I woke up that morning and groaned heartily. In the complete darkness, surrounding me, I stared up to the ceiling. Holding my head between both hooves, I sighed. Once again, I had hoped not to wake up. What a let down.
Left wing was numb that morning, I had it extended and spent the night with my back on it. Stretching it hurt. I rolled myself from the bed, fell onto the floor and reached out with a hoof to get the power cables together. A spark flashed before my eyes, and the room evolved from the silent darkness into a bright, noisy chamber in an instant. The active cooler came to life with a buzz, the lights flickered and lightened up the mess I call my home. I lay there on my back, eyes closed, waiting until I could open them again.
The high voltage fizzled by my ears. Some ponies might say it is not very smart to have the bed right next to bared power cables, fizzing with at a thousand volt, but... to say the truth, it’s kind of soothing.
With a stifled yawn, I finally made it up on all four legs. I dipped my head into the bowl of ice water and waited until I felt refreshed or drowned. Neither happened. I gasped back for air. Probably another day. Or night. You never know in this bunker.
I opened the steel door, heard the creaking through the entire building. Some light shone into the hallway, by the main gate. It left it ajar again. And it must be day. The shadows from the big ventilator outside danced on the naked concrete. I winced as I stretched my wings.
For breakfast, I chose some of the tinned beans. I walked up into the day, into the brightest light of a cloudless morning, and sat down under the porch. From the bunker’s entrance, it was a sheer drop if you walked ahead, but I liked sitting there.
“Baked Beans in tomato sauce,” I read the label out loud into the hot air. “Curtesy of the Equestrian Army.” Cold and old, just as nature intended.
And before me was the former thriving metropolis of Manehattan. The sun hung above the two highest buildings of the city. Some months ago they had fallen into each other, now looking as if they were longing each other’s comfort. It had been a hell of a noise. But I can relate.
I kicked the empty tin into the abyss. A crater, just some yards from the bunker. It is a bit of an irony, a bomb like this would have taken out the entire bunker easily. But it missed. And it had been empty anyway.
The city had been a cemetery when I entered it. Dehydrated, hungry, starving. The shops had been stocked, the warehouses full. When you’re hungry, on the brink of death, you’re ready to take on the charred bodies of the former inhabitants, but that had not been necessary. Manehattan had been taken down first, and nobody had come back.
Before the Incident, they had talked about what would follow the End. High magical background, for example, making this area completely barren. I thought about the irony, about what we had thought was true and what was not. And how we all marched for a false goddess.
I shook the thoughts out of my head and went back to the entrance. I checked the calendar, a shiny new Sunday in the wasteland. I had to smirk. I had so many calendars, pre-printed for the next thirty years.
Hundreds of books were in the bunker’s rooms. They were only for storing paper, and they piled up everywhere. I take care of them. I take care of every single of them, I take them in, I give them shelter. And I repair them. When I am done with them, they each get their very own spot in a shelf.
Very often, when I am about to lose my sanity, I look at them, all lined up. I walk up to the shelves, maybe take one out randomly. Read it to the others and myself. They surely enjoy my soothing voice.
At least I think it is soothing.
I looked over to my desk. Sunlight fell onto the remnants of a magics book, not very old, edges charred. It actually was in a quite excellent state, compared to the others I had found. No use to me, but most were not.
They’re not rare items, collectors’ or even famous editions. They are just remnants, remnants of a lost civilisation, figments of other ponies’ imagination. Or just things they wanted to tell the world.
I took place by the desk and leaved through the book. Carefully I scraped off the charred edges. That cannot be repaired all the way, but it can be made look even and clean. So this little friend can be with the others, and not ashamed.
Sometimes I even copy a books contents into mouth-written editions. That takes ages, but it’s worth it. Maybe not the knowledge, but the thoughts of ponies foregone. They might not always be the most mattering. Caring for Carrots. The Cow That Jumped. Love in the Skies. Surely not very deep works, but important. To me, they all are.
So is 101 Tricks of the Young Unicorn, which I was just repairing. Maybe it will make one child unicorn happy one day, again. You never know.
