>> LOADING... LOADING... LOADING...
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Derp Money”
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Honest Hooves”
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Celestine Blues”
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Sunshine Road”
>>> MODIFICATIONS DETECTED: Alternate_Start.esp, Puce_Goose_Modpack.esp, Mister_Horse_MNS.esp
>>> REMINDER: ROBRONCO, INC., makes no guarantee nor accepts any liability regarding experiences which may occur due to modifications of equipment or software from their factory settings. Such modifications may cause systemic shifts which are beyond ROBRONCO's initiation or control; all risks involved in their installation or use are strictly those of the end user. Your ROBRONCO Reclining TemporoKinesis Memory Pod's Smiling Service Warranty(tm) provides no coverage for damage or circumstances arising from such modifications.
>>> ACCEPT? (y/n)
>>> INITIAL BUILD (Database Preset: DEAD-SHOT)
Level 1 Earth Pony Stallion (+1 Strength/Endurance, Free Tag: Repair, Restricted Perk Tree)
Tags: Guns, (Repair), Sneak, Unarmed
Traits: Trigger Discipline, Kamikaze
>>> ACCEPT? (y/n)
>>> LOCKDOWN ACTIVATED
>>> SAFETY PROTOCOLS DEACTIVATED
>>> SENSORIUM ACTIVATED
>>> STAND BY... STAND BY... STAND BY...
* * * * *
CHAPTER ONE: ...Like a Hole in the Head
"Your mileage may vary."
I was always pretty small, especially for an Earth Pony.
But I could take a beating, and often did in my early days, largely because I was relatively tiny. It soured me on people, for the most part: ponies, griffons, buffalo, mules, ghouls and anything else that promised to be a hassle. That being essentially anypony in the Great Western Wasteland.
It also made me pretty mean. Whenever my dad and I arrived in a new town with our caravan, the local bullies would start picking fights. I developed a habit of automatically looking for weak points on anypony I met, just in case. And when I inevitably lashed out at a given tormentor, my focus was on disabling them first and then causing the maximum amount of pain possible before I went down or was pulled off. My name would get around, and I’d be left alone... until the next new town and the next set of stupid bullies.
My dad didn’t much mind when I started in with guns early --- the rifle didn’t cost a mercenary’s fee, and as the years went by I made it pay for itself many times over. I hated that our constant moving around resulted in a never-ending routine of bully-culling, which I took out on raiders (with the rifle) and Dad (with my ever-sharpening vocabulary).
I wanted him dead. Especially after a particularly nasty argument, when he said I was adopted from junkies who’d initially wanted to sell me to him as meat --- for just enough bottle caps to swing a couple hits of Scorpio. I don’t remember what enraged me most: that he wasn’t my real father, that my real parents were such shitheads, or that I’d been worth nothing more to them on the bargaining block than some Luna-damned tribal snort.
Or rather, I’d thought I wanted him dead. That was our last argument. We couldn’t have another because, not long after I stomped out of the camp in a rage, one of the better-armed groups of local raiders hit. I came back from three hours of galloping through canyons and dry washes, with only my rifle and ammo for company, to find Dad riddled with small-caliber holes. What was left of our meager worldly wealth burned in sullen little piles on blood-soaked dirt.
I’d also thought I’d been angry before. So I was wrong twice that night... big-time. And I was immediate in exacting my revenge... big-time. It took little effort to follow the tracks of the bullies, less to spot their weak points, and none at all to turn every single one of them into cranially-impacted corpses before I even had to reload. I wasted not a single motion and missed not a single shot. And when it was over...
...the tears I expected to flood forth never came. I just methodically looted their corpses for anything I could sell, left the rest for the desert bugs, and walked into town the next morning wearing Dad’s bloody shot-to-hell barding. That’s when someone noticed my “cutie mark” had appeared: a stylized pony skull with a bullet streaking through it. “Cute”, my rosy pink flank --- as far as I was concerned, it’s a butt tattoo in poor taste. It’s also why folks started calling me “Dead-Shot”... my birth name? That’s in the past, and none of your damn business besides.
That didn’t stop Stiff Lip Security from offering me a job from the moment they laid eyes on me. I still think their slogan was stupid (“A Working Stiff Means You Get No Lip”), but it was work. And it meant I didn’t have to listen to another damn brahmin complaining about the load, or remember the pleasantries and jokes Dad would have spewed off to make it happy. Plus: I got paid to kill people who deserved killing... in somepony’s book.
