CHAPTER TWO: Slimm Pickings
"I hired you people t'try to get a little track laid, not jump around like a buncha Appaloosian faggots!"
The curious connections between Mr. Horse, VIC-20, and the Courier (was I capitalizing the job title of a pony I'd never met, now?) were interesting, but you couldn't just let your mind wander when traveling across the Great Western Wasteland --- what some ponies called "riding the Moohave". Successful caravaneers develop the habit of keeping alert for anything out of the ordinary while on the move. Those that don't become dead caravaneers.
Yet the thing that caught my eye while retracing my hoofprints back to Slimm, even as my measured gallop of a gait made the miles drawl past, was what was missing: the little gang outposts I'd seen the Mite-ys maintaining on my way up to Goodsprings. Though I didn't detour to take a closer look, it was evident even at a distance that each site's hastily-established shacks had been entirely abandoned. I craned my neck around to better scan the horizon as I hit a downward bend in the road.
Where did they -
What sounded like a fast-moving insect zipped past my right ear. Crap! For all my supposed habits of staying aware, I'd been looking at and thinking about what was to my left and rear instead of what I was galloping straight into. I hadn't even noticed when a small red blip appeared in my right-peripheral field of vision, the entire reason for having the PipBuck's "Eyes-Forward-Sparkle" spell active in the first place.
Luck was with me on three counts: one, the first shot hadn't ventilated my face before I even knew to duck. Two, the ganger's levitating rustbucket of a varmint rifle had jammed. And three, I was almost upon the half-finished wall of sandbags when that one shot got my attention. Instead of trying to stop and draw a weapon, which would likely end with my plowing into the barrier, I bunched my haunches and leapt right over the short wall at the riflepony.
Only in mid-leap did I notice Varmint Rifle had two earth-pony buddies who'd been taking a bit of a siesta in the limited shade provided by their low wall, both of whom blinked up at me in surprise as I sailed overhead. I realized belatedly that I'd committed myself to win this fracas or die trying.
Then again, I may have mentioned already that I'm not exactly a slouch when it comes to a brawl. I wasn't big, but speed and inertia were on my side, my forehooves punching into Varmint's unarmored chest with the satisfyingly distinct sound of cracking ribs. The puke-green unicorn and I went over in a tumble of kicking and flailing legs, but I managed to get a mouthful of his throat latch and locked my jaws down hard. He screamed like a filly who'd been knifed.
Shotgun Pony was the first to regain his hooves, fumbling his sawed-off weapon from its chest holster. Varmint screamed again as I managed to get my hooves beneath me, pivoting backwards to drag his body across the line of fire: "No! NO!"
Twin buckshot blasts took the unicorn in the side, dozens of lead pellets smashing through flesh and shattering bone on their way to perforating heart and lungs. Shotgun's mouth dropped open in momentary shock, his empty weapon clattering to the pavement.
I let Varmint slump to the ground, spinning about to kick both hindhooves in the direction of the big black colt, who seemed to have had a harder time waking up. An empty bottle of tequila, lying on the ground where he'd been resting, might have had something to do with that. Another sharp crack rewarded my efforts, sending him back to slumberland with a noticeable contusion across the side of his skull.
With luck like this, I should be on the Strip with a pair of dice in my hot little hooves!
By this time Shotgun had recovered enough to get his weapon back and try hurriedly shoving fresh shells into its chamber. At this range, he couldn't miss... then again, neither could I. And I didn't have to reload. I only had to draw the Courier's old ten-millimeter semi-auto from its leather shoulder-holster and, since I cared more for speed and survival right now than saving a few caps on ammo, to call up the PipBuck's Spell-Assisted Targeting System.
Time froze. Shotgun's golden-brown face, chest and forelegs, even his sawed-off shotty, all outlined themselves in numbered green borders, the same way as I'd seen with the scorpion in Goodsprings. I could see the fear in his eyes; good. It wasn't just that it would make him more prone to mistakes when it came to the finer details of manipulating complex machinery --- like a shotgun --- but this pissant little shit was in my way. I targeted two shots to the foreleg that was desperately trying to ram the reloads home, and a third to his noggin.
Release. PAM PAM PAM, went the pistol, a trio of ejected shells arcing up and behind me. Shotgun's foreleg shuddered under dual point-blank impacts that whirled him about, coincidentally causing my head shot to go wide. The shotgun skittered several yards down the highway, well out of reach. He stared after it for a long moment, reflexively clasping his wounded leg while straining short, sharp breaths through brown-stained teeth. After a moment, he clenched his eyes shut to await the final shot.
It was about a minute before he realized that he wasn't dead. I was busily looting the respectively dead and unconscious bodies of Varmint and Pistol, whose feckless hairstyles and vulgar cutie marks interested me far less than what was in their battered saddlebags. Some clean water, pain pills of the famed Med-X variety, a healing potion, scraps of food and junk and trinkets, and of course their guns and ammo. It really wasn't much.
Shotgun was trying to crawl away, behind the sandbags and into the roadside bushes, when I firmly planted a hoof on his wounded shoulder. He cried out, so I withdrew the hoof and kicked him in the belly just hard enough to hurt. It had the desired effect of getting his attention --- though I wasn't sure the blubbering which ensued was an improvement.
