Fallout Equestria: The Daily Unlife

"Live a little, they say. Easier said than done."

These are the voyages of the Canterlot ghoul Lemon Frisk. His mission: to find the Meaning of Unlife. His continuing perils: crazed raiders, feral ghouls, overzealous rangers, deranged robots, and a mare who won't stop poking him.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/6001/fallout-equestria-the-daily-unlife

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16. Day Fourteen - Livin' la Vida Loca

Livin' la Vida Loca
only madness will remain

"No! Stay away!" Misty yelled, pulling away from Lemon in a panicked movement.

Lemon Frisk opened his eyes and looked at the frantic mare, who was looking at something behind him. The shotgun floated next to her, aiming at the same place. Lemon turned his head towards the apparent source of Misty's distress. They had gone to sleep in the radar centre's control room, but Misty wasn't looking at the room's door. In fact, there was nothing at all in the direction she was looking, besides a wall with dead computer monitors.

"Misty?" he asked carefully. The spider and Blinker were nowhere to be seen; they had found somewhere else to sleep after Lemon and Misty had insisted on some privacy the previous evening.

"I mean it!" Misty yelled, frantically looking around. "Don't make me do this!"

"Misty, there's nopony there," Lemon Frisk said. "What are you—"

"I don't want to do this again," Misty whimpered. Her head and shotgun both sagged down as her sentence devolved in indistinct murmuring, and she crawled into fetal position.

"Scans of facial expression—!" TGIF-1 piped up behind Lemon.

"Gah!" Lemon Frisk yelled out in surprise, jerking back from the sudden sound. "What—"

"—and brainwaves indicate she is dreaming," the robot continued.

"You scared me half to death!" Lemon hissed at the robot.

"Given your undead nature, that expression cannot be applied to you," TGIF-1 replied, his voice adjusting to Lemon's volume level.

Lemon ignored the remark. "So... you're saying she's having a nightmare?"

"A dream that includes emotional distress. Indeed."

Lemon Frisk looked at the whimpering sleeping pony and carefully pulled away the shotgun lying next to her. To his relief he noticed the safety was still on.

He was unsure how to react to the whole situation. On one hoof, his instincts told him to give her a hug so she'd feel safer. On the other hoof, she was clearly developing that shoot-ponies-in-the-face reflex he'd joked about two weeks ago.

"It looks like you're trying to decide how to handle a delicate situation!" TGIF-1 said with an odd degree of cheerfulness in his generated voice. His visor was glowing green. "Would you like help?"

Lemon Frisk's eyebrow went up. "What would you know about this?"

"My foal care database has information on handling nightmares. I extrapolate that this information is still largely applicable to fully grown ponies."

Lemon threw an unsure look at Misty. "...All right, then."

"Do not wake ponies during nightmares. Dreams are a mechanism for processing memories. Interruption of the process is ill-advised, and will usually result in additional bad memories from remembered dreams."

"Okay. Anything I can actually do?"

"Despite usually not processing visual stimuli, the dreamer is receptive to somatic, auditory and olfactory stimuli on a subconscious level. Soft touch, soft talk, and the overall presence of a known and trusted person can have a calming effect. These functions are not within my capacity, though, since I lack modulators to give myself a truly soft-sounding voice, and I lack the soft exterior, body heat and body odour necessary for creating said calming effect. Despite your lack of body heat, you are still the most qualified candidate."

Lemon looked at Misty, and nodded softly. "All right. Just... keep those guns out of her reach, okay?"

"I am most likely unable to," TGIF-1 replied. "I have heard you discuss her magic ability spiking in panic situations. Judging from the recorded data of her retrieving her weapon now, chances are at 84.3% that, were I to obstruct her from getting the weapon, I would simply be manipulated by her telekinesis as well, and that my actions would contribute to worsen her panicked state."

The robot's visor shifted to a pale blue, and his voice softened to what came out as a monotone droning sound. "I am no expert at dreams, and lack practical expertise in foal care, so I cannot tell you any true chances of success. The best course of action is to... take a leap of faith."

Lemon frowned, nodded, and pulled a blanked over to the place where Misty was whimpering on the cold concrete floor.

"That's an oddly... non-robotic suggestion," he whispered as he walked closer to her.

"Also, short of a decapitating shotgun blast to the neck, you are probably very close to invincible."

Lemon rolled his eyes. "Right."

* * *

"You're joking, right?" Misty said, looking at Lemon Frisk and the robot. "This is just some more of that silly shoot-ponies-in-the-face-reflex joke."

Lemon Frisk smirked. "Nope. You actually waved the shotgun around."

"I have the whole event recorded in five spectra," TGIF-1 added. "I could plug myself into one of these monitors and replay the events for you."

