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Condense (ON HIATUS, PENDING REWRITE)

By ReggieSomething
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
27th August 2022 05:24:55 AM

  1. I'm going to rewrite this. I rushed a lot of things in here and the story suffers from it. Not sure on the timeline for rewriting. The synopsis and tone of the story will remain the same, but I'll take my time developing the relationship between Anon and Condense when I resume working on it.
  2.  
  3. Latest Update: Line 1260
  4.  
  5. Synopsis: Anonymous, a cybernetically-altered man, copes with the loss of his family in a distant post-apocalyptic future. Fate changes everything for him one night with the sudden arrival of Condense, a beautiful pony who can't remember who she is or how she came to Earth. With Anon's android components failing and Condense struggling to regain her memories and abilities, the unlikely duo must learn to trust in each other, lest their dangerous environment get the better of them. Follow Anon and Condense as they engage in a desperate race against time; fighting man, machine, and evil incarnate in a brutal world where nothing is ever as it seems.
  6.  
  7. Chapter 1
  8.  
  9. >April 1, 2463
  10. >
  11. >I'm going to do it.
  12. >For real this time.
  13. >
  14. >
  15. >Who am I kidding?
  16. >Guess I'm the fool today. Not that there's anyone around to point it out.
  17. >Who am I even writing this for? Myself?
  18. >I can't even reference my previous entries without cringing. Well, at least my entries following the Convergence.
  19. >It's funny how I continue to adhere to my old routine (at least, the parts of it that resources allow) as if nothing ever happened. It's like a compulsion; some ethereal motivator I cannot disobey. This can't be healthy.
  20. >I acknowledge it... why don't I act? Am I that terrified of change?
  21. >Nothing could be worse than what has already transpired.
  22. >
  23. >Resonance aftershocks have increased in the foothills. It's too soon to tell if they brought anything (or anyone) through with them.
  24. >Guess I'll have to increase my patrols, which means I'll have to get around to completing the repairs I've been neglecting.
  25. >With the increased dimensional instabilities come the EM bursts that my degraded shielding can't counter. My electropolymers are too sensitive to the interference. I may have to temporarily retrofit archaic servo motors to my leg while I find replacement shielding material.
  26. >What I wouldn't give for two hours in a synth regeneration tank. My leg would be indistinguishable from a natural one if I had access to that kind of tech.
  27. >The lab is an option. Plenty to be salvaged there. The journey is three days on foot- risky enough considering the state of my prosthetic.
  28. >
  29. >It's not worth the risk when considering the ever-present dangers of raiders... or those shapeshifters that sometimes come through the portals. My D.E. weapon systems are barely functioning as is.
  30. >But...
  31. >
  32. >
  33. >It would be nice to sleep peacefully for once. To go one night without my leg waking me up, spazzing uncontrollably in the wake of a transient EM storm. Nightmares notwithstanding.
  34. >Hell, it would be nice to have a lot of things; peace of mind, a friend.
  35. >Somebody special to hold at night.
  36. >I'd kill to talk with another friendly person; even an AI at this point.
  37. >
  38. >So much has irrevocably changed.
  39. >Look at me- I'm writing my journal entries ON PAPER! Like it's the twentieth century!
  40. >
  41. >
  42. >That's all I've got for today. More to come tomorrow.
  43. >
  44. >
  45. >Provided I don't go actually go through with it as soon as I set down this pen.
  46.  
  47. ...
  48.  
  49. >He capped the pen and set it down with deliberate, unnecessary precision. The notebook was closed in a similar fashion.
  50. >Electropolymers that interfaced with the remnants of his quadriceps clicked as they rolled over each other when he stood.
  51. >Ignoring the discomfort caused by the obsolete and degrading components, he brushed off his lap and reached towards his neck to straighten a tie he no longer wore; a tic from his previous life.
  52. >Turning his head, he looked up at the rope. It continued to dangle motionless from the exposed rafter, tied in a moment of anguish and summarily abandoned out of fear.
  53. >Several minutes had elapsed when he tore his eyes away from it.
  54. "Not today."
  55. >The pictures on the wall halted his exit from the study. Adoring eyes and beautiful, happy faces smiled at him from blissful days long gone, never to return.
  56. >The question he couldn't answer bubbled up to the surface of his turbulent, churning thoughts, refusing to be pushed back into the depths of his subconscious.
  57. "What am I holding on for?" he asked the empty house.
  58. >Flashes of blue light drew his attention towards the western-facing window. Ominous midnight blue storm clouds had advanced over the mountain range during his afternoon ritual, obscuring even the foothills.
  59. >His leg twitched.
  60. >It was going to be a long night.
  61.  
  62. ...
  63.  
  64. >Just a little further.
  65. >The mare galloped harder, pushing her battered body to the limit in a desperate attempt to evade the monsters that pursued her. A cacophony of buzzing wings filled the air.
  66. >Bolts of green light zipped past her head, impacting a tree to her eleven o'clock. The pine trunk erupted in a fiery green blast of magic and splintered wood.
  67. >Capturing the falling timber in her blue aura, she whipped her head aft, hurling the tree with devastating power. She dared not look back to see whether the effort had paid off, lest she run into another tree or trip on a rock.
  68. >Sure enough, screeches of agony joined the din.
  69. >Atta girl.
  70. >Just a little further.
  71. >Just a little further.
  72. >Bursting out of the forest in a blur of pink, purple, and yellow, she could see the breathtaking architecture of her home, a gleaming beacon of hope.
  73. >The relief that came with the sight of her domain vanished a moment later when the drones touched down fifty meters ahead, fangs bared, soulless eyes aglow.
  74. >Within three heartbeats, she was surrounded.
  75. >A thud behind her announced the arrival of the one she despised above all others.
  76. >"I've been waiting a long, long time for this," an unmistakable female voice hissed at her.
  77. >She spun around to face the newcomer, horn charging with a pale blue glow.
  78. >Thunderous eruptions broke out all around before either could attack. With them came shimmering holes in the ground and sky where their reality seemed to bleed together with that of another.
  79. >All she could do was scream as the spontaneous portals whisked them away without a trace.
  80.  
  81. ...
  82.  
  83. >*BOOM*
  84. >He jolted up from his pillow.
  85. >Muscle memory sent him rolling over the edge of his bed and returning to his feet with a directed energy weapon in hand.
  86. >His house rattled as the shock waves ripped through the landscape. Any concerns about a raider attack were assuaged when his leg began to spasm. The roving gangs used conventional explosives which didn't affect his temperamental prosthetic.
  87. >At least the spasms weren't bad enough to impede his mobility this time.
  88. >The blasts faded as quickly as they arrived. He stood rigid, not daring to move whilst he strained to distinguish any unusual sounds from the background noise.
  89. >Five minutes.
  90. >Ten minutes.
  91. >He relaxed his tensed muscles with a forceful exhalation. The pillow welcomed his head.
  92. >...
  93. >Was that...
  94. >*bzzzzzzz*
  95. "Oh, SHIT."
  96. >Leaping out of bed, he rushed for the antiquated rifle that rested in the corner.
  97. >The shapeshifters were resistant to directed energy bursts, but old-school copper-and-lead projectiles worked like a charm.
  98. >He pulled back the small charging handle and released it. The rifle's mechanical noises were soothing on some base level.
  99. >With any luck, the little demon horses would pay his modest homestead no mind and carry on in search of a group worth attacking.
  100. >Nevertheless, he laced up his boots in preparation for the worst. A 9mm handgun was secured next.
  101. >"Heeeeelllllp!" a female voice cried out above the buzzing.
  102. >Oh no.
  103. >The buzzing grew louder as did the pleas for assistance.
  104. >"Please, anypony! HELLLLLLP!"
  105. >Any...pony? Did he hear that right?
  106. >Beams of green light brought his attention back to the present, as did the renewed screams.
  107. >They were headed straight towards his house.
  108. >He forgot to turn off the porch light.
  109. "Jesus... Tittyfucking-"
  110. >"AAAAAAAAHHHH!"
  111. >His hands smashed the switches by the back door. Floodlights erupted to life after a moment's hesitation.
  112. >The sudden and drastic change in lighting effectively disoriented predators and prey, affording easy targets.
  113. >*BANG*
  114. >*BANG BANG BANG*
  115. >Fifteen shots had rang out before the drones were able to regroup. A pink mass in his peripheral vision had taken cover behind a pile of cinder blocks to his right.
  116. >*ca-chunk*
  117. >The rifle bolt locked open upon ejecting the last cartridge.
  118. >One drone remained. It's horn shone with sickly green light as it focused whatever arcane energy it was able to summon.
  119. >Time slowed.
  120. >He saw the green light hurtling directly towards him.
  121. >His hands discarded the rifle in a frantic attempt to draw the handgun from its holster.
  122. >A pink mass impacted his right side with tremendous force, knocking him down.
  123. >The green bolt harmlessly impacted the wall behind him and his mysterious savior.
  124. >Scrambling to his feet, he lined up the sights on the final drone, who was already charging its horn for another attack.
  125. >The bullet tore through its right eye. It crumpled to the ground with a thud, but not before releasing a half-charged blast from its horn.
  126. >He watched helplessly as the bolt sailed to his right. It traveled past him, past the unusually pink equine that looked at him with uncertainty.
  127. >Wait, what?
  128. >There was a small pink horse thing next to him. Its head came up to about his sternum, but its horn brought its total height close to his own.
  129. >Large, light purple irises gazed into his soul for what seemed like an eternity.
  130. >His perceived time dilation came to an abrupt halt when the green bolt that had missed them both ricocheted off the home's steel door.
  131. >The green energy's impact to the back of the pink winged unicorn's skull didn't seem to faze it at first.
  132. >It shook its head, eyes clearly having trouble focusing on him.
  133. "Holy shit, are you alright?"
  134. >He facepalmed loudly.
  135. "Why am I even talking to you? It's not like animals can-"
  136. >"I- Did they...who are-" it sputtered in a clearly-female voice.
  137. >He slowly looked down at the creature.
  138. >Their eyes met.
  139. >He screamed in a manly falsetto.
  140. >She screamed, pranced frantically in place, and summarily fainted.
  141. >Barren ground likewise kissed his face a heartbeat later.
  142.  
  143. ...
  144.  
  145. >A peal of thunder brought the man forth from his stupor. Cold spring raindrops kissed his skin with ever-increasing frequency.
  146. >Groaning, he sat up and took stock of his surroundings. Memories of recent events flooded back into mind upon seeing the shapeshifter corpses. They laid about in various contorted poses, as if they were toys that had been unceremoniously scattered by a child that had lost interest in playing with them.
  147. >Their bodily fluids and entrails painted the once-dull brown earth a neon green. Onyx hides gleamed in the harsh illumination provided by the floodlights.
  148. >His gaze turned to the pink equine that lay unconscious an arm's length away. It had saved him from the last shapeshifter's energy blast.
  149. "Right... talking horse."
  150. >It wasn't wise to leave the corpses out, lest they attract more unwanted attention. However, the imminent storm wouldn't afford him the time to properly dispose of them.
  151. >Rising with an uncertain wobble from his left leg, he holstered his handgun and picked up his rifle.
  152. "Hey," he said whilst giving the mare a gentle tap on her withers, "we need to get inside."
  153. >No response.
  154. >Sighing, he slung his rifle behind his back, then squatted down to the mare, taking care when working his hands and forearms underneath her barrel.
  155. 'She's lighter than I expected,' he mused. 'Somebody clearly spared no expense if they wanted her structural members made from a superalloy.'
  156. >He kicked the door closed behind him and made for the living room couch. Squatting down once more, he deposited the mare on the worn cushions. He took his time snaking his arms out from beneath her, so not to jostle his guest more than necessary.
  157. >A sense of urgency and brisk steps carried him back to the door. Efficient movements extinguished the outdoor floodlights and locked the door. Rectangular tubes, welded on both sides of the door frame, accepted a two-by-four through their openings, effectively barring the portal.
  158. >He took a lap around the ground floor of his home, ensuring all blinds were lowered and curtains closed.
  159. >Satisfied with the state of the house, he returned to his guest.
  160. >She was still unconscious.
  161. >He unslung his rifle and set it on the coffee table, then turned to examine the pink curiosity that laid on her back with her wings and legs hanging limply and spread, respectively.
  162. >The mane and tail were similar mixtures of purple, pink, and yellow. Large wings were pink at the leading edges, but displayed a darkening gradient of purple towards the tips of the primary feathers.
  163. >Most curious (notwithstanding the wings and horn) was the multifaceted sapphire heart that embellished the rump.
  164. >If her voice hadn't already indicated the nature of her sex, the unobstructed view of her anatomy left no doubt in the man's mind that this creature was indeed female.
  165. 'And what a female you are!' he mused. 'Such attention to detail... you must've costed millions!'
  166. >The slight, steady rhythmic rise and fall of her belly and torso alleviated his immediate concerns for her well being.
  167. "You poor thing," he said while daring to scratch behind her left ear, "those shapeshifter energy blasts are nothing to sneeze at; even a partially-charged one."
  168. >Curiosity compelled him to hurry downstairs. Standing alone among the clutter of boxes, motors, and electronic components was his workbench; a tidy, organized island in the sea of chaos that was his basement.
  169. >He found what he was looking for resting on said workbench. Faded italic words reading "Android Detection and Diagnostic Device" adorned the object's top edge.
  170. "Hello, old friend," he spat at the handheld device.
  171. >It didn't respond to the venom in his words; only to his fingers pressing its power button.
  172. >A soft sequence of electronic chirps joined the sounds of his footsteps in the staircase.
  173. >To his relief, the bubblegum-colored horse was still in the position he left her in. Android or not, the thought of asking permission to scan her made his skin crawl with anxiety.
  174. >What she doesn't know won't hurt her.
  175. >Right?
  176. >Extending his arm out, he pressed the "Scan" button on the device. It emitted a wide, flat curtain of lights from the end that was pointed towards the horse.
  177. >With practiced movements he methodically waved the scan tool, moving the light over every part of her body.
  178. >It beeped once he moved the light past her tail. He inspected the tool's display.
  179. >[SCANNING... COMPLETE]
  180. >[NO ANDROID COMPONENTS DETECTED]
  181. "No way."
  182. >He repeated the process on himself, sweeping the tool over his head, arms, and torso.
  183. >[NO ANDROID COMPONENTS DETECTED]
  184. "So far, so good."
  185. >His right leg came next; same result.
  186. >He swept the tool down his left leg. It began to beep a few centimeters above his knee. The man completed the motion down to his foot, then looked back at the device screen.
  187. >[ANDROID COMPONENTS DETECTED]
  188. "So it is working."
  189. >No sooner did the words leave his mouth did their implications make his blood run cold.
  190. "Jesus Christ... you're a synth."
  191. >He stared at her in disbelief.
  192. "Who the hell created you? Where-"
  193. >Two beeps from the scanner disrupted his thoughts.
  194. >[VIEW RESULTS?]
  195. >He looked at the scanner, shifted his gaze to the horse, then looked back to the scanner again.
  196. "Sure, why not? It's been a while since I ran a diagnostic on myself."
  197. >[COMPONENTS: ASSY, LOWER LEG, LEFT, W/ PATELLA, MK. IV]
  198. >[MFG: RMPS TECHNOLOGIES- ADVANCED APPLICATIONS GROUP]
  199. >[LATEST FIRMWARE UPDATE: 4 JUL 2061]
  200. >[WARNING! EM SHIELDING INTEGRITY: 15%]
  201. >[WARNING! AVG. EP STRAND INTEGRITY: 45%]
  202. "Psh," he scoffed, lowering the device. "Tell me something I didn't know."
  203. >*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
  204. >[WARNING! ESTIMATED REMAINING POWER CELL LIFE: 2 MONTHS, 2 WEEKS, 5 DAYS]
  205. >[*** REPLACE POWER CELL IMMEDIATELY ***]
  206. >That was a new one.
  207. >His eyes widened.
  208. "Two and a half months? I had a year remaining when I checked it in March!"
  209. >He dropped the handheld bearer of bad news onto the coffee table. It clattered against the wooden surface and the rifle that rested upon it before coming to a rest.
  210. >His visitor began to groan and stir.
  211. >She opened her eyes and grimaced when she raised her head.
  212. >Their eyes met for the second time.
  213. >She gasped, and attempted to scramble backwards away from him.
  214. "Waitwaitwait! Hold on! I'm not gonna hurt you!"
  215. >She froze, but narrowed her eyes.
  216. >"Who are you?"
  217. "My name's Anonymous, but you can call me Anon."
  218. >"What are you?"
  219. >Anonymous gave her a quizzical look.
  220. "I'm a human, of course! What else would I be?"
  221. >"Where am I?"
  222. "In my house."
  223. >"Where is your house?"
  224. "Roughly seventy-five kilometers north of Denver, in the vast territory formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Autonomous Zone."
  225. >She responded with a blank stare.
  226. "Not ringing any bells?"
  227. >Her long, multicolored mane whipped to and fro with vigorous head shakes.
  228. "What's your name?"
  229. >Her impossibly-large purple eyes widened.
  230. >"My... name? My name..."
  231. >She looked around the room, noting the locations of the door and windows.
  232. "Easy now. Stay with me."
  233. >"I- I can't remember!"
  234. >Her breathing quickened.
  235. >"I've never heard of this place!" she screamed, rising to her hooves. "I've never even seen a creature like you before!"
  236. >She paced along the length of the couch a few times before returning her gaze to Anonymous.
  237. >"How did I get here!?"
  238. >Anonymous saw her heaving chest and took the initiative. He sat down next to her. She fell into his outstretched arms and buried her face in his shoulder.
