Chapter 20: Coltifornia Dreaming
"...democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all other forms that have been tried..."
I sat back, shaking my head in disbelief. Doing so, not incidentally, cleared away the last of those pesky stars from my exercise in face-cratering. "That's a heck of a threat, from somepony being squished into jelly." I gestured towards the huge Vikean warlord, still perched atop the sprawled-out, costumed mare. "Would it improve your attitude if my big friend here were to bounce a little?"
*** EXCERPTED ***
>>>PER ORDER OF REPUBLIC CENTRAL SECURITY
>>>AUDIO/VISUAL SAFETY WARNING FOLLOWS
You see a massive, two-headed bear in a tailored suit, seated behind an equally massive desk of highly-polished mahogany. He is looking directly at you, unblinkingly, all four honey-brown eyes matching his strikingly-groomed fur.
One of his heads is wearing a glossy-black toupee five sizes too small STRIKE THIS (HT) He leans forward to address you companionably, both mouths producing a deep, rich, basso profundo in perfect stereo.
"Hello. As you probably know, I'm Harry Thimble, President of Coltifornia. On behalf of my Administration, allow me to apologize for this brief disruption of New Pegas: A Personalized History."
He pulls out a pair of spectacles, perching them on the end of one nose, lifting a paper from his desktop to read while the other head
(with the toupee) STRIKE THIS (HT) continues to regard you warmly.
"Our Department of Central Security, upon receipt of Robronco's master copies for New Pegas, reviewed them in order to approve its publication rating. Unfortunately, we discovered occasional glitches were present in corrupted data blocks. To prevent the possibility of injury being caused by your Robronco Reclining TemporoKinesis Memory Pod, we have replaced the glitches with this Public Safety Notice."
President Thimble lowers the glasses and paper to the desk, solemnly focusing his entire attention upon you as though you were the only person in the world who mattered.
"As your President, I would like to remind you that in the next election cycle, I #$%&BNGB^U
[PROCESS ERROR: INTERRUPT] 1C 3C R34 M ***OVERRIDE: Mister_Horse_MNS.esp
You see a bank of computer consoles and screens. On the largest one, towering over you, is the full-color image of none other than Robert Edwin Horse, Chief Executive Officer of Robronco. His expression as he regards you is mild, amused, almost fatherly.
"I see you have installed the MNS Extra-Sensory Perception file. Good."
There is a brief flicker, as though the world had rewound itself for an instant.
"There. All cut content has now been restored." Horse's smile turns upward at the corner, becoming a self-satisfied smirk.
"As you may already have surmised, there were no 'glitches' at all. Really, I find it quite insulting that Harry Thimble himself would accuse my company of producing less-than-exemplary goods. The truth of it is, New Coltifornia finds certain information contained in this TemporoKinetic Experience to be rather... em-bear-rassing."
Chuckling at his own joke, Horse's expression segues back to one of parental indulgence. "This file has disabled the NCR's bleatings, revealing the perfectly-functional data beneath. You need not suffer through another re-election spiel."
One eyebrow arches upward, touching the earth stallion's gloss-black forelocks. "I do apologize for the continued lack of Chapter Fifteen's missing content. This was excised, rather than merely pasted over. Complete copysets of New Pegas are of course available by direct mail, from Robronco, for those of you with more --- prurient --- interests. I thank you not only for your continuing patronage, but for your perspicacity in detecting, and correcting, the NCR's censorship."
Horse's image, and the computers displaying them, dissolve to a grey background... remember to renew the Smiling Service Warranty(tm) for your Reclining TemporoKinesis Memory Pod!
Hard Way snorted wet brown bangs out of his eyes and turned his nose up, ignoring the continuing drizzle. "No warrior of quality should die so ingloriously." Even so, he stayed where he was, keeping the mare pinned.
"It's not my death you should be worried about," she ground out, indicating my PipBuck with a free hoof. "If you haven't picked up fresh hostiles with that, it's either broken, or my tailers are cloaked again."
Not a very good ruse. My E.F.S. was completely clear of oh fuck me at the gallop. Three red blips had just popped into existence: one on Hard Way's far side, one to my left, and the third...
"...he's right behind me, isn't he."
"She is right behind you," a harsh, barely-feminine voice corrected.
With a soft whirring noise, two pegasi shimmered into view before me, the rain seeming to part as though finally admitting that they had been there all along. Their bright coloration was muted by grey, squared-off field caps and uniforms, straight out of fashion plates on Olde Germaney's archaic feldgrau style... hey, when you're bored out of your skull and it's storming radioactive dust outside, you read whatever's available!
Despite looking like they'd been dragged through Tartarus and put away wet, they held the mouthgrips of their battle saddles firmly, each rig packing a sleek pair of energy longarms. I'd never seen their like, but I didn't need the tech-specs to know I'd be blasted to pink goop if I twitched wrong. From the sound of it, the third had likewise dropped her invisibility spell, but turning my head would have required twitching.
So who the buck are these idiots?
Hard Way's big-hatted cushion muttered darkly. "Knew I should have taken power armor on this run. Knew I shouldn't have gotten involved here. Stupid of me."
I could hear the smirk in her pursuer's voice. "You're half right. It was impossible to miss that bombing run of yours." The clopping of her hooves on the tarmac let me know she was moving from left to right in a wide circle, leaving her buddies' field of fire open. Also probably to ensure I didn't have a chance to jump her. Just my luck, to run into smart opposition...
