered, opening the office door, surprised to find he had just revealed his wife and daughter, both of whom were staring at them with unbelieving eyes. "Horse apples." he said
Teresa's mouth dropped open, but no words came out. It was too late to run. Would her husband try to buy her silence? No, he knew her better than that Teresa realized. Internally she cringed momentarily for her own inevitable fate, before she realized there would be no mercy for their daughter either. That realization brought untold sorrow. "Sorry Anne," she whispered.
Keeping his wife and daughter fixed in his gaze the pony, levitated a gun from his open desk drawer. He fired twice.
The mare and filly collapsed to the floor one after the other. He returned the gun to his drawer and approached the two fallen mares, the Overmare beside him.
Teresa's pretty face had been marred by the bullet that had just passed though it and into her brain. Blood was trickling down her nose and onto the floor. Anne's spinal cord severed by the bullet that had punched through her neck, and she lay there spazming as the cut nerves sent spurious impulses to her body. Her eyes tried to seek out her father's face.
"Horse apples." Teresa's husband said again.
The Overmare poked Teresa with her hoof. "This one is still alive too," she stated, somewhat surprised. "That should temporarily deal with the shortage of appropriate ponies to convert."
*** *** ***
Lee finished her story as she watched the nurse wrapping bandages around her shoulder. It had taken a combination of Anne's unicorn magic and Candi's skill for the blood vessels in Lee's shoulder to be reconnected. Admittedly a doctor would usually have been called on for the procedure, but he was still busy with the fallen Steel Ranger. Now it was just a matter of allowing the healing potions to do their work in binding Lee's flesh back together.
"So how did you get out of there?" Candi asked. "and how come you didn't talk?"
"We went though the whole conversion program and then into the full training program along with several other ponies that had become victims around that time.." Lee explained. "At first we couldn't talk. It wasn't physically possible - or in my case, even mentally possible due to brain damage. I was starting out fresh - a blank slate. By the time we were rehabilitated enough to use our bodies, Anne been brain washed. After the training programs, we were good little cyborg soldiers, just like all the rest of the unwilling conversions. And that was when my brain decided to reconnect the missing memories. I was able to get though to Anne, and a few of the other victims. When the opportunity arose, Anne and I escaped. That part was relatively easy - they didn't expect it. And for the last fifteen years we've been wandering around the wasteland doing odd jobs."
"And your husband?" Candi asked.
"I don't know. He may be dead by now. Last I heard, someone blew up the stable." Lee shrugged, then regretted the action. "Ouch."
"You talk about it so casually," Candi observed. "Most ponies would be seething, plotting revenge, or bemoaning the unfairness of the world."
Lee shrugged again. "Ouch. Damn, I must stop doing that. Sure the world is unfair. Every pony should already know that from their own experiences. Whining about it won't change anything for the better. As for revenge, it wouldn't get back what was taken, would it? I prefer to get out there and try to make life better for others. Life is so much happier that way! By the way, where's Anne got to?"
Anne had vanished as soon as her input was no longer needed with Lee's repairs.
"She said she had some spoils of combat to collect." Candi explained.
Lee facehoofed - with her left fore hoof. Two shrugs had already alerted her to the sensitivity of her right shoulder. If she recalled correctly, the other party involved in Anne's combat was still lying in half of his armor undergoing surgery, and what Anne could possibly want with damaged magical power armor was beyond her. They couldn't use it. Lee eased herself off the operating table with Candi's assistance, and carefully limped out of the surgery. Not only did she have to mind her healing shoulder, but her two rear hooves were currently exposed cutting edges, and she was trying not to damage the floor. Exiting the building, her pace picked up slightly as she returned to the scene of the battle. The occasional local pony would nod their acknowledgement, which was a significant improvement from the indifference they had been displaying immediately after the fight.
Arriving at the scene, Lee could see Anne was talking to the yellow eyed ghoul, Ditzy Doo, as both were munching on something that was sitting on a small table between them. Nearby, the Doctor was directing his staff members as they carefully levitated the injured Steel Ranger, and began slowly walking in the direction from which Lee had just come. The ranger's armor still lay in pieces about the place. Though the second ranger was no longer anywhere to be seen.
"How is he, Doctor," Lee asked as the doctor passed, her eyes following the heavily bandaged stallion's progress towards the surgery.
"I was able to save him. He had broken ribs, a punctured lung, and severe bruising and burning to his side as well as numerous shrapnel wounds." the doctor explained. "It was a near thing though."
"Well, his rockets did blow up in their launcher, so that is not surprising," Lee responded. "What about his eyes?"
"He's lost one, but the other is uninjured. He'll be on his feet in no time. You may not wish to be here when that happens."
Lee almost shrugged again, stopping herself just in time. "He made a bad call he has to live with. If he didn't learn that this time, I will gladly give him another lesson, though preferably verbally. What about the other ranger?"
"He's been taken to the morgue until such a time as his friend or other Steel Rangers either collect him or make their wishes known."
Lee nodded, then with a slight nod of her nose indicated the doctor was free of the conversation, if he so wished. He nodded in return and walked off after his receding entourage. Lee returned her attention to her daughter, walking the short distance to where she and the ghoul were picnicking. "This is a somewhat unusual choice of pass time," she commented to Anne.
"Oh, Ditzy prepared us this victory feast of muffins." Anne explained. "Those Steel Rangers had been pestering her for some old Stable-tech that she has been saving up for the right moment. As far as Ditzy is concerned, old treasures are be to saved until they can help someone when no other alternative is possible, and not locked up as sacred artifacts by greedy museum keepers."
"Uh-huh." Lee said, nodding towards Ditzy. "And what is this I hear about spoils of combat?"
"The muffins!" Anne responded.
Lee let out a stifled laugh. As she did, the world began to fragment, images collapsing in on each other, sound degrading to bursts of white noise. Cybernetic failure?
*** *** ***
"Welcome back to the land of the living dead," Anne greeted her.
"Wha?" Lee managed, reaching up with her hand to.... hang on a moment? Where did her hoof go? For that matter, Anne appeared human now. "Oh, what the hell? First I think I'm a human that has just had her chest blown through, then I think I'm a cyborg pony. Now what?"
"Sorry Lee," Anne apologized, "but the whole pony thing was a virtual reality game. It was the only virtual reality I had available, and it was... damaged. It was probably very disorienting for you."
"So why were we in it?" Lee asked, still finding that this reality did not quite mesh with her memories of what had come before.
"I needed something to keep your mind active while...." Anne looked somewhat flustered.
"While what?" Lee demanded.
"While I transferred you to a new body - again." Anne admitted to her cyborg friend.
Lee glanced around her at the damaged equipment that surrounded them. Her ship was obviously in a very bad way. She wondered if it was still even space worthy. Those raiders really had made a mess of things.
Lee groaned. "Are you sure this is reality?" she asked Anne. "I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect I liked the pony world a little better."
*** *** ***