Chapter 17: Surfin' Turf
"No easy task to clear the ground, plant our tiny seeds..."
My eyes snapped open, but I couldn't move.
That's because I'd curled up into a shivering fetal ball so tightly, and for so long, that my legs had locked up. I waited, staring down the dimly-lit length of the great hall from my spot at its hearth, until my heart and breath slowed to a more manageable pace. The fire behind me had died down to dull embers, sending my shadow to flicker against red-lit walls amid those cast by the furnishings.
At least the shivering was only nerves. Not the bone-deep cold of Vattengrav I'd just woken from remembering. Once I'd had a chance to calm down, the hearth's warmth helped me relax enough to unwrap myself from... myself.
My body responded slowly in getting up. I was almost as fatigued as if I hadn't had any sleep at all. Still, I sent a little prayer of thanks up to Luna on discovering that the night's mental warfare hadn't resulted in any real-world bruising. After a few long-body stretches, I was as awake as I was going to be.
Way House, or at least Vasstunga, was already a step ahead of me. The big dun mare kicked open a kitchen door, releasing the sounds of clanging pots, clattering pans, huffing stoves and muttering cooks. A steaming black-iron pot hung from the rag clamped in her jaws, swaying back and forth until she dropped it on the near end of the plank table with an unceremonious thunk. A whirling whisk of tail and she was stomping back, slamming the door behind.
With a wide yawn I clopped over to the table, grabbed the nearest bowl, and stood on my hindlegs to move the pot lid. Riding the puff of steam came a familiar, fulsome scent --- genuine oatmeal! And none of that two-hundred-year-old "instant" stuff, either! I greedily dipped my bowl in, going for the biggest scooping I could manage without burning myself.
Oatmeal?! Whoever traded this for furniture was crazy!
It was a common enough grain in the valleys of central Coltifornia, but couldn't grow at all in the high deserts of Neighvada. Plus the NCR considered oats a strategic military resource, since they packed the most energy into the least space, so to anypony but soldiers out this way, this was a luxury food. Now where did the Vikeans...
I had barely taken a bite when this train of logic finally pulled into the station.
At best they might've got the oatmeal off the black market, somepony swapping their buddies' rations for a few extra sawbucks. Or it could have been taken in raids on civilian caravans. But the Vikeans had supposedly given that up to improve their image. Any other gang would have just eaten the stuff, rather than trade it around. That left military supplies... was I eating food taken from my nation's dead soldiers?
Even through the thick doors, Vasstunga's voice boomed. "Pick that up and clean it off, you vapid fool! I'll not have my bucks coming down with whatever you've been stepping in! MOVE!" Something metal clanged off someone who wasn't. At that moment the hall's front doors burst open, admitting Hard Way and several dozen of his burlier underlings.
"VASSTUNGA!" he bellowed as the horde took seats around the table. "WE'VE ONE HOUR TO PULL ANCHOR!"
She stuck her head back out and threw a ladle, nailing his noggin with perfect accuracy. Bonk! "So SIT DOWN and EAT ALREADY!" Vikeans began passing their bowls towards the pot of meal; as each arrived, Gore-Nest dipped it in and passed it on. While that was going on, serving-mules hurried out of the kitchen with trays of sausage and roast vegetables. In moments the hall was filled with the sounds of gobbling and munching, and then gulping as pitchers of cold milk arrived.
Hard Way paused in his gustatory efforts, eying my failure to empty the bowl I already had. "Problem?" he rumbled.
Being blunt here probably wouldn't have been a good idea. So I stifled the accusations hanging on the edge of my tongue, in favor of a more roundabout inquiry. "Yeah," I deadpanned, "where'd you get the oatmeal? That's pretty pricey stuff."
He bit a sausage off the chain being passed around, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, and swallowed. "Hit a Herd camp last month, other side of the lake. Warned them before not to set up on our shores. They can take their feud with the Republic somewhere else."
Well... that sounded reasonable enough. The fighting between the NCR and Herd had been going on for years, ever since a diplomatic party was ambushed and massacred while trying to treat with tribes across the Coltorado. When photos hit the Boneyard papers, showing how the entire party had been gutted and hung on crucifixes along the Imperial 15, support for pacification efforts beyond the Coltorado had skyrocketed.
If the tribes had remained disunited, it probably would have worked. But as NCR troops surged across the river, they presented a common enemy to groups which normally would have preferred to slit each others' throats. Within a year "The Herd" had brought most of a hundred disparate groups together, and began counterattacking wherever NCR forces were weakest. Soon we'd been pushed back across the Coltorado, where the line finally stabilized, both sides glaring at one another across Hoofer Dam. Since then, the NCR and Herd had been building up and trying to find ways around, or through, each others' lines. Most of the conflict was raiding, infiltration and skirmishing, at this point.
In that light it made sense that the Herd could have built up caches of oatmeal, whether taken off dead NCR soldiers or seized in raids on caravans and depots. They might even be growing it in their eastward territories, a huge swath which included parts of Marezona, Nuevo Mexicolt, Coltorado and Ewetah.
At least now I didn't have misgivings about eating it. I managed a second bowlful before the pot was emptied, plus some veggies and plenty of sausage. And I wasn't about to ask what was in the sausage.
House Way's crew-folk didn't waste time in idle chat or savoring their food, chowing down and filing out of the hall as soon as they were done. I tossed my empty bowl onto the pile that had amassed and, when Gore-Nest started moving, followed the griffon out into daylight.
* * * * *
The docks were busier than when I'd arrived. Six longships had been fitted with iron-shod wheels, two lengths high if a hoof, so that I could have walked under a ship without having to duck my head. Around and on each of them swarmed dozens of Vikean sailors and warriors, securing their travel kits and triple-checking every fitting. A strong, cold wind was blowing in off the lake, drawing a shiver from my neck.
"Hoy, lad! Take your pack and get aboard!" I turned, sighted the saddlebags flying my way, and gave a little jump to catch them on my back. As I buckled them down, Hard Way grinned and began clambering up the thick rope net slung over the Sjönhäst's side as a ladder. "How's the wind holding, Gore?"