Misty gave him an unsure look. "I'll... pass."

"My assessment turned out correct," the robot continued, "and Lemon Frisk's presence and voice calmed you down. Eventually, he got you back on the mattress, and the night passed without further incidents."

"That was a joke, right?" Misty asked, somewhat pleadingly. "The shoot-ponies-in-the-face thing?"

"Yes!" Lemon said, nodding frantically. "Honestly! But what do I know? Maybe I was right by accident?"

Misty slowly nodded, and took a deep breath. "What exactly did I say?"

"I don't want to do this again," TGIF-1 said in Misty's voice as he replayed his recording. The two ponies both looked up in surprise.

"She asked for the exact audio clip," TGIF-1 said. "I filtered it out."

Misty looked away. "I guess I'm not as good at suppressing my own bad experiences as I thought," she said in a calm, analysing voice. She looked back and took a few more deep breaths, clearly trying to remain calm as she continued. "I'm... horribly shocked at what I did. I never imagined myself capable of taking a life. Not like that, anyway. Maybe in a situation like the raider fight at the factory, in the middle of a chaos, sure, but not like this. This was cold calculated execution. Weighing his life against the Stable."

"No, it wasn't," Lemon said. "You were angry. And you did save the Stable."

"That's just rationalizing. Excusing it doesn't change what I did, Lemon, or what it did to my psyche. It's hard enough to psychoanalyse myself, you know. Ponies in situations like mine try their hardest to avoid thinking about the traumatic memories. That's what leads to the nightmares in the first place."

"It's the way of the Wasteland," Lemon said with a wan smile. "No one cares, no one minds. It's a terrible world we live in, and trying to make it less terrible just means we become terrible ourselves in the process."

Misty gave him a pensive look. "You thought about all this before, haven't you?"

Lemon nodded. "The raider at the factory. There wasn't even a standoff there. She never stood a chance. I had her pinned down, and I killed her. And it was wrong, and yet it was the only correct thing to do."

"Was that your first...?"

"Not technically. As you said, the chaos of the fight was a whole different thing. But the first one where I fully realized I was taking the life of another sapient being, yes."

Misty sat down beside him and leaned her head against his neck. "We're a fine pair of broken ponies, aren't we?"

"I warned you the wasteland was full of them. It's only a matter of time before you join the club."

Misty stared at the floor. "I don't want to stop caring about ponies' lives, Lemon."

"That's not really the issue, Misty," Lemon said. "It's a matter of not destroying yourself over the fact you're doing the only possible right thing."

"I don't want the only possible right thing to be killing ponies."

Lemon gave the mare a hug. "I know, Misty. I know."

* * *

The trip through the city went relatively smoothly. Misty and Lemon's pipbucks detected any radiation, Blinker knew where the local radroach nests and Diamond Dog routes were located, and TGIF-1 scanned any unstable-looking surface to prevent repetitions of the bloodwings incident that occurred two days before.

Despite the fact the Diamond Dogs didn't have rad detectors, their routes seemed pretty much perfectly safe of radiation. Two centuries of trial and error made up for the lack, as parts of routes deemed unsafe eventually fell out of use by a mixture of superstition and deduction. The Dogs realized all too well that not all of the Blue Death glowed, but keeping to established routes was never very useful for scavengers.

The city no longer felt like a dead husk to Lemon and Misty. When seen from the Stable, sure, it looked cold, huge and deserted, but that was only because they hadn't known where to look. Now, they easily spotted the spiders hanging on the derelict buildings, the radroaches scuttling under the debris, the vines hanging out of the windows, and the occasional Diamond Dog greeting them from afar. It was still vast and ruined, but it was only dead and empty to those looking for ponies.

Not that they didn't get their share of ponies. But, admittedly, they were dead ones. More or less.

"Dammit! Where'd it go?" Lemon shouted, looking around frantically. The rubble around them offered far too many hiding places, and even in their brain-dead state, these particular ghouls seemed to have some kind of hunting technique.

"Got 'im," Blinker said calmly, lifting a rusty metal pole onto his shoulder. It had a dark, wet spot on the end.

"There were two more ghouls," Misty said, scanning around. "We startled some radroaches, though, so my EFS is full of red."

"Ugh," Lemon muttered. "We better get out of here before the roaches find us too. I don't want to waste more time here."

Blinker nudged Lemon. "Time'z up, Lemun," he said, pointing at the feelers coming out from under the shifting rubble.

"Crap, they're back there!" Misty shouted behind him, pointing at the two ghouls.

"Teegee? I think this qualifies!"