I used to think that was all I needed to care about.
* * * * *
I stared at the dour brown pony behind the counter of Slimm’s Pony Express Office. “That’s... one helluva lotta caps.” He folded his forelegs over one another and snorted, dialing his expression from “bored” all the way up to “laconic”.
“Yep. Ya want the job or not, kid?” He slowly tapped a hoof against the signature line on the contract. “Reason I’m askin’ is you and your dad’ve done the Express a square before. This time it’s kinda personal... so I wouldn’t mind chippin’ in a bit if it helps make up your mind. Might also be a quick way to get known around these parts.” I read it over again:
Professional needed for corrective action. Property belonging to Mr. Edwin R. Horse has been purloined by parties unknown. The discovery and termination of these persons will obtain the payment of 500 caps, while the return of the aforementioned property (consisting of one  metal Poker Chip) will obtain a bonus of 5000 caps due to deeply sentimental considerations.
“Five thousand caps. For a poker chip. What, is his mom’s soul stuck in there?” The oldster, who went by the unlikely nom de plume of Nash Rambler, just shrugged and looked at me with eyes the same color as his washed-out hide.
“Not my business. But I got sixty caps right here, right now, what’d like some payback for the courier that originally took this run. I liked that colt. Told ‘im he shouldn’t’ve tried headin’ for New Pegas by way’ve Goodsprings --- too many damn badponies and nasty critters up that way. But folks around there might’ve seen who got ‘im.”
Loads of money, a bit of it up front, with a good payoff even if I never laid eyes on this overpriced chip, and an easy starting lead thrown in. I signed, pocketed the caps, and headed out for a couple hours’ light hiking along a cracked highway to the peaceful little agricultural community of Goodsprings.
I should have known better... I should have Luna-damned-well known better...
* * * * *
It was no secret, at least not to anypony in earshot of a radio over the last couple weeks, that the New Coltifornia Republic’s pet railway project had gone sour. They’d shipped a few hundred prisoners out to clear the old lines of rusted-out stock and lay new rail, which took a lot of blasting to do --- so of course at the first opportunity, the prisoners rushed the dynamite stores and took control of the NCR’s fancy new prison. Gangs of escaped convicts were galloping roughshod all over the area, so when I spotted what looked like a camp of them up ahead at the turnoff to Goodsprings, I thought I was being smart by cutting through some rocky foothills to avoid them.
I wasn’t just wrong. I was irritatingly wrong.
The first clue I had that the day was going to be annoying was a punk colt running up with panic in his eyes, begging me to save his fillyfriend. Supposedly she was trapped by a pack of geckos further up in the hills. Normally I wouldn’t give a crap about that, but gecko skins were worth a fair piece and the meat was good eating... and don’t look at me like that. Travel around the wastes long enough and you’ll find yourself licking the inside of a rusty tin can at some point. Only those with the wealth to keep themselves in fresh greens manage to stay vegetarians.
So I went up into the rocks, low and slow, with my (t)rusty old hunting rifle clenched between my teeth. No hurry at all... the kid’s filly was probably dead already, and it’s not like he was paying me anyways. I saw my first gecko, a green little bastard sniffing around a roc flower. Somepony supposedly named the thing after the healing powers of an ancient legendary bird, but the poet in me knew better than to interrupt when I was squinting to line up my rifle's well-tuned set of iron sights.
...oh, you didn’t notice? Yeah, I’m an earth pony. Unicorns have it easy when it comes to gunplay; pop a telekinesis spell and you can sling around a gun like you had tentacles or something. Earth ponies have to make do with what Celestia gave us --- good strong teeth to grip with and tongues strong enough to pull triggers all the livelong day. But aside from battle saddles, nopony had yet invented a gun you could hold in your mouth upright.
It wasn’t like you could just saw off most of the stock and carve the rest to fit your mouth, either. Somepony tried that, and found that they couldn’t see the back sights at that point because their nose was in the way. Elevating the sights or mounting an offset scope would give you parallax issues out the ass, and raising the barrel itself made trigger assemblies a nightmare to rework properly, since it had to extend to where your tongue could reach. And all of this made recoil a complete bitch and a half. Totally useless, and so extensive a set of modifications that you might as well just make your own battle saddle or turret helmet anyways.