  239. "Shhh... it'll be okay," he whispered into her right ear. "You took a nasty shot to the head earlier. I'm sure everything will come back to you in time."
  240. >He held the mare in his embrace until she regained control of her breathing. She exhaled loudly and relaxed in his arms.
  241. "Better?"
  242. >"Yeah. Thank you."
  243. "Of course, though, I should be thanking you."
  244. >She looked up into his eyes again. "Why's that?"
  245. >Anon frowned.
  246. "You don't remember?"
  247. >Another head shake.
  248. "What do you remember?"
  249. >Her muzzle scrunched. "I remember... running. I was being chased."
  250. "Shapeshifters."
  251. >"What?"
  252. "Shapeshifters. You were being chased by shapeshifters. Led 'em straight to my doorstep."
  253. >"I'm not sure what 'shapeshifters' are."
  254. >An explosion of thunder shook the house, startling the mare into hiding her face again.
  255. "I would take you outside and show you," he chuckled, running his fingers through her mane, "but it'd be best to wait until morning, after the storm has passed."
  256. >She pulled away from his embrace again and studied the strange, kind creature that had taken her into his home.
  257. >Thick, wavy jet black locks, accented with a fair amount of silver stands, covered his head. He had a week's worth of salt-and-pepper stubble on his face. The emergent beard, coupled with two scars- one above his right eyebrow, the other over his left cheekbone, gave the man a rugged, but world-weary look.
  258. >Distinct facial features aside, it was the man's eyes that captivated the mare. They were a brilliant light blue. They seemed too bright, too intense a tint of blue, for a creature with otherwise subdued coloring. It was as if his eyes could emanate light from their crystalline surfaces at any moment.
  259. >'There's more to you than meets the eye,' she thought to herself, amused with her pun.
  260. >She felt a twinge of embarrassment upon realizing that he had continued to speak whilst she ogled him.
  261. "-nasty little buggers. They're built kinda like you, what with the horn and wings and all-"
  262. >An involuntary frown danced across her muzzle.
  263. "-but they're smaller... and nowhere near as pretty as you, if I'm being completely honest."
  264. >She looked away, hoping to prevent a blush from taking root in her cheeks.
  265. >No dice.
  266. >He cleared his throat and continued.
  267. "Anyway, shapeshifters prefer to hunt in swarms, but will disguise themselves by literally changing their shape if they're alone. Never seen anything like it before. They feed off some from of energy from people and animals. Nobody really understands them."
  268. >"That sounds awful. I'm- I'm sorry that I led them to your house."
  269. "Don't worry about it," he said with a faint smile. "I dispatched them before they could do too much damage."
  270. >"I think I remember... oh," she mumbled with a fresh blush. "Did... did I push you earlier?"
  271. >Anonymous threw back his head and laughed. The mare covered her face with a hoof.
  272. "Yes. Yes you did. Like I said earlier, I should be thanking you. You saved my ass back there. Who knows what that energy blast would've done to me."
  273. >"Did I hurt you?"
  274. "Naw. I'm fine."
  275. >"Thank goodness."
  276. >They studied each other for a tense few moments, neither sure what to say to the other.
  277. "So," Anon said, breaking the silence, "you got a name, mystery horse?'
  278. >She frowned at the man. "Pony."
  279. "Huh?"
  280. >"I'm a pony."
  281. >Anonymous gave her The People's Eyebrow.
  282. "I've never seen a pony with a horn or wings before."
  283. >"I'm an alicorn," she said proudly, spreading her wings for emphasis.
  284. >She hissed and grimaced, retracting her wings to her barrel before they could spread to their impressive full span.
  285. "What's wrong?"
  286. >"My left wing... I must've hurt it somehow."
  287. "What do you need for it?"
  288. >"Not sure. Hopefully it's nothing more than a simple sprain. Guess I won't be flying for a few days."
  289. >Anon's gaping mouth made her giggle in spite of her pain.
  290. "You can FLY?"
  291. >"Of course I can, silly!" she giggled. "Did you think these big things were just for decoration?"
  292. "Um, yeah?"
  293. >The man's dumbfounded demeanor sent the mare further into a giggling fit, which eventually rubbed off on Anonymous.
  294. "So," Anonymous continued after his laughs subsided, "you know what you are, you know you can fly... Do you remember who you are yet?"
  295. >She scrunched her muzzle and stared at the carpet.
  296. >"My name is... Mia, no... Armor? No, that's not right..."
  297. "It's okay, take your time."
  298. >"... C-Cay? C-can... con... dance... dense? Con... dense?"
  299. "Cawn-dense?"
  300. >She tilted her head. "I think so?"
  301. "You don't sound so sure."
  302. >"I don't feel too sure."
  303. >Silence reigned again in the living room.
  304. "Well," Anon spoke up. "I refuse to call you 'Pony' -it seems rude- so, 'Condense' it is. At least, until you remember your real name."
  305. >She sighed.
  306. >"Okay, Anon."
  307. >Anon tentatively rested a hand on Condense's withers.
  308. "Can you remember anything else about yourself? Where you're from and all that?"
  309. >Condense shook her head again, then winced.
  310. "Easy now. You want me get you some ice or something for your head?"
  311. >"No. I just want to rest for a while," Condense responded softly. "I'm really tired."
  312. "Right. Well, I'll let you be for now. It's late anyway. Help yourself to the throw pillows and the blanket that's on the back of the couch."
  313. >Condense watched Anon stand to his full height. He bent down to grab a strange black object from the table. She figured it to be some sort of weapon.
  314. >Anonymous had taken two steps away before a panicked, "Wait! Where are you going?" stopped him in his tracks.
  315. "To my room?" he replied, spinning on his good foot.
  316. >Condense looked around the living room.
  317. >"Where's that?"
  318. "Up those stairs, third door on the right," he said, pointing with his left hand. "Come get me if you need anything."
  319. >"Oh. O-Okay..."
  320. "Goodnight, Condense."
  321. >"Goodnight," she sighed.
  322. >Anonymous shuffled up the stairs, rounded the corner and passed through his doorway. He pawed at the door as he passed through. It swung, but didn't latch shut.
  323. >Stopping by a wooden trunk in the corner adjacent to his bed, Anon ejected the spent magazine from his rifle. He slammed a fresh magazine in the well and released the rifle's bolt. After ensuring the weapon had successfully chambered a round, the checked the safety, then finally stood it in the corner, muzzle facing the ceiling.
  324. >The handgun came next. He unholstered and reloaded the weapon, setting it to rest in his nightstand drawer.
  325. >Anon stripped down to his drawers and flopped into bed. The room automatically switched off the main light and activated the lamp on his nightstand.
  326. >He laid motionless in silence, staring at the ceiling. His eyes danced from the painted handprints on the cieling and the names that accompanied them
  327. >Mama
  328. >Daddy
  329. >Daniel
  330. >Catherine
  331. >He continued to stare after his vision grew blurry.
  332. "I'm so sorry I couldn't do more" he whispered to the names.
  333. >Anon's thoughts inevitably returned to that fateful day. He clenched his jaw and pulled at his hair to force his mind away from that nightmare before it could consume him again.
  334. >He eventually reflected on Condense.
  335. >Who made her, and for what purpose? Where did she come from?
  336. >Sleep crept upon him before he could turn off his lamp.
  337. >He laid silently for some time.
  338. >Then his leg began to twitch.
  339. >Unbeknownst to Anonymous, he talked in his sleep. His voice carried out of his room on occasion.
  340. >The bedroom door creaked open.
  341. >Plush carpet muffled Condense's approaching steps, allowing her to reach Anon's bedside undetected. She studied his features in the dim light of the nightstand lamp.
  342. >Anon shot up to a sitting position. His unfocused eyes looked around the room.
  343. "What's wrong with me?"
  344. >Condense froze.
  345. "Why don't you want me anymore?" Anon mumbled, then flopped back onto his pillow.
  346. >Condense tilted her head.
  347. >Anon began to snore. His leg twitching resumed; more intense than before.
  348. >"Shhh," Condense whispered. She placed a hoof on his unusually-cold bare leg. The twitching ceased.
  349. >She caressed his face with purple-tipped primary feathers and his sleeping expression became serene.
  350. >Condense ceased her contact with Anon and turned for the door. He began to twitch again.
  351. >Frowning, Condense looked at Anon, to the door, and back to Anon.
  352. >The mattress absorbed most of her movements as she crawled beside her mysterious savior.
  353. >With her barrel pressed firmly against Anon's side, Condense unfurled her uninjured right wing and brought it to rest around Anon's torso.
  354. >"Sweet dreams, Anonymous," she whispered.
  355. >"Thank you for saving me."
  356.  
  357. ...
  358.  
  359. >Cold.
  360. >Wet.
  361. >Alone.
  362. >Lightning danced overhead, providing milliseconds of illumination for the disoriented Changeling queen. Thunder followed less than a second later, shaking her out of her stupor.
  363. >She wiped her rain-soaked mane from her face and rose to her full height on shaky legs.
  364. >Something felt different; wrong even.
  365. >The ambient magic of her surroundings was substantially lower than any place she'd been in Equestria.
  366. >Subsequent lightning strikes revealed rugged mountains towering around her. Could she have been deposited in the Crystal Mountains? The Yaket Range, perhaps?
  367. >She felt a vibration in the ground. A low, droning growl and moving lights announced the approach of some unknown entity.
  368. >Taking cover behind a nearby boulder, she watched a semi truck hurtle past.
  369. "What in Tartarus is that?" she asked aloud.
  370. >Wishing to track the truck's progress, she flew to the top of the nearest hill. To the east, she could make out other lights moving in the distance, as well as several static lights further away.
  371. >Realization hit like a charging yak.
  372. "This isn't Equestria."
  373. >How did she get here?
  374. >With a furrowed brow and shut eyes, she tried to recall her last memories before waking in this magic-forsaken place.
  375. >There were bright lights, thunderous blasts, and the terrifying sensation of being pulled somewhere against her will.
  376. >Before that, there was pink...
  377. "That BITCH," the changeling growled. "She'll pay for this!"
  378. >She paced back and forth along the pine-studded ridgeline until her rage subsided.
  379. >Lighting her horn, she passively searched her new environment for food sources, and for her drones.
  380. >Love was even more scarce than magic in this mountainous landscape.
  381. >To her relief, there were dozens of drones scattered about, but in small packs, and far away.
  382. >Still, they were closer than the faint traces of love she detected.
  383. >That was another disturbing absence she finally was able to qualify; no hivemind. The drones were too few, too scattered, and too disorganized to form a proper hive.
  384. >No sooner did the thought cross her mind, did a foreign presence invade her mind.
  385. >If was distant and faint, but unmistakable.
  386. >One of her drones was calling any and all changelings to itself. It was trying to rally and organize the others as a fledgling protoqueen.
  387. >She hissed and spat on the ground.
  388. "We'll see about THAT."
  389.  
  390. ...
  391.  
  392. >Sunlight warmed Anon's face and gradually roused him from slumber.
  393. >It was strange, to wake after sunrise. He hadn't done so since before the Convergence.
  394. >For the first time in years, his sleep was dreamless, instead of plagued by recurring nightmares.
  395. >Lack of dreams notwithstanding, his sleep was characterized by a new quality. It was a comforting, kind presence that made him feel as if he was being hugged.
  396. >0830.
  397. >Anon let out a low whistle of amazement at his nightstand clock. Truly, he'd been out like a light.
  398. >He rubbed his eyes, then sat up. Something fell off his chest, landing on the bunched white sheet that covered his lap.
  399. >A small pink feather.
  400. >Pinching the quill, Anon brought the feather closer to his eyes for inspection.
  401. 'Yup, it's a pink feather! Good work everyone, let's go home!'
  402. >Anon sniggered at his cheesy internal monologue and looked at the depression in the bed beside him.
  403. >A few short pink hairs littered the sheet's otherwise unblemished surface, as did a long purple strand.
  404. >Curiosity compelled him to bring his face to the sheet.
  405. >A faint, unfamiliar scent lingered on the fabric. There was a hint of sweat, and something he didn't immediately recognize.
  406. >'Musk' probably wasn't the proper word. It wasn't unpleasant, just different than anything he'd experienced.
  407. >Whatever it was, the scent had a quality that Anon could only classify as "feminine".
  408. >It was nice; comforting, even.
  409. >Anon sat back up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He pulled his nightstand drawer open and placed the feather inside.
  410. >Memories of the previous night consumed his mind as he trudged towards his bedroom door.
  411. >Condense.
  412. >Opening his door, Anon began to ponder what to do about his unusual new guest when a smiling face with unusually-large purple eyes appeared inches from his own.
  413. >"HI ANON!"
  414. >Anonymous lurched backwards, flailing his arms as he tried to regain his balance
  415. "Ah, TITS!" he yelped as he crashed ass-first onto his carpeted floor.
  416. >Condense giggled.
  417. >"Good mor-niiiing!" she sang. "How did you sleep?"
  418. >Anonymous looked up at the pony in bewilderment. He tried to scowl at her while he caught his breath, but it was hopeless to feign displeasure with that cheerful, pretty face.
  419. "Surprisingly well," he answered before giving her a very slight, sly smile. "How did the couch treat you?"
  420. >Condense's smile flickered.
  421. >"Yeah, um... the couch! Good! It was good!"
  422. >Anon cocked an eyebrow.
  423. "Is that so?"
  424. >Condense nodded several times. "Yep! I was so tired, I probably could've laid on a rock and been out cold."
  425. "I know what you mean," Anon replied as he stood up. "It's funny, I slept better last night than I have in years."
  426. >"Aww, I'm glad to hear that!"
  427. "Yeah, it was so weird... I didn't have any nightmares for once. Just dreamless sleep, and the feeling like I was being hugged."
  428. >Condense chuckled and shifted her weight from side to side.
  429. >"Anon? I uh, need to tell you something..."
  430. "Yesssss?" he replied with a cheeky smile.
  431. >"I need to use the little fillies' room," Condense said with a sheepish smile. "Humans do have bathrooms, right?"
  432. "Oh!" Anon replied, chuckling. "Yes, we do. Right behind you. Meet me downstairs when you're done and I'll give you a proper tour of the place."
  433. >"Great!"
  434. >Anon left the pony to her business and headed downstairs to the living room, his brow furrowed.
  435. 'Fully-functioning digestive tract,' he thought. 'She can fly, apparently. No reason to think the lady bits I saw last night weren't the real deal.'
  436. >He plopped onto the couch.
  437. 'Need to investigate the purpose of that big-ass horn. For all her complexity, there's no way it's for decoration.'
  438. >The faint sounds of a toilet flushing reached his ears.
  439. 'Tour first, then dispose of the corpses, and then...'
  440. >Pink appeared in Anon's upper peripheral vision. His eyes traveled up to follow Condense, who trotted across the landing and down the stairs. A faint smile was still present on her face.
  441. 'And then I'm going to figure out who made you, and why.'
  442.  
  443. ...
  444.  
  445. >The stretch of Highway 93 between Golden and New Boulder remained mostly uninhabited for centuries, but not for a lack of trying.
  446. >In fact, several communities had sprung up between the two historic cities in the early twenty-first century.
  447. >Breathtaking views of rugged, snow-capped peaks to the west commanded premium real estate prices at the time.
  448. >The vista also became the backdrop to some of the bloodiest conflicts of the War of Western Seccession.
  449. >Following their hard-earned victory, the government of the Rocky Mountain Autonomous Zone elected to employ new terraforming technology to erase the scars of war from the landscape.
  450. >Citizens were forbidden from building any permanent structures in the restored area. The official reason was to "give the land back to Mother Nature".
  451. >As for the real reason, that was anyone's guess.
  452. >A lone house sat upon a hilltop a few kilometers from the edge of this area. Its ostentatious architecture and decor was a throwback to days of wealth and prosperity long gone.
  453. >The house, built on a hundred-acre lot, afforded its owner all the privacy he could want. Automated defense turrets made the property a veritable fortress in the chaos following the Convergence.
  454. >But no machine is immune to failure, especially when repeatedly exposed to the effects of spontaneous inter-dimensional rifts.
  455. >Tony was a brilliant man, but placed too much faith in technology.
  456. >Now he paid the price, becoming a prisoner in his own home.
  457. >Bathed in sickly yellow light from a single overhead lamp, he struggled against his restraints.
  458. >He turned his head wildly to catch a glimpse of his captor, who circled him in the shadows.
  459. >"Come now, Tony. This can be over now, or I can continue for... well, let's hope it doesn't come to that."
  460. >Tony's strained against his restraints. His reply was muffled by the gag.
  461. >"Ah, my apologies Mister Bowhannon," Tony's captor murmured as he untied the gag. "You were saying?"
  462. "Please! N-no m-m-more!" Tony sobbed.
  463. >*SLAP*
  464. >"For God's sake, have some respect for yourself, man!" the captor growled. "It's simple- you help me out, and this all ends."
  465. >Tony held his breath and tried to contain his emotions.
  466. "Why are you doing this?" he managed to choke out.
  467. >The tormentor finally stepped into the light. He removed his padded gloves and long-sleeved shirt.
  468. >"Why do you think I'm doing this?" he spat.
  469. >Tony's face went pale.
  470. "I-I-I don't know why you came to me!"
  471. >Mechanical clicks and whirs reached Tony's ears when his captor lunged forward.
  472. >"These are RMPS parts... YOUR parts!" he roared. "I expect you to fix me!"
  473. "B-b-but... I'm not an android expert! I ran their synth program!"
  474. >"Wrong answer, chump."
  475. >Skinless robotic hands picked up a pair of pliers and snapped their jaws.
  476. "WAIT!"
  477. >"Yessss?"
  478. "I know who can help you!"
  479. >That earned Tony an exaggerated sweet smile.