Already aboard, the griffin looked down and nodded. "All fair, Kapten. Steady at twelve knots."
I found my own way, hoof over hoof, up the net until I stood on the deck near the bow with my mane and tail flapping in the wind. A moment later I had my PipBuck's inventory menu up, scanning for anything that might be missing. There's being trusting, and there's being a sucker...
All my weapons were there. That Gun, Mouthkicker, the ten-millimeter pistol I'd "inherited" from Horse's courier, a "steam rifle" --- oh yeah, from that one fancified Dog at Slimm Pass, I'd been telling myself I should try it out --- and of course, the good old "varmint" rifle that'd been the mainstay tool of my bounty-hunting career. For close-in work were hoof-knucks and a combat knife, though in my case the latter was better used for more utilitarian tasks.
AutoDoc VII module, check. All the food, medical supplies and whatnot I'd scrounged from the Royale, check. "Eclair's Golden Treasure" --- whatever that was; I hadn't really had a chance to look it over yet either --- check. Snowglobes, check.
Wait. When did I find another snowglobe?!
The one from Goodsprings, I knew about. Wasn't sure why I hadn't thrown it away, but I knew about it. The second... I popped it out of my bags to take a closer look. It was almost identical to the first, having a solid plastic base and thick glass dome filled with water. Raised red letters along the front of the base read "LAKE CIDER". Inside, drifting amid sparkling green glitter instead of faux-snow, was a perfect likeness of the lakepony I'd only thought of as "Red-Head". It hit me that this was the very snowglobe she'd been fawning over, just before she... I flipped it over to read the inscription.
"Call upon the Sea Ponies, if you're ever in distress!"
[BONUS PERK: Bubbleheaded - You can breathe underwater for up to ten minutes, once per day. If a Dragon, you now blow bubbles instead of balefire. Good luck with that!]
A sudden hiccup brought a bright, green-glowing bubble floating up from my muzzle. As I blinked, it burst, showering my nose with microdroplets of... whatever the hell it was made of. Its warmth contrasted with the chill air blowing against my rump.
Note to self: next time, ask what's in the sausage.
Gore-Nest pushed past me with two ponies, carrying a windsock up to the bow and breaking my concentration. He took some readings with the flapping cloth, then shouted back to where Hard Way sat in the stern. "ALL WINDS, TEN DEGREES FROM AFT!" Hard Way nodded back, then pointed one massive hoof at a baby dragon standing at the rail. The little red devil lifted a green flag, waving it towards the longship behind, whose crew then began signaling to the others. It looked like we were about to get underway.
I noticed Gore-Nest, still at the bow, looking at me from under his wind-ruffled crest while his assistants ran off to help with the sail. "What?"
He smirked across the width of his beak. "You're a lot of bother, for being such a little pony. Something about you just seems... off, to me." His face went hard, expressionless. "If Kapten Way doesn't come back from his jaunt with you, I want to remember what you look like from this slight, upward angle." With that hanging in the air he turned away, pulling out a red flag and waving it at someone further up the street.
Following his gaze, I saw the distant figure of a unicorn pony levitating a much larger green flag, slowly flapping it back and forth from the battlements atop Gate-House. From this vantage, I suddenly had new perspective. This wasn't just a wide, long street, tapering upwards with tall, flat-faced buildings packed seamlessly to either side.
It was a wind funnel.
Behind me, the Sjönhäst's sail filled out with a boom, sending a shiver through the longship's deck and up my legs. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then, with a soft creaking, we began rolling forward.
Deciding I'd rather see what was coming than not, I crammed up into the bow next to Gore-Nest, propping my hooves up on the rail and ignoring his glare. "If I'd planned on worming my way into your camp, stealing your captain away, and doing anything to him, I would've left the part about being raped by fish out of it." He rolled his eyes, returning his attention to our progress towards Gate-House.
Woebegone hadn't been kidding. Situated at the crest where lakeshore met desert flats, it was the biggest post-War building I'd ever seen. Twin towers of cleanly-fitted stonework rose into the sky, a wide arched bridge linking the two, seeming to redouble in size as we approached. Its segmented portcullis had already been rolled up to permit our passage.
Gore-Nest squinted, then lifted his right talon with one claw extended. Immediately, the Sjönhäst shifted slightly to starboard, straightening out again when the griffon closed his fist. "Right on course," he declared to no one but himself. I only heard it because I happened to be there.
The wind picked up sharply, carrying a slight scent of ozone with it. Looking aft, I saw a team of unicorns with their horns aglow, telekinetically shoving more and more air at the sails, the accelerating longship now committed to threading the Gate or smashing against it. Back at the bottom of the street, another boom sounded as the next longship in line began its run.
I found myself clutching my hat to my head with one forehoof, grasping the rail with the other, and praying with all my heart to reach the dry, open, lakeponiless desert I used to loathe so much. It didn't seem like the Gate was really wide enough to let the ship through under full sail. Though I knew they had to do this all the time, I stole a look backwards to try and gauge the canvas' expanse.
Why was I surprised to see Pink-E riding the mast-head, squealing with delight? "Wheee! Avast, ye scurvy mane-shavers! Hoist the jib and batten down the hatches!"
An earth pony working the sail glared up at her. "Quiet, you! We already battened 'em down!"
Undeterred, she just shouted back, "Well, batten them down again! We'll teach those hatches!"
Hard Way just shook his head, failing completely to hide his smile. Maybe if he grew out a mustache to go with the beard... meanwhile, we continued to pick up speed despite the slight uphill grade. How fast is a knot, anyways? Ahead of us, small crowds perched atop Gate-House to cheer and wave strips of blue and yellow cloth. We topped the crest and leveled out, my stomach giving a lurch in the process. As we barreled cleanly between the towers, our wheels clattering from pavement to baked desert clay, shouts of glee and encouragement rang from the battlements, and those colorful ribbons waved even more energetically.
Forward go the conquering knights of olde, off to slay the dreaded timber wolves! Hah. Like anypony would have ever believed in that kind of malarkey! And how many of these yokels were really just hoping to see a longship crash?
