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Shape Your Home, April Fools' Day 2021 Chapter

By Ponegreen
Created: 3rd April 2021 12:10:51 AM
Modified: 11th April 2021 04:33:39 PM

  1. 2077
  2.  
  3. "Some things change sometimes." - A quote, presumably.
  4.  
  5. >Equestria's famed mysterious south.
  6. >The well known wide nothing beyond Appleloosa and the deep forsaken jungles that most ponies only know from adventure novels.
  7. >A land of extremes, and none of them convenient.
  8. >The north and west form the last reaches of the buffalo lands.
  9. >Vast plains of dust and sand.
  10. >So remote that even these mighty creatures barely pay them a visit.
  11. >The nigh insurmountable Macintosh Hills lie to the south.
  12. >Majestic mountain ranges from afar, but scarcely populated at the best of times.
  13. >Except for a few pony expeditions and railway crews, no one ever travels so far away from the heartlands and the green pastures of Equestria.
  14. >And to the east lie the unwelcome badlands.
  15. >An area known to be so barren and hostile that it is almost a blank spot of muddy orange sand and craggy brown rocks on all Equestrian maps.
  16. >Here be dragons, changelings, monsters.
  17. >But no place for ponies.
  18. >Or anyone else who is not either bold, lunatic, or a miscreant.
  19. >Yet here you are.
  20. >A single soul, out in the sweeping somewhere between all three places.
  21. >Where the borders of bad and worse are muddy, and a little bit of everything can go wrong at every second.
  22. >You stride through the dust and rocky plains that stretch beyond the horizon in all directions.
  23. >And only a faint outline of hilly crags visible in the far south is the sole variation you can detect.
  24. >The sun is searing the ground around you.
  25. >And you feel the rays penetrating even the thickness of your heavy hooded cloth cloak.
  26. >It is hot.
  27. >Unpleasantly so.
  28. >Wind blows aplenty in this flat environment.
  29. >However, it does not bring any relief to you.
  30. >The warm air gushes around your face even in spite of you covering most of your head with the hood of your cloak.
  31. >You also wear a pair of strapped goggles to shield your eyes from the merciless elements.
  32. >Though sometimes, this is not enough still.
  33. >For the gusts also carry a fine fog of tiny dust particles that cause you to cough, further impeding your progress.
  34. >A pair of bags is hung around your back.
  35. >Filled with basic survival rations, water, and a handful of sealed scrolls that weigh you down just a little more.
  36. >You would rather not walk through this sorry excuse of a place.
  37. >Unfortunately, the circumstances compel you to.
  38. >Yet you are not a miscreant.
  39. >You are certainly not exceptionally bold either.
  40. >And you are sure that you are also not mad enough to qualify for this region.
  41. >But despite all that, you have been sent here with a mission.
  42. >Alone, yet not quite.
  43. >Whilst also technically not being here either, strictly speaking.
  44. >Though that is a different topic, involving the remote control of a foreign body.
  45. >Who has not even feature the exact same number of limbs as you do.
  46. >And since you are not really here to begin with, all the hardships you currently endure are in reality nothing more than mere inconveniences.
  47.  
  48.  
  49.  
  50.  
  51. >Somewhat pestering and persistent inconveniences, true, but in no way dangerous or threatening to you nonetheless.
  52. >But back to the point.
  53. >For what would be far more of interest to someone who might watch you, if there was an individual from a third party out there to speak of, is to witness how you apparently talk to yourself.
  54. "Remind me, why did I volunteer for this crap again?"
  55. >The aforementioned watcher from afar would never hear the answer to your statement coming from your loving mare companion.
  56. >Because it occurs only in your mind.
  57. >Technically speaking, of course.
  58. >She is real though.
  59. >Absolutely.
  60. >That you know for sure.
  61. >Even though you are the only one who does.
  62. >Complicated, but true.
  63. >"Because this mission is important. And was entrusted to you by the Royal Crown."
  64. >You grunt.
  65. "I swear to God, if Celestia hadn't asked so nicely, I wouldn't spend my time at the ass end of nowhere."
  66. >You hear a chuckle.
  67. >"Anon, really now. This is still Equestria you are talking about."
  68. "Yeah. One of the places we left almost untouched because it fit the map."
  69. >"But it serves its purpose. And besides..."
  70. >Your friendly mare voice companion pauses with light amusement.
  71. >"...Celestia or not, you would have done so anyway."
  72. "Oh, really?"
  73. >"Hmhm. Because I would have asked you instead if she did not."
  74. >And you would always agree to her mission offer too.
  75. >As you know why this mission is as important as it is.
  76. >Still, you are traversing a bad spot, so you have the righteous privilege to complain and voice your displeasure.
  77. "I still don't see why you let me walk though."
  78. >"As preparation for the actual vital part of the operation, Anon."
  79. >Oh right, you forgot to mention.
  80. >You have not even begun the real part of your Royal errant just yet.
  81. >It still gets harder.
  82. >Or more... tricky, to put it carefully.
  83. "So, how much longer until the checkpoint?"
  84. >"About sixty kilometres to the destination in total."
  85. >You stop in your tracks.
  86. "You're fucking with me."
  87. >"No. But I would gladly accept the proposal, if we had the time."
  88. >But that is the last thing you think about at the moment.
  89. "#deca, what the hell! You can't expect me to trek the whole... trek like that! The waterskins run out long before I get even close!"
  90. >"No, you are right. An automaton drone will meet you on the way in a few kilometres. It is stocked with water reserves and drives you almost directly to your goal. If you will, consider this a... stress test in the meantime."
  91. >You sigh after you are hit by the next wave of dust.
  92. "You call it a stress test, huh? Are things really that bad in there as well?"
  93. >"Hm, not... exactly. The conditions are ironically somewhat better, actually. But to say things will get easier once you are inside... would not be honest either."
  94. "Well, sounds like fun."
  95. >"It is. For some."
  96. "Maybe. But I don't have a fucking sand castle tattoo on my ass."
  97. >A second chuckle from your friendly mare.
  98. >"That can be arranged. Do you want one?"
  99.  
  100.  
  101.  
  102.  
  103. "I don't think so. Just be here with the vehicle before the proxy croaks in action."
  104. >"Will do, Anon."
  105. >You take a moment to look around.
  106. >But except for the southern mountains, there is nothing else but dirt and rocks strewn around the place.
  107. >So with no other option left, you keep on walking to the east.
  108. >In a moderate pace, to balance effort and speed carefully.
  109. >For what seems like hours.
  110. >And all you have with you is the comforting voice in the back of your head, encouraging you to keep it up.
  111. >Eventually, you see something brewing on the horizon, right in front of you.
  112. >You cannot make out any details due to the long distance, but you think you see a brown diffuse blob raging over the ground.
  113. >Something is ruffling lots and lots of dust as it rushes over the plains.
  114. >And it is coming right at you.
  115. "Oh man. Please tell me that's not a sandstorm."
  116. >The answer is a chipper one.
  117. >"It is not. This is your taxi."
  118. >You exhale in relief and keep walking towards said taxi as it simultaneously races to you in record speed as well.
  119. >And as it comes closer, you think you can see the outlines of a driving machine at the head of the emerging cloud.
  120. >But something about it seems wrong.
  121. >This asset does not look like anything you have encountered up until now.
  122. >You have seen countless different types of these things in your life, and even built some of them yourself.
  123. >And they all share some key characteristics which this unit apparently lacks.
  124. >For instance, the machines universally share a common range of grey metal colours, as they are utilitarian more than anything else.
  125. >But the palette of this one is kept in much more earthly colours.
  126. >Mostly warm and subdued tones, barely standing out against the hues around it.
  127. >But perhaps that is the point.
  128. "#deca, when and why did you construct a camouflaged machine?"
  129. >"I slightly revamped one of our ground units shortly before you set out. Do not be surprised though, the camouflage is not what you think it is."
  130. >You take her word for what it is and ask nor further questions.
  131. >For you know better.
  132. >Plus, you will see what she means very soon anyway.
  133. >The vehicle comes closer.
  134. >And oh boy, what the hell is that?
  135. >The general structure is similar to the typical machines you have built and operated with your mare.
  136. >Chain driven base, a spacious rectangular body on top, and several openings for cargo and tools.
  137. >But the usual metal surface is covered in... coloured wood?
  138. >Indeed, the fake surface of a wooden carriage is drafted on top of it.
  139. >Custom paint job included.
  140. >Ranging from red, orange, and yellow.
  141. >A blocky design with many sharp edges, but still finely crafted.
  142. >It covers most of the vehicle's surface, leaving only enough room for some pipes and similar pieces to stick out of the main frame.
  143. >The chains are shoddily "hidden" behind two large wooden wheels on both sides.
  144. >And even though they spin naturally as the thing moves around, every idiot would see through that decoy at point blank range.
  145.  
  146.  
  147.  
  148.  
  149. >Though it might confuse unaware souls from a longer distance.
  150. >Yet the top of the construct takes the absolute cake.
  151. >The upper surface, likewise covered in wood, is not merely flat; it has several different... gadgets sticking out.
  152. >Like an oversized glass bulb with an electric wire, or two iron funnels that churn out puffs of steam in a weird stable cadence.
