Chapter 16: Immigrant Song
"Try the Falukorv!"
Pink-E giggled. I wanted to glare at her, but I just didn't have the energy. Her sapphire eyes lit up to match the beaming smile on her still-cracked face. Somehow, she didn't look as damaged as I remembered. I could've sworn her cheeks had been burned...
"Whadda'hell," I sighed more than said, "isher mayor malfunkshun...?"
"Hee hee... you look like you've been ridden hard and put away wet!" The little robot broke into a fit of giggle-snorts.
I just groaned. It had only been an hour since I'd been dredged out of Lake Cider. I didn't want to move, I didn't want to talk, I didn't want to even think, particularly not about what I'd just been through. What I wanted to do was sleep for a month, preferably right here on the pile of burlap sacks where I'd been tossed like the catch of the day. The longship's gentle rocking, once it got under sail, should have made it easy for me to nod off.
Pink-E made it impossible. She was constantly yakking about how blue the lake was, how big the ship was, how happy she was to see me alive, and when she ran out of things to yak about she started repeating the list. Somewhere in there, she also mentioned what'd happened after I ordered her to cut me loose. Instead of doing what I told her to, she'd used her sensor suite to track my progress. When my bar didn't flicker out, she went searching for a boat and rescue party.
She'd found Häsverige.
This may sound stupidly unimportant at first, but before the War, one of Equestria's top imports was furniture. Equestrian furniture was usually hoof-crafted, high-quality, and therefore not-inexpensive, which meant most ponies ran it into the ground rather than buy a replacement. Infrequent sales led Equestrian furniture makers to specialize in one type, like sofas, while selling other things to make ends meet from day-to-day like... well, whatever they could sell a lot of.
Vikea changed all that with an extensive line of cheap, sturdy, modular stuff that you could put together at home. At least, that's what every scrap of garbage I'd ever seen with their blue-and-yellow logo on it had said.
The company had done well enough back East to branch out with an experimental showroom on the shores of Lake Cider. The schtick? It doubled as a lakeside beach park and marina, where you could try out a line of pleasure craft called "Landships". Inside half an hour, you could break one down and rebuild it into either a lake-going or off-road vehicle, using only a screwdriver and hex key. The originals, using sail and pedal-power for motion, were meant for a small family to toddle around in.
After Balefire Day, somepony decided to scale up the idea. Nowadays, longships carrying as many as twenty ponies each would roll up to a town, their grinning crews would disembark, and then...
... they'd try to sell you furniture.
Talk about a head-scratcher. They had mobility, they had more than their share of the big-bruiser types, and as anypony who'd ever tried to attack their fortifications would tell you, they were no slouches at either close-up or ranged combat. They could have looted half the Moohave with relative impunity. Yet they were also some of the most polite folks you'd ever meet... as long as you showed interest in their cheap, sturdy, modular furniture.
Not interested? How could you not be interested? Look at this crap you're living with now! Your grandmother could've been buried in this! Are you trying to insult the quality of our products? Keep on that line of discussion, and they'd end up burning your place down.
Can't afford new furniture? No problem! We have Easy Payment Plans! You just forked over a percentage of whatever money, crops or goods you could pile together every month until your debt was paid off, or they'd burn your place down. Easy!
Already got better furniture? They'd burn your place down. See? Now you need some good furniture to rebuild with! And we have such Easy Payment Plans...
They might have had the world's worst hard-sell tactics, but they honored a contract once you agreed to it. Surprisingly, they also made genuinely decent furniture. A lot of hard work and craft went into each flat-packed box of sections and screws. They were still essentially raiders, but the only time they really went pillaging was to collect on a defaulted Payment Plan. Even then, they only went after the debtors, which they preferred to take as "Labor Associates" rather than kill.
Most folks in the Moohave had decided that it was easier to just buy the furniture, turn around, and re-sell it to NCR-bound caravans. My dad and I had carted a godsawful lot of those densely-packed boxes in our day. And now I was grumping over however many pallets of useless furniture Pink-E had likely signed me up for.
Paying no attention to my increasingly dark mood, she kept on with the chipper patter. I tried tuning her out, staring towards the ship's stern and its massive captain working the sail there. He shifted a boom to better catch the wind, briefly turned a hazel-eyed gaze upon me, and then went right back to his business.
He was so huge, one might have confused his ship for a little sailboat, with a one-pony crew tending a single piece of canvas, if they'd seen it from a distance. As it was, he dwarfed the rest of his crew, and they weren't small for their various species, either. I wouldn't have been surprised if his sitting back there was the reason the deck felt tilted.
The lot of them had a casual sort of industriousness I couldn't recall seeing anywhere else. It was like what they were doing wasn't really a job to them. They mended nets, checked lines, tossed bucketfuls of bilgewater overboard, and when they didn't have anything else to do they polished the beams to a glossy sheen. What they didn't do was talk --- not to me, not to one another, and definitely not to Pink-E. They all knew exactly what to do, and did it without being told or supervised.
As to the ship, well, if you've seen a Vikean longship... then you've seen a Vikean longship.
As obvious as that may sound, it makes sense when you realize that every longship uses the exact same parts, but no two captains use them exactly the same way. It's that "modular" thing I was talking about, hence why those screwdrivers and hex keys were on their helmets in the first place. A creative crew can rearrange a longship six ways from Sunday. The REALLY creative ones were said to violate the laws of Eweclidean physics on occasion.
This one looked like it was rigged for extra speed with an extended mast and boom, plus what looked like two sails clipped together. The only other major difference was the towing rig that'd been used to drag my keester up from the deep. And while I'd seen first-hoof that it could be freely wielded like a fishing rod, the swivel-mount it rested in looked like it'd been made a permanent fixture, bolted to the deck with heavy reinforcing plates. For Vikeans, that was pretty unusual.
I hope all that exposition worked for you, because it's annoying as hell to me. I grew up knowing this stuff, but every now and again I have to stop and assume whoever's watching this is a Stable pony.
Anyway, by this time it had occurred to me that I had been down there for THREE FUCKING DAYS, and that if Pink-E had been able to track my exact position the whole time --- which was why the captain's first cast had snagged me so perfectly --- why the hell had it taken so long to co- to rescue me?! It's a big lake, but not that big!
When I raised that point with my little ponybot, she cheered. "You're asking questions already? Yaaay! I knew you could do it!" While I struggled to figure out why that was suddenly a big deal, she hovered up close to whisper intently, "So remember when I told you I went whOOOshhh, and I was flying around looking for a fishing boat, or really just any boat so long as it had somepony to sail it because I really kind of can't without a body and then I found a whole BUNCH of boats with ponies on them just like this one?"
