Fallout: Equestria Side Story: Gardener

Everyday, dozens of ponies fall in the wasteland. For one pony, each death is the start of a new life. This is the tale of Gardener and his efforts to rebuild the wasteland, one tree at a time.

Art courtesy of Jetwave

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/259/fallout-equestria-side-story-gardener

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5. Chapter 4: To All Things Penance

It had been three months.

The seasons had changed from what passed as spring to the burning heat of late summer. I knew soon the rains of autumn would be upon us, and there was much to do to prepare for the great cleansing that awaited us. Summer thunderstorms had already given us directions for preparation, and we stood ready to face the greatest season of all: the season of giving.

Charm had become stronger in those months, her body adapting to the work of the fields and of the wastes. She was transforming before my eyes from scared teenager to a waste hardened survivor. She had seen death in those months, not only from the bodies we sought to bury, but from her own hooves in defense of our home. The experience had changed her, but it had not taken away her charming outlook or determination to work by my side. I found having the unicorn by my side was at once both comforting and nerve-wracking.

It brought me comfort to know that the lessons I had to teach were being passed to a generation that would not only understand my message, but appreciate the past that had been sacrificed to their future. It brought me joy to talk to someone who cared for me as a pony, rather than a source of apple whiskey. I had found elation in her magic that filled our lot with marbles, but taken away that which would poison our home. Already we felt healthier, more full of life than any of us had felt in years. Outside our walls was an irradiated hellscape, but inside the lot, everything was clean.

What disturbed me was how close she had grown in such a short time. Every moment we were awake, she was by my side, simply listening to the wisdom I had to dispense. After the first month, I had run out of wisdom to offer. I instead taught her the sermons, prayers, and rites of Celestia. She listened to my lessons as we worked side by side on the lot. With her help, our lot had grown from a few dozen greenhouses, to more than a hundred. We were forced to start planting in the no-man’s land between the walls and the fence.

Instead of trees, we had planted wheat there. The Glassmaker had come again, bearing gifts of grain which we would sow into the earth with bone meal to begin life anew. Some of my followers had questioned the wisdom of grain in the irradiated soil. I assure them Celestia would provide for the faithful, if only we stuck to our beliefs. They accepted my wisdom with reluctance. I was no faith healer, nor did I promise miracles, but the wisdom I shared with them gave them faith in my words, and I would proudly repay their faith with bread from the earth.

A larger problem was what to do with Charm’s marbles. Every ounce of dirt from the no-man's land had been combed over by the unicorn, and we were left with several cartloads of dangerously radioactive waste product. Gaucho told me that they could be used in a radiation engine, but such a thing was behind his comprehension of science. We dared not smelt them, as our experiments with that had poisoned one of the nearby ruined buildings. That failure cost us in pain: Charm’s powers were useful for the inanimate, but agonizing to the point of torture for the living.

The only use we ever found for them was making ammunition. A pegasus of all things had come by our lot, seeking shelter for the evening. We of course provided. When the pegaus found one of the marbles that Gaucho had been experimenting with, he suggested using it as a core for ammunition to tear through armor. Much as we preferred peace, Gaucho took the idea and made bullets that punched through steel plating with ease. He reloaded the turrets with his handiwork, and thanked the pegasus with a several bottles of apple whiskey.

After we had made all the ammunition we could use, I had decided to dump the marbles where others wouldn’t stumble upon them. Dressed in my radiation suit, I set off on a short jaunt to dispose of the cart full of marbles. Charm again begged me to come along, and again I refused, reminding her that she was in peril every time she stepped out of our walls. The wastes were no place for a mare like her.

There was a place a quarter of a mile away from the lot that would be a perfect spot to dispose of the deadly spheres. They had been a series of pools in the days before the war, built underneath what I could only guess was an exercise hall. Treadmills, dumb-bells, and rotten athletic equipment littered the rooms above, while the pool areas below were still in pristine condition. I remembered finding a number of skeletons here when I had first started burying the dead.