  153. >Plus a sealed hatch made of planks that remind you of the side of a barrel.
  154. >The... thing roars, hisses and creaks loudly as it heads towards you.
  155. >And in a moment of dumbfounded astonishment, you simply sit still and watch as it does.
  156. >Never mind that the machine initially does not seem to slow down in the slightest.
  157. >So when it finally begins to brake with a squeal coming from what sounds like the worst purgatory created by the God of engineering, you barely register what is going on.
  158. >The machine comes to a standstill, less than five metres away from you.
  159. >A final long winded whiz signals that it now is safe to touch.
  160. >Probably.
  161. >"And? What do you think?"
  162. "I think you cheated on me."
  163. >"I beg your pardon?"
  164. "That's your child and doesn't look like me at all. So who's the father? Flim or Flam?"
  165. >You hear a stout-hearted laughter.
  166. >"Neither, Anon. You are not wrong though. I did, ahem, took some inspiration from their design. But unlike their craft, this one does not run on magical Unicorn power."
  167. "Does it mash apples?"
  168. >"Well, for the sake of your proxy, I hope not. But I do hope it does pass as something of that nature. To keep prying eyes from watching too closely, you know?"
  169. >A crazy way of hiding something, but okay.
  170. >Especially when ponies are not meant to detect terraformer technology anyway.
  171. >But nevertheless creative.
  172. >And sometimes the best way to become invisible is to get as much attention as possible, whilst letting the details disappear in the cracks beneath the glaring colours.
  173. "So, you want me to get inside this thing?"
  174. >"Hmhm. Despite its look, it is still a standard drone. More or less."
  175. >For a moment you consider to keep trotting the plains on your own.
  176. >"Anon, it has water inside. And protects against the sun."
  177. >Alright, sold.
  178. >You slowly approach the vehicle and climb on its top.
  179. >The wooden hatch opens itself automatically as you get to it.
  180. >You take heart and leap inside.
  181. >The air around you immediately gets cooler by several degrees.
  182. >Not to mention no searing sun and floating dust.
  183. >Artificial light starts to shine the moment you are in, and you hear a thud above you.
  184. >The hatch is sealed once more.
  185. >The interior is far less luxurious than the outer appearance might suggest.
  186. >You are in a rather small cuboid room of about twice the size of your proxy.
  187. >A transparent canister filled with a similarly transparent fluid is stored behind you.
  188. >You estimate that it holds about twenty to twenty-five litres of clear drinking water.
  189. >Enough moisture to water a horse and spray some clouds into the air on the outside for additional ambience.
  190.  
  191.  
  192.  
  193.  
  194. >It also has a manual tap installed, virtually inviting you to have a taste and refill your waterskins.
  195. >"Go ahead, Anon. The water is fine and good to drink, and the ventilation system keeps the air inside cool and fresh."
  196. >And as you satiate your thirst and refill your reserves, you notice that a digital screen has been embedded into the opposite wall of the room.
  197. >At first you did not register it as such, for it depicts a perfectly generic metal wall inside a driving mix of terraformer technology and a mobile magical apple masher.
  198. >But now that you have spotted the thing, the vision changes and begins to depict the world outside instead.
  199. "Very funny."
  200. >"Just checking if you are aware of your surroundings, Anon. You will need your wits soon if you want to succeed."
  201. >The room rumbles softly and you feel a light shift pulling you backwards.
  202. >Your taxi turns around and drives in the direction from whence it came.
  203. >And you can follow everything in real time from the screen inside.
  204. >The machine rapidly gains speed as it rushes across the mostly even terrain.
  205. >You feel the reverberations around you as your body gets shaken whenever the machine runs over a few rocky passages or bumpy ground.
  206. >Nothing overly severe while you sit, but you may lose your balance if you tried to stand up.
  207. "You know, a belt or something would be nice."
  208. >"No need to be concerned, Anon. I know what I do. Just remain seated and lean back."
  209. >Fine, you can do that.
  210. >But since you are now pretty much restrained until your taxi has delivered you to your destination, you have some time for a final briefing.
  211. "You know, maybe you could tell me more about the area I'm heading to, #deca."
  212. >"Sure. What do you want to know?"
  213. "So far you've only told me about as much as the princess did. I'm supposed to deliver some official scrolls to a remote group of ponies living in a sort of... I don't know, desert survival training group?"
  214. >"Indeed, sort of. Although it is a little more than that. These ponies decided to set up and participate in an unusual project. They call it 'The Wasteland Game'."
  215. >You look at the screen depicting the barren lands you are currently crossing with a rapid speed.
  216. "Yeah, the name fits."
  217. >"The whole endeavour is in equal parts a mixture of sport, contest, and game alike. Anypony can join, although some take it more serious than others."
  218. "How serious are we talking?"
  219. >"A couple of dedicated players truly live their acts to a considerable degree. Some ponies do take up the role of robbers and raiders, but they keep everything within, well, let us call it 'civilised' boundaries."
  220. "Robbers and raiders? That sounds barely encouraging, #deca."
  221. >"Granted, a few minor injuries accidentally happen sometimes. But there is always a medical team of Pegasi orbiting the area to step in if something goes wrong. They also pick up ponies who genuinely pass out in the field, so there is a safety net."
  222.  
  223.  
  224.  
  225.  
  226. "So the environment isn't as much of a problem as the other players."
  227. >"In a way, drastically speaking. But Anon, please keep in mind that they all are still genuine ponies who simply love a challenge."
  228. "Hm. I'll do my best. But is there any way to spot who plays the good guys and who the bad ones?"
  229. >"That is very simple. The 'bad ones' are usually those who point a gun at you."
  230. >Wait, what?
  231. "A... gun. You're telling me these ponies are armed?"
  232. >"Not really, at least in the sense as you would understand it. The mechanism is similar, but only stocked with harmless foam or soft rubber projectiles which are shot at relatively low velocity. It is still a game, after all."
  233. >You groan.
  234. "So that's what you meant with my wits."
  235. >"Hmhm. Once you enter the area, you will be a legit target just like everypony else."
  236. "Wonderful. Isn't there a rule against shooting a Royal courier?"
  237. >"Not in the wasteland. Everyone is free game at all times. The only ponies exempt from that rule are the medical teams."
  238. >Of course, because they cannot do their job properly when they are under siege by fake bullets or get their gear stolen in the middle of an emergency.
  239. "Hey #deca, can't I just get in as a medic then?"
  240. >"Depends. How are your first aid skills?"
  241. "Basic academy course. You know that. And it only covered humans too. Augmented talking horses weren't a thing back then."
  242. >And you assume they still are not a thing on Earth today.
  243. >"Then I suppose you do not qualify."
  244. >You leave it at that and observe the desert on the screen instead.
  245. >Soon you notice something strange.
  246. >The sky on the horizon begins to turn into an ugly grey blob.
  247. >A vast area is covered by a thick layer of clouds.
  248. >It lays thick and seemingly immovable as it hovers there.
  249. >Highly unusual for a desert area, especially so when it is focused only on a very specific location in the middle of nowhere.
  250. "What does that mean?"
  251. >"It means we are almost there."
  252. >So it is an artificially made layer of clouds, presumably covering the entirety of the game field from what you can see of its size.
  253. "Is there a reason why the clouds blanket everything?"
  254. >"There is. It is a long story though. And it comes with the additional bonus of easily housing a permanent team of quick response medics."
  255. >True.
  256. >An eye in the sky, and quickly available everywhere.
  257. >The carriage drives on.
  258. >And the landscape quickly darkens the moment you reach the outer rim of the cloud layer.
  259. >The world looks more dreary than before.
  260. >You cannot shake the feeling that you somehow suddenly stumbled upon a dead world after Armageddon.
  261. >Strange.
  262. >But at the same time, you notice that the temperature has dropped significantly to a more temperate level.
  263. >At least something positive, you reckon.
  264.  
  265.  
  266.  
  267.  
  268. >Soon thereafter, a small structure looms over the horizon.
  269. >Too small for you to identify from this distance.
  270. "#deca, can you zoom in on that thing?"
  271. >"Of course."
  272. >The segment in the dead centre of the screen gets magnified several times over.
  273. >The depiction changes to a small shack with a rectangular layout, about the size of a normal village house.
  274. >A simple door is visible from your angle as well.
  275. >And you can also see a smaller window.
  276. >But due to the dimmed daylight, you fail to detect anything inside.
  277. >Though this is not the most striking thing you notice.
  278. >For a wide mesh wire fence is attached to its walls to the left and right, sprawling across the desert in both directions.
  279. >Far beyond the vision of your camera.
  280. >And this is not any conventional fence either.
  281. >Three times the size of a regular pony.
  282. >And judging from the soft light it emits, it is further reinforced by an energy field which is undoubtedly camouflaged as Unicorn magic.
  283. "This place looks like a prison."
  284. >"It is not, Anon. Participation is entirely voluntary and not binding in any way. Everypony can leave at any time. The fence merely marks the boundaries of the designated game area. Though it is highly inadvisable to depart when no supply carriage is present to travel with."
  285. >No wonder, when there is nothing around but barren land and mountains.
  286. >For dozens of Kilometres.
  287. "How often do the caravans come?"
