Chapter 3: Decisions

"If the local people are known to be enemies, or are unknowns, make every effort to avoid contact and leave no sign of your presence... If, after careful observation, you determine that an unknown people are friendly, you may contact them if you absolutely need their help." US Army Survival Manual; entry on Making First Contact

I kept watch until sunrise at 0530. In future I was going to have to conserve battery on my night scope. I had at best a couple hours left and I did not fancy my chances of finding AA batteries in the Equestrian wasteland.

After two days in the wasteland my food supplies were exhausted and I was beginning to seriously consider drinking some of the radioactive water I had found in Ponyville.

Fatigue was no stranger for me, but it hung on my consciousness with a constant weight that couldn't quite be ignored, sleep debt combined with the time of day and dehydration worsened the effect. I knew it would get better before it got worse. On the schedule today: find some uncontaminated water. The bottle I had scavenged from Skull's saddle bag made my pipbuck click like a geiger counter and – though my Nuclear Biological Combat training was limited – 'Do Not Fuck With Shit That Is Radioactive' seemed to be one of the main lessons to take away from it. DNFWSTIR for short. We do love our acronyms.

Flicking through the menus in my pipbuck had revealed an audio player, though I could only find one file for it to play. It was labeled "A_Message_from_ ". Stabletec... those were the bastards that orb had been rambling about. It was probably worth a listen. I hit the oversized play button. A literal retina display, but no touch screen. Seems weird until you remember that it was designed to be used by hooves.

"GREETINGS TRAVELER, MY NA-" The machine blared through a tinny speaker. I mashed the stop button and gripped my rifle tighter, looking around for anyone who might have heard the noise. I saw nothing out of the ordinary, released the breath I had been holding and mentally kicked myself for being so jumpy.

"Jesus Christ man, what are you going to do if you see a mouse, have a fucking aneurysm?" I muttered under my breath.

Alright, so the pipbuck doesn't transmit directly to my ears. I found the volume dial, turned it to one quarter and hit play again.

"Greetings traveler, my name is Scootaloo and you probably have no idea who I am or where you are. I'd like to start with an apology. If you're listening to this, that means the transfer was successful and the translation spell is working. I hope you can forgive us for pulling you away from... whatever it was you were doing back in your dimension. The truth is, we need your help. If you're listening to this, then I'm dead; the bombs fell and Equestria is no more... Celestia help me, I pray that no one ever has to listen to this... I know, we had no right to take you from your world but... *sigh* I had better provide some context.

As I said, my name is Scootaloo and I run... ran a company named 'Stabletec'. Equestria was at war, on the brink of total annihilation by devastating new weapons called megaspells, each one capable of destroying an entire city. Stabletec's goal was to build underground shelters to preserve pony life after the apocalypse. If my calculations are correct then two hundred years should have been long enough for most of the magical radiation to dissipate. If not... well I just hope your species isn't as sensitive to radiation as ours. Most of the stables should have opened by now, so there should be ponies around. They need your help.

We decided it was pointless to save ponykind, only for us to destroy ourselves again. Pony nature led us inevitably to this end. Our petty squabbles magnified and repeated ad infinitum until the resulting hate set the world on fire. As a true outsider, an alien as it were, you can provide perspective. Think of it as a cultural exchange. You tell us about your people and we'll tell you about ours. Perhaps it is this exchange of ideas that will allow us to regain our peaceful way of life and restore friendship and harmony to Equestria.

You have no reason to trust me, but I have placed several 'quests' in your pipbuck, which I hope you complete as an ambassador of your species. The last quest is to return home. If you want to skip to that I won't stop you. Hopefully the machine is still intact. If it's not... well I'm sorry, but you're on your own. I hope you can forgive us.

May Celestia have mercy on us all."

Scootaloo was an adult and president of a company, so what? Twenty, thirty years after the show? Then another two hundred after the apocalypse. They were all dead then. If the 'megaspells' hadn't killed them, time itself would have finished the job. Celestia, Luna, they could still be alive. They would have to be, right? The sun still rose and set; but how could they let this happen? A way home though. That was the real message here. According to the quest the machine was somewhere in Canterlot, but that was a trek I was in no condition to undertake at the moment. I needed supplies, rest, and preferably some intel. Supplies first, I wasn't going to last much longer without a fresh water source.