But the enthusiasm was not there, this morning I felt like a heap of bones and skin, garnished with some feathers on top, only moving because it had not realised yes it was dead. I let myself fall onto my back and stretched the hooves toward the ceilings. “Ugh,” I said.
Maybe I just needed to get out again. A week in this bunker by now. In here, the air was cool. The walls were thick and protective. The larder was full. But I could not fight the feeling, the urge to get out there, into the wasteland that once had been a city.
I could romanticise it now, exaggerate, say that something deep in me wanted me to go outside that day. But actually, it was probably just boredom. And all the subsequent events would not have happened. It was a coincidence. But that’s what life’s made of: Coincidences, one after the other. And in the review, they seem to be a logical line of consequences, but they are not.
So I rolled myself up onto the hooves, shook the dust out of my mane, and went to get the saddlebags. Army issue. You can say what you like, these things were made to be enduring. And they can carry more than your average bag.
I packed what I would probably need: Some tins for eating, a torch, the goggles in case of a sand storm. Those happen quite often, now that all the trees were gone around the city. And of course the little counter, a thing to detect bursts of magic radiation. Better to have one, always.
It ticked peacefully as I strapped it around my neck. Basic magic background noise. Lastly, there was the portable music player, probably the most important. Next to the first aid kit, that is.
Within some minutes, I was ready. And I already felt better. So maybe that was what I had wanted to do all day? Who knows. I feel often so very heavy. Difficult for a Pegasus.
After turning off the power from all the machines, I closed the entrance door. The sun had moved up the sky, the air was baking. No clouds, as always. They avoid this area just like everyone else.
Except me, of course. It took me a while to climb down the way from the entrance. It was a security trait, surely, that you cannot just stroll up the hill to get to the bunker. There were no stairs or a ramp. If anypony would try to get up here, they would be slow and noisy.
But so far, I had not met any other pony out here. Some critters, though. They seemed to enjoy the lack of pony care and were populating every green patch in town. That puzzles me, as I am sure without rain, there should be no green in the city. Not with the desert all around.
It took me a while to get down, always carefully by the side of the crater, on its back. The other side was way steeper and dug deep into the ground. And it was not even the biggest crater in the area.
I trotted down the street, between the burnt houses, passing the café I used to hang out very often, years ago. The candy shop right next to it. And there I turned right, down another road, away from the familiar ground.
Fortunately, I cannot get lost. I seem to always know where I am and how to get back. So I strolled over deserted streets, climbed heaps of debris and avoided the holes in the concrete. The counter clicked calmly on my neck, and after a while I switched on the music player.
Violin and piano melodies flooded the ruins as I walked in between them. It helped on many levels. For one, it kept the wild animals away, if there were any. Contrary to popular belief, they’re quite shy and sensitive and avoid loud noises. And the music would cause debris avalanches, but long before I am in their way.
And it kept the creepy feeling away. A ghost town is always spooky, hence we gave it that name. Somewhere deep down in our pony minds, we feel there must be a reason there is no other pony around. And we want to keep away, in case that reason is still there.
But I am a rational pegasus and know all the dangers: Rock slides, areas of high magical radiation and sun burns. There was nothing else to be afraid of.
I went into a shop and sat down on a burnt stool and waited. There was a counter, over it a board, hardly damaged. The words were just visible. A daffodil and daisy sandwich for just six bits. Sounds good. So I waited for the service.
And I waited a good while, but nobody showed up. disgruntled, I went up to the counter and peered over it. The waiter was a skeleton, lying folded up behind the stone. I rolled my eyes. This business will not have any future if the staff pulls pranks like these.
So I helped myself, jumped over the waiter and went over to the storage room. It smelled rotten in here. Almost no air movement, some bodies and the rancid remnants of stocked plants and ingredients, it came together in a foul stink. I quickly pulled the cloth from my neck over my muzzle. Wonder why they stayed in here.
Surely some explosion had blown in the windows and gotten the poor guy at the counter. Why would there be bodies in here? Common sense would tell anypony to leave this place. I quickly checked the counter. No radiation.
I shrugged it away. The music player emitted a soothing tune of violin and piano. I spotted an undamaged book on a shelf and quickly got it. Cooking book for convenience food. Obviously nopony actually had done any good cooking in here.