"Mister, I dunno, we didn't mean nothin', don't kill me, I'll go away, just please..."
I kicked him harder, before the sobbing audible at the back of his throat started up in earnest, and bent down to rifle his pouches while keeping the ten-mil trained on his head. When I had taken what few caps, ammo, and chems he had that were worth the trouble, I stood back up and holstered the pistol.
"All I care about, is that your moron friend there shot at me. If you hadn't pulled your piece out, stayed the hell outta my business, I'd've left you alone. He might even be alive, if he'd been smart enough to stay down once I stove in his ribcage. With any luck, your other idiot pal's gonna get off easy with a concussion." I turned and started walking down the road towards Slimm, casually saddlebagging his shotgun along the way.
"In all honesty, you bucks aren't worth my bullets. Tell your friends they better keep it that way."
I managed to put a good quarter-mile between us before I let my legs do the shaking they were so insistent upon.
* * * * *
It wasn't long after my run-in with the Mite-ys' attempt at setting up a roadblock that I found out where the rest of them had gone.
One of the few things I'd picked up in Goodsprings was a decent if battered set of binoculars, which I was able to make good use of from a low ridge overlooking the little tourist-trap town. Small groups of escaped convicts roamed the streets, smashing their way into what few houses and businesses there were, stealing anything they could get their hooves on. I didn't see many civilians aside from a few dead in the streets, but if the dozen or so Mite-ys surrounding the Derpy & Dinky Casino were any indication, they were mostly holed up in there. I didn't think it was because they wanted to see any of the relics on display at the Pony Express Museum ("See the Mailmare Mania of Yesteryear, Today!").
It was a siege --- and not one I had any interest in involving myself with, regardless of the insistent "quest" marker on my PipBuck's little green map. The proposition was made all the nastier by several snipers who'd perched along the half-collapsed tracks of an ancient roller-coaster, which had once been the premiere attraction of Slimm's only other entertainment venue: Pinkie's Dance Hall. Somehow its slow-turning sign, a dancing pink filly in red fishnet stockings and bustle, looked even more garish with the morning light washing out its dim neon glare.
Scanning further south, I could make out that the New Coltifornia outpost on the western side of I-15 hadn't been attacked. For that matter, it looked like the NCR troops and Mite-ys were more or less content to just keep an eye on one another, not even trading the occasional pot-shot. I stowed the binoculars and made my way down the ridge.
* * * * *
Lieutenant Hays struck me as a curiosity: a pony with so little on the ball, being nonetheless able to earn a commission in the New Coltifornia military. Perhaps I'd missed my calling...
"Let me get this straight. You're here to contain the gang that's currently in total control of the town you're immediately adjacent to. You need more support to roust them out, but you don't have a functional radio to call for that support, and it would take you sending one pony for a few hours to the border outpost to get some backup --- but you want me to do it for you." Hays nodded as though the concept of sarcasm had never been invented.
"Correct. Our situation here is too tenuous to risk losing any more troops, even for a few hours, so - "
I brushed off his response with a hoofwave. "If your situation's that bad, you should've pulled out by now."
Now he scowled. "My orders aren't for civilians to interpret. If you aren't going to help, then I've got better things to be doing."
I fought to prevent my eyes from rolling towards the ceiling of Hays' dingy little command tent. "All I want to know is, did you see anypony in a checkered suit with a few rough-looking bodyguards pass through here a few days ago? That's the only reason I'm bothering you in the first place."
He shook his head and went back to poring over the paperwork he'd been going through when I was shown inside. "The Mite-ys only moved into Slimm yesterday, which is the only reason my troops and I are here at all. Whatever problem you may have with this suit and his friends, it isn't a Coltifornia issue, or mine. Now get out."
I waited until I was back outside to let loose a primal snort of frustration.
Two days, and the trail was already starting to go cold. The PipBuck still pointed to the besieged casino; it made sense that Benny and his goons might actually be there, too. A New Pegas high-roller, having one last gambling spree before leaving Neighvada? It was almost cliche. If they were holed up in there, then getting the lieutenant his support would be the best way to eliminate the Mite-ys surrounding the place so I could finish up this job.
Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that the PipBuck was malfunctioning, or that I was misinterpreting its marker somehow. Benny's group might already be across the Coltifornia border, if they hadn't stopped for anything but catching a few winks. In that case, it was highly likely that somepony in the NCR's border outpost would've noticed Benny's unusual choice in attire. Confirming or refuting that he'd left Neighvada was my next logical step.
Looking back across the highway towards Slimm told me what I already knew; that if Benny was still stuck in the Derpy & Dinky, the Mite-ys would keep him penned up for at least the few hours I'd be going out of my way. I stepped back into the tent, holding up a forehoof to stave off Hays' immediate glare.
"You've convinced me of my civic duty, Lieutenant. I'll go get the colts you need --- to finish both your job and mine."
* * * * *
The run south to the NCR's border station was more of an easy trot, and a rather picturesque one at that. Immediately south of Slimm was Ivannapony Dry Lake, home to occasional clumps of honey mesquite trees, barrel cacti, and oversized bugs like dragon ants and scorpions, but the view went on unimpeded for miles into the hazy blue distance.
