My name is Lockbox.
It's a strange name to be sure. But my father… my adoptive father… always told me it was appropriate. It is my cutie mark, after all, simple and boring though it is. I have always had a good sense of where to hide things to keep them safe and sound. I collect things. Always have, and perhaps always will. Usually I find pictures, or books, or toys. Whatever it is that keeps memory alive. Anything that was probably important to somepony, somewhere, in the time before. Like everything else, memories must be preserved and carefully hidden away so they aren't corrupted.
I'm not sure why I collect things the way I do, except to satisfy my strange, romantic notions of keeping old dreams alive. I think it's because I know that somepony would appreciate it. If not the owners of the items that crowd my room and adorn my wall, then somepony who will come later, wondering what it is we have lost. What we can one day hope to regain.
It's hard, trying to believe that the world will ever go back to the way it was. For many years… twenty for me… the metro tunnels beneath Stalliongrad have been our fortress. Our prison. Our home. Crowded beneath the ruins of a once great city we scrabble to survive. There is no Sun to look up to and hope in, no Moon to put our dreams and wishes on. The sky has been burned black, and clouds mock us with rain so cold it burns. The very ground of our city is blanketed by radioactive poison from the destructive power of enemies whom nopony can seem to remember or care about anymore. We have many choices in which to die, but few that lead to a real life.
I think the worst is the Rot. The inevitable wasting away of bodies that cannot fight against a hostile environment that never lets up. For no air here is pure. Not really. The poisonous magic released by the bombs seeped into every crevice, and the fumes are always there in some form or other. After years of breathing corrupted air and twisted magic, many of our elders die slow deaths as their lungs are destroyed from the inside out. That is, if they live that long, what with the monsters and bandits having full reign over every stretch of tunnel that isn't monitored. Sometimes even the civilized ponies of another station cause the trouble.
We work hard here in the Metro. We live fast and die young more often than not. If there is an Equestria, or even a habitable world beyond these closed spaces and the sky that never opens, we do not know of it. Radio signals, if they are still being transmitted from somewhere, do not find us. The land is poisonous tundra of snow and ice and twisted trees as far as the eye can see, and nopony has reached us from beyond the city limits, if they are there to make the trip at all. The blasts that leveled our town have hurtled us back to scavenging and improvising our technology. Nopony can reach us to give us new supplies.
Stalliongrad was an old city, slow to embrace change and reluctant to bend knee to Canterlot, and we have paid dearly for our isolation. There are no Elements of Harmony here. No hope of help coming to us. I like to think there are other ponies out there, stubbornly clinging to life, and certainly there must be some pockets of the world that survived the holocaust.
Still, for all my idle dreams, I had always thought our lot in life was certain. In these metro tunnels, we will live, and in them we will die.
But the day Hunter returned… the day fate came to me… nothing would ever be the same again.
My Little Metro: A Tale of Post-Apocalyptic Ponies
"Is there a hero somewhere, someone who appears and saves the day? Someone who holds out a hoof and turns back time?"
I started the day as I usually did. I woke up and did my morning chores, moved crates around and talked to the traders who came through. I asked if they had anything new in the way of very particular junk nopony else wanted or needed. They had little, since Exiperia was a fairly self-sufficient station and sold more than they bought. I said hello to Sunny Side, my old friend, and shared a drink with him. Sunny Side was my closest companion, though as a pegasi he had it worse than most of the others. Even I, as a simple earth pony, was better suited for a life underground. The pegasi are born with a need to fly, but how can they do that when the air above will destroy them in seconds? It was always depressing, hearing a pony who was happy for everypony else share with me his constant, grating anxiety, the need to spread his wings in open air when there was none left. I gave him my usual condolences and shoulder to cry on. What else could I do?
Like clockwork we parted again as he went to his weekly target practice with the station militia. I then retired to my tiny room to try and organize what I had acquired during the day. I dropped onto my couch that doubled as the bed, enjoying the way the soft cushions accommodated my usual sprawling position. I had lived in this same room for a good ten years now, and looked forward to greeting that same musty run down couch every day until I died. Though it was cramped, and every available space was taken up by junk or my personal belongings or my own body, I felt that made it more snug. My room was like a good blanket, and at least I did not have to share. Chalk that up to being the adopted son of a pony of influence in the station. Trying to ignore the sounds of somepony shouting and music quietly filtering through the thin doors, I lost myself in my day dreams. It was time to stare at the Wall.