"Two ghouls, five radroaches," TGIF-1 said. "Tactical analysis in progress. Spread the radroaches out and you should take them out relatively easy, especially if Jolly Jumper decides to help. Why did you never let Jolly Jumper agree to any rules? She is an uncertain factor in this—"

"Because she did help spontaneously!" Lemon yelled. "Now do something!"

TGIF-1 didn't reply. He just launched himself at one of the ghouls, hitting it in the side with the bulk of his body. The ghoul did not get up again. The second ghoul screamed and backed away, uncertain what to make of the inedible-looking attacker.

With the ghouls no longer their immediate concern, the rest of the team quickly took care of the radroaches. As TGIF-1 had predicted, driving them apart made them easy to pick off. As the last two scurried away, Jolly stood proudly on top of the one she took down.

Misty petted the spider and floated a knife out of her saddlebags. "Good girl. You got us lunch!"

* * *

Misty stared at the messy radroach corpse in front of her. Her face was splattered with green translucent radroach blood. "Why does it keep moving?"

"Hyu no used ta food dat wriggles," Blinker said, grinning.

"But I thought the venom killed it!" Misty exclaimed.

"Ho. Roach not so simple," Blinker said. "Venom stops de muscles. Roach dun heff lungs ta fill, so no movin' dun mean it dies. Also, hyoo spider ees no big vun. Not enuff ta keel it."

"I stabbed it in the head! And it still keeps moving!"

"Haz no reel brain dere. Ees all over de body."

"So... I'm basically cutting apart a living being?"

"Dot'z how hyu does it, ya. Cut eet op enuff und it'z ded."

Misty groaned. "Why did I ever think this would be easy?"

"Because broccoli doesn't put up a fight?" Lemon Frisk said, grinning as widely as the dog.

"We have more at the Stable than just broccoli!" Misty yelled at him. She threw the knife on the ground and threw her head back in frustration. "Augh! How do I kill it?!"

Lemon Frisk looked at Blinker. "C'mon, just show her. You must know easy ways; you hunt those things for a living. I doubt you leave them wriggling all the way back to the Kennel."

Blinker sighed, grabbed the knife off the ground, rolled the spasming creature on its belly and stabbed the knife between the chitinous plates just behind the head. "Nerve knot in da neck. Keels dem right avay."

Slightly shell-shocked, Misty looked at the dead roach, and then up at Blinker. "Couldn't you have just told me that from the start?"

"Hyoo din' ask," Blinker replied. "Hy tink, let'z see how vell she duz. Vos fon to votch."

"All right, point taken," Misty said with a resigned sigh. "When in doubt, ask the expert."

* * *

"Are we there yet?"

Lemon Frisk raised his eyebrow, and looked at TGIF-1, who had asked the peculiar question. "Why on earth are you asking us that? You gave us the address!"

"I know," TGIF-1 replied. "I was merely wondering why no one else had asked it yet. According to my databases, when travel time exceeds one hour it is deemed inevitable that the question will be uttered eventually. So I decided to take the initiative."

"Inevitable?" Misty asked. "What kind of database would claim that?"

"My foal care database."

Lemon Frisk gave him a flat look. "Teegee. We're not foals."

"The dream data stroked," TGIF-1 said. "I did not expect this travel information to deviate."

Lemon sighed. "You're really tempting me to prove you right, but I'm not going to give you the satisfaction. Misty?"

"We're pretty close. If we don't get any more nasty surprises, it should be another half hour or so."

Lemon smirked. "Now who's jinxing things?"

* * *

About half an hour and exactly zero nasty surprises later the group walked up to a large domed building. Its magnificent shade of used-to-be-white made it easily identifiable in the surroundings. They quickly spotted square panels in the walls hiding security turrets. In some previous life, those had probably been perfectly concealed, but roughly two centuries later, rusty smears leaking out of the panel corners immediately gave them away.

"Those were the turrets you wanted to protect us from?" Lemon asked, pointing at one of the panels.

"I am not authorized to divulge that information," TGIF-1 said.

Lemon smirked. "That's what I thought. Are you going to take them on with your bare hooves?"

"Negative. This confrontation is inevitable. Chances of sustaining damage in close combat are at 73%. Deploying weapon."

Misty and Lemon looked on in amazement as the cutie mark on TGIF-1's left side folded open, revealing something that seemed too small to be a minigun, and yet managed to shift and slide and transform into the full six-barrelled thing. TGIF-1 adjusted his stance to compensate for the weight.

"How..." Misty started.

"That's impossible," Lemon Frisk mumbled.

"Huh. Dat dun fit in dere," Blinker remarked.

"Please do not remind me of the physical laws broken by my magical storage system," TGIF-1 droned in a monotonous voice. "I am trying very hard to ignore it. I have no systems capable of analysing magic, and attempting to do so with the available systems tends to overheat them. I believe the sensation would be comparable to what you ponies call 'migraine'."