  480. >"I'm listening."
  481. "deTerra... He ran our android department in the Advanced Applications Group. If anyone could fix you, it'd be him."
  482. >"There! Was that so hard?"
  483. >Cold metal fingers gently patted Tony's shoulder.
  484. >Moments later, the captor snapped the thin ropes securing Tony to his chair with minimal effort.
  485. >"Clean yourself up, Mister Bowhannon, and get packed. You're going to take me to him."
  486. >Tony bowed his head.
  487. "I'm sorry, Anon," he whimpered.
  488.  
  489. ...
  490.  
  491. >"You gonna be okay?" Anon asked as he chucked the last corpse into the incinerator.
  492. >Condense gave Anon a slow, silent nod.
  493. >Her smile was long gone.
  494. >The sight of the dead "shapeshifters" stirred up something deep within her. Their grotesque, lifeless bodies exhumed feelings of fear, loss, and rage.
  495. >Further compounding her emotional turmoil was the frustrating inability to recall any relevant memories regarding these creatures.
  496. >She knew they were relentless, cunning parasites.
  497. >But how did she know that?
  498. >Condense snorted, flicked her tail like a whip, and dug angrily at the ground with her right forehoof.
  499. >Anon took great care to close the incinerator's hatch as quietly as possible. He watched his new pink housemate pace in a small circle; alternating between clockwise and counterclockwise paths.
  500. >"Condense?"
  501. >There had to be more to these little black abominations.
  502. >"Condense."
  503. >The longer she looked at them, the more she felt the urge to scream. No, more than that...
  504. >"Con-dense."
  505. >...she wanted to hurt them. To hunt them down and make them suffer the way they made her suffer.
  506. >Wait, what?
  507. 'What did they do to me?' she wondered.
  508. >"HEY!"
  509. >Condense jolted to a stop and peered up at a concerned-looking Anon.
  510. "Huh?"
  511. >Anon approached her with cautious steps and his hands slightly raised. "Are you alright, pretty girl?"
  512. >The mare sighed and let her wings droop slightly.
  513. "Yeah, I'll be fine."
  514. >"You sure about that?"
  515. "I don't know," she admitted while kicking the ground with a foreleg.
  516. >Anonymous dropped to a crouch before her.
  517. >"Look," he said after getting on eye-level with her. "Whatever's bothering you, we can talk about it to your heart's content. But right now, we should get inside."
  518. >The man stood to his full height. Condense's gaze lingered on the mountains to the west, but Anon's gentle touch to the back of her neck soon coaxed her towards the house.
  519. >Anon shut the door behind them.
  520. >They had barely crossed the threshold when a yellow light that blinked on a wall-mounted glass screen caught Anon's attention.
  521. >Condense watched Anon hustle over to the screen and tap it with a finger. It came to life, displaying bright, colorful pictures on its surface.
  522. >It was hard to tell from her vantage point, but she believed Anon was looking at a map.
  523. >"Aw, shit."
  524. >The tone of his voice made her ears flatten against her head.
  525. "Anon? What's wrong?"
  526. >"What's wrong," Anon began as he spun around, revealing a grim face, "is I haven't been paying attention to the weather reports for several days."
  527. >Condense gestured towards the screen with her uninjured wing.
  528. "These reports... what did they say?"
  529. >Anon motioned for her to follow him, then jogged upstairs.
  530. >"They say we're due to get a meter of snow over the next four days," he called over his shoulder. "And more next week."
  531. "Really?" Condense asked as she followed Anon into his room.
  532. >"Yeah. Maria always said that March and April are historically the snowiest months in Colorado."
  533. "Who's Maria?" Condense asked, tilting her head.
  534. >Anon bowed his head. "My late wife," he murmured.
  535. >Condense rushed up to Anonymous and stroked his back with her right wing.
  536. "I'm so sorry, I-"
  537. >"It's okay... you didn't know."
  538. >Her host moved to the corner of the room and picked up the long black weapon from last night. He checked the rifle's chamber, then moved to his closet.
  539. "Anon, what are you doing?"
  540. >Her voice was saturated with concern.
  541. "What's that weapon for? Are you expecting more trouble?"
  542. >"I never leave the house without a gun," he said whilst raising his shirt to reveal a handgun holstered in his waistband.
  543. "So why do you need another one?"
  544. >Anon set his rifle down and began to put on body armor over his torso. Condense watched intently as he fitted protective gear over his forearms and legs. A helmet completed the ensemble. It completely covered Anon's head, and the visor was opaque, hiding his steely blue eyes from Condense's view.
  545. >Fully kitted up with armor, ammunition, and weapons, Anonymous was unrecognizable. Condense couldn't help that her ears flattened as she looked him over.
  546. >"I need to patrol the perimeter of my property, and you can never have enough firepower." Anon's voice called from his helmet. It was slightly distorted from the helmet's speakers, giving it a robotic quality.
  547. "Why?"
  548. >Anonymous motioned for Condense to follow him. He led her out of his bedroom and back to the main floor.
  549. >"It's something I do every day," he said over his shoulder. "I check on the sensors that track movement within the area. I also have a single automated defense turret that covers the only road in and out of the place. Gotta make sure it's functioning properly."
  550. >Condense ran in front of Anon to block his exit. She grimaced as she attempted to flare both of her wings out. The right extended fully, the left, she could only partially extend. Nevertheless, Condense maintained her posture in spite of her pain.
  551. "Let me come with you! I can help! I-I'll watch your back!"
  552. >An amused chuckle escaped Anon's helmet speakers. He removed his helmet and kneeled before the mare.
  553. >"Look at me," he said softly as he reached to scratch behind her ears. "What do you notice about what I'm wearing?"
  554. >Condense leaned into his touch and retracted her wings.
  555. "Hmmm... it makes you look scary?"
  556. >"Ha! Besides that. What do you notice about the colors of my clothes and armor?"
  557. "They're a dull mix of browns, greens, and, oh... I understand now. It's camouflage."
  558. >Anon gave her dual finger guns and clicked his tongue in affirmation.
  559. >"Exactly. I can blend in easily enough with the foliage. You on the other hand..."
  560. >He waved a hand over her coat, mane, and tail.
  561. >"...Your colors are bright. Vibrant. They'd make you stand out about as much as possible against the terrain."
  562. >Condense frowned.
  563. >"Hey, don't get me wrong, I think you've got a lovely color scheme."
  564. >That earned him a demure smile and a blush.
  565. >"But a beautiful thing like you-"
  566. >[Blush intensifies]
  567. >"- could attract all sorts of attention that you REALLY wouldn't want. Trust me. There are some baaaad dudes out there. Not as common as the months immediately following the Convergence, but they still come around from time to time."
  568. "Okay..." Condense replied with a pout.
  569. >Anon stood up and re-donned his helmet.
  570. "Hey, Anon?"
  571. >"Yeah?"
  572. "What's the 'Convergence'? I've heard you mention it a few times now."
  573. >Anon's body jolted as if he'd just been shot in the gut. Are you serious?" his incredulous robotic voice answered. "'The Five Minute Convergence'? 'Einstein's Boogaloo'? 'God's Great Eraser'? 'Your One-Way Ticket to Midnight?'"
  574. >[spoiler]CALLLLL IT...HEA-VY ME-TAL[/spoiler]
  575. >Condense scrunched her muzzle and tilted her head.
  576. >"You seriously don't know?"
  577. "Should I?"
  578. >A gloved palm slapped Anon's helmet visor. "Jeeeeeez-usssssss."
  579. "I'm sorry, A-Anon," Condense stammered, "I didn't mean to offend you!"
  580. >Anon waved his hands to dispel Condense's concern as if it was a fog that hung around them. "Hey, don't worry about it."
  581. >He shrugged.
  582. >"It's probably something you've forgotten due to that energy blast you took to the head last night."
  583. >Condense's expression soured in a heartbeat.
  584. "Yeah..."
  585. >"Speaking of, has anything else come back to you?"
  586. >She shook her head. Her mane swept around her face like a multicolored curtain.
  587. >"Give it time. I'm sure your memories will return."
  588. >Anon's hand gently coaxed Condense away from the door. "I should be back in a couple hours."
  589. "What should I do while you're gone?"
  590. >"Feel free to shower, take a nap, or read any of the books I have. Anything in the fridge is fair game."
  591. >Purple-tinged primary feathers wrapped around Anon's gloved hand. He was amazed at their dexterity.
  592. "Please be careful..."
  593. >"I'll try to stay out of trouble," he replied, chortling.
  594. "Anon, I'm serious!" she exclaimed with a hoof stomp.
  595. >Her shimmering purple eyes attempted to pierce through Anon's opaque visor.
  596. "I can't remember where I came from, let alone my real name. I don't know anything about this place, I'm injured..."
  597. >She wiped her eyes with her good wing, then leapt to wrap her forelegs around Anon's torso. His rifle, magazines, and armor dug into her flesh, but she squeezed him tightly in spite of them.
  598. "Please... you're all I have," she whispered into his neck.
  599. >Anon froze.
  600. >Condense held onto him with surprising strength and didn't relent until he returned her embrace.
  601. >His fingers lifted her chin, and for a moment, Condense thought she could see his brilliant eyes shining through his helmet visor.
  602. >"I'll be back before you know it. And when I do, I'll move the boxes out of the guest room and get you settled. Make this place feel like a proper home for you."
  603. >He backed away and waved.
  604. >"Okay, honey?" he called through his helmet; sarcasm detectable in his distorted voice.
  605. >Condense gave an exaggerated smile and blew a kiss in response.
  606. "Mwah! Don't keep me wait-iiing, Mister!" she sang.
  607. >"Yes, ma'am!"
  608. >Condense stifled a giggle, then returned indoors. She recalled Anon's instructions from her tour of the house that morning, and pressed an orange button near the door frame.
  609. >A glass screen above the button flashed to life, displaying the words, "HOUSE LOCKDOWN PROTOCOL: PATROL".
  610. "Now we wait."
  611. >She trotted to the couch and plopped down with a sigh.
  612. >For a while, she laid there in silence with her muzzle scrunched in concentration as she tried to recall anything before the previous night.
  613. >Condense knew there were five different types of ponies, and that she was an Alicorn, the most rare of them all.
  614. >Magic.
  615. "MAGIC!" She shouted, jumping to her hooves. "I can do magic!"
  616. >A faint chiming sound filled the air as she lit her horn. Condense focused on the blanket that lay draped over the back of the couch. With some effort, she was able to envelop it in a sky-blue aura, which flickered as it pulled the blanket up.
  617. >The blanket traveled halfway to Condense before her spell gave out. It dropped onto the floor.
  618. >Condense frowned. Telekinesis was the most basic form of magic!
  619. >Over the course of the next hour, Condense groaned, grunted, and snorted as she struggled to remember the basics of her magic.
  620. >By the time she was able to consistently pick up the blanket and tie it around her like a cloak, she was exhausted.
  621. >She flopped back onto the couch and curled up in a ball, warm and cozy in her impromptu clothing.
  622. "Foal steps," she muttered between yawns. "Foal steps..."
  623. >When Anonymous returned to the house, Condense was sawing logs.
  624. >Anon struggled to contain his laughter as he looked at the adorable equine. Her mouth hung open and her legs were splayed out, hanging halfway over the edge of the couch.
  625. >Even more amusing was the fact that she had tied a blanket around her neck like a cape.
  626. >'How did you do that?' he wondered.
  627. >The man tiptoed up the stairs to his room. He took great care to remove his armor and stow his gear as quietly as possible, and then crept into the master bathroom.
  628. >After a quick shower, Anon was dressed in a plain t-shirt and running shorts. He peeked out of bedroom door and saw that Condense hadn't moved.
  629. >'Damn, girl, they're gonna hear you in Cheyenne,' he thought while grinning at the snoring mare.
  630. >Tiptoeing to his study, Anon booted up his computer and mouthed a silent prayer as he tried to access the net.
  631. >Even though telecommunication networks had been operating and maintaining themselves autonomously for a century prior to the Convergence, reliability had been spotty at best since the cataclysmic event.
  632. >"Yessss!" he hissed as he pumped his fist.
  633. >Anonymous frantically searched the terms "robotic companions", "synthetic partners", and every variant of "android/synthetic pony" he could think of.
  634. >He went down a rabbit hole of search results, ultimately discovering a children's web show episode from twenty years ago.
  635. >"My Petite Pony, My Petite Pony..." a cheerful woman's voice sang through his speakers.
  636. >"Come a-long, it's time to play..."
  637. >Scenes of castles and villages surrounded by pristine wilderness flashed across the screen.
  638. >"My Petite Pony, you're special to me..."
  639. >"Friendship, Love, Magic!"
  640. >A trio of ponies appeared after the words "Friendship", "Love", and "Magic", respectively.
  641. >The first pony was the largest. It was white, sported wings, and had a pink mane and tail.
  642. >Next came a green unicorn a yellow mane and tail.
  643. >But the third... the third pony made Anon's heart skip a beat.
  644. >This final pony had wings and a horn. Her coat was purple, and her mane and tail were a mix of yellow, pink, and white.
  645. >She even had a blue heart on each ass cheek.
  646. >Though the colors were wrong, Anon knew who he was looking at. There was no mistaking that smile.
  647. >Condense.
  648. >He sat there slack-jawed and silent as the episode played to completion. Only when the credits rolled did Anon dare to speak.
  649. >"Holy shit."
  650.  
  651. ...
  652.  
  653. >Anonymous wrote furiously, detailing the events that had transpired since his previous journal entry up to his discovery of "My Petite Pony". His account complete, Anon allowed himself to speculate on Condense's origins.
  654.  
  655. >What I can't understand is her lack of android components. My scanning tool is functioning properly, yet it can't detect anything. No electropolymers, no structural alloys, no power cells, nothing.
  656. >The only other rational explanation is that Condense is a synth. But who created her? Certainly not us... Tony's ego-fueled crusade for a Nobel Prize couldn't chance working on anything other than human subjects.
  657. >Sure, my old department could have made something similar to Condense, but we also focused on humans. Market demand for prosthetics and augmentations prevented the AAG from branching out to other species, even after I left.
  658. >Condense's sudden appearance- with shapeshifters in pursuit, no less- does raise interesting questions I never bothered to ask before. Who made the shapeshifters, and for what purpose? I can't believe I never thought to scan any of their corpses for cybernetics until this moment. Next time I kill one, I'll be sure to scan it before disposal. I'm not going to immediately suggest that the correlation is causation, but I find it interesting that those abominations only started to appear in the aftermath of the Convergence. Perhaps they escaped from a secret research facility? Could they be synths like Condense? Could they share the same origins? What mechanisms allow them to change their appearance?
  659. >As for Condense herself... where to begin? I've already detailed the extent of her amnesia, at least, what I know of it at the time of this writing. I find it interesting that Condense is so trusting of me, especially since we met less than twenty-four hours ago. Perhaps it was my slaughtering of the shapeshifters that pursued her which won her over? Were the roles reversed, I sure as hell would not be so quick to trust as she.
  660. >Oh yeah, just a reminder... Condense is a literal TALKING HORSE. I mean, pony. Not only can she speak fluent English, she can read it too.
  661. >Who the hell made her!? I'm going to continue asking this until I get answers. Between her intelligence, fully-functioning systems, her incredibly beautiful and detailed design, and her overall complexity, it's clear to me that she had to have been the crown jewel of a peerless synth development lab. Sweet Jesus, I've probably got some multinational corporation's billion-dollar asset hiding in my home. Not that there's likely to be anyone coming to claim her.
  662. >Whatever the case, Condense has a bubbly personality. She has been nothing but sweet, playful, and (seemingly) genuine in her interactions with me. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find her to be incredibly charming. Something about this pony just... disarms me. Her smile is the most beautiful thing I've seen in years. Her laugh has a musical quality and is infectious to boot. To sum up my first impressions: Condense is a beautiful creature, inside and out.
  663. >My desperation for companionship has been so bad for so long, Condense's arrival might as well be a godsend.
  664. >
  665. >And to think, I was originally going to hang myself yesterday.
  666. >
  667. >Good thing I didn't go through with it. God only knows what would've happened to Condense had I not been around to dispatch those shapeshifters that were after her.
  668. >I'm trying to not get attached too quickly. Easier said than done, especially when it's been years since I last had a friendly conversation. I'm surprised that I'm not more weirded out by the whole talking pony thing, but again, it goes to show just how lonely I've been. Besides, with her charm and intelligence, I sometimes forget she's a pony. It's strange, I haven't even known her a day, yet a small part of me feels like I've known her most of my life.
  669. >Though Condense has given me no indication that she has any ulterior motives, I must remain cautious for the time being. Fingers crossed nobody comes looking for her.
  670. >Fingers crossed she'll want to stay after regaining her memories.
  671. >Fingers crossed I'll have a friend in Condense.
  672. >Gotta go; think she just woke up. Don't hear her snoring anymore.
  673. >Time to get Sleeping Beauty moved into her room.
  674.  
  675. ...
  676.  
  677. >Condense yawned as she stirred. Her long and shapely pink legs, once tucked underneath her barrel, stretched over the side of the couch and shook as she tensed and relaxed them. They retracted back under their owner's blanket cape, though a bare pink hoof and pastern of a hind leg peeked out at the rustic decor of Anon's living room.
  678. >Not ready to open her eyes, Condense was content to listen to the ambient noise of the house. Fast-blowing wind burst onto the home's western walls intermittently, carrying the distinct pitter-patter of rain on windows; the vanguard of the coming storm.
  679. >Considering all she'd been through since being pulled into this strange new world, Condense allowed herself to indulge in her comfiness. The ambiance would be perfect to fall asleep to, but sleep would not take the mare again for some time. Condense sighed. A faint smile brightened her muzzle.