Never seen a dragon ant? The bastards get as big as a pony sometimes, and most of them breathe fire. I skirted around the few bandits hanging out around the old "Neighvada Highway Patrol Station" --- really, just a pre-War Pony Joe's with a bunch of police-marked skywagons parked out front --- but I ended up having to clear a good half-dozen dragon ants out of the underpass a ways further south of that. Of course, the second you shoot one of the little bastards, all their buddies nearby try to swarm you.
It turned into a bit of a running battle before I was done, but it was less of a risk than going across the bug-infested Ivannapony, or even worse, through the abandoned Hippocampus Energy station adjacent to the underpass. That place had several of the aforementioned "armored poison-delivery vehicle" variety of giant radscorpion, wandering around its rusty old skywagon rechargers in search of smaller critters to eat, or perhaps just enjoying the shade of its half-collapsed overhang.
Besides, dragon ants are a good source of protein, and their carapaces sometimes have a thin coating of the jelly they make in their mounds. Tastes foul, but it's one hell of a rejuvenator and sells pretty well on the open market. If I hadn't been in a hurry, I'd've stopped to do some chopping and scraping.
Since I was, I put on a bit of extra speed, weaving through a dense pack of wrecked and abandoned wagons as the highway turned onto a long uphill grade. At the crest, a sign bearing the image of a two-headed Ursa Minor read, "NCR Ranger Outpost - Moohave".
Puffing and lathered with sweat, I finally passed beyond the guards at the chain-link fence and wended my way through the packed crowds of caravaneers awaiting clearance to continue their travels. It didn't matter which direction they were going: every caravan into and out of Neighvada got the twice-over for security, and usually a once-over for graft. The paperwork and hassle were another reminder of why I'd made such a permanent shift in occupations.
Still and all, the place looked more cramped for some reason than it reasonably should have been. For me, that was both a good and a bad thing --- good, because it meant more folks who might've seen Benny. Bad, because when I managed to squirm into the station's combination trading post and bar, it was crammed full of ponies just as road-filthy as I was, with a single slow-turning fan uselessly stirring the stifled atmosphere. My hopes of getting something to cool off with were effectively smashed.
By the time I finally made it to the bar and got the attention of the beleaguered-looking mare behind it, I was in no mood for anything that didn't contain alcohol.
"Whiskey!" For a second, in the chaos of drinking and talking and mumbling and shouting ponies, it sounded like my voice had an echo. The bartender clunked a full bottle of watery-looking hooch on the counter, I tossed a hoofful of caps over to pay for it, and blinked as a roughly equal amount simultaneously clinked into contact with mine. A hoof swept the commingled pile into the bartender's pouch, immediately after which she made herself busy with another customer at the opposite end of the bar.
Before I could yell something after her, another hoof grabbed my bottle and tipped a shotglass' worth out of it. I rounded on the thief with a snarl.
"You'd better be planning on paying for that little snort of booze, you little - " I think I'd intended to say something else, but it took a moment to realize what I was looking at. There on a dilapidated barstool, likely salvaged from the Pony Joe's I'd passed on the way here, sat a gray-coated molly with a bright red fringe of close-cropped mane. It wasn't the red mane that caught me up short (though that was unusual enough on a mule), nor the worn leather jacket and flannel shirt which, along with straw hat and holstered repeater rifle, made up her wardrobe.
It was the look in her jaded green eyes, as she glared right back at me. "Ya snooze, ya lose... and it's my booze, seein' as how I paid for it." She tossed the shot back and grimaced. Not the grimace of somepony who's never had whiskey before, but of somepony who knows they've just been sold a pig in a poke.
"Not that you're missin' anything here, mister. Go on, have a shot of this horse piss if ya want, Luna knows I'm not gonna finish the bottle off." Belying the words, she poured herself another shot before scooting the bottle my way. I gave the molly a sidelong look, shrugged, and decided it wasn't worth getting into a gunfight over. Five seconds later, I found myself trying not to spit the stuff out and nodding in agreement.
"If that isn't actual piss, it's water out of somepony's rusty-ass tap --- no offense." Her only reaction was to pour another shot, this time for each of us. At some point when I was still working up the nerve to swallow my second, she'd already polished off her fourth.
"None taken. It's prolly because everypony's trapped here like me, an' there ain't enough booze to go around so they're cuttin' it t'make it last longer. But they're short on clean water, too, so..."
We commiserated for a while about the sorry state of liquor supplies in the Moohave Wasteland, the weather, the troubles and travails of caravan life --- it was actually refreshing to meet somepony who wasn't trying to scam you somehow, who knew what a ration of brahminshit was before they were told to eat it. She was patriotic about the NCR without blindly buying into its hype as "the future of Equestria's children", she didn't hold it against me for dropping out of the trading business, and Celestia but she could hold her whiskey --- watered down or not --- judging by the two empty bottles already sitting next to her.
In exchange for listening to the story of how her entire business had literally gone up in smoke thanks to raiders carrying around some high-tech firepower (which sounded to me like Steel Rangers, and I said so), I managed to get in a few questions about Mr. Checkered Suit. She hadn't seen him, but pointed me in the direction of some of the other traders hanging around the station who I might ask. Finally I tipped my hat and took to my hooves, leaving the rest of the bottle in her care.
