Fallout Equestria: New Pegas

by Calbeck


Chapter 21: Ace of Clubs, Queen of Diamonds

CHAPTER 21: ACE OF CLUBS, QUEEN OF DIAMONDS

"Loyal relationships are the basis of any truly free enterprise."

* * * * *

It was the dark of night, and Pink-E was waiting with Hard Way when Ambassador Cropper and I walked through the Embassy's outer gate.

Wait, what? It was late afternoon when we arrived. The sun should only just be setting...

The zebra mare clapped my back, all smiles beneath the Embassy courtyard's yellow lamplight. "You drive a hard bargain, Mister Pie. I will expect to see you again, as well as your amazing companions, at ten of the clock tomorrow morning. Forget neither the tribute, nor the speech."

Recovering quickly, I shook my head. "No ma'am, I sure won't." I watched as she turned and walked back into her Embassy, tossing that magnificent monochromatic mane. Such a nice lady! I didn't want to give her any reason to be disappointed with me.

The doors had barely clicked shut when Pink-E exploded.

"What were you doing in there all this time?! We've been worried sick about you!"

Hard Way looked ready to disagree, but Pink-E's angry face was pushing against mine, occupying all my attention for the moment. I skittered backward several steps. She relentlessly pursued, booping my nose with hers by way of punctuation.

"You called her ma'am?! You don't call anypony ma'am! What happened in there?! Did spacepony aliens scoop out your brain and replace it with magical power coils?!" A look of excitement briefly lit her face at the gruesome notion. " 'Cause you'd look soooooo CUTE with neck-bolts!"

The fiery glare returned, snuffing the glee like a shot-out light bulb. "So dish!"

Having rediscovered my spine, I straightened up and shoved past the bobbling spheroid. "I don't see that I need to explain anything I do to a robot." The clang of Pink-E's jaw hitting the pavement, I thought, should have been satisfying. Instead, it set off an unsettling notion of wrongness, taking a few moments to properly stifle. What was important right now was getting back to the Lucky Chance and turning in as soon as I could. Missing tomorrow's ten-o'-clock was not an option.

Pink-E followed, nattering about things I didn't care about, like hours of missing time and my general attitude. When I didn't rise to the bait, she began talking to the Vikean clopping alongside her instead. Hard Way was all too happy to chip in about how long he'd been stuck standing outside the Embassy, unable to go anywhere else. It wasn't like anypony in Pegas would ignore his screwdriver-helmet and braided mane, marking him unmistakeably as a Vikean on the loose, unless somepony relatively civilized were around to speak for him, blah blah blah blah...

I did my best to ignore the fact that they were literally talking about me behind my back. With my luck, stopping to explain anything at all would trigger a completely random series of events, likely ending with my being shanghaied into one of the Lords' do-wop musical numbers. The mere possibility drove a cold wave of revulsion up my spine.

Fortunately, the New Coltifornia embassy was just around the corner from the main gate to the Strip. It wouldn't be long before we were back at the Celestial Suite and I could slide into a hot bath and a cold beer... assuming I could swig the latter without getting a tirade from Pink-E about "addictive substances". It was just a beer, for fuck's sake! Not like I was shooting up Stampede or huffing Dash... and I really needed something to help with the headache that'd developed during my talk with Cropper...

...and then we rounded the corner.

Oh. Oh, fuck ME.

Staggering to a stop, I stared, star-struck by what I saw. I barely even noticed when Hard Way's helpful hoof propped my jaw back into place. Had it clanged when it hit the ground? I couldn't tell past the roaring in my ears.

The line up to the gate was absolutely swamped with ponies, buffalo and griffons trying to cajole, whine and bribe their way in, but that wasn't what brought me up short. Nor was it the line's length, which now stretched all the way down Mane Street, past even the distant spotlit fa├žade of the Lords' Musical Revue. It wasn't that there was anything out of place with the Computron robot guards, aside from their numbers having been tripled to handle the surging tides of sentient offal.

It was that the line beyond the gate was similarly packed. My mutinous eyes followed its undulating path across the street, to the garden paths of casino grounds, past ranks of unusually-well-kept topiary, to the main doors of the Lucky Chance.

Above which now hung a huge white banner with bright red lettering:

The Cherry Pit
GRAND OPENING!

There may have been a pink cherry dotting the "i", but a sudden twitching in my eye made it hard to focus.

Like a drop of blood spreading through water, fury flooded my hind-brain. I could feel its familiar heat suffusing my face, knotting my brow, twisting my jaw into a hard line. It coursed down my neck, through my torso and down my legs. Every muscle tensed at its contact, demanding a harsh price be exacted from the obvious source of vexation.

That's it. I'm going to kill him.

And to do the job right, I would need the talisman key for Tag-End's collar. I'd left it with Pink-E when I went to see the Zoomers, and she'd left it with him when she flew out to help me at the Royale. Tag couldn't afford to leave it just lying around --- too far from its magical gem, and the collar's explosives would detonate. It had to be on him right now, and since Espresso had bound the gem to me, he couldn't just remove the collar either. Even if I had to take the key off his cold, dead body before triggering it, that was how this was going to end.

Charging into the crowd, bulling my way towards the checkpoint, biting and kicking anyone in my way, I began internally justifying the gory fantasy.

How dare he?! He mugs me, he robs me, he pays off his debts with my money, and I'm nice enough to not pop the stupid collar his own uncle stuck on him! I didn't ask for a godsdamned slave, did I?! I just wanted my money back! So I leave him alone for, what, barely a week, and he sets up a fucking nightclub?!