Since she'd stopped to give me a prodding look, I worked up the effort to do something that might have been a nod... or maybe a slump. It seemed to satisfy whatever passed for her logic processors. "Right! Well, at first, nopony would listen! I flew up and down the docks and asked everypony I could find where I could get a boat and some of them weren't even ponies but that's okay 'cause there's plenty of folks who aren't ponies and they're okay too!"
She went from happy-frenetic to droopy-sad in a heartbeat. "But some of them shot at me, or swung big sticks, or called me bad names. None of them believed me when I said a pony in the lake needed their help. Not even when I followed them around, yelling HEY! and LISTEN! and WATCH OUT!" Her face turned thoughtful for a moment. "I kiiiiind of think that's when they started shooting, but I'm not sure."
A shrug, and she was back to being intolerably bouncy again. "So that's when Mister Hard Way over there walked up and just asked what I was talking about!" She huffed with frustration. "Like I hadn't just been saying what I was talking about for two whole days!"
Okay. Now I could understand. It wasn't Pink-E's fault, and I didn't have to kill her. Just every other Vikean who wasn't on this boat right now. Soon. A year or two, and I'd get right around to it. But I was still missing one key bit of info:
"Ping-y," I slurred, "whadju prommiss?" Happy-go-lucky attitudes didn't get anypony to do anything. There had to have been a price tag. What would the Celestial Suite look like, stuffed with unused bookcases and coffee tables?
"We-e-e-e-e-e-ellll," she sighed, rolling her eyes --- and not bringing them quite back to looking at me --- "you do still have the ten thousand bottle caps you, um, picked up at the Velvet Stocking?"
If my look were capable of being anything but flat just now, I'd have given her a flat look anyways. "Yush. Adda S'leschul Swee'. Noddon meh."
She went right back to beaming. "There you go! We just go back to Mister Horse's place, get your money, give it to Mister Hard Way, and everypony's happy!"
Ten. Thousand. Fucking. Caps. For a fishing trip! My gut roiled with a mixture of pain and loathing, making me curl up into a tiny ball. I fought down a whimper, and also a bout of vomiting which felt like accompanying it on the way up. After everything I'd been through, I was right back to being broke again!
Pink-E drifted over to head-bump me, throwing in a sidewise look and some eyelash-batting... with what was left of her lashes, anyways. "So, how do you feel, now that you've finally gotten laid?"
I swear to Luna, she was smirking. I'd been serially raped, and here she was smirking about it.
The angry little pink pony in the back of my head wanted, verbally and physically, to tear into her. But there was simply no fuel for that fire, my engine having run out of coal days ago. Meanwhile, my backup puller team sat across from the little pink pony under a banner reading "On Strike", sipping coffee and ignoring his frantic gesticulations.
Godsdamned unions. I tried nosing my way under a bunch of loose sacks, but couldn't find the will to do more than shuffle them around a bit. No part of my body wanted to do anything, especially if it meant moving any other part, because every part hurt all by itself. Moving multiple parts multiplied the hurt. "Jus' shuddup."
A ruffling of feathered wings, and then a heavy thump, sounded from behind. I didn't bother turning more than an ear in that direction; with any luck, some monster would kill everyone else on board and let me off the financial hook. Or kill me too, so at least I'd be done with shame and misery.
No such luck. "Kapten Way, port authority gives clearance. No action reported. We're slotted to provide for third shift this week... oh, and Master Woebegone says you still owe him for last week's Falukorv Casserole."
The response was an even, low rumbling, like the rolling thunder of a distant storm front. "I'll pay him, Gore, but not for falukorv. What he provided was not to those standards. When we get in, we'll let him know that Way House favors corrective action." The two laughed as though at a well-worn joke. There was a pause, and then the first voice again:
"So there really was a live one down there. That'll put the name of Hard Way into the sagas, all right. Wonder if he looked like Svaoilfari's ballsack before they pulled him down?" Another shared laugh, this one harder; I somehow found the energy to drag my hat down and bury my face in it. I might owe them my life, but for ten thousand bottle caps you'd think I would've bought a little deference!
Paying me no heed, other than to avoid my burlap nest, the crew of the Sjönhäst got to the work of pulling into port.
* * * * *
"Ballsack" turned out to be a griffin named Gore-Nest, Hard Way's first mate and also my chaperone for the time being. He'd directed his shipmates in slinging the pile of sacks (and me) onto a wooden sledge on the dock as soon as their ship tied up, then got into harness and dragged me out of everyone else's way. Meanwhile, Pink-E kept nattering on overhead about everything and nothing.
Two mules working a neighboring longship turned to stare as we passed, dropping the crate they were moving to the ire of their shipmates. Then their shipmates noticed us. Whispers flew up and down the dock.
Somepony poked me in the ribs.
My eyes flew open. I'd been asleep, and now I wasn't. Dammit! I turned what I hoped was a baleful gaze on my tormentor, an ancient red buck with a weatherbeaten face and grey woolen cap.
"Fuggoffendye," I growled. Or tried. It came out more like a mewling.
"By Sleipnir's bridle," he breathed. The reek of fish and tooth decay that washed over my muzzle made me regret holding my guts in earlier. "And here I thought Kapten Way was off on another of his wild lakepony chases."
Somepony else chipped in, "If you believe the story, he was!" Laughter broke out all around me.
Gore-Nest began shoving them back, one at a time. "Let 'im get some air, already. Buck's been soaking up the lake a day and more already, longer if the robot tells it true." Pink-E looked indignant for a moment, but said nothing.
Oh, sure, she'll shut up for a complete stranger...
As I glared at her the griffin turned, leaned down, and gave me a backhanded claw-slap.
Any other day, I'd have been right on him swinging, regardless of his having talons, a sharp beak, and easily three times my mass. But today, the pain barely made its trek from cheek to brain. I flopped back onto the sacks, feeling reality steadily flow away from me. "Whaddafug..."
Pink-E drifted down until she nearly touched dirt, fixing a pleading set of shiny blue eyes on mine. "Cherry, you're still suffering from hypothermia and severe exhaustion. I know I've been a horrible tease about what's happened, but you've got to stay awake! Maybe some music, would that make you feel better? Your vitals... they keep slipping...!" Was that a tear dripping from her eye, or condensation?
I managed to lift a hoof and, straining, reached to wipe it from her little rubber muzzle.
That's it, said my body. Visiting hours are over.
Falling again. Why am I always falling, these days?
Oh, and drowning too. Falling through water; I get it. I'm asleep again. What'd Pink-E say about that, just last year? Did she mention it tomorrow? Not important enough to remember, I guess...
Plummeting through dark blue everything. There was a soft light surrounding me, warm. So relaxing. Soothing, even. My lungs started whining for air, but really, fuck those guys. What did they ever do for me?
I fell past Bitchy-Bitch, floating upwards in the opposite direction, cursing my name while she tried to put herself out. But she was made of fire and the sharp stench of burnt latex, and the water wouldn't deign to extinguish her patchwork fury. Bubbles of laughter floated up after her. I needed that. So miserable lately. Last thing I laughed at... it was something Pink-E said, right?