"Fair 'nuff," Blinker said. "Hurts mah hed too, tinkin' uf magik."

"You got a pair of keratin claws able to dig through solid rock," Lemon Frisk pointed out.

"Ja," Blinker said, grinning. "Dun hurt mah clawz. Jes' mah hed. So hy dun tink about it."

"I must note that my ammunition for this weapon is limited," TGIF-1 said, while his blue targeting lasers scanned one of the panels that were present at either side of a door leading into the complex. "A short burst at—" He suddenly stopped talking and waited for the scan to finish.

"Re-evaluating. Rust damage to this panel is extensive, and indicates excessive moisture build-up inside the module."

He walked towards the panel, which was around eye height to ponies, and re-scanned it from up close. A small blinking green light on the door switched to red as he approached, but neither panel reacted to his presence. TGIF-1's blue scanning lasers zipped around, finally converging on one spot on the panel. He smashed a hoof into it.

The panel crumpled inwards, and a splash of rusty brown water gushed out of the hole. TGIF-1 pulled the remains of the panel away to reveal a clump of rust that must once have been a security gun.

"Well," Misty said. "That was anticlimactic."

TGIF-1 moved over to the panel at the other side of the door and wrenched it open with similar results. "It appears to be some sort of design flaw."

"Well," Lemon Frisk said, "I doubt the guns inside will have rain damage, so we better be careful."

"Insufficient data to confirm that hypothesis," TGIF-1 said. He pushed to open the door, but found it predictably locked.

While TGIF-1 proceeded to throw more force at the door, Blinker looked around and sniffed the air. "Dis is de mad dokter's place. Hy dun like it."

"You mentioned him before," Misty said. "What's so scary about him?"

"Him dun grin like Diamond Dog," Blinker said, looking around uncomfortably. "Him grin like mad dog."

The conversation was interrupted by a hellish noise as TGIF-1 unleashed his minigun on the door. The salvo ended after mere seconds, but it was enough to make the two ponies, the Dog and the spider all jump for cover.

"Dammit, Teegee!" Lemon Frisk shouted at him. "Warn us if you're going to do that!"

TGIF-1 didn't respond. While his blue lasers scanned the door his visor shifted to the purple Lemon had learned to recognize as annoyance. "This door is resistant to my weaponry," he stated. "My weapon caused barely any detectable damage. My available ammunition will be insufficient to penetrate it."

"Eh... Teegee?" Misty asked.

"Yes, Misty Cloud?" TGIF-1 responded.

"We could just go around, you know. Blinker told us there's a ghoul prowling around in this place who's apparently a doctor, so chances are he's from the old facility staff."

"Infiltration mission accepted. I will track down this doctor, eliminate him, and recover his access card to allow entrance to the facility."

"What? No!" Misty yelled at the robot, who was already stalking off. "That's not what I meant at all!"

Lemon smirked. "TGIF-1," he said, "that doctor might be the only intelligence we can find here. Killing him would be rather counterproductive."

TGIF-1 straightened up from his sneaking mode. "Interesting argument. I would still advise elimination, though."

"Why?" Misty asked, rather bewildered.

"Summation of available data. One: the Doctor is most likely Solaris Incorporated research personnel. Two: the Doctor was described as being 'mad'. Both are grounds for immediate termination."

"You'd kill him just for being part of this place?" Misty asked. Only now she noticed his visor had turned a soft pink. She quickly thought back to his previous emotional states, and realized the colour was far less soothing than it seemed; red indicated anger, and white was fear. She frowned. "What happened to you here?"

The robot's visor flashed white for a second, before returning to its default blue. "Irrelevant. Advice will be followed; the Doctor will be captured alive."

"We just need to find him, Teegee," Lemon said. "We'll see how he reacts, okay?"

TGIF-1 nodded. "Very well. Is keeping him alive a priority?"

"Unless he's a direct threat to us, it's preferable," Lemon said. "If he's just a feral, he can't help us anyway."

"And if he is an indirect threat, with an army of robot minions?"

"Hey, he's a ghoul," Lemon said with a smirk. "Shooting his legs off shouldn't kill him."

TGIF-1's visor briefly flashed to teal before returning to his normal blue. He turned his head towards Lemon Frisk. "Acceptable."

* * *

The party made their way around the large domed complex until they reached what appeared to be the front entrance of the building. The entrance had two rusty panels at either side, but all four were hanging half-open, with nearly unrecognisable heaps of rust inside each one. Lemon Frisk looked at the thick concrete roof hanging over the entrance and frowned. There was no way rain could ever have reached these panels.