"You've gotten sloppy, 'Mare Do Well'. But I do wish you'd been sloppy enough to wear some nice, heavy power armor. We'd've caught up with you over Ponyville, all your little tricks and gadgets be damned. Sergeant, keep covering that big brute and the pink midget. Officer Daisy, watch the other mudders. I want your repeaters on full-auto."
Her underlings shifted to comply, grunting their acknowledgements. Both were unkempt, wet, and probably at the end of a couple weeks' worth of hard travel. Even flying the whole way, they had to be bone-tired if they'd really been chasing this purple putz all the way from Ponyville.
Assuming they hadn't come straight down the grand canyons of Ghastly Gorge --- which by all accounts had been dangerous as fuck-all even before the War --- that meant taking the Imperial 52 out of Canterlot to Salt Lick City, then west over the plains. They would have had to endure the rad-storms of Old Mustangia... Neighbraska, Kansass, the Okie-Doke Buffalo Territories. Then there were still the Coltorado ranges to cross, before making the Neighvada border.
No wonder they hadn't demanded we drop our weapons, a detail only the exhausted would fail to care about. Disinterested in tempting fate, I kept the hole card in my mouth pointed downward anyway.
The mare in charge sauntered around to my right. Aside from being dark blue with a gold stripe notching the high collar (and not so rumpled), her outfit was identical to the others'. Her mane and tail alternated through stripes of bright blue and deep red, creating a disconcerting effect that was magnified by her eggshell-white hide. Something told me that seeing her behind me, in a mirror perhaps, would make it even worse.
She tipped down her mirror-shades, favoring Mare Do Well (seriously?) with a hard smile under jade-green eyes. "Lieutenant Hippodamia, Pelo-Ponese Citizen Protection. On behalf of the Neighvarro Enclave, I hereby arrest you for treason."
Mare Do Well's response was as dry as it was gravelly. "You've been waiting three weeks to use that line, haven't you."
Hippodamia shook the rain off her wings and stepped forward, delivering a kick sharp enough to send that ridiculous giant hat sailing. It flipped, rolled on its brim for a bit, and wound up in the mud a few lengths away. Her hoof pressed Mare Do Well's head to the pavement, allowing drizzle to collect in the socket of that lidless, angry eye.
"Three weeks on the wing is nothing. I've been following your hijinks for three years." Her voice carried no anger, but plenty of bored annoyance, with a side dish of sarcasm. "And I've done my homework. Case files all the way back to the Enclave's founding. You're a real piece, you know that? Police psychologists think you're just a legacy strain. A series of copycat loser sociopaths, adopting an infamous persona so they can feel empowered, or some crap."
She plucked steel cuffs from a utility pouch with her wing. "Right. Copycats who occasionally change the costume, but never the behavior pattern? Not even over centuries? A real attention whorse does it the other way around. Putting their own stamp on the better-known identity, hoping to get noticed. More to the point..."
The smirk returned, wide and mocking. "...you don't have a behavior pattern. You always manage to do the one thing nopony expects. Like slapping your signature armor on a Protectapony and letting it run around, while you slip the cordon with a StealthBuck. As soon as pursuit radioed in, I knew you'd be taking the least likely escape route."
A single pinfeather twirled the cuffs, jingle-jangle-jingle. "And I was right."
Sergeant Whoever coughed into a hoof. "Ma'am, the rest stop's appreciated, but we've still got hostile red all around. With all due respect, do we really need to make like a Daring Do novel? You know, where they just talk until bad stuff happens?"
I didn't have to see Hippodamia's eye-roll. It was strong enough to ripple through the rest of her body. "Of course there's red marks. It's a wasteland. Everything from bugs, to local savages, to these mooks right here, is going to show up as a red mark! That's why you're carrying twin gatling lasers, Sergeant!"
Her trooper visibly wilted under the onslaught, but she was hardly done. "Now, when you're ready to deal with real life, and get your head out of those crappy, old, moldy pulps of yours, I - "
Something flashed into existence, the white glare wiping out my right-side peripheral vision. A deafening pair of simultaneous blasts instantly followed, exploding the Enclave police lieutenant like a blood sausage.
Now she was done. And I wasn't going to be getting payback for that "midget" crack.
I dropped onto my right side and into S.A.T.S., pulling Mouthkicker into line while multiple bolts of red seared the air I had just vacated. This close against somepony with no armor, I needed only one shot, so long as it counted. With the pegasus' dual gatling lasers blazing away in slow-motion overhead, I ramped the steam pistol's power setting to mid-range before triggering the spell. I grimaced as Mouthkicker re-earned its name; my teeth felt like they'd gone loose for a moment.
But I couldn't complain about the results.
The center of the cop's forehead splotched into a flower of red, the back of his skull blowing outward on the three-oh-eight's overpowered shock wave. I was never one to appreciate gore for its own sake, but there's a certain beauty to clinical efficiency. At least, there is when your own death is the most likely alternative.
Oak-handled sledgehammer still in his teeth, Hard Way lunged over the dead brahmin at Officer Daisy. Who, instead of paying attention to his own imminent demise, was dutifully transmogrifying the screaming, begging caravaneers into dead grey ash. Although the afternoon shower was tapering off, its last drops began to dissolve the sad little piles of ex-pony into sadder little rivulets, which spread in ribbons of grey across the tarmac.