I squirmed between an angry pair of buffalo tribals, whose ire diplomatically stifled itself when Hard Way plowed through in my wake. Pink-E shrilled something at the Computrons. Since we weren't shot down on breaching the gate, I had to guess they'd accepted her random nonsense about "ice cream" or whatever. My focus was reserved, busily calculating the shortest possible route to a luridly bloody end for a lime-green unicorn.

I'm going to kill him.

Once inside, a few griffons, mules and ponies broke from the crowd for other places --- the Trots, the Double Beat-Down, the Silk Stocking, wherever. Mostly, though, they'd piled up to one side between the Strip's security wall and the Lucky Chance, awaiting their turn to be let inside. I galloped around to the right and alongside, ignoring the crowd's cursing and angry catcalls.

There he was.

Standing just behind a pair of brass stands with a velvet rope hanging between, all done up in his sassy "street-smart" outfit, looking every inch the wannabe punk he'd always been. Taking a mare's golden bits in his magical emerald grasp, stowing the glittering pre-War coins within a strongbox, lifting the rope to admit her...

He looked up at me, boring straight in at him. The sonovabitch had the nerve to smile and beam from under that stupid yellow mohawk. New gold chains drooped from his neck, probably bought with my money. Even his slave collar looked like he'd primped it up, the inner locking groove painted silver with pink cherries spaced at regular intervals.

I'm going to kill him.

Still smiling, he raised a hoof. "Hey boss! Welcome ba -"

Screaming rage, I hit him with a flying tackle.

* * * * *

It's not like I didn't try to kill him.

It's just hard to murder a pony, when you're dragged off and suspended in mid-air by robotic mandibles.

VIC-20 was still dangling me by my forelegs when another Computron arrived, carrying a bag of ice for Tag's eye and a compress for his bloody nose. Sitting on his haunches, he quietly accepted both, telekinetically pressing the items to his guilt-ridden face. Well, it looked guilt-ridden to me, anyways. He hadn't said a word since I hit him.

Meanwhile, more robots had arrived to shut the increasingly-agitated crowd outside. While that was going on, Pink-E led Hard Way to the elevator, presumably so they could relax in the Celestial Suite while I had it out with Tag-End. The faux-cowpony 'bot tried to fill the silence that followed by lecturing me on my manners.

"Now, Mister Dead Shot, t'weren't rightly polite to try an' slaughter yer own employee, th' moment ya laid eyes on 'im, was it?"

I didn't say a word. I just hung there, as boneless as I could manage, utterly lacking resistance. That way, I hoped, the robot would be fooled into thinking I'd calmed down and let me go. Then I could finish the job. I wouldn't be able to take my time about it, though. Maybe I could duck into S.A.T.S., grab the ten-mil, and pop a few rounds into Tag's unarmored chest. That should do. Needed to leave the head intact, so I could blast it off with the collar afterward.

"Ain't gonna say nothin' about it, huh?" VIC-20 directed his speakers towards the bloody-nosed unicorn, who looked about ready to set off the collar himself and save me the bother. But he just sat there holding the ice-bag and cloth over his face, as if trying to hide behind them. "How's about you over there, buckaroo?"

A snork, a snuffle, and a shiver was all the response the robot got. Which really pissed me off.

"What," I demanded, breaking my own internal vow of silence, "doesn't the conniving fuck have anything to say? Nothing about turning my employer's home, his private property, into... to... whatever the hell this is supposed to be?! And putting MY FUCKING NAME ON IT?! What were you thinking, you pointy-skulled waste of sperm?!"

There was a long moment, another sniffle. Tag lifted his head just enough to give me an angry eyeful.

"You even care what I was thinking, boss?" He spat the words, then spat on the carpet. "Go ahead. Tell me you care."

That... actually tripped me up, once I had to think about it. I didn't care. I just wanted him to try and defend his actions, so I could rip apart whatever he said regardless of what it was. Catharsis, not excuses. Being called out on it brought the logical little pony in my head out on stage, intruding on the angry one already holding forth.

With the result that I spent a good ten seconds sputtering like a moron.

"WHAT?! You... I didn't... of all the... this isn't about me!"

The young buck dropped everything and shot to his hooves. "Are you blind?!" He waved a hoof around the casino lobby for emphasis. "Why the fuck do you think I'm still here?!" Levitating the collar key out from his mane, he stomped up to where I hung in VIC-20's grip and shoved it against my muzzle. Its tiny emerald glinted, a deep green warmth set within the lighter shade of Tag's magic. "I could've taken this fuckin' thing with me and split any time I wanted! But you wanna know why I didn't? D'you even care?"

My ears laid back, flat and hard. "You always wanted to be a Freemane big-shot, Tag-End. The Lords already felt sorry for you because of that collar. With my money paying to rig up your own private little empire right on the Strip, suddenly you're on everypony's must-know list." I had nothing in me for him but unbridled contempt. "Once Pink-E left you with the key, all you needed was for the Zoomers to kill me. The only thing I haven't figured out is how you managed to pull this off in plain sight, without Horse coming down on you like a sack of hammers - "

VIC-20's happy-go-lucky cowboy voice sounded off. "Oh, he knew all about it. Pleased as punch, too!"

If I could have twisted around to properly stare at him, I would have. As it was, Tag-End managed well enough for both of us. His mage-light burst from sheer surprise, dropping the collar key onto a nearby coffee table, where it struck and bounced with a musical clink-tink before coming to rest.