Once through, the wind cut off sharply, blocked by Häsverige's high stone walls. The crew quickly reefed the sails and, just as the Sjönhäst began to lose momentum, we reached the Long Slope. Standing in the bow I could feel the ship dip slightly and begin to slowly pick up speed.
When you're standing right on it, the Long Slope doesn't quite seem like one. It's a fifteen-mile stretch of barren silt and clay, with few boulders or brush, and an incline so gradual it almost seems flat until you look to the horizon. Just beyond its western base lay Imperial Highway 93, curling north and west through the New Pegas suburbs. Further south the old freeway crossed its sister, the Ninety-Five, forming a natural rest station for caravans. Even more so, now that the Diamond Dogs had choked off the Long Fifteen. The NCR considered the junction crucial enough to fortify it as "Firebase 188", with a platoon of seasoned troops sitting behind sandbag walls and machine-gun nests.
It was a double-win for the Vikeans: any assault up the Long Slope with its lack of cover, against wall-perched snipers, would be suicide, while their longships had free rein to hit wide stretches of a major trade route anytime they chose to coast on down. It was easy to see how they had once been considered scourges of the Moohave, and why some of them might be tempted by a return to that lifestyle.
It would be so much easier than a relatively honest living...
Before long our speed was up to the point where I was seriously worried about my hat blowing away, so I took a moment to carefully stow it in my bags. Meanwhile, the Sjönhäst began a starboard turn so gradual that I didn't notice until I looked back up again. Then it took another moment to realize Gore-Nest had disappeared, to be replaced with Pink-E, who was giving me the same look he had. A familiar pulse of irritation buzzed up the base of my neck. "Now what?"
"Oh, nothing," she said with a lilt. "I just thought it was a funny look that mean ol' griffon was giving you before, and I wanted to try it! Plus I can't stay up on the mast because he wanted my spot. Well, he can have it!" She nickered, turning to look out over the desert. "I think the view's better here anyway."
With the morning sun still on the rise, the fog-tinged desolation of New Pegas Valley spread out below, and the wind of our passage blowing back my mane, it was hard to disagree. "Me too, Pink-E."
Our wheels kicked up a sizeable plume of dust in our wake, leaving a curving trail as we turned north. Its progress was obviously tracked with interest by every caravaneer on the road below, given the number of them which scattered south and west. The Vikeans might not be the terrors they once were, but that didn't mean anypony wanted to swap their current inventory for a wagonload of furniture!
After about fifteen minutes of free coasting we leveled out parallel to the Ninety-Three, a few miles north of Firebase 188. Gore-Nest, clamped to the masthead by his talons, gestured with his wings to guide Hard Way's steering. "Little bit to port... little more... back starboard... steady on, Kapten! We've got the on-ramp!"
And so we did, rumbling onto the cracked asphalt with a tumultuous clatter before rolling down to the freeway proper --- where a broken overpass waited to clip the mast in twain. Not to worry: the crew popped several bolts, then tilted it backwards until the mast's cross-beam bobbed just above Hard Way's fluttering brown mane. The moment we zipped beneath the concrete hazard, it was propped back up, locked in place, and unfurled.
Once more the Sjönhäst was moving under full sail, each of her five sister vessels repeating the same manuevers in our wake. Judging by eyeball I figured about an eighth of a mile clearance between us and the following Wayheim, with likely similar separation for the rest. Assuming we were doing about thirty miles per hour --- I'd never gone so fast, aside from falling into a lake! --- that would give about thirty seconds for the next ship in line to react if something bad happened.
Something, perhaps, like the Zoomers, reacting badly to a longship roaring towards their fence-line.
I shot Pink-E a worried look. "Run an analysis for me... how likely is this thing to survive a point-blank rainboom...?"
"Oh, that's easy! It can't!" Her smile was as bright and wide as a balefire blast.
* * * * *
With winds from the southwest, we made steady progress up the highway, easily crushing or smashing aside whatever debris or wildlife got in the way. We rolled over or past numerous abandoned skywagons, crushed or smashed aside by decades' worth of previous outings. Every time we hit one that hadn't been entirely flattened, the ship's bow bounced sharply upward before crashing back down again.
The Vikeans seemed to think this fine sport, whooping and hollering every time it happened, sometimes even pointing to a particularly nasty wreck and begging Hard Way to steer for it. Every time, he would act like he didn't hear and navigate the cleanest course he could instead, prompting choruses of disappointment --- until the next bad pileup appeared and the scene repeated itself. Everyone but Gore-Nest, who kept his eagle-eyes forward for trouble at all times, seemed thoroughly excited to be out of Häsverige and on the move.
We were coming up on another wreck, this one surrounded by several flitting somethings, when the griffon yelled down at me, "Hey, Dead-Shot, was it?" When I looked back, he had an evil smile and one talon pointing forward. "Better watch out now!"
I turned back forward to see what he was pointing at. "What - ?"
The bloatsprite caught me full in the face.
The squishy, disgusting thing exploded on impact, spraying fleshy gobbets and ichor that stuck to my face and mane.
Aaaaaand that was even worse, because now I knew what uncleaned, uncooked bloatsprite tasted like. While I spat, gagged, and shook myself, trying to fling away the foul mess, the crew roared with laughter. One of them managed to stifle herself long enough to crack a joke of her own: "That's how can you tell a happy Vikean... by the bugs in his teeth!"
Two aged stallions working the lines exchanged nonplussed expressions. "Hey, Stadtler!" one of them barked. "How can you tell if a Vikean makes for a good comedian?"
The other blinked. "I don't know, Waldorf. How?"
"If they're NOT ON THIS SHIP!" Both of them broke into derisive chortles before Gore-Nest began waving everyone back to work.
"All right, all right already, you've all had the same thing happen at one time or another. We've got Henrietta Overpass coming up in five, so keep sharp."
* * * * *
Rolling through Henrietta wasn't pretty. Why would it be? The easternmost of New Pegas' suburbs held little more than wide stretches of burnt-out tract housing, the same as it had since the post-War riots. The neatly-arranged debris formed blocks that alternated with commercial strips, themselves having been looted and burned even before the houses were. The streets between were choked with abandoned vehicles, garbage and more skeletons than anypony wanted to bother with.
