CHAPTER FOUR: Pink-Eye, Exposition, and Terrible Creatures from the Stars
"Know Enough to be Afraid." --- motto, Lunar Polygnostic University
Pink-E bounced along through the early morning air, as though its robot-head were still connected to a robot-body (and apparently one with spring-loaded hooves), humming a sprightly little tune.
I ground my teeth and kept my pistol holstered. Not only was the damn thing done up in bright pink and bobbing around the wastes like the world's most obvious target lure, but it was noisy, too. The best I'd been able to do was order it to keep a bit of distance between us, so that when it got shot up by the first bunch of raiders to get the drop on us, I wouldn't be too close to the kill-zone.
"Would you PLEASE shut the fuck up?!" I hissed, for what had to be the seventh time on our brief sojourn. It had bobbed there, humming away while I relayed the news about Deputy Deagle to the townsfolk, and kept at it while I traded the dead Mite-ys' gear to old Nash Rambler for caps and repairs. It had actually scolded me for trying to hang onto a few doses of Buck and Stampede --- gah! The little robot seemed determined to hold me to the promise I'd made to the Pinkie Pie animatronic it'd formerly been part of, which was another reason to part ways as soon as possible.
The only reason I hadn't blasted it to pieces myself, out of sheer self-preservation, was --- well, I was curious. Stupid of me, I know. But, for maybe the first time since Dad died, I wanted answers. Answers locked up in that little 'bot's noggin, answers I hadn't yet been able to coax it into giving up ("That would ruin the surprise!").
Who was Pinkie Pie, beyond being one of these "Ministry Mares" I'd never heard of, and some kind of great-great-grand-aunt? What was all this business about a "tree" of events so accurate that she could predict I'd stumble into that panel, in that old dance hall, hundreds of years after she died, let alone map out our conversation beforehoof? What was all this about my supposedly being "destined for greatness", the kind of sales pitch I'd have expected from a two-cap roadside mystic?
And how did Mr. Horse, the pony whose contract I was currently working and easily one of the most powerful players in the whole of the Great Western Wasteland, figure into Pinkie's pre-ordained shenanigans? Lack of information could get you killed just as easily as being followed around by a pink floating/bouncing/humming pony head.
As we walked along towards Slimm Pass, my mind worked at fitting all of this into my existing worldview.
Pinkie's Dance Hall had once been a family vacation resort benefiting, like the rest of Slimm and New Pegas itself, from regular traffic along the Imperial Fifteen between Equestria and the strategically-valuable goldfields of Coltifornia. The boomtowns there had just been picking up steam when the War went balefire, but those small and scattered settlements hadn't been nearly as tempting a target as Canterlot and the great cities of the eastern seaboard. While the rest of what once had been a mighty nation was still struggling to rise beyond the level of city-states, surrounded by tribal savagery and hunter/gatherer communes, the surviving Coltifornians had unified to form a new and distinct nation all their own.
The same was largely true of New Pegas. Early in the war, it had been convenient and sensible to have Equestria's industry centralized far from zebra lands, but with zebra development of balefire megaspells there was a sudden hurry to spread things out.
The sleepy little town of Las Pegasus, fed by the nearby Coltorado River but otherwise separated by hundreds of miles of trackless desert from the nearest zebra outposts, was championed by legendary industrial tycoon Edwin Robert Horse to become Equestria's model for industrial relocation. Hoofer Dam was built to harness the mighty Coltorado for drinking and farming, and then for power. McMaren Skyport expanded to meet the needs of thousands of pegasi with their wagonloads and passenger coaches, the only easy way in and out of town until rail lines and the "Long 15" finally linked the rest of Equestria to Coltifornia by way of "New" Pegasus. Tens of thousands of ponies made their living in the newly-booming industrial sector, and hundreds of thousands more came to provide those workers with goods and services.
At some point, Horse successfully lobbied to have the last two letters removed from the name, which everypony who counted agreed just seemed... right. "New Pegas" had arrived. Besides, it eliminated the problem of Eastern tourists confusing it with the coastal city of Los Pegasus. Not that there was a big problem with that these days: after being hit with so many missile strikes in the last hours of the War, everyone just called it "the Boneyard".