I let my eyes run over the thick jungle of pictures and postcards that completely obscured one wall of my room, still images of a beautiful world frozen in its prime. The gleaming spires of Canterlot rose up over all Equestria, the forests of the Whitetail Wood grew happily, tended by pony caretakers. The wonderful buildings of Manehattan, with its architectural triumphs, stood tall and proud. Ponies lived, worked, and smiled. And all I could do was sit and stare at the moments stuck forever on little pieces of paper. I burned each and every scene into my brain, locking it safely away in the recesses of my mind. In there, these ponies and their happiness would live as long as I carried the memory. For a little while at least, I and the old world would connect across time. Ponies long dead would come back to life and frolic in my mind's eye.
I could do this for hours, imagining what it must have been like to walk on streets that were paved and clean. To breathe air that was always crisp and filled with the smells of a busy day. I liked the pictures that had ponies in them most, especially when they were at a café or a diner, eating and drinking. I liked the fond jealousy of watching them partake of a bounty they knew with blissful conviction would never end. Ponies had had such wealth before, and I liked to think some day we could have it again.
What did their food smell like in those days, I wondered? What did the grass and the trees and the flowers do to one's nose? How bright were the colors compared to the faded majesty of my modest collection? How did the Sun feel in the day, how did the Moon comfort them at night? What were the Princesses really like, and would they return to heal our world? Such questions kept me up at night, something my father… my adoptive father… would reprimand me for more than once. He didn't mind that I enjoyed the thoughts of a better world, just that I would lose sleep over it, or worse, get inspired enough to go and do something dangerous for the sake of it.
I dreamed of flowers. Flowers, I thought, probably smelled a bit like a cooked mushroom, or like the strange gasoline smell the bioluminescent pods in the deeper tunnels had. Just cleaner and less acrid, I was sure. Perhaps the bread would have that crisp warm scent of a good blanket that had just been washed? I knew that our bread couldn't compare to the golden-brown wonders I saw in my pictures. Just thinking about how crunchy they looked made my mouth water, even though I would never know exactly how they tasted. Anything from the time before had to be better than this, though.
I eventually picked up a guitar and gently strummed it with the corner of my hoof. That guitar was one of my most prized possessions. Something that I could create beauty with, and entertain the young ones. The colts and fillies were my favorites, with their bright and hopeful eyes. I adored the way they scurried through the horrors of our world without much care or thought to how terrible things really were. How they had no knowledge of what they were going to face when they were grown. I envied them, and saw a glimpse of an innocent Equestria in those eyes.
I had played for an audience once or twice around the story fires, when the elders would relate to us the stories told to them by their forefathers of the time before the scorched earth. I or another pony more skilled with instruments would sit in a corner and just strum the night away, listening to the quiet drone of old voices regaling us with stories of things we would never see. There came tales of shimmering wonderlands of snow that didn't freeze your ears off, and great celebrations that would clear the way for spring. Stories of ponies working in harmony and fellowship. Summer days so hot, you would sweat like a pig and love it, staying cool with iced drinks and air conditioning that didn't break down all the time. Cool autumn nights spent curled up with a lover under a blanket of stars. The world bowed down to us and gave up its provisions happily, and we cared for it in turn. I am not ashamed to admit I cried at more than one of those meetings. We would sit in silence, letting the images fill our heads, comforting us, taunting us. They stayed with me more, though. My memory could hold it.
It was getting to be evening when my father… my adoptive father… knocked on my door, smiling that knowing, grim smile of his. He always knew when I was getting lost in the Wall.
"Hey, Lockbox," he said in his gentle, slightly nasal tone. "Come on, get up now. There are some ponies I want you to talk to."
My father... my adoptive father... was always trying to get me to become more active in helping run the station. I think he hoped I would inherit the position of mayor from him. It was not something I looked forward to. Exiperia Station was plagued with problems, not the least of which were being a frontier station on the fringe of the main circle. It kept us away from conflicts between other, more powerful stations, but it also made us vulnerable to attack from other, darker sources. We had been suffering for a long time from a threat my father tried to keep in the inner circle of leadership to keep me and the others from panicking.