After a few more fruitless hours of searching the ruins, luck seemed to finally go my way. As I scanned the perimeter I caught sight of a blip on the horizon and brought up my scope.

In the distance I saw a caravan working its way up the cracked road. It consisted of two covered wagons pulled by what looked to be horribly mutated cows with two heads. I chuckled at the idea of ponies driving a cart rather than pulling, it just seemed so... backwards. Along with the cart drivers, two ponies with guns hanging off saddles flanked the first cart, three more ponies walked in between the first and second carts, and two more behind the second. Nine ponies in all. I couldn't determine gender from this distance, dressed as they were. I took my eye away from the scope. Of course there could be a dozen more inside the carts, but I doubted that was the case. More likely they were filled with supplies for their journey. Hopefully they had some spare water and food to trade. I could probably trade some ammo or grenades... although I supposed that with hooves the grenades would only be workable by a unicorn. Despite what you see in the movies you can't pull a pin with your teeth. It's the first thing Boots try when they get their hands on a training grenade and seldom does anyone try it twice.

The more immediate problem was how to approach the caravan without scaring the ponies to death. Or being perforated by them. Both poor outcomes. They didn't look like raiders, at least judging by their improvised cloth and metal armour. Their clothes were dirty but free of bloodstains. That and they just didn't have that crazed look in their eyes.

Approaching with my rifle raised would surely get me shot, but coming out with my hands up didn't seem like such a good idea either. Would they even understand the gesture? Even between cultures on Earth such gestures weren't universal. Put your hand up to tell an Afghani vehicle to stop and he'll assume you're asking him to come closer, with often lethal consequences. When dealing with animals, raising your arms was supposed to make you look larger and more intimidating, the exact opposite of what I wanted. Ponies were obviously sentient, but fear of giant bipeds with their arms raised, ready to strike, was likely instinctual for beings living in a world that I seemed to remember contained bears.

Making it somewhat easier was the fact that they spoke English, so I could at least yell at them. I just had to get within shouting distance and I could try to explain myself.

-x-

I shook my head in disbelief that I had put myself in such a situation. I knelt in the middle of the road with my rifle laying on the cracked road surface in front of me, my hands raised up next to my head. The caravan approached and stopped thirty meters from me. I had picked this spot so that it would be difficult for them to go around me.

The two caravan guards trained their rifles on me. Not only that, but the front most cart driver gripped some kind of shotgun in his mouth, and all the other ponies hefted weapons of one kind or another.

"Don't shoot!" I called out, "I mean you no harm. I want to trade."

I had briefly considered 'I come in peace from planet earth for all mankind', but I didn't want to fuck up first contact with some pointless grandstanding, even if I was the first human to speak to aliens. The ponies were remarkably silent, or at least I thought so until I realised that with their mouths gripping their trigger bits, they were incapable of speech. A couple of the ponies appeared to be shaking in fear. The guard pony on the left spat out his bit before yelling back.

"I don't know what the buck you are but we don't want what you're selling," he yelled back, "stay down and back slowly away from your weapon or we will open fire."

"Please, I just need some water," I called back, "I can trade ammunition or weapons, I've got some grenades."

"Back away or we will open fire," screamed the pony, "this is your last warning!"

His voice cracked near the end. He was trying to act tough, but he was obviously struggling to maintain the façade. Honestly, where did they get these mercs? I wasn't about to surrender my rifle to them.

"Okay," I said slowly and clearly, "I'm backing away, but I'm taking my rifle. Don't shoot."

Somepony in the crowd fired a rifle. It hit me in the chest and I felt a plate crack as I collapsed forward, wheezing for air, pain flaring across potentially broken ribs as I breathed in, gritting my teeth. I reached my hand forward and grabbed ahold of my rifle. Even with the pain in my chest I felt better with its weight in my hand.

