Lauren…Alice woke up to the stench of death. The right side of her face was a mass of pain, and a line of searing agony burned along the side of her head. She opened her eyes, but a combination of dusk and head trauma made it virtually impossible to see. But she had to move, now.
She felt a peculiar mix of anger and gratitude that the mercenaries hadn’t bothered to fill in the mass grave. If they had, she’d be dead right now, but on the other hand, it felt like a final disrespect to those they’d murdered in cold blood. The anger was welcome, though, since it was something to focus on other than the horror.
She climbed her way out of the ditch as best she could, pausing multiple times to let her vision clear and head stop spinning. She couldn’t begin to guess how long it took her to crawl out of the pit of horror, but it was completely dark by the time she’d finally reached the edge of the ditch.
With a deep breath of relief she dragged herself over the edge and lay there, gasping for air. Out here, with the gentle night breeze, the air was far less stifling, less polluted with the smell of…best not to think about that. Just put it aside and do what she had to do.
She couldn’t stay out here. Eventually a patrol would find her if she didn’t find cover. Well, assuming the barely-sanctioned gang masquerading as mercenaries were disciplined enough to bother. Still, it was better to get somewhere safe. She knew just the place.
It took far longer than it ever had before to walk the short distance from the edge of town to the thick patch of bushes that grew near her…what had been her home. Pausing for a moment to brace herself, she began to crawl through a thin passage that’d been carefully maintained through the thorny bushes. After what seemed like forever she reached what she was looking for. A concealed hatch.
She’d never been more grateful for her grandfather’s stories and preparations, back when he’d housed those seeking to escape the old regime. One of the relics from that time was a carefully hidden safehouse, a place to hide for those escaping political purges. For as long as she could remember, she’d hated having to help him maintain the path and safehouse, but now…
She lowered herself down the ladder, almost falling several times as her strength failed. Ten, fifteen, twenty meters down the smooth concrete pit. Finally, she reached the bottom, collapsing into a heap and breathing heavily. Soon, though, she mustered the strength to enter the combination to the heavy steel door, pushing it open.
Lighting one of the antique oil lamps, she stumbled her way through the safehouse, barely registering anything. She staggered over to one of the cots, but something caught her notice before she lay down. The old grandfather clock wasn’t ticking. Somehow, that cut through the haze, made her consciously grasp how wrong everything had gone.
Maybe if she fixed it, everything would be okay. This would all turn out to be nothing but a bad dream.
Alice woke up with a strangled scream, eyes opening to darkness. For a moment she was back, looking down the barrel of a handgun, seeing the hand clench. Seeing the mercenary, barely older than herself, flinch. Then nothing.
Forget about it. Don’t think about it now. It won’t help. Just move on. That was the mantra she adopted. Better not to think too much of the horror, better to isolate herself from the fear and the grief. Focus on what was important. Survival. Revenge.
She unsteadily got to her feet, the dizziness slightly less than before. She flinched when she saw the blood staining the pillow. That wasn’t good. She needed medical attention, she knew, but right now options were limited.
Thank God her grandparents were the semi-paranoid prepper type. Well, to be fair to them, what they’d lived through would make anyone like that. She silently apologized to them for her reluctance to learn survival skills. She’d always thought it was pointless, but now…
She made her way to the medical room, the closet-sized alcove that housed the only mirror in the safehouse. Seeing her reflection she almost vomited. Powder burns along the right side of her face from the shoddy hand-made armaments the mercenaries had used. A long cut along the side of her head where the bullet had grazed her.
Well, at least she had something to focus on for now. She dug through the medicine chest, looking for something to numb her enough to make treating her injuries bearable. Nothing…well, nothing she’d be willing to use. Antiquated painkillers from who-knows how long ago. Probably not a safe option.
Well, there was another option. She opened one of the bottles of disinfectant alcohol and sniffed it. It didn’t smell too bad…she’d drank worse with her friends when they couldn’t get anything more palatable. The question was whether it was denatured or not, and with the ancient label being far from readable, she really couldn’t guess.