"Thanks for taking time to gab with me, ma'am, but I've got to be running along." She gave a jackass grin and returned the gesture.
"I ain't nopony's 'madam'. Call me Whiskey Rose."
* * * * *
As I galloped back towards Slimm, I noted the position of the sun and cursed myself for spending more time flapping my lips than I should have. Not that I hadn't accomplished anything; from having worked through the network of caravaneers which started with Rose, I was definitely sure that Benny hadn't crossed the border.
Still, I could have been back on the trail and doing my job hours ago. At a minimum, such a lapse was unprofessional of me. At worst, it meant letting the gap between myself and my prey widen, if he wasn't where the PipBuck marker suggested.
It hadn't been hard to convince the bucks in charge of the outpost to send out troops to relieve the siege at Slimm, especially when I let Ranger Jacks know that I'd already cleared the Ivannapony underpass of dragon ants. Apparently that'd been the main reason the outpost was so crammed with caravans, waiting for somepony to get around to clearing the road. Which didn't make any sense at all to me, as the Imperial 15 still had big problems with the siege of Slimm, the Mite-ys having taken over their prison north of that, and the Diamond Dog infestation north of Goodsprings. The dragon ants were the least of the problems involved with going up that road! Trade with New Pegas currently relied on going east through Nipton, ignoring that underpass altogether.
Yet despite Major Knight's promise of reinforcements, it was going to take him the rest of the day to organize a large force, and he had no interest in doing a night march. He wasn't going to move on the Mite-ys until morning.
I'd already wasted enough time doing my "civic duty". I trotted into Lieutenant Hays' tent just after sundown, letting him know what was up, before doing what I should have done in the first place --- heading into town to follow up the PipBuck's lead on my own.
* * * * *
If there was one thing that going to the Outpost had done for me (besides allowing for a nice, relaxing conversation with an interesting molly), it was in providing the opportunity to improve my ordnance. As much as I loved my (t)rusty old rifle, in its standard configuration it had never really been intended for anything more demanding than picking off lesser forms of vermin --- whether insect or pony in nature. The only reason I still had it was because it was cheap, and I was still relatively poor. It didn't help that, at the prices being gouged by the NCR's trading post, I couldn't even afford a beat-up version of Rose's rather archaic repeater rifle.
Fortunately, they'd also had a wide variety of upgrade kits in stock. One prolonged haggling session later, my "varmint rifle" sported a silencer, magazine extension, and scope, though the purchase still virtually annihalated the contents of my cap pouch even after adding most of what I'd taken off the Mite-y bucks into the bargain.
Now, as I knelt and carefully mouthed the rifle's grip, I gazed through its scope at the nearest of the Mite-ys patrolling the streets of Slimm.
They really weren't very good at this game. From the distant sound of their arguments with one another, I could tell that they considered guard duty to be punishment and took it about as seriously as staring at wall cracks. They shiftlessly wandered around sucking on bottles of cheap beer with their weapons holstered, or snuck off into corners for a quick snort of Scorpio and babbled about the pretty colors brought on by the hallucinogen.
Breathe out. Squeeze.
Walk alone, die alone. He took it right in the skull, one more dead body mingling with the already-decaying corpses of murdered locals. Here on the largely unlit streets, he wouldn't be noticed unless and until somepony tripped over him.
This was why I felt some of my best work as a bounty hunter was done at night --- get in, get the job done, and get out when everypony tended to be less aware, if not just plain sleeping. Over the years I'd gradually learned the tricks of seeing almost as well at night as during the day, like silhouette recognition and light discipline... I kept low as I moved further up the street, staying within the shadows cast by ruined buildings that stood against the cloud-dimmed moonlight.
Checking around a doorway, seeing nopony, no tripwires, no telltale arming lights that might warn of a landmine. Across the deserted room and up the stairwell, touching each step only with the edges of unshod hooves, minimizing the sound of my tread, the shoes themselves individually wrapped in thick cloth and stowed in my saddlebags.
At the top of the stairs the building's upward rise ended in a nonexistent roof. Jagged brick walls threw convoluted shades of darkness this way and that, but the only other pony up here who might have seen didn't care for anything except what might be beyond his sniper's vantage point. Because he was looking out instead of in, it became my vantage point.
I moved to the window, peered out, spent a minute seeing who was moving where, and picked targets.
pyewt pyewt... pyewt...
Now there were three dead Mite-ys lying in view of Slimm's one major cross-street, where each of the casino, dance hall and Pony Express office held corners. Rusted-out barrels filled with burning trash provided the main source of illumination, accompanied by the glaring red-and-pink neon of Pinkie's rotating sign and the stark white flashing of the casino's external lighting, but for the time being it seemed that nopony else had taken notice.
More importantly, the gap I'd just created between patrols gave me the chance to dart down the stairs, scurry across the street, and slip through the curiously unlocked and unbarred double doors of the Derpy & Dinky Casino (Home of the Historically-Authentic Museum of the Pony Express). I closed the door quietly behind me, turned around, and...
It's amazing what interesting effects the sound of cocking guns can have on the bowels, especially when there are a lot of the aforementioned guns and they are all very clearly pointed at you.