That was apparently the last straw for the ponies. After a moment of shocked confusion they all opened fire. I threw myself off the side of the road, rolling down the embankment. I could hear bullets flying past me despite the ringing in my ears. I was quickly coated in mud and I tasted dirt. I grunted in pain as I rolled over the fractured plate in my vest. I reached halfway down the hill before I heard more gunshots. I spread my arms and legs to arrest my tumble and I slid to a stop. I could see ponies silhouetted on top of the hill and I returned fire. Like ducks in a shooting gallery. They didn't seek cover, with those saddle-mounted weapons it would be nigh impossible to aim at the enemy without facing them with their whole body. Tactically they were more akin to tiny vehicles.

I looked around for cover, but found myself pinned down by their fire. Instead I lay as flat as possible, presenting as small a target as I could. I fired a few rounds indiscriminately, hoping to drive them off the ridge. They didn't budge. I sighted my first target and fired, catching one of the guard ponies in the shoulder. He collapsed onto his knees, but to his credit, he kept kept firing until my second round hit him in the chest. A mare ran to him and tried to give him something from a bottle. Alcohol maybe? For the pain? I moved my attention to another rifle pony, hitting him in the neck. I kept sighting and firing, my spent brass splashing into the watery muck beside me. It had started to rain, icy water running downhill and soaking me in seconds.

One by one the ponies fell. Not all my rounds hit their targets, but enough did. One of the ponies charged down the hill at me – I smashed in his face with the barrel of my rifle and he tumbled down past me.

The remaining ponies started to back up, so I began to advance, seizing the advantage. I stood up, trying to see targets over the ridge. I wasn't killing people, I was removing threats. Four were left, then three. The remaining ponies finally had the sense to take cover behind one of their wagons, for all the good it would do them. I dropped to the ground on the edge of the road and sighted under the wheels of the cart. I fired six times and hit three hooves, two ponies dropped to the ground and I put rounds into their sides. The last pony bolted out from behind cover but wasn't fast enough. I tagged him in the chest and flank as he ran. He stumbled and skidded to as stop.

I tasted blood in my mouth and spat crimson into the dirt. I got down low, looking between the wheels of the wagon. Two of the ponies lay still but a third continued to gasp for breath, eyes rolling in terror as it clutched at a severed hoof, a wound in its side had missed heart and lungs, denying it a quick death, but it wouldn't last long. I thought about putting it out of its misery, but that wasn't how we did things. Instead I approached the wagon and kicked the weapon away from its head.

The rain was so heavy now that it was starting to affect visibility, water dripped off my helmet and mud coated the entire front of my body. I could taste the grit as dirt was washed down my face and into my mouth. I cleared the wagon, moving to the second one. It was clear too. Now they were all dead. That was just fucking great. Some great fucking ambassador I was. With the threats removed I was allowed the luxury of feelings again, and I was beyond pissed. I went back to the one pony who was still barely breathing. I grabbed it but the collar of... whatever the fuck you call a shirt when a pony is wearing it, and lifted it up to my height with one hand, staring it in the eye.

"What the fuck was that, huh?" I yelled, water flying from my mouth. Despite the amount of pain it was in from the gunshot wounds the pony still flattened its ears to its head, wincing at the volume, "Are you listening to me you piece of shit? I ask for some fucking water and you take a shot at me!"

The pony screwed its eyes shut, turning its head away from me. I shook the pony and it groaned in pain from its injuries.

"Open your eyes." I ordered, "I said OPEN YOUR FUCKING EYES cock stain or I will end you! LOOK. Look around you. This is on you. You did this. This is not on me. You and your little pony friends fucked with the wrong person and now you're all fucking dead."

At some point during my rant the pony had in fact expired. It went limp and stopped struggling. I threw the lifeless corpse into the mud in disgust. It rolled a few times before ending up awkwardly on its side, enormous eyes remaining open as it lay there in the mud.

My wet hair beneath the helmet was beginning to itch. I tore the helmet off and hurled it into the side of the cart. My rage was not sated in the least and I wanted to murder the next thing I saw.

What the fuck were those ponies thinking? My eyes were wide, still searching for targets. My hands shook. My teeth were set. I glared at my traitorous shaking hands, but the harder I tried to keep them still, the more they shook. I was breathing heavily through my nose, like a predator on the hunt my sense of smell grew more acute, I could smell the mix of blood, piss and cordite that marked a battlefield along with the overpowering damp smell of mud.