TGIF-1 seemed to agree with that. "Proposed hypothesis of rain damage rejected," he said as his scanning lasers zipped over the turrets. "Do you have any alternative hypotheses?"

Lemon Frisk threw a pensive look at the panels. "Not at this moment, no. Then again, this is from the ponies that invented megaspell propulsion. I don't know if I want to have the kind of mind to figure this one out."

"It's a minor flaw!" a shrieking voice yelled at them from behind the doors. "The next version will have it fixed!" The voice had a tired feel to it, as if it was the umpteenth time this had to be repeated to people who just wouldn't give up their complaining. "Keep in mind, these devices were never meant for an operating time of a score of decades!"

The doors flew open with a bang, revealing an earth pony ghoul in a tattered lab coat with a manic look in his eyes. As far as ghouls go, this one was probably a category of his own, not looking quite decayed, but rather, dishevelled. His wrinkled pale skin with its sparse discoloured patches of remaining coat made him look like he was actually just two hundred year old and still alive somehow, but never stopped ageing. Or if he'd been preserved in formaldehyde.

"Really, it was an ingenious idea," the ghoul continued, apparently only half-aware of the group before him. "The system automatically gets flushed after every use, and kept in soapy water until the next time it is used! The dirty water is expelled that next time, as the hatch opens!"

Lemon Frisk suddenly noticed there were a number of blue glowing points on the ghoul's face. He rolled his eyes as he heard the noise of an engine spinning up beside him. "Teegee, no."

"Just the legs," the robot haggled, his targeting lasers still painting the ghoul's forehead.

"That's not the legs you're aiming at. And do you see an army of robot minions around?"

"Not at this moment," TGIF-1 said.

"Then stand down, please."

The robot was silent for a while, with his visor bright purple, and his weapon still trained on the scientist, who looked at the robot as if trying to remember something. "Oh, very well," the robot said after some tense seconds.

The scientist's eyes widened. "You're Project Equoid! Uhh... tactical... whatever! I never expected you would still be operational!"

"My automatic maintenance system was not designed by you," the robot threw back.

"Indeed, indeed," the old ghoul said. "That was Doctor Starburst," he added with obvious contempt. "A traditionalist."

"And, who are you?" Misty Cloud asked.

The ghoul looked at Misty Cloud and Lemon Frisk with a glazed look in his eyes, and blinked in surprise. "Oh. Ponies?" He promptly ignored Misty and looked at Lemon Frisk. "Ahh, no. One of those undead things. Yes, yes. Can't be ponies. They're all dead."

He stared at the ruined city behind the group with a mad grin on his face. "Well. All except me. I'm the one who survived."

"Vot hy tell ya," Blinker whispered to Misty. "Mad."

"But come in! Come in, all of you!" the Mad Doctor said as he walked through the front door. "Just be careful. He's always watching. I don't like it if he's watching; he tries to get rid of me. The robots don't like me. The walls change." He nodded. "Cameras. Avoid the cameras. The ones with the lights on them. The others are dead."

He stopped. "The others are dead. All dead." He looked back at Lemon Frisk, his face twisted somewhere between a smile and despair. "Like you! All dead! I'm the only one alive. Yes. Still alive, little old me. He won't get me." Nodding and mumbling to himself, he led the group into the building.

* * *

The inside of the building was completely unlit, but the ghoul didn't seem to notice. Like Petal Luck, he had probably walked these halls for so long he no longer even noticed the difference. The only illumination was provided by a small red light at the end of the corridor. Lemon Frisk switched on his pipbuck screen, but the Mad Doctor quickly motioned him to put it out.

"No light! Not here!" He pointed a hoof at the red light in the distance. "He sees!"

Lemon quickly switched it off, and let the Mad Doctor lead them into a hole in the wall where a panel was missing.

"We're safe here. No eyes. He can't see. Heheh." Misty switched on her pipbuck light just in time to see him motion to strange pistons keeping the panels of the corridor in place. "His hooves are all around us, but he has no eyes here, see?"

"Who is this 'he' you're talking about?" Lemon Frisk asked.

Surprisingly, it wasn't the Mad Doctor who answered, but TGIF-1. "SolOS. The central command A.I. of Solaris Incorporated. I feel his probing queries in the data channels. I blocked them all." His visor got a stubborn purple hue. "He won't take me. My mind is my own."

"Good, good!" the mad ghoul said, making his way through machineries attached to the pistons, and leading them towards a metal maintenance staircase. "Don't let him take your eyes, no. Can't let him see." He glanced at the pistons with their panels. "His hooves would crush us in a heartbeat. A heartbeat, yes," he said, holding a hoof against his chest trying to feel for one. A brief look of panic shot over his face when he didn't find one, but he quickly put his hoof down and went on as if nothing happened.