There were two of these pools. One was round, and nearly twenty feet deep with a large platform above it for... something. I couldn’t imagine why you’d have a stairs leading up to a platform with nothing on it, unless one were to jump off. This would be a perfect place to store the marbles; it was deep, secluded, and lined with concrete. They would harm no pony here, nor would they seep into the ground water to harass future generations. I dumped the cart into the pool, and wandered back through the building.

The other pool was much more shallow, probably six feet at its deepest, and separated from the other pool by several thick walls. I longed to fill this one with water, and enjoy my own private oasis. But that much clean water would be a lavish extravagance far beyond the means of even the greatest barons of Equestria, to say nothing of the poor villages that littered the wastes around us. Perhaps someday after Equestria was whole again and the rivers ran clean, the children's children of Casa would have such luxuries. For such a thing to exist in the wastes, I would have needed a water talisman or...

“Charm...” I said to myself. Her gift could cleanse that much water, but to use such a gift in such a selfish pursuit was unfathomable. I felt endless guilt at having even thought such a thing, knowing that Celestia would have scorned me for such a foolish waste of resources. Penance was required for such an astound thought of greed, and...

“What about her?” asked Casa. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I spun about, hammer drawn and ready to fight. I saw only the cinnamon earth pony standing behind me. I dropped my hammer, and drew deep breathes. I was far too old for such surprises.

“Casa, what in the name of Celestia are you doing here?” I demanded. “You should be at the lot.”

“I followed you here,” she said. “The fact that you’re talking to yourself about her means I needed to speak with you alone.”

“What could you possibly have to ask me that requires such seclusion?” I said. She looked around a moment, then back to me.

“Are you happy?” she asked at last.

“I would prefer a restored Equestria,” I answered. “But such things are the dreams of all ponies. The difference is that I strive for that goal rather than huddling in the wastes, waiting to die.” I winced at my own spoken honesty; I would require further penance for my sin of hubris. “The point is, it doesn’t matter if I am happy or not.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I have been blessed,” I answered. “I have been given a task in life, and the tools to complete it. You, Charm, Gaucho, the lot. You are all gifts from Celestia that I may restore the wastes with. To use such gifts selfishly would be to squander what precious resources the waste provides. It doesn’t matter if I am happy or not. I give because it is the right thing to do.”

“Then how are you rewarded?” she asked. “Surely Celestia wouldn’t give you a task without promise of reward?”

“It’s not as if I believe the voice of our fallen goddess has actually spoken to me,” I said. “That would make me a mad-pony. Generosity is its own reward, Casa. You know that. I desire nothing else, save my mortal requirements.”

“Every pony wants something,” said Casa. “Repressing your desires invites greed, and for you, greed would be the most dangerous thing in the wastes.”

“And why is that?”

“You told me that all ponies want something they can never have,” she said. “That greed was the cardinal sin of the wastes, and that all sins stemmed from greed. To deny yourself of everything as you have means that your desire is greater than any can imagine. You are by far the most determined individual I ever known, and when you go after something, you don’t stop until you get it. You’d flatten half the wastes if some pony asked you too. So, I ask again, what do you want?”

“A restored Equestria,” I repeated. “That’s all I’ve ever desired.”

“Bullshit,” she said. “You want Charm.” I looked into her orange eyes, almost unable to believe she would even say such a thing.

“Why would you think that?” I asked. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t see you denying it,” she said. “You may be a god amongst pony to the rest of the waste, but you are a mortal stallion. I’ve seen you watching her. You and she spend so much time together, I’m amazed that nothings come of it yet.”

“She’s a child!” I protested.

“She’s a mare,” retorted Casa. “A young mare, yes, but she worships you. We speak when you’re out gathering your charges in the waste. She wants to make you happy more than you can imagine.”

“So?” I asked. “I cannot have her. To ask anything of her would be to violate every principle I’ve held dear. What I want doesn’t matter, and it never has.”

“Have you told her this?”

“I told her the night she came here that families don’t fuck each other,” I said.

“Gaucho and I...”