The bustle of building a new city atop a small town, naturally, also produced a need for entertainment. Mr. Horse didn't much care what went on in "his" town, so long as industry thrived, and despite its rapid growth New Pegas was too small and far away to incur imperial attention unless something went terribly awry. So first came the dancers and singers and artists, and then the whiskey and drugs, and then the bordellos, the saddle-tease joints... and the casinos.
The casinos. Horse's "Lucky Chance" was the first, serving as a small skyport in its own right until McMaren was built. Its revolving top floor had been designed to let flyers approach from whichever direction avoided the worst crosswinds, while the central column was almost entirely taken up with a huge freight elevator which, at the ground floor, opened into a correspondingly huge warehouse. The rest of the surface complex, surrounded by lush garden walks interspersed with hedges, columns and statuary, was dedicated to the casino itself, which turned out to be surprisingly popular with pegasi. Or perhaps not; species that thrive on risky acrobatic stunts for fun might also be expected to gamble in other ways.
The flyaway success of the Lucky Chance inspired a variety of similar efforts, some nothing more than a box with slot machines inside and others sporting themes and layouts every bit as elaborate as those employed by Horse. Before the bombs fell, the city had become a legend of style and sin, where you could get rich overnight or more likely lose a fortune just as fast... and enjoy the hell out of the process, no matter how the dice rolled.
Still, folks figure the reason so few bombs hit the area --- maybe half a dozen --- was because the zebras didn't much know or care about it. What balefire didn't destroy, however, the panicking general public did. Most of the ruins throughout the Moohave were created by burn-outs, vandalism, and simple neglect, multiplied by the passage of many years. It was as though the loss of Celestia and Luna was enough for everypony to just give up on civilization and start rioting, even though the princesses hadn't done a thing to build or run New Pegas to begin with.
So, now I knew that Pinkie had been a real pony, a blood ancestor of mine, and in charge of the Ministry of Morale. Which had, I guess, been about throwing parties during the War to make ponies happier? I suppose that made some sort of sense; by all indications left to history, it had been a huge conflagration with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, dying on both sides even before anypony pushed The Button.
Didn't think I cared much for history, did you? Sure, it can be boring at times, but there's a goddess-awful lot of it lying around, and a lot of it can and will kill the willfully ignorant. Being aware of the original function of your surrounding terrain can keep you alive for the price of reading a book --- and when you're done with a few pages, there's no better kindling for your evening cookfire.
Thinking about food reminded my stomach I hadn't stuck around to get anything substantial to eat before leaving Slimm, eliciting a rumble as we crossed a set of old railroad tracks just shy of the pass which shared its name. Distracted from my train of thought, I looked up and opened my mouth to tell Pink-E we were going to stop for lunch before heading up... only to notice that it'd already decided to go zooming ahead and was already halfway up the winding trail.
Well, maybe the 'bot was about to do me the favor of absorbing a few shots from whomever might be waiting up there for us, if anypony. Slimm Pass was a narrow defile between two large rock formations, not quite wide enough in various places for a caravan brahmin to make it through, but it made a decent short-cut for anypony wanting to get from Slimm to No-Pony in a hurry. If there were raiders up there looking for the odd wanderer to prey upon, it wouldn't be the first time. I drew the ten-mil and followed in Pink-E's wake.
When no shots immediately rang out from above, a feeling of encouragement began seeping into my bones. My Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell wasn't picking up any red bars, either... wait. Immediately next to Pink-E's green bar, where the bouncing ponyless head had darted behind some boulders, was a light yellow one that I'd almost missed against the beige background of the hill itself. I could hear Pink-E saying something in rapid-fire tones as I rounded the boulders, pistol grip tight in my mouth.
Then a clanking sound, of the ten-mil hitting the ground, let me know my jaw had dropped.
"Yes, mistress," said the Diamond Dog as he stood there, staggering slightly. "I am, of course, naturally at your disposal."
It wasn't so much that there was a Diamond Dog here, or that he spoke. Everypony knew about Diamond Dogs --- big canine louts who ran around in ratty old cast-off rags passing for clothing, always in search of precious stones, and usually encountered in small tribes of a few "alphas" riding herd over a bunch of groveling goons. Mostly, folks in the Moohave thought of them as a Coltifornia problem.