...why am I asking you?
God tried to tell me something, red eyes flashing; I missed him in the dark. Dog sipped from a carafe of ruby-red wine, stepped gingerly from a platform onto a moving train, and exploded into dust and gears, dissolving as I fell.
I looked left, saw nothing, then right... another Diamond Dog appeared, only long enough to experience cranial combustion. His monocle and bits of pith helmet zipped past me, stylish shrapnel. Emerging from the red cloud left behind, a wide horizon revealed itself, with massive shapes of metal, grease and steam edged starkly against a rising sun. Flags and nations, lubricating their advances in blood and oil. A filth-slicked dragon, locked in chains, writhed pitiably beneath them all...
Back to my left floated God. His black mane drifted in the water like Red-Head's had, as did his tail. No wonder his Goddess hated him; She'd made Herself a lovely plaything, and it came out broken.
"Redeemer! Heed my - !"
Gelatinous, glowing with malice, a great pink tentacle swept out of the distance to seize the alicorn. Its surface held suckers in the form of faces: soulless spirit-pony skulls, each one screaming wordless hatred. God darted, dodged, stabbed, bit, struggled, and disappeared into its immense, seeking coils. They, in turn, disappeared back into the distance even faster than they had arrived.
The same overwhelming sensation I'd had back in the whiskey bottle flowed up my spine. The feeling of a prey animal, fearing something I couldn't see or flee or defeat, out there, hunting for me...
A single great blue eye opened, so wide it made a perfect circle stretching as high and low as I could see. Instead of tears it wept Pink Cloud, tendrils of it swilling through the waters to surround and suffocate me.
Ha! Too bad for you I already decided not to breathe!
The thing had a voice. Hissing, angry, familiar. "Suck on this, you little pink shit..."
Rebellious jaws ignored my brain's futile commands to remain on lockdown, wrenching themselves open, while quisling lungs collaborated to draw in the candy-floss poison.
Inside and out, I began dissolving. Just like Dog, I was going to fizz away into the fathomless waters, and nopony was going to miss me. I was choking on my own blood, the mass of pulpy tissue in my chest no longer qualifying as lungs.
The Pink wormed into my skin, loosening its cohesion, so that bits of me sloughed away wherever I touched myself. Both panicked and fascinated, I tried and failed to keep myself in one piece. My flailing efforts only accelerated the process, chunks of decaying flesh drifting away into the currents as my body unraveled, outside and in...
The center cannot hold.
My eyes flicked open. I was flat on my back, and a magenta unicorn stallion had locked his lips crosswise on mine.
Hello, pony I don't know! Purely on reflex, I slugged him with a right hook.
He reeled back, probably more due to surprise than anything else, giving me time to roll out and get to my... um, get to... c'moooon... I went right back down with a thud, coming to rest on my belly with legs splayed in random directions. Not exactly my finest moment.
A burst of laughter was interrupted by Hard Way's booming-gale voice. "Well, Cutter, I'd say your vaunted 'kiss of life' still holds up. It would seem our guest is recovering quite nicely."
Looking up, I found the same magenta buck grinning and rubbing his cheek, a set of first-aid boxes strapped across his flanks like saddlebags. "I'd have to agree. For somepony whose heart stopped beating not two minutes ago, he seems exceptionally healthy." He pushed a blond mane out of sea-green eyes, with which he gave me an appraising look, then shoved a mug of something vaguely alcoholic-smelling under my muzzle. "Put half of this down your gullet now, sip the rest slowly. It'll help warm up your insides, while the fire helps with your outsides."
Fire? I slowly took in my surroundings. Just a length away to my right was a wide stone hearth, roaring with what had to be a quarter-cord of pinewood, flames licking hungrily at dark sap trickling from the logs. The fact that I could barely feel that heat was disturbing to say the least.
Opposite the fireplace a huge plank table stretched away, taking up the middle of an even longer room. The architecture was Classical Equestrian: cut and fitted stonework for the floor and lower walls, supporting a framework of big oak beams for wattle-and-daub upper walls. The ceiling, high and vaulted and lit with hanging lanterns, was probably thatch on its topside.
And it was stuffed, stem to stern, with easily a hundred ponies, mules, dragons, buffalo, and griffins, most of whom were staring and grinning disconcertingly at me. Hard Way, seated at the near end of the table on a pillow that would have counted as a bed for anypony else, had the biggest smile of all. He even beat out Pink-E, hovering near his shoulder.
"Welcome back from Vattengrav, boy! Welcome to Way House!"
Whether held in hooves, claws, tails or levitation fields, a hundred frothing mugs went up.
Vattengrav? Was that what they called the Lakeponies' castle? Whatever... I carefully picked up my mug with two hooves, gave it a little lift, and summoned the effort to nod politely before downing the prescribed measure. Given the consistency of what went over my tongue, I was glad for the moment that my taste buds didn't seem to be working any more diligently than the nerves in my hide.
They all followed suit, but the number of ribbing elbows and smiling asides suggested most of them had expected me to spit the stuff halfway across the room. Cutter just gave me a critical look, nodded, and took a seat at the main table, which seemed to be the cue for everyone else to find a spot of their own. Meanwhile, several molly mules began wheeling in carts piled high with steaming trays. Even through my dulled senses, I could smell meat and onions, and my mouth began to water.
Hard Way poked a hoof in my direction, still smiling. "You rest right there. Our girls will get you fed." He turned to a sizeable dun mare seated to his right, leaning over slightly to plant a kiss on her head. "Isn't that right, my stoföl?"
She laughed and pushed him back. "You dare ask, my big fat oaf?" She slapped his belly with a hoof, smirking. "See if YOU get dessert tonight!" That drew a chuckle from him (which would have qualified as threat display in any other species) and a big laugh from everyone else nearby. Then, giving the serving-molly who'd brought his platter barely enough time to pull her hooves back, he dug his muzzle into the fried fish and potatoes heaped upon it.
Whatever Cutter'd given me settled into my belly with a slow burble. A strong core of warmth developed, slowly expanding outward in tingling tendrils, like the feeling you get when your leg's been asleep and just starts waking up. I didn't know what the hell was in this mess, but I obediently sipped, keeping an eye out for shenanigans. I swear to Luna, I'll pistol-whip the next -
Pink-E floated down to hover by my side, still smiling. "I'm so happy you made it! How are you feeling?"
I took another sip before answering. "I think I should really be angry. But I'm not. You promised him the whole ten thousand?"
She dropped her gaze to the floor. If she'd had hooves, she'd have been scuffing them. "There wasn't time to quibble over the price of a cherry." ...what? When she shook her head, her antennae bobbed from side to side. "I know how much your money means to you! But if I lost you..."
