After breakfast, which was heated by Pinksworth’s jet exhaust, Spring Step examined Ekon’s shoulder. Placing a fresh bandage over the wound, she said, “You’re healing well enough. Once Pinks comes back from recon, we’ll take off for New Canterlot.”
Ekon would have chewed off his own tail in order to stay in the safest apartment he had ever lived in. Begging with the likes of Spring Step, he knew, would be an exercise in futility.
The old mantra of hard-earned lessons played in his mind, however. Safety and security are delusions. A locked door can be kicked down. If something stays lost long enough, it will eventually get found.
That last lesson was also’s Dad’s mantra about the joys of archeology. Finding lost things, especially the things that would result in a employer’s bonus, were always welcome events.
After all, Ekon thought with a frown, those bounty killers got close enough to shoot me after five years of hiding and running. My days of being lost to them were over.
Another lesson slipped in unbidden. Friends are hard to find. Up until now, he was afraid to make friends with anypony.
After all, no civilization means ponies go hungry. Hungry ponies get greedy. Greed can trump trust and friendship. When your belly tells you how to run your entire life, nothing else matters.
In his delicate situation, Ekon knew for years that having friends in a world where ponies can get murdered for a can of beans might not be the best idea. Besides, the more people knew him, the more people might give those bounty killers a lead on him. It was better to be alone.
But it never felt very good to be alone. Zebras were social animals as much as ponies. Ekon had to go against his own crowd-loving nature in order to survive. But it never felt like he could ever thrive, could ever be more than a target on the run.
Pinkworth floated onto the balcony and into the living room. “It’s all clear!” she said cheerfully. “No eyes anywhere. We can take off now.”
Ekon smiled at her. The smile came easily to him, as he genuinely felt happy to see another person, even if she were locked up in a giant robot pony head. Even Spring Step, a pegasus with artificial wings and four metal legs that she used as lethal weapons, was a welcome addition to his life.
Something’s better than nothing, Pinkworth said last night. How true.
Spring trotted past Pinkie and hopped onto the balcony railing. “I’ll see you on the ground, Pinks.” Her artificial wings sprang out and she jumped into the sky. She pinwheeled around a few times and soon flew out of sight.
Pinksworth said, “Okay, Ekon. Do you want a ride on my head or get carried in one of my arms?”
“You can hold onto my hair-curls if you don’t want to risk getting your tail burnt by my exhaust.”
“How did I get up here while I was knocked out?”
“You were placed on top of me and my friend laid on top of you. Then her legs wrapped around my front and rear curls. This kept you from slipping off me. If you were awake, you’d think you were on a threesome date. Or at least the cute meat in a pony sandwich. Aww, are you blushing?”
“Er . . . no,” Ekon muttered while taking a sudden interest in the floor.
“Darn! I’ll have to try harder. Tell you what. Why don’t you hold onto my party cannon?”
He climbed onto the cannon and hung on as tight as he could.
“Ready, Ekon? Here we gooo!”
Ekon tried to close his eyes, but one part of his brain, the part that wasn’t worried about falling to a messy death, wanted to see the decayed city from Spring Step’s point of view. He had heard of pegasi giving earth ponies rides like this, but he never knew any pegasi well enough to ask them for that kind of favor.
Even though he was gritting his teeth in fear, his huge smile came from the bright joy of flight. In Pinksworth’s case it was less like flying and more like a controlled fall, but Ekon enjoyed himself in spite of his involuntary whimpering.
No wonder Spring Step got artificial wings, he thought. At least that way she could glide.
She could leave the world behind, he thought with a twinge of envy. Until it caught up with her, at least. The world caught to everypony eventually.
After about a minute, they landed next to Spring Step. His legs were shaking as he stumbled onto the ground. He didn’t realize until a moment later that his heart was hammering from the excitement.
“I can tell you had fun,” remarked the pegasus.
Pinksworth slapped her boxing glove on the cracked sidewalk. “Darn! I forgot to do a barrel-roll! I can do more than just float around, you know.”
“It’s just as well,” replied Spring Step. “We’re trying to make a good impression on our friend here, not scare him half to death.”
“I got enough of that from those bandits,” Ekon said. He looked around at the surrounding gutted buildings, at all the places where his hunters could be watching him. Watching and waiting.
Spring Step patted him on the back. “Don’t worry. The Iron Mare has great hearing. If there were any bad guys out there, she would have heard them by now.”