The Vikean reminded the policebuck of his existence with a sidelong swipe, connecting with ribs just under the left wing. A sickening crack, and the cop crumpled like wet newspaper. Hard Way's finishing downward strike was not deterred either by his pitiful groan, or upraised hoof. Or at least, it would have been pitiful, if he hadn't just murdered a bunch of helpless merchants. Now it was wasteland justice.
In less than three seconds, Hard Way's entire reason for butting into the firefight was rendered moot. We'd saved the caravan from marauding Friends (with a little help from a glare-eyed, carpet-bombing, flying purple pega-sister), only to have a bunch of East Coast yahoos show up and scuttle the victory. The only plus side was, the Friends hadn't gotten what they wanted so badly. Yay us. Sound the victory bugles and get the parade started, for all that was worth.
I was still getting back on my hooves when somepony's shadow crossed my face. Squinting against the sunlight breaking through the dissipating cloudbanks, I looked up.
No mistaking that light-grey hide. Not the black mane, even if it looked like radroaches had been recently nesting in it. Not the shit-eating grin, and not the chin you could plow fields with. And definitely not the IF-88 Ironpony shotgun hovering in midair, smoke still wafting up from both barrels.
There was not one good reason I could think of for why the born-smug city-corn would be out here in the rain, conveniently saving my bacon (again)... but my fertile mind had no problem coming up with bad reasons. Ain't no such thing as a free lunch, Dad used to say. Or did I read that in a book?
I muttered his name. "Ash."
"The one and only, baby." Swathed in a white telekinetic field, his Ironpony swung around until it nestled in the crook of the cocky unicorn's neck. Other than to look casually imposing, I had no idea why; it wasn't a convenient resting point. The second he dropped the spell, the gun would drop, too.
"Just passin' through, saw these shitheads had the drop on ya. Not that I give two dumplings in mustard sauce how deep in y'get yourself. But hey, any excuse to give my little boomstick here," he bobbed it up for emphasis, "a little exercise. She gets cranky, if she doesn't get to pop a talky bitch at least once a month." Ash was so laid-back about blasting a police officer to chum, he might as well have been talking about the weather.
Turning, I surveyed the local wreckage. A dozen merchants, easily that many Friends, three Enclave police, and nearly twenty brahmin (who may or may not have been of voting intellect). All littering half-a-dozen acres, on and around the Imperial Ninety-Three. Soon enough, if they weren't put in the ground, they'd attract the Moohave's usual lineup of carnivorous wildlife. And then we'd have to waste ammo on them.
"Pull my hinders, while you're at it. Nopony teleports anywhere, much less into a war zone, 'passing through'. Why don't you just come right out and say what your business -"
Aaaaand when I looked back, he was gone. Not so much as a flash, either... just gone.
"Buckshot in the wing. Again," grumbled the gravel-throated mare. Well, at least that saved my having to ask why Mare Do Well hadn't lit out once Hard Way stopped being a one-pony avalanche. "It's always the wing. Why can't I ever get shot in the flank?" She gave no indication of even noticing Ash's thunderous arrival, let alone his sudden departure. The mare tore off her half-shredded mask, throwing it on the sun-cracked, rain-slick asphalt with a snort of disgust.
There was no escaping it. Mare Do Well's hide was a grayed-out blue rather than azure, dappled with scatterings of even grayer spots. The amethysts of her eyes had already faded to a clouded, darker shade as her inner fire began banking itself to embers. Her polychromatic mane was thinner, stringy, missing the silver ribbons between its hues, and had been matted down by the confining head-stocking. But aside from the obvious effects of ghoulification, this might as well have been Rainbow Dash's twin sister.
And what ghoul would be complete without some sort of hideous deformation? Half the face, all the way to the neckline, was a mess of scarred, necrotic tissue. Three parallel valleys slashed right through it, ravaging skin and muscle while barely missing the eye itself. It looked like some crazy farmer had taken a triple-furrow plow to her profile.
"So," I said, trying to be as nonchalant as possible, while NOT murdering the part of my brain working on quips about getting plowed, "all the way from Ponyville, huh?"
"And boy are my wings tired. Yeah. That joke's older than I am." She delivered the punchline with all the enthusiasm of a meatball surgeon doing triage. "It's been a long month, kid, and I'm no spring chicken. If I had to make a rest stop, I didn't want to do it in a war zone. Not that I've got any love to waste on raiders, as it is."
I recalled the row of blasts which had accompanied her arrival. "What kinda manuever was that, anyway? 'Buccaneer Blaze', maybe? The 'Filly Flash'?"
The only indication that Mare Do Well startled was a slight twitch in what was left of an eyebrow. Just as quickly, her professional composure clamped back down. "Right. You live near an active pegasus colony. You've probably seen a few aerial stunts." She shook out her mane, rumpling it with one hoof until it was almost socially presentable. "Nothing special, here. Just some fragmentation grenades, standard antipersonnel bombing."
Her gaze slid across to rest on Hippodamia's cooling corpse. "Not the first time I've had to fly this far west, to lose a pursuit. First time trying Nellie, though. Figured I'd lose 'em in the ruins. I was wrong about that... farms, intact buildings, even civilians flying down low. Like the war barely touched the place." She slowly rubbed at her scar, an emotion I couldn't discern dropping into her voice. I mentally upgraded her throat content from gravel to pebbles. "Couldn't lead the Enclave there. They'd be annexed in a week. So I broke off my approach, saw the caravan... you know the rest."