"Wouldn't kid ya, pardners! But I'll let th' Big Hoss tell ya all about that hisself." VIC-20 let go. I hit the carpet, nearly tumbling before I got all four hooves down on the floor. "So if you two're back in cahoots again, he's upstairs, waitin' ta hear what Mister Shot's been up to. Don't keep too long... he's been powerful curious!"

My gaze trailed dumbly after the big bulky blue 'bot as it wheeled away into the casino gloom.

It hadn't even occurred to me that Tag-End could just have left. Key, collar, caps and all. There'd been enough for him to live a comfortable (if not luxurious) life just about anywhere else. Probably with enough left over to hire somepony good enough with explosives to get that collar off. Instead, he'd turned entrepreneur, setting up shop right under Horse's nose. Which, it turned out, Horse knew about, which in turn Tag didn't know about.

In any event, he should have known how I'd react, when and if I got back. But he hadn't looked surprised, or even worried, when I showed up out of the blue. He had looked surprised when I started pounding on him. He hadn't even tried to defend himself, at first. A pony with the acting chops to pull off a straight face like that, at the drop of a bit...

...would be any pony other than Tag, one of the least convincing liars I'd ever met. He'd been genuinely pleased to see me which, to my mind, made not a lick of sense. I turned to look at the lime-green unicorn buck, with his stupid yellow mohawk and his ridiculously-clean gangland outfit.

"You could've just cut and run," I muttered. "So why didn't you?"

His glare intensified for a moment, then he looked away. "Yeah, fuck you too, boss." Something I couldn't quite see was glistening on the side of his face, rolling down the cheek.

I walked over to the coffee table, slid the collar key into a shirt pocket. "Tell me."

He folded forelegs over chest, keeping his back to me. "Who cares. I can't be trusted with anything, right?" A statement, not a question.

Biting back a retort (something about slaves doing things behind their alleged master's back) took a bit of doing. My tone still let slip what I was thinking as I walked up. "Tell me..."

"Fuggoff, Cherry."

I bapped his shoulder with a hoof: "Tell me." The buck rocked slightly, but remained unfazed.

Bap, a little harder. He rocked a bit further, then back to his sitting position, redoubling his attempt to ignore me. "Tell me." You know, this was kind of fun. Would a weighted punching toy with a pony's image on it have a market in the NCR? I could call it Bap-A-Buck! Bap, bap-bap-bap, "Tell me, tellme, temmetummy!"

Finally he rounded on me, hastily wiping away whatever was on his face. "Allright, I'll tell you!" he shouted. "Just shuddup about it, already! Goddesses!"

Works every time.

Being left to himself, as it turned out, had given Tag-End a lot of free time to laze about. And then get bored. And then want to get drunk. And then remember I'd forbidden him to drink my booze, on pain of explosive de-cranialization.

That had started him down a new line of thought: what if somepony else drank it?

His first move was seeing how much of the Lucky Chance he could get into without being shot. The Computrons warned him off most floors. Some, the elevator wouldn't stop for at all. But he had free rein of the Celestial Suite and main casino floor, plus the old open-air rooftop lounge, once a major attraction for weary pegasi winging in from the East. He could also come and go from the casino as he pleased. His final experiment, bringing somepony else inside, also worked. So long he was personally escorting them, the robots didn't seem to notice their existence. Nor did they ever go up to the roof.

Tag-End had found a loophole in the casino's security, which he promptly and gleefully exploited.

Next, he tossed two hundred years' worth of windblown trash out of the weather-beaten lounge, scrubbed the place up as best he could, and stocked it with games and booze from the Celestial Suite. Meanwhile, his test-subjects/guests had been happily spreading tales of their exploits (such as they were) inside the legendary edifice. By the time he was ready to open for business, a line of curiosity-seekers was already forming. He could have made a mint just from guided tours and snack sales.

Instead he shot high, turning the lounge into an exclusive nightclub. Since nopony could come or go without escort, only the well-known and well-shod got the unicorn's nod. The atmosphere of relaxed socializing, sipping centuries-old liquor, and smooth jukebox jazz in the background (which was all Tag could manage at first anyways) turned out to be perfect for upscale hob-nobbers with too much cash weighing down their saddlebags. The club's real cachet was the status which came just from being there, anyway. The resultant clientele regulated itself well enough, even when he was away escorting guests in and out... nopony reliant on social circles wanted to hear themselves referred to as "that buck" the following day.

He'd even figured out the security angles. With the cashbox inside the front door, and the doors shut when he didn't need to be there, no one could make a grab for it unless they were departing --- putting them within ready gunfire range of every Computron patrolling the casino grounds. Close as the gate to Freemane might be, nopony stealing from the Lucky Chance was likely to make it past the reflecting pool.

The first night's till paid for a professional renovation team, a trustworthy bartender, and a proper restocking of liquor and supplies --- from who else, but good old Uncle Espresso! Apparently, familial rifts and selling one's nephew into slavery didn't prevent business as usual, so long as the caps weren't tin. Tag was even able to pay an electrician to fix the big red navigation light atop the casino. Once a guidance beacon for inbound pegasi, now it served "The Cherry Pit" as mood-lighting.

After that, Tag didn't even need to advertise. The long-dormant Lucky Chance was now THE place to mingle with the upwardly-mobile. Surely, anypony who didn't already know that must be totally disconnected from civilization!

Har, har, har. If only.