* * * * *
"Whoa whoa whoa, there, folks --- I c'n vouch for this feller."
I hadn't known Nash Rambler all that well, personally --- more a friend of my father than mine --- but I'd never been quite so happy to see him as he stepped out from the crowd of heavily-armed locals. The looseness in my gut firmed back up in direct proportion to the speed with which the various rifles, pistols, clubs and other implements of destruction were put away by their grumbling owners. Nash walked forward with a look on his face that declared his firm belief in my presumed idiocy, stopped, and pointed with one hoof to the mess directly behind me.
"Welcome t'Hell, young'in. Plannin' on cleanin' up after yerself, there?" I glowered at him, suppressing with difficulty the desire to grind my teeth.
DON'T punch the buck who co-signed your contract... don't do it...
I managed a deep breath and moment of relaxation instead. "Y'know, there's a reason they call it 'scaring the shit out of somepony'. I'll deal with it --- and also with anypony giving me grief about it." Rambler snorted.
"Sure, kid. In any case, I'd ask why ya came back here so soon, but I think we both know the reason. Get that taken care of first, then come see me over at that slot machine yonder," he nodded in the appropriate direction, "and I'll tell ya what ya need to know." I didn't bother to nod back as I headed towards the nearest door marked 'Janitorial'.
I didn't make it three lengths before somepony sitting at a table with a few friends (and not a few empty beers) made a poorly-timed remark about my intestinal fortitude. Even unshod, my hoof shoving sideways simultaneously taught the buck one lesson about tact and another about maintaining one's balance, toppling him from his chair with a squawk of surprise. To my good fortune, his buddies laughed at him instead of bristling in his defense. Though his glass-eyed glare followed me, he had at least the common sense to recall that drunks --- without backup, at any rate --- make for poor odds in combat. By the time I trotted back past his table with a bucket of soapy water and mop clenched in my mouth, he'd managed to regain interest in the bottle he'd been nursing beforehoof.
It was the work of a few very long and embarrassing minutes during which I avoided meeting the looks tossed my way, while everypony else studiously avoided repeating the drunkard's mistake. By the time I finally put the cleaning supplies back and headed for Rambler's spot by the slots, he'd managed to work up a wry smile that, for him, was probably the equivalent of busting a gut. That was as far as he let mirth take him before the dour old look returned.
"If yer on the tail of that courier-killer, nopony's in this casino that wasn't in town when ya left. So I figure yer after somepony what came through here, or ya wouldn't've even stopped by. Am I right?"
"Dead right." I lifted my PipBuck so he could get a better look, prompting a short whistle of appreciation.
"Haven't seen one of those in more'n a decade. If it actually works, I'd say ya got yer 'bonus' early. Lemme guess, it toldja that the killers came to Slimm, huh?"
"Only bonus I'm looking for is measured in caps... gadgets like this won't feed the radhog." I brought up the device's map screen and gestured to the marker outlining the casino. "But yeah, it did, so - " Rambler nonchalantly leaned forward and double-tapped the 'Data' button next to the screen, which instantly switched first to the entry on 'Benny and the Jet-Heads', and then to a text description that was a bit more informative:
"Find out who in Slimm has seen Benny and his Cossack bodyguards."
Rambler chuckled. "Yep. Been more'n a decade, but I still remember that doctor fella showin' it off when he was askin' directions to Goodsprings. Poor cuss acted like if it wasn't on that little map there, a place might as well not exist."
I blinked. Then I scowled at the PipBuck and its traitorous failure to give me critical information which I'd never thought to ask it for. Then I felt my facial and throat muscles knotting up against the sound trying to claw its way out of my larynx.
So this wasn't even a pointer to Benny, only to somepony who'd seen him, and what, was I supposed to ask the entire goddess-damned town about it? Maybe I should get their names and occupations down on a little notepad while I was at it, set up a right proper fucking census or maybe -
"So, yeah, I seen them Cossack fellers. Buck in a checkered suit with 'em. That was this 'Benny'?"
The anger rushed out of me in a long gusty sigh, deflating my mood like an airship losing gas. Well, it was an improvement over bodily detonation, I suppose. "Yeah. By 'was', I take it you mean they're not still around?"
"Nope. They came into Slimm right behind the gangsters, not long before we all holed up in here. After the Mite-ys murdered Sheriff McBay and his wife in their sleep, Deputy Deagle got it into his head to try his hoof at bein' all snoopy. Got himself caught while listenin' in on a conversation between the Mite-y bosses and yer 'Benny' fella, and it wasn't long after that him and his Cossacks left town. Deagle might'a heard somethin' useful... which'd be about the only useful thing that yellow-tailed dude-rancher ever did, what I heard of."
As though in Deagle's defense, the PipBuck gave a slight beep and a message in muted green light flashed before my eyes:
"QUEST UPDATE: Find out from Deputy Deagle which way Benny went."
Punching the map back up revealed that the marker had moved across the street to Pinkie's Dance Hall. I stood there staring at it, trying to remember what Doc Hitchup'd said about how the hell it knew this stuff.