I couldn’t afford a battle saddle, and I hated turret helmets because they look stupid and provide no protection from the sun. So I did my gunnery the old-fashioned way: squinting down the sights with my left eye. Wait for a good sight picture, squeeze, and POP goes the gecko. Like any good hunter, I didn’t take the time to stop and skin it just then. I quickly tied its tail to my saddlebag and kept moving.
They got thicker as I crept along, pockets of two and three scrabbling around in the weeds that hugged the rock formations. I would set up at range behind a cluster of boulders, slowly raise up to sight in on the closest, and POP. Duck down. Peek out. POP. POP. Six, seven, eight... I still hadn’t seen any sign of the missing filly. But I was making good progress in a short time, so I didn’t care.
I reached the end of the little box canyon I’d been wending through before an hour had passed, a dozen dead geckos weighing me down and... were those snaptraps? Big rusty iron teeth, stretched open with a pressure plate in the middle, three of them arranged on the side of an upwards-sloping rock. They could take a pony’s leg off if he wasn’t careful, but I was exactly that... a few simple sticks cadged from the brush plus some prodding cleared the way up.
SNAP. SNAP. SNAP.
Somepony’d made a little camp here atop a bluff. Pretty cozy too, all things considered: a mattress only starting to lose the fight with mold, a stump chair with a side table, even an old fridge they’d managed to ponyhandle up the slope. A quick look over the side of the bluff told what had happened to the camper himself, now just a pile of bones wearing a few scraps of armor. I mentally noted the location in hopes I could scout back around and...
...crackle went the weeds near the bottom of the rock slope. “Thanks for clearing out all those geckos. Now I -”
He might as well have been a Coltifornia train on a schedule. I didn’t care what the colt with the nonexistent fillyfriend wanted to say as I turned and sighted his head in at nearly point-blank range. Startled that I hadn’t let him finish his monologue, he almost dropped the dinky little pistol --- one problem of trying to talk with your mouth full.
* * * * *
After that bit of unpleasantness, I thought I’d get in a bit of bathtime at Goodsprings’ renowned clean-water sources --- the raison d’etre for its name. But small gecko packs had staked each of them out with frustrating tenacity. I was so weighed down with their little bodies, by the time I stopped shooting their little noggins, that I just figured to hell with it, refilled my water bottles, and sweatily lumbered the rest of the way into town.
Goodsprings had at least three things going for it: a genuine doctor, a decent saloon, and a general store with a good selection. Not being the kind of stallion with any real skill in skinning or butchering meat, I sold the buck behind the counter the entire mess of geckos on the cheap. I didn’t even need the meat right now, given the relative bounty of canned and boxed goods I’d found in the blufftop fridge. Too bad the barding I’d recovered from the bodies of the camper and the colt wasn’t good for much other than patching up my own old kit... but their battered sidearms still fetched a fair number of caps.
With moneypouch a-jingle I headed into the Prospector Saloon, looking for info from the locals and something to loosen the trail dust caking the back of my throat. But as it turned out, somepony was already there doing the former.
“--- Listen up, you stupid old nag. We know you’re hiding Rango around somewhere. You can turn ‘im over nice and quiet, or I can come back with my friends and rip this town apart until we find ‘im. Your call.”
The speaker was a wiry-looking roan stallion wearing black barding marked “NCRCF” --- ah, yes. This’d be one of the “Mite-y Gang”, so-called because they still had large stores of the dynamite they’d seized and used it profligately. I’m sure somepony, somewhere, thought it was an awe-inspiring moniker.
The middle-aged mare he was speaking to scowled at him, said a few sharp words, and he left with one of those standard parting snarks that’s never really worth remembering. I don’t even recall if he slammed the door, not that I would have cared if he had. The mare, a pastel green with dark blond mane and a cash-register cutie mark, gave me a look just a notch more polite than she’d been giving the outlaw. “What’ll it be, Mister...?”
She cocked her head at me. “That’s your name, or your order?”
I scowled back. “Both. First part name, last part order.” She frowned, which actually softened her look, and trotted briskly behind the bar to tip the proper bottle into a clean(!) shotglass.
“Just being sociable, Mr. Shot. Don’t hurt nopony to be friendly now and again.” I forced a more pleasant mien and a lighter tone for the sake of not offending her overmuch.
“Sometimes it does, Miss...?” That brought her up to the level of a smile.
“True Delight, but everyone calls me Trudy. Welcome to Goodsprings.”