“All I can hear now are buildings sliding into the chasm,” informed Pinksworth. “ Let’s hoof it, folks. We’re off to see the lizard.” She started bobbing her head back and forth, humming a cheerful tune that Ekon didn’t recognize.
“What do you mean? I thought we were going to New Canterlot, not the dragon empire.”
“She means Spike. He’s . . . an unusual dragon.”
“What makes him special?” asked Ekon.
“I know this sounds kind of nuts, but he’s from an alternate timeline. He came from an Equestria that never had its magic taken away and never lost Celestia or Luna.”
“How do you guys know he’s not a con artist?”
“He knows a lot of stuff that only high-ranking officials knew. Like where Celestia’s private library is.”
Pinksworth chimed in. “He knew my real name and the names of everypony in my family. No one in Ponyville knew that. That’s enough to convince me.”
Ekon asked, “Is he your boss?”
Spring Step shook her head. “He’s only about fifteen years old, so no. He’s more like an advisor. You’ll find out everything when we introduce you to him.”
Ekon followed Spring Step as they walked down the empty freeway. The further they got from the city, the calmer Ekon felt.
A few miles later, they walked past dusty fields of decayed corn and rotted trees. Row after row of failed crops were all that they saw for the next hour.
Ekon was so used to seeing bare branched trees that he had to stop when he saw a tree in the distance holding some kind of fruit.
He pointed at the tree and said, “Is that an apple tree?”
Spring Step frowned as she prodded him to keep moving. “There’s nothing there you want to pick.”
“What do you mean?”
“With no earth pony magic to help make plants grow, it takes over a year to grow any kind of food,” said Spring Step. “This farm once belonged to the Apple family. When the unraveling hit, their vast crops died. They took it as a sign that the world would soon end. A suicide pact put them in that tree. The father left behind a note.”
“The world never really ends, Ekon,” Pinksworth said. “But sometimes it makes you wish it did.”
The pegasus said, “That’s not the only suicide tree we found, either. Lots of ponies either became bandits or did themselves in. Either way, it’s a waste.”
“That’s why we try to take good folks away from all of this,” added Pinksworth. “We’ve lost way too many people as it is when the cities got destroyed.”
Ekon shook his head. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you bury them?”
“We don’t have the time to bury every dead body we see, kiddo,” replied Spring Step. “Better to spend our time helping the living.”
As they went over a hill, Ekon snuck a look at the suicide tree. Something swayed in the lower branches.
They were leg bones. Small filly leg bones that dangled like flowers in the dusty, silent breeze.
Ekon’s back wrinkled as he shuddered.
* * *
After an hour of walking past a few more farmlands, they found an empty farmhouse. Spring Step held up a hoof and said, “Okay, let’s break for lunch. Ekon, stay here with me. Pinks, check out the house.”
Pinksworth saluted her with the boxing glove and chirped, “Roger! Back in a bit!”
As she floated towards the house, Ekon asked, “Do you always send her ahead as a scout?”
“Why not? I’ve seen her take rifle damage that would have killed a Clydesdale. Tazers don’t do much except make her giggle. Maybe a big enough explosive would kill her, but most bandits don’t have the kinds of weapons or armor that your pursuers did.”
Spring Step looked over Ekon. “Now that I’ve had to think about it, I’m a little surprised that they used military tactics to hunt you down. I checked out the combat area while you were out. That sniper I killed deliberately missed you with that arrow. It seemed to me that were trying to capture you alive. No offense, but you don’t look like a treasure trove. That backpack of yours probably only has camping gear, right?”
Ekon’s ears curved back. Crud, she’s pretty observant, he thought. “I . . . uh . . . I guess they were slave traffickers?”
She rubbed her chin, pondering what he said. “If they wanted you as a slave, why would they risk killing you with live rounds?”
“W-well, you said it yourself. Bandits don’t value anypony’s life. If they killed me, that’s no big loss to them. Right?”
“Sure,” she replied, as she stared at him. For several moments.
Finally, much to his relief, she turned away to see Pinksworth come towards them.
“It’s all clear! Let’s eat!”
Ekon asked, “How are you getting into the house? Aren’t you too big for the front door?”
Pinksworth held up her party cannon. “Oh, I can make my own doors.”
True to her word, when she reached the porch, she raised her cannon and smashed open the door. She effortlessly knocked the surrounding frame and panels until she could float inside.
The farmhouse kitchen still had a sink and stove. Pinksworth used her claw arm to pull the stove’s plug out. A tiny outlet door near her exhaust popped open. When she plugged the stove’s plug into the outlet, she said, “Okay, guys, let’s boil that water and get rid of those nasty germs.”