There are some people who are addicted to combat, and while I don't count myself among them I can understand how it happens.

You know that rush you get when you play in a championship game? It's nothing like that. Instead imagine it's the middle of the night and you're bare ass naked clinging to the roof of a speeding car.

At levels this high, adrenaline feels like the best drug you could possibly imagine. That pain in your foot from being on patrol all day? Gone. Worries about your girl back home? Don't even rate. Blood and gore splattered on your face? It's not an immediate threat to your life so who gives a fuck. You can run like Usain Bolt and punch like Muhammed Ali. Your body feels so light it's like it's not even there. The air feels thick enough to bite on... oh and you're so scared you feel like you're about to shit your cammies.

Coming down off that sort of high is not fun. Your muscles begin to ache all over and you feel as twitchy as fuck for hours afterwards.

That was the state I was currently in. The Corps has ways of dealing with combat stress, and no I don't mean psychologists and all the other POG shit, they have their place but it's not on the battlefield. No, it's more about just talking it out with your squadmates. Talking about how fucked up shit was, supporting their decisions, it re-enforces your normality. It allows you to put your actions and experiences into context.

"What the fuck are you staring at?" I yelled at the lifeless pony lying there with glazed eyes. "Huh, you worthless sack of shit. Where's your magical friendship now?" I kicked it in the head and heard its jaw snap as it slid through the mud, leaving a trail of blood that was soon washed away by the rain.

Alone. I was alone in this wasteland. I'd killed every living thing I'd seen. I slumped down against the side of the wagon with my rifle across my knees, overcome by a sudden wave of fatigue. After everything I'd put it through, my body just wanted to lay down here and rest. I shivered as my clothing became completely saturated.

I breathed in deeply, ignoring the sharp stab of pain from my fractured rib. Tilting my head back I let the raindrops land in my parched mouth, only to have a message flash into my vision. Having a HUD built into my eyes was freaky enough, but the message itself did nothing to ease my fears: 'RADIATION INGESTION WARNING: 1 RAD/S - TOTAL EXPOSURE 3 RAD (CONDITION GREEN)'

"You have got to be fucking kidding me." I muttered. The rainwater was radioactive. That made no sense... unless it was washing radioactive particles out of the air, but wouldn't that mean that the air was... but at what altitude? Fuck. I should have paid more attention in NBC training. Was a 'Rad' a lot, or just a little? Green. Green sounded good.

Theories aside, if this rain was radioactive I should really follow the DNFWSTIR rule and find some shelter. I couldn't just leave the caravan though. Though the encounter hadn't gone down the way I would have wanted it, the supplies were now mine and I had to get them off the road before raiders got any funny ideas about them.

I took another painful breath and forced myself back to my feet. My body felt weak and my mind fuzzy. I had to set my teeth to prevent them from chattering. I mentally slapped myself, suck it up Marine, you've still got work to do. I checked the perimeter for any ponies drawn by the gunfire but it was impossible to make out anything beyond a couple dozen meters due to the heavy rain. I allowed my rifle to hang from its one-point harness and started going through the contents of the first cart. It wasn't much. In America it would probably have had a street value of about twenty dollars, but in this wasteland I wouldn't trade it for a ton of gold.

There were a number of crates inside the cart, the first contained a collection of rags. Awesome. Hundreds of uses for them. I could boil them to use as bandages, tear them into kindling, use them as lashing to construct a shelter; I took one and wrapped it around my face. Not exactly a gas mask, but if there were radioactive particles in the air, it should at least catch some of them. I hoped.

The next box contained a few loaded .22 magazines. Not so useful. The gunpowder could be used as an explosive, but trying to open them without the right equipment was dubious at best. In the rest of the cart I found a couple dozen bottles of water, a bunch of tin cans with the labels worn off and sack of oats. I brought one of the bottles up and held it next to my pipbuck. I wasn't sure exactly how the sensor worked, but it didn't click so I assumed it wasn't radioactive. Of course that alone didn't mean it was drinkable. Any number of deadly chemical or biological contaminants could be hiding in this clear liquid.