No numbing it was. She closed her eyes for a moment, steadying herself, then threaded the needle and set to work.
Fwuffies am gon’ die.
A Few Years Prior
Alice’s mind raced, before settling on a solution. “Sounds fun. How do you want to do this?”
Calliope looked surprised for a moment, then continued. “Since you hang out around these fluffies so much I figure we could play with them.”
“Play with them how?”
“Don’t play dumb.”
“I meant do we want to leave them alive or kill them. We’re more likely to get caught if we leave them alive but killing them seems like a waste. I’d prefer to be able to see them every day after we break them, you know?”
“You’re…seriously okay with this?” Calliope seemed surprised, which Alice was expecting. The girl was nothing like as cruel as she pretended to be, just another damaged teen that romanticized killers, but not someone who had the capacity to do it herself. Probably. Safer not to call her bluff, though.
“Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not like they’re real people, and even if they were…”
Calliope began to fidget, seeming more unsettled by the moment. “You take the lead I guess.”
“Right. So I’ve spent a lot of time around these, and I think I’ve figured out the best way to break them. First, the green mare there…”
"Now the blue unicorn is pretty much the leader, so I was thinking offer to spare him and his family or the rest of the herd. If he chooses his family, just let the rest of the herd do what they want. If he chooses the herd, kill his family first, then make him watch the rest. Either way he loses everything.
“As for the purple mare and white stallion there, they recently had foals, so I was thinking we could shove them back in and then force him to-”
“Stop!” Calliope shouted. “For Christ’s sake stop! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Didn’t you want to play with them?” Alice asked, smiling angelically.
“Jesus! I’m sorry, I just wanted to be cool like you, okay? It’s not even a real gun! But this…this is too far!”
“But…it was going to be so much fun…”
“Do it yourself, I don’t care. Just leave me out of it.”
Calliope began to walk away, pausing to retch from time to time. Alice had always figured her to be a poser, and she was good at spotting them. After all, it takes one to know one.
“You know, you could just tell the truth,” Samantha said, as they sat gently shaking in the dilapidated bus that was the only concession the small suburb had to the concept of public transportation. Alice gave her signature smirk. “Stop that.”
Alice sighed, dropping the mask for a moment. “That wouldn’t solve anything. They’d just think I’m crazy. Well, more crazy than they already think I am.”
“You haven’t made it easy to think otherwise.”
“They’d made up their mind before even talking to me. I can tell when someone isn’t listening, and nobody does. Easier to just let them think what they want than to try to argue with a wall.”
“Easier to let them think you’re a murderer?”
“How do you think it’d go? People die in a fire, I’m there with burns, I say something that sounds like an admission because I’m not particularly good with my second language. So I suddenly say that it was all a coincidence? They’d either think I’m lying or think I’ve snapped, and neither option sounds good.”
“Well, the name thing doesn’t help, you have to admit.”
“I am not doing back to being called that, okay?”
“I’m just saying it might help if you explained.”
“I know, I know. It’s just…I only tolerated that name because my grandparents wanted me to. Now they’re gone…well, I refuse to be named after the crack-whore so-called mother who tried to sell me before my grandparents intervened.”
“Dropping the subject.”
“Good. Let’s go have fun and try to forget about how shitty the world is for a little while, okay?”
Alice smelled smoke. Well, that was nothing new, she always smelled smoke recently, the ashen ruins reeking of fire and burning hopes. But this time was different, it smelled…fresh. Should she investigate?
No, there was nothing to gain by investigating. Not right now, anyway. She had to finish processing the fluffy and it’s…spawn. Yes, thinking of them like that made things a lot easier. Spawn, that was it. Not foals, not children. Spawn.