“You’re married,” I interrupted. “What you have speaks volumes of the power of love. Speaking of which...”

“Yes,” smiled Casa. “Last month. This time next year, the pitter-patter of foal hooves will be gracing our lot.” I smiled. Nothing would make me happier than to see the child of my two best friends.

“Then what are we doing here?” I asked, gesturing to the empty pool. “Let us go to the lot and celebrate.”

“Because you haven’t answered my question,” she said. “What is it you desire?” I thought long and hard about the question. Did I have no mortal desires? I was happy to have so much to give, and it made me happy to see that my friends were continuing the cycle of life in the wastes. Perhaps their child would be the salvation of Equestria.

“I desire nothing that I can have,” I said at last. “If I were to wish for anything, it would be that our lands be cleansed, for your children to be healthy, and for the world to live in peace once more.” I looked back to the empty pool. “I want the rivers to run clean, and the shouting of laughter to fill halls like these once more. I want the world we used to have before the war.” I looked back at Casa. “That is all I’ve desired my entire life. Anything else I have ever desired is irrelevant. Pleasures of the flesh are for those who won’t share their blessings. I don’t need a pool to swim in. I don’t need a fine house on an endless lawn. I don’t need the love of a beautiful young mare. These things are all desires I cannot have, and to want them is only to invite greed into my heart.” She only shook her head.

“Not once in the time I’ve known you have you so much as looked at a mare, or a stallion for that matter,” she said. “You’re only mortal, Gardener, and you will someday have to realize that.”

“I aim to be better than that,” I said. “How many ponies are in the lot because of their desire for wealth? Or sex? Or power? I will not be like them, even if it means that I die alone in the wastes.”

“What about the lessons you could give to the next generation?” I asked. “Surely your own child would follow it your footsteps?”

“That’s not what I want from Charm,” I said. “I want her to be the daughter I never had. The fact that I have even considered her in... that way disgusts me to my soul. That week I was gone? That was penance for that one sin. I am not the paragon of virtue I pretend to be, and I fear that my failings will bring down everything I have worked for like a house of cards.”

“Then you really don’t know what it is to give of yourself,” said Casa. “You may give away all your possessions, all of what you produce, but you never truly give if you’re not willing to give yourself to someone else.” She walked away from me. “I expected better of you, Gardener.”

Her words cut me. Casa had always been a beacon of light in the darkness, and to have failed her meant that I was headed down the wrong path. Was it so wrong to be mortal after all? To have what she and Gaucho had? I shook my head. She was mistaken. I was a better pony than that, and I would have to prove it.

I followed the mare back to the lot, trying not to stare at her flanks. Casa was a beauty, but she, like Charm, was off limits to me. I had never thought of her that way, but the conversation we shared made me think of all that I had been avoiding since I taken up the banner of generosity all those years ago.

I had avoided stealing, obviously. I avoided killing when I could. I avoided drunkenness and the drugs that polluted the wastes. I had avoided the temptations of the flesh but why? Did that make me a better pony? Did it make me stronger? Better able to survive the wastes? Or was it simply a way to lord a moral superiority over others? Then it hit me.

The reasons I had forsaken my own pleasures was to provide to others. There simply was no room to give if I filled my mind with my own concerns. To ask others to give without giving everything I had was hypocritical. That which I custodianed in Celestia’s name was for the ponies of the waste, and not my own greed. I had to remind myself of that sometimes when I harvested apples, or bottled water. All I had to give came from Celestia, and to horde it for myself was to bring about her wrath. Such thoughts brought me peace again, though I still owed penance for my thoughts of greed and hubris earlier in the day.

Penance was normally performed by finding a wandering pony in the wastes, and granting them any request they desired. So long as I could provide, and keep to my code, anything was possible. Many simply asked for what I had, while others asked me to follow them for a duration as a guard. One pony had asked me to read their foal a story because they could not read themselves. The week I had been gone, I had served as caravan guard to Phillydelphia and back.