I unscrewed the bottle and sniffed it, it was odorless, I dipped my finger in it. No reaction. I dipped again and rubbed it on my cracked lips. Still nothing. I carefully poured some of the water onto my tongue. It was almost tasteless, perhaps a little bit stale. As far as I could tell without a chemist, it was clean water. It could still kill me, but that was a risk I was going to have to take. I chugged the bottle, experiencing sweet relief as it lubricated my dry throat and mouth. I uncapped another and repeated the action. I felt nauseated from the adrenaline, I hoped, and not anything in the water.

Continuing my search, there were a number of canvas tents rolled up with string. I also found a few personal items: clothing, a sketchbook, and strangely, some kind of teddy bear. No doubt intended for some foal's parents in another town to buy. I had no interest in such things. Survival was my mission here. The rest of the cart was mostly taken up by the scrap metal that, I surmised, was their main commodity.

I saw a glint of white in amongst the boxes and moved a wooden crate to reveal a metal box marked with the unmistakable three butterflies of Fluttershy's cutie mark. My eyes widened. Something important had to be in this box. The embodiments of the Elements of Harmony would have been important in the war, so who knew what treasures would be considered worthy of affixing such a mark. I opened the latches, a watertight seal popping as I did so, and was almost overwhelmed by the cleanliness of the contents after so long in the muddy wastes; fluffy white bandages, medicine bottles of various kinds, an IV bag with a nuclear tri-foil mark read 'RADAWAY'. Alright, I was going to have to stay clear of that one. I didn't trust anything with a tri-foil. I closed up the box. Definitely a keeper. Of course it had to be Fluttershy, didn't it? Her kindness was helping ponies, even from beyond the grave.

I managed to affix the medical box to some molle loops on the back of my vest, creating a crude kind of backpack. I had considered foregoing the heavy box in favor of a lighter saddle bag, but the box was watertight and in the pouring rain the bandages would be contaminated within minutes. I stuffed some of the more useful looking rags into my pouches before tying one of the larger rags into a sling-type bag that I filled with ten of the bottles, which looked to be around twelve ounces each, and a couple of mystery cans. I slung the bag on my right, then grabbed the five pound sack of oats and slung it on the opposite side with the help of another rag.

I couldn't carry all of the useful items at once, I was going to have to find places to cache these, so I could retrieve them later. I stuffed the canvas from a tent into my left sling bag along with some string and went to check out the second cart.

The layout of the second cart was much the same as the first. I started poking through the first crate when I heard a whimper.

Immediately my rifle came up and I took a step back from the cart. I activated the barrel-mounted flashlight. It was easy to see why I hadn't spotted it on my first sweep of the cart, but I still mentally kicked myself for my lack of observation. In the back of the cart was a unicorn colt with a coat as black as soot, hiding between the boxes. He bled from a wound to his back, most likely from one of my stray rounds. Fuck. I couldn't just leave it there. Could I? I mean, it was probably going to die anyway, and I certainly wasn't in a position to drag around a liability until I found a safe haven.

Logic aside, he was basically a child. I saw a red blip on my compass. Raiders. I looked at the young colt's eyes rolling in terror. Fuck it.

"Up!" I yelled, lowering my weapon, "Move your ass, before the raiders get here!"

The colt just stared at me.

"On your feet or you're dead," I screamed at him, "I can't carry you and the supplies and I'm sure as fuck not going to starve to death to save your worthless hide."

The colt shakily got to its hooves and jumped down off the cart.

"Now follow me," I ordered, "and don't fall behind, because I'm not going back for you."

Tears ran down the colt's face, though most were lost amidst the rain. I would have felt for the kid, but I had to get out of here alive before I could care about his feelings.

There were red blips in almost every direction on my compass now, but unfortunately it didn't show any indication of how far the enemies were. I heard a shot ring out from behind me, but it didn't seem to be aimed in my direction. Were the raiders fighting each other, or were they really that bad a shot? I wasn't complaining. With that gunshot my adrenaline was back up and my pain and fatigue were lost to the heat of battle once again, replaced by a fear of every shadow and sound that could spell my death.