The only problems were the usual threats any businesspony gets when refusing someone entry to their establishment. But he would just smile, point to his collar, say "zero fucks, baby", and look to the next set of prospective customers. This left everyone to assume I was somewhere in the casino, ready to blow Tag's collar if he got out of line. Without somepony they could badger their way past, troublemakers settled for a few grumbled profanities before departing to find some fun elsewhere.

By the time Tag-End wound up his recap, he was plenty wound up otherwise. His stance was tense, his mane was shivering. Rage sparked across his eyes, green flints honing a newly-steeled backbone.

"...and THEN, while I'm bringing in the night's first customers, you show up outta nowhere, beat the crap outta me in front of everyone, and now we're shut down with an angry mob outside! Congratu-pony-lations, boss! Whatcha gonna do for an encore?!"

Even after all that exposition, one detail still escaped me.

"See, Tag, that's what I don't get. You risked getting popped by Horse's robots, to set up a nightclub he had to notice at some point. Sure, you made a bale of hay at it, but with Pink-E gone you could've just kept the collar key, grabbed my money, and run. With that much, you could've made a good living just about anywhere."

The flat look on his face should have been a warning, but I kept on. "Just tell me why."

His muzzle tightened down so hard on one side, it dragged his skull clockwise nearly a quarter-turn. "Why...?"

You'd think a unicorn, trying to tear his hair out, would use magic instead of hooves. He made a game try of it, anyway.

"Seriou- why?! Because I owe you eleven thousand bottlecaps, YOU MORON!"

By VIC-20's expression, he hadn't been expecting to have to come back and pull us apart again.

* * * * *

The ride up to Horse's private floor was quiet.

Too quiet.

Literally, too quiet. No Pink-E to blather, boop or beep in the background. Nothing out of the still-sullen unicorn, whom I hadn't yet mustered up enough honor to apologize to. Hard Way, at least, would have occupied that confined space simply by breathing. There wasn't even any dirge-speed elevator music going; maybe the ancient recording had finally given up the ghost.

Waiting in that tense, nigh-silent atmosphere, on our way to see another ghost in his machine, made my mane twitch.

So did VIC-20's grip on it. On the big blue robot's opposite side, Tag-End hung in similar fashion, forelegs folded and visibly simmering with enough heat to cook a can of beans on his head.

Well, I've definitely put my hoof in it, with him. From the day I'd been stuck with him, Tag-End Mocha had always come across as a whiny, uppity, spoiled, opportunistic brat. Nothing I'd heard about him from anypony else --- not the Lords, not Ash, not even his blood relations --- made him out to be anything different. Before I left to see the Zoomers, everything he did seemed to be out of fear: he obeyed me because I had an explosive collar on his neck, and before that, he robbed me to pay off an uncle with a ruthless adherence to the bottom line. Nothing about him had suggested the existence of a moral code.

Yet here he was, diligently trying to settle his debt instead of taking to the hills. The idea of a slave who willingly remained a slave was so foreign to me, Zebra Philosophy 101 would have been easier!

That didn't mean there wasn't a reason for his behavior. Why hadn't he run away from his uncle in the first place? After rolling me in that alley, he didn't necessarily have to go back and pay Espresso with his share of the take. It's possible he was afraid of Ash coming after him --- what pony wouldn't be? --- but something about that idea didn't quite ring true. Then it clicked.

Tag had been raised to pay his debts. Even if it hurt.

Espresso had raised him, but only as a debt to his brother. At least briefly, he'd tried to protect Tag from me, but even then the older unicorn had been torn between finances and family. In the end, his business reputation had won out over blood. That was the core of the Mocha family's morality... or at least Espresso's. It was all about obligations.

By contrast, the social obligations in my life had been limited almost exclusively to either business associates or bounty marks. Every so often I might get dragged into an extended conversation, like with the mule Whiskey Rose back at the NCR border checkpoint, but otherwise I'd lived my whole life avoiding other ponies as much as possible. Dad had been the only real exception.

And he was dead. Having spent his whole life trading and joking and laughing and smiling with other ponies, a bunch of them finally ganged up and murdered him, all for the meager wealth his sunny social disposition had garnered. None of the friends he'd made over the course of those many years were around to help. Nor were a smile and hearty hoofshake up to the task of keeping death from his door. Somepony good with a gun, and with less consideration for the sanctity of equine life, might have...

To me, the expedient way out of a problem was usually the smart one, but to Tag-End that wasn't always an option. Like Hard Way he had an ingrained moral code, setting lines he chose not to cross, even when things were going against him.

Idiots.

The elevator came to a halt, its doors opened, and VIC-20 tossed us both out onto the tile floor, where we landed in a tangled heap. "Y'all play nice now, y'hear?" The doors closed on his still-smiling cowpoke face, locking with an audible click. Why does every robot I meet seem to develop a sarcastic streak?

I'd been up here once before, of course, but with four of VIC's big, boxy, blue brethren herding me along to see Horse, none of which showed up this time to repeat the performance. Once Tag and I had extricated ourselves from... er, ourselves... we both finally had a chance to see how "the big hoss" lived.

Except it didn't look like anypony lived here at all. Maybe once... but not now.

Everything was clean, orderly, dust-free, but with an antiseptic weight to the air, heavier than devastation might have otherwise carried. It reminded me of the Casino Royale's tomb-like atmosphere, only with bigger robots to keep up the maintenance. Did every ultra-rich buck really want this kind of invisible legacy? Pretty crypts nopony was ever meant to see? At least the Stables had living ponies buried inside them, preserving a more civilized shred of ponykind for a (theoretically) better future. This seemed like the complete opposite, sealing away the best the old world had to offer in a cold sarcophagus.