  680. >Even if sleeping was no longer an option, the soothing sounds of the incoming weather served as a welcome background track to the pony's meditations. Her thoughts returned to her new reality and her host.
  681. >Anonymous.
  682. >A demure smile crept over her face whilst she reflected on her interactions with the man.
  683. >Sure, he was completely foreign to any creature she could remember meeting; literally alien. Still, there was no denying that she enjoyed his presence and attention, despite their recent acquaintance. His calm demeanor, subtle charm, and gentleness with her was comforting. Fate certainly could have dealt her a worse hand as new companions went.
  684. >She inhaled deeply through her snout and swore she could still detect his scent from the hug they shared before he left.
  685. >The light, fluttery feeling that had occupied her gut was replaced by one of cold and dread. Anon was still out patrolling his territory in the rain; protecting her from danger.
  686. 'Enough dawdling,' she thought, steeling her mind. 'Gotta find out where my host is."
  687. >With one final sigh, Condense finally opened her eyes.
  688. >Beady, unnaturally-bright blue eyes stared into hers a hoof's length away.
  689. >"HI CONDENSE!" Anon roared with a grin.
  690. "EEEEP!"
  691. >*smack*
  692. >Anon's head snapped to his right from the impact of the pink mare's hoof. His face introduced itself to the carpet.
  693. "Anon!"
  694. >Condense's attempt to scramble to her hooves was thwarted by the blanket she had tied around her neck. In her panicked movements it had wrapped around her legs, causing her to roll off the couch with the grace of a wounded hippopotamus thrashing in a river. Lucky for Condense, Anon's torso was in perfect position to break her fall. Their collision was elastic, which sent the mare bouncing off Anon's back and onto the floor beside him.
  695. "Oof!"
  696. >"Gaawwwwd dammmmmn," Anonymous groaned, rising to his hands and knees.
  697. "Anon! I'm so, *SO* sorry!" Condense blurted out while scrambling to her hooves.
  698. >The man rolled into a sitting position and rested his back against the couch. His eyes and jaw clenched shut as his fingertips gingerly touched the side of his head over his left ear.
  699. "Anon? Please, talk to me. I- I didn't mean to- you just scared me and..."
  700. >Her breathing hitched.
  701. "It w-was an accident," she whispered.
  702. >Outside, the wind howled louder than before. The peaceful ambiance was gone. Condense began to panic.
  703. 'Please open your eyes. Please be okay. Please be okay. Pleasedon'tsendmeawayIdidn'tmeanto-'
  704. >"Condense."
  705. >She flinched at how Anon growled her name.
  706. "Yes?"
  707. >Anon opened his eyes and gave a half-hearted grin. "Girl, you've got a nasty right hook."
  708. >Condense looked away, her ears flattened.
  709. >"Hey. Look at me."
  710. >She took her time complying with his command. Despite her best efforts, her eyes shimmered when they met his piercing gaze.
  711. >"I shouldn't have done that," Anon began. "I was just wanting to mess with you a bit. Pay you back for startling me this morning, y'know?"
  712. >A slight nod, and the tears began to fall. Condense looked away from Anon and struggled to control her breathing.
  713. >"C'mere," Anon said, spreading his arms. With a choked sob, the mare rushed into his waiting embrace. She nuzzled the spot where she struck him and pulled him close.
  714. "I'm so sorry, Anonymous," she breathed into his ear. "Please don't send me away."
  715. >Anon pulled his head back and broke the hug. "Send you away? Why on earth would I do that!?"
  716. "B-because I h-hurt you."
  717. >"It was an accident. Besides, I deserved it." His fingers gently coaxed her chin up, then wiped her lingering tears away. "It would make me very happy if you stayed."
  718. >He closed his eyes.
  719. >"I... I don't have anyone else."
  720. >It hurt for him to say. It hurt for her to hear, doubly so upon realizing their shared predicament.
  721. >Sighing, she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch.
  722. "Thank you," was her breathless reply.
  723. >Emboldened by her previous reaction to his touch, Anonymous dared to run his fingers through the mare's multichromatic mane. He marveled at the long, silky strands; the beautiful colors.
  724. >Condense gave a soft hum of contentment. After a few moments' indulgence in Anon's petting, she opened her eyes and leaned forward to inspect her host's head. There was no blood, but the area was beginning to swell.
  725. >She inched her muzzle forward, ever-cognizant of Anon's diminishing pets. The mare sniffed his hair, knickered, then planted three soft kisses above his left ear.
  726. "There! You'll be better in no time!"
  727. >"Well, with that sort of attention, I don't see how I wouldn't be!"
  728. >Their eyes met again. A smile was shared.
  729. >"C'mon, let's head up to your new room."
  730. >Anonymous ambled to his feet and made for the stairs on shaky legs. Condense moved to his left and wrapped her right wing around his waist, pulling him close to her.
  731. "Easy now, big stallion. Let me keep you steady."
  732. >The man looked away, grinning in spite of his pain. He led his guest past his room, and turned right at the forked hallway. "Here we are," Anon said, coming to a stop before a stained oak door. "I've got to warn you, I haven't been in here in at least two years. I'm sure things will be pretty dusty."
  733. "That's okay. I'm just happy to have my own room! Thank you again, by the way."
  734. >"Don't thank me yet," Anon replied, chuckling. The door opened with a drawn-out creak. "Eww. Need to oil the hinges."
  735. >Stacks of dust-topped boxes greeted the pair. A queen-sized bed occupied the far corner of the room, its mattress bare, save for a single open box.
  736. >Anon maneuvered between the cardboard mountains that littered the floor, taking mental notes whilst surveying the room. "Alright," he began, "here's what we're gonna do. I'll start by moving these boxes to either the basement or my study. While I do that, I'll have you sort the remaining boxes. If they're marked 'R.M.P.S' or 'Anon's Work', I want them in one stack. Set boxes labeled 'Anon Army Stuff', 'Maria', 'Daniel', or 'C.J.' in another. Got it?"
  737. "Mmmhmm!"
  738. >"Good. Once we get the boxes cleared out, we'll give this room a good once-over and get you settled."
  739. >They set off to their respective tasks. Anon took a stack of three boxes and shuffled out of the room. Condense removed her makeshift blanket cloak, then got to work sorting the remaining containers per Anon's instructions. It was simple, tedious work, but it kept her mind off the ever-present worries that lingered on the periphery of her consciousness.
  740. >Twenty minutes later, and all that remained was the box on Condense's bed. Unlike the others, this one was open, its contents unsecured. Unable to resist her curiosity, Condense peered inside. Several framed pictures and papers filled the box. The pictures captured her attention first. A young boy and girl, Anon in a military uniform, Anon and a woman on a palm-lined beach.
  741. "You must be Maria," Condense murmured. "What a pretty mare."
  742. >Footsteps on the stairs reached her ears. She rummaged through the box trying to glean more information. There was a framed certificate, but all she managed to read from it before Anonymous entered the room was "conferred upon", "Anonymous deTerra", and "of Philosophy".
  743. >"That the last one?" Anon asked upon entering the room. Condense gripped the box in her forehooves and held it out to him.
  744. "Sure is!"
  745. >"Excellent. Do you remember where the linen closet is?"
  746. "Is it next to the bathroom I used this morning?"
  747. >"That's the one. There's bedding that'll fit your mattress in there. Pick out what you'd like. I'll be back with a vacuum and cleaning supplies."
  748. >Compared to the box sorting and moving, cleaning the room seemed to take no time at all.
  749. >"There," Anon said as he set a folded blanket at the foot of the bed. "All done. A little Spartan, but you can rearrange the furniture and decorate however you'd like."
  750. >Condense sat at the edge of her bed and beamed.
  751. "It's wonderful. Thank you so much!"
  752. >Anon smiled back at the mare. "No. Thank you."
  753. "For what?" Condense replied with a tilted head.
  754. >"For running into my life the way you did. It's been a lonely four years."
  755. >At a loss for words, Condense simply nodded and smiled.
  756. >Anon shifted his weight from foot to foot, suddenly uncertain of himself. "Can I sit down for a minute?"
  757. >Condense nodded and patted the mattress.
  758. >"Thanks." Anon took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Listen," he began, "I need to talk to you about living here. With me."
  759. "Okay..."
  760. >Rubbing his temples, Anon sighed and continued. "In case you haven't figured it out since you arrived, this is a dangerous place. Complacency and carelessness will get you killed out here. I've survived thanks in part to several factors."
  761. >He clenched his hand into a fist, then stuck out his index finger. "Number one, I've kept myself in peak physical condition, even after the Convergence." A second finger joined the first. "Number two, I've made maintaining the physical security of my property my highest priority. To that end, I've gone to great lengths to fortify this house and make it the best defensive position I can. Yeah, I made more money than I knew what to do with before the world went to shit, but it's made me a target for unsavory characters since the Convergence. Number three-"
  762. >He paused, silently debating whether to continue.
  763. >'I don't need to overwhelm the poor girl with my past,' Anon concluded.
  764. "Number three?" Condense asked quietly.
  765. >"Don't worry about it," Anon mumbled. He gripped Condense by the withers and shook her to accentuate his next five words. "We *will* get attacked, Condense. I need you to be mentally prepared for that."
  766. >Condense gulped, then answered with another slow nod.
  767. >"I'm telling you all this because you deserve to know what to expect when it comes to living here. I will do everything in my power to take care of you, but this needs to be a partnership. We're a team now, you and I."
  768. >We're a team now, you and I.
  769. >Condense looked away, mouthing those words to herself in silent contemplation. She looked back at Anonymous, whose calm demeanor belied the storm of anxiety that raged within him.
  770. "You take care of me, I'll take care of you," Condense answered.
  771. >"Exactly!" Anonymous said with a loud sigh of relief. "As long as we have each other's backs, we'll be just fine. But I need you completely buy into this partnership. Can I count on you, Condense?"
  772. >The mare clasped Anon's right hand between her forehooves and pulled it to her chest. Anon's palm sank into her thick, luxurious tuft, but he refrained from running his fingers through it. With Condense keeping his hand firmly secured against her chest, Anon was able to feel her strong heartbeat. He felt peaceful, getting lost staring into the depths of her purple irises.
  773. "You can count on me Anon," Condense said with conviction. "I won't let you down, I promise."
  774. >"Good. Likewise, I'll always take care of you, from here on out. I promise."
  775. >Their pact made, the two souls shared a smile. It carried more weight than the others they'd offered each other.
  776. >The sudden growling of Condense's stomach earned a snort from Anon and a sheepish grin from its owner. "I guess we did skip breakfast and lunch, huh?" Anon asked with a laugh.
  777. "I suppose we did."
  778. >"Early dinner it is! I'll start cooking now." Anon rose from the bed and made for the door. "Care to keep me company?"
  779. >The mare offered an apologetic smile.
  780. "If it's okay with you, I'd like some time alone to think about what you've told me."
  781. >"Not a problem at all. I'll come get you when dinner is ready."
  782. "Thank you."
  783. >Anon grunted and closed the door behind him. Condense mentally tracked his position in the house from his footsteps. She walked over to a window on the southern wall of her room, adjacent to her bed. Gazing through the rain-streaked glass, she watched pine trees sway in the wind. Low-hanging grey clouds billowed out across the ever-dimming sky.
  784. "We're a team now, you and I." Condense murmured whilst staring at the dreary landscape. "You take care of me, I'll take care of you."
  785.  
  786. ...
  787.  
  788. "Hello?" the young girl's frail voice called out. Her frantic knocks were barely audible over the howling wind and heavy rain. "Please, is anyone there?"
  789. >She continued to pound on the cabin's door with all the force her emaciated arms could muster. At some point the rain had turned to snow, coating her matted black hair, dying it white.
  790. >At last, the door swung open. A woman's voice reached her ears. "Oh my God! James, come quickly!"
  791. >"What is it now, woman? You're letting the cold air- JESUS CHRIST!"
  792. >Arms snaked under the girl's knees and back, lifting her up with minimal effort.
  793. >"Hang on, honey, you'll be alright!"
  794. >Warmth. It came on slow and steady, eventually surrounding her. Opening her eyes, she saw a roaring fire contained within a brick hearth. Heavy blankets were wrapped around her, restricting her movement, but it was oh-so-cozy.
  795. >Better than the warmth that surrounded her was the love. The air was thick with it. The man's love for his wife, and the love she returned to him.
  796. >Delicious.
  797. >A hand stroked her hair, wiping strands out of her face. "There, there, dear," the woman's soothing voice said. "You gave us quite the scare! Where did you come from little one?"
  798. >The man and woman watched their guest intently. She looked up at them with tear-filled eyes.
  799. "I don't know what happened!" she sniffed. Her chest heaved. "I was with my family, then all of a sudden, there were booms and flashes of light. I was pulled away from them, and I woke up in these mountains!"
  800. >James furrowed his brow and shot his wife a concerned glance. "Spontaneous portal, I reckon," he growled to her. "God only knows where it sent her family to."
  801. >"Don't worry about a thing, Sugar," the woman cooed, pulling the blanket-bound girl to her bosom. "We'll help you find your family. In the mean time, you let your Auntie Sarah and Uncle James take care of you."
  802. >"What's your name, darlin'?" James asked.
  803. >Bright green eyes glowed at the couple.
  804. "Chrissy," she answered with a hungry smile. "My name is Chrissy."
  805.  
  806. ...
  807.  
  808. >Tony looked up from his bowl. His fingers danced with a spoon, stirring his stew in a lazy figure-eight motion. Gathering his courage, he looked up at his new "roommate."
  809. "How did you find me, Mister Crane?"
  810. >Tony's captor sucked on his spoon and hummed, his eyes closed in contentment. He opened his mouth. His tongue danced shamelessly over the curves of his chrome-colored spoon. "Mmm-mmm-mmm!"
  811. >Crane opened his eyes. Before him, Tony sat rigidly, barely daring to breathe, forehead glistening with sweat. "Tony!" Crane began with a charming smile, "Come on, now! There's no need for formalities. As I said before, call me 'Desmond'."
  812. >Desmond rose from his seat. He reached down for his empty bowl, his skinless robotic hands clicking as they secured the porcelain container. "Would you care for seconds?" he asked Tony, still smiling.
  813. >Tony shook his head. Desmond chuckled as he limped to the stove. He tilted the stock pot with one hand and used a ladle in the other to fish for the biggest pieces of beef and potato that remained.
  814. >"Your question is predicated on an incorrect assumption," Desmond said, returning to the table. He took dainty, careful bites, eating with the grace and etiquette becoming of the aristocracy of old.
  815. "Which is?" Tony replied, curiosity getting the better of him.
  816. >"That I was seeking you out in the first place." Desmond patted at his immaculately-maintained and waxed handlebar mustache with a napkin. "I've spent the past four years like so many others- wandering the countryside, looking for places to stay, food to eat. Companionship, as you know, is in dreadfully short supply, and the company to be had is, by and large, rather unsavory. Wouldn't you agree?"
  817. >Tony nodded in affirmation, then stopped upon realizing the implications of his response. His face went pale as he glanced up at Crane, who glared at him.
  818. >"What are you implying?" Crane replied in low, half-growing voice. He slowly leaned out of his chair and stalked around the table towards Tony with single, calculated steps. "Tony..."
  819. >Step.
  820. >"... do you mean to tell me..."
  821. >Step.
  822. >"... that you don't ENJOY..."
  823. >Step.
  824. >"...MY..."
  825. >Step. Step.
  826. >Crane's wild brown eyes were mere centimeter's from Tony's.
  827. >"...COMPANY!?"
  828. "I- I- d-d-d-dont'... I d-didn't-"
  829. >An android finger touched the tip of Tony's nose.
  830. >"Boop!"
  831. >Tony gasped. He looked at Desmond, completely bewildered. Desmond threw his head back and roared with laughter.
  832. >"Ah, hahahahaha! Tony! You gotta lighten up, baby! If we're gonna be cooped up in this big-ass house of yours while riding the storm out, you're gonna have to rediscover your sense of humor!"
  833. "Easy for you to say," Tony grumbled in spite of himself. "You're not being held prisoner in your own home by a madman."
  834. >Desmond wiped his eyes, his laughs subsiding into chuckles. "You'd have a few screws loose too if you'd been through what I have, T-bone," he replied in a hushed tone. After limping back to his seat, Desmond indulged in several bites of stew before speaking again. "Going back to your question, I was always careful, picking which homes to raid for supplies. I knew better than to settle in one space for too long, so I'd always be on the lookout for my next target."
  835. >He returned to his dinner, as did Tony, who had calmed enough to regain his appetite.
  836. >"I'd stake out a house, access the web when possible to comb through public records... find out whatever I could about whomever occupied the house prior to the Convergence."
  837. "Then what?"
  838. >"I'd get an idea of who I was dealing with, assuming the structure was occupied at all. More often than not, they weren't."
  839. "And if they were occupied?"
  840. >"Then I'd utilize the skills I acquired and refined in the RMAZ army. I'd arrive on scene. Scope out the property from afar, learn the habits of the people living there, then make a game plan.
  841. "What did you do to them?"
  842. >"What do you think I did to them?" Desmond deadpanned.
  843. >Tony flinched.
  844. >"Anyway, I went through the usual process with your place. Found out who you were, Doctor Bowhannon, and who you used to work for. Talk about ssssssserendipity! Lucky for me, you were still alive and kicking. Lucky for you, you're no good to me dead. "
  845. "How did you get past my sentry turrets?"
  846. >Desmond laughed. "The one covering the property's western sector was offline."
  847. >Tony looked surprised at the news.
  848. >"You honestly didn't know?"
  849. "No."
  850. >"Complacency kills, Tony! Reconnaissance! Can't ever neglect it! You remember that from your days in the service, right?"