Whatever balefire hadn't done to do to us, we'd had no problem doing to ourselves.
The only signs of life were the occasional prospectors' huts of reclaimed scrap, but Henrietta had been picked over so thoroughly by now even those were mostly abandoned. Only the most desperate would try to eke out a living here. My PipBuck's Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell picked up nothing but the odd radroach scurrying here and there as we blew past in our clackity-clacking din.
Despite having already cleared the Overpass, the crew seemed to redouble its activity. One even went so far as to batten down the hatches again, prompting a squee from Pink-E. I sighed and wrote it off to serendipity.
Be random, and the world just might be random with you...
Gore-Nest came flapping back down from his perch to reclaim the bow, and this time he made no allowances. "With what's coming up, you'll want to be strapped down. I'll not have you killed trying to find your sea legs." He pulled a chain-bearing leather harness from his packs, tossed it to the deck, and gave me a commanding look. "Buckle up."
Perhaps unbeknownst to him, that was one of the best ways to get me to NOT do something. I bit back the desire to tell him what he could buckle, braced myself against the rail, and stared ahead. "Whaddya mean, 'sea legs'?" I scoffed. "What sea are you even talking about?"
Silently, he pointed a talon at a distant metal overhang, to which old-world directional signs still clung. Shielding my eyes and squinting, I could just make out the faded white-on-green lettering.
EXIT 72 - Henrietta Town Park 1/4 mi.
Past that point, the freeway curved northwest, angling through the ruins of Pegasus del Norte. Northward rose the unmistakable undulations of sand dunes, an ever-shifting demarcation between ponykind's ambition and nature's reclamation. Bobbing alongside, Pink-E gave me a worried look. "Um, Cherry, I think maybe - "
Hard Way's casual rumbling escalated to a casual thunderstorm, if that was possible. "Secure for rough-riding!"
It's just a few bumps. If it were all that bad, they'd just slow down, I assured myself.
Sometimes, I am not a very smart pony.
It seemed that everyone else, based on their species, had a place to go and job to do. Earth ponies hauled out big wooden poles, securing them to oarlocks below the rails before securing themselves with harnesses they chained to the deck. Unicorns spread evenly out along the deck, their horns flaring with magical light. The other griffons, as well as the dragons, settled atop the mast's crossbeam to grip rope-loops with claw and talon. Gore-Nest pulled a pair of short lines ending in carabiners from either bow rail, clipping them into loops of chain on his belt. "SECURE!" Identical shouts sounded from each crew member, ending with Hard Way's bellow.
It occurred to me that, while watching the longships get refitted in drydock, I hadn't seen anything that would qualify as brakes being added. I whipped back around just in time to see the first dune rushing right at me, felt my pupils contract to pinpricks.
Awwwwww, HORSEAPP -
The Sjönhäst's deck, along with the rest of it, kicked up into my hooves, its wheels carrying it right up the slope and into the air. As one voice, her crew shouted, "HEAVE!"
The unicorns' horns flared, wrapping the entire ship in a levitation field. The aviators on the mast flapped for all they were worth. The earth ponies and buffalo worked their "oars" over the side, poling against dunes and obstructions. Gore-Nest, angling his wings this way or that, provided their guidance.
And me? I was sailing along, half a length above the deck, not looking forward in the least to what was coming. After several long moments, the curve of our aft keel carved the top of another dune with a hideous scraping crunch. The rear wheels found purchase a moment after, and those forward a second after that. No wonder the Vikeans prized oak so highly; a pine hull would never survive this kind of beating -
Then the deck punched me in the face. Luna felch me, but that's a lot of stars! Also, ow!
Lesson learned, I grabbed the proffered harness and fought my way into it, the ship bucking and swaying and slamming beneath my hooves at every hurdle. Before long, I'd collected enough bruises that Hard Way could have sold me to the Silver Slippers as tenderized steak. If in fact they'd been cannibals to begin with, a little pony in my head pedantically reminded me, just before another little pony covered in bruises stomped over and started pounding him.
I finally got myself chained down, started flexing my knees with the impacts, but nothing could stop my stomach from lurching and heaving like a drunken buffalo while the Sjönhäst plowed its way over the crests and through the troughs. I choked back the acid burning the back of my throat.
Gore-Nest spared me a momentary leer. "So! Got enough of those greasy breakfast sausages churning down there?"
We hit a nasty little incline just then; when we started leveling out, my stomach went into free-fall.
* * * * *
Four miles later, we had sailed (and poled and flapped and levitated) halfway across the roughs. Draped as I was along the portside bow rail, I felt positive that I had personally projectile-painted most of it along the way. I had also developed sixteen different plans for murdering Gore-Nest, ten of which were entirely impractical (if potentially satisfying) and five of which I wouldn't long survive the implementation of.
I was deep in mid-retch, mulling the details of an avian enema performed with blowtorch and industrial solvent, when Pink-E decided to chat him up. "So," she cheerily inquired, bouncing along with the ship on her godsdamned hover-servos, "Gore-Nest, huh? That's a funny name, even for a griffin!"
Coming from anypony else that probably would have been taken as an insult, but something about how Pink-E said it --- all innocence and interest --- disarmed the first mate's chance for offense. Or maybe, despite currently being engaged in guiding the longship around boulders and the more precipitous drops, he was just a lot more bored than he seemed.
"Kapten Way found me," he replied languidly, "in what was left of my mother's nest. She'd been hunting for our supper when a bunch of raiders spotted and winged her. They followed her back, attacked while she was trying to bandage herself up." A left-stretched wing fluffed out over my head, and the Sjönhäst heeled hard to port, one wheel crunching a radscorpion bigger than I was. "She killed them... most of them, anyway. When she went down, I found my bloodlust. Killed the last two myself, tore them all to pieces. Started making them the dinner. Some idiots've told me they thought that was 'poetic justice' or some crap. Me, I was just a hungry fledgling."
I managed to get my act together long enough to try and look like I was paying attention. I had been already, but it's impolite to vomit when someone in your vicinity is admitting to cannibalism. Pink-E looked like a train had just run over her brahmin, eyes wide and jaw hanging in the breeze. Finally, she managed to splutter out, "Th-that's...that's awful!"