  288. >"Once a week, with several carts simultaneously visiting each of the four entrances. The suppliers bring new goods and volunteers, and pick up those who want to leave. Transport in both directions is free of charge, and the supplies are scattered in hidden caches throughout the field for the scavengers."
  289. >Well, fortunately you do not have to rely on that scheduled service thanks to your private taxi.
  290. >"We arrive in a few minutes. Is there anything else you want to know?"
  291. "Only one thing. To whom am I supposed to deliver the scrolls anyway? My instructions only state to bring them to the ponies in charge. But who's that supposed to be when everyone's playing survivors in the mud?"
  292. >"To the heads of the respective factions, Anon. There are a couple of those."
  293. "And nobody thought it was necessary to tell me that in advance. Great."
  294. >"Do not worry, Anon. I will be your guide. And besides, there is an aide staffing the post I am bringing you to. He gives introductory speeches and orientation for newcomers. And he is informed about your arrival."
  295. "So he got a scroll via 'magic' express delivery, but no one can divert that information to the players?"
  296. >"Anon, this is an official Royal errand. It is a tradition to have an envoy delivering them in person."
  297. >You sigh as the carriage begins to brake.
  298. >And even the fact that the artificial screeching of the decoy wagon is highly muffled inside your "taxi" does not lift your spirits one bit.
  299. "Right. Let's go then."
  300. >The hatch above you audibly unlocks itself.
  301.  
  302.  
  303.  
  304.  
  305. >You have to rear to get a hold of the edge.
  306. >You pull yourself up with a bit of an effort and some supportive flaps of your wings for extra lifting power.
  307. >But as much as you want to rant on how horse bodies are not built for climbing, you have a task to complete.
  308. >So as you stand tall on the painted wagon roof, you eye the construction near you.
  309. >The machine has parked itself less than fifty metres away from the door.
  310. >And whoever attends to this post must have heard the ruckus, no doubt about it.
  311. >So you hop off the wagon and head straight to the house.
  312. >Once you are halfway there, you hear the machine behind you moving away.
  313. >You turn your head to confirm that the unit is leaving without you.
  314. >"Do not be alarmed, Anon. I ordered the automaton to a nearby maintenance tunnel to recharge its energy reserves and wait in stand-by mode. It will never be far should you need it."
  315. >You take note of her comment and halt at the door.
  316. >One second of delay to take another breath before you push it open and enter.
  317. >The interior is pretty unremarkable.
  318. >You immediately spot a second door on the other side, surely leading to the field.
  319. >A modest wooden counter has been built near the wall to your left.
  320. >And a tan coloured Earth pony stallion with a slightly darker mane stands behind it.
  321. >He is a tad taller than you, fairly well-trained, and you estimate from his build and posture that he is probably middle-aged.
  322. >Certainly not a day above one hundred and twenty years old.
  323. >His mark is hidden behind the counter, and he looks at you intently, not saying a word.
  324. "Uh, hi."
  325. >"Hello there."
  326. >A second of silence as he examines you further.
  327. >"You're the courier, huh? You carriage was loud enough."
  328. "Yep. I was told you were informed of my coming."
  329. >"Uh huh. Scroll fluttered into the house while I was eating. The thing ruined my stew."
  330. >Wonderful first impression then.
  331. >But despite the overt criticism in his tone, you hear no anger in his voice.
  332. >Nevertheless, you see that is still eyeing you closely, and you cannot tell what he is looking for.
  333. >Then he motions you to get to the counter.
  334. >"Come here and drop that cloak of yours."
  335. >You tilt your head.
  336. "Pardon? My cloak?"
  337. >"Of course. Can't get your right size if I don't know what you look like."
  338. "My right size for what?"
  339. >The stallion looks at you in mild confusion.
  340. >"You weren't instructed in detail, I take it?"
  341. "Only the bare bones basics."
  342. >He responds with a facehoof.
  343. >"Oh by Celestia."
  344. "Speaking of, the errand came from her personally. Got on my way immediately afterwards."
  345. >That gets a wordless blink out of him.
  346. >"Oh. Unusual. Never mind then."
  347. >He repeats his motion.
  348. >"Come to the counter. The letter asked me to prepare some items for you. More than what's normally allowed as starter gear, but we'll make an exception for a Royal courier."
  349. >You slowly get closer to him.
  350. "And you need my size..."
  351. >"... so that your stuff doesn't fall off your flanks in action, yes."
  352. >You cannot reason against that.
  353.  
  354.  
  355.  
  356.  
  357. >So you do as he asks and undo your cloak.
  358. >You put the piece of clothing on the counter to wait for the stallion to do whatever he does next.
  359. >And his eyes are quickly fixed on your wings.
  360. >"Oh, you're a Pegasus. Alright."
  361. >Technically not in the slightest, but he cannot know that.
  362. >So you play along.
  363. "Since the day this horse was made. Does that matter?"
  364. >"Not directly. But here's a piece of advice: Keep them flutterers under your hood if you can."
  365. "Why?"
  366. >"There aren't many Pegasi down on the ground. Most keep to themselves in the sky. Can't take much equipment up there, but it's safer from surprise attacks."
  367. >Except from other fliers, of course.
  368. >"You'll draw some hefty attention if you strut around on the ground with wings. That's the last thing you want to do as a beginner."
  369. "Gonna keep that in mind, thanks."
  370. >"I'll get your equipment now, but one more question in advance though."
  371. "Hm?"
  372. >His forehoof points at your goggles.
  373. >"I see you brought your own pair. Do you want to keep those, or get a standard one?"
  374. "Eh, I'll keep mine. They're pretty sturdy."
  375. >And suited with special glasses to augment your vision with a HUD.
  376. >Amongst other things.
  377. >Another thing you do not mention.
  378. >"Fine. Gimme a minute."
  379. >He lowers his head under the counter and you hear the loud creak of an opening door, followed by descending hoofsteps.
  380. >Looks like the gear is stored in the cellar.
  381. >So you wait and hear the occasional sound of things getting shoved around, paired with thudding and clanking noises.
  382. >Then the stallion emerges five minutes later with a strange gadget in his mouth.
  383. >It looks somewhat similar to a pair of linked saddlebags, yet totally different at the same time.
  384. >For starters, it is made entirely out of metal rather than cloth.
  385. >And two moderately sized casings sit where the pockets would normally be, each with a sharply cut crystal prism pointing forward.
  386. >A third casing with a strangely familiar opening port is set right in the middle of the link between the two casings.
  387. >If the thing is worn as you think it is, this one will be sitting straight on your back.
  388. >You look at it, entirely confused.
  389. "The fuck's this?"
  390. >"Not sure what accent that was, but that's what we call an energy weapon. Usually rare out there in the wastes, but it works entirely without conventional ammo."
  391. >The stallion grins as he draws another item out from beneath the counter.
  392. >A small cuboid "box" you know all too well.
  393. >"Because it runs with a spark battery."
  394. "A what? That's a standard energy cell."
  395. >He shrugs.
  396. >"Doesn't matter how you call it. At the end of the day, it's just a box with a crystal inside that's powered up by Unicorn magic."
  397. >You look at him.
  398. "Uhm, yes. Of course."
  399. >He picks the cell up with his teeth and embeds it within the socket of the saddle.
  400. >It fits perfectly.
  401. >And the prisms flare for the fraction of a second.
  402. >"Works just fine." This is yours for the duration of your trip."
  403. >You shake your head.
  404.  
  405.  
  406.  
  407.  
  408. "Whoa, wait. You want me to take this to shoot at ponies?"
  409. >"Sure. What's the problem?"
  410. >You stomp on the ground with a forehoof and flare your wings.
  411. "The problem? Are you serious? Ever heard of ray emitters? Or phase guns? These things can burn through steel like it's nothing!"
  412. >Your opponent looks at you for a second, and then burst out in bellowing laughter.
  413. >Though the tan stallion recovers relatively quickly from his fit while you keep standing in your irate pose.
  414. >"No idea what you're talking about, but you've spoken like a true newbie!"
  415. >He sighs with a hint of amusement.
  416. >"Here, look."
  417. >Then he turns the pointy prisms at himself.
  418. >"These things are harmless."
  419. >The stallion pushes a tiny button on the casing.
  420. >And before you can ask what he is doing, you hear a familiar sizzling sound as the crystals glow in a menacing shade of red.
  421. >Both casings release a shot of energy, hitting the stallion squarely in the chest.
  422. >As a reaction, he lightly twitches once, yet remains standing.
  423. >Whole and unharmed.
  424. >"See? It's fine. You'd have to a hit a pony about a dozen times to singe some hair. But you only need to hit once. Energy weapons are considered to be one hit wonders. That's why they're a rarity."
  425. >You still look in disbelief at him.
  426. "That's not the energy level I'm familiar with. Back when I was trained, you'd have a hole blasted through your chest now."
  427. >And the stallion laughs again, not all alarmed or scared by your words.
  428. >"Hah! Sounds like your Unicorns in the Guard can't handle magic subtlety, eh? Though I've never heard of them trying to deploy anything like this for that matter."
  429. "No, it wasn't in the Royal Guard. It's... never mind, a long story."
  430. >He shrugs again.
  431. >"Couriers and their secrets. Anyway, you also want this."
  432. >He brings forth a third item.