That was until a couple of unusually big tribes moved in, seized the quarry north of Goodsprings, and spread out to start attacking caravans along the Imperial Fifteen. Nopony knew why, especially since the quarry wasn't known for its gem deposits. All attempts to talk things over with the Dogs had ended in violence. Twice, the NCR had moved in with troops only for the Dogs to burrow underground, and then reappear as soon as the army had moved on. It would take posting a permanent guard to keep the I-15 open, but with so many other irons in the Moohave fire, that was just another problem the NCR had decided to "deal with later".
So now here was the virtual antithesis of a Diamond Dog, speaking with erudite tones and snappily dressed in khaki hunting jacket, white scarf, pith helmet, monocle and... something down around his ankles. To one side a peculiar-looking rifle leaned against one of the boulders he'd been hiding behind, and to another... oh, whoof. I belatedly waved a hoof at the pong wafting off the pile of fresh dung.
Pink-E beamed proudly. "I caught 'im! Can I keep 'im, huh huh? I'm gonna name him Mister Pips!"
I circled a bit upwind and peered dubiously at the befuddled Dog. "Why's he even acting like that?" Pink-E gave a great suffering-sounding sigh.
"Well DUH, I mesmerized him! I told you last night I could do that, remember? My left eye's a Mesmetron Mark Three, for non-lethal subjugation and interrogation in fun swirly-green patterns! Good thing I caught him with his pants down!"
Oh. So that's what those were down there. Pants. I'd read about them, somewhere, but never understood why anypony --- or anyone else --- would actually wear them. The few Diamond Dogs I'd seen before certainly hadn't worn any. Maybe it was a fashion thing. "So what's he doing here by himself? Dogs almost never run alone."
"Mister Pips" looked straight at me with unfocusing, obedient eyes. "I, sir, am standing watch on this Pass in accordance with my orders from Master Duke, in conjunction with the honouring of our treaty obligations. The bulk of Her Majesty's forces remain on-station below, as standard operating procedures require." Had I just heard an "oh" sound in "honoring"? That was weird...
A sudden hissing noise from the mouth of the Pass made me whirl about, but nothing appeared there in the dim shadows. By the time I turned back, the Dog had clenched clawlike hands about his head and was groaning, his yellow EFS bar flickering with reddish tints.
"What... where am I..." His eyes lit with sudden realization. "Oh no, no..."
"He's coming out of it," Pink-E explained unnecessarily. "That's okay, I'll just mezz him again!" Before I could say or do anything, the little 'bot had hovered over to stare right in the Dog's face, strange coils of green light swirling through the short space between their eyes. His hands redoubled their grip, claws gouging flesh in twitching contractions. The flickery EFS bar went solid red.
"I said NO," he snarled, "I shan't submit! Damn your heathen robot lack of a soul, nooooo-OOOH!"
Mister Pips' head exploded with a disgustingly wet POP, blood and gore flying in all directions. I managed to dodge most of the messy spray by rolling out to my left, barely pulling up short of a landing in the still-steaming pile of dog crap. With a wince and an effort at breathing through my mouth for a moment, I edged away and turned to check on Pink-E.
I hadn't imagined a robot could look shocked, any more than I'd thought it could look sad or wistful or happy. Stringy bits of grey, peppered with crimson, drooped across Pink-E's wide-eyed face like party decorations of the damned, slowly sliding off and dropping to the ground one by one. An instant later, she was bouncing around in mid-air, screaming while shaking away the remaining chunks.
"BRAINS! BRAINS ON MY FACE! AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!"
I was still checking my own hide and mane for macabre bits of our former prisoner, when the entire Pass collapsed.
The entire Pass. At one go, without a moment's warning, both facing hillsides simply toppled into the gap between. Dust and dirt exploded from its mouth with the force of a raging dust-storm, so quickly that if I hadn't been facing away I'd probably have been blinded before I could cover my eyes. As it was, I found myself tumbling rump-for-hocks back down the trail in the middle of a dirtslide that didn't end until I was practically back to the railroad tracks. In a daze, I looked up.
Slimm Pass had been completely eradicated, as neatly as any demolition team could have done for. Or perhaps, just as neatly as a pack of Diamond Dogs avenging their mate.
I was still working on getting the rest of the word out, when Mister Pips' weirdly-overbuilt rifle finished bouncing its way down the wrecked hillside and smacked me butt-stock-first right in the face. Momentarily at a loss for even that one word, I stared at the thing for a moment, took a deep breath, carefully stowed it in my saddlebag... and then started on a blue streak of profanity that lasted most of the way to Nipton.