Stewed fluffy, the dinner of champions. Well, more realistically the dinner of anyone who didn’t have anything better. The fatty meat might’ve been luxurious if it was beef, but fluffy had a unique flavor that made the epithet shitrat seem even more appropriate. It didn’t help that, like rabbits, you really had to eat the whole fluffy, unless you wanted to die from undernourishment, anyway.
Mmm…delicious unseasoned boiled pseudo-rodent guts. Alice tried not to think about what the fluffy had been able to scavenge all this time. She’d boiled the hell out of it, she’d probably be fine. Still, she’d been sorely tempted to play botulism roulette with the canned food instead, especially after the third week on a fluffy-and-supplements diet.
On the other hand, she could finally stand for more than a few minutes at a time without getting dizzy. She didn’t really like to think about the implications of the dizziness too much. Brain damage? Almost certainly. Was she going to randomly drop from a hemorrhage? Possibly.
Time to investigate? It was pointless and dangerous, sure, but she couldn’t stay hiding here forever. Well, she could, with the exception of sneaking out to hunt for food, but…this was getting old, and while she could probably live on her current diet for a long time, she didn’t like the idea. Better to just get shot and get it over with than slowly waste away from malnutrition and isolation.
She climbed up the long ladder, carefully hitching the jury-rigged climbing harness on each new rung and taking it slow. One fall from five meters up had been all it took to teach her that lesson. Fortunately with no broken bones, but snapping the shoulder back into its socket had been bad enough by far.
Finally she reached the top, crawling along the thorny tunnel and seeing sunlight for the first time in so long. She’d be careful, of course. It wasn’t as if she wanted to die…much. But staying in that tomb, never seeing the sun? That was getting to be too much to bear.
Time to investigate the smoke smell. Then she saw it, a smoke trail coming from near the center of town. Sneaking carefully between ruined buildings, she made her way towards the smoke. Stupid and reckless, yes, but curiosity was a powerful force. Almost as powerful as the makeshift pipebomb she planned to toss through a certain window.
No. No no no. The smoke was coming from the makeshift garrison the mercenaries had set up in the biggest unburnt building they could find. If it was burning, they might’ve left. She wouldn’t be able to bring them to justice!
Then she noticed the tinge of burnt flesh in the air. Pulling a pair of binoculars from her satchel, she climbed a stunted tree and looked towards the source of the smoke. Strange…someone had chained the doors shut. Had someone else survived?
She was so fixated on the sight that she didn’t notice footsteps until a voice called out to her, almost startling her out of the tree. Looking around wildly she spotted someone, a young man she almost recognized. She couldn’t quite place where she’d seen him before.
Suddenly it clicked, and she reached towards the antique, likely non-functional handgun she’d found in a hidden drawer in the safehouse. He didn’t seem to have a weapon, but she wasn’t going to wait to find out. Not after seeing that face.
A face she’d last seen down the length of a barrel.
The smarty-friend and tuffy took off at a run, not looking back. They had to get to the herd! Maybe if they got there they could hide a few of the babbehs! It wasn’t much, but maybe it was a chance. If the munstah lady didn’t rush, they might have time.
“Hewd! Hide babbehs!” he gasped as he rushed into the nest room. “Nu time! Huwwy!”
The herd erupted into panic, but there was a semblance of order, the smarty-friend noticed with pride. None of the fluffies were trying to run or hide themselves. All their effort was focused into hiding as many babbehs as possible. It might all be for nothing, but he was proud of what he’d done, how good his herd was.
Which made it all the more painful knowing they were all going to die.
A Few Hours Ago
The pink scout watched from a distance, shivering in the cold, as the herd made their way into the abandoned house. Internally he was both seething with anger and trembling with anticipation. The herd had gotten sloppy, had led him directly to their nest. Now he just had to report the location, and then…
He made his way along the cold empty streets, fantasizing about all of the nummies his herd would have when they took the dummeh herd’s nest. Nummies and a warm place to stay. Nothing like the wretched cold burrow, the semi-rotten trash. And maybe once the smarty and tuffies were done, there’d be an enfie-mare left for him.