"Is it about the alliance with Draft Station?" I asked.
My father shook his head. "No. Right now I think it best if I show you some things that have been kept quiet until now."
"The attacks?" I asked. I remembered the talk around Exiperia, kept it locked away in the safe of my mind. My father sighed.
"Perceptive as ever, my son," he said, and gestured with his hoof outside again. "Come on."
I got up and put on my saddlebags, followed him into the cramped hall, shaking my flanks to get my saddlebags to sit easier on my back. It was amazing that we could stand these conditions, really. A pony could barely turn around without bumping flanks with someone's door, or other flank. You got used to it, or you went insane. Some of the poor pegasi who couldn't handle living here have done that, and went stir crazy from the lack of flying and open spaces. Disregarding everything they fought their way into the poisonous air outside, going as far and as fast as they could before they fell. Dying a quick death as their flesh burned and their lungs dissolved, at least they got to spread their wings one last time. The doctors called it "going feather-brained." It made me very, very glad I was an earth pony.
I followed the graying mane of my father past Sour Grape's place, where he stood outside the door and gave me and my father a curt nod.
"Lockbox," he said gruffly, and I returned the nod. Inside Grape's room I could hear his poor wife griping again about his behavior. Sour Grapes was not the most affectionate of ponies, and his wife complained quite often about his lack of a work ethic.
I was pretty sure she was having an affair with Balderdash, whose place we passed without a word. The stallion was calmly listening to some old world music inside. He loved hearing music and often organized what few parties we could afford, not that we had much occasion for them.
We passed old Granny Turnip's room, swung around the kitchens where Nuts was gossiping with Bolts over the cooking pots, and began heading upstairs. I recognized Clockwork and Yuletide, two ponies who worked with the livestock, playing cards in the hall. My father gave them a vague reprimand which they barely acknowledged, as he did almost every time they passed. My father was a dour pony, but he didn't like to bring an iron hoof down on anypony. The station was happy enough with him and Primare Donna in charge. Between them and the others Exiperia was peaceful enough, until this new threat had come.
And then there was Starry Gaze. The unicorn filly appeared out of nowhere as usual. I wasn't quite sure what she did around Exiperia, since she was always either daydreaming or doing a different odd job every time I looked.
"H- hey there, Lockbox, mister Cinder Block," she said, fixing me with her sparkling eyes as she fell into step behind us. There was barely any room to walk alongside, but she pushed to get as close as possible anyway. I felt a little crowded as my haunch kept brushing her shoulder, which she no doubt intended. Many a young colt had lost themselves in Starry Gaze's eyes, though she was always too shy and timid to really make use of it. She was a little like me, always sending her gaze off somewhere else, lost in her thoughts. I suppose she took that similarity to be a sign of compatibility, as she had been pushing hard to find time alone with me. I gave her the same nod I had Sour Grapes.
"Um… I made this for you!" Her horn glowed and levitated out a little circle of string, decorated with shiny bits and pieces of who knew what. In the center was an old bit from when money was worth something, with Celestia's face on one side and Luna's on the other. It was pretty enough.
"Thank you," I said, and after a moment she realized I wasn't slowing down to take it. I allowed her to float it into my saddlebag.
"So… where are you two headed?" she asked, and I was acutely aware she was just making small talk while she stared at my flanks.
"The clinic," my father said. "There is business that needs taking care of. Lockbox is coming along to learn a few things."
"O-oh," said Starry Gaze, her bright eyes dimming a little. She knew just as I did he was talking about the attacks, and it was enough to blunt even her optimism. "I… I hope you figure something out, then. I know you will." She stared at me as she said it.
"Don't worry," my father said with a comforting, paternal grin. "The Rangers themselves are coming here. Between them and our station we'll put an end to this trouble."
"That's good, sir," she said, still waiting for me to say something. I did not.
"I'll… I'll see you later," she murmured, eyes downcast as she turned away.
"Take care," I said, and with one last hopeful look over her shoulder she was lost to the corridors.
"You shouldn't be so short with her son," my father sighed as we came up to the main level. "She is a nice mare, and is only trying to be friendly."