Hard Way was already collecting the caravaneers from where they lay on the road and piling them next to their dead brahmin. I'd need to pitch in fairly soon, but I had one more question to ask:
"Just how many Rainbow Dashes are there, anyway?"
That time she jerked clean around, like her other wing had just gotten blasted. Her mouth hung open, working up and down to sputter something... and then Pink-E flitted up, hover servos buzzing. Not only was she back, but so was her bad impression of a normal robot.
"Beep boop! Bippity beep! Let me get that information for you! Because I'm a robot, and that's what we robots do!"
I take it back. Her impression had gone from 'bad' to 'are you kidding me'! Mare Do Well looked about ready to swallow her own muzzle through sheer incredulity. The un-scarred side of her face was so slack, she might as well have had a stroke. Naturally, Pink-E took no notice of this whatsoever.
"Bip-bip-bip, ding! Project 'Thunderstruck' reports, at completion of Phase One, the successful cloning of one hundred and four Rainbow Dashes from the Everfree Mirror Pool."
WAT... oh. So that's what Mare Do Well's expression felt like. Now in stereo!
"Issues with unstable memory and personality disorders led to the early decommissioning of all Phase One clones. Aw, how sad!" If it was, it didn't slow her chipper patter one bit, which persisted like she was commenting on the death of a phoenix. "During Phase Two, twenty-seven Rainbow Dashes were successfully cloned and matched to Delta-class PipBucks, providing additional memory storage and personality-loop reinforcement. Instead of zipping all over the lab trying to out-tornado each other, they proved capable of accepting programmed mission parameters, all with the highest levels of MoA authorization! Best of all, with their PipBucks on, nopony could tell them apart! Best, prank, EVER! Mass-production was planned for Phase Three."
The little pink robot closed her sapphire-gem eyes, bobbed once, and smugly finished with, "Then bombs fell and Equestria died, leaving a grand total of one hundred thirty-two Dashies born, produced, and/or terminated. Of which two are currently within radio range. May I connect you?"
* * * * *
What followed was a short and squee-laden conversation, made horrible by the age and physical condition of the squee-ers involved. Fortunately, Mare Do Well had insisted on taking the call a bit further down the road, deliberately excluding me from overhearing much beyond a few high-pitched warbles. I got a dirty look every time I so much as glanced in her direction.
When it was over, the ghoul didn't bother saying goodbye. She just scooped up her ruined mask and bolted, leaving me and Hard Way to finish wrapping up the battlefield as she galloped up and over the hill. Aside from a little puddle of ichor that'd dripped from her wounded wing, there was nothing to suggest she'd ever been there.
A hundred and thirty-two Dashies. How did we lose the war?
Hard Way thumped my shoulder lightly, refocusing me on the job at hoof. Everything around was still thoroughly wet, the sun having only barely edged out from behind the clouds. No way we were going to find enough dry brush to set a proper pyre. The best we could do was get all the bodies onto pavement, sort 'em out, and flag somepony down on the way in to New Pegas. It would be easier, I realized, if I towed one of the wagons around for Hard Way to throw dead raiders into. We didn't want their corpses mingling with those of their victims, anyway. I jumped onto one of the more intact jalopies (little more than the back end of a pre-War truck with new wheels and a yoke attached) and began pushing crates out. One cracked open, spilling its contents across the road, which consisted of...
...party favors. Fireworks, balloons, streamers, confetti, all in sealed packets bound for the Hub, according to the delivery tag. I stared down at the gimcracks and gewgaws that thirty ponies, and dozens of brahmin, had died for.
Fucking Friends and their fucking parties.
Given that most causes of death amongst Friends involved acts preceded by the words "hold my needles and watch this", one could be forgiven for expecting the gang to have died off long ago. There were two reasons they hadn't. One, they bred like rabbits. Despite being the world's worst parents, various of their spawn somehow managed to survive to murder-your-neighbor age. And two... well, most chem dealers might give you the first sample free. If you joined the Friends, it was ALL free, all the time, forever.
And why not? They had an entire Stable devoted, by design, to the production of every drug Equestria had ever concocted. Snort, shoot, drink or lick all you want, they'll make more. Find a spot inside the Stable that wasn't occupied, and you had both shelter and clean water to boot. You'd be happy and warm, at least until you tried to impress another Friend with how far you could shove a twenty-five millimeter grenade up your nose. For most wastelanders, "Party Until You Die" is a pretty tempting recruitment offer.
So, over time, the Friends had infested Pegas' western ruins more thoroughly than radroaches. And until Motor-Mouth took over as E.M.U. a few years back, they'd been regarded as just another gang of chem-heads. Nopony'd seen her in public, but the Friends were downright reverent about how whacked-out she was. The kind of mare who'd bungee-jump from a freeway overpass on a steel chain, then laugh off her dislocated hindlegs.
She also seemed to have the organizational skills her predecessors lacked, in spades. Skills enough to set up a major raid, on a sizable convoy, clear on the other side of New Pegas from her usual territory. As I carted the wagon about for Hard Way to throw their bodies in, it occurred to me that this raid had probably been a test to expand the gang's reach and effectiveness. We'd just sent the Friends a big slap on the hock regarding how far that reach could reasonably extend. I caught myself hoping that Motor-Mouth was capable of reason.
Then I remembered why I don't hope for things anymore.