Gore-Nest shrugged and nudged a wingtip to the right, sending us around a wrecked skywagon. The remnants of pegasi skeletons still dangled from its harnesses, twisting in the breeze of our wake. "Could've been worse. I'd've developed a taste for horsemeat, if Hard Way hadn't grabbed me up and started force-feeding me his own trail rations. Had the blood already on my tongue, you see. Tried taking it out of him instead, but even as a young buck, he was a big one. Had the heart and soul to match, too."
He hid a pregnant pause with a few minutes of directing a swerving course down and through a dry, rock-strewn creekbed, but there was the definite twinge of a smile in the corner of his beak when he continued. "I ended up following him all the way down here from Hope Eyrie's cold, high peaks... part of what you ponies call Coltorado. When I got older, I asked him what he'd been doing that far from Lake Cider. He said he went that way because it was the hardest road he could find."
"That's stupid." My stomach troubles didn't have me in a very diplomatic mood.
The griffon, taking advantage of a long open stretch ahead of us, turned to favor me with a hard look that tightened the skin around his eyes. Exactly three feathers ruffled along one cheek, and even that was probably from the wind.
"That's why he's Hard Way. Never does anything easy, says it makes him tougher for the experience. Even bent his own screwdriver to match his helmet's hex-wrench, just so he could get used to applying more torque with his teeth. From what I've seen at his side all these years, I'd have to say the idea works --- for him, anyway."
Although we still had a ways to go down this little valley before the next set of dunes, he propped himself up in the bow to stare forward again. But it didn't seem like he was seeing the desert anymore.
"I stood his deck last year, when the Zoomers pulled that hurricane stunt of theirs. Wherever you were in the Moohave, it was worse where we were, caught out on Lake Cider. Coming back from a raid on the Herd. The sky was so full of rain, not even the dragons could get airborne. We had waves high as the mastheads threatening to smash us under. Even after dumping everything overboard, they damn near rolled us. Never seen anything as terrifying as that, not as long as I've been alive."
Another long pause. I remembered where I'd been during that storm: cowering in a cave with winds screaming past the rocky entrance, hoping that what had been a dry wash fifteen minutes before didn't overflow its banks to flood my shelter. If our current traipse across the desert had been bumpy and bouncy, I didn't want to think about replacing its good solid earth for watery deeps, especially not with the addition of that storm pounding overhead.
Sometimes, Zoomers were just plain dicks.
"Kapten Way knew we needed a more stable configuration. Retooling a longship on water is difficult in a perfect calm, but that didn't stop him from taking parts off, ponyhandling them around. The wind and waves tried --- oh how they tried --- to tear him off the deck. We helped as best we could, though it was hard enough just hanging on. In the end we managed to get a pontoon out to either side, kept us stable enough to make port. Three other longships went to Vattengrav that day."
Gore-Nest fluffed out his wings again, getting ready for the upcoming rise. My stomach and eyes both clenched shut with apprehension, pulling a harsh laugh from the kittybird. "That's why they call him Hard Way, boy. That's why I owe him. And that's why he'd better come back after this business with - "
The big, sprawling dune just ahead of us exploded.
Not that I saw it, but I sure as hell felt it; a wave of sand punched me right in the muzzle, shot up my nose, and knocked me away from the rail only to be brought up short by my harness' mooring-chains. The detonation, even muffled as it was by the mass of the dune it had just eradicated, still nearly drowned out Pink-E's surprised squeal and Gore-Nest's equally-surprised squawk.
Hard Way didn't need any signals to react to that. He hauled the Sjönhäst over so hard that the longship briefly tilted up onto its starboard wheels, which incidentally gave my chains enough slack to pop loose and sent me skidding across the sand-covered deck. I was too busy coughing and spitting up grit to complain much.
Like its first mate, the ship's crew had taken a short break from the hard work of dune-surfing, and were just getting back to it when the blast hit us. Although they recovered quickly, the ship's hard turn had cost it precious momentum. We began slowing as we righted ourselves and headed upslope, next to what was now a smoking crater.
Nopony needed to say this was an ambush. Those who weren't needed on the ship's lines joined me in huddling up against the starboard rail, where I spent precious seconds snorting sand out of my nose. Since in combat my mouth tends to be full of gun, breathing through nostrils is kind of an important thing with me.
Thinking of which, shouldn't somepony be shooting at somepony else by now? Terrible hissing and grinding noises filled the air, as did the stench of industrial lubricants, but no gunshots. The two earth ponies flanking me at the rail were motionless, their faces cast in shadow, just staring up at something with their jaws hanging open.
But we're on the eastern side of the mast. It's still morning. There shouldn't be any shade...
With a sinking feeling in my stomach --- ironically, the least-awful sensation it had had to endure over the last quarter-hour --- I peeked over the rail towards the crater. From a huge pit in its center rose something out of a nightmare.
My nightmare. I rubbed my poor abused face, hoping something was wrong with my vision. After all, I'd been hit with a bug, a deck, and a sand dune within the space of an hour. Couldn't something go wrong in my favor, for once?
Aside from fever dreams, the closest reference I had for this thing was an old copy of Equestrian Army Today I'd once found in some ruins. That month's focus had been on "tanks", heavily-armored vehicles once common in major battles back East. Mainly, they'd been for breaking through entrenched lines. But here in the underdeveloped West, strategic targets had been few and spread out. Accordingly, so were the troops protecting them. Instead of dug-in slugfests, our battles had revolved around manuever and skirmishing, with little use for slower armored units like Steel Rangers, let alone tanks.
And this thing? Well, it was like a tank... sort of... if you put two giant metal legs on it instead of tracks. Legs or tracks, it didn't matter; it was facing us, venting huge gouts of steam while it finished standing up out of its hole. A single iron cannon, poking from a wide slit across its "chest", swiveled up to center on the Sjönhäst at point-blank range.
To think that if I'd taken that job in Detrot last year, I could be hunting Deadmares right now.