Breaking the backdoor, I left the kitchen. I found myself in a narrow alley, went from there to a wide lane. This was the centre of the city. To me, it was sad to see it like this. Years ago, you could hardly hear your own voice from all the carts and hooves clopping the cobblestones. And now, it was empty.
Before crossing the road, I looked left and right for any passing carts. There was the Equestria State Building, hardly damaged. I wondered for a moment. When I’d been young, I’d always wanted to go up there. So why not now?
All the glass was broken, no window intact. As I stepped over the shards, into the lobby, the counter began ticking louder. Nothing to be concerned about, yet. I went into the hall, dusty and full of debris, then up the stairs.
It came as high as the tenth floor before my legs refused to carry me any higher. I pulled the cloth from the muzzle, panting, and trotted into the former offices. Quite boring, I had to admit. On a desk, I found two books, broken spines. They did not look awfully interesting. I leaved through them, looked like accountancy.
And on the next desk, I found a notebook. It was in the paper basket and full of mouth-written notes. Seemed very personal to me. Those mean the most to my personal collection, so I packed the fragile book carefully.
I stepped forward to the windows. Carefully I trotted up there. A gentle breeze stroked through my mane, so I rested my forelegs on the windowsill and looked over the square. I has to smile as I spied a little cloud up on the sky. Its shadow fell on my face, a bit of cooling.
After the peaceful moment, I was about to turn away as a tiny movement caught my attention. Debris moving? I squinted and tried to make out the details. After some moments, I took the binoculars.
Far on the other side of the street I could spot a pony walking through the ruins. My heart stopped for a full second there. Maybe longer, it surely took me an eternity to even realise there was another pony. After so many months of complete loneliness, one can forget what other ponies look like.
A mare. She looked insecure, and tired. Her hooves trot slowly, she was sweating and thirsty. I sat like frozen, staring. She was not aware of my presence, and generally she had other problems. After she had partly crossed the street, her legs gave in and she collapsed in the sun.
I cannot tell any more how long I was just looking at her from my spot. Some seconds or half an hour? She did not move any more. Then I blinked, and I realised I had to help her. Nopony else would. There was nopony else but me.
I ran down the stairs, fell the last three flights as I had tripped over my own hooves, crossed the lobby, jumped over the binoculars I had dropped from above. I found her easily. Blond mane, orange coat. She was panting heavily. I emptied my entire water bottle onto her head.
Her eyes opened a bit. She gave me a long, disbelieving look, she had a little bit of a problem to acknowledge my existence. I put my neck cloth over her head to protect her from the sun.
“C’mere,” I mumbled. “Help me there.” I am not a strong pony, I just about made it to lift her up to my back. I dropped the saddlebags and carried her, slowly but steadily, home to my bunker.
It seemed to me like half a day had passed when I had her finally at the entrance. Couldn’t tell if she was asleep or unconscious, or even worse. But I was ready to fall into a coma after climbing up the crater wall with someone twice my weight on my back. Still, for an Earth Pony, she was awfully light.
“Almost there,” I panted, more to myself. Almost slipped on the stairs down into the hall. There is a medical station a bit deeper in the bunker, I usually avoided going there.
After putting her down on a mattress, the exhaustion overwhelmed me. Every bone ached, every muscle screamed, even my hooves were in pain, which should be impossible. But I could not simply leave her like that.
I replaced the cloth on her forehead, put a damp blanked over her back. She was wounded around the legs, probably be walking through the debris without any protection. I tried to bandage her up to my best knowledge. That is not much, but it seemed to help.
Then I was at a loss. Nuzzled her neck to check if there was still a pulse, only briefly. Still alive. So all I could do was wait.
It was some hours later, I had fetched myself a book. No matter how exhausted and tired I felt, I was unable to sleep while she was still lying there, looking like a wreck. But finally she woke up, opened an eye slowly and looked around in the room.
“Hey,” I said and tried to sound as unconcerned as possible.
She shook the cloth off her face. “Where am I?” she asked.
“Medical room of my bunker.”
“Bunker?” she said. As she tried to lift her head, she groaned.
I put a soda with straw next to her. “Drink something and don’t move too much.”