"I know, father," I said. I knew I was being something of a foal. Shying away from females seemed to come naturally to me, but where Starry Gaze was concerned I knew it was for the best. She wasn't my type, and I felt she was pushing for a relationship because I fit the criteria that made me a good choice, not because there was anything between us. That and I knew Sunny Side had had his eye on her for a long time now. The poor pegasus had a crush something awful on the unicorn, and getting caught in a love triangle was the last thing I needed.
Still, just to be nice to her I'd show that I'd kept her homemade trinket next time we met.
The main level of Exiperia was always bustling with activity. It was here the docks resided, and where all of our livestock were kept and our farms were grown. It was also where the small collection of shacks and stalls we called a market was housed. As we pushed through the crowd, I saw several militia ponies rushing back and forth. I noticed Sunny Side, but he couldn't spare a glance as he fluttered over our heads towards the guard posts. They certainly knew something was up, but everypony else was acting like it was business as usual. I narrowed my eyes and looked at my father.
"… It happened just recently. Word is spreading now," he told me.
"Why didn't you announce it to the station?"
"And have everypony believe our leadership is going to squawk our panic at the air like crows?" he answered with a glare. "No, we need them to think this is just another mutant attack for now. Though, the way the bodies always end up, that will change very soon…"
It was morbid to admit, but my curiosity was piqued. I said nothing more to my father as we pushed through the market towards the hospital, ducking into a side hall to avoid the worst of the crowd. I saw several worried glances and hushed conversations going on, and as we neared the clinic I felt a sinking feeling develop in my stomach.
"Cinder Block!" the head doctor, Pokey, greeted my father as we came to the door. A worried crowd of ponies waited nearby, held back by the militia. I heard several of them calling out for news of loved ones.
"My poor Blue Jay is in there! My husband! Please, just let me know he's all right!"
"Damn it, my son was on duty during the last attack! Where is he? Let me see him!"
"Greymane, you know my wife! Is she okay?"
"I'm sorry Timber. Rules are rules. I can't say anything. Everypony, move back! Make way for the mayor!"
I felt their eyes on me and my father, accusing and hopeful. They wanted answers. My father just trotted up to the head doctor like it was an ordinary day. I knew he was trying to put on a brave face, but it just came off as indifferent to me.
"Pokey," he said calmly. "What is it now?"
"Another one of those," the doctor grumbled, shaking his silver mane. "They came out of nowhere, as usual. Every single bloody guard on the post was wiped out! We should speak of this inside. The trader can tell you more, he's the only one who got out unscathed."
"Very well. Take us inside."
I pushed against my father as we crowded inside the door, eager to be away from all those angry ponies outside. Their glares made me blush, and my ears burned at the clamor they made. The sight was no better inside. The clinic was crowded almost to capacity, and many areas were cordoned off with bedsheets. I saw the warm glow of unicorn horns behind them as they worked their best magic to stave off the inevitable… but there was a whole corner stuffed with covered bodies already. My stomach twisted.
"They attacked like they always do, coming out of nowhere and hitting us like lightning!" Pokey snapped, leading us through the bleak scene. I saw a pony lying on a bed through a gap in the sheets, his eyes wide and pupils dilated. He stared straight at the ceiling, hugging his pillow while a couple unicorns tried to coax him into drinking a healing potion. He just lay there, staring and breathing like he was already dead but didn't know it yet. On his flank was a blue jay. I turned away, feeling sick. Pokey kept talking.
"Just like before, they didn't kill with any weapon we know of. The best we can figure is it's some kind of magic, or perhaps a poison we can't detect! There's nothing physically wrong with their victims… most of them. They just come in looking like… well, like that."
He raised a hoof and pointed at one of their most recent cases. A big, strong pony who looked like he could buck a tree in two and a cutie mark of two crossed pistols sat up straight, his head lolling back and forth. On occasion, his hoof would reach up into the air.
"Mmmuh," he groaned. "G… gotta reach it… get the gun… captain's orders… gotta fire! Mmmuh! Can't see…"
Cinder Block stood directly in front of the dizzy stallion, looking him in the eyes.
"Trigger Hoof," he said calmly. "Trigger. It's Cinder Block. Can you hear me? You remember me, Trigger?"
He waved a hoof in front of the stallion's eyes, which were filled to the brim with dilated pupils just like Blue Jay. Trigger glanced at the waving hoof, and for a few hopeful moments it looked like he was becoming lucid again.