  433. >Metal reinforced bridles with a mouth piece.
  434. "And what's this for?"
  435. >"An attachment for the weapon. You can't reach out with your hooves to push a button on your back when you wear the thing, now can you?"
  436. >He is right.
  437. >And while you would be lying if you claimed that you look forward to don these bridles, it seems like you have to bow to the necessity of it for once.
  438. "I see. Can you help me into it? I've never worn such a thing."
  439. >He nods casually.
  440. >"Eh, not much different than a regular harness, but alright."
  441. >The Earth pony leaves his post at the counter to trot around, halting right next to you.
  442. >As he approaches, you manage to get a swift glance at his mark.
  443. >It is a half emptied toolbox.
  444. "You're a mechanic?"
  445. >"Part time scavenger too. And when nopony else is available, sometimes also clerk as you can see. But when I am on the field, I fix what's there and hunt down the things that aren't."
  446. >Hence half the stuff missing in his mark, you reckon.
  447. >But you assume that he gained his talent long before he found his way to the game.
  448. >Interestingly though, you note that he does not mention for whom he fixes things.
  449.  
  450.  
  451.  
  452.  
  453. >Somehow, however, you doubt he is just doing this all for himself.
  454. >"And you're from a guard family, huh? Your mark looks like military."
  455. "Uhm, sort of. If the records are right, the symbol predates Equestria's Royal Guard."
  456. >Of course they are, but you are better off by masking your knowledge with a hint of ambiguity.
  457. >The stallion's eyes widen in surprise.
  458. >"It's from before the Unification?"
  459. >And even from before this world was populated.
  460. >Though you leave that little detail out as well.
  461. "The symbol? Yep."
  462. >"Hm, no wonder you ended up as an envoy for the Crown. That's a long history you carry with you."
  463. "Oh, you have no idea."
  464. >Ignoring the clues in your words, he goes on like normal.
  465. >"Gotta say, didn't think so when you came through that door. No offence, but you don't look like the type. Kinda too... average, you know? Not like a skilled member in service of the court."
  466. >He muses some more on his lonesome.
  467. >"Though I guess that's part of your style, hm?"
  468. >Quite the barrage of questions.
  469. >Which you fortunately do not have to answer, as he begins to put the saddled twin energy weapon on your back.
  470. >And despite being made of metal, it feels almost like a regular saddle bag.
  471. >With the only exception that it is worn in front of the wing joints, rather than behind them.
  472. >Naturally, as you would not want to shoot your own wings in the heat of the moment.
  473. >Harmless weaponry or not, that would be a serious design flaw.
  474. >"Now hold still and pay attention, sonny. I won't be there to help you the next time."
  475. >Sonny?
  476. >Heh, he thinks he is older than you.
  477. >Of course he would, given that he does appear so on the surface.
  478. >Nevertheless, the stallion expertly fastens the device to your back and sides.
  479. >With a belt that runs all the way round your barrel.
  480. >And even though you would instinctively like to protest this sudden invasion of private space, you keep your mouth shut and bear it.
  481. >You technically asked for it, after all, and your aide acts entirely professional as he ties the belt down firmly, yet with care.
  482. >Next come the attachment bridles, which he also connects with their respective ports on the proper "saddle".
  483. >Its metal barely touches your head whilst the mouthpiece hangs directly in front of your face.
  484. >You test the movement range of your head with your new gear.
  485. >It is slightly impaired by the reinforced apparel.
  486. >But to your surprise you find out that it somewhere has a joint worked into it which lessens the malus somewhat.
  487. >So as long as you do not permanently hang on the mouthpiece, you can look around nearly as good as under normal circumstances.
  488. >"You can hold the trigger just fine. It only fires when you're biting hard on it. Shots go in a straight line beneath your vision. Keep that in mind if you target something."
  489. >The stallion's speech somewhat reminds you of your first flight and fight lessons at the academy.
  490. >You simply nod once.
  491. "Alright. I think I got the gist."
  492. >"Don't you want to test it first?"
  493.  
  494.  
  495.  
  496.  
  497. "It's fine. I've done similar things in the past."
  498. >"If you say so. Then there's only two rules I've got to beat you with before I can let you go."
  499. "Okay. Shoot."
  500. >"Rule one: Don't shoot the medical crews and don't touch their stuff. You know, ponies and items with the red cross on them."
  501. >Nothing new so far.
  502. "Uh huh. Got it."
  503. >"There's some other medical stuff up for grabs, but it's marked differently. Look for light yellow containers with three butterflies instead."
  504. "Fluttershy's mark? Why that one?"
  505. >"Don't know. Guess they needed a different symbol to make them stand out. Anyway, rule number two."
  506. >He clears his throat.
  507. >"Apart from the red stuff, everything else inside the playing field is yours if you get it. Beg, borrow or steal, doesn't matter how or from whom you take it. If you down other ponies, you're free to take anything they have with them, minus their goggles. These are off limits for safety reasons. Likewise it's the other way round. Somepony shoots you, you lie down, let things play out. All your stuff is most likely gone and you ought to make do with nothing but your goggles."
  508. >Hold on, you spot a potential problem.
  509. "Including the scrolls?"
  510. >"Everything that isn't your glasses. The rules say nothing about scrolls. You could try to apply your status as an envoy, though I guess you'll have a hard time to make anypony believe you. They'll think it's a ploy."
  511. >You raise your eyebrow, and the stallions sees it.
  512. >"Don't get the wrong idea. The players are all good and honest folks in the real world. Know many of them personally. Behind this fence, though, they're out to get you."
  513. "That's... disadvantageous."
  514. >"Welcome to the survival game. Besides, don't tell me you weren't trained for tricky jobs as a courier of the realm."
  515. "Ahem, let's just say I've seen worse things than ponies flinging dud shots at me."
  516. >"See, should be easy for you. You're good to go then."
  517. >He motions at the second door with a grin that reminds you of a merchant who is just about to cajole you into a deal that is carefully designed to rip you off.
  518. >But from what you can tell, he has been completely honest with you.
  519. >Still, you think he has not told you everything.
  520. >You slowly walk towards the exit.
  521. >"Maybe I'll see you on the field if you stay a while. My relief is due tomorrow, and I can't wait to get back to my group."
  522. >His group?
  523. >Ah, so there is the catch.
  524. >One catch, at least.
  525. >No matter what you do, your time of striding across the arena unnoticed is limited.
  526. >Because if you assess him correctly, he will talk about you immediately when he gets to his friends.
  527. >So as far as you are concerned, his Cutie Mark could also be an open can of spilled beans.
  528. >Hm crap, should have considered this when you first got into that house.
  529. >Yet you do not take that personally.
  530. >It is part of the game, after all.
  531. "Thanks for the warning, I guess. What's your name, by the way?"
  532.  
  533.  
  534.  
  535.  
  536. >And just as if he had waited for that question, the stallion strikes an upright pose to present himself from his best side.
  537. >"Glad that you ask! Scrap Mender, at your service. And I hope you prove yourself worthy out there. I've always wanted to face somepony of note from the outside."
  538. >His grin widens.
  539. >"And who would be better to test your mettle against than a real envoy guarding his secret messages?"
  540. >Oh brother, he is one of these guys.
  541. >Those where one can never quite tell whether they are either genuine hotshots or plain hot wind bags with an overly confident demeanour.
  542. >But judging from your conversation and his actions so far, you tend towards classifying him as a veteran player.
  543. >Plus, he is a legit instructor, so he should not be a dunce.
  544. >Well, at least he told you beforehand what to expect of him.
  545. >A classy move, considering that he sees a target in you.
  546. >On the negative side, you already found a rival before you have even entered the scene.
  547. >Remarkable, really.
  548. >"And yours?"
  549. "Oh, call me Anon."
  550. >"Anon? Anon and?"
  551. "Just Anon."
  552. >"Huh, unusual name. Does it have a special meaning?"
  553. >You look at Scrap Mender and mirror his grin.
  554. "Royal Courier secret."
  555. >Perhaps a more shifty tone than you usually prefer, but you figure that you can act more cocky than normal, especially when your conversation partner has already declared himself your enemy.
  556. >And with that, you take your cloak, open the door, and take your first step on the mud of the game field.
  557. >The soil here is more moist and strangely less eroded than the desert, but not precisely comfortable either.
  558. >You see clear signs of steady rainfall, indicating that the weather here can take a turn for the worse as well, even though it might not rain at the moment.
  559. >Which also means Pegasi are operating everywhere above the field.
  560. >Perhaps even using their advantage to watch the events from their holdouts in the sky.
  561. >This is at least what you would do.
  562. >Okay, some first clues.
  563. >Useful to have, but you need more.
  564. >So you take a long and hard look around.
  565. >Despite the reduced light and heightened humidity, the place is about as barren as the nothingness under the hot baking sun.
  566. >Flat mud planes and rocks as far as the eye can see, with the occasional faux dead tree set up as well.
  567. >Some smaller hills and pits are scattered across the otherwise unremarkable surface, and they too seem to have no real significance going for them other than contributing to the gloomy mood.
  568. >And in the far distance, near the very cusp of your vision, you detect the outlines of some smaller buildings.
  569. >But not a single other pony nearby.
  570. >So you do the only thing you can do.