She bit her lower lip, which looked --- actually, damn near pristine. So did the rest of her, hardly a singe or streak. The Vikeans weren't known for having anything to do with robots. Was it even possible they had somepony with that kind of skill hanging around? After a pause to mull that over, I prodded. "...then what?"
Pink-E sighed, her ears drooping forward. "Then I'd have no other reason left to exist."
A tray cart rolled up, pushed by a molly whose only defining feature was a red neckerchief tied primly under the chin. "Lucky you, t'night y'got a choice. We got random fish an' chips, stewed rat with broccoli an' green onions, or radscorpion pie." She looked over her shoulder quickly, then leaned down to whisper conspiratorially in my ear. "We got a new zebra in th' kitchen with some funny idears 'bout that last one. I wouldn't try it if I were you."
I nodded slowly and sipped at my mug. "Haven't had fish in forever. What's random about it?"
She carefully lifted a tray in her teeth and lowered it to the floor beside me, revealing a pile of fried-and-spiced potato wedges covered with filets of varying sizes and colors before letting go. "Never been able t'figger out what kinda fish they're s'posta be. We just kill 'em an' grill 'em. Bon appetit!" Turning, she wheeled the cart about to continue her rounds, a pair of griffins already leaning back in their seats to flag her down.
Whatever kind of fish they were, they were the best I ever had. Part of that might've been half a week of starvation, but the rest was genuine deliciousness. They'd been so expertly filleted that not one bone was left in, then fried up golden-brown in what had to be fresh butter, sage and minced onions. The potatoes had probably been fried in the same pans, and then drizzled with more butter plus... was that jalapeño chopped up in there?
My tastebuds announced their return to full functionality, with a vengeance! In no time, I was doing such a good impression of Hard Way that I only noticed a second tray had been dropped off when I stopped licking the first. I was halfway through that too, before realizing Pink-E had puttered off somewhere.
A quick scan of the room revealed her bobbing and bouncing around another table, this one lower to the floor and snugged against the wall between the kitchen doors. Around it were the camp's children, squealing and shouting happily at the little pink robot's antics. Every so often, one would toss something at her, she would dive at it, and glomp! it was gone. Then she'd say or do something, the table would break up laughing, and something else would be thrown.
Well, at least she's happy. I want a robot to be happy. Maybe that's insane, but what's my life now?
I took my time savoring the rest of my meal and letting it digest. In between bites, I finished off my medicinal brew, which now that I really could taste it made me regret getting that sense back so quickly. Licking mildew off a rotten radhog chop would have been more appetizing. Thankfully, the returning buzz of Pink-E's hover servos gave me something else to focus on.
"Got a few questions for you." She'd recovered well enough that the response, a broad, clean smile, no longer made me worry for her structural integrity.
"Sure, Cherry! Shoot!"
"A file on my PipBuck triggered off of a random radio tune. Did that have anything to do with your snooping around Horse's casino, back in Pegas? When I asked you about it back then, you practically locked up." I was expecting a stonewall job, maybe even a repeat of the access error. But surprisingly, she bobbed her head in the affirmative.
"Yes indeedy, speedy! Only it took a while to figure out, because it was all brrrRRRRRRrrrt and bl-BL-bl-BL-bl-BL-bl and fweeeeeeeeee... just really annoying encryption! I took care of it on my spare cycles this last week, kind of a back-burner project thing. See, the Ministry of Morale has its own encryption standards, and we use a modified version of Robronco termlink for our base code, and the Lucky Chance does the same with its own modifications! So I decompiled both instruction sets, set up a virtual drivespace partition, conducted a bit-to-bit parity analysis, and then -"
"Yeah, yeah," I said, jumping in before she got her steam up, "I get it already! But back in the Royale, you said you weren't programmed for hacking into systems at all. We were all damn near killed because you couldn't." I felt like I should have said that in an angry tone, but the red monster I used to call on so frequently just wasn't in his cave today. Huh.
She slowly looked away, forcing a guilty little laugh. "A-heh... riiiIIIIiight... that was just a little bit of fibbery. The whole casino, almost, ran on a unique operating system! Nothing in my MoM files had anything on anything like it! Plus it was running the management AI for security, which would have triggered really really bad things if I'd tried brute-forcing it." Her expression shifted to an apologetic half-smile. "We just weren't there long enough to reverse-extrapolate what I could pick up on. I tried my best, though! That's why I was so quiet and nervous the whole time we were in there, it ate up like ninety-three percent of my processing functionality!"
I waited. She waited right back at me, once again bobbing and smiling now that the cat was out of the proverbial stewpot. Sighing, I went ahead and asked: "Right. So what else did you get from Horse -"
"Here ya go!" My PipBuck cut loose with a brief squeal of protest-y beeps, earning me a few curious glances while I tried to stifle it against my chest. Almost gingerly, I popped open the "Data" menu and took a look, only to find its "Misc" sub-header was now completely flooded with copied holotape records. From the tiny size of the scroll bar, it had to be several pages long.
I peered up at Pink-E dubiously. "What, did you get his entire library?"
A dismissive shrug. "Nah, didn't have time for that. I just skimmed through the good stuff!"
"Okay, one more thing then... who fixed you up, and what do I owe them?"
Her face lit up with a huge toothy grin. "Everypony and nothing!"
I covered my face with a hoof, groaning. "Imagine, please, that my brain isn't in the mood?"
The grin barely let up. "What I mean is, everypony's been feeding me snacks and scraps, and that's what I use to repair myself! You've seen me eat before, back in Big Rock City? Well, my reactor breaks food down and repurposes it for oils, lipids, chemicals and replacement mass! Bubble gum's my favorite, 'cause the chicle in it works great for facial skin and muscle structure, but Fancy Buck Cakes have so many preservatives it's like a smorgasbord! I think. That's what Vikeans call a buffet, right?"
Sure. My Great-Aunt-Robot-Head-Helper runs on two-hundred-year-old junk food. Because why not. Tomorrow I'd find out that she'd been Mr. Horse's personal brain-bot from the beginning, just because the old bastard wanted to tag along for a little voyeuristic entertainment.
While my own brain processed that tidbit of unlikely engineering, the Vikeans had grown quiet and, I noticed, were looking my way again.
Well, not exactly my way. A pair of identical dark-blue unicorns had taken up positions to either side of the fireplace, tuning up the lutes they held floating in glowing telekinetic fields. The one on the left had a dulcimer for his cutie mark, while his brother's butt sported a pair of drums, those being the only way to tell them apart. Pink-E and I were framed in between and against the fire, which had dulled to a more moderate roar. The duo pushed back their feathered caps and addressed the crowd in perfect chorus.