  851. "No," Tony said. "I was deemed unfit for military service, and subsequently waived."
  852. >Crane looked over Tony's diminutive frame, and what was left of his mostly-grey hair. "Physically or mentally?"
  853. "Does it matter?"
  854. >"I suppose it doesn't. Pity. At least you weren't a draft-dodger. You missed out on some good times, man. The liberation of Salt Lake City, driving the commies out of Nevada, guerrilla warfare in the Cascades, burning Sacramento to the ground- ooh boy, that was a helluva time."
  855. "You fought in both wars, then?"
  856. >"Sure did."
  857. "Huh. Anonymous did too."
  858. >"Yeah, about him... deTerra. Name is awfully familiar. There were rumors of a Major with a similar name, I think, who made quite the name for himself in the second war... wonder if he's the same guy."
  859. "Anon never spoke about his time in the wars. You'd never even guess he was still in the reserves if it wasn't for his haircut and the fact that he reported for drills twice a month."
  860. >"I'll have to ask him about it."
  861. >Tony pointed his spoon at Desmond to accentuate his next sentence.
  862. "I don't know what you're planning, Desmond, but you won't catch Anon like you did me."
  863. >Desmond laughed again. "I'm not planning on 'catching' him, Tony! Why would I antagonize the man who could fix me?"
  864. "Funny, you did exactly that with me."
  865. >"Oops. Won't be making that mistake again with Anonymous."
  866. "Assuming he's even still alive."
  867. >"More life insurance for you if he isn't," Desmond quipped. "Provided you can learn a thing or two about fixing my failing components if it comes to that. But that's besides the point. I'd like to start fresh, Tony. I apologize for coming on so strong; been a trying four years."
  868. "Are you fucking kidding me!?" Tony blurted out, unable to contain his incredulity. "You break into my house, tie me up and beat me, and then think making dinner will smooth things over!? Are you serious!?"
  869. >"As a heart attack, brother."
  870. "Unbelievable!"
  871. >"Nothing's unbelievable if you've been through enough shit."
  872. >Tony contemplated Desmond's words in silence, then turned his attention towards his cold stew. Desmond watched him thoughtfully as he finished off his second helping. 'Need to find common ground,' he thought. 'Something to get him to open up.'
  873. >"Sure you don't want seconds?" Tony shook his head. Desmond nodded, picked up his bowl, then retrieved Tony's as well. He set both bowls in the sink and ran the water. Tony's jaw dropped.
  874. "You're actually going to do the dishes?"
  875. >Desmond pivoted on his heel to address Tony. "I am many things, Tony," he began with a serious expression. "A murderer? Sure. A psychopath? I blame the past four years. Fifty-five percent android? You fight in the past two wars and try to come out unscathed. But an ill-mannered layabout I am not. Momma Crane didn't raise no slobs."
  876. "And here I was, worried you'd start shitting on the carpet."
  877. >Crane whirled around. Tony sniggered. Soon, both men were laughing.
  878. >With the dishes air drying on a wire rack, Desmond returned to his seat at the table. "You said something earlier about a 'synth' program? What's a synth?"
  879. >Tony's eyes lit up.
  880. "Oh my God, where do I begin!? As you're well aware, androids, both prosthetic components and full automatons, have been around for centuries. What humanity always struggled with was generating human tissue that didn't..."
  881. >Tony abandoned his chair to pace around his side of the table, his gestures growing more animated the more he lectured. Desmond grinned.
  882. >'Bingo.'
  883.  
  884. ...
  885.  
  886. >Occupying the center of Anon's large kitchen was a tall, black granite-topped rectangular island. Anon and Condense sat in tall swivel-seat chairs, each consuming their meals deep in thought, nary a word uttered between them.
  887. >Condense stared blankly out the window opposite her seat, watching the rain's gradual transition to snow and subsequent whitewashing of the landscape. Adjacent to the contemplative alicorn, Anonymous idly dipped a half-eaten sandwich into the warm red depth of his tomato soup. He tried not to stare whenever Condense manipulated her utensils with her primary feathers. They were dexterous as fingers, and his new housemate was quite adept at using them to move light objects.
  888. >Fortunately for him, the mare was too preoccupied with her own meditations to notice her host's unabashed fascination with her. The two carried on eating in quiet contemplation to the soothing music of a wind chime that hung outside the kitchen window, its random pentatonic notes colorfully accenting the otherwise dull and harsh droning of the wind.
  889. >Anonymous wiped the inside of his bowl with the remaining half of his bacon and grilled cheese. With a furrowed brow he considered the best way to break the ice with his mysterious new companion. The tension that had grown between them during the course of their meal was nearly palpable, though both parties did their best to ignore it. They took turns stealing glances at one another, no better than awkward hormone-saturated teenagers. Inevitable moments of eye contact led to flushed cheeks on both sides, though that went unnoticed as neither dared a second glance after getting "caught".
  890. >Setting her spoon down with unnecessary clatter, Condense cleared her throat and swiveled her seat to the left. "Thanks for making dinner. It was really good."
  891. "Glad you liked it," Anon replied as he pushed his plate and bowl forward. "If it's alright with you, I'd like to ask you about a few things that have been on my mind."
  892. >"Okay."
  893. >Anon took a deep breath and held it before posing his first question. Condense brushed away her bangs with a foreleg and offered him a gentle smile, causing Anon's shoulders to visibly relax.
  894. "How are you coping? Forgive me if this sounds insensitive, but you seem awfully bubbly in spite of your circumstances."
  895. >"I know, right? How can I put this?" Condense began, stroking her chin with a pink hoof. "I feel... okay, this is going to sound silly, but hear me out. I feel as if I've had to carry the weight of the world on my back for hundreds of years, and now, now that weight is gone. Weird, huh? There's nothing I can do about my situation at the moment, so I'm trying to enjoy the little things and not get myself worked up."
  896. "That's a... unique... way to approach it, I guess. Pragmatic, if nothing else." Anon answered while scratching the stubble on his jaw. "Moving on, does the name 'Tony Bowhannon' have any significance to you?"
  897. >"I've never heart that name before."
  898. "Alright," Anon replied with a sigh of relief. "How about, 'R.M.P.S. Technologies' or 'Advanced Applications Group'?"
  899. >She shook her head, sending her tri-colored mane sweeping across her face in pendulum-like oscillations.
  900. "Musk Industries? Boston Cybernetics? Kojima Biological Research?"
  901. >"No to all of those. What's this about, Anon?"
  902. >Anon held up his hands in a faux-defensive posture.
  903. "Bear with me here, just a couple more... Nebulus Synthetic Laboratories?"
  904. >"Nope."
  905. "AutoPony Automatons?"
  906. >Condense broke out into a fit of giggles and gave Anon a light jab on the shoulder. "What? Anon! Why would any of those names be familiar to me?"
  907. "I was doing some research while you were sleeping," he said, shrugging. "Wondered if you recognized any of those names, as it may help us figure out where you came from."
  908. >"Why would it?" Condense asked with more than a hint of incredulity in her voice. "As I said before, I'm not from here. This planet is completely foreign to me. I may not remember much about myself or my home, but I know there weren't any humans there. We had all sorts of sapient creatures in addition to ponies. The ambient magic here is so low it's almost uncomfortable-"
  909. "Wait just a minute," Anon interrupted, holding his palm out to the mare. "'Ambient... magic?'"
  910. >"Yes, silly!" she replied with another friendly hoof jab to his arm. "Magic, as in the crucial component that all creatures possess? It gives earth ponies their strength, it grants pegasi the ability to cloud walk and manipulate the weather, unicorns channel it with their horns to perform spells... y'know, that kind of magic?"
  911. >Anonymous was at a loss for words.
  912. >"Why are you looking at me like that?"
  913. "Condense," Anon began with an exasperated sigh, "there's no such thing as magic. Not on Earth, anyway. Everything on this planet is readily explained by scientific-"
  914. >As Anon extolled the value and virtues of science, Condense gave him a mischievous grin. She lit her horn. Her magic chimed, and her sky blue aura enveloped Anon's sandwich. With a huff and a stern look of concentration, she levitated the sandwich to her face, then took a bite. Condense's aura flickered and diminished to naught, allowing the remainer of Anon's sandwich to fall unimpeded into her empty bowl. Panting from the exertion, Condense was nevertheless able to giggle at Anon's flabbergasted expression.
  915. "What. Was. THAT. Whhhhaaaatwasthatwhatwasthat!?"
  916. >The man stood and pulled at his hair, his eyes darting between his recently-commandeered sandwich, and the smug mare who had taken it.
  917. "Oooohhhh boy," Anonymous groaned whilst beginning to pace along the side of the island opposite his guest. "I've lost it. I've lost it! It's finally happened! Only took two wars, watching my family die, and four years of solitude, but I've finally lost it!"
  918. >"Anon," Condense said calmly. Her voice went unnoticed.
  919. "Am I even still alive? Is any of this real?"
  920. >"Anonymous, look at me."
  921. "No way," Anon continued to mutter aloud. The tempo of his pacing increased and his face grew pale. "There's no way this is real..."
  922. >Condense climbed atop the island from her seat.
  923. "...oh, God damn it, I knew she was too good to be true-"
  924. >"ANONYMOUS! LISTEN TO ME!" Condense roared. She reared back and stomped her front hooves on the granite counter top. The impact made Anon stop dead in his tracks. He faced her, looking up into her intense purple eyes while standing at attention. "Get a hold of yourself, stallion!" Condense continued. "You are NOT dreaming. You are alive, and all of this," she said, waving around the kitchen with her good wing, "is very much real!"
  925. "But... you just-"
  926. >"No!" the mare interrupted while shoving a hoof over his mouth. "Now listen. Take a deep breath in..."
  927. >The man complied, not wanting to find out what consequences may befall him should he not.
  928. >"Good. Now let it out slowly," Condense instructed. She extended a foreleg as she forcefully exhaled. "Let's do it again. In... and out. In... and out."
  929. >She led him through her breathing exercise until the color returned to Anon's face.
  930. >"How do you feel?" she asked him with a reserved smile.
  931. "Better, for the most part," he answered, rubbing his hand over his lips and chin. "Though you weren't too gentle with your hoof a moment ago. Gotta watch out for those things."
  932. >"Oh! Sorry!" Condense kissed the tips of her right primary feathers and pressed them to Anon's lips. "Mwah! Better?"
  933. >Anonymous chuckled and returned to his seat, his face now full of extra color. Condense ruffled his hair with her wing before returning to her own seat.
  934. "You know I have so many additional questions after seeing that."
  935. >The mare grinned. "I bet you do. I have questions of my own. Tell you what, I'll make a deal with you. Trade ya, question for a question?"
  936. "Sure. Ladies first."
  937. >"Who are you? Tell me a little about yourself. What makes you tick?" she asked, tapping his broad chest with a hoof. "We've been so busy today that we haven't even taken the time to get to know each other!"
  938. "Wow, you're right."
  939. >Anonymous looked out the window and rubbed his chin for a moment. He sighed, then turned back to the mare.
  940. "Okay... My name is Anonymous deTerra. I'm forty-nine years old. Like most of the people on this God-forsaken rock, I lost my family during the Five Minute Convergence. Six months prior to said apocalypse, I had quit my job to spend more time with my family. I'm a big fan of music and film from the mid-to-late twentieth century, I love to cook for others, and watching sunsets is one of my favorite things to do in the world."
  941. >He studied Condense, who seemed to be hanging on to his every word.
  942. "My turn," Anon continued. "Magic. That blue light that appeared around your horn. The noise that accompanied it. Explain that to me, please."
  943. >"My horn is what I use to channel my magic," Condense began. "The blue light you saw was my magical aura. That chiming you heard always accompanies the aura, it's like the music of magic. Every unicorn- and alicorn, like me- has an aura whose color is unique to them. You saw me use telekinesis earlier, which is among the most basic spells a unicorn- or an alicorn- can perform."
  944. >Anonymous let out a thoughtful "Hmmm". Condense closed her eyes, straining her mind in a vain hope that more of her memories would return.
  945. >"I'm sorry, I'm having trouble remembering much more about the fundamentals of magic theory. All I know is it's an ability of mine, but something about this world makes even the simplest of spells take a lot out of me."
  946. "It's okay," Anon replied, rubbing her left foreleg gently. "Your turn to ask."
  947. >"Right." Condense rubbed her hooves together and stared at the dark granite counter. "I... I saw a picture of you in one of the boxes in my room."
  948. "Oh? Which picture?"
  949. >"You were wearing a uniform..." Condense answered, an intense heat rising to her cheeks. "You looked really handsome in it," she mumbled.
  950. "What was that last bit?"
  951. >"Did you used to be a soldier?" Condense replied after an exaggerated clearing of her throat.
  952. "What did you say before that?" Anon pressed, smirking at the furiously-blushing mare.
  953. >"Nothing! That's my question- were you a soldier at some point in your life?" Condense quickly responded.
  954. >Anonymous chuckled. Condense fanned herself with her good wing, and looked out the kitchen window. Not wanting to push her any further, Anonymous spoke.
  955. "I was. Like all citizens of the RMAZ, I was drafted when I was eighteen, immediately after graduating high school. As fate would have it, the Rocky Mountain Border War broke out a year into my four-year mandatory service. Several years after that war ended, the commies got uppity again, and my ass got recalled from the reserves and reactivated. The War for the West, they called it."
  956. >"I can't imagine what that must've been like for you." Condense whispered.
  957. "Like anything, it had its high and low points. I met my wife during my conscription, after all."
  958. >"Aww, really?"
  959. "Really really. She was a medic in the field hospital I was sent to after getting wounded. The rest, as they say, is history." Anon said, his face wistful.
  960. >Neither party bothered to speak for a while after Anon's reminiscing. They stared at the counter, out the window, but never at each other. Finally, Anon cleared his throat. He pointed to the mare's rear.
  961. "Those marks on your hindquarters. What do they mean?"
  962. >"Oh, my cutie marks?" Condense asked, rising slightly from her seat. "Every pony gets them when they discover their special talent..."
  963. >Condense trailed off, a coquettish grin lighting up her face. "Heyyyy... so you were checking out my flanks, huh?"
  964. >Anonymous choked on the water he'd been sipping on.
  965. "What!? No! I-"
  966. >The pink mare placed a reassuring hoof on Anon's hand. "It's alright, Anon," she said, looking at him with half-lidded eyes. "You may be human, but you're still a stallion, and I'm a mare. It's only natural that you'd-"
  967. "Condense, no! I wasn't looking at you in that way!"
  968. >She exchanged her faux-seductive eyes for ones of the puppy-dog variety. "You don't like what I have to offer, Anonymous?" Condense asked with a pout. She leaned forward and began to clamber onto the island, taking care to exaggerate her rump's movements. "Maybe if you took a closer look, you'd find-"
  969. >Anonymous jumped from his seat and frantically gathered up his and Condense's dishes.
  970. "Aaaaaaaaand I'm gonna go ahead and was the dishes!" he roared over the mare's suggestions.
  971. >The sound of the sink's rushing water was soon drowned out by Condense's guffaws. Anonymous whirled around to see her doubled over in laughter atop the island, occasionally pounding its black granite surface with a hoof.
  972. >"Oh Anon! you should've seen the look on your face!"
  973. >Anonymous crossed his arms and scowled at the mare, which only served to make her laugh harder. Eventually, Condense's musical giggles wore down Anon's resolve, and he found himself laughing with her.
  974. >"Need any help cleaning up?" Condense asked Anon whilst wiping her eyes with her primaries.
  975. "Naw, I got it, but thank you."
  976. >"Mmmhmm!" she replied, jumping onto the floor. "I'm gonna go shower, 'kay?"
  977. >Anon simply nodded. He turned back to the sink, shaking his head and chuckling.
  978.  
  979. ...
  980.  
  981. >Condense tossed and turned, trying in vain to find the optimal combination of blankets and pillows that would grant her the comfort needed to drift to sleep.
  982. >The day's events had caught up with Anonymous after dinner, prompting him to turn in early for the night. Condense was likewise inclined to retire to her room, having been thoroughly relaxed from her shower. The hot water had helped to loosen up her sore muscles and dispel some of the aches that had crept in following her flight from the shapeshifters the night prior, though it did little to banish the questions that flooded her mind.
  983. >She rolled onto her back, huffing in exasperation. Her legs flailed, eventually freeing her of the sheet and blankets that would have preserved her warmth. Rolling off her bed, Condense moved before the window she had looked through prior to dinner. Snow continued to fall at a heavy rate, rapidly adding to the accumulation that whitewashed her unfamiliar surroundings.
  984. >The mare returned to her bed. She flopped onto the mattress with a sigh. Listening to the howling wind, Condense tried to remember more about herself.
  985. >The effort was in vain. All she could think about was her new friend. So much of the man was still a mystery. What was this "Convergence" he kept referencing? How did his family die? What had he been doing these past four years? What did he think of her?
  986. >Condense abandoned the warm and cozy confines of her bed once more. She lit her horn, opened her door, and quietly made for Anon's room.
  987. >Surely he wouldn't mind if she peeked into his quarters.
  988. >Just to see if he was alright, of course.
  989. >She was merely caring for her new friend.
  990. >Definitely not hoping for an opportunity to engage in surreptitious cuddles.
  991. >No ulterior motives at all.
  992. >No, sir.
  993.  
  994. /.../
  995.  
  996. >They walked away from the house, opting to take the path that was mostly uncovered by the trees. Daniel and Catherine ran ahead, laughing to themselves and running with the boundless energy that only young children possess. Maria walked in step with her husband, a frown gradually dominating her tan visage.
  997. >"Anon," she said, coming to a halt.