"Come," he said as he led them down the staircase, into the facility's underground levels. "I'll show you where I live. Where I survived."

* * *

When they left the grimy maze of maintenance areas they walked into a fully-lit and furnished laboratory. The Mad Doctor ushered them all in and closed the door behind them. As the Doctor took off his lab coat and threw it roughly towards a coat rack in the corner, Lemon Frisk noticed the ghoul's cutie mark. At first sight it looked like a grey slab of stone that was rounded at the top, but... something looked off about it. For one thing, it seemed to run way too far down his leg.

"Look!" the Doctor interrupted Lemon Frisk's thoughts. He nodded at a smashed camera at the wall. "The eyes are dead here. I killed them." His eyes glazed over. "I... killed them all. It was all my fault, wasn't it?" He suddenly turned to Lemon, scowling fiercely. "NO! I only built it! Those idiots at the army base... they had no idea what they were doing! Hah! Test runs? It worked perfectly from the start! Their test runs were what made it go wrong! They woke it up!"

"Woke what up?" Misty asked. Despite the mad ranting, the Doctor seemed to be thinking in the right direction now.

"Hm?" the Doctor said, looking as if only noticing her for the first time. He threw a suspicious look at the spider on her head. "Are those his eyes? Does he see through you?"

Misty involuntarily took a step back when he started pawing towards a screwdriver on the bench with a paranoid look on his face. "No!" she yelped. "He can't see through me! Or Jolly! We're both flesh and blood! No robotic stuff in us! He can't hack spiders or ponies, can he?"

The Doctor pulled his hoof away from the bench. "Ah, no. Not spiders. Or ponies. Interfacing with organics should be outside his working parameters, yes." He looked at Misty. "You really are a pony, aren't you? A living pony..."

"Yes. I'm from the Stable... um, the Stable-Tec complex," she elaborated, guessing he'd be more familiar with a wartime company name than the colloquial name for their shelters.

"Oh. Wow." He shook his head, a look of disbelief on his face. "That thing actually worked? Unbelievable. That means I'm not the last. Well. Not really. I didn't think I'd really be; there are other cities, after all. More ponies. I'm glad... well, sort of. It'd be a pity if it were just me... me and the dead, yes. Dead... all dead. Every single one of them..."

Once again, the Doctor devolved into muttering, seemingly completely forgetting the pony in front of him. Misty threw a somewhat pleading look at Lemon Frisk, who took the cue and stepped forward.

"So, who are you?" he asked.

The Doctor looked up. "Hmm? Me? Oh, I'm the last one. The sole remnant. A living bad memory of all those who died. The living tombstone of this city. Call me Doctor Tombstone."

Lemon Frisk rolled his eyes and looked at Misty. "See what I mean about those ghoul names?" he mumbled, trying not to let the Doctor notice. "No sane pony would ever call their foal 'Rottinghoof' or 'Deadeye' or 'Tombstone'. Overdramatic idiots."

Misty smirked. "Not sure if it counts if they vehemently insist they're alive, though." She looked at the Mad Doctor. "I assume we found Doctor Cornerstone. Or what's left of him, anyway."

"Cornerstone?" 'Doctor Tombstone' asked sharply as he turned back to them. "There is no Cornerstone! He was the one who killed! From the phoenix' flames I was reborn! The Living Tombstone!" He pointed at the tombstone that adorned his flank. "See?!"

Misty looked at the cutie mark. "...Is that... permanent marker?"

"Sure looks like it," Lemon Frisk said. On closer inspection, Dr. Cornerstone's cutie mark had originally been an arch of stones. With some effort he could still make out the slightly larger eponymous cornerstone in the middle. The whole part below it was indeed just drawn on, and filled in, with permanent marker.

While Lemon and Misty were trying to decide if that was the dumbest thing they'd ever seen, Doctor Tombstone gave them a triumphant look, which was only slightly ruined by the three blue laser dots on his forehead.

Lemon Frisk rolled his eyes. "Teegee, no."

"Subject's mental capacities have clearly degraded to unusable levels," TGIF-1 said. "I suggest immediate termination."

"That may be so," Lemon Frisk said, "but he still has the information we need." He threw the robot a sharp look. "Or would you prefer interfacing with the systems here to find that information?" He smirked when the robot's visor turned blazing white. "Didn't think so."

Blinker, who had been keeping himself in the back until now, walked towards the ponies. He didn't seem all that comfortable in the complex, and clearly wanted to speed things up a little. "Eef hyu guyz vont 'im ta tell hyu schtoff... hyu gots ta ask 'im, hyu kno!"