  571. >You carefully step through the mud, heading towards the remote buildings.
  572. >You keep your pace deliberately slow to better eye your environment while you move, looking for signs of activity and "danger".
  573.  
  574.  
  575.  
  576.  
  577. >Your core training might have been heavily based on space flight and combat tactics, but the same strategic basics apply here as well.
  578. >Reconnaissance is key, knowledge is life.
  579. >When forced to operate in unknown, uncharted territory, keep your own presence low if possible.
  580. >Doubly so when you have to assume that your opponents know the perimeter better than you.
  581. >For the one who spots his target first is automatically in a better position.
  582. >So you do not want to be the one who gets found if you can avoid it.
  583. >And as you mentally repeat these mantras in your head, you try to adapt them to your current situation.
  584. >First, you activate the augmented HUD of the goggles.
  585. >It automatically provides your vision with a tactical overview of your status, a map of your perimeter, and can be adjusted with several additional pieces of information if needed.
  586. >And while it was originally designed for handling a space ship, it works just as well on a cybernetic proxy stallion with wings.
  587. >Interestingly, it has also updated your weapon loadout without you giving it any input.
  588. >A function you would have never expected to use on a Pegasus.
  589. >You mentally talk to your mare companion, not daring to speak up as you cannot know whether someone hears you or not.
  590. >That was your doing, wasn't it?
  591. >A small screen of #deca.mare appears in the lower right corner of your HUD, showing her seated on your command deck.
  592. >"Indeed. I figured  it might benefit you."
  593. >You check the weapon screen.
  594. >Twin linked energy rifle, fifty-nine out of sixty shots.
  595. >Hm, decent for the start, but you should look for more reserves before you actually have to use them.
  596. >"You do not need to, Anon. The... 'enchantment' of the energy cell is designed to recharge in the sunlight."
  597. >Alright, and when does the sun shine down here?
  598. >"Never."
  599. >What?
  600. >"The Pegasi keep the clouds shut at all times. They also possess, by the way, the proportionally largest amount of these weapons too."
  601. >What a surprise, when they are the only ones who can replenish their stock without changing the "battery".
  602. >Wonderful, the guy did rip me off.
  603. >"Not really. Mender was honest with you through and through, and the gear he gave you is above average. He just... came to omit a few details."
  604. >Like me being forced to break the clouds for a recharge?
  605. >Yeah, also providing the inevitably best opportunity to be seen far and wide.
  606. >"He never said he made things easy for you."
  607. >And why didn't you say anything?
  608. >"Because you were doing great without my help."
  609. >You mean I got played.
  610. >"I would not say that. Merely introduced to what the wasteland has in store."
  611. >You cannot suppress a stifled sigh.
  612. >I'm starting to think you hurt your proxy deliberately on the way back from the north so that I now get to travel here alone as it recovers.
  613. >"No, that mishap was not calculated. But I do indeed think the mission might possibly expand your tastes a little bit. You were so highly uninterested in the game since the day it was proposed."
  614.  
  615.  
  616.  
  617.  
  618. >Because I have no wish to prance in the dirt and scour for dregs in a simulated end-times playfield.
  619. >It might be something for adventurous ponies, but it's not something you'd want to experience on Earth.
  620. >Or any of the colonies for that matter.
  621. >"But it is the exception in Equestria, And in a safe environment to boot. It is not like anypony is in actual danger here."
  622. >Yes, and if they want to challenge themselves, let them.
  623. >But it's not for me.
  624. >"At least give it a fair chance."
  625. >Heh, not like there is any other option now.
  626. >"It is not as bad as you think. You have more advantages than any other pony. Plus, you have me."
  627. >Yeah, about that.
  628. >Can you give me some advice where to go?
  629. >"Hmhm. The direction you have chosen is good."
  630. >At least something.
  631. >"With your current speed it will take you to your first hostile encounter in half an hour."
  632. >You halt without hesitation.
  633. "Come again?"
  634. >"There is a group of ponies waiting between the entry post and the small derelict hamlet you are heading to."
  635. >Hm, directly on a line with the starting point and the first visible site of interest.
  636. "It's a newbie trap, isn't it."
  637. >"You could call it that, yes."
  638. "And going there is good why? I'd walk straight into an ambush!"
  639. >"Two reasons. Because you have realistic odds to win. And because you are here to catch the attention of the factions. You cannot do that if you sneak in the shadows."
  640. >You sit down and rub your temples.
  641. "So you're saying I should ring the bell right off the bat."
  642. >"Consider this. The faster you get the attention of everypony, the quicker you can deliver the messages. And the sooner we can put this trip behind us. So if you want to leave as quickly as possible, this is the strategy to go for."
  643. >To your chagrin, you must admit that this argument is valid.
  644. >Provided you do not bungle the number and get robbed blind.
  645. >In that case you would spend even more time in here.
  646. >Though you would at least have your all-seeing companion with you.
  647. >She can tell you where the documents are going.
  648. >And if the ponies really are as decent as Mender made them out to be, they should at least have the good graces to treat a piece of parchment that was personally signed by Princess Celestia herself with some respect.
  649. >With a sigh, you concur.
  650. "Fine. I do it."
  651. >You get up to resume your path to the hamlet.
  652. >And as you prepare to enter combat in less than an hour, you use to time to calibrate your HUD.
  653. >#deca.mare is right.
  654. >The more of a ruckus you cause, the faster you will have someone listen to you eventually.
  655. >So you stride on, with your visor set to combat mode, and your weapon primed and ready.
  656. >You have done this countless times before; your vessel now only has a more equine shape than usual.
  657. >You march and march, until your "radar" picks up an enemy signature nearby.
  658. >Its shape is highlighted in your vision and framed by a crimson rectangle.
  659. >Even from this distance, you can spot a pointy extension on the head of the target.
  660.  
  661.  
  662.  
  663.  
  664. >And likewise do you see a red triangle on your perimeter map.
  665. >As you instinctively lay low, you mentally order your visor to lock onto the signature, displaying its exact distance in the process.
  666. >One and a half kilometre.
  667. >The effective range of your gun on the other hand ends after a couple of hundreds.
  668. >In other words, you have to get closer either way.
  669. >The Unicorn appears to be unmoving and stationary, so you wager that you were not seen yet.
  670. >Fine, a one on one as it seems.
  671. >Doable indeed.
  672. >Now what do you do?
  673. >Do you risk an open confrontation, or do you try to sneak?
  674. >"I suggest a direct approach."
  675. >#deca?
  676. >"Go on. Walk as if you have seen nothing."
  677. >Are you serious?
  678. >"Yes. Walk straight into it. Show no sign of alarm and act normal."
  679. >Can you tell me why?
  680. >"For you to learn something. And do not worry, I will help you to win."
  681. >And against every strategic wisdom that you have ever learned, you heed her seemingly idiotic proposal.
  682. >But before you walk on, you fumble with the hood of your cloak, pulling it a little closer over your face to hide the mouthpiece of your energy weapon inside the cloth.
  683. >If the pony before you really expects to deal with bloody beginners, it may give you an edge.
  684. >Then you trot on.
  685. >You move slowly and try to act with some with care, attempting to resemble the notion of not sensing any problem.
  686. >Yet you feel the heartbeat ramping up in your chest, for you treat it like a genuine combat situation.
  687. >One kilometre.
  688. >And two additional rectangles pop up on the perimeter, slightly behind the triangle.
  689. >But no movement from any of them.
  690. >Strange, something should have happened by now.
  691. >At least a twitch or something.
  692. >You activate the video enhancement module of your goggles to zoom in on your target.
  693. >And there is nothing.
  694. >The silhouettes and marks are still visible, both on the minimap and your actual field of vision.
  695. >Yet your natural sight sees nothing.
  696. >Decoys?
  697. >"No. There are real ponies, exactly where I marked them."
  698. >So they are invisible.
  699. >"Precisely. A limited invisibility spell. Active for as long as the affected individual does not move."
  700. >Useful to know.
  701. >Is the Unicorn armed?
  702. >"Yes, but the gun is holstered."
  703. >Which means no attack without revelation first.
  704. >Good.
  705. >What about the other two?
  706. >"They prove less of a threat if you play your cards right."
  707. >You speak in riddles.
  708. >"I trust in your faculties."
  709. >Well, thank you.
  710. >Seven hundred and fifty.
  711. >No reaction.
  712. >Five hundred.
  713. >Unchanged.
  714. >The same at two hundred fifty.
  715. >By now you are well within an optimal firing range, but you keep your saddle cold for the moment.
  716. >One hundred.
  717. >Come on, by now they must have seen something.
  718. >There is no way for the Unicorn to miss you.
  719. >Still, the pony stands still like a statue, same as the other two.
  720. >You subtly cough once.
  721. >Nothing.
  722. >That confirms it; they hold still on purpose, fully knowing what they are doing.
  723. >"Closer. No hesitation."
  724.  
  725.  
  726.  
  727.  
  728. >Oh man, #deca.mare is steering you right into the inevitable kerfuffle.
  729. >Anyway, into the fray it is.
  730. >You head straight for the signature.
  731. >Fifty.
  732. >You walk further.
  733. >If none of the three does anything, you will bump squarely into the Unicorn.
  734. >Twenty five.