"Huh," Rambler muttered, peering at the little blip on the screen. "That'll be a right pain. Mite-ys made Pinkie's their headquarters after we corralled ourselves in here. Well, guess we'll be needin' both a new sheriff and a new deputy." I flicked the Pip-Buck's map off and rubbed my chin in thought for a moment.
"Don't suppose anypony's up for forming a rescue party...?" The old buck snorted a harsh laugh.
"Are you kiddin' me, kid? Look around. Everypony here's so scared out of their wits that they're ready to blast anypony what comes through those doors. If they had any sense, they'd be rippin' up some of these slot machines and card tables for barricades, but as it is, they're not gonna poke their heads outside for one of those snipers to pop without a lawpony to rally behind. No, they're gonna sit tight right here, until them Mite-ys realize all they need is to start chuckin' dynamite in and finish us off."
Great. Juuuuust great. A town of cowards in need of a badge to hide behind before it could grow a spine of its own. My gaze swept across the casino's main room, full of ponies getting drunk, or huddling in small muttering groups, or trying to comfort their crying brats, or meandering aimlessly past the figure of a Robronco Protectron in a cowpoke hat just standing there...
I couldn't stop myself from giving dour old Nash Rambler a sly look. "Any law'll do, will it...?"
* * * * *
"Welcome, podner, to the Derpy and Dinky Casino, home of the Historically-Authentic Museum of the Pony Express! Let me give you the five-bit tour, absolutely free of charge, courtesy of your kind hosts here at the Derpy and Dinky!"
The Protectron line had been Robronco's all-in-one security and protocol model, ponderous but dependable. I looked the robot up one side and down the other, noting the pony-like conformation of its metallic withers, forelegs, and flanks. Besides its glued-on hat, it sported a faded paint job in the casino's grey-on-white colors, as well as enough synthetic nylon hair-plugs to almost outnumber those which had fallen out over the centuries. Its "cutie mark" seemed to resemble a pair of pony heads, tucked against one another and looking at the viewer, though the years had worn away all but the barest of outlines.
Yet for all of its obvious age, it seemed to be in top internal condition. Somepony had clearly been keeping up with at least its basic maintenance. I was reaching out to flip up its blue-resin faceplate and try my hoof at reconfiguring its mission-parameter settings, when it turned and started walking away with an automated "follow-me" tail-flick that managed to smack me right in the cheek.
"Speechless at such an offer, eh, friend? Well, I'm Slimm Two-None, your happy guide for today's tour! Prepare to be doubly amazed at the rich historical legacy of the first mailmares to service the Moohave Desert region!"
Luna blast me! I should have said something to hold the thing's electronic attention for at least another few moments... instead, I scrambled to catch up, only to collide with its rump a few paces later. What the hell - ?
The robot's head turned and flashed a soft blue light, indicating a short podium displaying a small bronze model of a pegasus pony pulling an archaic delivery cart. As best I could tell, the main two reasons it had never been stolen were that it was essentially useless and had been bolted to the floor. It was so beneath notice, no one had ever seen fit to even vandalize the little monument to a long-dead (and undoubtedly boring) civil servant.
"This here is an absolutely accurate rendition of the very first mailmare to deliver the post to Slimm, which itself raised the first post office for the Moohave region KZZZT POST-REBOOT ERROR: TIME AND DATE ENTRIES MISSING years ago!" I started for a moment at the sudden shift in pitch from 'jovial tour guide' to 'soulless machine' and back again, though of course the soulless machine took no notice whatsoever of its slip.
It was pretty obvious that I was going to have to endure the entire tour, unless I wanted to risk crashing the robot's operating system by interrupting its just-as-obvious primary function. Hoping this new delay wouldn't last too long, I gave the model and then the robot equally annoyed glances, then did a double-take... the little bronze pegasus actually was quite well-detailed, to the point you could see the bubbles that made up her flank-brand. But her eyes? I stifled a laugh before remembering the robot didn't care, and then cut loose with an honest-to-Celestia guffaw. Somepony'd gotten away with robbing the casino's owners, unless they'd intentionally paid good money to have those eyes pointed in completely opposite directions!
"We hasten to point out that she is only known hereabouts by the loving and respectful nickname of 'Derpy Hooves', since she was so diligent in her duties that she always left with the outgoing mail immediately after dropping her load, and never left her real name on the record! Rumors of lawsuits concerning the use of her real name or likeness without her permission are utterly without basis."
I had my own notions for the nickname's origin, but as nopony nearby was going to care one way or the other, much less the robot, I kept them to myself.
A few more paces, and Two-None turned to gesture towards a little diorama where a wooden scale model of Pinkie's Dance Hall sat perfectly preserved in a thick glass case beneath a dim red lamp. I was more impressed by the fact that the case's preservation spell hadn't failed after more than two centuries of continuous operation. A full quarter of the model's roof had been staved in by a huge load of pianos, anvils and hay bales which had clearly fallen from a red wagon directly above. Both the wagon and its harnessed owner, who looked terribly embarrassed, hung from thin wires to present the cheap illusion that they were hovering.
"There are also no records to confirm that her first load was dropped directly through the roof of the, ahem - establishment - across the street from our fair casino. But we here at the Derpy and Dinky assure you that such slanderous rumors regarding our beloved historical heroines only serve to demonstrate why your time is better served enjoying our excellent selection of games and diversions!"