A sharp whistle, like a steam engine's magnified a hundredfold, cut the air; the cannon blasted forth a white plume. I barely saw the blur of its projectile before it struck, smashing through the deck planking to explode belowdecks with a deafening CRUMP.
Pine splinters flew everywhere. Reflexively I curled up, taking the needly barrage on the riot barding I'd gotten from the Royale, but grunts and shrieks of pain sounded from all around me.
Shakily, I got to my hooves and looked around. A third of the decking had been blown out, leaving several ponies in bloody, scattered ruin across the sail and rails. The hull's oak beams and planking had held up well enough, but the forward axle had shattered, dropping the Sjönhäst's prow into the sand and miring her in place. With its first shot, the mechanical monster had eliminated any chance of our escape.
Not that Hard Way seemed interested in absconding. He was already leading the rest of the Vikeans over the side, bleeding from a dozen small wounds and screaming inarticulate rage around the handle of an oversized hammer. He and they hit the desert floor at the charge, barreling straight for the walking tank. Gore-Nest already had the griffins and dragons airborne, circling the thing in an apparent search for its weaknesses.
Twin hatches on its "shoulders" sprang open, disgorging spring-mounted machineguns. Up behind these popped dark figures, swathed in such heavy clothing that I couldn't even tell what species they were. A chill went up my spine, remembering something Pink-E had said about Terrible Creatures From the Stars!. The machine's design was at once archaic and alien, yet somehow familiar, too. And maybe when it wasn't shooting at me, I'd take the time to dwell on that!
Two dragons dove in, blasting gouts of fire at the machine-gunners, whose guns hammered them from the sky while they were still closing the range. Swinging about, the gunners sent trails of bullet-streaks chasing after the others, forcing them to dive out of the way.
I couldn't see Pink-E; had she been hit? No, there she was, scudding around behind the thing while it pivoted to aim the cannon at Hard Way's galloping berserkers. None of them seemed to be carrying anything more dangerous than mouth-held tools, such as axes and hammers.
What were they hoping to accomplish against that?!
Whatever Hard Way had in mind, he wasn't going to make it if nopony stopped that cannon from firing again. Diving into my PipBuck's inventory spell let me load up and ready my rifle in no time at all, so that when I came out of it I was all set for...
...Celestia plunge me with a rusty roto-rooter! Wrong rifle! My mouth and tongue were curled around a weirdly-made grip with a tiny trigger assembly, similar to Mouthkicker's, but the ornate steam rifle's much bulkier mass had forced the spell to cock my head sidewise to hold it up. The side of my muzzle, and the flat of my shoulder, served as wannabe bracing points. It was the most insanely difficult way I could think of to fire a weapon, short of mounting it between my legs, and it was probably going to hurt about as much when it kicked.
So be it. I slipped into S.A.T.S., cycling through the available targets --- the bucks and mares of Hard Way's suicidal schiltron, one of the lower-flying griffons, Pink-E up near the dunetops, the giant machine itself of course, and... yes! I had line of sight on one of the cannon's gunners, right through its slit.
The numbers didn't lie. Single-digit percentages are a sucker's betting odds. So I let S.A.T.S. drop and squinted to line up the sight picture manually.
Suck on this.
In my eye and mind, the universe narrowed by hundredths of a second to a single ballistic path, one moment of mathematical truth. Without conscious thought, like a runner lifting a hock, my tongue-tip tripped Thunder-Child's trigger. Within the newly-named rifle's combustion chamber, its water talisman generated a perfectly measured volume of liquid, which its fire talisman instantly flashed to steam. Compressed by the chamber's confines, the steam had nowhere to go but into and up the barrel, pushing a single .308-caliber slug down a triple-twist of precision-bored rifling.
I wasn't wrong about the kick. My head wrenched up and around, hard, the grip punching my back teeth hard enough that I tasted copper and felt something go loose. My PipBuck flashed the image of a pony's head with a crack down the middle. But my right eye, locked on that cannon-slit, was rewarded with a splash of dark red blood, mixed with grey brain matter and bits of white skull, spraying back out of it.
Now that's how we do it back on the -
With another sharp whistle, the cannon fired anyway. For a moment, the white cloud of its discharge obscured the walking tank and its victims, leaving me with a horrified hole in my stomach.
If Gore-Nest doesn't beat her to it, Vasstunga's going to kill me!
Then the wind cleared the air. Hard Way and half his crew were in close, too close for the cannon to aim down at them. The slower half were going to be hell to collect and bury. The Vikeans lunged in, bodily trying to tackle the machine by its legs, even as its pilot realized the danger. The sight of a metal monster backing away up the slope, five burly ponies clinging to its ankles, was every bit as ridiculous as it was desperate.
Even if I'd felt like laughing, I was too busy spitting out the rifle, and two molars after it. There had to be something else in my inventory, something that I could - eeerrrrgh! A sudden wave of dizzying nausea put a stop to that, destroying my concentration and popping me out of the PipBuck's spell. My brain had just realized that not only was I missing teeth, but my lower jaw had been dislocated, and by the way, OW! Every throb of my heart sent a pulse of blood up through parts of my face that really didn't need the extra pressure at the moment, to each of which the nerve endings in residence responded with a collective bark of pain.
Shit shit shit shit ow ow ow ow... I spent precious seconds digging through my packs in search of, ohyesthankyouCelestiaI'llneverprofaneyournameagain, a vial of good old pre-War Hydra! With any luck, the stuff hadn't gone bad during the centuries it had sat in a medical box at the Casino Royale. I popped the cap, spat it aside, and guzzled the sweet green serpentine. After my first experience with a crippling injury back in New Pegas, there was no way I wasn't going to have at least one dose of this stuff in my saddlebags at all times.
Instantly I could feel it coat, soothe and relieve the gaps in my jawline. Fresh new teeth began growing and stretching out from within hollowed gums, uncomfortably pushing their neighbors aside before settling in like they'd always been there. I experimentally ran my tongue across the newcomers, making sure all was well.
Frontier dentistry at its finest, I crowed to myself. Now, back to business!
For the first time in my life, I regretted not carrying heavy artillery around. Rocket launchers were heavy, bulky and most of all impractical when your main source of income relied on proof-of-kill, but faced with a giant walking armor-plated beast my poor old varmint rifle didn't have as much utility as I would have liked.