  735. >Everything except your mare tells you to shoot and bolt.
  736. >But you listen to her advice.
  737. >Over the sound of your own proxy heartbeat.
  738. >At ten metres, you hear a faint poof tone right ahead of you.
  739. >"Hey there, hoodie."
  740. >A mare has appeared out of thin air, or so you shall believe.
  741. >In your alarmed state, you immediately find the strength to do a short leap backwards, but refrain from using your wings.
  742. >Two can play the hiding game.
  743. >You hastily examine her.
  744. >Dim orange coat and an unkempt, light brown mane.
  745. >Like you, she wears a pair of goggles.
  746. >Slightly different in design, but function wise just as good.
  747. >Minus the augments, of course.
  748. >The rest of her apparel is what strikes you as off-putting.
  749. >A thick black jacket covers her chest and half of her barrel.
  750. >It looks like it is made out of conventional leather, but you know this is impossible.
  751. >Leather is not a commodity in all of Equestria.
  752. >So whatever the stuff is instead, it has been crafted very well to resemble the real deal.
  753. >And for a regular inexperienced player, the implications of watching a pony wear the facsimile of flayed skin must be staggering.
  754. >Hell, it even works on you to a degree.
  755. >It just looks plain wrong.
  756. >The rest of her gear is not much better.
  757. >Custom-made buckled metal pads cover all four upper and lower legs.
  758. >And you think you have also briefly seen two larger metal plates strapped to her flanks.
  759. >Leaving only her head and hooves exposed, and maybe her rear.
  760. >Though you highly doubt she has the good graces to turn around for you to check this theory, much less allow you to take a shot at it.
  761. >No, that sounds inopportune, and you hardly have the time for silly thoughts like this.
  762. >Regardless, you figure these protections are meant to shield from incoming fire, or at least have a chance to mitigate the imaginary effect of the impact.
  763. >Which you apparently do not have to worry about, thanks to your rare gear.
  764. >Still, an armour might be something.
  765. >The Unicorn smiles confidently as she looks you in the eyes.
  766. >She seems to enjoy your mild befuddlement.
  767. >"Pretty reflexes. You are fast."
  768. >Her horn flares up, and you quickly pay full attention at what she is doing.
  769. >"Won't matter though."
  770. >An object floats into the air, coming from somewhere behind her.
  771. >Already aiming at you.
  772. >A... hand gun, as it seems?
  773. >The casing and mechanism do resemble the design.
  774. >But it has a wide mouthpiece attached to the side rather than a trigger beneath it.
  775. >A tricky choice.
  776. >Probably suitable for propelling some play ammunition with "Unicorn magic".
  777. >But in the case of a proper gun, you would certainly not want to have a detonation this close to your face.
  778. >Especially so when you hold it in your teeth.
  779. >Who would do that?
  780.  
  781.  
  782.  
  783.  
  784. >Though your Unicorn opponent does not care about any of this.
  785. >For her it is only an object in her levitating grip as she plays her role.
  786. >Cheating horn head.
  787. >"We're gonna relieve you of some things either way."
  788. >They make no song and dance out of their intention.
  789. >And you try to play the game.
  790. "'We'?"
  791. >Her grin persists as she kicks the ground with a rear hoof.
  792. >Twice.
  793. >"Yes, sweetheart. We."
  794. >Behind her, two small "mounds" begin to rise and shed some dirt.
  795. >Revealing two burly Earth pony stallions.
  796. >Unlike their Unicorn friend, these two wear no special clothing apart from their goggles.
  797. >Yet they do not need any to be intimidating; their imposing muscular stature does the job just as well.
  798. >Big Macintosh level, if not even stronger.
  799. >Their colourful bright coats and manes are thoroughly covered and dimmed by dust and soil.
  800. >Presumably as a method of camouflage.
  801. >But now that their cover is blown, they start to step towards you in a menacing gait.
  802. >Slow steps, each with an impact you can almost feel from dozens of metres away.
  803. >And with an expression that screams bloody murder.
  804. >One carries a wooden pole in his mouth and the other bears a massive... squeaky hammer?
  805. >Alright, you should keep your distance to these two.
  806. >For you do not want to enact a scene of getting your spine shattered by a plank of wood to the slapstick sounds of a clown cart or something.
  807. >Your dignity alone forbids this.
  808. >But God damn, #deca.
  809. >Is that your vision of even odds?
  810. >But where untrained ponies might lose their temper and panic completely, you do not.
  811. >You instinctually push your thundering heart into the back of your mind and keep your wits.
  812. >The mare notices none of that, for she overtly feels in control of the situation.
  813. >And this could turn into her crucial mistake.
  814. >"Now be a good colt and drop your goodies. I wouldn't want to shoot a cute little whelp like you in the face."
  815. >Her magic aura does something to the weapon to audibly to cock it.
  816. >"And you don't wanna play with'em either."
  817. >She tilts her head to the side for a moment, trying to divert your attention to the other two.
  818. >But knowing that they do not pose the biggest threat to you at the moment, you ignore her trick.
  819. >"Heh, disciplined too. You were a real golden colt at school, weren't you?"
  820. >That does it.
  821. >You will not get beaten by an upstart like this.
  822. >And so you slightly increase your pressure on the mouthpiece, considering to attack first.
  823. >But you wonder whether the energy hits her before she can retaliate.
  824. >Even if you knock each other out, she wins.
  825. >Strength in numbers.
  826. >The mare lightly shakes the weapon in her grip.
  827. >"Ah ah ah. Don't try that candlestick. I'm faster."
  828. >Crap, she knows about the energy weapon.
  829. >But what gave it away?
  830. >You concealed the thing beneath your cloak, including harness and mouthpiece.
  831. >Impossible, she cannot have seen it.
  832.  
  833.  
  834.  
  835.  
  836. >But what do you do now without an ace up your sleeve?
  837. >A certain mare on a chair chimes in.
  838. >"Anon, do you remember what happened during your first flying lesson with the proxy?"
  839. >Yes, the faceplant in the grass.
  840. >Utterly useless memory in this situation.
  841. >Unless...
  842. >You look to the ground.
  843. >Mud, loose earth, and some dust.
  844. >Could work.
  845. >But you have to test something first.
  846. >Risky, yet you have no viable alternative.
  847. >You sigh.
  848. "Fine. I yield. What do you want?"
  849. >"Hm, I don't know, how about everything? A friendly donation to a friend for not shooting you?"
  850. >How very modest of her.
  851. >You let go off your mouthpiece and reveal it to her.
  852. >No point in hiding it now.
  853. "Alright. I take my cloak off now. Please don't shoot. Earth Ponies like me can't rely on fancy magic like you."
  854. >She shrugs.
  855. >"Whatever. But no funny stuff."
  856. >The mare wiggles her gun, trying to be menacing.
  857. >But she bought it.
  858. >Interesting.
  859. >You keep standing and slowly raise a foreleg, easy for her to see.
  860. >You pull down the hood and undo the bands of your cloak, but you keep the loosened cover on your back yet.
  861. "That invisibility thing you pulled was really clever."
  862. >You slightly bend your body, feigning to let the cloak slide to the ground.
  863. >Though your charming words leave her fairly unimpressed.
  864. >Does not matter, as long as she bothers to you listen to you at all.
  865. >You keep talking.
  866. "How did you do it?"
  867. >"Magic. You wouldn't understand that."
  868. >Wrong, bandit mare.
  869. "Do you get to use it often?"
  870. >You subtly spread your wings halfway.
  871. >She does not notice your movements beneath the cover as she gets lightly agitated by your apparently silly questions.
  872. >"That's none of your business."
  873. "Do you catch many ponies like me? I'm sure you meet a lot."
  874. >The Unicorn rolls her eyes.
  875. >This is the opening you have waited for.
  876. >The very moment you see her gaze shifting away from you, you spread your wings in full, rear up, and  flap once.
  877. >With as much force as you can muster.
  878. >The air resistance, paired with the sheer blow you create, is strong enough to let you stagger one step backwards.
  879. >Your cloak is sent flying somewhere in the heat of the moment.
  880. >More importantly though, you hit both the mare and the ground before you hard with a sudden gale.
  881. >Sending not only a strong wind, but also a nasty mix of dirt, dust, and stones towards the face of your opponent.
  882. >And while the goggles protect her eyes and prevent her from becoming blinded, the impromptu delivery of soil raining down on her nuzzle and entering her nostrils are sufficient to breaks her focus.
  883. >In her reflex reaction, she swings her weapon wildly as she stumbles around, sending a volley of haywire shots into the environment in the process.
  884. >Hitting dirt, stones, and a tree.
  885. >But not you.
  886. >And this is all that matters.
  887. >You waste no time.
  888.  
  889.  
  890.  
  891.  
  892. >Right after you gain your footing, you crouch lightly to reduce your chance of getting hit by stray shots, bite down on your mouthpiece, and send three energy charges her way in retaliation.
  893. >All three hit home.
  894. >Two charges hammer her chest, one strikes her chin.
  895. >Followed by a loud yelp of surprise.
  896. >The mare freezes, slowly keels over, and falls unceremoniously into the mud.
  897. >Her gun clatters to the nearby ground as her magic touch fades out.