* * * * *
All right. No more of this fucking around. Losing the Pass meant I had to follow the rail line south until it met the old east-west Nipton Highway through the craggy hills; only then could I double back northward. Meanwhile, Benny and his little retinue already had at least two days' lead on me. No way in hell I was going to catch them short of Big Rock City now, and that meant I was going to have to put on some speed.
Railroad ties flew past beneath my galloping hooves, shoes sparking against the roadbed, lungs and legs slowly starting in with their inevitable protests. I HATED running flat-out like this, hated the Dogs that'd forced my detour, hated Pink-E's stupid backfiring hypno-ray, and hated that she wouldn't stop fucking apologizing.
"I said I was sorry! It was horrible! That never happened to test subjects --- well, okay, it did, that once, but further clinical testing proved it was - "
Nothing the little pink 'bot-head had to say, with its annoyingly floofy pink mane and whiny electronic voicebox, made me want to listen. I didn't even want to take the breath or concentration to yell at it again. All I had was needed to keep my lungs pumping, to avoid stumbling over a tie, and to keep checking for EFS blips. I wasn't about to blindly run into another roadblock again!
Then again, the long run south did give me time to think about that Diamond Dog with the fine clothes and cultured accent and custom rifle. And didn't I want to have a good long look at THAT when I had the chance!
But he didn't fit. Not at all. Diamond Dogs were tribals. This one'd said something about an alliance, and about royalty, but he couldn't mean ponies. Coltifornia was a republic, priding itself on eschewing titles of nobility altogether. New Pegas was run by Mr. Horse and the former gangs he'd rebuilt into semi-respectable "families". The only other major power in the area was the Herd, which had modeled itself entirely on ancient zebra culture. "Master Duke" would be a name in line with their practice of slavery, but with mares relegated to entirely subservient roles nopony in the Herd would use a moniker like "Her Majesty" for anyone --- not even if Celestia returned from the grave.
Now here I'd thought I was being smart, keeping my EFS up this time while I galloped along. It hadn't occurred to me that some critters might not even show up on it. So when Pink-E's non-stop apologizing ended with a "yipe!", it was only then I realized the funny shimmerings in the air ahead weren't the heat mirage I'd taken them for.
My dad had once said, in regards to wildlife indigenous to the Great Western Wasteland: "Whatever isn't poisonous or eats the dead, hides from the sun." For the most part, Rattle-tails did all three. A nasty combination of canine and snake, their venomous fangs and inherent ability to turn almost completely invisible made them one of the most successful predators in the wastes. Fortunately, they generally wouldn't bother you unless you got too close, as they preferred scavenging over hunting.
Unfortunately, I was already too close. WAY too close!
I plowed straight into the pack of about half a dozen, all of which instantly shifted into the visible spectrum and went hostile-red in my EFS. From a nearby hole in the ground came a howl.
Oh, crap, they're defending their den...! It was all I could do to keep on my hooves and keep moving, bowling over the first and caroming off another in those first few moments of mutual surprise. Then I was galloping hell for leather down the railway, the entire pack baying at my tail.
Gee, and here I'd thought I was getting a little tired already! Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Well, my pursuers would soon realize I was no longer a threat to their den and give up the chase before it wore off. Pink-E sure didn't have any trouble keeping up, though occasionally she would "eep!" and bounce high into the air to dodge an attempted leap-and-snap.
A mile later, my adrenaline was wearing off and my pursuers apparently didn't give a radroach's ass (do they even technically have one?) about how close I was to the den. They'd straggled out a bit, but odds were still really good that if I turned to take a shot, I wouldn't get more than one or two before the pack piled on. All I could do was keep on running and hope that at some point most of them would go after Pink-E instead.
Three things happened at about the same time: we cleared the final shallow rise before the rail line descended down towards Nipton, the small herd of armed-and-armored ponies which appeared on the other side of the rise produced a leader in a feathered hat shouting "Halt! You there - ", and then our pack slammed into theirs.
By the time I found my way out of the resulting dustcloud, the herd and pack were industriously murdering one another. The ponies were outnumbered, but good fighters, constantly blocking attacks with a variety of melee weapons until an opening would present itself, and then smashing in a single sharp counterattack before going defensive again. The Rattle-tails snapped and bayed and snarled.