It was still plenty enough to deal with the machine-gunners poking from its shoulder-hatches. PYEWT, reload, PYEWT... the second needed an extra PYEWT, luck and the thickness of his shroudings having saved his neck from the first. Idiot. If he'd been smart he'd've ducked inside before trying to stanch the bleeding, and I couldn't have put that extra five-fifty-six in between his goggle lenses.
Gore-Nest screamed something in the language of his people which could have meant either "attack" or "dinnertime", and probably had roots in both. Whoever was left inside that tin can was smart enough to drag the bodies in and secure the hatches, but that didn't stop the airborne Vikeans from landing topside. The remaining dragon wrapped his tail around what looked like a thick radio aerial, stretched as far as he could, and tried blowing fire into the cannon-slit, but the angle was poor. The griffons worked at trying to pry the hatches open.
Now if I can only get a line on whoever else is back behind that cannon, we might just survive this...
I scanned back and forth across the slit with my scope. There were furtive movements from at least two other gunners, but they were smart enough to keep hunched down while they went about their business. My efforts at drawing a bead on one weren't made any easier by the machine's lurching movements as it tried to dislodge the Vikean warriors, who were... trying to disassemble it?
I lowered my scope to get a better look.
Hard Way clung to its shin, pounding at the side of a giant lug nut with his hammer. As I watched, the nut sheared away, leaving its stump of a bolt behind as it fell into the sand. Without pause, the big beige brute clambered towards the next, mane-braids tossing back and forth across a blood-streaked face contorted with mad glee.
That overgrown sonovabitch is enjoying this!
His crew bashed at whatever screws, bolts, or maintenance panels they could reach with whatever they had to hoof. One busily pried up loose rivets using the screwdriver from his helmet. Before long an armored plate fell away, crashing to the sand and nearly taking a Vikean with it. The maroon pony managed to jump clear, catching the outstretched hoof of a comrade; in no time at all he was back to work pestering the thing.
And boy, was it pestered. The plate's removal had exposed massive gears and cables beneath, which combined with losing the shoulder-gunners seemed to firm up its pilot's resolve. The machine stopped backing up, shook itself out, and made as if to charge... straight at the Sjönhäst.
Straight at ME. Oh fu -
One, two, three big strides, and its right hoof (paw?) sent me scrabbling for cover as it smashed into the longship's aft deck. This, the hull planks and remaining axle did not survive, but amazingly enough the oak beams of the ship's frame did. Not that destroying the Sjönhäst was the monster's immediate objective. It began scraping its other leg against the hull like a radhog trying to rid itself of paradore newts. The grinding of iron on wood almost drowned out the screams of ponies, caught between, being rendered to pulp.
A moan sounding from much closer caught my attention. Looking around, I spotted an orange unicorn with gold mane and a shell-shocked look, trying to pull herself up through the shattered forward decking. I reached out to offer a hoof up, which she took gladly. "Th-thanks..."
I didn't get a chance to reply. The tank-thing began repositioning itself to scrape the other side, which required it to pull its right leg from the longship and back up a step first. The dragon up top had given up trying to burn the cannon's gunners and joined the others in hammering at the hatches, but none of them seemed to be having any luck. Two Vikeans were left clinging to the blood-smeared appendage.
Plus Hard Way, of course. His roaring could be heard above all else, clear as a doom bell.
"By this hammer of Häsverige, creature of Hel, BE DENIED!"
Taking the bulky tool in his teeth, he reared his head back and threw it right into a nexus of several large gears. Which immediately crushed it to metal chunks and splinters.
Well, so much for that.
The machine turned, stepped forward... tried to step forward. Failed. Stutteringly, with pings and sproings and sounds like an old carousel being fed through a sausage grinder, it managed only half the manuever before sounding an horrific groan and locking up completely. Not even the most drunken of casino line-dancers would have tried to hop on one leg, especially not if they had another sticking out at that angle.
But the walker's pilot, bless his never-say-die attitude, tried.
Gore-Nest's fliers took wing. Hard Way and his remaining stalwarts leaped clear. The orange mare shrieked, clutching me about the neck so hard I couldn't breathe, which also had the effect of preventing my departure from beneath the massive war-machine's shadow.
As it toppled directly onto what was left of the Sjönhäst.
Meaning us. There was an orange flash of disorientation...
...and then we were standing atop the far slope, right next to Pink-E, who seemed not at all surprised by our sudden appearance. "Hiya, Cherry! Nice view from up here, isn't it?" I blinked several times before remembering that, yes, teleportation is a thing some unicorns can do. Convenient, that. Now if I could just get my heart to realize I hadn't died two seconds ago...?
It was indeed a nice view, for what that was worth. When the dust settled, the walker lay sprawled upon a pile of shards and flinders that had once been Hard Way's pride and joy. A tatter of red-and-white sail fluttered against the wind, until the Vikean chieftain walked over and tore it free. Around him gathered what was left of his crew, fewer than half the number that had sailed from Gate-House mere hours ago.
Dragging something --- or rather, some body --- behind them, the bloodied survivors hiked up the slope towards us, grins and grimaces alternating from face to face. Hard Way's expression was easily a match for anything Pink-E's muzzle had ever sported.
"Now that," bellowed the blood-caked, bellicose beige, "was a FIGHT!"
* * * * *
OPERATIONAL ORDERS OF CONDUCT - for 17 Jun through 19 Jun
TO: SECURITY BATTALION, Com'y B, Lt. Spot Spotsson III (Esq.)
FM: EAST-CENTRAL COMMAND, Bdg.-Gen. Butcher Dukesdotter
Proceed best speed for Tunnel Intercept
Coord. X35.10.15, Y15.25.05, Z0.0.10 (Local)
Secure Package "Muffin", tbfo Earth-type Equine "Dead Shot"
No quarter, no survivors
Well, wasn't this a pile of horseapples.