  898. >Watching the mare's prone form lying suddenly still makes you worry that you might have seriously harmed her.
  899. >At least for a split second.
  900. >That is until you hear her annoyed snorts as she tries to free her respiratory system of pesky dust while she plays dead.
  901. >No, she is fine.
  902. >Albeit probably furious beyond description.
  903. >Not time to wonder about that though.
  904. >You are still in combat.
  905. >The other two ponies momentarily freeze in confusion, not processing in real time how their group mate lost the upper hand and got taken out of the equation this quickly.
  906. >However, this grace period is very brief.
  907. >As they realise their situation, they do the only feasible thing they can do.
  908. >Both charge you at once, pressing the singular advantage they have.
  909. >They try to force you into a close-up brawl.
  910. >You do not have the time to down them both.
  911. >One you could get, but the other would then smash into your side and ram you to the floor.
  912. >And witnessing the towering shape of one of the two looming above you is the last thing you want to experience.
  913. >Tactical retreat it is then.
  914. >Without hesitation, you flap your wings to get off the ground and gain height.
  915. >You manage to rise quickly, but the two do not give up.
  916. >Galloping side by side, they still try to get you.
  917. >And a few metres away from the spot you are hovering over, they leap as they swing their tools.
  918. >The hammer stallion barely misses you.
  919. >Whereas the longer wooden pole grazes the hair of your tail.
  920. >Does that count as hit?
  921. >"No. Manes and tails do not count, unless the body is hit properly too. You are still in the game."
  922. >Good, but still way too close a call than what you would be comfortable with.
  923. >Especially for your first tussle in the ring.
  924. >You hastily bring yourself into a stable forward trajectory and start to fly in a wide circle.
  925. >You observe the two from your vantage point.
  926. >Both are looking at you with sharp, confrontational expressions.
  927. >And the hammer stallion stands still whilst the pole bearer trots slowly in one direction.
  928. >At first you do not understand what he is doing.
  929. >But your guardian angel helps you out.
  930. >"Search the ground, Anon."
  931. >So you do.
  932. >Then you spot the dropped weapon.
  933. >He is walking directly towards it.
  934. >Ah, he thinks you do notice his attempt.
  935. >And maybe he would have been right under other circumstances.
  936. >But it will be the second mistake made today.
  937.  
  938.  
  939.  
  940.  
  941. >You keep circling the field and allow him to proceed without interruption.
  942. >Let him think that you are unaware while you pretend to watch the second Earth pony instead.
  943. >Once he has reached the gun, though, you see your chance.
  944. >He drops his pole to reach for the upgrade.
  945. >And you respond with a sharp turn into a rapid dive, take aim, and plant to charges into his barrel.
  946. >An easy shot to make for a trained fighter pilot, space or no space.
  947. >He slumps to the side with no comment, burying the item of his desire underneath him as he falls.
  948. >Well, that means the last one has no way to get it, as he would be far too exposed for far too long while trying.
  949. >"This was not his plan anyway, Anon."
  950. >What?
  951. >You look at the last pony standing.
  952. >And witness a gaily coloured squeaky hammer sailing your way with a stable rotation.
  953. >The mad guy has actually thrown his weapon at you.
  954. "Oh shit!"
  955. >You steer for another sharp turn to the side to avoid the flying insult.
  956. >Whilst still in the hefty dive, unfortunately.
  957. >And indeed, you manage to dodge it.
  958. >However, you lose control of your flight as you violently sway in the air.
  959. >You fail to stabilise your path fast enough and crash a few dozen metres further down the line.
  960. >And even before the ringing in your ears fades, you hear trampling sounds combined with a determined shout.
  961. >Coming closer, and worryingly fast at that.
  962. >No explanation needed.
  963. >You ignore all possible bruises and scratches, and simply focus on getting up.
  964. >You face the noise and see the stallion storming towards you.
  965. >A thunderous rumbling follows his steps.
  966. >Once you stand properly, you notice that the two of you are already less than ten metres apart from each other.
  967. >Without the time to take aim or think ahead, you dispense four more spontaneous charges to fell the attacker.
  968. >Two go awry, but the other half makes contact, hitting a leg and the side of his neck.
  969. >He registers his "injuries" and plays the part of getting hit.
  970. >But to your horror you have to realise that he cannot possible stop in time.
  971. >So it comes as it has to come.
  972. >The muscular Earth pony hits you at a considerable speed.
  973. >A frontal body check ensues, knocking you clean off the ground, and the air out of your lungs.
  974. >And even worse, you land on your back whilst your opponent collapses right on top of you, effectively pinning you to the ground.
  975. >Of course, he holds still.
  976. >And no sign of grace by rolling to the side or something.
  977. >A last act of defiance, no doubt.
  978. >Though as rough as the last couple of seconds were, you think your proxy has suffered no major injuries from the stunts.
  979. >Still, you begin to feel slightly claustrophobic under several hundred kilograms of involuntary extra baggage.
  980. >Breathing too has become more of a chore.
  981. >But thanks to the reinforced augments inside your proxy, it takes more than that to deal significant damage to your vital organs.
  982. >#deca.mare claps her forehooves in the small screen at the edge of your vision.
  983.  
  984.  
  985.  
  986.  
  987. >"Congratulations, Anon. You are victorious."
  988. >But it sure as hell does not feel like it.
  989. >So in the immediate aftermath of the combat, you try to use your limited agency to shove the Earth pony away.
  990. >And fail miserably.
  991. >You grunt and tap against his shoulder blade.
  992. "Damn it you hammered draft horse, get off! I shot you beforehand!"
  993. >Much to your surprise, he gives an answer.
  994. >"Dead ponies don't move, featherbrain."
  995. >Arse.
  996. >And if it were not for the fact that he tries to play "dead" with his two friends, you bet they would all cackle at your predicament.
  997. "Oh yeah?"
  998. >"Yeah."
  999. "Then shut up. They don't talk either."
  1000. >He actually obeys.
  1001. >Which is nice, but does not improve your situation in the slightest.
  1002. >Looks like you have to do it the cumbersome way.
  1003. >You begin to slowly shift and wiggle yourself to freedom.
  1004. >A long and straining exercise, but you have no choice.
  1005. >And the energy cell pressing itself against your back sure does not help either.
  1006. >You wish you could use your hands for this.
  1007. >But they float in stable orbit around the planet, together with the rest of you.
  1008. >So you grin and bear it.
  1009. >More emphasis on bearing than grinning though.
  1010. >After straining minutes that felt like hours to you, you finally get out of your impromptu horse prison.
  1011. >You stand up to inspect the state of your proxy.
  1012. >But apart from a few insignificant grazes and many dark splotches of muddy coat, the body looks fine.
  1013. >Wings?
  1014. >Somewhat ruffled feathers, but to a tolerable degree.
  1015. >You check the state of your energy weapon via the HUD.
  1016. >No damage detected.
  1017. >Ammo: Fifty... out of sixty?
  1018. >You have spent a sixth of your stock in one engagement?
  1019. >Not a good rate at all.
  1020. >#deca.mare waves at you for your attention.
  1021. >Yes?
  1022. >"Now that you are free, do you want to know how much experience you have earned for defeating your enemies?"
  1023. >Experience?
  1024. >What are you talking about?
  1025. >"You get experience points for successful actions. Earn enough, and you ascend a level."
  1026. >For real now?
  1027. >"Sure. I am not joking."
  1028. >And what does that do?
  1029. >"A level determines what kind of gear you are allowed take into the game if you enter it for the first time in a cycle. Nothing too imbalanced, mind you, just tad more or better quality gear than usual. To serve as a little incentive for really dedicated players."
  1030. >Like a laser saddle instead of a handgun?
  1031. >"For instance, yes. Other than that it is only good for pure bragging rights. Though a high level usually indicates that the pony in question is a seasoned adversary."
  1032. >So Mender's comment on beginner gear was at least two-fold.
  1033. >But it also means you gain no benefit from experience until the next cycle.
  1034. >When does a new cycle start?
  1035. >"At the first of each month. Everypony leaves the field on that day to make way for maintenance and repair teams. Perfect time to reorganise and maybe change factions."
  1036. >Yeah, no.
  1037. >Scratch that then.
  1038. >You are not going to stay here for this long.
  1039.  
  1040.  
  1041.  
  1042.  
  1043. >"As you wish. I will keep score regardless. And so do the scoring judges overhead."
  1044. >Huh?
  1045. >"One judge accompanies every med team that patrols the field from above. They keep records of all engagements."
  1046. >Neat, but irrelevant for you nevertheless.
  1047. >What now?
  1048. >"Well, since you are the winner, you are free to take prizes. The three have to keep lying down until you have looted what you want and left the vicinity."
  1049. >Anything?
  1050. >"Anything. New weapon, new armour, new ammunition. They oblige to honour the rule."
  1051. >You look at the three.
  1052. >The stallions have nothing on them you could take, apart from their "tools".
  1053. >You are not much of a melee man though.
  1054. >And the mare, well, you are not exactly fond of stripping her.
  1055. >That would be... inappropriate to say the least.
  1056. >"This happens all the time around here. There is nothing special to it from their point of view."
  1057. >You silently imagine the implications.
  1058. >And you eventually ponder whether the pregnancy rate inside the field is exponentially higher than on the rest of the planet.