Rather than wander, I knew to whom I should offer the boon. When I told Casa that she was owed penance for my sins, she only shook her head and said that she wished nothing of me. When I persisted, she brought Charm from the orchard and demanded that I offer penance to her instead. I shuffled uncomfortably, leery of what she might ask.

She asked to join me in the wastes as I hunted for charges. I wanted to refuse, to keep her behind these walls and out of the irradiated hellscape that awaited outside. But penance demands sacrifice, and this was to be mine. I agreed, and asked Gaucho to fabricate barding for the unicorn. He had already anticipated the need, and produced a suit of leather armor for the mare.

The next morning, Charm and I walked into the ruins of Manehatten to begin our search for the dead of Equestria. Her inexperience became apparent as she blindly followed my lead. She was quiet, certainly, but her footing was terrible, and she frequently caused slides of rock and debris by brushing against the wrong things at the wrong times. I was more worried about getting the mare home in one piece than I was about finding any ponies today. The dead could lie another day, but the wastes couldn’t afford to lose Charm. We moved toward an area I knew to be relatively safe.

I explained to her some of the dangers of the ruins that were specific to our task. The dead were often near the living, shoved far enough away as to forget their presence. Our mission was to remember those dead, and too bring them to a final resting place. The dead could not hurt us, and as she had learned, there was nothing to fear from even the most horribly desecrated corpse. The living were a far larger problem. In the ruins, there were only two types of ponies. Three if you counted the ghouls as ponies, which I did not. Their bodies were far too contaminated to bring new life to the soil, though I did try to burn their corpses when I could.

Scavengers were fantastic allies in the ruins of Manehatten. They were the sorts of ponies who could get anywhere and share the locations of the departed. Most were jovial about their profession, and would listen to my wisdom, even if they didn’t care for the message of renewal. They were explorers by nature, and the idea of farming never appealed to them. They did understand the wisdom behind it, and often took my advice with them to wherever they traveled. They also tended to be extraordinarily helpful. I had accompanied more than one scavenger into office buildings filled with skeletons to have them turn around and help me remove them. Scavengers were the better sorts of ponies.

Raiders, on the other hand, held no such place in my heart. I had been on too many a receiving end of hoof or knife to trust any pony wearing a tire over their shoulders. True, some raiders dressed like scavengers and preyed on those who sought to trade, but for the most part, ponies with gory cutie marks made poor business associates. I was never sorry to hear of raider camps being decimated by the wastes, nor was I sorry to put one in the ground. Raiders were the diametric opposite of everything I believed in. They took without giving. They desecrated the dead instead of burying them. They raped and plundered their way though the wastes as if extinction was inevitable and they were the last generation. Ponies deserved better.

I led Charm into an abandoned office building that showed no signs of activity for the past few years. Dust and decay had settled along the edges of the building, followed by the cracks of erosion that signaled time’s march to bring all things low. I had visited here many years before but was driven off by creatures deep within the bowels of these ruins. I had been fearful of the bugs back then, and never did feel comfortable around them. Still, these bloat-sprites would make excellent tests for Charm, as I could handle swarms of the beasts if necessary.

Despite sharing coat and mane colors, Charm did not share my natural talent for melee weapons. She was, however, unusually skilled with the pistol her stepfather had paid me with. It was a revolver of small caliber and low power, but it was reliable and accurate. She instinctively knew how and where to aim for maximum effect, and soon she was dropping bloat-sprites as quickly as they appeared. I felt sorry for any pony who underestimated the unicorn. She was a natural marks-pony, and her abilities with a firearm were a pleasant surprise in a week otherwise filled with disappointment.

After an hour of target practice with bloat-sprites, I began to teach Charm where to look for bodies. Most of which she had already known simply from hearing me talk in the fields. I told her again how closets were popular place to hide out the end of the world, as were desks and windowless rooms of all sorts. She found several locked doors along the way. I kicked them open for her to reveal more of the dead. I reminded her that the dead were once living, and to find them, she would sometimes have to think like a pony in panic.