She suckled on the straw for a bit. “How’d I get ‘ere?”
I shrugged. “I carried you. Found you in town, collapsed.”
“Oh,” she mumbled and looked up to the ceiling. “Uh. Name’s Applejack. Or AJ.”
I smiled. “I’ll get you something to chew on, if you like.”
“I’d like that lots.”
So I got her some fresh fruit from the larder. Alfalfa, an apple. She looked at them very hungrily, and I helped her. I sat by her, silent. After a while, she was at least able to move properly again.
“It’s not a good idea to be out there alone,” I said. It was a quite corny and stupid thing to say, considered I am out there alone every time. But I was at a loss for words that moment.
“Ah got lost,” she said. “Was with a trail ‘n lost ‘em in a sand storm. Must’ve been some days ago.” She emptied the bottle. “Hope they’re fine.”
I frowned. “I’ve not seen anypony but you. For weeks.”
“Oh,” she mumbled and looked down. “There’s nopony here?”
“Just me?” I forced a smile. “That a problem?”
She looked up to me, then smiled. She tried to get up, but settled for just rolling over to the back. She was just as tired as me, but also just as hungry for socialising. That is a need you hardly notice when you’re forced to be all alone. We spend the entire night talking, until we both just fell asleep leaning on one another.
She told me how she had moved to a far southern town of Appleloosa, shortly before the war had started. It was so far off that it was almost unaffected. Appleloosa is a quite young settlement of Earth Ponies, and Applejack told me she had hardly got any news from central Equestria. I couldn’t help but envy her.
I asked her why she did return, and she began to cry. Earth ponies have a strong connection to their home soil. She and her family felt homesick and wanted to return as soon as it seemed safe. But seeing their green, healthy Equestria turned into a desert wasteland... it had broken her heart. And now she was missing her family as well.
My talents are limited, and comforting ponies is surely not among them.
A few days went by, and Applejack got better by the day. She’s quite a strong mare. I could show her around my little place, and she was smiling all the time. But it seemed an empty smile. I tried to avoid the topic of the war, of her family. I did not even ask her what she intended to do when she was fully healed up.
She taught me about growing plants. That was her profession. I just got my fruits from the trees at the secluded place in the city, and I’d had the idea of just growing my own, but never got around it. So she shared her knowledge with me.
And in the evenings, we listened to music together. I’m quite sure it did not mean as much to her as it did to me. Applejack is not the musical type. But she sat by me and listened to records of Octavia’s cello solos. And to me, it felt like a dream not to be alone any more. I dreaded the moment she would decide to leave and find her family.
At that one morning, a noise woke me up. When one is used to silence every day, one grows sensitive to unusual sounds. Applejack was sleeping soundly on the other side of the room, and I put my head down again.
But there it was again. Unsteadily, I got onto my hooves, crossed the room and peeked my head out of the door. The lights were out, no power on the lines, so I could hardly see a thing as I stepped into the hallway.
Something dropped onto my back, heavily. I felt a short pain in the neck, collapsed onto the ground. And I yelped as somepony pulled my forelegs behind my back and pushed them into a very uncomfortable position.
Lights flickered on around me, torches. They made an eerie impression. Their lights danced over my face and I tried to struggle myself free, but resistance was futile. I panted and was scared to death. The memories of the war returned, for a tiny moment.
They opened up the front door, and morning light flooded the bunker. I blinked, and then I could see they were pegasi. Pegasi wearing the Equestrian uniforms, and they did not look in any way friendly. I wanted to say something, but could not get out anything else than “Ngh.”
One of them pulled their leather cap off. Uniform of a lieutenant. She gave me a fierce look and shook her mane. After a wave of her wings, the others scattered off, invading my rooms. Except the one holding me, of course.
The lieutenant was staring at me as if trying to figure out if killing me was worth the effort. She blew her rainbow coloured mane out of her face and pursed her lips. “Pegasus, eh?” As if the wings were no hint.
One of her soldiers returned and dropped something. My old uniform. She turned it over with a hoof. “Deserter, I see,” she mumbled.
I struggled. “There’s no army I could have deserted from,” I made to say, finally. “Nothing left to fight for.”