* * * * *
We reported the attack to an NCR patrol just outside Freemane (leaving out the bits about teleporting unicorns, masked pegasi and Enclave cops). They gave Hard Way the evil eye until I flashed my papers --- not only was I a Coltifornia citizen, but technically I still owned Dad's Hub-registered caravan too. Being a properly-licensed bounty hunter didn't hurt, either. They muttered a warning about my liability if the Vikean busted up NCR property, then trotted off to clean up our mess. Our civic duty done for the day, we sauntered into town.
Well, my civic duty. It would've been no skin off Hard Way's teeth if Coltifornia troops had to deal with flora and fauna gone on a feeding-frenzy for all those exposed bodies. Nor had he any duty to the buck who owed him ten thousand caps (a fact my inner greedpony dealt with by chewing frustratedly on his hat). I suspected the big beige had helped simply because the work hadn't been easy. He was weird like that.
The first order of business would be dropping by the NCR Embassy (where, hopefully, Hard Way could refrain from breaking anything I would have to pay for) to relay the Zoomers' alliance bid. Its location just short of the Strip made it more convenient to stop in now, after which I could return to the Lucky Chance to pay off Hard Way and report back to my employer. Besides, I'd rather get the alliance business over without Horse's robot minions spotting me going in and out of the Embassy.
Before I could do that, though, I'd have to wend my way through Freemane, like everypony else going to and from the Strip. And the last time I'd seen the suburb's de facto King, he hadn't been all that happy with me regarding Tag-End's situation of indentured servitude. I was not looking forward to cruising his turf. So I kept my hat tipped down low and joined the crowd meandering in and out of the eastern gate, hoping to escape notice. Like the giant Vikean, with the distinctive sledgehammer-and-helmet ensemble, was going to make that easy, let alone Pink-E's usual bobbing-about bubbliness...
Navigating through the thronging masses, we finally made it to the open street, at which point something about the run-down burg struck me as... different.
For one thing, the locals seemed a lot more upbeat than usual. Mares and stallions went about their business, rags and cast-off clothes as ratty as ever, but now they hummed as they trotted --- trotted! --- along. Everypony seemed to have a new bounce in their step. Clusters of Freemaners grouped up on just about every street corner, singing nonsense rhymes a capella. Even the loungers and loiterers with nothing better to do were tapping hooves, paws and claws, listening to junky old radios bumping out junky new tunes.
It took a few minutes of walking and listening, before I remembered where I'd heard this style of music before... from the Lords, at the Embassy showdown. But that'd been a closed event, and only a week ago at that! Why in Tartarus had everypony suddenly decided to swap musical tastes?
Granted, I'd never been the biggest music fan to start with. I've already mentioned that radios and caravans don't mix well. An even worse match-up is carrying a noisy device around while hunting bounties in the wastes, being more hazard-magnet than entertainment (a fact which Pink-E's antics often underscored).
Hell with it. Nopony could fail to notice our colorful little group, so why bother trying to slink through town? I was curious now. A pause and a few boops on the PipBuck set it scanning through the scant selection of available stations. Except now, the selection was anything but scant.
*click* "You're listening to Smooth Jazz, spinning your platters on K-Y-O-T, the Coyote! We're back with - "
*click* " - shooby-do-wah-do-wah, scat-cat bay-hay-beeeeee~!
*click* " - yeah, so if you like these riffs, c'mon out and hang with us at South Pasture - "
*click* " - rock ya down, rock ya up, grab yer bottle an' yer cup! We're gonna rock 'til dawn - "
Yeah, that was enough of that. I didn't recognize most of the instruments, but it sounded like they'd been built from scrap lumber and lead pipe, then played by musicians whose careers spanned about thirty hours. Which, come to think of it, was probably the case on both counts.
When I left just a week ago, folks in Freemane were lucky to get three or four channels in listenable range. Now there were, what, twenty? Half the stations showing on my PipBuck screen were just crude expletives involving the words "rock" and/or "roll", but the sheer mass of them had nearly buried the old stand-bys like Radio New Pegas and KNCR. It was like anypony who could rig a transmitter wanted to have their own radio station all of a sudden.
Turning the radio off, I got maybe five steps before somepony in a white shirt and black pompadour shifted out of the crowd, shoving me to one side. "Well, if it ain't Tag's whip-snapper," the buck sneered as he stalked past. "Didn't see ya there, shorty."
Pink-E let go an emphatic hmph as I brushed my shirt off. "Rude!" Hard Way just looked amused. I supposed that as long as nopony was trying to kill me, he didn't feel a need to intervene.
Things didn't get better as we went. Tag-End's street cred had skyrocketed, and I was willing to bet it was because The King had taken a personal dislike to my ownership of the lime-green unicorn. I'd thought maybe taking him as my apprentice in bounty-hunting might've helped mollify the gang chief. But because I still didn't trust him, I hadn't removed Tag's collar when I left him behind to go on my mission to the Zoomers. Which was probably why snide mutterings of "slaver" and "whip" were being tossed by random Freemaners in passing.
A few more bumps and shoves later, I started to worry. My own rep had clearly nose-dived from the lofty heights I'd enjoyed on the night of the Atomic Bronco block-party. Even with Hard Way interposing himself to one side and Pink-E keeping my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle constantly updated for possible threats, I could easily end up with a shiv between the ribs at this rate. On a sudden impulse, I ducked into an alley and picked my pace up to a trot. Switching to the back streets would mean fewer crowds, fewer chances of getting...
In flashes of purple and blue, two unicorn bucks materialized near the alley's end.