I nodded. “It’s a nice town you folks have here, Miss Trudy. But I have to admit I’m here on business, following up on a murdered Pony Express courier...” Now her scowl returned, though it clearly wasn’t meant for me.
“Horrible business. Personally I thought he was just here to pick up the weekly parcels from the box out in front of Chip’s store, but that night he was dug out of a shallow grave up on Cemetery Hill. Funny thing, how it was that weird robot that helped him, but Doc Hitchup wasn’t able to save the poor fellow. He’s been broken up about that ever since... very proud of his work, you know.”
“A robot dug him up?” My brahminshit detector was up and waving a red flag in the form of my arching left eyebrow. Robots didn’t go out of their way to help anyone unless they were programmed to. But True Delight nodded firmly.
“That thing rolled into town about ten years ago or so, all smiley cowpoke face and idle banter, but aside from wandering here and there it’s done nothing useful. Until that night. I just don’t buy its happy-go-lucky act.” I found myself nodding agreement, but I still made the mental note that the ‘bot was essentially a witness. If it was programmed to be garrulous, all the better.
I downed my shot, swallowed hard on the burn, and tipped my broad-brim hat politely enough to Miss Trudy as I took my leave.
* * * * *
The robot identified itself as VIC-20. Something about that sounded familiar, but I just shrugged at the stylized image of a cowpony grinning stupidly at me from its big-screen-TV face. I didn’t get much useful information from it that I didn’t already have, either. It hadn’t seen the courier’s killers, it knew nothing about what the courier had been carrying, and other than being “pleased as pie” to see me, just pointed me to the same Doc Hitchup that I’d been planning to visit next anyways. I told the ‘bot to get out of my way and moved along... but something about the exchange didn’t sit well with me.
Everyone knew these particular type of ‘bots --- one fat wheel, two long arms with gripper claws, dark blue chassis and all --- were normally only found on the Pegas Strip, under the direct (although remote) control of the Strip’s biggest power-player, Mr. Horse. No one had ever met the stud in person, but his Victory-class Integrated Computrons were positively ubiquitous... on the Strip. Not way out here in the sticks, most of the way to the New Coltifornia border.
A robot like this, out here, acting in any fashion other than malfunctioning, smacked of deliberate action. And this particular ‘bot had gone straight after Mr. Horse’s courier.
I couldn’t see any reason it would do that, except to try and retrieve that expensive little trinket. It sure didn’t have the guns or armor, let alone the smarts, to take down a whole gang by itself. So I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that saving the courier’s life had been way, way down on the bottom of its assigned “to-do” list.
As I trotted up the little hillock where sat the surprisingly well-maintained ranch house which also served as Doctor Hitchup’s office --- complete with the unnecessary pomp of a proudly-waving Neighvada State flag --- I put those thoughts behind me. I needed to see a doctor about a pony.
* * * * *
Old Doc Hitchup was interesting for a number of reasons. The first was that he was starkers bald up top. He had a greyed-out tail, but not a scrap of mane, which was a little bit disconcerting. This was only accentuated by the long unicorn horn sticking out of his forehead.
“Y’know, son, you can stop starin’ anytime now.” I hadn’t realized I had been, but managed to keep a straight face.
“Sorry about that. I’m here about that courier you worked on.” His dark bay expression went darker for a moment, and then drew down into a sad sort of semi-introspection.
“Couldn’t save ‘im. Thought I could --- I’m real proud of my precision with scalpel and sutures.” His rump rash testified to that much: a golden medical cross with a surgeon’s mask draped across its center. “But the bullet shattered and pieces went all over... even if I’d gotten all the bits out, he’d’ve been vegetative.” I nodded along as though I cared; I needed more.
“Did you get a look at whoever shot him?” He shook his wrinkled head.
“Nope. But word around town is that it was a pack of Cossacks down from Red Rock Canyon, with a city type in a checkered suit in charge. They tried to stiff Trudy on her service, she gave ‘em an earful over it, and they smashed up her radio as payback on their way outta town. For some reason, they moved on south towards Slimm... if you’d been here a few days ago, you’d probably’ve passed them on the road, if you came from that way.”