Somehow Pink-E'd come through that fracas unscathed as well. The two of us looked at one another, shrugged --- how does a decapitated robot head do that, anyways? --- and headed down the tracks into Nipton.
Even from this far out, I could see smoke and smell the distant aroma of roasting meat. Mmmm... somepony had a full-on barbeque going! Which reminded my rumbling belly just how empty it was, again...
* * * * *
As I left the rails and approached the main street leading west into town, my stomach forgot it was hungry and decided it would do better as a clutch of knots.
Nipton had been burned to the ground. Every single home and shop was now a pile of charred beams perched atop slabs of soot-blackened concrete, slathered in blankets of ash. Occasionally, an errant breeze would flare stubborn embers into bright orange life, seeking new fuel to restart the conflagration and then returning to sullen obscurity when none presented itself.
That barbeque smell? That'd been ponies. Ponies whose bodies had been jumbled into huge piles here and there around the town, soaked in tar, and then torched. I didn't look closely enough to tell whether or not they'd been alive or dead when they'd been lit up, because I was too busy staring at the only upright constructions left in town.
Crucifixes, one long row for each side of the street. Each one held a still form, nailed to the rough planks through their hooves and posed in an upright spread-eagle style utterly unnatural to equine physiology. Those that hadn't died of trauma or blood loss had expired after days in the sun without shade or water.
The Herd. They'd left markings of their passage everywhere, stenciled on the sidewalks and on bits of paper hanging from the crosses below their victims: a stylized zebra Centurion's helmet. They wanted everypony to know they'd done this. Murdered everypony and left their bodies to rot in the sun -
"...water... for Luna's sake... please..."
Not quite everypony. I could barely make out the shuddering whisper, drawing me despite my best instincts towards the two most easterly crosses --- which also seemed to be the newest, if not by much. I looked up into the pleading eyes of the pony I'd only ever thought of as "Shotgun". I turned to look across the street, and sure enough, there was "Pistol", a headwrap bandage sagging beneath his limp mane.
"Please..." came the whispering cry once more. I snorted with disgust.
"I recognize you. Same pony as tried to kill me a couple days ago." His eyes lit with a strange mix: fear, hope... maybe a touch of madness.
"Mister, please, mister, I didn't..."
"Yes, yes you did. You hooked up with the Mite-ys, killed a bunch of cops, broke outta prison and started acting like you all had a right to set up on the freeway and shoot at passersby, didn'cha?"
He tried shaking his head with what little energy he had left. "Nossir, please, you gotta believe me, I know how it looked... but if we didn't go along, me an' Pen over there... they were gonna kill us... us an' everyone who didn't... go along oh Luna please water..." His voice, cracking dry throughout, seemed almost to dissolve into dust on the last word. I could swear he'd be crying if his tear ducts had anything left to them. I shook my head right back at him.
"Coulda gotten away, turned yourself in, done your time."
Now he laughed, or tried. It came more as a hissing of valves than anything else, face contorting into a grimace. "My time... was up last week, mister... me an' Pen's both. We're just... *kaff*... petty thieves. Three days short... before the fuckers broke out... and messed us all up. I'm sorry I shot at ya -"
Pink-E chimed in. "I've got a water-coolant reservoir port right here, Cherry, I can -"
I cut her off with a hoofwave. "No you won't."
The little 'bot looked aghast. "But he'll -"
"I said no. We've got his word, and only his word, that he isn't a murderer or rapist or worse." Shotgun's eyes goggled madly; he tried to work up the spit necessary to say something in his defense and failed. I kept on. "What I do know is that he's an escaped convict that took a shot at me. I owe him not a damned thing --- and neither do you."
Somehow, Shotgun discovered a way to rasp out a few more words, a sound like sand shifting across the asphalt. "Ya... won't know... what... happened here... if I die..." He coughed hard, thick blood beginning to drool from the side of his mouth. He'd bitten the inside of his cheek for the necessary lubrication.
The spectacle didn't move any part of my spirit that one might have considered charitable. Charity, after all, had no place in the Wasteland. Shotgun's widening eyes showed well enough that he could read that fact in mine. It was like looking into a window upon which someone had painted a soul, and then shattered it with a hammer. He collapsed into himself, slumping upon the cross.