"C-captain's orders," he muttered. "Open fire. Don't stop shooting. Gotta reach my gun. Gotta reach." He lifted his hoof and tapped it against Cinder's. The gesture was disturbingly child-like.
"Tell me what happened," my father demanded in a slow, commanding voice.
"Not normal. Not normal," Trigger whispered, transfixed by my father's hoof. "Shadows. Out of shadows. The noise. It's breaking everything. Oh, Goddesses, the noise. In my head. In my eyes. Bursting. Can't move. Gotta reach but I can't move. Mmmuh. Wings… horns! Horns! Wings! Reaching! They're gonna get me! AAAH!"
He backpedaled into the wall, shrieking incoherently. A couple of militia ponies nearby tried to hold him down as he thrashed against an attacker we couldn't see.
"WINGS! BLACK! DON'T TOUCH ME! GET AWAY!"
"Sedatives, now!" Pokey ordered, and a unicorn nurse rushed forward, using her magic to jab a needle of glowing purple… stuff into Trigger's neck. The big stallion's cries were quickly reduced to whimpers and insane mumbling again. None of the other patients seemed affected by the outburst, and the clinic was eerily quiet once more. I could hear the mumbling of another lunatic nearby, behind his curtain.
I stood still through the whole ordeal, frozen to the bone with terror. Mutants were one thing, but afflictions of the mind couldn't be solved with bullets... most of them, anyway. My father was quick to recover as usual.
"Is there nothing you can do for them?" he asked Pokey, who hung his head. I noticed the doctor's eyes were bloodshot. He hadn't slept in a while. How long had these poor ponies been back here, hiding all this horror from the rest of the station?
"All we can really do is make them comfortable," he murmured. "Eventually, they all… pass. One way or another." He nickered and tossed his mane towards the covered bodies in the corner. I couldn't bear to look for more than a moment.
"Sometimes they develop hemorrhages in the brain due to tumors that come from nowhere. This leads to a stroke, and the blood vessels just… fall to pieces. Loss of brain function comes swiftly. Sometimes they just… just shut down, like a lightbulb. It's like nothing I've ever seen. Their brains have suffered some kind of horrible trauma or stress, and they just… can't handle it. It's lethal no matter the species, pegasi, earth… unicorns die especially quick, though. Sometimes right there on the scene after an attack."
"Bastards," my father hissed. "They don't even have the decency to kill us like regular mutants. They slay us with fear."
"That's… one way of putting it," Pokey assented. "All of the victims have suffered some kind of severe trauma. They all arrive in a state of deep shock that we can't snap them out of. There is… talk… going around the clinic. That this isn't just magic… it's a psychic phenomenon related to magic. Even non-unicorns can feel the presence of powerful magic in the site of an attack, but it's not the direct cause."
"You're saying these freaks are telepathic?" my father rumbled. "That's just great. Celestia damn it, psychic monsters are just what we need…"
"What about the trader you mentioned?" I asked. "You said he was the only survivor?"
Pokey shook his head. "You can still see him if you want, but he was in bad shape… an errant bullet took him in the leg, and he only caught a glimpse of whatever attacked them… but it still scarred him deeply. He hasn't showed any signs of degenerating… yet. We think he just took a glancing blow from… whatever it is they were hit with."
"Take us to him," my father demanded. I wasn't sure if I wanted to follow, but I wasn't going to be weak in the presence of my father. I followed them into the back of the clinic, to a private room.
A dull orange earth pony with an equally dull mane sat on a bed, leg wrapped tightly with healing bandages. The intricate spells required to create those medical wonders were not able to be worked by just any old unicorn. As such they were very rare, only applied in the case of grievous injuries. He had a treasure chest cutie mark, and the rest of him was covered in cuts and bruises, as if he'd been tossed around by a wind storm.
"My name is Sixpence," he mumbled as we came in. "I saw them. I do not know what I saw. I want to go home. I want to leave."
"Your injuries are still too severe Sixpence," Pokey assuaged him. "You'll be on the very next cart out of here back to Bucklyn when you're better."
"Sixpence, my name is Cinder Block," my father rumbled. "I need you to tell me everything you saw during the attack."