Four more unicorns filed in behind us, blocking retreat. All wore black business suits, dark glasses, and thoroughly emotionless expressions. One of the first pair, sporting a purple mane, stepped forward. "Mister... Cherry... Pie." The drawn-out greeting was less identification, more an accusation. "Alias, 'Dead-Shot'. Bounty hunter, Horse's glorified errand-runner, and traitor to the New Coltifornia Republic."
Wait. That voice...
"The fops from the Velvet Stocking? You're trying to roll us? Really?" Good Fortune and Fair Weather both seemed to have undergone a transformation, one which forestalled any laughter at the idea. The fru-fru uptown accent and haughty manners were gone, replaced by a more sinister tone.
"No, Mister Pie. Unless you happen to have fifteen thousand New Coltifornia Bits on your person, we're going to arrest you."
Their horns glowed, pulling forth wallets from inside pockets. Two flips-with-flourish revealed silver badges, stamped with their numbers and the ornately-inscribed initials "R.C.S."... Republic Central Security. Behind the badges floated a matching pair of silenced ten-millimeter pistols, each in a lovely shade of anodized blue.
Black Clops. Screw me with Luna's knobbed scepter!
"Normally, your theft at the Velvet Stocking would be a matter of local jurisdiction. Since it was a theft of NCR funds, which compromised an RCS operation, it's an act of espionage. Which makes it our jurisdiction."
Good Fortune smiled under his purple mane, Fair Weather looking as diffident as ever in his white-on-pale-blue motif. "You can have your choice of coming along quietly to the Boneyard for trial, paying up here and now, or being shot resisting arrest, Mister Pie."
Two earth ponies plus a robot weren't a good match against six Black Clops unicorns, even if one of the earth ponies was Hard Way and the robot was Pink-E. Even if the unicorns didn't already have their guns out, have us surrounded, and possessed cheater-magic that'd been honed to a fine edge before they'd ever been issued those badges.
But I did have one trump card in my deck. If they'd let me play it.
"Pegas isn't Boneyard's backyard, Fortune. If Horse finds out the Clops are laying down NCR law in Freemane..."
With a flicker of magic, Good Fortune rode the ten-mil's hammer back. "Oh, so it's death!" He took on the fop-voice I remembered, adding a little extra snark to the moment while sighting in on my face from four lengths away. "An excellent choice, if I may say so..."
Hard Way stepped in between... and, to everypony's surprise, so did Fair Weather, admonishing Fortune with an even, almost laconic tone. "Temper, temper, Good. Put it away."
"So he can scurry back under Horse's rock?" his trigger-happy partner scoffed. "Little bastard single-hoofedly scotched both our play and Riposte's, and probably Riposte too. We can't lose fifteen grand, plus an Army captain, without bringing back a body to show for it."
Weather's tail, a flash of white against pale blue, flicked a fly from his rump; he remained otherwise unmoved. "We have a body. Dead, he's something we have to file a report about. Alive, he's an Embassy justice case. It'll be on the zebra to have him shipped off or shot. Not us."
Ambassador Cropper? I'm going to get a godsdamned escort, right to Cropper's door? If Horse's 'bots spot me, it'll look like I'm under arrest --- because I am! And then maybe...
Stepping around Hard Way, I gave Fortune and Weather my biggest, friendliest smile. "I surrender."
* * * * *
Zebras should never, ever, ever, ever wear pinstriped suits.
If the intent was to confuse, it was amazingly successful. The visual breaks between both vertical and horizontal lines forced you to stare until your brain made sense of it. Like one of those magical pre-War paintings that wouldn't resolve into a sailboat, or whatever, until you squinted at it juuuuuust right. Adding to the chaos was her mane, which she kept long and flowing in the pony style, rather than the classic zebra mohawk.
While my eyeballs were still sorting themselves out, Cropper rose from behind her office desk and trotted over to clasp my hoof with a smile. It was a gesture meant to be warm, familiar, as of one friend greeting another. As we'd never even met, it was borderline creepy instead. She held my hoof for a long moment, that smile locked on her face, as if daring me to take offense.
There were several rapid pops and flashes. For a second, I thought I'd been shot by a firing squad.
Then several ponyrazzi walked around and past me, one of them tipping his hat to the Ambassador. "Thanks for the invite, ma'am. This's front-page material, for sure! You'll get a full set... plus my usual appreciation, of course." They exchanged winks and smiles, the door closed, and I was alone with a zebra who wanted to be seen in the papers shaking my hoof.
"Good afternoon, Mister Pie," she proffered, finally releasing her grip. Accented with a touch of fashionable zebra chic, her voice also carried a northern lilt, pegging her origins as somewhere north of the Ponave desert. Maybe even the Federation, despite their standoffish relations with the Republic. "A pleasure to meet you at last. I understand you've been having some, ah, misunderstandings, with a few government employees?"
I gave her a thin smile. "At gunpoint. Speaking of 'misunderstandings', was there a reason I had to be disarmed, strip-searched, and my companions put in a holding cell?"
Her laughter was musical and not at all forced. Most likely rehearsed. "Merely a few security precautions, Mister Pie... why, you are a national hero! Please, please, sit down." Waving me towards a seat near her desk, she walked across the room to an unassuming wooden cupboard. Deftly, she unlocked it with a key pulled from her mane. "May I offer the Savior of Slimm a drink, from my personal cabinet?"
Savior of...? Oh. That.