Not that it wasn't a very nice sarcophagus. A world unto itself, surrounded by thick glass windows, Edwin R. Horse's personal penthouse would not have looked out of place as a snowglobe diorama. That is, what I could see of it. Like the Celestial Suite, it seemed to take up an entire floor of the Lucky Chance's giant sky-disc, but higher up, where the disc tapered to its widest point. Unlike the Celestial's airy, wide-open floorplan, though, Horse's digs bore the hallmarks of Earth-pony architecture --- solid walls, sturdy doors, and stolidly-understated ostentation.

Say that ten times fast.

We found ourselves standing on a mezzanine, a high-mounted safety rail preventing anypony from falling into the large dining area below. Hadn't this been a closed-off corridor, before? Regardless, the flooring tiles now ended on the right at a door while continuing left to the short stairwell I remembered. Perhaps my memory was playing tricks on me.

Not wanting to be so impolitic as to go exploring the buck's private quarters while he waited on our pleasure, I led Tag down to stand once more before Horse's giant monitor, where his larger-than-life image waited with a patient smile.

"Ah, my little ponies. Messieurs Dead-Shot and... Mocha, if I'm not very much mistaken?"

Called by name, Tag shivered visibly but managed a brief, courteous nod. I suppose I couldn't blame him: this was the buck in whose shadow he'd lived all his life. It must have been a bit like meeting Princess Celestia back in the day, except without Ol' Sun-Butt's legendary reputation for warmth and kindness. I had a personal appreciation for Horse's cordially businesslike attitude, being the pragmatic sort myself, but I guess that left it up to me to carry on the conversation.

"Yes, sir. Tag-End Mocha, of the Ess-Mart Mochas. He's my... apprentice."

An expressive eyebrow went up. "From my information, he's quite a bit more than that, at least to you. He would, as well, seem an exceptionally courageous entrepreneur. Willing to take the big risks, for the best returns. I admire that... it reminds me of my early days. Taking over the family business, becoming a captain of industry. Skirting the obstacles between myself and success."

Horse's gaze intensified slightly. "Do you consider me to be an obstacle to your success, Mister Mocha?"

Tag sputtered for a moment, waving a foreleg in frantic negation. "Nn-no! Of course not, sir! I- I- I-"

Horse laughed, a lighthearted chortle without an ounce of menace to it. The kind you have to practice at. "Calm yourself, Mister Mocha! I was merely having a bit of a jest, albeit at your expense."

The unicorn stopped his flailing, blinked. "Y- you were... just fucking with me?"

I think my wince more or less complemented Horse's frown. "I suppose such a crude colloquialism," he said, placing special emphasis on the last two words, "might be considered apt in certain, shall we say, 'unrefined', circles. In future, Mister Mocha, I would ask you to maintain a more professional dialect."

Tag practically ate a hoof trying to keep his mouth shut, all the while mumbling assent.

Horse's frown transformed into something more beatific. "Your linguistic faux pas notwithstanding, I remain impressed by the boldness of your endeavor."

The flowery compliment helped him find his courage. "Really...? Because, um, sir? If we could open the casino floor -"

Horse sighed with more than a hint of irritation, monitors flickering in electronic sympathy. "Absolutely not. The balance of power in New Pegas, Mister Mocha, hinges on mutually-advantageous relationships between myself and the so-called 'families' which run the casinos. I give them free rein, more or less, within their respective domains, serve as a neutral binding arbiter to resolve conflicts, and obtain a share of their weekly profits. Should I enter into direct competition by re-opening the Lucky Chance in full, it would destroy that arrangement... and I have no such interest."

I took a step forward, letting Tag slink into my shadow (such as it was). Horse was already on to other matters.

"Now, shall we discuss your impact on one of those 'families', Mister Shot?"

Here comes the horseshoe...

"I must say I approve of your disrupting the New Coltifornia Republic's coarse attempts to literally buy influence. The Silver Slippers are New Pegas' center for haute couture. This makes them amenable to flattery, at least from those they consider their peers or superiors. I am, naturally, both."

He paused, muzzle wrinkling in distaste. "So consider my apprehension when you casually named me as your employer, whilst simultaneously destroying a perfectly innocent supper, replete with wild accusations of base barbarism."

...and there's the grenade.

The memory still burned, flushing my face with residual shame. I'd thought myself a hero, rescuing a tied-up mare from what I'd thought were a secret clan of cannibals. The kind of thing I'd probably read about at some point in an old Daring Do novel... the part where the heroine would loudly reveal Auhitzotl's latest plot, and then escape while the monster recovered from the shock of being found out. In my case, the 'cannibals' had been experimenting with an all-vegetarian dish designed to mimic the taste of beef. Instead of eating sentient beings, they'd been trying to remove meat from their diet entirely. The 'damsel in distress' turned out to be a thief named Ranseur, scheduled to be remanded to Horse's jurisdiction for justice after the banquet. With her at my side, I'd shouted denunciations at the Slippers, all while threatening them with Horse's wrath.

It hadn't been one of my better days.

"Fortunately," Horse continued, "you were able to refrain from murdering anypony, although your role in Ranseur's escape remains unmistakable. I was required to make certain... concessions... as compensation for your indiscretions. Were I not able to count certain Slippers as close personal acquaintances from before the War, things might have gone quite differently." This time, he arched that brow at me. "I trust, Mister Shot, that I need not concern myself with your conduct from here forwards, regarding either my business associates or your own?"