"Then... at least finish it... 'm begging you..."
I turned my back on Shotgun, Pistol, the whole town, and started walking.
"Toldja before. You ain't worth my bullets."
The sun was still high, I had a good chance of making No-Pony and the old motel there by dark, and there was nothing here to keep me. As soon as the last of the lingering smoke of Nipton was out of my lungs, I could get back up to a good galloping gait once more...
Slowly, pace by pace, Shotgun's blood-flecked screams faded into the distance.
* * * * *
"You know what'd be great to take our minds off all of this for a bit? A MOVIE!" Pink-E bounced excitedly up and down in mid-air, in that unnerving I-might-as-well-have-a-body-you-can't-see way.
For my own part, I'd been getting more and more frustrated as we circled south from Nipton looking for another way through or around the hills. The eastward highway hairpinned its way through well enough, but red bars appearing on my EFS showed that somepony had set up an ambush using the higher terrain. There had to be some way of getting up there to hit them from the side or behind... I wasn't just going to trot nicely into a crossfire.
But it was starting to look like whatever path they'd used to take the high ground, it didn't start from this side of the hills. Yet another goddess-damned delay! I gave the 'bot a dirty look and kept walking, my eyes peeled for --- I turned back in a classic double-take to see Pink-E positively beaming, framed by the vista of an ancient drive-in movie theater. To one side, a dilapidated ruin had once been a hut housing the facility's projector and refreshment stand. To the other, several rusted-out wagons littered its parking area, in the middle of which sat a pile of curiously gleaming wreckage.
It was this last which had caught my attention. Very little in the Great Western Wastes was shiny-new, even in the NCR where the factories mostly just refurbished pre-War stuff as best they could. But this thing looked as though it could have been poured from a casting just last week.
Whatever it was, it wasn't producing a hostility indicator on my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle, was made of shiny metal, and seemed to be twitching a panel of some kind. Tech? NEW tech, and functioning at some level to boot? Forget chasing idiots around the Moohave, this was a real jackpot!
As my hooves changed course to home in on this newfound treasure, I mentally sorted through the wide variety of entities who'd pay top cap for something like this. Not that I didn't check for tripwires, mines, and the potential likelihood of the sun suddenly exploding... this was literally too good to be true. Somepony had to have found this before me. There had to be a catch somewhere.
Ever-exuberant and bent on destroying whatever frame of thought I had at any given moment, Pink-E bounced along beside, squealing with glee. "Oooh, oh! Can we watch Terrible Creatures from the Stars? That was a GREAT movie, even without popcorn it'll be great! Or The Return of Tambelon? Can we can we huh please?"
The closer I got to the wreck, the more cautious I became. There appeared to be no booby-traps, but I carefully scuffed at the dirt as I went, just in case some sort of triggering device might be concealed beneath. I triple-checked EFS, as well as making several old-fashioned three-sixty-degree scans with both binoculars and the naked eye. There was no one and nothing in any direction, but this theater and its road leading back north to Nipton. Where screaming Shotgun and comatose Pistol had hopefully had the decency to die on their own conveniences by now.
I found myself momentarily distracted by the question of why I should even care about that, then quashed the thought effortlessly by turning my attention at last to the impact site itself.
It was definitely that, if nothing else: a wide, shallow crater bearing scorch marks here and there, half-full of much older scrap metal, suggesting that whatever had fallen from above had smacked into one of the derelict wagons. It looked for all the world like one of the innumerable artillery impacts peppering the area around Nellie Base, up northeast of New Pegas.
Except, of course, for the object of my immediate desire. This close up, it was clearly too big for any one pony to move, and my heart sank somewhat. If I couldn't secure it myself, the best I'd be able to do was collect a finder's fee, if somepony else hadn't already done that in the last day or so --- it clearly hadn't been here for much longer than that. Sadly, nothing looked like I could easily remove it to take with me, either as proof of the find or as insurance against getting the fee. I didn't want to risk breaking anything by trying to crack it open with main force, so I began to circle around in search of an access panel.
It was about the size of a pony, cylindrical, with several protuberances appearing to be mostly sensor arrays, small rocket nozzles (its means of flight, I mentally wagered with the greedy little pony grinning and rubbing its hooves together in my head), and two large solar panels. It was one of these that had caught my eye with its twitching motions, as though it were trying, but unable, to track the sun.