In total, we had found a dozen skeletons in this office. When the end of Equestria had occurred, this place had only token staff, leaving the office building a quiet tomb to few ponies. It was not the haul I had been expecting. We did locate a few valuable pieces of technology in the upper portions of the building, including some energy crystals that powered Gaucho’s cart. He would be pleased to say the least.

We had also located a haul of medical supplies from the inexplicably well stocked pharmacy on the top floor. A world of painkillers, rad chems, and potions of all colors and varieties were our reward for this day. We gathered them up, and walked back through the building. Not being able to use terminals, the secrets of this place remained a mystery to Charm and I. Whatever the ponies of the past had to say would remain unheard. We gathered what we could for trade and salvage, and headed for the foyer to the cart.

The foyer wasn’t that impressive, though the two hundred years of decay may have had something to do with the lack luster appearance. A compass rose graced the floor, and from the business cards I had gathered, these ponies were part of the legal system that came before us. From outside I heard a the quiet steps of ponies. I stopped Charm as we entered the foyer, and ordered her to take cover. She ducked behind a doorway, revolver drawn.

Three ponies stepped into the building, each wearing the armor typical of raiders. One had a necklace of ears hanging between his spiked shoulder pads. They saw me and drew weapons. I responded in turn by drawing my hammer. I warned them not to approach, lest they become the newest additions to the lot. The fear that comes with recognition took one of the ponies, and he turned to flee. The others, blinded by chutzpah or chems, ignored my warning, and split to attack.

One approached from my left, swinging a tire iron in his teeth. I ducked under the weapon, and kicked his legs from underneath him. He tumbled to the ground, cracking his jaw on the compass rose mosaic. I brought the hammer upon his skull, and ended the torment of his life with a blow that showered the foyer with grey matter and blood. I spun from the coup de grace, and landed hooves in the chest of the other pony. He tumbled backward into a desk. I heard the familiar crack of bone as the raider fell to the ground. He cried out in pain, unable to move his rear legs. I walked to him, hammer still in teeth.

“Why?” I asked him. “Never in my life have I been able to get an answer from a raider as to why they live the life they do. Now you will die in the wastes like so many others before you. What can you tell me about your way of life? I want to know what makes you tick so that I can stop other young ponies from throwing away their lives as you have.”

Between swearing and threats, I gathered that he had once been a pony of standing in a village decimated by raiders. After he had given up hope of a brighter tomorrow, he donned the armor of a raider and took to the ruins to destroy the remainder of pony life. He believed that Equestria was forsaken by the goddesses, and that he should live life as if the world was beyond saving.

It had been such a simple slide into madness for this pony. I was saddened to find that this crippled stallion before me had once been a member of a community. He had neighbors, friends, a family. Now his family consisted of whatever chem addled freaks weren’t trying to kill or rape him. I felt nothing but pity for him. Raiders may have had a difficult life, but it was their choice to become the monsters they were. I asked him what he wanted, knowing that whatever I gave him would be the last gift he would receive. In a moment of clarity, he asked for a painless death. A cripple such as himself would be little more than a target for sadists, and his remaining life would be a horror beyond imagination. I granted his request with a overdose of painkillers we had found. He thanked me before he fell asleep, and wished that he had seen the folly of his ways before it had been too late. He lay his head on the cold tile, and stopped breathing.

Charm questioned why I hadn’t shot him, why I had wasted valuable supplies on some pony so low as a raider. I told her that mercy is greatest thing we can offer to another pony. To put a gun to his head would have been to force him die in terror. His life had been miserable enough, and that the painless death we had given him was probably the first generosity he had seen in years. Charm helped me drag the ponies into the cart. We walked outside into the wastes.

The raider who had fled before had returned with half a dozen more of his friends. Most were armed with guns, but there was one with a sword. He was a purple unicorn, and he dressed in metal armor not unlike my own. He demanded my cart, and, upon seeing Charm, her as well. I politely refused, and suggested they be about their business. Charm was not mine to give, and I would be damned by both goddesses if I were to see a hair on her black mane harmed. I ordered her back into the building as the ponies charged.