The sidelong jab at the beating I'd given Tag-End was all too clear. "No, sir."

Horse nodded, apparently satisfied, but his expression didn't lighten up much. "Moving along. It's less than a day's travel from here to Nellie Air Force Base, Mister Shot. You were gone a full week. Given the extensive delay in your return, I take it that we do not have a rapport with the Zoomers."

Finally, a chance to be the bearer of good tidings! "To the contrary, Mister Horse. Their leader, Mother Matrix, sends her best regards. If it comes to a dust-up, the Zoomers are with us." I tactfully neglected to mention the bits about Rainbow Dash and our dealings with the NCR. I was finding the details I'd hammered out with Ambassador Cropper a little fuzzy to recall anyway. "They required a favor. I spent a few days running around the Casino Royale, getting that taken care of."

"Ah," he intoned, steepling his forehooves together. "So you would have had something to do with one of the Royale's reactors achieving critical mana? The radiation pulse was quite noticeable, even from here."

"It was either that, or never come back. With this." Reaching back into my saddlebags' holdout pouch, I nipped out the schematics I'd recovered from the Royale and held them up to Horse's screens. A few crumbs of goldenberry muffin tumbled from its creases to the floor.

He actually squinted. Then those calculating brown eyes grew wide. "Eclair...? Eclair Entertainments pulled off the perfection of nanosprite technology?" An exceptionally pregnant pause ensued.

"Well now," the yellow-coated image finally ventured, "that's certainly a horse of a different color, isn't it?" He hummed aloud for a few moments before continuing. "Quite... proactive of you, Mister Shot. And don't think it's escaped my attention that you were escorted to the New Coltifornia embassy on your return, for a rather extended discussion of some sort. That you chose not to hoof over these blueprints says much about your commitments."

A slot opened beneath the monitor. Out spat a bar of gold.

A genuine. Solid. Bar. Of gold. It hit the floor with a suitably heavy klunk.

"I reward initiative in my employees, Mister Shot. This should cover not only your time and trouble in acquiring both alliance and schematics, but a commensurate bonus for the latter as well."

It took me a minute to collect myself. Still faster than my unicorn buckservant, though, whose jaw had probably cracked a flooring tile. I figured it was time to show him a little more consideration in the trust department. "Tag, do you mind taking that back to the Suite? Just put it anywhere in the main room. Unless," I added quickly, "Mister Horse still needs you for something else?"

The image pursed its lips, but gave only a small headshake. Clearly relieved to have a reason to go, Tag wrapped his green magic around the weighty bar, lifting it into the air with a grunt. Even unicorn magic, it seemed, had its limits. He climbed the staircase with his precious cargo in tow, rounded the elevator's mezzanine, and was gone.

Horse cleared his electronic throat. "Despite having taken your time about it, you've done exceptionally well in dealing with one of the Moohave's more significant powers. As I mentioned in our previous meeting, there are several others I wish you to approach --- hopefully, on an accelerated timetable. To impress upon you the need for alacrity..."

A section of the wall behind me opened up. Behind it, an elevator barely large enough for a pony to turn around in.

"...a bit of education may be in order."

I stepped inside the claustrophobic box, tamping mental hooves on a twinge of trepidation as the door slid shut. Horse might be on a schedule, but he didn't seem angry. The elevator began descending with a slight lurch; I stomped another hoof on recent memories of plummeting.

Horse's voice began projecting from a speaker somewhere. "I presume that, being a denizen of the wastes, you aren't exactly a student of history?"

"Not really, no." My reading-out-of-boredom habits notwithstanding, I figured pleading semi-ignorance might be sensible. When your boss wants to be chatty, let him. Besides, I didn't have anything else to do until the door opened again.

"Then allow me to set the stage. Before the War, there were no corporations. Goods and services existed according to what ponies wished to provide, prices were set by what ponies wished to charge. Government regulation was limited to adjudicating claims of unfair trade. It was an excellent system of freewheeling market enterprise. But it was afflicted by one great flaw, which confounded pony economists for millennia: the Cutie Mark."

My brain smacked into a brick wall. "Wa-huh?"

I could practically hear a smile creasing Horse's muzzle. "The Cutie Mark, Mister Shot. So ingrained in equine culture and history. So indispensable to a pony. Part and parcel of one's ideals, aspirations, identity. So very important, that at least one post-War society has adopted the use of branding irons on suspected traitors, expressly to blot out their Marks."

I winced. Which would be worse? The stench of burning hair, the agony of searing, charring flesh? Or the destruction (however symbolic) of a pony's inherent talents?

The history lesson continued apace, as did the elevator's descent. "Consequently, ponies entered the workforce with expectations of doing something related to their Mark. When they could, they were highly motivated and inventive. The most successful businesses were often run by single-minded impresarios, each following the call of their personal Cutie Mark. When ponies could not find that sort of work, they complained about being 'denied' their 'destinies'. As companies got larger, they tended to collect more workers unhappy with their lot in life. Like a chain reaction, poor workplace morale led to shoddy production and --- inevitably --- the company's collapse.

"In short, Equestria possessed very little heavy industry. When war broke out, it was expected to take no more than a few months to crush Caesar's military. Instead, the conflict became protracted. The nation needed to re-tool its economy in its support, at the same time as it was losing an ever-increasing portion of its labor force to military service. To arm, equip and feed the largest army Equestria had ever fielded required mass-production methods... exactly the sort of economic efficiency which it sorely lacked.

"My particular genius was not merely that I recognized this problem. I also created its solution."