Nice. If I’d known the right questions to ask Miss Trudy, I could’ve been back on the road to payday that much quicker. But I stifled my impatience and bobbed my head in polite farewell, if for no other reason than you never piss off a doctor if you can help it. Someday you might be under that pony’s knife. “Okay, well, thanks for your time ---”
Doc stopped me with an outstretched hoof. “Wait a moment there, son.” His horn glowed with a soft beige aura, pulling a battered saddle bag off of a nearby shelf. “This was what that courier was carryin’. If you’re after the fellas what killed ‘im, might’s well be you as anypony what takes his gear. You can pass it on to his next of kin, should ya run across ‘em...”
I’m positive I blinked, assuming my jaw didn’t actually drop as well. This was --- well, really unusual generosity, from anypony. Even though the missing poker chip turned out not to be in the hodgepodge of junk and equipment, at least he’d've made some caps selling the mess off at the general store --- oh. It was then I saw the PipBuck, as he levitated it out of his own saddle bag. If he was a former Stable dweller, then he’d likely be one of those sappy types who --- wait, why wasn’t HE wearing it?
“This might also help in your travels. Celestia knows I don’t need it anymore... and maybe if it helps you track these bastards down, it might make up a bit for my losin’ that poor colt.” I found myself stifling a snicker at the sheer - OW! He’d taken out a set of tools and clamped the thing onto my left foreleg, and it had pricked me. A series of tiny needles, unseen, buried themselves in my leg as the device booted up.
I gave the old pony a dirty look and growled, “I didn’t say I wanted this thing before you plugged it into me -” He waved away my concern with a diffident hoof. “You’ll hardly notice it by the end of the day. But by then, you’ll find it absolutely indispensable as well. Let me show you how it actually works...”
* * * * *
Wow. Just... wow.
There seemed no end to the amazing things this "PipBuck" could do. I'd once seen one of those legendary "all-in-one hoofpicks", you know, the kind that also has folded into it a little knife and spoon? Embedded compass and such? Oh, this thing beat that little trinket all hollow.
From what I understood of what Doc Hitchup told me, its needle-pricks linked the gadget up with my body's nervous system, an extensive array of spells providing everything from targeting assistance to inventory management, triggered by thought impulses. It even gave price estimates for anything you picked up --- something about a "global spirit gestalt" the spell tapped into, in order to get a baseline relative to what people in general actually cared to buy and then adjusting downward to the lowest common denominator, or some such malarkey. I admit I began to fuzz out while the Doc was trying to explain how all these functions worked. What was important was that they did... and how!
So I found myself wandering around Goodsprings, testing my "gently pre-owned" PipBuck. Red compass blip? There goes a wandering scorpion, off in the blue distance. Touch a button, up comes a detailed little map in glowing green hues. As I neared a local tribute to fallen heroes and heroines of the War, its medical-cross-on-star motif sending long shadows eastward, a little icon popped up marking it as "Yank Zeeb Memorial"... which made no sense to me at all. Centuries of windblown sand had made its explanatory plaque virtually illegible, though the leeward side still showed many actual names in stark basalt relief as though they'd been carved there yesterday.
Interesting, but not important. I circled back towards town and up the road to the cemetery; inspecting the murder site was definitely on my agenda (which now actually appeared on its own list, under "Quests"... huh). Another red dot skittered across my "Eyes-Forward Sparkle", as Doc called it. Looking up, I spotted another scorpion, one of the smaller types with the nastier poison. Hey, no time like the present to try out S.A.T.S. --- the PipBuck's Spell-Assisted Targeting System.
Hm. I was pretty sure that I could one-shot that critter on my own from this range, even though I hadn't taken any time to familiarize myself with the dead courier's hard-weathered 10mm pistol. But I went ahead and loaded up a shot in the program, let go, and... felt the spell actually take control of my neck, head and tongue. Before I could blink, PAM went the pistol, its spring-loaded slide releasing the expended shell and rebounding forward to automatically chamber the next round.
Miss. The shot spacked off the hard road dirt, doing nothing other than alerting the arachnid to my presence. It immediately turned, clacking its claws angrily, and charged with its poisonous barb held high enough to sting me in the chest --- if I let it. I brought S.A.T.S. up again and... oh, I hadn't noticed you could queue up multiple attacks. To different body parts, too! And it gave estimated percentage odds to hit each spot on top of all that.
Just to see what would happen, I placed three shots into the program, one each for the left and right set of legs plus the tail, and cut it loose. This time I relaxed, letting the spell do its work, and two of the bullets struck home, crippling the bug's legs to either side.