I followed my mechanical tour guide, feeling a little better despite my desire to be back on Benny's trail. He couldn't go north along the blocked-off Imperial 15, and he hadn't gone west to New Coltifornia --- so he'd either gone south around the mountains towards the Coltorado River and the fringes of Herd territory, or cut directly east across Slimm Pass into No-Pony and then north along the I-95 to New Pegas. There was nowhere else to run but the unforgiving desert wastes.
"To my left you can see a painstakingly-recreated full-size replica of Derpy Hooves' very own delivery cart! Powered by genuine Robronco SuperSpark batteries (rechargeable for a full millennium of regular use when given proper routine maintenance by certified Robronco technicians), her little red wagon is probably still flying today --- so the next time you think of getting your little red wagon fixed, think Robronco SuperSparks!"
I was still betting that a buck smart enough to rip off Mr. Horse wasn't stupid enough to go back to the city he ruled with a robot police force, but if I guessed wrong I was only going to fall further behind in my pursuit. A few minutes lost here shouldn't be that much of an issue...
...I looked up from my musings to realize that the robot's tour had moved out of the main hall and into a large side wing of the casino. A wing entirely devoted to mailmares and the history of Equestrian postal delivery, of which we'd only progressed through a tenth so far. Slimm Two-None continued to expound upon the purported relevance of a collection of non-functional vehicles, every one of which would have needed a pegasus to pull them even if they were operational. Not even somepony from the so-called 'Grand Pegasus Enclave' could possibly have found this interesting!
A few moments, spent pounding my face against the faux-marble surface of the nearest vehicular display dais, helped immensely with centering myself and surely contributed to the continued longevity of a stupid, stupid, stupid tourist-trap robot.
"Although regular mail and parcel deliveries were eventually collectivized under the Equestrian Postal Service, it was through the efforts of Derpy Hooves that the gallant mailmares of her day collaborated to create its fore-runner --- the vaunted Pony Express. Throughout the frontiers of Equestria, relay stations were established to ensure fresh spark batteries, water and hay would be available to these doughty delivery-pioneers. Those stations in turn eventually became the basis for our modern Imperial Highway systems, along which you can today find more extensive and luxurious services provided by the smiling attendants of such companies as Hippocampus Energy and Solstice Solar!"
Okay, now I was gnashing my teeth.
"And of course, the Pony Express continues to thrive even today as a private parcel-delivery corporation whose local offices are right across the street. Stop in and receive a one-time five-percent discount on any single delivery, just for mentioning that Derpy and Dinky sent you!"
While technically that might actually be of some small value to somepony, it was based on the assumption that Nash Rambler gave enough of a damn to honor the promises of pre-War tourbots. Come to think of it, he probably would. Did this thing have ANYTHING to say that wasn't wrapped up in an advertisement?!
Two-None stopped again, this time at a full-size statue of a little unicorn filly sitting on her haunches with a vapid smile carved into her slate-gray face.
"But how could we tell the tale of the Pony Express without mentioning the other darling of our tour, Dinky? You probably already know how that plucky little filly earned her cutie mark right here in Slimm, and how she'd already endeared herself to Slimm's residents through her playful antics and happy nature. But did you know that it was her attempt to fly alongside her famous mom which inspired the founding of Rep'corn Aerospace? If you ask nicely at the front desk, somepony will be happy to provide a map showing where you can find the legendary launch, ejection, and impact sites, for just a token fee..."
No. No it didn't. My right eye began to twitch.
At long last (easily a full hour by the Pip-Buck's built-in clock), Slimm Two-None completed its circuit and came to a halt back where it began in the main casino room. My brain was so dulled by the experience that I smacked face-first into the robot's metal rump. As I shook my head to clear it of stars and fuzz, it began to repeat:
"Welcome, podner, to the Derpy and Dinky Casino..."
I leapt for the faceplate. "No! NOT AGAIN!" My fumbling hooves managed to lift the cover and punch the override before Two-None's programming switched modes from 'Greeting' back to 'Tour'.
"Let meeee giiiiiiii - " was all it managed, to my eternal relief. "Awaiting protocol affirmation."
I grunted, mouthing a screwdriver from my saddlebag and poking with it under the faceplate until I found the detent button. A gentle press, and the left-side casing of Two-None's skull popped open, revealing its internal workings. Gears, servos, power conduits, all embedded with tiny gems whose magical runeworkings ensured mutual mechanical and electronic cooperation. They also made it relatively easy to re-route power from one programming block to another. I didn't want to think about what kind of a nightmare the schematics for something like this would look like, if it ran purely on the physical laws of nature!
Flipping one cranial core this way, and another one that, achieved the seating I wanted --- one which would force the cerebral power supply directly into that part of Two-None's program block marked "Security". It was the work of moments to snap the skull casing back into its slots, press the master reset button, and flip the robot's faceplate back down. The rest would have to wait on...
"REBOOT COMPLETE. DIAGNOSTIC LOG FILED. SECURITY MODE: ACTIVE. Good day, sir or madam. Security Line 'Integral Millennium', Model Two-point-Zero, reporting all systems online and functional."
A grin stretched across my muzzle. "Nice to hear, 'podner'. Turns out we need a little law in this town..."