"Fillies and gentlecolts --- and others..." The old saw drew some quiet chuckling. "Today, Way House's own Sjönhäst earned its name, stealing back a life taken below the waves. Fished from the deeps on Kapten Hard Way's own salvage line, Dead-Shot the Bounty Hunter has become the first pony ever to survive that doom. We would be pleased if you could join us, in telling him a little..."
Both paused to strum a chord, in stereo, for dramatic effect, "...about who we are." The crowd gave a lusty cheer, joining in as the bards launched into their song:
A long time ago, in the Land of Häsverige
Papa Vikea was sending the word
To expand our Equestrian holdings
To a new desert land!
We're not just another Sofas-and-Quills
We're selling things that anypony can build
In good time; not just Unicorns, Earth pony hooves will do fine!
Just some oak and some pine, and a whole lot of bronies
We're providing the goods needed by every pony
Everyone needs a friend
And if you don't have a friend
You can find one here!
Our sails will show on your horizon today
With furniture to help you work, rest or play,
It's a new way of living that's more than barely getting by!
Sleep off hangovers in our Berry Punch Bed
Get snacks from the Donut Joe Cupboard instead,
Or relax on our Lyra Bench
In the sunshine all day!
Just some oak and some pine, and a whole lot of bronies
Our furnishing standards are high, never phony
Everyone needs a friend
And if you don't have a friend
You can find one here!
Vi-ke-a... long-ships, sailing
Vi-ke-a... easy, flat-packed
Vi-ke-a... built by, bronies
All together, we
Are one big family!
The whole hall thundered with to clapping talons and stomping hooves as the unicorns gamboled and danced about, their lutes intertwining over my head in matching magical fields until I wasn't sure which belonged to whom. I couldn't help wondering: just how far would this act get on the Pegas Strip before somepony started throwing grenades?
Just because Mister Horse isn't a fan
Doesn't mean that we will not take a stand
For quality furniture, delivered right to your door!
Our Sales Associates are on the move
Built for endurance, with nothing to prove!
For-ever we shall live, happy here on our shore!
Just some oak and some pine, and a whole lot of bronies
We're honest and fair, 'cause we don't sell baloney
Everyone needs a friend
And if you don't have a friend
You can find one here!
The song ended with a lot of cheering, yelling, and (predictably enough) a couple of good-natured buckfights. Nopony, to my knowledge, had ever accused the Vikeans of being shamelessly self-promotional --- at least, none with concern for belaboring the obvious. And though I knew I'd regret the answer, I had to ask the question:
"What in Tartarus is a 'brony'?"
Hard Way laughed, leaned waaaaaay over, and managed to companionably smack my shoulder without leaving his seat. The impact might've knocked me into the fire, had I been standing up. "Our brethren from other species. A brother-pony, like Gore-Nest over there." He took a moment to point out the griffin just four seats down. "They are all our bronies!" Several ponies seated nearby nodded, grinned at one another, and traded a few shoulder punches.
The aforementioned griffin scowled, folded his forelegs, and pointedly looked away. "I wish you'd stop calling me that." His immediate neighbor, a portly scarlet unicorn, took the opportunity to swipe one of his unguarded potato wedges, setting off a brief scuffle between the two.
Were everyone in this House borderline brawlers by nature, or was it something in the water? I peered dubiously into the dregs of my mug. Maybe I'll just stick to swilling this slop... At least it did what was advertised; I felt thoroughly warm and dry for the first time in --- hell, was it when I left the Celestial Suite? Since then, I'd been through thunderstorms, a stasis pod, the rotting streets and nano-sprite-infested grandeur of the Royale, the sky, and a lake.
My body shuddered, remembering the cold depths all too readily despite the blazing hearth behind me.
"A story!" shouted a yellow-maned filly from the short table. "I wanna hear a story!" The call was taken up with a shout of "Story! Story! STORY!", until Hard Way finally put up his hooves to wave for silence. A respectful quiet descended, broken only by a few indistinct murmurs. The gargantuan stallion rose, him and his braided mane effectively blocking my view of nearly half the room. Between him and God, I'd still put caps on the alicorn... but I wouldn't take long odds.
"Let's hear," he boomed... and then paused, for just a moment, before sitting back down again, "...a SAGA."
If I'd thought they were cheering loudly before, I was wrong. Did the roof just pop off its rafters for a moment, there? The bards, retiring with their instruments to opposite corners of the room, made way for a sharp-eyed elder unicorn. Gray of mane and hide alike, clad in woolen robes and levitating a short wooden stool before her, she perched herself near the fire on my left and proceeded to completely ignore me. This time, the silence that descended was absolute. Her eyes roved across the gathered, quiescent masses, her nostrils snorting with indifference.
Her eyes? I blinked and did a double-take. They weren't just colorless, or white with cataracts... they were crystal, glinting against the firelight like diamonds. As she settled herself, the robes slid to one side, exposing her flank, where rode the bone-white image of an eyeless pony's skull.
Regardless of the blaze behind me and lanterns above, a darkness began to settle across the room. Her horn, flaring with ethereal fire, cast a swirl of stars across the ceiling's new firmament like paint from a magical brush. Her lips barely needed to move to send a strong contralto voice resounding from the walls. Meanwhile, in their corners, the bards strummed soft accompanying melodies with horns glowing mutedly against the backdrop of a faux-evening.
"In ancient days, long before the tribes of Earth, Pegasus and Unicorn joined beneath the Equestrian Banner, there strode Giants across the fields and glaciers of Häsverige. Of these, the greater was Grani, who rose from the depths carrying Sleipnir's ancestry to us all. Weighted with gold and glory, Grani stood taller than any pony ever has, as tall at the shoulder as a minotaur's horn-tips. Before his stride, the snow and ice would crack and part, fearful of his hooves."
From her horn swirled a gem-like, glittering cloud, spreading through the room to paint a towering image.
He --- and I could only tell the gender from our tale-spinner's use of the pronoun --- was barely even recognizable as an equine. His legs were thin and unnaturally long, attached by knobby ankles to the thickest, roughest clod-hoppers I'd ever seen. The face was almost entirely made of nose, a freakish honker ending in huge circular nostrils and bared teeth, far behind which sat bright blue eyes so small you almost couldn't see any whites. His chest and barrel were long, deep, and easily twice the conformation of any normal pony, making the spindly build of the legs seem even more ridiculous. Mane and tail, both unkempt and stringy, straggled against an imaginary wind like tattered flags. On top of which, his unimaginatively gray and shaggy coat bore no sign of a rump-rash.
"Grani" looked like some kind of mutant moron who'd never so much as earned a cutie mark, let alone glory. But his inherent silliness didn't provoke a bit of laughter... instead, the room remained hushed, even awestruck. What the hell did they see in this thing?