The "somebody" was a Diamond Dog, dressed sharply in a well-tailored uniform and carrying a small tube containing the mass-murder directive. Other papers on his body --- despite being secured in a harness, he'd broken his neck when the walker plowed in --- identified him as a "Leftenant of Mobile Armor", the very Spot Spotsson yadda yadda named in the orders. Only one of his six-dog crew had survived the battle, and that only until a very angry dragon settled the matter of his brother being shot out of the sky. No one had bothered to try pulling him off. A quick check of the pit indicated it had been dug from below at a steep angle, with the tunnel collapsed behind. Not that any of us cared to go digging around underground at the moment, anyway.
None of this made any damn sense. Diamond Dogs. Really? I mean, I'd run into a couple of Dogs with sophisticated mannerisms and technology --- Mouthkicker and Thunder Child were testaments to that. But I'd figured them to be jumped-up tribals who'd lucked into some rich pony's pre-War cache, or something like that. Your average Dog was just another kind of tribal savage, dressed in rags and emerging from their underground lairs only to steal some food or goods before disappearing again. The Dogs who'd cut off the Imperial 15 were unusual only in that they'd been aggressive enough to do even that much.
Stories from back East told of cyber-Dogs, Taint-maddened mutant Dogs, and even a breed called "hellhounds" whose claws could take a Steel Ranger's head off with one swipe. But out here, nopony'd ever seen or heard of Dogs like that. They kept to themselves, so much so that nopony even knew if they had anything like permanent settlements.
This, though... this was too much. The uniform, the walking tank, the orders, even the rank (was a Leftenant like a Lieutenant, or was there a "Rightenant"?), suggested much more than just a lucky find matched to a few ambitious tribals.
On the plus side, each Dog had carried a steam-pistol sidearm similar to Mouthkicker. It was clear that while the designs were the same, each weapon was the product of expert craftsponyship (craftsdogship?), with no indication of mass-production. Two rifles, along Thunder-Child's lines, had also been found within the wreck, but nothing else worth noting or looting.
Eight surviving Vikeans, eight steam weapons. So at least that much worked out.
* * * * *
So this is a Vikean funeral. Say what you will about 'em, at least they know how to send off their dead.
Blast-furnace heat sent up dark boils of smoke from where the Sjönhäst's remains burned, augmented by the oil and grease bound up in the dead walker's guts. It also served as funeral pyre for the fallen, who'd been meticulously collected and interred amid the broken beams. The Dogs, on the other hoof, had been dragged out and viciously impaled on metal spars along a nearby ridge. The walker's wreckage had provided for that.
At least they didn't stoop to mutilation, I reassured myself, which means they might still listen to reason. Now what exactly the hell do I tell them?
They'd seen the Leftenant's orders before I had. From their point of view, I'd been holding out on them; how could I not know that I was carrying around something worth sending that kind of firepower after? They'd sailed right into an ambush, against an enemy I'd told them nothing about --- why should they believe I was almost as much in the dark as they were?
Showing what made the steam weapons unusual, and how to use them, staved off the dirty looks for a while, but it wasn't long before Hard Way himself got back around to the subject at hoof. "So, Dead-Shot," he calmly rumbled, setting his rifle (of course he'd try one) to one side. "What's this about you, dead Dogs and Muffins?" Perfectly amiable, perfectly sociable. Meaning if I didn't put some cards on the table right now, I was a dead pony.
I sighed and pulled forth the package from Eclair's personal stable. "As far as I can tell? This." It looked the same as when I'd nabbed it: thick white paper, carefully folded around a rectangular block. It hardly weighed anything. Come to think of it, what would make Eclair's present to Ditzy Doo so important? So important that he'd rigged a fake treasure to trick somepony like Domino Mask?
He leaned in close, peering dubiously. "Doesn't look like much."
"Yeah, I know. I don't even know what's in it. Just that the guy who built the Casino Royale kept this in a little fridge for a mare who never showed up. A message on the terminal pointing her to it had the weirdest encryption: all the passwords were set to 'muffin'." I rubbed at the tension headache starting to build up under my temple. "I did meet a Diamond Dog in there, for all of about ten seconds. Got my own steam pistol off him when he was killed. He'd been trying to force an... um... well, another pony, to help him get into the Casino." I didn't exactly feel like getting into a discussion about whatever the bloody blue blazes God had been.
Hard Way snorted and stomped a hoof, sending out a tremor I could feel through all four of mine. "So you got whatever they were after. And they just killed fourteen of my best sailors, trying to take it." His tail lashed angrily; if a bloatfly had happened to zip past his rump at that moment, it would have died instantly.
I quickly laid the package on the ground and started unfolding its thick, porous wrapper. If I'm going to die today, I want to see what for, first! Like a funereal flower, Uptown Eclair's last bequest was finally laid open to the world, the rest of the Vikeans gathering in a close circle to see the "golden treasure" their shipmates had died for.
The Specialty Shoppe at Canterlot
ONE DOZEN "MADE-FROM-SCRATCH" GOLDBERRY MUFFINS
~~~buttery-good to melt on your tongue, made with love to melt in your heart~~~
"Sealed for Freshness!"
Wat. I rocked back onto my haunches, dumbfounded and disbelieving. A nearby whumpf told me that Hard Way had just done the same. Pink-E darted in with a squeal of sheer delight. "Whoopee! Pony Joe's baked goods are just the best!"
WAT. No one else could find it in them to move from where they stood or sat. No one but Pink-E, who had no trouble tearing the freshness-sealed box open with her animatronic teeth. The muffins inside never stood a chance. I felt my old red monster stirring in the depths of his cage.
This was it? This was the 'Derp Money' everypony had been after for centuries? THIS stupidity?! A bunch of fucking MUFFINS?!
"Oh look, Cherry! Schematics for a device sure to completely unbalance the world as we know it!"
"- what?" I blinked, the card-house of my building rage collapsing in on itself. Every Vikean joined me in bending over to stare at the thick, porous paper that was now covered in shredded box debris and muffin crumbs.
Debris, crumbs, and the blueprints for Eclair's nanosprite-driven dispenser technology.
Well, isn't that one giant bumblefuck of a MacGuffin right there... wait. What's a MacGuffin?
Footnote: Level Up.
Skill Note: Small Guns (75)