I started moving left, towards the edge of the hill. I assumed they were after the caravan rather than me. More gunshots rang out around me over the oppressive static of the rain and the ringing of my own ears. A raider appeared in front of me, sporting a saddle-mounted shotgun. He wasn't even looking in my direction but I put three rounds into him anyway, continuing to move forward.

I checked behind me and the colt was still there. I was going to get him out. I heard more gunshots and some faint yells of pain. They were fighting over the remnants of the caravan.

I reached the edge and grabbed the colt with my left arm, ignoring his kicking and squeal of shock. I jumped off the edge and slid down with the torrent of water that now poured down the incline. At the bottom of the hill I splashed into a previously-stagnant pool that had formed in a bomb crater. It felt slimy and made my pipbuck click even faster than it had at Skull's water.

I scrambled to get out of the water. I still had the colt grasped securely with my left arm, the rifle in my right. It was unwieldy and difficult to climb the slope that way, so I set the colt down on the ground.

"On your feet kid," I yelled over the pouring rain, "time to move!"

The colt remained motionless.

I swore. Just one pony. Was that too much to ask? Could I just find one pony that I didn't end up killing? I reached down and put my hand to his chest... and felt a heartbeat.

I swore again. Now I had to drag this pony out of here, cut my resources in half... if he lived anyway.

The shaking of my hands was starting to get even worse and my teeth were beginning to chatter. It wasn't just the adrenaline. I was starting to go into hypothermia, my energy reserves were at nothing and my saturated clothing was sucking out more heat than my body could replace.

I...I needed a fire, somewhere to dry out my clothes, and food... and sleep. I looked down at the comatose pony and sighed. Moving him was probably not the best idea in terms of first aid, but neither of us was going to last long out in this weather. I picked him up and draped him over my shoulders like a fox scarf. At least this way I could still operate my weapon if need be. The small pony's body heat warmed my neck somewhat. Thank God for small mercies, right?

I climbed out of the muddy crater on legs that felt like rubber. If my whole body hadn't been numb they would no doubt been screaming at me. My thoughts had to fight through the warm and inviting fatigue that enveloped my brain as I trudged ever onwards. I lost all sense of time, each step, each dull vista blending into the next. I felt as though I was watching from behind my eyes as my vision began to tunnel. At some point the sun had begun to set.

Off in the distance I saw a white pony, her wings open to envelop me, iridescent in the gray expanse as rain continued to fall in sheets. I had stopped shivering. A feeling of warmth permeated my body as I kept walking towards it.

I tripped and fell down an embankment, landing in some kind of cave... alright, not so much a cave as a rocky overhang, but I was out of the rain so I didn't complaining. I laid the colt on the dry ground and felt for his heartbeat, my fingers on his chest. It was something.

All of this happened in a dream-like state, I was drifting in and out. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw flashes of things that weren't there. Like waking from a dream, each transition between fantasy and reality was disorienting, each dream jumbled and half-forgotten. I bit my tongue to try and stay awake, but it didn't help. Harvesting some branches from a bush growing near the edge of my new shelter. Setting up the tinder, striking flint with my knife, trying to start a fire with the damp wood. I kept dropping the flint from my numb hands. Eventually I succeeded in getting it lit, but even I'm not sure how many tries it took.

I removed my vest and winced as I felt the bruise where the bullet had struck. There wasn't much I could do for broken ribs. I turned my attention to the colt and saw that he was shivering violently, blood slowly leaking from the wound on his back. Taking a closer look it wasn't that deep. Serious, but not immediately life threatening. I applied a strange purple liquid that I assumed was anti-septic. I probably should have been more cautious, but at this point I was essentially running on auto-pilot. I bandaged the wound before moving on to my hand, unwrapping the soaked bandage and applying more of the purple liquid before rebandaging it.

The small fire wasn't producing much heat and the pony continued to shiver. I opened my shirt and picked up the pony, hugging him to my chest to share our body heat. The colt's wet coat felt warm against my skin but smelled almost like a wet dog. I lay down next to the fire, trying to position myself as close as possible without risking anything catching alight. The colt had stopped shivering, I hoped because of my body heat, and not because he was dying. I wasn't planning on going to sleep just at that moment, but my much abused body had other plans. Sleep hit me like an M203 to the face.