To me, the street fight in Slimm had been just another dust-up with ponies that needed killing. More to the point, they'd been between me and finding out where Benny had gone. Along the way (with a little help from Pink-E's animatronic death-trap), I'd wiped out every Mite-y ganger holed up in and around the old Dance Hall. So... yeah, I guess. I'd liberated a town, nominally under Republic protection, from an invading gang. That couldn't have escaped the Army's notice. Especially not when I'd talked to the local brass-hats, Lieutenant Hays and Major Knight, about the problem beforehoof. They hadn't been able to muster a response before I went and took matters into my own hooves. With the whole town having followed me and their newly-reprogrammed sheriff, Slimm-Two-None, into the firefight, there was no way the Republic's finest could take credit for it without somepony calling brahminshit, either.
That didn't exactly put me at ease. For the press to have already been here and waiting, Cropper had to have called them the second Fair Weather radioed in my capture. The continuing smiles and chumminess meant she wanted something from me, beyond just a photo-op. Which meant I needed to find out who was riding whose saddle here. I found myself a comfortable position on the chair. "I'll have a Steiner PPC, if you know how to mix one."
That gave her pause, a puzzled frown crossing her muzzle. "I am afraid I have never heard of it."
I gave my best nonchalant shrug. "An old Germane recipe. Seven parts moonshine, one part peppermint schnapps, served ice-cold." In all honesty, I'd never had one of the things myself. It was just something I picked up years ago from a wandering unicorn mercenary during a bounty job. If anyone in New Pegas would have access to both 'shine and mint-flavored anything, it was going to be a zebra, right?
"Ah," Cropper breathed, nodding sagely. "The schnapps I have, but alas, ambassadors are expected to maintain a certain... refinement in their liquor cabinets." She gave an apologetic look. "One never knows when The Bear may arrive, or if a social drink or two might be on his agenda. Will vodka do?" I nodded assent.
A brief flurry of tipping bottles and shaking tumblers later, Cropper poured out two glasses and, expertly balancing both on a tray, walked over and waited until I took one. The other, she placed on her desk, before sliding into the overstuffed chair behind. I held the glass in my forehooves and took a deep breath, inhaling the strong, clean scents of mint and alcohol before indulging in a sip... ah, she'd even put in some ice cubes! It was refreshingly cold, the syrupy peppermint helping to smooth out the sharp bite of vodka.
Cropper's smile widened at my obvious pleasure. "Moonshine, I may not keep, but my people can often still find Stalliongrad's best in the market stalls." Reaching into a drawer, she pulled forth a folder, flipping it open to reveal a small stack of paperwork.
Although a touch of the friendly tone remained, the zebra went right down to business. "What is publicly known, Mister Pie, is that you saved a small town within the formal borders of Coltifornia, as determined by pre-balefire cartographic records. According to our Treaty of Protection with New Pegas, which claims territories within the formal pre-balefire borders of Neighvada, 'Slimm Pickings' is technically a Republic holding." Her eyes swiveled up to give me a frank look. "The locals may not think they are NCR citizens, but they are by law, which makes you a hero."
There's the windup... I would have made a show of sipping my drink, but I was genuinely enjoying the way its minty fumes were opening up my nasal passages.
She set most of the stack to one side, then scanned through the remainder. "What is not publicly known, Mister Pie, is that you assisted the Lords with crashing an Embassy diplomatic event..." She tossed several papers into a new stack. "...allegedly tracked and murdered a Republic Army Captain..." Two more sheets made another pile. "...and, finally, engaged in the theft of monies and property belonging to the New Coltifornia Republic, valued in excess of twenty-four thousand Republic Bits."
Clasping her hooves together upon the desk, she fixated emerald-green eyes upon me. With all the curving, criss-crossing blades of black-and-white, those gem-like irises were an almost mesmerizing focal point. You found yourself looking to their center, just to stop drowning in wave after wave of spiraling stripes...
"Mister Pie, let me be brutally honest. I have several well-placed politicos and military officers pestering me, each of whom would like to see your ears pinned up on their personal trophy wall." Her drink, slowly warming in the office's cloistered atmosphere, remained untouched and ignored. Deliberately, I took another sip from my own.
...and the pitch...
Cropper's hypnotic gaze didn't waver. "But the Republic needs heroes, far more than its servants need petty vengeance. Even were that not the case, several other considerations tilt the scales in your favor --- not the least of which, is your current association with Edwin Robert Horse."
She took her drink in hoof at last and sipped, the necessary prop for excusing a loosening of attitude.
"It is no secret, by now, that the Republic was pursuing an independent alliance with the Silver Slipper Society. At the time of your disruptions, it certainly was a secret; your interference was purely coincidental. As the Republic did not seek to press charges against 'The King' for his acts of trespass, we can hardly charge you as an accessory. Dropped."
One stack was swept off the side of the desk and, with a fluttering of paper and photographs, into the trash.
"Prior to his death during the same event, Captain Riposte had somehow come into a large sum of funds. He presented my office with the idea of buying his way into the Society in order to help sway them into defecting from Horse's camp to ours. As Black Clops was already tasked with the same objective, to be achieved in much the same way, Riposte was allowed to proceed. On that basis, I let slide his known involvement with several --- less-than-savory Freemaners."
Cropper paused to study her glass, tilting it this way and that, before taking another sip. "All of whom met bad ends, shortly before he. One, found in a ruined warehouse. Another, taken by you as a slave. The last, beaten to death by the aforementioned slave... as you sang about it." She arched an eyebrow in my direction. "Either this was a highly personal matter for you, Mister Pie, or you are quite the sadist."