Snickering at Ekon’s gap-jawed amazement, Spring Step said dryly, “Full of surprises, isn’t she?”
After everyone’s canteens were filled with freshly boiled water, they settled down to lunch.
Spring Step chowed down on a vacuum packed hay-burger. Ekon was amazed at how nimbly she was able to handle her meal with metal limbs. She needed her military-grade discipline to gain that kind of control over soft foods.
Pinksworth was pouring boiled water into a bowl of white powder that she procured from a hidden compartment. After mixing the components, she poured what appeared to be white applesauce into her smiling mouth grill.
Ekon asked, “What are you eating?”
“Well, today’s special is apple fritter surprise. The surprise is that it actually tastes like apples and not library paste like the first batch the eggheads made for me.”
Spring Step chuckled. “Oh, wow. I remember that. You made this horrible ‘bleeekk’ sound when you tried to eat that cruddy glop! They thought that your voice-box fritzed out!”
Pinksworth bonked her party cannon on the floor as she giggled. “Yeah! One of the scientist ponies said, ‘Help her! She’s choking!’. And I said, ‘No, I’m not! I just can’t eat school supplies! If you want to feed me, hire a chef!’”
“I was laughing so hard when you said that, I fell out of the bed. I didn’t have my legs yet, so I just kept writhing around on the floor, wiggling my stumps!”
“They had me on a bed-hammock, so all I could do was make a toothless grin and hawk up a white loogy on the floor. You looked like a newborn foal, rolling on your back and laughing. I do love to make ponies smile. No matter where I am.”
Their laughter was contagious, as laughter so often is. He couldn’t help but chuckle at their levity, yet be amazed at it. Ekon was never able to laugh at his own pain, could never find humor in what he had done to his family. He looked at the pegasus’s metal legs and then recalled what Pinkie’s real body looked like. How could anypony laugh with bodies that were this crippled?
That’s when it finally hit him. A moment of clarity about those he walked with. They both had a bond born not from mere suffering, but from endurance of that suffering. Sharing a laugh together was a survival trait for them. No wonder they got along so well.
In spite of their myriad differences, they were very much alike. They were both wounded survivors, having a laugh in the middle of a desolate wasteland.
Ekon envied their joy, their ability to endure so much hardship.
After Pinksworth caught her breath after her giggle-fit, her camera eyes looked out the kitchen windows. “I think we’d better stick around here for a while, Springy. There’s a dust storm coming in.”
“You’d think that not having any more farmers in this part of the world would reduce those storms.”
Ekon inquired, “What do you mean?”
“A lot of farmers tried to compensate for the lack of produce by expanding their crop fields as far as they could go. More tilling of barren fields meant more dust getting kicked into the atmosphere. The harder the farmers tried to get their livelihoods back, the more Equestria denied them that goal. This world does what it wants, Ekon, magic or no magic. We’re all just along for the ride.”
He snorted. “At the mercy of a place with no mercy to give.”
“Sheesh, listen to mister gloomy,” commented Pinksworth. “Only people can give mercy, silly. Places don’t do that. They never have.”
The pegasus yawned. “Listen, Ekon. These storms last a while. Pinks will stand guard while I catch a few winks. Why don’t you do the same, eh?”
Normally Ekon would hide in a closet and barricade the door before daring to take even a short nap. For now, however, he simply laid down in a corner of the kitchen and used his backpack as a pillow.
A few minutes later, he was dangling from the suicide tree. Something bumped into his left side. Ekon turned his head, the noose digging into his throat. There were his mother and father, swaying in the sunshine.
“Welcome home, dear brother,” said a voice on his right.
Ekon struggled to look to his right. Why weren’t his legs working? Why were they simply dangling like that filly’s legs?
It was Azi. Ekon’s little brother. He was sitting on a tree branch, swinging a noose in one hoof. “It’s good to have you back. I knew my guys would drag you back to me eventually. You can’t just run from your past, you know.”
“I shouldn’t be here. Cut me loose!” cried Ekon as he tried to shake his head free from his noose.
Azi sighed. “Do you remember what I told you before you ran off?”
He stopped struggling. “You said ‘you had better keep running, Ekon. I’ll find you and bring you back here. You’re going to get what you deserve’.”
Ekon’s brother patted him on the head. “And this is what you get for your cowardice. Mom and Dad would still be alive if you had just helped us escape that damned cave-in.”
“Please set me free, Azi. I’m sorry.”