* * * * *
The good ponies of Slimm hadn't reacted with what I would have called overwhelming enthusiasm to Two-None's change in behavior, but Rambler'd been right: all they really needed was an authority figure of some kind to get behind.
Literally. When the casino's internal lights were doused and its doors opened, it was only just wide enough for the robot to ponderously but dependably make its way into the open street. To what little credit they deserved, the townsfolk didn't immediately slam the doors closed again, but instead watched through the gap to see what would happen.
What happened was that after about a minute, a 'patrol' of three carousing Mite-ys staggered down the street and into range of Two-None's engagement sensors. The robot turned, shining strangely in the flickering firelight from the trash barrels about the intersection, and almost seemed to nod its equinelike head towards the hoodlums before speaking.
"Stop right there, criminal scum!" For a moment, they actually did. A beer bottle dropped, smashing on the pavement; somepony cursed the loss of alcohol.
I slipped out the door and into the shadows as two of the three Mite-ys, still a quarter-block away, drew pistols and opened fire on Two-None. The third, a unicorn, began lighting and flinging sticks of dynamite, each one briefly glowing with snot-green magic as it was telekinetically hurled. Two-None's security-red eyebeams blazed magical streams of sizzling energy back, not terribly accurately, but much more so than the Mite-ys were managing.
As it turned out, drunken unicorns don't tend to throw very accurately either. Dumbass Dynamite managed to detonate his first two sticks harmlessly in the plant-less concrete planters fringing the exterior of Pinkie's Dance Hall. The third smacked one of the pistolponies right in the backside of his noggin, causing him to stop and turn with a yell at Dumbass --- only to notice the sputtering stick now resting on his withers. He tried to spin away -
BOOM went the dynamite, drowning out the sound of a pony being blasted in half by explosive force as gibbets of red flesh spattered in all directions. The look on Dumbass' face was so hilarious that I only managed to half-stifle a belly laugh before getting my concentration back on edging around the firefight.
It was close to midnight, but the few snipers up on what was left of Pinkie's old roller coaster were wakeful enough. Their single-shot rifles began adding lead to the fracas, impacts smacking the asphalt around Two-None. Occasionally one would manage a hit, but so did Two-None, burning down the second pistolero with unrelenting incarnadine fire before turning on Dumbass.
Meanwhile, every Mite-y within earshot came running towards the sound of explosions and gunfire, while the general citizenry of Slimm came boiling out of the casino in a furious mob-herd at the sight of Two-None's so-far-successful foray. At the sight of charging ponies, Dumbass tried something that would've been smart thirty seconds ago --- running like hell. But Two-None had already ranged him in and took the fleeing Mite-y in the right hindleg, shearing it cleanly away in a burst of ruby light. He hit the pavement screaming, which I'd have said was mercifully cut short by two axe-wielding Earth ponies that caught up to him thereafter, if I'd thought he deserved any mercy to start with.
Now the battle developed into a pair of what a tactically-minded pony might have called 'meeting engagements'; small groups of Mite-ys colliding here and there with similarly-sized groups of townsponies. Each end of the street became consumed with the staccato of gunfire, explosions from thrown (and sometimes re-thrown) dynamite, and clatterings of both sharp and blunt objects against lightly-barded or unprotected flesh. Meanwhile, up above, the Mite-y snipers fired almost randomly into the swirling chaos.
Which meant that they weren't paying any attention to anypony who might've somehow snuck across the street and clambered up onto the coaster's tracks.
My rifle's scope focus was excellent and I had no problems seeing well even at this hour of night, but my estimate for bullet spread at this range was off; the round whicked wide of my intended target. I worked my tongue against the bolt lever, ejecting the spent cartridge and ramming another home. Sniper One looked around wildly, his position and those of his buddies still marked via the red bars provided by my Pip-Buck's Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell.
He had no such blessings. Had the moon been in a better position, or had I been standing instead of laying down on the coaster's half-rotten planks, or he had thought to keep one eye closed in order to keep it acclimated to the darkness while firing into the better-lit area battle zone below, he might have been able to spot me. He was still trying, instead of shouting a warning to his pals, when my second bullet took him in the neck.
His --- her --- gurgling scream was what alerted the others. A few moments later, clutching both forehooves to her throat in a panicked attempt to somehow breathe through an airway full of blood, she pitched over the railing and hit the ground with a headfirst crunch. By that time, two of the three other snipers were filling my general vicinity with whizzing bits of lead, and I was trying to minimize the number of splinters gouging my shins while scooting backwards along the aging wooden track.
They kept plinking at the spot where I'd been for a minute, but eventually turned their attentions back to the bigger battle on the ground. Either they thought they'd nailed me, or that I'd been driven off --- it was clear that they couldn't see a thing at this distance. I shifted further backwards, until I reached a curve in the track with a slight rise obscuring me from direct view of at least one of the snipers, then took my time lining up on another. The side of his head centered itself in the scope's reticle, a crisp dark shade of cool green against the backlighting of a moon-filled sky.
Breathe and bide...
Footnote: Level Up.
Skill Note: Guns (50)
I hereby dedicate this chapter to legendary cowboy actor Slim Pickens, who would probably punch me dead in the face if he were alive to read this.