She blinked. “Oh, there you’re wrong,” she simply said and looked up. “Deserters are traitors. We have strict policy with traitors.”
I snarled and spread my left wing, trying to get that pony off me. But no avail.
“Orders are strict on...” She stopped and stared at something behind me. “Applejack?” she whispered.
My eyes went wide. And I struggled again to gain freedom. I had to protect the mare, they could not possibly...
“What in the hay? Rainbow?” I could see her walk past me. “What’s... for Pete’s sake, let him go, at least.”
The lieutenant nodded, and finally the pressure on my forelegs was gone. I groaned as I could just about get up a bit.
“Applejack, it’s been so long,” the pegasus mare named Rainbow said and wrapped a foreleg around Applejack’s neck. “Why do I find you here with a traitor?” I could easily see the pegasus was not as friendly as she wanted to seem.
“Traitor? He saved me! I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him,” Applejack said. “Wha... what are you wearing? Who are these ponies?”
Rainbow responded a smirk. The other pegasi returned and dropped various things of my collection. They had taken apart my home and brought forth anything useful they could find. Including tinned food.
“Thought you were gone to Appleoosa for good?” the lieutenant asked Applejack. “After you lost barn and orchard?”
“I... wanted to come back.”
Rainbow picked up a bottle of soda and opened with her teeth. “That’s great! We need a pony with your experience. And your knowledge of the area, too.”
Applejack blinked. “And what the hay do you mean by that?”
I got up and standing and shook off my captor, who just shrugged and went to feast on my stored food, just like the others. Rainbow seemed to head outside the bunker with Applejack, so I followed them.
“Much has changed, war’s over and we start anew!” the lieutenant announced, with pride in the voice. She gave me a sharp look. “You’re lucky to have saved my friend’s life,” she told me. “You’re re-enlisted, get back into your uniform.”
I needed a moment to comprehend what she had just said. “Beg your pardon?”
She stepped up to be and put her hoof onto my chest. “You do as you’re told, get your gear and by noon you fly with us.”
I stared down at her hoof. And I felt my face redden as I blushed. “I... I cannot fly,” I mumbled.
“What was that?” she replied, angrily.
“I cannot fly,” I repeated. “Not any more.” I spread out my left wing out, then I winced as I tried it with the left, the crippled one. “We... went over a field, and the colt next to me stepped on a mine...” I swallowed. “Multiple fractures, it never healed properly.”
Rainbow stared at my wing, shocked. I don’t quite grasp why she was this genuinely shaken by that.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding sad. “That’s... harsh.” And I myself was surprised by her being so soft for a moment. Just for a moment. “You’ll walk then. Applejack!”
“Huh?” the other mare responded.
“You, me and the... colt here. We’re going to return to Ponyville. I have to report back to Cloudsdale anyway.”
“But... they said, that all is destroyed,” I mumbled.
“Oh, far from it. Or... yeah, it was pretty bad,” Rainbow admitted. “But now we’re strong again. We moved Cloudsdale, and together we’re now building a new Equestria. With...”
“You... moved Cloudsdale?” Applejack asked. “As in... moved. From its spot?”
Rainbow grinned. “Yep! And just like we did that together, the new Equestria will grow from our all our strengths.”
“You can’t move a city.”
I shrugged. “It’s only clouds. You need a lot of Pegasi. After the Cloudsdale Rebellion...”
“Revolution,” Rainbow interrupted me sharply. “Cloudsdale Revolution.”
“Right,” I mumbled. I somehow felt out of touch with reality here. I was half hoping that I would wake up in the darkness of my room next moment. I did not even want to know about any movement of cities. It sounded weird.
“Rainbow Dash,” Applejack said. “Have you seen Applebloom or Big Mac on the way here? Or anywhere?”
The pegasus mare thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. We flew in from north. But if anyone saw them, we encourage everypony to head to Ponyville. Maybe you can find them there?”
Rainbow Dash turned and returned to her hard and serious posture. “Yes. Gather anything useful. I will accompany these two. You all report back to Cloudsdale. Good job, comrades.”
The pegasus looked at me and Applejack. “An escort is...”
“You do as you’re told, Soarin’. I can handle this.”
They both saluted and the soldier retreated into the building.