  998. "Yeah?"
  999. >She brushed a lock of raven hair from her face. "I've given it a lot of thought. I'm going to stay with my mom for a while, and I'm taking the kids with me."
  1000. >Anonymous turned to his right, reaching for her hands. His fingers wrapped around her palms, but Maria would not let them be pulled from her side.
  1001. "Maria, honey, please... don't do this."
  1002. >"What else am I supposed to do? Wait for things to get better?"
  1003. "We've only been to what, two marriage counseling sessions? At least give that a chance!"
  1004. >Maria crossed her arms. "And what good is it supposed to do, Anonymous? I don't know what's gotten into you, but you're not the same man you were six months ago. You weren't even this different after coming back from the second war!"
  1005. >She turned away from her husband and shuddered.
  1006. >"Sometimes it feels like I'm married to a complete stranger."
  1007. "Maria, I-"
  1008. >BOOM. A series of concussive blasts rocked the landscape.
  1009. >Maria screamed, as did the children. Anonymous reflexively pulled his wife to the cover of a nearby tree.
  1010. "Daniel! Catherine! GET DOWN!" Anon roared.
  1011. >"What was that!? Air burst rounds?" Maria asked Anonymous with wide, wild eyes.
  1012. "No, the sound isn't right-"
  1013. >"Mama, Daddy, look!" Catherine called, pointing skyward.
  1014. >Anonymous and Maria followed their daughter's finger. Above them, the sky shimmered. The shimmering coalesced into a oval haze, then collapsed to nothing. Another blast followed, shaking the trees.
  1015. >"Daniel! Catherine!" Maria yelled. "Back to the house! Run!"
  1016. >"What is that!?"
  1017. >"Daddy! Help! Danny's stuck!"
  1018. >"Dad! It's got me! Help!"
  1019. >"Anonymous! Help us!"
  1020. >"Daddy, what's happening to Danny!?"
  1021. >"ANON! HELP US!
  1022. >"EEEEEEE! DADDY, I'M SCARED! MAKE IT STOP!"
  1023. >"ANONYMOUS!"
  1024. "C.J! HOLD ON!"
  1025. >"IT HURTS!"
  1026. "CATHERINE! Oh m-my God, I-I'm s-s-so s-sorry!"
  1027. >"Anon! Wake up! You need to wake up!"
  1028.  
  1029. /.../
  1030.  
  1031. >Anonymous gasped for air. He tried to sit up, but was forcefully pushed back down.
  1032. >"Shhh!!!" Condense hissed as she tried to subdue the man.
  1033. >Anon thrashed about, desperately trying to free himself from his sheets and Condense.
  1034. "What! What are you doing!? What's going on!?"
  1035. >Condense wrapped her forelegs around Anon's broad torso and squeezed him with all her strength. "Shhh!!!" she repeated. "It's okay Anon, it's just me! It's Condense!"
  1036. >Anon slowly relaxed, submitting to Condense's will. He let her push him back into the bed.
  1037. >"Shhh... You were having a nightmare, but I've got you now." Condense cooed.
  1038. "What are you doing here? Why are you doing this?"
  1039. >She pulled away from Anonymous, sitting on her haunches to look him in the eyes. "I'm honoring my promise to you," was her solemn reply.
  1040. "What promise?"
  1041. >Condense reached out with her primaries to gently wipe the tears from Anon's face. Laying down across his bare, scarred chest and nuzzling the side of his neck, she whispered her answer. "We're a team now, you and I. You take care of me, I'll take care of you."
  1042. >She continued to nuzzle Anon, running a hoof through his hair and repeating her sacred mantra all the while.
  1043. >"You take care of me, I'll take care of you."
  1044.  
  1045. ...
  1046.  
  1047. Chapter 2
  1048.  
  1049. >Slow, steady breaths tickled the hair on Anonymous's chest, rousing him from slumber.
  1050. >Like the morning prior, Anon found himself waking up feeling very well-rested. Unlike yesterday, he awoke unusually warm and weighted-down.
  1051. >Enough early-morning light penetrated the room's curtains to illuminate the locks of pink, purple, and yellow hair that obscured Anon's vision. He brushed the foreign hair away from his face and sat up just enough to confirm his suspicions.
  1052. >Condense lay atop him; forelegs straddling his bare torso. The right side of her face pressed against his sternum. Her long horn pointed too close to Anon's face for comfort.
  1053. >A cursory glance to his left revealed it was 0724, far later than his reoccurring nightmares usually afforded him to sleep.
  1054. 'I suppose I have you to thank for that,' Anon thought as he rested his head back on his pillow.
  1055. >While the prolonged physical contact was comforting, it was something Anonymous hadn't experienced for several years. What should he do? She initiated it... should he lay there and try to enjoy the moment or extract himself from the bed before Condense woke, sparing them both any awkward tension? He laid motionless, contemplating the most prudent course of action, reticent to so much as breathe too deep lest it rouse his new companion.
  1056. >Anon's thoughts turned to his nightmare, the nightly, soul-crushing reminder of what had happened on that cursed day. Reliving memories in such detail during one's sleep wasn't something he considered "normal" but after the Convergence, any sense of normalcy was ripped asunder along with civilization.
  1057. >His leg twitched.
  1058. "If I was whole, I might have been able to save them." he growled whilst projecting silent curses towards his faulty prosthetic. "Held back by my own work."
  1059. >Condense shifted, her motion pulling Anon back to the present. He froze, only daring to breathe again after Condense resumed snoring. Her long, curly mane tickled his skin, almost begging for his touch.
  1060. >Anonymous succumbed to the temptation and dared to run his fingers through the tri-colored mane that draped over his chest. The strands were long and silky-smooth; her curls springing back to their original shape after each stroke of his fingers.
  1061. 'Your hair feels just like Maria's did.'
  1062. >His idle thought renewed and reinvigorated the melancholy that his idle petting had temporarily dispelled. For a moment he could almost see his late wife's long, curled raven hair, the dazzling white of her captivating smile contrasting against her flawless tan complexion.
  1063. >'Sometimes it feels like I'm married to a complete stranger,' her voice echoed in his mind.
  1064. >It was a frequent point of contention between them in the months prior to her untimely passing.
  1065. >Anon grimaced, shaking his head in a fruitless attempt to expel the bitter memories and regrets from his mind, disturbing Condense in the process. She mumbled some incoherent phrase of displeasure, then squeezed him tight with her forelegs; extinguishing any hope Anonymous had for a stealthy egress.
  1066. >Sighing, Anonymous planted his palms into the mattress and began to sit upright. The sudden movement made Condense grip Anon tighter before joining him in the waking world.
  1067. >Condense opened her eyes and blinked several times, trying to orient herself in her strange, dimly-lit surroundings. She pulled her face away from Anon's scarred chest, wiping a thin strand of drool from her mouth as she did. The mare brought a pink hoof to where her face had been resting, poking at Anon's muscles as if there was some hidden knowledge to be gleaned from them.
  1068. >Their combined motions activated the nightstand lamp, which fully illuminated Condense and her pillow of choice.
  1069. >Condense raised her head, her gaze ascending from Anon's chest to his neck, and finally coming to rest on his icy blue eyes. Neither party spoke, but each looked away before the other could see the crimson darkening their respective faces.
  1070. "Um... good mor-"
  1071. >"You had a nightmare and were thrashing around a lot," Condense was quick to explain, her ears drooping somewhat as Anon sat fully upright. "I was just making sure you weren't going to hurt yourself if you had another bad dream later on."
  1072. "Oh, um... right. Thank you."
  1073. >"You had bad dreams the night before last too, you know." Condense added. "I heard you from the living room."
  1074. >Anonymous gave his hair an absent-minded scratch.
  1075. "I've had nightmares of some sort every night since the Convergence." He answered; voice growing somber. "I typically relive what happened in my dreams."
  1076. >Condense reached out with a wing, resting the tips of her primaries on Anon's shoulder. "Do you... do you want to talk about it?"
  1077. >Anon closed his eyes and turned away.
  1078.  
  1079. ...
  1080.  
  1081. >Desmond rubbed his bloodshot eyes. The night was a success in the sense that he found a way to get Tony to loosen up around him, captivity notwithstanding. Tony had lectured on his life's work throughout the night and into the morning, giving his attentive and inquisitive captor an in-depth crash course on synthetic life forms.
  1082. "Wait," Desmond said with a stifled yawn. "What made these two so special if synthetic humans had been done before?"
  1083. >Tony grinned,wide and toothy; reminiscent of the quintessential mad scientist portrayed in ancient science fiction films.
  1084. >"*That* is the million-dollar question, isn't it?" Tony replied, pacing the length of his living room. "Rather, the five-point-three billion dollar question."
  1085. >Desmond gave a low, long whistle. His bare metal fingertips played with the curled ends of his red El Bandito-styled mustache as he waited for Bowhannon to continue. He didn't have to wait long.
  1086. >"Augmentation. The industry had struggled for ages trying to make it work. Injuries, rapid tissue degeneration, tumors, neurological issues, they plagued all the projects for decades..."
  1087. >Desmond leaned forward in his seat.
  1088. "I'm guessing you made a breakthrough?"
  1089. >Tony nodded. "A series of them, which gained the attention and financial backing of the RMAZ military."
  1090. "You made them supersoldiers," Desmond stated.
  1091. >"Oh no," Tony chided, wagging his finger at the larger man. "You think too small! Too conservative! Not only was I able to augment strength and stamina, I was chasing literal immortality! Why, I was about to validate my telomere research before..."
  1092. >Tony trailed off. He made his way to the couch Desmond occupied and sat next to him. A wistful look soon dominated his visage.
  1093. >"Eve was the proof-of-concept to my benefactors. She was everything they wanted, but Adam... he was to be the culmination of my life's work, the pinnacle of human achievement..."
  1094. >He clenched his fist, slamming it on his thigh.
  1095. "Did the Convergence stop you from finishing your work?"
  1096. >"No," Tony replied, hanging his head. "Eve was completed months before the Convergence."
  1097. "But not Adam?"
  1098. >"I never got the chance to test his unique enhancements."
  1099. "Why?"
  1100. >"There was... an accident... when we 'activated' Eve for the first time," Tony said, wiping his eyes.
  1101. >Desmond turned to face Tony head-on and waited for elaboration. Tony stared at his hands for some time, the horrors of the test flashing through his mind.
  1102. >"Eve's brain was grown in the tank, just like the rest of her. Many of my peers, DeTerra included, vehemently opposed my plan to use an untested synth brain with a programmed consciousness instead of a donor brain, or at least a transferred consciousness."
  1103. >Tony stood, tugging at the wispy white strands of hair that he still had.
  1104. "What happened?" Desmond asked, unable to contain his curiosity. "Something obviously went wrong."
  1105. >"Everything was fine at first," Tony began. "Eve opened her eyes and stood from the tank... You should've seen her, Desmond. Tall, graceful, perfectly proportioned, quite the looker too; features matched exactly to my artistic sketches."
  1106. "Yeah?" Desmond grinned at the description.
  1107. >"Yeah. And then it all went sideways." Tony sighed, slumping down into the love seat adjacent to Desmond's couch.
  1108. "Come on! You can't just leave it on a cliffhanger like that? What went wrong!?"
  1109. >"She attacked us, including the RMAZ army officers that were in attendance. Though her rampage only lasted mere seconds, she mortally-wounded one of our staff before being gunned down by security."
  1110. "Holy shit."
  1111. >"That day was supposed to be my validation. I was so close. Instead, my own creation derailed my life's work and killed a colleague."
  1112. "What happened to Adam?"
  1113. >"The Army happened. They took possession of him. My magnum opus was taken away before I could complete him.
  1114. >Tony covered his face with his trembling hands.
  1115. >"Things only got worse at the company after that. I didn't get fired, but my budget was slashed and reallocated to other divisions. Anonymous quit, which left our android group without their leader and subject matter expert. And if that wasn't enough..."
  1116. "The Convergence destroyed what was left." Desmond finished for Tony.
  1117. >"Damned physicists... thinking they could play God with no repercussions!"
  1118. "Isn't that exactly what you were doing?"
  1119. >Tony glared at his captor, who was extracting a device from the depths of the rucksack he'd brought with him. Desmond yawned as he activated the torpedo-shaped object, placing it atop an adjustable tripod mount that he'd also pulled from his ruck.
  1120. >"What is that?"
  1121. "Mini auto-sentry turret!" Desmond replied with another yawn. "It's hover unit is busted, but everything else works just fine."
  1122. >"Why in God's name are you setting that up in here?"
  1123. "As much as I hope we'll someday become the best of friends," Desmond began after a queer smile, "I can't rule out the possibility that you may be tempted to unburden yourself of my company."
  1124. >He unpacked a sleeping bag, laid it on the couch, and began to crawl inside.
  1125. "Hence the turret. Neat little thing, isn't it? One of the very few goodies I was able to swipe from the unit's armory while everything was going tits-up. It's saved my ass more times than I care to remember."
  1126. >"I see."
  1127. "I don't mean to be rude, Tony, but we've been talking all night and I'm spent. I'm racking out for a while. Sweet dreams, snookums!"
  1128. >With that, Desmond retreated into the depths of his sleeping bag. Tony slowly rose from his seat, his movements tracked by the watchful optics of Desmond's sentry turret. He retreated from the couches, back to the relative safety of the master bedroom.
  1129. >"God help me," he muttered before collapsing on his bed.
  1130.  
  1131. ...
  1132.  
  1133. >Condense trotted, ever mindful of her surroundings. Her long pink legs carried her at a brisk pace, yet took her nowhere.
  1134. >She had finally forgotten about the makeshift cloth sling Anonymous had fashioned for her wing prior to beginning his exercise. Condense insisted on joining him for this portion of his morning routine, for which he insisted they immobilize her injured limb. Anon had been firm, yet gentle in securing her wing- tender, even- with his touch.
  1135. >The extra support from the improvised restraint made trotting less painful, though a stinging sensation persisted if her steps were too heavy. Nevertheless, the reprieve from major discomfort was welcome, and her inward-facing vantage point in the corner of the gym further distracted her from nagging wing pain. Her trotting, the faint whine of the treadmill motor, and Anon's labored grunts were the only sounds that filled the room.
  1136. >Anonymous went about his workout routine as usual after wrapping Condense's wing and showing her how to operate the treadmill. He had in fact forgotten her presence, albeit temporarily, with the added stimulus of music piping through his headphones as he faced his current challenge; two hundred and twenty-five kilograms.
  1137. >Condense watched Anonymous squat down with the weight on his upper back, the bar bending slightly under its load. Her pace quickened from trot to canter as the question she'd been ignoring all morning returned to dominate her thoughts:
  1138. 'Who am I?'
  1139. >How does one forget their identity, their history, in the blink of an eye? She had retained a very limited knowledge of other pony species and of magic, but why couldn't she recall anything else? That lost knowledge continued to elude her, always just out of sight of her mind's eye.
  1140. >Her gait now perfectly matched with the treadmill, Condense dared to close her eyes, hoping the temporary loss of sight may coax forth any additional memories.
  1141. >Despite her best efforts to clear her mind, all she could recall is sorrow; grief from loss. It seemed to saturate the air, more so than the scent of sweat. Perhaps diving into this feeling would be the key to dispelling her amnesia?
  1142. >Only one way to find out.
  1143. >Anon's breathing changed. Condense opened her eyes to find him gripping the thick handle of a large, black iron ball with the marking "48 kg" on its side. He lifted it overhead in an fluid, explosive motion, lowered it, and lifted it again, only pausing a fraction of a second between repetitions. Throughout it all, Anon's face remained mostly stoic, his eyes focused on a distant snow-burdened pine swaying outside the window.
  1144. >Condense accelerated to a full gallop, her gaze fixed on her mysterious host. She continued her sprint, distracted from the exertion by the emotional turmoil that enveloped her. As she stared at Anonymous, a mare's voice suddenly rang out in her mind.
  1145. >'Are you alright? You've been distant lately.'
  1146. >No sooner did the foreign voice enter Condense's mind did Anon falter in his exercise, recovering quickly enough to set the ball on the floor in a controlled manner. He shook his head and stood, taking a minute to catch his breath, apparently still lost in his own thoughts.
  1147. >Anonymous resumed his activity. Condense continued to gallop. Both parties continued to push themselves to their limits, each searching for sanctuary from their troubles, however temporary the respite might be.
  1148. >Sweat foam had long since lathered on Condense's pink coat, and several minutes of hard galloping accelerated its accumulation. She managed to telekinetically-manipulate the treadmill's controls for a quick, but steady deceleration. With shaky legs she dismounted the treadmill, then gazed to her right, where Anonymous now attacked a hanging red heavy bag.
  1149. >His kicks sounded like gunshots, each one making Condense flinch. While each strike delivered by his shin or foot would've been extremely painful to a live recipient, Condense was sure they would pale in comparison to the pain that radiated from Anon's icy blue eyes.
  1150. >She had barely turned to leave when she heard a filly's voice.
  1151. >'We'll always be together, right, Papa Bear?'
  1152. >Anonymous screamed, startling Condense with his bitter, anguished cry. His fists, feet, and shins hit the bag in rapid succession until he collapsed to his knees. Condense's first instinct was to rush to her new friend's aid, but she hesitated; thinking she heard the filly speak again.
  1153. >Unable to locate the source of the phantom voice, Condense turned back to her companion. His head hung low, face covered by bloodied hands. Condense moved with care, ensuring her approaching hoofsteps were audible. Unsure of what to say, she dropped to her haunches beside Anon and stretched out her right wing, draping her purple-tipped primaries over his shoulder.
  1154. >She felt Anonymous tense under her touch, but it didn't discourage her from attempting to pull him closer to her.