"My death," Sixpence groaned in a hoarse voice. "Our death. They didn't even need to touch your militia. They just… looked at us. Staring… those eyes…" He covered his eyes with his hooves. "I see them in the dark. Glowing red and orange like hellfire! They just looked at them, and… and the noises! Oh, dear Luna, the noises! It was like a hoof scraping on a chalkboard in my head. I thought my brain was going to explode! And then they…they all just started screaming and falling… firing at nothing… I hid. I hid. It was so awful. I couldn't do anything."
"Sixpence," my father asked quietly. "What did they look like?"
I felt a chill in the air.
"Wings," he said quietly. "Black wings, like a pegasus. And legs. So long. Reaching for us… their horns glowed… with such power… lightning and wind everywhere…"
"Horned, winged creatures with long legs?" I asked. That sinking feeling in my stomach was growing worse.
Sixpence looked up at us with dull, haunted eyes.
"The Princesses. They looked like the Princesses. Celestia help me, they looked just like her…"
"We should do something, father," I said, standing in his office after the visit to the clinic. Cinder Block paced back and forth in front of me. Primare Donna and the leader of the militia, Captain Ironhoof, stood nearby.
"We can do nothing for now," Cinder Block replied. "These creatures kill us without even touching us. Their magic overwhelmed some of our best unicorn guardponies! We must do our best to hunker down until help arrives."
The others didn't see it, but I could tell that he was more than disturbed by what he'd seen. He was just trying not to be concerned too much for my sake.
"Cinder," Ironhoof said, "we have lost a whole tenth of our guard force to these attacks alone! They're going to bleed us dry, and then swoop in when we're defenseless. We have to go out there and destroy them!"
"We don't even know where or what they are," Primare Donna said with a flick of her bright aqua mane that made me feel rather weak in the knees. Her beauty was her greatest asset, but she knew not to work her charms on my father or Ironhoof. I, however, was not so acclimatized to the earth mare's… unique body language.
"What we need to do is call for help. I agree with Cinder. Other ponies who have been to deeper and darker parts of the tunnel system are coming here soon. They will be able to help us."
"So what are we going to do?" Ironhoof growled. "Wait until the whole Metro mobilizes? Until Ponyopolis gets off their collective asses and sends an army? We know that will never happen, and the Rangers are sketchy at best!"
I said nothing about the Rangers. I had to admit I admired the brave ponies who wandered the dark tunnels of the Metro, slaying evil-doers and helping wherever they could. They kept the tunnels clear of mutants and fought back the crazier ponies of the Metro, such as the mysterious Great Cult of the Wyrm, and helped contain the insane little wars between the Celestian Monarchy and the New Lunar Republic. Whenever a pony was lost or hurt in the Metro, their only hope was a Ranger that would stop and help. They'd never leave a pony in need. They were the fiercest warriors, unflinching in their dedication to making the Metro safe. But their excursions took them places normal ponies weren't meant to go, and there were stories of how it affected their minds… quite negatively, in fact. My father didn't appreciate my love for them, even if he appreciated what they did.
"I know them," he said quietly. "Especially Hunter. He is coming here personally." My ears perked. I and my father knew Hunter ourselves. He was friends with Cinder Block, and often taught me how to shoot whenever he came by. He was also one of the bravest and strongest of the Rangers, and an extremely talented unicorn. If he was coming to investigate, then I knew we had at least a chance of finding out what's going on.
"Whatever we do, it has to be soon!" Ironhoof said, stamping his hoof. "We aren't going to last much longer. How long until these… these Dark Ones sweep us aside and invade the whole Metro?"
"I know, Ironhoof!" my father barked. "We must do our best to secure our borders. I want the watches doubled… no, tripled. Anything and everything out of place out there must be reported. All northbound tunnels are to be sealed off, every place we do not have a regular rail car route must be watched carefully. Nopony goes anywhere, anywhere outside Exiperia alone. They will all be armed and escorted. Do I make myself clear?"
He stormed away as the other two ponies nodded. I followed him out, ears folded back, though I still caught Ironhoof's ominous prophecy as we left the office.
"I hope you know what you're doing. The Dark Ones will kill us all, Cinder Block! You hear me? This isn't a normal war! This is our survival on the line!
"The Dark Ones will leave nopony alive!"