"I was getting there!" Lemon said. "But, uh..."

"Hyoo vere tolkin' bout de nem und de butt mark, ya," the dog said, nervously looking around the laboratory. He nodded towards the Doctor. "Ask 'im."

"Right!" Lemon Frisk said, addressing the Doctor. "Uh... we found your, uh, Doctor Cornerstone's missile schematics, and we were wondering..."

Tombstone, who was absentmindedly toying with a couple of old cracked beakers, turned his head towards Lemon Frisk. "Hm? What? I'm a busy stallion. Speak up, colt!"

"What was inside the missile's propulsion megaspell?"

Tombstone glared at him. "That is a corporate secret! I can't—"

Lemon Frisk cut him off. "Consider this an official investigation, then. Courtesy of the Ministry of Morale. This city's destruction has had a serious impact on national morale, and we want to know why it happened! Now give me full access to all information you have clearance to, or you might face a firing squad for crimes against Equestria!" On cue, the blue targeting lasers reappeared on Tombstone's forehead.

Tombstone's eyes widened. "All right! All right. Ugh. What do you want to know?"

"I want access to the systems. I need explicit access permissions given to me and recorded by a compatible system." He gave a short nod towards TGIF-1, who was standing behind him.

Tombstone groaned. "Right. The systems. They don't listen to me, but if that Project Equoid is disconnected from SolOS, it might just work. Name?"

"Lemon Frisk, Ministry of Morale crisis manager. And, do try to use your old name."

The Doctor grumbled something incomprehensible that didn't sound too kind, then raised his head and spoke up. "I, Doctor Cornerstone, grant Ruby-level access to Lemon Frisk, Ministry of Morale crisis manager, for the further duration of his investigation." He looked at TGIF-1. "Well?"

"Sanity of the granting source is questionable," TGIF-1 said.

"Teegee, clear him already," Lemon Frisk said. "I'll give you full access to your own files with it later."

The robot's visor colour instantly turned to teal. "Cleared," he replied.

"Thank you, Teegee." Lemon Frisk turned back to the Doctor. "Now, what was inside that megaspell?" he asked. "What did they 'wake up'?"

"A phoenix," Tombstone said. "A rare blue phoenix."

"What?!" Misty blurted out. "You put a living creature inside a megaspell?!"

"No!" the Doctor said. "Well, yes. Somewhat. When the life cycle of a phoenix ends, the creature bursts into flames and is reborn from the ashes, but if said ashes end up submerged in water, something very peculiar happens. The wet ash... congeals, packs itself together into a hard ball... an egg of sorts, but not really. And it remains that way until it emerges from the water and dries out. The creature itself is in a state of hibernation; phoenixes can remain in stasis for thousands of years that way. It wouldn't have felt a thing! The missile would've flown to the Zebra lands and exploded there, and the phoenix would've been reborn in fire!"

He threw a nasty look at one of the dead terminals in the lab, probably remembering his correspondence with the military base. "All they needed to do was keep it submerged. But the idiots couldn't even do that right!" He looked back at Lemon Frisk and started shouting in his face. "They partially woke it up, and then they performed their stupid stress tests on it! The megaspell matrix counted on that hibernated state! They probably drove it mad with pain! No wonder it broke out!"

He glared at the dead terminal again. "'S not my fault, dammit. I told them. They fed the damn thing rocket fuelinstead of keeping it submerged. Fools blew it all up." Once again, he devolved in muttered rambling, with the occasional louder insult at specific personnel of the military base.

Lemon just stood there, taking it all in. "That's it?" he said, shaking his head. "A series of dumb accidents and even dumber experiments, ruined through a stubborn lack of communication?" He looked at Doctor Tombstone, who was still muttering incoherently. "I can't even be angry at this guy. He's already lost half of his mind; he would barely understand what I'm angry about, and he'd forget it within a minute!" He sighed and looked at Misty. "It just doesn't seem... enough, you know? All this, and for what? Corporate greed? Innovation? Science?"

"And that poor animal," Misty said. "Twisted by a megaspell and fired off in a rocket." She opened the trajectory scans from the radar facility on her pipbuck and saw the erratic path of the piece that had ended up in Scorch Mark. It was nothing like the straight path of the Shard at Dead Farm. No... this was the final flight of a dying animal. "Somehow, I don't think it was reborn after that," she said solemnly.