Now it struggled to reach me, wriggling forward on its belly and claws, hatefully stabbing at the air in a paroxysm of desperate violence. I stepped to one side and off-hoofedly shot the little bastard in what passed for its head, trotting past on my way up the hill.
On first blush, I couldn't see the appeal. It took me five rounds to kill one bug. That just wasn't efficient. But I'd noticed that time seemed to slow down to a near-stop while I was in S.A.T.S.... that could be a definite tactical benefit, especially in a confused firefight.
All in all, this little ankle-pricker made me happier than I'd been in a long time.
* * * * *
Several gold-tipped cigarette butts were littered around the open grave atop the hill, where the courier had been briefly buried and then dug out. Huh... some stud thought he was pretty swank, to smoke these things. I mean, tobacco products were all over the Wasteland --- they were probably the cheapest and most-accessible narcotic around, with packs and cartons and even crates of the things turning up from time to time. The fact that one of the major pre-War cigarette producers in Equestria had been located near New Pegas might have had something to do with that.
But few drug-users of any kind really cared enough to indulge their habits with any kind of style. This guy, most likely the one in the checkered suit Doc'd mentioned, obviously thought of himself as a high-roller. They were unique enough that I carefully gathered and stuffed the bunch of them into a saddlebag pocket; their look and smell might help identify my marks in some way.
I looked around the hilltop itself, a chopped-off prominence with a water tower perched atop. Standing in its late-afternoon shade made it easier to get a good long view, and now I could see why the courier's bid for New Pegas had failed... immediately north was a festival of giant radscorpions, also known as "armored poison-delivery vehicles". I wouldn't've given the colt two bits for his survival in there with his light barding and ten-mil sidearm. Slightly further east the way was blocked by the sheer walls of a quarry pit, marked prominently with hastily-scrawled warnings about Diamond Dog infestations.
But to the west, sandwiched between the quarry and a series of rock walls, wandered a sunken road that would have worked perfectly for skirting the murder zones --- except that now it was littered with a string of widely-spaced bodies infested with paradore colonies. They looked fresh enough that I was willing to bet anything the killers had come down that road in a running battle with what looked like Friends.
"Friends" were bad enough --- a close-knit bunch of fun-loving folks who lived to inject, snort, inhale or swallow anything they could get a buzz off of. Their parties were orgies of excess and violence, each Friend trying to earn points with the others by being more extreme and crazier.
But paradores were some of the scariest damn things in the Wasteland. With cute little round bodies and cute little smiling mouths that were capable of opening half-again as wide as they themselves were, to take impossibly large bites of anypony they got close to, they also had speed and poison going for them. Worst, though, was that their poison only worked as an anesthetic. Once having downed a pony, they would stab an egg injector into the poor bastard's belly, then start building a nest around the immobile body. Eventually the baby paradores would eat the still-conscious victim from the inside out, as their first meal.
If there was a worse way to die, nopony'd ever mentioned it to me.
And everypony already knew that Imperial Highway 15 had been cut off by the Diamond Dog infestation spilling out of the quarry. So the killers hadn't had any choice, really: having effectively cut off their own avenue of approach, they had to go "around the horn" to the south, following the I-15 down to the Nipton Highway and then back up to New Pegas via the I-95. And that was assuming the ponies who'd killed Mr. Horse's personal courier, to swipe his personal property, were going to stick around a city he more or less personally owned. Odds were good they'd be running for the NCR border, less likely the Herd --- someone used to the high life wasn't likely interested in their social network.
Meanwhile, the sun was already going down behind the western ranges. Time to find someplace to crash for the night.
* * * * *
What I found was a tiny Hippocampus Energy station with a little baby dragon and a huge .357 Magnum leveled at my face. I took it back; being a complete and trusting idiot might just possibly be a worse way to die. Assuming I didn't kick it in the next few seconds, I was going to have words in the morning with Miss Trudy regarding her recommendation in lodgings.
"If yer gonna shoot, might's well get it over with," I drawled lazily. It might've been a front I was putting on, but if I looked relaxed and non-hostile --- yep, the dragon relaxed in turn, his flaring red head ridges settling back down and the flush in his orange scales subsiding as he holstered the oversized hogleg.
"Sorry about that, mister. I've got some bad ponies after me, and it's been making me twitchy. If you're not with them, you're welcome to a piece of floor for the night." He went back to what he'd been doing before I unlocked the door with Miss Trudy's key and walked in; cooking up some gecko stew. I could smell horseradish, sage, maybe even a carrot thrown in, and my belly rumbled to remind me I'd had nothing but a shot of whiskey all day.