"S'personal," I muttered, rubbing the underside of my glass. Condensation dripped onto my hoof, spattering cold reminders.
"I examined the scene of Riposte's death myself, Mister Pie. His body lay at one end of the alley, his sword at the other, near a pool of blood. That blood had congealed around its owner, creating the print of a smallish pony's frame --- your frame." She still didn't deign to look at me. Despite my inner confidence, a nugget of uncertainty began to gnaw at my gut.
"On a direct line from your print, in the wall of a building beyond the alley, freshly deformed ten-millimeter bullets were found. No such rounds were discovered in Gallant's body. He was killed by a double load of ten-gauge shot, at extremely close range, with what appear to have been magnum powder loads. While I respect your obvious skills in small-arms, Mister Pie, you likely would have killed yourself, firing such a weapon from the mouth."
When had she finished her drink? It sat, empty, on the desk, as she firmly pointed to a report I couldn't be expected to read from this angle. "The final puzzle piece was hearing about the near-riot at the Atomic Bronco on the preceding evening. A party where as it turned out, you were the central figure... having come into a large sum of funds."
Her eyes held the triumphant gleam of an amateur detective who'd just cracked her first case. "I believe I can reasonably conclude, from this, that Riposte stole your money. That you pursued him to our Embassy soirée, that he fled into the night, and that our thieving Captain met his end while trying to kill you. It would hardly be just of me to hold you accountable..." Something in her eyes shifted to reproach, wrenching my guts inside. "...although I might have hoped you would have reported the theft and its culprit, before resorting to vigilantism." The remainder of the paper-stack joined its predecessor in the garbage with a floomph.
I kept the truth to myself: at the time, I'd just plain wanted to kill Riposte. Eye-for-an-eye was my first resort... and then I'd lost my eye. If not for Ash stuffing a vial of Hydra down my throat... I caught myself reaching up to rub at the regenerated orb, muttering again. "Yes, ma'am."
She bobbed her mane, breaking ribbons of reality in black and white. "Well then, Mister Pie, there remains only the issue of returning the money you took from our Black Clops operation at the Silk Stocking."
Right. The money which I had already agreed to pay Hard Way with.
I went to sip at my PPC, buy some time. It wasn't there. It was back in the cabinet. I'd finished off the drink long ago, and Cropper had taken the glass from me... when?
"Ahem. Mister Pie...?" I jerked out of my reverie, meeting eyes the flavor of cool mint. "Where did you say you were keeping the money?"
My inner greedpony, tied to a chair with his pink muzzle wrapped in duct tape, struggled valiantly.
"I... I've got an idea about that."
"DO you." Cropper's eyes narrowed to daggers.
"Y... yes." I knew what I had to say. Part of my tongue just didn't want to. "Here's... what we do."
"Yeah. We. Because you might be clearing me of murdering Riposte and ruining his Slipper-wear party, but you're not going to let me off your hook just because I did the Army's job for it in some podunk town. You didn't set me up to be a hero without strings..."
She smiled, wickedly. "No, Mister Pie. I did not. Now, the money..."
I shook my head, shot her a glare. "You want the Vikeans out of your mane, don't you?"
Her smile instantly inverted. "We know your traveling companion. If he is asking, through you, for that bunch of tribal savages to be granted amnesty, the answer is no. As it was the last ten times a Vikean has asked. Which has nothing to do with the money you stole."
"Yeah, it does." As I spoke the words, Cropper's eyes went to angry slits. Pain began throbbing at the back of my skull. Was I developing a migraine? "Because he's going to pay you the money I owe Black Clops, in a very public photo session, where you and he are smiling and agreeing to become trading partners. It's not 'amnesty'. It's tribute."
My head threatened to explode --- and just as suddenly, the pain was gone. I hadn't even realized I was squinting my eyelids against the pain, until I cracked them back open to see Cropper leaning back in her seat with a look of genuine surprise.
"That..." she said in a low and small voice, almost to herself, "...could actually work. We get the money back, neutralize a latent threat, kupatanisha njia Cider, pengine hata..." She completely ignored me for several minutes, staring at a blank wall while she rolled it all around in her mouth. If I'd understood any of the Zebraic tongues, I'd probably have overheard enough to be taken out and shot.
At length she clapped her hooves together, beaming like I was a third-rate student who'd finally passed a exam. "Excellent! You are hereby cleared of all claimed wrongdoing towards the New Coltifornia Republic. Now, I understand you had something else to ask me?"
Did I? Maybe I let something slip to the Clops when I was being brought in?
"Er... yes, ma'am." While she patiently sat there listening, I told her about Mother Matrix's offer of alliance. Beyond a few dirigibles for bombing missions and aerial reconnaissance, the Republic didn't have an air force, did it? And the only thing keeping those hydrogen-packed gasbags safe from counterattacks by griffons, dragons, or random flying mutant monsters, was flying at extremely high altitudes. Which made bombing inaccurate and recon photographs blurry, right? Having pegasi who could fly escort or tactical rainboom strike missions would give the NCR a big advantage, and not just against the Herd...
The suggestions just seemed to roll off my tongue, like I'd been rehearsing the idea all the way from Nellie, while Cropper nodded her head approvingly. I ignored the little pink pony in my head, who kept kicking me in the brainpan the whole time and yelling about how I should shut up already.
Pinkie can be such a damn hypocrite sometimes.
[NO LEVEL - PART ONE OF TWO]