"Poor animal?" Tombstone cut in. "You're thinking of Equestrian phoenixes. This wasn't one of these gentle red-and-yellow companion birds! This was an untameable monster with a wingspan twice that of a pegasus, a breath that could melt through rock, and a temper as hot as its breath! No one would've objected to grinding down a few hydras if it would get them a weapon of war!" He huffed. "Be glad it didn't survive. It would've terrorized this area for decades. That was the plan all along, for its real target." He looked at Misty's pipbuck and inspected the path, tracing it with a hoof. "Ah, I see. The egg cracked, causing the propulsion megaspell to explode... here." He pointed at a point in the missile path. "The bird was thrown out, and it flew off."

He pulled his hoof back and his brow creased as he analysed the data he had seen. "Without the regulation of the gem matrix, the megaspell would've kept going inside the creature, making it spew fire until it burned out." He nodded. "Bird couldn't fly straight because it was propelling itself backward, and ended up dying of magic depletion. That critter's dead all right."

"So was the village it ended up in," Misty remarked dryly.

"Hey, you think I like what happened? 'S not my fault, dammit. I gave them the instructions... Couldn't follow them, could they... That moron Jet Stream and his ridiculous ideas... Hydrogen, indeed!" Once again, he muttered under his breath and sank into his mad ramblings.

Lemon Frisk shook his head. "All of this... Ugh." He looked at Misty. "I've had enough of this. Let's go back to the Stable already."

Misty nodded. "Yeah. Let's go back."

* * *

They left the mumbling Doctor Tombstone in his lab and snuck out as carefully as they went in. TGIF-1 informed them that he didn't detect any functional robots in the facility, but the Doc's warning about the panels and their ability to crush ponies was enough for them to stay well away from any active cameras. TGIF-1 and Blinker led the two ponies without night vision through the maze-like complex. The robot seemed to have no problem navigating the place, either because he had stored the path from their way in, or simply from some older blueprints or memories he had of the facility.

When they emerged outside, the sun was well on its way to the horizon, but they all decided to find some place to sleep that was not a Solaris Inc facility which was probably controlled by an insane A.I.

"Well," Misty said once they were outside. "I guess that completes our investigation, huh?"

Lemon Frisk shook his head. "Oh, no," he said with a wide grin. "There's still paperwork to consider. I don't think this investigation will be closed any time in the foreseeable future, in fact!"

Misty gave him an incredulous look. "Paperwork? Lemon, what in Equestria are you talking about?! There's no reason whatsoever—"

"—to close the investigation," Lemon interrupted. "Isn't that right, Teegee?"

"Indeed," the robot replied. "Did you request those permissions purely to access me?"

"Opportunity knocked. It would've been dumb to waste it just to get my answers a bit sooner. Oh, by the way, will changes made by me be revoked if my permissions end?"

"No. Ruby level is both access and authority. Doctor Cornerstone gave you his own access level."

"That mad deluded fool," Lemon said, grinning. "Can I give myself permanent access?"

"Yes. You have that authority."

"Then, for the sake avoiding slips of the tongue with far-reaching consequences... make it so, Teegee."

There was a very brief flash in the robot's visor. "Your access is now indefinite."

"Wonderful. I hereby grant Tactical Guardian and Infiltration Fighter One full and unrestricted Ruby-level authority."

The robot's visor flashed blue, and then, flashing increasingly faster, crept from blue to teal, and finally to green. It remained blazing green as is buzzed rapidly.

Misty frowned. "...Teegee? Are you okay?"

"Oh, wow," the robot responded. "You ponies have no idea what kind of interesting restricted files I contain. This is amazing!"

Lemon Frisk smiled at the setting sun. "Awesome. I guess the city investigation is closed ahead of schedule, then."

Misty smirked. "Looks like green means enthusiasm."

"That file is also no longer restricted!" TGIF-1 said, his visor still firmly in the green. "I can now simply tell you that yellow means sadness! So, that was what I felt when I found out my research was invalidated. Interesting!"

"Ees gettin dark, pones," Blinker said. "Hyu gun tolk thru de night, or hyu gun find place ta sleep?"

Lemon nodded. "Yeah, let's find some place to sleep. Teegee, can you guard the surroundings despite your new... distractions?"

TGIF-1's visor faded back to blue. "I will limit the processing power dedicated to my research to make sure some of it remains for the purpose of guarding." His visor flashed bright green again. "I couldn't do that before!"

"Um. Right," Lemon said. She turned to Misty. "I wonder if this was a good idea. He's freaking me out."

Misty smiled. "Let's hope the novelty wears off after a while." She scanned the surroundings and pointed at a relatively intact building a bit farther ahead. "That one looks promising. Let's call it a day."

Footnote: Level up! Current level: 15.
New Perk: Respect my Authoritah: Your old-world rank and reputation seem universally accepted despite being two centuries old. You also have Ruby-level access to any Solaris Inc. resource as long as you have TGIF-1 around. It's probably not a good idea to ever use that, though.

   
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