He chuckled. “Not as sorry as you’re going to be. Hanging’s too good for you. Not even your weird new friends can stop me from getting what I want.”
Azi hopped off the tree branch and wrapped his legs around Ekon’s waist, straining his neck to the breaking point. “Soon you will suffer as our parents suffered. It took hours for them to die from their injuries. Hours, dear brother.”
“Azi!” he gasped. “I can’t breath!”
His brother had a faraway look in his eyes as he rubbed his chin. “That’s what Mom said. Dad could only scream.”
Ekon couldn’t talk anymore. He couldn’t even breath, only struggle as he felt his neck snap and his lungs collapse and his eyes close as his brother held him tighter and tighter and . . .
“EKON! WAKE UP!” cried Spring Step.
He sat up, gasping and coughing. His neck was sore as he rubbed it.
Pinksworth asked, “Is he okay? Why was he choking?”
“He must have slipped his head under one of his back-pack’s straps. It was pulling on his neck while he slept. Can you breathe now, kiddo?”
It hurt a little to swallow, but he nodded. He reached for his canteen and slowly drank. “I’m all right. Thanks.”
“I’ve had some nasty dreams, too,” said Pinksworth. “Usually about being trapped in a giant cupcake. Good thing I can eat my way out every time.”
Spring Step ignored her and asked, “Do you dream about your brother that often?”
Ekon spluttered water back into his canteen. He stared at her as he asked, “What?”
“You talk in your sleep. You said ‘Please set me free, Azi. I’m sorry’.”
Ekon groaned, set his canteen down and began to rub his temples.
“I sometimes dream about my team mates. We’ve all lost someone we love, Ekon.”
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to blot out the sight of his brother. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
Spring Step got up and took a step back. “Sure. I understand. The storm’s gotten worse, so we might as well get some more rest.”
“I have an idea, Ekon,” Pinksworth said. “Maybe before you sleep, you should think of the good times you had with your family. That works for me.”
He looked at her and forced himself to politely smile. She has no idea how rotten I feel about my past. No one does.
Ekon pushed aside his backpack, not wanting to risk throttling himself again. Instead, he simply laid on the floor and tried to think of happier times. Discovering the vault of magic items with his father. Exploring the caves that seemed to reach all the way to the center of the world.
Fifteen years ago, when Azi was still in grade school, Ekon had gotten him two Junior Archeologist dinosaur bone kits. Plastic skeletons hidden inside hard clay tablets. An enclosed set of excavation tools were included with each kit.
“Why did you get me two of them?” Azi asked.
Ekon tousled his brother’s mane. “Dad says that if you really want to join him and I in our line of work, you have to learn how to do what we do.”
Azi beamed at him and said “Find lost things. Find history. That’s what Mom and Dad are always telling me.”
“It’s good to know the job’s goal, but even better if you know how to reach it. Work on one kit first and let me know when every bone is uncovered.”
Azi grabbed both kits and ran off to his room, shouting “Okay! I’m on it!”
A day later, Azi nudged his brother and said, “I’m done! Come see how I did.”
Ekon was surprised that his little brother had finished what was supposed to be a two day job at the least, but he looked forward to seeing the fruit of his brother’s labors.
Half the bones were snapped. The skull had deep grooves cut into it. The clay was reduced to dust. Ekon scratched his head. How did this big a mess appear so quickly?
A glint of steel caught Ekon’s attention. It was one of Dad’s larger rock hammers. It was covered in clay dust. The pick in the back of the hammer matched the skull’s grooves.
Azi was sitting in the middle of the blast radius, waiting for Ekon’s assessment. His ears drooped when Ekon shook his head and held up the hammer. “Did you use only this hammer to break open the clay?”
“Uhm . . . well, yeah.” Azi looked at his hooves. “I started to chip off a little of the clay at a time, but . . .”
“But you got ants in your tail and you wanted to speed up the unearthing of the bones. Right?”
Pawing at the floor, Azi begged in a meek voice, “Please don’t be angry, Ekon. I just want to be like you. That’s all.”
Ekon sighed, put down the hammer and sat next to his brother. Wrapping a hoof over his shoulders, Ekon said, “I’m not mad at you. I just wish that you would learn to slow down. Patience is an archaeologist’s best asset when there are fragile treasures to be found. These bones are cracked because you were just too anxious to see them.”
“I’m sorry I ruined your present.”
Ekon hugged his little brother. “Oh, that’s all right. That’s why I bought you two of them. The second kit’s a do-over.”
Azi’s ears flipped up as he turned to stare at Ekon. “Huh? You’re not mad?”