"My apologies for barging in like this... I was of the understanding this place was abandoned." I tossed my key onto the little gas station's counter with a practiced eye, letting him see I hadn't picked the lock. He took an identical key from one of the pouches on his belt, then put it back.
"Stew's about ready, if you like trail-lizard. And before you make a joke about cannibalism, don't." He chuckled at his own presumed wit. "They call me Rango. I'm a drover with Red-Carriage Caravans."
His offer of food to a hungry pony, no caps attached, let me know why he wasn't one of their merchants. But you never look a gift dragon in the mouth --- for obvious reasons, the old saying went. I nodded thanks and took a bowl of steaming gumbo. "Much appreciated."
We spent the next while trading stories of the road, bits of news, the usual. And then, presumably because I was a former caravaneer (a detail I'd let slip somewhere along the way), he told me his sob story about how his group had been hit hard by a bunch of Mite-ys. Apparently the fact that he had actually defended himself, and had the temerity to survive the experience to boot, had offended the gang's tender sensibilities and instilled in them a desire for payback, preferably of an excessive nature.
I chewed and swallowed and nodded and made appropriate noises at the appropriate points, until he finally came out and asked for my help in taking on the bandits when they came for him. I dutifully licked my bowl clean, swallowed the last morsel, and asked:
"What's in it for me?"
In retrospect, I probably should have asked for seconds first.
* * * * *
"HEY MISS TRUDY! WE'ALL'S COME TO PAR-LAY!"
Rango'd said the roan who led this specific batch of Mite-ys was named Cob. Any number of jokes concerning corn came to mind, none of which I dwelt much upon as the gang moseyed --- actually moseyed --- up the road into town.
Squinting, I could make out that half of them didn't have longarms, or even sidearms. Just old baseball bats held together with duct tape, and tire irons rusty enough that their wielders were probably rotted up with tetanus by now. A few, including Cob, had NCRCF armor stolen from dead prison guards and the majority of the actual guns.
That's not to say they didn't use some sort of tactical sense. At a whinny from Cob, the unarmored close-in fighters let out a whoop and charged the few locals who'd gathered near the saloon. As they scattered with cries of fear, their assailants broke up and pursued in all directions. Cob and his gunslingers started picking out targets and opening fire from range.
Rango'd also said he had no way out of town if he couldn't get past the gangers.
I'll give him credit: he tried. When it became obvious that no one in Goodsprings seemed much interested in doing anything but hiding or running, and most of the Mite-ys were busy chasing after their entertainment, the little dragon cracked open the door of his fuel-station hideaway and tried to slip out of town. I don't know if he was too dumb or proud to throw a dirty blanket over his bright orange scales, but he never made it to cover --- a Stampede-fueled buck with a sledgehammer broke off from chasing a local filly to run him down instead.
Four thundering shots from a three-fifty-seven magnum revolver would've taken down most ponies, but a body on Stampede doesn't feel a hell of a lot of pain. Even as he bled and staggered on a crippled leg, the blood-red buck locked fury-reddened eyes on Rango and slammed the big iron hammer down.
The cracking noise heralded a shattered collarbone; Rango went over with a groan. The hammer fell again, pulping one of the little dragon's tiny arms, this time bringing his scream out. Somehow he found the strength to roll over, shove the revolver into the buck's chest, and pull the trigger once more. Powder flash burned a wide ring around the deep, fresh wound.
It barely seemed to slow the buck down. Third time was the charm; Rango's head stove in like an old rubber ball with half its air gone. Lost in rage, the pony began smashing the dragon's body with a strange work-like rhythm, as though he were back hammering spikes on the railroad gang. Cob, watching from down the street, screamed triumphantly and yelled something about burning the whole town to ashes.
That was his first major tactical mistake: giving Goodsprings a damned good reason to fight back.
Every window facing the street, mostly being those of the general store and saloon, sprouted one or more rifles apiece. In the ensuing fusillade several Mite-ys found themselves dancing the final rites, while the rest skittered for cover in the culvert bordering the ruined houses and vacant lots on the opposite side of the street. As soon as they had some cover, they began lighting and throwing sticks of dynamite at the wood-planked buildings opposite.