He ignored the empty cars he walked passed, not even noticing an old pickup truck had an occupant staring at him.
The herd collectively froze, a few retching with terror and anxiety. The smarty-friend turned, looking at the door. No! It was too soon! Most of the babbehs weren’t hidden! They needed more time!
“Sabe babbehs! Gib munstah wady biggest owwies!” he roared, and he and the tuffies charged towards their death, trying to buy just a few more seconds with the munstah lady not watching the herd. A little more time to save a few more babbehs.
He slammed into some kind of no-see barrier with an “URK!” sound. Of course. Of course he’d fail at this one last attempt to save more of the babbehs. He was a failure of a leader, and now they’d all die horribly because of it.
“You really need to listen, do you know that? Now shut the fuck up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
They grew quiet, both terrified and silently exulting as the munstah lady turned and left. A few minutes would be enough time to hide the rest of the babbehs. Maybe she’d find some, maybe she’d find all of them. But maybe some wouldn’t be found.
What more could a failure of a smarty-friend ask for?
“Gu! Hewd gib wowtest huwties tu dummeh hewd! Taek nummies! Taek enfie-mawes!” the smarty roared, and his herd charged through the open door, past the lady silently standing behind it without noticing.
The herd, such as it was, was almost exclusively large, scarred fluffies of a brutish disposition. Cruelty and ruthlessness had suited them well in the harsh environment of the big city, and after their exodus to this comparatively peaceful town they had no intention of changing their ways. After all, if it’d served them so well against strong fluffies, it’d work even better against weak, pampered herds.
The nest was silent, more silent than the smarty had expected after his declaration. Maybe the dummeh herd was hiding, cowering from the superior strength and numbers of his gang. Let them hide, it’d make it all the more entertaining when they stomped the worthless foals. Nothing brought more joy to his heart than the sound of suppressed sobs as his victim’s parents watched.
His next battle cry was interrupted as he charged headlong into the no-see wall blocking the entrance to the dummeh herd’s nest. His vision swam, and he spat a few teeth. What was going on? Fluffies couldn’t make no-see walls! That was human magic!
In the confused silence he heard a click from behind him. Turning, he realized the door at the end of the hallway, the only way out, was closed. Standing there was…his heart dropped into his stomach. The dim light coming through the window glinted off a horrible sadistic grin.
“What do you want?” Alice asked, buying time while she reached for the gun. Stupid, stupid! Why hadn’t she kept it out? How stupid could she be?
“Please, listen! I’m sorry, I didn’t want to! I was just following orders!”
He…wilted was the wrong term, it wasn’t really possible to wilt any further than he had been before, but he seemed to almost collapse in on himself. “I’m sorry!” he sobbed. “I didn’t want to be here! I didn’t have a choice!”
Fuck, that made it harder. She’d hoped to be able to kill them all without having to humanize any of them in her mind. She’d assumed that after what they’d done it would be easy. Assumed that she wouldn’t have to fight with herself over this.
“I…I need to leave. Me and a couple of others are leaving. The rest…I had to! I can’t forget! They enjoyed it! How can people like that exist?”
Alice realized she hadn’t responded, but it didn’t seem to matter.
He turned and began to walk away, with a sort of rigid gait, like he wasn’t really seeing the ground in front of him. Alice sighted on his back. How DARE he! How dare he act like he was different! How dare he take away her vengeance! How dare he make it so hard for her to pull the trigger!
She screamed in frustration and threw the gun to the ground. Revenge had been all she had left, and they’d even taken that away from her. But…if they were gone there was something else she had to do.
The shovel fell from her blistered hands. It wasn’t enough, but for now it’d have to do. She could look into the pit any longer, couldn’t smell that smell, couldn’t stand the deafening buzzing of flies. She could come back later, when she was stronger, finish. But for now, this was enough. At least it was more like a grave now.