If my expression betrayed my thoughts, the vision-addled nag ignored it and kept on with her tale. "In those days, Giants battled one another for the love of their mares, for the ground to graze upon, for shelter against the cold winds of Häsverige. Here then did Grani meet his true love, whose name means Beauteous Burden, whose value to him above all the world's gold led him to carry her from place to place upon his own back, so that she should never be soiled by contact with mundane earth."
The monstrous horse-thing began to trot in place, a complicated movement that must have taken a lot of trial and error to make natural-looking for this little lightshow. That was a lot of craft for such a goofy result, but I managed to keep nibbling at the remnants of my dinner with a look of what I hoped was detached interest. Somewhat more difficult was the effort of keeping my eyes open; hot food, a warm hearth, and medicated drink were already taking a toll.
Another form, less distinct but more pony-like, swirled into shimmering existence to nestle comfortably upon that over-broad back. "Yet his Beauteous Burden, best filly forever, had drawn the jealous eyes of many stallions. They, with no loves of their own and hardness in their hearts, charged one night upon Grani's encampment, seeking to steal his love away for themselves..."
It figured. Right when it was getting good, I nodded off. At least for once, no dreams came to mess with me.
* * * * *
Next morning the sun rose hotter than usual, quickly burning moisture off the lake into a thin, clingy haze of humidity.
I hated it. Instead of evaporating, sweat pooled up under my hair and dripped wherever it happened to feel like it. Rubbing at my mane and face only matted the hair down against the skin, making it worse. I couldn't wait to get on my hooves and head out, even if it meant speeding my way back to poverty again.
Vasstunga, the big dun earth mare from last night, had other ideas.
"Barely up and walking for an hour, and the foal wants to run off into the wastes? Hah! Sit, colt, watch the ships. You can drag my husband to your filthy city tomorrow." She flicked her big black tail in my direction, hefted up a barrel nearly as big as she was and hauled it off to one of the six longships that had been pulled up into dry-dock. Other Vikeans were working jacks, greasing axles, and rolling out the oversized wagon wheels that would let the ships roam the desert sands.
From the buzz among their crews, three clans were collaborating for a lumber raid on Mount Morgan. Pine was easy enough to get, just a jaunt across the lake to the uninhabited forests around the Casino Royale, but the live oak needed for sturdy furniture and even sturdier ships? Morgan was the only place in the entire region high enough off the desert floor to provide a home for the breed. It was also solidly NCR territory, well outside New Pegas proper.
Not that the NCR as a whole really needed Mount Morgan's resources, being that live oaks were fairly common along the interior of the Coltifornia coast, but local military forces preferred the hardwood's solidity anyplace they dug a bunker and shipping it in from over the border took up logistical resources. If that same military hadn't already been spread so thin across the region, they'd have put a serious force on that mountain to secure it. Since they couldn't, the Vikean strategy was simple: assemble every clan in need of timber, sail down the flatlands to Mount Morgan at speed, harry the few NCR Rangers there away from the available deadwood, and get chopping.
This time out, one of the three ships House Way was committing would divert from the usual route to drop me, Pink-E and Hard Way off just outside Nellie Air Force Base. The big Vikean wanted to go directly to New Pegas for his money, but I told him Horse wouldn't let me back into the Lucky Chance to get it --- at least not until I'd finished securing his treaty with the Zoomers, using the Autodoc module that now sat safely in my saddlebags. Sure, it was (probably) a lie, but why show up on Horse's doorstep with the job unfinished? Hard Way would rendezvous with the fleet on its return leg north of Pegas, and everything would finally be "mission accomplished".
But that wouldn't be until tomorrow, and watching Vikeans prep their longships for land use is as boring as it sounds. I'd've taken off anyways, except for two reasons: getting back to Pegas on the hoof would've taken as long as waiting for the boat, and Hard Way's people had my bags locked up as "collateral" in any event. I'd only get them back when we weighed anchor tomorrow.
At least Pink-E seemed to be having fun with House Way's "littles". She was an indefatigable playmate for anything from tag-you're-it to hide-and-seek, which also made her popular with the adults since it kept their spawn out from underhoof while they worked. Not wanting to upset that delicate social balance, I decided to leave her to it and wandered up the shore towards the Showroom.
Yep. Juuust wandering up the shore.
Wandering. Up the shore. About twenty lengths from it, hugging the dotted-line of horseshoe palisades the Vikeans had erected facing the lake. Darting across the gaps between, constantly watching for movement in the waves. Flinching skittishly every time the periphery of my vision caught something... which since it was a shore with tiny but constant little waves lapping at its edge, was nearly every other step.
Every hundred lengths or so I passed an observation tower, made of old telephone poles with platforms braced atop and crewed by pairs of binocular-wielding ponies. One would scan the water, the other the wastes. Surely if they saw a horde of Lakepony mutants, surging in towards the shore, they'd send up the alarm... right? Of course they would. And my guns were in my saddlebags.
They're not out there. Don't look. Keep moving. Don't look. They're not coming for you. Don't look. You're safe now. Don't look...
I was sorely tempted to move a bit further inland, into the bustling little town the Vikeans had built for themselves along the road leading from the docks to the Showroom. Each clan's House, with its surrounding cluster of workshops and pre-fab shacks, was lined up with the set of palisades and lookout stations they were responsible for. I could hide from the Lakeponies that I knew had to be watching...
...but then, I wouldn't be able to see them com- that is, trying to get me...
By the time my hooves touched broken asphalt, I was shaking uncontrollably. My vision was blurring with hot, burning tears. Breathing came in rapid-fire bursts. I put one more hoof forward, another... another? No. My nerves were shot. It was all I could do to remain upright. I was all alone out here, caught without cover between the shore and the huge, blue-speckled box of corrugated metal beyond the parking lot. The old marina, too shallow for modern longships and thus left to rot, could be hiding dozens of greedy, needly grins amid the broken pilings. The lookouts at this end of the road would probably never seem them - approaching...
If they came to drag me back, I'd - DON'T THINK ABOUT IT!
The word clawed its way up my trachea. "Don't - !" My lungs were in overdrive, but I couldn't get enough air.
Don't think about it, don't look at me, don't touch me, leave me alone!
Something inside pulled my resolve apart, like so much wet newspaper pressed against an already-broken dike. I collapsed in a shameful, spineless pile, bawling like a colt. My hooves pawed at the ruined pavement. I wanted to dig myself a hole to hide from the world, ashamed at the torrents of blinding wet heat bursting from behind my eyes.
Why did they do that to me? Why am I thinking about it?! Stop it! STOP! Demanding, begging, pleading with myself to stop crying. Just stop! You can't see them if you can't clear your eyes! You can't run if you can't stand up!
My heart and soul told my brain to go fuck off and die already, then went back to their ongoing project of trying to resolve my flesh into a dew of salty tears.