  1155. >He didn't move.
  1156. >Condense changed her approach, opting to scoot closer to the man until her forelegs touched his arms. With her wing still draped over his back, Condense rested her chin on the back of Anon's sweat-soaked head.
  1157. >With time, Anon relaxed and leaned against the sitting mare. Emboldened, Condense dared to raise her right forehoof, bringing it to rest on his back. She traced small circles over his wet t-shirt for a scant few seconds before Anonymous rose from the floor.
  1158. >"Thank you," he said, his shaky voice barely audible. His fingers brushed behind Condense's left ear but a moment before he limped out of the room, left leg clicking faintly with each step.
  1159. "You're welcome," Condense whispered to the now-empty room.
  1160.  
  1161. ...
  1162.  
  1163. >Distant buzzing, undecipherable and undetectable to human ears, roused the girl from her slumber. She was warm, wrapped in thick blankets, flanked by her new adoptive aunt and uncle, both of whom were still asleep.
  1164. >Chrissy sat upright and leaned forward, hoping to hear the soloist call out again, or for the chorus to reply. She didn't have to wait long.
  1165. >Communiques were projected via the emerging hivemind by the would-be protoqueen, who was becoming more adept at asserting herself. While young, lacking leadership experience, and nowhere near as powerful as Chrissy, this new rival to her rightful throne could not be underestimated.
  1166. >The drones continued to search for surviving members of the hive at the protoqueen's behest. As long as she continued to passively monitor her drones' telepathic transmissions, none of them would be cognizant of Chrissy's survival, let alone her presence on this alien plane. She would use that to her advantage, buying her time to formulate a strategy.
  1167. >The first order of business would be to feed, to replensish her magic and strength. Next, Chrissy would need to retake the hive, however many or few drones remained. Finally, she would find a way to return home to resume her original mission- revenge.
  1168. >It was so close, tantalizing in its proximity, Chrissy could virtually taste it; almost feel her fangs sinking into its metaphorical flesh. Had she not dawdled and delivered the finishing blow prior to her unexpected departure, perhaps she could at least rest easy, knowing the progenitor of her kind's genocide had finally been punished.
  1169. >But a quick death would've been too kind to the demon, especially in light of everything she had done.
  1170. >Chrissy would have her revenge, and she would savor it, revel in it.
  1171. >Assuming her sworn enemy was even here.
  1172. >Chrissy shook her head- that was a concern for another day. She had to focus on the present if she wished to persist into the future.
  1173. >Ambient magic was in short supply here, as the lonely, displaced queen was painfully aware. Assuming her current form the night prior nearly depleted her reserves, making her act of being an exhausted, hypothermic alien child more genuine than she originally intended. Her drones and the usurper would have undoubtedly realized that utilizing their natural camouflaging abilities would be all but impossible, and that harvesting (and conserving) as much raw love as possible would be paramount to continued survival.
  1174. >In that regard, Chrissy possessed the advantage, however tenuous her hold on it may be. These two "humans" were chock full of her preferred sustenance; a veritable oasis in an emotional desert that offered little else besides anger and despair. Not that those negative emotions couldn't be metabolized, they simply lacked the potency of love by several orders of magnitude.
  1175. 'With these two at my disposal, I may have more food than the entire surviving swarm.'
  1176. >The revelation gave her pause. With every passing day, the protoqueen would grow in power and influence, and Chrissy's drones would forsake their rightful queen in favor of the new upstart. Conversely, "Aunt Sarah" and "Uncle James" could- in theory- replenish Chrissy's reserves to the point of allowing her to reclaim the hive by force, should it be necessary.
  1177. >Draining these two completely would take time. Too fast, and they would die before releasing every last wisp of their sweet essence. However, should she take too long to bleed them, the power gained from feeding may be insufficient to overpower the protoqueen, especially if the hive found other love-filled humans.
  1178. >It would be a delicate balancing act, one that would need to be meticulously calibrated by the day, if not by the hour. In the interim, she would continue to feed, gleaning crucial intelligence from the memories bound to the emotions that she harvested.
  1179. >James and Sarah both dreamed of their late daughter, to whom Chrissy bore a slight resemblance. She would take advantage of this, weakening their mental and emotional defenses, coaxing them to accept her as their own blood.
  1180. >After all, love given freely is substantially more powerful than love that's stolen.
  1181.  
  1182. ...
  1183.  
  1184. >Anonymous dragged the razor across his jawline. The finely-honed blade left a swath of baby-smooth skin in its wake, displacing the rich, white lather of shaving cream and week-old salt-and-pepper beard alike with a satisfying scraping sound. Subsequent methodical strokes, the product of muscle memory cultivated from years of practice, shaved more than hair from the man. Indeed, Anonymous appeared younger now that he was clean-shaven, but even his straight razor couldn't hide the weathering that scars on his cheek and brow contributed to his visage.
  1185. >Freshly-showered, clean shaven, and dressed in warm, cozy clothes befitting of the weather, Anonymous finally felt presentable. It was a curious thing, to worry about his appearance for the first time in years. Not that the man hadn't practiced good hygiene and grooming in the years following the apocalypse- he had- but it was driven purely by habit and routine instead of a conscious decision.
  1186. >His footsteps were light, his strides graceful, eerily so considering the strain his legs had been subjected to minutes prior. Frustrated grunting and sighs greeted him prior to arriving at his destination.
  1187. >Condense struggled with something behind her bedroom door- with what, Anonymous couldn't ascertain. His knuckles rapped the solid door thrice before he spoke.
  1188. "You alright in there?"
  1189. >"Yes!" was Condense's terse reply between additional grunts.
  1190. >Anon allowed himself to grin.
  1191. "Are you sure about that?"
  1192. >All noises behind the stained oaken portal ceased. Anonymous waited, leaning forward with his right hand hovering over the door knob. An exasperated whinny erupted from the room not two seconds later, followed by a, "Ugh! Anon... a little help, please?"
  1193. >Anon opened the door to find Condense sitting on her haunches in the center of the room, her horn sparking with blue light. A hairbrush dangled in her long, wet mane.
  1194. "Jesus Christ! What the hell is-" Anon said, looking at Condense's glowing horn. "Oh, right. 'Magic'. It's not enough that you're a talking pink pony, you just had to be bioluminescent and telekinetic as well, huh?"
  1195. >Condense gave him a lopsided smile. "Uh... sorry?"
  1196. >Anon facepalmed.
  1197. "Fuck it, this is my life now, I guess," he muttered before speaking up. "So what's going on here?"
  1198. >Condense scrunched her muzzle and attempted to light her horn again. It sputtered to life, accompanied by intermittent chiming, but a sky-blue haze was all she could generate in spite of her determined demeanor. "I don't have as much magic available as I thought," Condense answered, hanging her head. "I was able to take my sling off before showering, but I used up the mana I had left brushing my tail."
  1199. "I see..." Anonymous said, mentally noting how the mare's tail was sleek and smooth, ending in tight curls that highlighted the vibrant mixes of pink, purple, and yellow it consisted of. Those curls moved like weighted coil springs, unwinding with sudden movement, only to roll back up into its original position in stubborn defiance of gravity.
  1200. >"Anon?" Condense asked to regain the man's attention.
  1201. "Condense?"
  1202. >The mare raised a forehoof and rested it on Anon's chest.
  1203. >"Would you... would you brush my mane?" she asked, fluttering her long eyelashes to augment her plea. "Pretty please?"
  1204. >Anonymous remained silent and stared into the vibrant light purple eyes that continued to beg him to grant their owner's request. He hadn't brushed someone else's hair in years.
  1205. >The morning of the Convergence, to be precise.
  1206. >He had brushed his daughter's hair that fateful day, using the same brush that now hung in a tricolored bird's nest of pony hair.
  1207. >Condense's ears began to droop and her hopeful smile diminished, which was enough to snap Anon out of his sorrowful reflections.
  1208. "Yeah. Of course I will."
  1209. >"Really!?" Condense exclaimed. Her eyes shimmered with excitement.
  1210. "Really Really." Anon replied as he extracted the brush from the mess of tangles that had secured it within its fibrous prison.
  1211. >He crossed the remaining distance to Condense's bed and sat. The mare followed in his wake wearing a smile that brightened up the entire room- a smile that persisted long after she sat between his feet, facing away from her host-turned-groomer.
  1212. >Anonymous grabbed a fistful of yellow strands and began to attack the damp mass with the brush. The mane fought him but started to yield to his will with every brushstroke. Condense's curls slowed the brush and were temporarily straightened by the bristles, but they never failed to bounce back into their tight spirals. Soon, Anonymous had the brush gliding unhindered through over a meter of bright yellow hair. He then separated the pink section from the others and began the process anew.
  1213. >Condense sighed. "A girl could get used to this."
  1214. >Anon chuffed, then refocused his attention on a few stubborn tangles that refused to submit.
  1215. >There was plenty of slack in Condense's mane between her crest and Anon's hand, so she turned her head to get a better look at him. "You look nice," she said, pointing to Anon's face with her horn.
  1216. "Thanks," Anon said, keeping his gaze fixed on the nest he fought with. "There's a pretty girl roaming around my house these days, so I figured I ought to look presentable."
  1217. >Condense muffled an already-quiet giggle with her right forehoof, though it did little to attenuate the rhythmic shaking of her barrel. Anon grinned to himself; a genuine, but fleeting expression.
  1218. >He focused on his task, ever-diligent in his work, oblivious to the large eye that studied the minutia of his mannerisms. Condense's mind raced. She had so many questions for the man, she didn't know where to begin, or what was even appropriate for her to inquire about.
  1219. >The mare continued to contemplate what was fair game for conversation as Anon finished brushing her mane.
  1220. "There," he said, "all finished."
  1221. >Anon ran his fingers through the mare's silky mane, enjoying the fruits of his handiwork. Condense hummed her acknowledgment and closed her eyes, content to enjoy the extra attention of Anon's wandering fingers. They continued to comb through her mane, caressing her crest and neck in places as they went. Condense then rested her chin upon Anon's knee, and his petting ceased.
  1222. "I uh... thought I saw a spot I missed," was his hasty explanation.
  1223. >Condense looked at him with puppy dog eyes and said, "You didn't have to stop."
  1224. >They stared at each other, neither daring to look away. That is, until Condense's stomach growled loud enough for Anon to hear.
  1225. "I'll make breakfast," he said with a laugh.
  1226. >"Anonnnnn~" Condense protested as Anon stood. She rose with him and extended her wing in an attempt to block his path, a movement she instantly regretted. She retracted her wing with a hiss.
  1227. "Aw shit, Condense... let me look at that."
  1228. >Anon dropped to a knee and reached for Condense's wing. She reluctantly relaxed her injured limb in his delicate grasp.
  1229. "Tell me if anything I do hurts," Anon instructed as he took his time extending her wing.
  1230. >"TSSSS! Stop!"
  1231. "Alright... sorry about that."
  1232. >"I'll be fine." Condense replied through gritted teeth.
  1233. >Anon began to work his hands up Condense's wing to where it joined her barrel. He poked and prodded at various muscle attachment points. Pressure applied to certain areas made the mare flinch, but the pain wasn't intense enough to provoke a vocalization of discomfort.
  1234. "We'll need to apply heat to this area and keep this wing moving often." Anon stated as he began to massage a knot behind Condense's wing.
  1235. >The mare's breathing became somewhat labored.
  1236. >"Why's that?" she asked between shallow gasps for air.
  1237. >Anonymous continued to knead his fingers into Condense's tense fight muscles. He fanned them out, then pushed his fingertips deeper into the pink fur and pliant flesh it covered, earning him an "Ah!" from his roommate.
  1238. "You need to keep blood flowing to the area to promote healing- not that wing, silly," he said, pointing to the mare's left wing which had now flared to its full span, "the injured one."
  1239. >Anonymous continued to massage all around the mare's flight muscles for several minutes, doing his best to gauge her pain as he went, as she was unusually still, save for the quick swelling and contracting of her barrel.
  1240. 'Girl's trying to be tough,' Anon thought. 'Still, probably a good idea to check on her.'
  1241. "You doing alright?"
  1242. >Condense closed her eyes and nodded several times, releasing a long, forceful breath as she did. "Anon! NNNNN...mmmm-hmmm!"
  1243. "Sorry! Sorry..."
  1244. >Anonymous retracted his hands, stood, and walked into Condense's closet.
  1245. "Think I overdid it," he called out whilst rummaging through the closet. "But the more we work those muscles, the easier it will... ah ha! Found it!"
  1246. >The man emerged from the closet with a triumphant smile.
  1247. "Heating pad!" he said, pointing to the large, thick rectangular cloth in his hand. "Keep this on your wing. It'll fluctuate the amount of heat it generates with time."
  1248. >Condense didn't respond, as she was occupied fanning her flushed face with her good wing. Her tail swished in sharp, violent motions.
  1249. "Condense?"
  1250. >"Setitonthebedplease!"
  1251. "Are you going to be okay-"
  1252. >"IJUSTNEEDAMINUTE!"
  1253. >Condense galloped the few short meters into the adjacent bathroom. The door slammed shut behind her, but it didn't completely muffle the sounds of her heavy breathing. Anon followed and stood outside the door, wondering what he should do.
  1254. 'Poor thing is clearly in pain,' he thought as a low moan emanated from the bathroom. 'Didn't mean to make it worse. Good going, deTerra... fucking dumbass.'
  1255. >The breathing within the bathroom quickened, growing louder and more ragged.
  1256. 'It'd probably be best if I gave her privacy,' he thought upon hearing another low moan from the mare. 'Plus, I don't care to hear a pony puking before I make breakfast.'
  1257. >Anonymous retreated from Condense's room. He had barely reached the foot of the stairs when he heard a loud whinny echo throughout the upper level. The man shook his head.
  1258. "Poor girl."
  1259.  
  1260. ...
  1261.  
  1262. >"My Petite Pony... My Petite Pony... Come a-long it's time to play!"
  1263. >Anonymous glanced at the monitor that played the generation-old children's show, then back to his notebook. His pen scratched at the paper, leaving his neat, precise script behind.
  1264.  
  1265. >[Based on the few episodes I've watched, my hypothesis is Condense was modeled after the "My Petite Pony" character "Candy Kiss", though she seems to share some of the personality quirks of "Sundance", another main character. The aforementioned characters are members of "The Foundations of Creation", a group of ponies blessed with extraordinary magical powers that are charged with protecting their homeland from existential threats. With this contextual knowledge, I searched for companies that offered automaton reproductions of show characters.]
  1266.  
  1267. >He paused, contemplating the order in which to present his latest findings. This was, for all intents and purposes, a research project. More than a passing interest or hobby, Anonymous approached this task with the same rigor he was used to applying to his professional endeavors.
  1268. >Scientific curiosity notwithstanding, Condense was his responsibility. If investigation into her origins might yield some clue that could in turn be used to unlock her memories, Anon owed it to the mare to continue this work.
  1269.  
  1270. >[Condense possesses zero cybernetic components, as I previously confirmed. The argument could be made that searching for a cyborg analog to a creation as complex and unique as her would be pointless. However, for the sake of completeness, I have looked for exactly that.]
  1271.  
  1272. >[As I anticipated, no major cybernetic manufacturer on the North American continent offered such frivolous products. In fact, only a handful of boutique designers offered custom cyborg pets. Cursory searches into European manufacturers bore similar results. Asian listings were spotty, their claims dubious. Regardless, expecting to find a variety of custom cyborgs inspired by characters from a generation-old show that only ran for three seasons is foolish.]
  1273.  
  1274. >[I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Condense is a synthetic life form. Back to square one- I have no new information about Condense; only partial confirmations of my initial suppositions. Even in the AAG, we would struggle to create wings as complex and sensitive as hers. Forget about the tactile feathers- that's a multi-million dollar product-]
  1275.  
  1276. >A loud thump and a pained shout from somewhere in the house interrupted Anon's writing. He scrambled to the study's entrance and observed; still, silent, and tense- ready to leap into action. All was now still in the house. Outside, the wind continued to pummel the house, blanketing the structure with snow. The day's dying light barely illuminated the otherwise-dark foyer, thanks in part to the frozen white coating on the windows.
  1277. "You alright?" he called out in the direction of Condense's room.
  1278. >"Yeah!" her muffled voice answered after a pause.
  1279. >Anon shrugged and returned to his desk. He had barely picked up his pen when the words, "No, not really, actually!" reached his ears.
  1280.  
  1281. >[Signing off for now. Seems Condense had a mishap during her "magic practice".]
  1282.  
  1283. ...
  1284.  
  1285. >Five days their routine remained constant as the brutal snowstorm raged on, leaving them confined indoors. At 0500 hours, Anon would rise, don his exercise attire, walk to Condense's room, and knock on her door. The mare would answer within seconds, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as the expression went. They exercised for ninety minutes. As the equipment was designed for humans, there wasn't much besides the treadmill that Condense could use, but it mattered little to the mare.
  1286. >Condense enjoyed running. From her treadmill she could keep a watchful eye on Anonymous as he progressed through his various grueling routines. Like the first day, both man and mare pushed themselves, but were careful to not tread too close to the boundaries of total exhaustion. Condense didn't hear the disembodied voices again, nor did Anonymous lose his composure as had been the case for both parties on the first day.
  1287. >They showered following exercise, but unlike the first day, Condense had regained more independence as grooming was concerned thanks to her (slightly) increased magical endurance. The companions met in the kitchen after concluding their respective hygiene activities. Anon cooked, answering Condense's endless questions as he did. Some days they could converse in the dining room until lunch, at which time Anon would prepare their next meal, his bubbly pink shadow eager to help where she could.