I spun the cart around as they fired upon me. The corpses of their former companions absorbed their bullets as I closed distance, and the thick steel of the cart reflected their attacks into the waste. I dove from rubble to rubble, drawing their fire. One nearby pony had lost track of me for a moment. I popped from behind the ruins, and grabbed the pony’s shoulders. As I pulled him off his feet, the other raiders turned to fire at me. Their friend served admirably as a shield. I flung the bleeding body of the pony at two who had clumped together. Their friend bowled them over. I bounded from my cover to the downed ponies, and cracked their heads together with enough force to shatter skulls.

A bullet struck me in the flank. The blow had been deadened by my armor, but stung as it instantly bruised. Another bullet, then another pelted my barding, leaving welts on my skin. I dropped beneath the rubble, and grabbed up one of their guns. It was an assault rifle of some sort. I found it uncomfortable in my teeth, but sufficient to bring down another pony, and cause the last pony firing at me to duck into the ruins. He popped up again to line a shot when the crack of Charm’s pistol rang out from the ruined building behind me. Both bullets caught the raider in the back of the head, sending him to the ground in a heap. I tossed aside the rifle, and grabbed up my sledge. The purple unicorn met my charge as we clashed sword and hammer.

He threw a hoof that caught my temple. My helmet rang as I ducked under the sword. I could hear the plinking of lead bouncing off his armor following the cracks of Charm’s pistol. His barding was as good as my own, and he was clearly as skilled combatant as I. We circled, feinting and probing each other's defenses.

“Why?” I asked him. I ducked under another sword blow and swung with my own hammer. He danced around the hammer as if we were waltzing. “Have you no goal in life beyond your next raid?”

“You have no idea what I’m after, Gardener,” he said. “Give me the girl, or you will live to regret it. You do not want to make an enemy of Ender.”

“What life awaits her with you?” I demanded. “A life of rape and torture? To be made into a savage of the wastes once you’ve broken her completely? To be discarded after you’re done with her? To lay dying like your followers?”

“Those ponies were but tools to an end,” said Ender. “They have proven as useless as expected. But you...” His yellow eyes locked with my own. “You are the sort of pony that Red-Eye would want as a general. I know of you, Gardener, and you have achieved great things.”

“And why would I want to join him?” I asked. “He uses slaves as a means to his end. His entire city is built upon the backs of ponies who could not defend themselves. We may share a vision of a restored Equestria, but his eyes are clouded to the truth.”

“The truth that ponies are selfish?” asked Ender. “That they are too stupid and greedy to work for the good of others? You and he are the only ones who understand giving in this wasteland. I’ve heard your sermons, Gardener. I’ve eaten your apples, and I’ve drank your water. How much longer do you think you can stand against the tides of the wastes?”

“As long as I must,” I said. Another shot rang out from the building, catching the unicorn on a sliver of exposed skin. He filched in pain, leaving an opening for my hammer. The impact shattered his front leg, sending him to the ground in a cursing heap. I stood above him, ready to deliver the killing blow.

“Mercy, Gardner,” he begged. “Grant me your gift of mercy.” I looked down on the unicorn. He was in no shape to attack if I let him go, but something about this pony told me not to leave him alive. He was no raider; he something far more dangerous. Yet Celestia demanded mercy for all ponies. I reluctantly put away my hammer.

“You have been given a gift of mercy,” I said to him. “If I see you again, I will give you the gift of burial. Get out of my sight.” The unicorn gathered his sword, and disappeared into the ruins. Charm came from the ruined building to look upon the scene of battle. She asked why I hadn’t killed him. I explained that he had asked for mercy, and that Celestia commands us to give mercy to all those who ask for it.

We loaded the bodies and supplies of the raiders into my cart and headed for home. I hoped in the coming week that infection would take the purple unicorn, and that I would return his body to the soil. But that hope was faint, and I worried that my sins of greed, lust, and hubris were going to destroy me sooner rather than later.

   
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