I'd had three days to endure, but only one so far to recover. From exhaustion, to unwelcome distractions, to sleep visions, to welcome distractions, to sleep without visions... no, no wait. Now I remembered: my dreams had been full of wakeless horrors. Maybe I'd been too drugged to hurt myself thrashing around, but I'd dreamed plenty, all right, only to immediately block it out on waking. Afterward, I'd been blocking all day without even thinking about it.
Seeing the water reminded me. So now that I was thinking about it, I couldn't stop... not the gnawing fear, not the futile anger, not the burning shame of... of being reduced to a breeding tool for a fucking fish...
Oh yeah. "Fucking fish". From hysterical weeping, to hysterical laughing, in twelve seconds flat.
That was the capstone joke to my life, wasn't it? I hadn't really had any control over what I did, or where I was going since meeting Pink-E, or maybe the day I took the contract to chase after Benny. I was Horse's tool, No-Pony's psychic sounding board, the Zoomers' errand-colt, the Lakeponies' sperm donor, and now a Vikean's bank account! Tomorrow I might be abducted and probed by space monkeys!
I clutched my belly, sore from sobbing and laughing, rolled onto my barrel, attempted to get up. Failed. Ended up back on the ground, rubbing a hoof across my snot-choked nose. Plugged one nostril, blew out hard, sent a golf-ball-sized hunk of goo sailing. It landed, with a disgusting spat, half a length away.
At least now I felt a little better, the worst of the fit having passed. I hurked and snorted 'til my nose was finally clear, took a few deep breaths, and finally got myself under control --- just in time to get a hoof in the flank.
"Get up, boy. You're making a spectacle of yourself."
Turning my head revealed a stolid, humorless, middle-aged sonovabitch of a unicorn, with a blue-grey coat and white mane that could've taken their cues for hues from the lake's waters, and whose flank-flash consisted of crossed anchors bound with lock and chain. He wore a bright blue blazer with white trim and a black flat-topped cap, the brim of which was pierced by the tip of his horn. The cap's permanent downward angle mostly obscured a pair of brown eyes deep-set into a weathered face.
Eyes that, thankfully, didn't deign to dwell on my embarrassment. Instead, he yanked me up by the mane and pushed me towards the Showroom, ignoring my squawks and protests the whole way. It seemed I was going to get the Grand Tour, whether I wanted it or not. Well, that or turn around and hoof it back to the docks by myself... and anyways, I'd been curious about the place to begin with.
"Heard what happened. Nice to see a buck survive the sea-cunts, even if it's going to make Kapten Way and his bunch more insufferable than ever. Which reminds me: you can do me the favor of telling the fat bastard that if he doesn't like my Edda's Falukorv, he doesn't have to eat it."
So this would be Port Master Woebegone, then. I do pay attention, from time to time.
I tried not to look up as we passed under the daunting steel framework of the Showroom's awning. It was covered with patches of old yellow paint, one of which a tired-looking pony was dangling from a line to scrub at, wire brushes strapped to his forehooves and a bucket of turpentine hanging nearby. Further down, another pony applied swaths of fresh yellow paint with an old broom. The scene repeated at various places around the Showroom, only with bright blue being applied to the formerly-rusty exterior instead.
You saw a lot of things, roaming around the Moohave Wasteland, but raiders performing building maintenance was not usually one of them. Maybe eventually they'd get past the "giant speckled monster-egg" look.
What had once been sliding-glass doors were now huge iron-banded slabs of oak, guarded by a pair of adolescent green dragons in grey armor that gave Woebegone a run for his money in the humorless department. They pulled the doors apart with a greeting so formal, it bordered on monastic chanting.
"Welcome to Vikea Home Supplies and Furnishings. We hope that you find all that you seek. Enjoy your stay."
Woebegone stepped past. When I didn't immediately follow, he stopped and turned to look at me. "Come on, boy. Might's well show you around the place since you're here. I need to check up on these layabout louts in any case."
I stood outside, fixing him with a scowl. "The name's Dead-Shot. I'm not one of your 'boys'."
He turned, spat on the floor, and returned my scowl twice over. "Well ya look like a damn cherry pie, to me. Stay out or get a hoof on, I've got work to do either way." That seemed as good a cue as any to the dragons, who let go the doors. Stung by the comment from left field, I snorted with irritation and trotted quickly through, before they could shut with a solid THUNK.
* * * * *
An hour later we were still --- slowly --- navigating the yawning labyrinth of the main floor. In fact, just about the entire Showroom was main floor, with a few offices and storage areas snugged up against the walls. There was only a small strip, right up front, actually serving as show-room for the best examples of Vikean hoofiwork.
The rest was sectioned into a complex assembly-line system, starting with a small log mill out behind the old wagon-loading docks. Processed lumber and scavenged goods were hauled into the bay, sorted, stacked, and retrieved as needed. Each line served one type of furnishing or job, of which there were dozens, all having their own peculiar space requirements. Mostly, the Showroom was just a giant jigsaw of plywood partitions and laboring slaves.
Funny thing was, there weren't any other guards, and only a few overseers with nothing heavier than a cudgel strapped on. The slaves had all manner of tools, from hoof-held drills to sledgehammers. What was keeping them from just killing everyone and high-tailing it out of here?
Woebegone knew exactly where he was going, threading through one area after another to find whomever was in charge of a given product or project. They'd politely trade info on events, problems and figures, then go their separate ways.
"My job in all this," he said, after receiving a particularly rousing dissertation on the progress of sawdust packing, "isn't to take charge of anyone or direct anything. I'm just the All-Seeing Eye no one wants to draw the attention of."
I arched one brow in his direction as we continued on. "And why's that?"
He grinned maliciously. "Because their House's ships might find the harbor closed, next time they put in for trade or repairs." I followed him into the next section, where teams of slaves worked with planing tools to smooth down planks and beams of raw pine. The air reeked of shavings. "I was born, raised and trained to levitate that old anchor-chain up and lock it down on every mooring, south-to-north, across our little cove. It's the only magic I do, but when I do, no vessel lands at or leaves Häsverige."
Something about that didn't seem right. "Why can't they just go overland? Vikean walls don't have gates?"
"Oh, we've got one gate through the landside defenses," he said with a smirk. "The Woebegone family's also known as the Gate-House." His gait picked up a noticeable boost of pride. "We were the first Vikeans who gave a thought for defending our holdings. Set up a keep, so we could pick off anyone from a mile or more away. Solid rock-block construction using basalt from Big Rock City's quarries. When the walls started going up, we built a second tower and put a portcullis between 'em. They're also our home, so we're always ready and willing to defend it on short notice."
The old unicorn chuckled. "Short of old-world field artillery or a tank, that gate's going to stand."
We turned a corner down a long corridor of open arches, Woebegone glancing through each as we passed. So did I; these seemed to be workrooms for generic tasks like making dowel rods, nails, screws or glue. Each was stacked with scavenged junk, filled with workbenches, and packed with curiously-industrious slave ponies.