  1059. >"Anon, seriously. Ponies have standards. Do you really think this is something they would do? Or even consider?"
  1060. >Well, no.
  1061. >You are still inclined to refuse the opportunity to get some boo... to plunder.
  1062. >Besides, she does not have the right size for you anyway.
  1063. >"Your decision. Though I suggest you at least take a look."
  1064. >Why?
  1065. >"Because they might take your refusal with discontent and perceive your decision as scorn. By 'browsing the wares', as they call it, you show that they were worthy opponents."
  1066. >Where does this stupid rule come from?
  1067. >"It is not a rule, but a codex they play by."
  1068. >You blink.
  1069. >#deca, these ponies are crazy.
  1070. >"No. They just take pride in their craft."
  1071. >Amounts to the same thing from your perspective.
  1072. >Reluctantly, and with no real will of your own, you approach the lying mare and examine her armour in detail.
  1073. >Your first glance was correct; she does wear some additional strapped plates over her flanks.
  1074. >And as luck would have it, there is a small pouch attached to it as well.
  1075. >You emit a silent sigh of relief, as you now have a legit reason to refrain from undressing her.
  1076. >So you get a hold of the thing and pry it open.
  1077. >A small number of loose rubber pellets fall to the ground and bounce in all directions.
  1078. "Ammo."
  1079. >That could be useful.
  1080. >But the respective weapon to it lies under the pole horse.
  1081. >You look at the stallion.
  1082. >No chance of moving him to grab the thing unless he moves himself.
  1083. >Which you cannot achieve without playing really, really dirty.
  1084. >But not only is that completely against your style, it would also without a shadow of a doubt be below any pony standard.
  1085. >Not to mention painful and potentially hazardous.
  1086. >And despite the taunting and tackling, you doubt any of the three would have even considered exerting such lowly measures on you if they would have been the winners instead.
  1087. >It is still a "friendly" game at the end of the day.
  1088. >So strike that.
  1089. >Back to the pouch.
  1090.  
  1091.  
  1092.  
  1093.  
  1094. >You unearth a box.
  1095. >Which immediately arouses your curiosity.
  1096. >After a moment of fumbling with the thing, you manage to unseal it.
  1097. >Only to find a disappointing surprise inside.
  1098. "Crown caps? In a box? Are you serious?"
  1099. >Nonsense.
  1100. >You drop the box right next to the Unicorn, accompanied by the clattering sound of dozens of little caps.
  1101. >The last object you find is a red apple.
  1102. >A conventional, almost unremarkable thing in the more idyllic places of Equestria.
  1103. >But here it shines like a gem in between the grey and brown hues of the wastes.
  1104. >And doubly so in your eyes, as you have lived a true life of relative austerity in your past.
  1105. >This is a memory of many centuries ago, but one you will never forget.
  1106. >So you take the apple and hold it close to your face.
  1107. >You cherish its appeal, smell it, and look at it long and hard.
  1108. >And you use your HUD to scan it for possible poisons before you take the first bite.
  1109. >Just in case.
  1110. >You take your time to eat the fruit and enjoy every morsel to the fullest.
  1111. >Maybe a little irreverent in the presence of the others, but you cannot help it.
  1112. >It just tastes that good.
  1113. >Plus, the whole situation was their fault to begin with.
  1114. >They wanted to fight a newblood, and a fight is what they got.
  1115. >And as you process the events of the confrontation while you mentally debrief yourself, you come back to the question of how the hell the Unicorn knew about your gear.
  1116. >There was literally no way for her to know this from simply looking at you.
  1117. >The reason lies somewhere else.
  1118. >#deca, does the Unicorn possess a spell to detect energy signatures?
  1119. >"No, Anon. She does not."
  1120. >Initially, you tend to consider asking her outright for the correct answer, though you think it might be better if you challenge your own wits first.
  1121. >You must keep thinking quickly, as it was demonstrated to you just mere minutes ago.
  1122. >So how could they have known this?
  1123. >Where was the chink in your cover?
  1124. >Or... what if the mistake was not yours to begin with?
  1125. >In a moment of enlightened suspicion, you turn into the direction you came from.
  1126. >The entry post is only a small distant dot in the plains, but that is enough for you.
  1127. >Video enhancement, maximum factor.
  1128. >The vision in your goggles zooms in.
  1129. >And zooms.
  1130. >Then zooms some more.
  1131. >Until you see the house as if you were standing only a few metres away from it.
  1132. >Something happens at the window, so you focus on this opening.
  1133. >And you are greeted by the lenses of binoculars, looking straight at you in turn.
  1134. >There is the weak link in your defence.
  1135. >One could say the rivets were not mended properly to begin with.
  1136. >Alright, that you take as a personal insult.
  1137. "You motherfucker! This is your group!"
  1138. >One of the downed stallions fails to suppress a faint laugh as he hears your outrage, but you ignore him.
  1139. >And even though you doubt Scrap Mender can hear your cussing, he slowly lowers the binoculars and stares at you in utter puzzlement.
  1140.  
  1141.  
  1142.  
  1143.  
  1144. >Somehow you think he knows you can see him, and you are wholly willing to let him feel it in full.
  1145. >This is the least you can do to repay him for ratting you out like this.
  1146. >Sure, he was only loyal to his group, but this is no excuse.
  1147. >For he must consider that your allegiance to the Crown must be just as strong.
  1148. >And unlike this game, the politics beyond the fence have way more gravitas than anything in here.
  1149. >So in a moment of personal ire, you put on an evil grin that rivals the Grim Reaper himself.
  1150. >To show him a face he will not forget.
  1151. >And what happens if you cross a Royal envoy.
  1152. "Here's your challenge, Mender. Come and get me if you dare."
  1153. >Mender darts off in a hurry, disappearing into the house.
  1154. >And a friendly feminine voice soothes your anger.
  1155. >"That should be enough, my dear."
  1156. >You take a long breath to calm yourself and slow your heartbeat.
  1157. >Sorry.
  1158. >Though I guess I gave him the show he wanted, don't you think?
  1159. >That image should last for a while.
  1160. >Maybe it even deters some attacks if you are lucky.
  1161. >"I would not bet on that, Anon."
  1162. >How so?
  1163. >"You see, Scrap Mender and his group are amongst the more known scavengers on the field. And you have just challenged him to come after you once his friends are 'miraculously revived' and team up with him."
  1164. >Your confident grin wipes itself off your face as quickly as it has come.
  1165. >Tell me you're joking.
  1166. >"Not at all. You have ensured your reputation to rise quickly amongst the ranks of the players. This is what you wanted to hasten your mission, is it not?"
  1167. >Yes.
  1168. >But not in this hail Mary manner.
  1169. >Oh man, this is what happens if you fight in uncharted environments.
  1170. >You have just tripped yourself into a pitfall you did not even know to exist in the first place.
  1171. >Well, it happened, and now you cannot undo the mess.
  1172. >You have to deal with the image you have created for yourself.
  1173. >So you pick up your cloak, turn to the abandoned hamlet once more and resume your trip.
  1174. >You leave the three ponies behind as they are.
  1175. >"Anon?"
  1176. "Yes, #deca?"
  1177. >"How do you like the game so far?"
  1178. "My opinion hasn't changed."
  1179. >"But you got really immersed in the setting at the end."
  1180. "Only because that pinhead tried to dupe me to palm a new shiny toy off on his group with a 'legit' pretence."
  1181. >"Do not be too hard on him. This is part of the experience. To challenge each other safely in ways that would never be possible in Equestria at large. And in so doing, the ponies push themselves and their talents in new and innovative ways without causing any true harm."
  1182. "Again, good on them. But it's not mine. Though that's a score I have to settle now."
  1183. >"But please keep it in good sport. The real Mender is an upright pony who means no harm. In fact, I am sure you would like him under different circumstances."
  1184. "Yeah, sure. But I can't just let it slide. And I could use your help in this too."
  1185. >"Have no fear, we will make it together."
  1186.  
  1187.  
  1188.  
  1189.  
  1190. >Heh, together.
  1191. >Sounds oddly inaccurate as you wander through the dust on your own.
  1192. >But #deca.mare is nevertheless with you.
  1193. >She is sharing the experience just as much as you do.
  1194. >On a technical level, you are precisely as near, or remote, to the action as she is.
  1195. >Yet you are also both here in spirit.
  1196. >Two lovers acting as one.
  1197. >And together your love will conquer the wasteland.
  1198. >At least when it is kept in jest.
  1199. >Or you simply deliver your parchment.
  1200. >One or the other.
  1201. >Or both?
  1202. >And perhaps, you will also find some fun in here while you do.
  1203. >If not from the setting yourself, then at least with the company you share as a man with his mare.
  1204. >After all, what would be the point about it all without it?
  1205.  
  1206. April. April never changes. - A very autistic author with too many ponies and spaceships in his head, Anno Domini 2021
/nmp/ #deca Anon April Fools' Custom Universe Debatable Canon Fallout Equestria Parody SFW

Shape Your Home, Part 5

by Ponegreen

Shape Your Home, April Fools' Day 2021 Chapter

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Shape Your Home, Part 4

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Shape Your Home, Part 3

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Shape Your Home, Part 2

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