I'd never seen a duck, but I'd heard rows of them were easy to shoot. From my perch laying atop Doc's roof I had perfect line-of-sight straight down on the length of the culvert. Cob's second big mistake had been not checking his flanks.
POP. POP. No S.A.T.S., not for this. Rango shouldn't've been out here. He should've stayed in the old station and waited for a better opportunity, like I had. Pick your time. Bide and breathe.
POP. POP. Now they noticed me, after four of their nearest bucks had sprouted new holes. Two of those had been their only actual rifles. So as their buddies scrambled to pick up the weapons themselves, all the Mite-ys had to throw at me was a few pistol rounds. No one was close enough for dynamite, though a couple tried and fell well short.
That was when a spray of fully-automatic nine-millimeter fire began lighting into the remnants of the bandit line from behind. VIC-20, smiling-cowpoke pony face replaced with a grim "them's fightin' words" look, stood there chewing through Mite-y after Mite-y with the machinelike efficiency of his kind.
I lined up on Cob's screaming, panicking face. It had all gone to hell on him. He was pinned down, he didn't know what to do, the townspeople should have been the ones panicking and running. His third and last mistake was not remembering to start running, himself. A smile creased my muzzle as I pulled the trigger on my rifle magazine's last round.
Cob's head exploded in a satisfying spray of red and grey.
When the rest of the Mite-ys ran, six remained alive. The only two that made it out of the line of fire from Miss Trudy's saloon, didn't make it out of VIC's. By that time, I'd already climbed back down the ladder from the roof and begun looting bodies in earnest, starting with Rango's. It wasn't like he had family (that I knew of) anyway. And he did have a spiffy set of Caravan gambling cards.
* * * * *
"How COULD yoooouu?!" Miss Trudy was yelling at me, in front of most of the town's survivors, as I stood there trying to talk business with Chip. He, a white unicorn stallion with a rather lanky build and a drab-brown mane, looked like he would rather be doing business someplace else far away... in Coltifornia's cutthroat "Hub", perhaps.
"How could I what?" I responded in perfectly reasonable tones. I'd seen lynch mobs. This wasn't one --- yet. But if it came down to being one, I was already identifying those who needed to be taken down first. S.A.T.S. might come in handy after all...
"How could you SIT THERE and just LET them start killing everypony?!" she screamed at me, even louder, as though to make up for my own lack of volume and emotion. "Good ponies died today because of you!" I blinked, keeping my expression as bland as possible.
"I seem to recall that none of you lifted a hoof to save an outsider named Rango. Not until Cob threatened all of you locals did you open up on him. So a good dragon died today because you wanted an outsider to bleed first."
Miss Trudy --- True Delight --- looked like I'd shot her right there on the spot.
What I'd said might have been unkind, brutal, but none the less accurate for that. The good ponies of Goodsprings hadn't wanted a fight, had wanted Rango to be a problem that would just go away and die somewhere else. They didn't care at all.
Neither did I. I nodded to Chip, closing our deal, swept the pile of caps off the counter and into my saddlebags, and pushed my way through the sullen mob. My step was light as I started down the shattered and newly-bloodied asphalt back towards Slimm; I'd sold Chip everything I didn't need to catch up to that city-colt with. I'd also had him repair my firearms and old barding as best as could be managed, and I had a mission that even my PipBuck understood:
"Benny and the Jet-Heads: track down the Courier's killers".
Huh. So the thing knew the city-colt's name. Somehow. And it flubbed grammar by capitalizing "courier" for no apparent reason. But it did point me in a southerly direction, confirming my suspicions as I cantered past the springs and headed down the beckoning stretch of I-15 towards Slimm.
Still, one thing bugged me as I pulled down the goggles of my storm-chaser hat and broke into a measured gallop... when I'd passed VIC-20 not a minute ago, the robot was all smiles and waves once again, directed at me.
Only at me. It hadn't opened fire on the Mite-ys until I'd been attacked. But it had been standing there the whole time, entirely unnoticed, having supposedly never attacked another soul in the Goodsprings area for good or bad in the decade and more it had been there.
If this was Celestia's way of looking over my shoulder, I silently prayed, would she please piss off.
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Friend of Nightmare Moon -- your vision at night and in low-light conditions is improved.
Skill Note: Sneak (50)
KKatman's "Fallout: Equestria"
Somber's "Project Horizons"
Miracle of Sound’s “Wasteland Soul”
And these Amazingly Fabulous bits of Artliness.