  1288. >Anon found himself looking forward to the long conversations shared with his inquisitive housemate. Condense's mind was like a sponge, eagerly soaking up every tidbit of knowledge she could glean about the world around her. The mare's proclivity for learning further endeared herself to Anonymous, who found a kindred spirit in Condense.
  1289. >Every afternoon, Anonymous would excuse himself to his study, the only room in the house he had deemed off-limits to Condense. The mare didn't question the rule, opting to respect his privacy and his time, content to read or watch shows whenever Anon retreated to the forbidden room. While Condense entertained herself, Anon continued to investigate all potential leads on Condense's origins, documenting his findings by hand in a notebook dedicated to the subject.
  1290. >The evenings would invariably end the same, with Condense and Anon sitting on the couch, watching a centuries-old television show that Condense had become enthralled with. Condense was captivated by Star Trek: The Next Generation, and had already progressed into its second season. Anonymous had a jaded, cynical view of the show's optimism for the future, but he watched it nevertheless with Condense at her behest without complaint.
  1291. >Most nights, Condense fell asleep watching the show. The mare often drifted to sleep curled up at Anon's side with the man's hand gently stroking her silky mane. She enjoyed the attention as much as Anonymous enjoyed giving it (though he would never admit it to her or himself), and it provided a distraction from the pain and twitching that had been steadily increasing from his prosthetic.
  1292. >Anon carried the mare to her room on the nights she fell asleep next to him. Had he bothered to look down on either occasion, he might have noticed the content grin that would spread across Condense's face as he held her close.
  1293. >Tonight was shaping up to be more of the same. Condense began the evening sitting closer to her companion than she normally did. She had made a show of flipping her entire mane to her right side so that it faced Anonymous prior to settling in. Anonymous grinned, internally resolving to make Condense wait, to force her to explicitly ask for the mane petting she had come to adore.
  1294. >It seemed like tonight might be the wrong night for Anon's ploy, however, as Condensew was totally absorbed in the episode they were watching. Data, her favorite character, was on trial.
  1295. >["Commander, what are you?"] Riker asked.
  1296. >["An android."] Data answered.
  1297. >["Which is?"]
  1298. >Anonymous tried to focus on Data's neutral delivery of the definition of "android" from "Webster's Twenty-Fourth Century Dictionary, Fifth Edition", but his own android parts were shooting sharp, burning pains into his natural, living tissue, making it difficult to pay attention.
  1299. >Condense leaned close and whispered, "Captain Picard won't let Starfleet take Data away, right Anon?"
  1300. "I dunno," Anon replied after a soft, hissing exhalation through clenched teeth. "I've never seen this episode."
  1301. >Condense nodded and returned to watching the holoscreen from her alert, upright seated position, rapt and motionless.
  1302. >Riker stood next to the Starfleet judge, clearly uncomfortable with what he was about to propose. ["...I request to be allowed to remove the Commander's hand for your inspection."]
  1303. >Condense didn't notice Anon seize up at Riker's suggestion, nor did she seem to notice his breathing quicken; becoming shallow and nervous.
  1304. >Picard objected, but summarily withdrew it.
  1305. >Anon's clenched his hand over his knee with a white-knuckle grip. He watched in horror as Riker approached Data.
  1306. >["I'm sorry,"] Riker whispered to Data. He twisted the android's left forearm and pulled, detaching it from the rest of Data's body.
  1307. /.../
  1308.  
  1309. >Anonymous rolled over on the rocky mountainside, screaming in pain. His hands grasped at his left leg, which had been severed at the knee. His crimson blood stained the dusty earth as a squad mate tried to apply a tourniquet. His world went black.
  1310. ..
  1311. >Opening his eyes again, Anon saw the unfocused surroundings of a field hospital operating room. His vision faded in and out, never fully coming into focus.
  1312. >"...nature of the wound..." an unknown man's voice said, "...textbook candidate for cybernetic limb transplant."
  1313. >"Hang in there, soldier," another voice whispered in his ear, "we'll get you patched up and back in the fight in no time."
  1314. >Everything went dark again.
  1315. ..
  1316. >Light. His world was saturated in bright light and pain.
  1317. >Opening his eyes, Anon found himself in a hospital bed. His leg hurt like hell. He removed his sheet from his lap to find a heavy swath of dressings wrapped around his leg, from his upper shin to his lower thigh. A bare foot, cold and pale, touched his right calf.
  1318. >The foot wasn't his, but it was attached to him, where his left foot should be.
  1319. >Anon screamed. Somebody yelled for a nurse.
  1320.  
  1321. /.../
  1322.  
  1323. >Anonymous shook his head. He was back in his living room, sitting on his couch with Condense at his side.
  1324. >On the holoscreen, Riker walked back to the judge with Data's forearm in his hands.
  1325. 'I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay,' Anon chanted in his mind.
  1326. >Condense continued to stare at the screen, mouth hanging open in shock.
  1327. >["The Commander is a physical representation of a dream, an idea conceived of by the mind of a man. It's purpose is to serve human needs and interests. It's a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms."] Riker explained.
  1328. 'I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm okay.'
  1329. >["Its responses dictated by an elaborate software program written by a man. Its hardware built by a man."]
  1330. 'I'm okay...'
  1331. >["And now... and now a man will shut it off."]
  1332. "I'm not okay," Anon whispered.
  1333. >Before him, Riker reached behind Data's back. A loud click was heard, and Data slumped over the table, inanimate.
  1334. >"NO!" Condense screamed at the screen.
  1335. >Anonymous rose from the couch on shaking legs. He lurched forward and stumbled out of the living room. Riker's voice followed him out.
  1336. >["Pinocchio is broken. Its strings have been cut."]
  1337. >Anonymous was five steps into the dining room when an excruciating blast of pain shot up his leg. The sensation made his world turn pure white for a moment, though his vision returned in time for him to see the floor rushing up to his face.
  1338. >He writhed on the floor, colors exploding across his field of view, his leg clicking and twitching. With a roar Anonymous pulled down the "skin" that covered the transition between his natural leg and prosthetic. Sparks flashed from the exposed junction, lighting up the interstitial spaces between cables and bare metal with intermittent electric-blue pulses. Anonymous clenched his jaw and pushed his fingers into three specific points around his knee and femur, then twisted. Screaming in agony, the man pulled with one final effort, detaching the degrading limb.
  1339. >A gasp to his left commandeered his attention next.
  1340. >Condense stood at the other end of the kitchen, jaw slack, eyes as wide as Anon had ever seen them.
  1341. >"You're... you're like Data..." Condense said in disbelief. "You're a ma-"
  1342. "I am NOT a machine!" Anon screamed at the mare.
  1343. >Condense recoiled. Her ears drooped as she crouched down in submission. Between the housemates, Anon's detached leg continued to twitch and kick involuntarily.
  1344. >Anonymous leaned forward far enough to grab the leg and threw it.
  1345. "Piece of shit!" the enraged man yelled at the limb as it sailed across the kitchen.
  1346. >Condense sunk further into the floor at Anon's outburst, then covered her face with her forelegs when the leg crashed into the cupboard above the stove.
  1347. >Rolling over with a pained grunt, Anonymous used his arms to push himself off the ground and balance as he stood on his good foot. He tried to hop away, but a fresh jolt of pain coursed through his body, making him contort in agony and lose his balance mid-hop. The man hit the ground again with a meaty thud.
  1348. >"Anonymous!" Condense yelled. Concern for her friend vanquished her fear. She arrived at Anon's side in a heartbeat. She nuzzled the groaning man's face whilst trying to snake her forelegs around his torso. Condense managed to pull Anon into a sitting position before he struggled against her.
  1349. "Stop!" Anon protested.
  1350. >"What do you need!?"
  1351. "Trash can!" he yelled, pointing at the black container two meters away.
  1352. >The can glowed blue and was pulled to the man with blistering speed. As soon as it impacted Anon's waiting hands, he pushed the opening to his face and vomited. Condense patted her hoof on Anon's back while he continued to heave and wretch, doing her best to ignore the foul sour odor that soon emanated from the receptacle.
  1353. >Minutes passed. Anon finally ceased his retching. He tied off the trash can liner and pulled it from the can.
  1354. >"What are you doing?" Condense asked the man as he crawled away from her with the bag.
  1355. "Incinerator hatch," Anon answered, pointing to the small black metal door tucked into the adjacent wall three meters away.
  1356. >Condense secured the bag with her magic, pulling it from Anon's grasp. She was able to simultaneously levitate the bag and open the hatch with her magic.
  1357. >"There!" she said, after disposing of the bag. She returned to the man. "What's next?"
  1358. >Anonymous groaned again, then flopped on his back. He reached for the metallic implant at the terminus of his stump.
  1359. >"What's wrong!?"
  1360. "Neural interface... trying to compensate for lack of stimulus!" Anon said, grabbing Condense's hoof in his iron grip.
  1361. >"How do we fix it?"
  1362. "Need to reset!"
  1363. >"How?"
  1364. >Anonymous screamed. He slammed the floor with hammer fists. All Condense could do was watch teary-eyed as Anonymous rode out the pain. He writhed violently on the floor for about two minutes, but to both parties, it might as well have been an eternity. Then, as if a switch were flipped, Anon's spasms ceased, and he pushed himself from the floor.
  1365. "Condense...there's not much time," Anon said between gasps for air. "I've got less than sixty seconds before the interface tries to recalibrate for what it thinks is an attenuated control circuit."
  1366. >"What will that do to you?"
  1367. "It'll probably put me in a coma... if I'm lucky."
  1368. >Cadence gasped. Anon held up a finger.
  1369. "In my nightstand drawer there's a small, black cylinder with a red button on one end. Please bring it to me. Be careful not to press the button."
  1370. >Condense shot out of the dining room like a mare possessed. Anon focused on the sound of her hooves bounding up the stairs as he felt a new burning sensation radiate from his stump.
  1371. "Or maybe it was thirty seconds. Fuck me..."
  1372. >A cacophony of stomping reached his ears.
  1373. >"I've got the cylinder, Anon!" Condense yelled as she skidded across the tile floor with a black cylinder clutched in her left primary feathers. She crashed into the dining room table, then leaped sideways to her friend, apparently no worse for wear. "Tell me what to do!"
  1374. "Put it in my hand!" Anon yelled holding his palm out, eyes clenched shut.
  1375. >Something cold and round pressed into his palm. He fumbled with it, feeling for the button. With the button located, he placed his thumb on it, then slammed the opposite end into his stump.
  1376. >Anon pressed the button, the cylinder hissed and then jolted in his grip, making him flinch.
  1377. >"What do I do next?" Condense asked, jabbing a hoof into Anon's chest.
  1378. >He didn't respond, save for a sigh. His grip on the cylinder relaxed, allowing it to fall and roll away on the tile floor. Condense observed three droplets of blood oozing out of his stump in the shape of an equilateral triangle from where the cylinder had been.
  1379.  
  1380. /.../
  1381.  
  1382. >The pain was gone when Anonymous opened his eyes again. He laid in a hospital bed with clean linen sheets draped over him.
  1383. >Anon sat upright. His motion triggered an alarm, gaining the attention of a nearby medic.
  1384. >Her olive-toned hand pressed against his chest in an attempt to make him stay put.
  1385. >"Easy there, Sergeant deTerra," she said in a calm voice. "You're going to have to learn how to walk again with this prosthetic."
  1386. "Learn to walk again?" Anon repeated.
  1387. >"Most get the hang of it within a week or two," she assured him, "but I've got a feeling we'll be removing your training wheels sooner than that."
  1388. "Who are you?"
  1389. >"Private First Class Hernandez."
  1390. "I can see *that*," Anon retorted, pointing at her uniform. "What's your name?"
  1391. >"Maria," she said, tucking a lock of jet-black hair behind her ear while sporting a demure smile. She held out her hand to the man.
  1392. >He clasped her dainty hand in his and squeezed.
  1393. "Anonymous."
  1394. >Maria's lips moved, but they didn't sync with the panicked words the man heard.
  1395. >"Wake up Anonymous! Wake up! Don't you dare leave me! Wake up! Wake up!
  1396.  
  1397. /.../
  1398.  
  1399. >The bright hospital room transformed into a dimly-lit dining room ceiling. A mass of pink swam across Anon's vision, slowly morphing into a lovely equine face that hovered above him.
  1400. "Hey there, Pretty Girl..." Anon mumbled.
  1401. >"Oh thank goodness!" Condense collapsed onto Anon's chest, knocking the wind out of him.
  1402. >The mare nuzzled Anon's face, wrapped all four legs around him, then squeezed with all her might. Two sets of fingers combed through Condense's mane and pet her neck in response.
  1403. >Tears and short, sweet kisses fell on Anon's forehead and cheeks. "Don't you ever scare me like that again, Mister!" Condense chided between pecks.
  1404. "Can't promise you that."
  1405. >Condense scowled.
  1406. "Help me up, please."
  1407. >The mare complied with his wishes, helping him into a seated position once more. Anon used his arms to scoot backwards until a wall halted his travel.
  1408. >"What was that cylinder thing I gave you?" Condense asked after Anon came to a halt.
  1409. "Something our medics carried in their aid bags to give to soldiers in the event they got shot or lost a limb in combat."
  1410. >"Was your leg hurting you that bad?"
  1411. "Not as bad as it hurt having it detached."
  1412. >"Then why'd you take it off?"
  1413. "Couldn't stand to be connected to it another minute. And I forgot about needing to reset the interface. That reminds me- downstairs on my workbench there's gray device about the size of a paperback book with the words, 'Android Detection and Diagnostic Device' on it. I need it to reset my neural interface before this anesthetic's second wave hits."
  1414. >Condense nodded, stood, and trotted from sight. Anonymous sat still and silent in her absence, grateful for the effects of the self-administered injection. Before he knew it, a weight landed in his lap, and his pretty pink roommate sat on her haunches at his foot.
  1415. "Thanks," Anon said as he activated the device.
  1416. >Condense said nothing. She stared at Anon's stump and the metallic object that protruded from it. Anonymous held the gray object near his stump and pressed a button. It emitted a flat curtain of light that swept back and forth over Anon's neural interface. The handheld device beeped three times and extinguished the light.
  1417. "Done." Anon said as he dropped the device on the floor.
  1418. >Again, Condense didn't reply. She continued to stare at Anonymous's mangled stump. Anon's prosthetic, which continued to spark and kick on its own volition from its resting place in the kitchen was the only thing that made noise.
  1419. >Sorrow and remorse washed over Condense. She didn't know where it came from, but she bowed her head from its influence all the same.
  1420. "I wasn't always like this," Anon said staring at his leg, his voice low and gravelly. "I used to be complete, once upon a time..."
  1421. >Condense raised her head to look at Anon but didn't know what to say.
  1422. "The pain... it never goes away. After a while, you get used to it, learn how to ignore it- how to cope- so you can function day-to-day. But it never lets you forget... what you've lost."
  1423. >Anon leaned his head back against the wall.
  1424. "Those quiet moments at night are the worst. I lie awake in bed, completely alone, thinking about all I've done, all I didn't do. If I could have saved anyone had I been stronger. I worry about the price I'll have to pay for my sins."
  1425. >Anon's eyes met Condense's. She watched his pupils dilate to an unnatural diameter.
  1426. "I lie awake and stare at the handprints on my ceiling. And I wonder if I'll ever be whole again."
  1427. >The more Condense stared at Anonymous, the more she felt like a part of her had been ripped away. Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell to the cold tiles below.
  1428. >Anon's head wobbled. Condense wiped her eyes and moved to steady him, but stopped in her tracks when she heard a new voice; the filly from her first morning in the gym.
  1429. >"Will you read me a story, Papa Bear?"
  1430. >"Who said that?" Condense hissed, looking around. She crouched down, her back facing Anon, ready to pounce on any intruders.
  1431. >Anon sat forward, his torso weaving back and forth.
  1432. >"Anonymous, get up." Condense said, anxiety creeping into her voice. "If you can climb on my back, I can carry you-"
  1433. "This is a mistake, Tony!" Anon barked in the direction of the table. "The Army may be fine with you playing God, but I want no part of this!"
  1434. >"Anon, please, stay with me..." Condense begged, turning around to nuzzle his face.
  1435. >The affection seemed to snap Anon out of his delirium. He reached up and stroked Condense's cheek.
  1436. >"Anonymous, c'mon, lets-"
  1437. >"Sometimes it feels like I'm married to a complete stranger." a new mare's voice said behind Condense.
  1438. >Condense gasped and whirled around. There was nobody there. Strange voices whispered around them.
  1439. "What did I do wrong, Maria?" Anon asked Condense, throwing his hands up.
  1440. >"Anon, it's me, Condense! I need your help, I think somebody's in here with us!"
  1441. "What's wrong with me?" Anon cried out at the mare. "Why don't you want me anymore?"
  1442. >Condense lit her horn and grunted as she attempted to lift Anonymous with her magic. The man began to lift under her influence. That is, until Condense heard a new voice, bristling with pride and excitement.
  1443. >"Gentlemen, I give you... Eve!"
  1444. >Anon's eyes grew wide to the point of looking comical, were the mood not inexplicably dire. He gasped; a loud, drawn-out, terrible grating sound. Condense looked into his eyes and felt pure terror. They screamed in unison.
  1445. >Anonymous tried to scramble away but couldn't move. A blue glow surrounded him, accompanied by a loud humming reminiscent of an electrical transformer that drowned out Condense's terrified screams. The light grew brighter; the humming, louder. There was a loud crack and they were soon shrouded in darkness.
  1446.  
  1447.  
  1448. Chapter 3

Ghost in the Shadows (WIP)

by ReggieSomething

Moon Cuddles

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Fever Dream

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Big Tits, Classic Rock, and Beer

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Hey, Roomie!

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