"So... any time there's a minor infraction or quota missed, a whole crew gets kicked to the wilds?" That seemed like major overkill, and it didn't take a moment for the port-master to correct me.
"Of course not," he snorted. "Don't be a foal. It only sticks until the House at fault makes things right. Most times, I just have to remind them I will do it. Permanent exile's only for when nothing can make it right. Over the last two centuries that's only happened twice, both times for poor customer service."
I blinked. "That... seems like something really easy to fix." Somewhere far back in his throat, Woebegone chuckled again, this time rather more darkly.
"That's our euphemism for out-and-out raiding, youngling. Murder, pillage, failing to pitch the Woona Daybed while doing it. Still a popular seller, that one." He turned his head with a wink. "That second-to-last part was a joke."
My return gaze was flat. "No offense meant, but I don't think many of the folks working this floor would call slavery funny."
He shrugged, shaking out his mane as though shooing a fly. "Not going to call a spade a flower, boy. We don't take anypony that isn't delinquent on payment for goods delivered. If you know anything about us, you know that already."
"Everypony who knows anything about Vikeans worries that you'll burn their damn huts down, usually in the middle of trying to win their hearts and minds." I felt a familiar heat start building behind my eyes. "Mind you, I've tolerated working with slavers before. But my dad would've just as soon shot a Vikean on general principles, as buy a desk from one."
He stopped and, surprisingly, turned a warm smile on me. "Can't say as I would have blamed him. Principles are a necessity, for a lot of folks." An earflick, and he was walking again. "But most find that principles aren't quite as necessary as food, medicine... anything else they need to survive."
I followed him through another, wider arch, into a long room packed with row on row of free-standing shelves. Each held a meager assortment of boxed, canned or jarred food, which he carefully examined and tallied with critical eyes. "Nothing much grows around here. So when fish are in short supply --- and that's more often than not, what with competition from the Lake Ponies --- you have a lot of big, burly ponies, griffons, mules and dragons who want to go get food from someone else."
His horn glowed, wrapping a box of Fancy Buck Cakes and lifting it for closer examination. "Most Moohave farmers are little better off than subsistence level to begin with, and Horse's city folk hoard everything for themselves, so by the time New Coltifornia put in their appearance, we were already known for --- well, let's look at that spade now: extortionists." With a grunt of disgust, he tossed the box to the floor and moved along; a slave quickly scooped it up and tossed it into a wheeled garbage bin.
Our hoofsteps clopped side-by-side down the aisle. "We'd rather sell legitimately. Trading furniture at the NCR's Hub would bring in enough business to make the hard-sell unnecessary, but there's no way to approach any of the big merchant groups without getting shot at."
My PipBuck suddenly pinged. It'd done that a few times before, but I'd ignored it. This time, I had nothing better to do --- unless I wanted to keep listening to a doddering old coot rattle off the story of his people.
NEW QUEST: RAGIN' TRADIN' - Find an economic partner for the Vikeans.
Really? Like I don't have a checklist of crap to do already staring me in the face? And what would I get out of it anyway?
The PipBuck's "Quest" section had actually piled up a lot of junk, most of which was blacked out, but all I really cared about was finding a setting to turn that stupid pinging off. Naturally, it didn't have one. Huffing at the brim of my hat with annoyance, I trotted to catch up with the aforementioned coot.
"The only thing keeping us from burning half the Moohave," he was saying, "is our work ethic."
"Which is why you need slaves."
A flick of the tail was the only cue that I was getting under his skin. "Labor Associates. They work off their debt, they're free to go. We even give them a free ride anywhere one of our longships is going, when they're paid up, so they don't get killed or murdered trying to get home."
He nodded towards a passing earth pony mare, lankier than most I'd seen, with a blue coat under work clothes matted with sweat. She stopped obediently, turning to face us and taking a moment to shift her oversized packs, her straw-colored mane dripping moisture on the floor. "Hilly, you've been here five years now. You've been paid up for four. Why're you still here?"
She grinned. "Toldja before, Portmaster: it beats hell outta goin' back t'what's left o' Mustangia! Only so many balefire tornadies a gal c'n take, b'fore humpin' junk food all day starts soundin' like a pretty sweet deal. Besides," she continued with a wink and hoof-scuff, "once I figger out how t'swim, I've got three Houses that wanna sign me onta one o' their ships!"
I gave Woebegone the squinteye and a snort of derision. "Oh come on, I can tell a ringer when - "
Suddenly Hilly had her teeth bared and up in my face. Backpedaling worked, for all of two seconds, before a plywood partition stopped my retreat cold. She shouldered right up to me with a hard glare. "RINGER?! I'mma free mare, ya little so-an'-so! Y'wanna call me a liar, you jus' say th' word anytime an' we'll settle this mustang-style!" I couldn't help but notice that she had fiery azure eyes, they were very angry, and they were also uncomfortably close to mine. So were those teeth I mentioned.
Personal space! Personal space!
Woebegone put a hoof in between us. "He was calling me a liar, Hilly Half-Acre. And I don't blame him for being skeptical. Please don't be rude about it on my behalf."
She snorted, tossed her head, and backed up a few paces. "Well... if'n ya say so, Portmaster. Your pride, your hide, an' all that." The mustang mare looked over her shoulder. "I've still got t'day's quota t'hit. C'n I go now?" At his nod, she trotted away to an empty shelf and began stocking it from her bags.
Woebegone watched her work for a moment. "You're half-right about her," he murmured. "She is an unusual case. Most leave as soon as they're paid up, and some figure we have a better life here than they had back home. Most Labor Associates, if they stay, are hoping to be picked as a Sailor for one longship or another. If they make it, they're adopted into that ship's House. Once they've proven themselves as Sailors, they can apply to become a full-fledged Vikean Sales Associate. Whoever gets thrown off the ship last, gets the nod."
Well, I had to admit I'd rarely seen a more effective threat display. Then again, I'd rarely seen anypony who'd survived Mustangia's irradiated windblown steppes, much less claimed to hail from there. If she could learn to swim, she might be dangerous after all.
"Of course," he added idly, "there's always the Honey Raid. Nopony takes anypony very seriously around here until they've stolen a bagful from the hives infesting the northern shore. Sort of our unofficial rite of adulthood. Helps keep their numbers down, too."
I stopped in my tracks, staring at him. "Stealing? From paradore hives? As opposed to, say, 'wiping out and taking after they're all safely dead'?"
When he turned, his face carried a chain-yanking smile with it. "But then, who would make honey for our mead?"
Initial Impression Confirmed: everypony in this town is CRAZY.
Footnote: Level Up.
BONUS PERK: Mental Block - three days in a Lake Pony's garden made learning this a necessity of life. When still and silent, you gain +2 PER and +1 INT, as well as +5% to all checks.