She’d thought she’d moved past the point of being barely aware of her surroundings, but filling the pit, even a little, had forced her back into her shell. She couldn’t let herself see, really see what she was looking at. No, better to be cold, isolated.
Still, there was something else she wished to do. The burnt corpses, lying in the ashes. They didn’t deserve to rest in peace! No, she’d drag them out, leave them for the vultures. It wouldn’t be enough, but maybe it’d help ease the hatred searing through her brain.
She heard voices as she approached and ducked behind cover, listening. Had more of them escaped? Was this a chance to get revenge? No, the voices weren’t speaking the right language. What was going on?
More importantly, why hadn’t she picked the gun back up before coming over here? Well, if she stayed hidden it would probably be fine to listen in. Knowledge was important, it was what let you survive, so she was going to eavesdrop, and courtesy be damned.
A few of the less intelligent tuffies charged at Alice, while the smarty hung back. It wasn’t unusual behavior, of course. Smarties typically didn’t rush into danger when tuffies would happily run in to die in their place. Cowards.
The tuffies began to pummel her legs, their marshmellow-like hooves achieving nothing. Now the fun part began. She pulled the modified cattle prod from the loop in her belt and extended it. Choosing the largest of the tuffies, she jabbed it into his back and pressed the button.
The fluffies froze in horror as the tuffy writhed on the ground, unable to even draw breath as the electrical currents coursed through him. She held the prod to the tuffy for what seemed like eternity to the other fluffies before finally letting go. The tuffy drew a deep gasp of breath before she jabbed him once more.
Once she finally judged he’d had enough, she stopped. Where once the strongest tuffy in the herd had been there was now a sobbing wreck, frantically hyperventilating and muttering. “Nu wan! Nu wan! Nu wan! Nu wan!”
The herd finally seemed to have realized what was going on. A few of the mares hugged their foals, trying to calm the peeping, horrified babbehs. The rest slumped where they stood. They’d lived long enough in the city to know what came next. They knew they were going to die as soon as she decided to be that merciful.
“Pwease, nice wady,” the smarty pleaded hopelessly. “Nu huwt fwuffies.”
“Fwuffies nu am fow huwties!”
“And what were you trying to do before I stopped you?”
“Fwuffy am sowwy. Wiww be gud fwuffy! Nu wiww be smawty nu mowe!”
“Nope. I know how creatures like you think. The strong take what they want from the weak. Well, right now you’re the weak and I’m the strong. So that means I get to do whatever I want to you.”
“Nope, but I’ll make you a deal. You all get in the carriers, and I won’t break your legs.”
“Bu’…munstah wady wiww gib wowstest huwties! Fwuffies nu wan! Nu wan gu wif munstah wady!”
“Well, I guess you’re shit out of luck then. Whose legs should I break first?”
“Nu! Wiww git in sowwy-box! Nu huwt weggies!”
“Good, at least one of you learned. You!” Alice called, pointing towards the mares, who cowered in terror. “I’m taking your foals. Hand them over.”
The mares seemed reluctant at first, until Alice pressed the button on the prod. The sharp crackle of electricity changed their minds, and they hurried to bring the foals over. Alice scooped them up and set them on the other side of the plastic barrier.
“You!” she indicated the purple smarty-friend. “Take care of these foals. They’re yours now. Don’t let them grow up like their parents.”
Her eyes narrowed as she heard a soft peep sound from behind one of the mares. She knew what that meant. “I said, hand over the foals.”
“Nu! Dat am bestest babbeh! Munstah wady nu taek! Nu huwt bestest!”
Yep, a bestest. Well, not unexpected from a herd like this, but it was a shame that they’d fucked up a foal already. She didn’t particularly like killing foals, but most bestest babbehs couldn’t be fixed, so leaving it alive would be nothing but trouble for the other herd. She’d just take it with the rest of the invading herd.
She had use for it, after all.