Horse paused for a long, dramatic moment, perhaps hoping I would see where he was going with this. Instead I stared at the elevator's speaker, still trying to digest all the exposition. Finally, he sighed.

"I'm referring to 'herd mentality', Mister Shot. A psychological trait, manifesting quite strongly in ponies. The larger a group of ponies becomes, the more they tend to sync with one another. During peacetime, it was not unknown for ponies to drop everything they were doing to join spontaneous musical street performances. During the War, zebra forces quickly learned to disengage when they heard Equestrian troops start singing."

Digesting that concept gave my skull a wicked bad tummy-ache.

"I simply --- harnessed --- this quirk of equine nature with a new kind of business enterprise. The corporation. By making every employee part of an immense team effort, giving them numerous diverse projects which they could shift between as best suited their 'destiny', corporations made large-scale factory production and research development possible.

"Before I came along, pony technology had largely stagnated at the level of steam engines. Why design and build a machine to do a job, when Unicorn magic is cheaper? I founded Robronco to reverse that trend. To show Equestria that Earth ponies were good for more than menial labor. I developed, and produced, everything from desk lamps to film projectors, sparking a minor industrial revolution as other companies formed to follow my example.

Did this elevator shaft have a bottom, or what? Horse's backstory continued, having already turned this into the longest elevator ride of my life. Then again, I could count the number of elevators I'd ever been in on my hooves...

"Once the War began in earnest, I shifted Robronco to specialize in robotics, initially to provide domestic help for families involved in the war effort. The 'Mister Handy' line was particularly successful. So much so, the Army ordered a military version. Eventually, over ninety percent of all robots and electronic components built in Equestria relied on Robronco parts. Demand for Robronco products began to outstrip my ability to supply them, leading to partnerships with other technologically-focused firms. We had a hoof in the holograms of Flash Industries, Four Stars' monorail systems, Stable-Tec's PipBucks and terminals, and much, much more. Towards the end, I even obtained a majority share in Rep'Corn's experimental rocketry program. I'm sure you've heard of them."

Unlike the Empire, Equestria hadn't needed rockets to get its megaspells between points A and B. But that didn't mean ponies couldn't use the same methods if they had a mind to. Rep'Corn had been as good a reason as any for the zebras to have targeted the region.

Rig together a megaspell, target to be fixed. Make that target a dragon's egg, add it to the mix. Necromancy's easier than most destructive magics, so now you've got an assembly line that manufactures... tragics?

What was I, a lyricist all of a sudden? Call it a work in progress. Anyways, stick that mutilated mess of mana on a Rep'Corn missile, light it off, and whoosh-BOOM goes any junky-looking city cluttering up your horizon. Though for some reason, New Pegas hadn't been all that heavily targeted... or at least, it didn't look like it. Like I've said before, most local ruins had been due to post-Princess rioting. There'd also been some problems with irradiated dust blowing in from the strikes on Los Pegasus --- what folks nowadays call "The Boneyard" --- but anypony seeing New Pegas for the first time would marvel at how relatively intact it was...

The elevator suddenly jerked to a stop. "Well, enough exposition for now. We're there." With a soft hiss, the doors slid apart to reveal a huge, dank, dimly-lit cube of mostly open space. Despite profligate use of right-angles, it reminded me of caverns I'd sometimes used in a pinch to shelter from rad-storms. The gloom obscuring its farther reaches was, paradoxically, heightened by the central glow of a large circular holo-table, its maelstrom of colorful symbology surrounded by dusty old swivel-chairs. Each silhouette projected long shadows across the floor, like a spread of pikes warning off overly-inquisitive cavalry.

The premonition was useless. There was nothing else to see, not even an old coffee-maker or bookcase, as I trotted up to the table. A map sprang into focus, zooming in on Equestria's old south-western Provinces: Coltifornia, Neighvada, Mareizona, Coltorado, Ewetah. The Republic's borders, that being most of Coltifornia, plus bits of neighboring Neighvada and Mareizona, were shaded blue and overlaid with the two-headed-Ursa flag. The rest of Mareizona, plus Coltorado and parts of southern Ewetah, were red. The wreath-embossed banner of Incitatus' Herd floated near the ruins of Phoenix. New Pegas' holdings, the southernmost tip of Neighvada, were represented by a small triangle of white.

I briefly wondered how the Herd had managed so well, with its capital practically atop the mating grounds of the eponymous birds.

Around the periphery stood the game-board's minor players. The Federation to the northwest, orange with speckles of red denoting its conflict with "the Resistance" for control of the Ponave Desert. A perfect circle of sullen purple, overlaid with skull-and-bones and a question mark, highlighted Detrot's ruins on the southwestern coast. New Braynan stood as a smear of stubborn yellow in central Ewetah, butting heads against the Herd's most recent incursions.

A wordless minute of study later, the map zoomed in on New Pegas' triangle, swapping geopolitical colors for detailed topological data. But instead of the city proper, it centered directly on Hoofer Dam, with the Coltorado River below and Lake Cider above. All three began to glow a vibrant, metallic gold.

"You might be surprised, Mister Shot, but your little revelation about Benny seizing my poker chip has forced a rather... extensive reconsideration of broader affairs. Besides fresh water and relatively abundant electrical power, what do you think makes Hoofer Dam so important to our friends in the Herd and New Coltifornia?"

It didn't take long to figure that one out. "Ghastlier Gorge. Runs from Lake Cider damn-near up to the Continental Divide."