“Not for tearing up the first kit. The second one is your chance to get the skeleton out right this time.”
“I’ll do better, I promise!”
“That’s the spirit. Know your goal and gain the patience to reach it.” Ekon got up and picked up the steel hammer. “For now, don’t use Dad’s equipment, okay? Use the tools in the kit this time.”
Three days later, Azi nudged Ekon and said, “I got it done right this time, Ekon!”
“Okay. Let’s go take a look.”
The bones were fully intact and assembled. No nicks, holes or grooves could be seen in the plastic.
“Now that’s how it’s done,” declared Ekon. “Keep this up and soon everybody in the family will be at Dad’s work sites.”
They both smiled at each other. That was a bright and hopeful time, watching Azi grow. He was full of energy and promise then.
Pinksworth’s advice helped. While Ekon slipped away into a quiet slumber, he didn’t even see the suicide tree this time.
He did, however, hear his brother whisper something.
Soon you will suffer as our parents suffered.
* * *
Sure Shot and Path Finder were in a remote camp of bandits. Bandits and bounty hunters shared a brother’s bond founded on the most nobel of pursuits; making money. This bond was made even more solid by the thick clunk of gold bars hitting the floor of the leader’s tent.
Steel Jacket, a massive orange clydesdale, grinned a gap-toothed grin at his biggest payday of the year. “Well, will yew look at that? That there’s your ticket to getting’ that dang zebra straight inta yer lovin’ arms!”
Sure Shot asked, “How? Ekon’s got at least a day’s lead on us.”
“Don’t worry,” assured Path Finder. “Word in the wasteland is that you tamed a creature that’s got a sense of smell that’s second to none, right?”
“Tha’s right. But yew need to provide more’n gold. Got anythin’ with that zebra’s scent on it?”
“When Crap Shoot here fired the wrong damn ammo, he made Ekon bleed. I wiped up as much blood as I could.” He dug into his pockets and pulled out a bloody rag. “Is this enough to get a scent?”
Steel Jacket took the rag and nodded. “Yep! Lemme show you mah pride and joy. And source of income.”
The bounty hunters followed the clydesdale out of the tent. When they got to a large holding pen, the ponies both flinched when they heard a loud roar.
“Haw! Don’t pay ‘im no mind!” Steel Jacket laughed. “He’s jest happy to see me! Ain’t that right, Bullet?”
Path Finder scratched his head. “Why is his name Bullet?”
“Cuz this boy can find anypony, or zebra, in the first shot. Point ‘im in the right direction an’ he’ll go straight to the target,” said the clydesdale as he opened the gate to the pen.
In a blur, the manticore leapt out of its pen and landed with a jarring thud in front of the ponies. White horns and pointed ears capped the beasts’s red mane. The lion’s blond body was lean and muscular. Brown bat wings flapped anxiously. It’s large red scorpion tail curled and uncurled. The stinger on the end was as long and thick as a harpoon.
“Ain’t he a beaut? That stinger’s got enough toxin in it to kill anypony dead in two blinks of an eye. Ah trained him to run for hours, so we should have no problem getting’ to yer buddy real quick.”
Path Finder asked, “We?”
Steel Jacket grinned. “Shit, yeah, ‘we’! What? Yer thinkin’ Ah’ll let my best tracker just run off with yew guys? This ain’t a cart yer rentin’. We’re a package deal. Once yew boys nab your zebra, Ah’m takin’ Bullet home. Y’got a problem with that?”
“No, sir,” replied Path Finder.
“Good. Ah gotta feed ‘im first before we take off. Gimme five minutes.”
Sure Shot said, “That’s fine. I have to talk to my partner anyway.” Jerking his head away from the pen at Path Finder, he walked out of earshot.
“What the fuck? ‘Crap Shoot’? You humiliated me! When are you going to let my mistake go?”
“When Ekon’s delivered alive to Aki, that’s when.” Path Finder pointed a hoof at him. “I don’t let anypony or anything get in the way of our goal. Don’t fuck this up for us.”
“You used to be a lot cooler with my mistakes in the past. You’ve gotten mean, Path Finder.”
Path Finder looked at his friend with eyes as expressionless as a toad’s. “Ever since the world went under, I’ve had to kill ponies. In the past five years, I’ve learned that you have to be harder than the world in order to survive.” He leaned closer. “How hard are you, buddy?”
He turned away from Sure Shot and walked away.
“You’re not my buddy,” whispered Sure Shot. “I don’t know what you are anymore.”