The smarty winced as the lid of the box was opened and bright white LED bulbs seared his dark-adjusted eyes. Looking around he realized he, like the rest of the herd, was in a tiny pen barely wider than he was, in a circle around some kind of glass container with tubes leading off of it. Before he could react, something tightened around his middle and he tried to bolt forward before it tightened, gouging into his stomach.
“Don’t try to run or that wire will rip your guts out.”
He stopped struggling. Looking up at the munstah lady he put on his most pitiful good-fluffy expression. “Pwease! Wiww be gud fwuffy! Nu huwt!”
“Too late for that. But I do have one choice for you to make.”
“Either I take your eyes and your tongue or your bestest,” she shook a little white ball of fluff, drawing peeps of fear, “dies.”
“Nu wan wose seein’-pwaces! Wiww maek nu babbehs!”
“Typical.” With a wet crunch the ball of fluff slammed into a wall, drawing a wail of horror from his special-friend. Didn’t the dummeh realize that he needed his seeing-places? They could make more babbehs after they escaped!
“Now, each of you have a bowl in front of you. Drink what’s in the bowl.”
Poison. It was definitely poison. “Nu!” he cried defiantly, then collapsed to the floor as the prod jabbed him. His vision blurred and he struggled to draw breath, but it was impossible. After eternity it stopped and he gasped for air, but scarcely had he filled his lungs when the torment resumed. He didn’t know how many times this happened, but eventually he managed to scream “WIWW NUM!” between waves of paralyzing agony.
“Good. Looks like you learned.”
He licked up the foul-tasting liquid, then felt strange warmth spread through him. His vision fell apart, bright colors devouring the bleak gray of the room.
“Welcome to Wonderland.”
The smarty snapped back to reality, immediately wishing he hadn’t. Cold, bleak gray, gnawing pain, seething nausea. He wanted back! Back to Wonderland! Back to the perfect life!
He quickly devoured the disgusting dry kibble in front of him, knowing he couldn’t go back until it was all gone. When it was empty, a little of the precious liquid dripped from the tube. He hesitated for barely an instant, looking at the container that held everything for him now. It was over half empty. A little longer, and maybe he’d never be able to go back to Wonderland again.
Alice flinched a bit at the smell as she entered the decrepit warehouse. Of course, it was to be expecting since she didn’t really bother cleaning the fluffies, but it still reeked. Well, it’d been long enough, now she could start introducing the deliriant into the mix. She’d enjoy watching as the herd’s fantasies turned into nightmares.
Except…it was getting old. Hunting herds like this, tormenting them, bringing them to justice, it just…didn’t have the same joy to it anymore. Was she getting soft? Was she going to be like the others, too scared to get her hands dirty even if it meant making the world a better place?
Or was it just that she had a sneaking feeling that what she was doing was no better than what her victims did?
She sighed. Well, all good things come to an end. Maybe it was time to stop hunting, find some other way of fixing the world. Perhaps she was getting to old for this, losing the fire of a young adult.
No sense wasting more time doing this then. She walked towards the container holding the euphoria blend designed to keep fluffies docile in breeding mills. It had been very expensive, which was probably why it wasn’t used much commercially.
She kicked it, turning away as it shattered on the concrete floor. Time to start something new. In the next room over she opened the incubator, pulling out the white foal. Fixing a bestest babbeh, that’d be a interesting passtime. Plus, she looked so much like another fluffy from years ago.
“Come on, Snowball. Let’s go home.”
No! NO NO NO NO NO! The smarty screamed, shivering and convulsing as the withdrawals kicked in in earnest. It was gone! It was all gone! Shattered on the floor! Spreading in a worthless puddle! HIS WONDERLAND!
He didn’t even notice the wire tearing into him as he pushed himself forward. Didn’t notice the agony as it grew tighter and tighter. Didn’t even notice when it severed the back half of his spine from his body. Dragging himself with his front legs, his organs trailing behind him, he crawled to the puddle.
He lay there, falling into the euphoria for one last time as the puddle grew redder.
[This ended up a little longer than intended, but I’m too lazy to break it into parts.]