One side of the contraption bore a large colorful symbol, a rolling sunburst, dominated by a stern white alicorn wearing a crown... thingy. Her flowing mane, out-flung wings and extensive horn all swept out from the center of the ring comprising the "sun", upon which appeared the words Te Equus Habeo Vitae. I had no idea what that meant, but below the symbol itself was one more word in a language I did understand: GENEROSITY.
I kicked aside some of the older wreckage and waved a hoof at what looked like it might be a camera sensor. Hopefully it had an audio receptor... "Generosity? Is that your name? ...hello?"
The gigglefit erupting from behind me confirmed that I looked like an idiot. "Gee, Cherry, it's just a satellite! It's not going to say anything back!" My ears pinned against my skull as I turned to glare.
"If you knew what the fu- what the hell it was, why didn't you say so?" Did I just cut off one of my more beloved swear words to avoid getting a "language" lecture?
...of course. Why didn't I think of that, especially given that I supposedly am a smart pony? A surprise. One of these days, I was sure, Pink-E was going to withhold information once too often and get me killed --- unless of course I managed to pry what I wanted out of it first, and then put an armor-piercing slug through its grinning servos. The thought brought a smile to my face despite my mood.
Naturally, Pink-E took it the wrong way. "See? You just need to have a little fun! You're so gloomy-doomy all the time, a movie should cheer you right up!"
Dragging the lopsided joke out, I looked towards the projector hut, which had long ago been scavenged of anything useful. "Sorry, 'bot, but I don't think we're gonna be watching anything here..." It was then I noticed that she wasn't heading for the ruined hut, but the satellite instead. "Pink-E..."
"This model's got a holocam on it for projecting illusions from space to ground!"
I let a dangerous tone creep into my voice. "Pink-E..."
"They fooled a lot of zebras with these things, they sure did! So anyway, I'll just upload Terrible Creatures, you'll love it! It'd be better at night, but -"
My tone blasted into a frustrated shout. "PINK-E!" The bouncy little 'bot stopped just short of the satellite, a jointed mechanical arm having sprouted from a tiny side port, its gem-like data terminus hovering just before a matching jack seated flush with the wreck's hull. She batted her eyelashes and smiled teasingly.
"...yes, Cherry?" Another joke. Of course.
I fought to avoid facehoofing. She'd only enjoy that response... I settled for what I hoped was a stern glare. "Don't fool around with that. Anything you upload'll destroy data already in there, data I hope to get paid good caps for. We can watch your movie somewhere else, some other time."
Her pink snout and blue eyes scrunched up in a pout. "Money isn't everything, y'know."
I sighed, noted the satellite's location was already showing up on my Pip-Buck under the otherwise unassuming label of "Moohave Drive-In Theater", and started moving towards the hills once more. From here, I could see what looked like a wide and relatively easy way around the south end of the would-be ambush I'd been trying to avoid, and we still needed to make up for lost time. A lot of it.
"Ain't it? You get money, you can buy food. Healing potions, bandages, bullets, stuff that'll keep you alive. Get some extra, you can afford a few nice things that make living a little more bearable, like a good stiff belt of scotch." I made a point of giving Pink-E, who'd hurried to catch up and was now bobbing along beside, an extra-vicious glare, which she seemed to take no more notice of than the passing breeze. My eyes frustratedly rolled of their own accord, but I had my teeth in this particular bit and wasn't done yet.
"Enough money, you can buy yourself a little sanctuary --- fort up some abandoned shack with sandbags and a few furnishings from a trader, call it home 'til you can afford better. Maybe eventually buy your way into a fortress city like New Pegas. Robots like you ain't programmed to think about it, but most of us living in this wasteland just want to get to the point where we don't have to spend every third waking moment looking over our shoulders for a bullet out of nowhere."
Strangely enough, Pink-E seemed to actually go sober for a minute, pondering that. And then she was right back to her bouncy-annoying-and-overly-loud self, grinning proudly over her new-found comprehension.
"I get it! Everypony is murdering everypony else so they don't have to worry about anypony murdering them!"
Or maybe she was just mocking me. I growled and shut my mouth. There's no reasoning with some ponies...
Footnote: Level Up.