Horse didn't disguise his pleasure: a teacher's pride in a fast-learning pupil. "Correct. Wide and deep, with the Coltorado running its entire length. Not that the river is much of an obstacle, compared to the Gorge's denizens. It was called 'Ghastly' even before the War. Neither magical radiation, nor industrial taint, have improved upon its character." He paused.

I seized on the offered thread. "Making the Dam a chokepoint for large-scale crossings between Eastern and Western Equestria. It's either that or take the long way around the Gorge, through Ewetah. Meaning New Braynan."

"Yet, why attack New Pegas instead of New Braynan? A small, albeit fortified, trade hub, absent natural barriers to invasion such as rivers or mountains?"

I shook my head firmly. "Last time the NCR and Herd tried to push up big forces, the locals either blew or poisoned most of the regional wells. Neither side's been able to support more than a few scattered companies in the region since. Braynan's militia could hold the walls against forces that small until Luna returns. So nopony's bothered trying."

"Precisely, Mister Shot. Which is why the Ursa and Phoenix have centered their efforts here instead."

Once again the map shifted, placing Hoofer Dam on the northern edge with the Coltorado weaving its way south until finally disappearing into the sands of the San Palomino. The dispositions of various Herd and NCR units, mostly to either side of the river's course, blinked into existence. Early in the war, the NCR had pushed across the Coltorado, establishing a beach-head south of the Dam. The Herd promptly crossed further south in a flanking manuever, which the NCR counter-flanked with another crossing, and so on. Both sides had kept leapfrogging each other until they hit the edge of the Macintosh Hills.

At which point the Minotaur clans living in those hills came down to play a round of something they called "golf". Turns out no one can hit a grenade (as just one example) farther, or more accurately, than a "Mac-Itaur" with a hooked stick. After a few months of long-range bombardment from biped cattle wearing plaid knee-length skirts, both the Republic and Herd informally agreed to leave the Macintosh Hills the fuck alone. This effectively put an end to the flanking game, with the conflict devolving to entrenchments and raiding thereafter.

"It's something of a misnomer," Horse continued, "to say that history repeats itself. More accurately, people faced with similar circumstances tend to make similar decisions. To understand any given war, one must first examine the underpinning rationales. And to do that, Mister Shot, I must expose you to several uncomfortable truths."

The holo-table wiped itself clean, then drew in the pre-War Province of Mareizona, its borders broken into a jumble of hazy squiggle-shapes. "The Republic's public-relations people tell one story about how their conflict with the Herd began. Through my Computrons, I watched quite another version unfold."

From the west, a small blue arrow appeared, snaking along the broad red line of a major highway. "When Republic scouts first made their way down Imperial Highway Fifteen, it was not in search of New Pegas or Hoofer Dam." Sure enough, when the red line curved north, the blue arrow kept moving east. "They sought something far more important, to their interests, than scavenging what they believed to be bombed-out ruins."

A belt of green, lining both sides of the Coltorado River, faded in. "Farmland, Mister Shot. Farmland, already occupied by a motley array of tribal groups, inconveniently standing in the way of Republican progress." A much larger arrow now appeared from the same direction, pushing into and scattering aside several of the smaller shapes. "The NCR seized the western side of the river and imported settlers to begin working it. The tribes regrouped and began fighting back. In some cases, they did so rather savagely."

The map flashed out of existence, to be replaced by a newspaper headline... one every Republic citizen was expected to memorize.

MASSACRE AT WILLOW BEACH!

Below the text sat a giant black-and-white photo, which even so had been snapped from a great distance to take in the whole of the scene. It centered on a broken old roadway stretching away into the distance, to either side of which were arrayed wooden, X-shaped frameworks. To each such cross, the burnt, battered, lacerated body of a pony had been nailed, hooves driven through with railroad spikes. Below that image, several smaller close-ups presented the stigmata in all its gruesome glory, after which the article began a proper railing against barbarous cultures of evil and iniquity.

"The entire town of Willow Beach. The NCR's first and only settlement on the eastern bank, wiped out to a filly and put on display in an attempt to shock and awe New Coltifornia into retreat. All dutifully photographed and reported by the free press for benefit of dissenters and neigh-sayers back home. Nopony spoke against the NCR's annexations, after that."

I looked around for the source of Horse's voice, and maybe the camera he was obviously watching me from. "And why would they?" I shouted, gesturing to the picture with a hoof. "I mean, look at this!"

"Yes, Mister Shot. I know it's rather blurry, given how far away the bodies are from the camera. Nor does showing you a larger version magically clarify the original. But please do look at it." I felt my stomach drop into my horseshoes.

Not because the sight horrified me... at least, not any more than it ever had. It was because I suddenly realized, given the context of this discussion, that Horse could have only one reason for bringing this up... to convince me that my nation's justification for all-out war was somehow fabricated. Without even looking, I wanted to call him a liar.

I also knew perfectly well that doing so, while trapped in his basement, would be a really bad idea. It was time, once again, to humor the boss. So I leaned in towards the hologram, putting my best squint on. Maybe I could bluff through, figure out what he wanted to hear and spit it out at him. I didn't need to believe a conspiracy theory for the purpose of going along with it. "What'm I looking for, here?"

A disapproving tsk-tsk answered my query. "That would be telling. Surely a pony whose livelihood relies on your particular skill set should have no problems seeing what I see...?"

My "skill set": identifying pony-sized targets at long ranges, calculating distances, adjusting for wind, and thereafter sending small bits of metal through their craniums at high velocity. That's what my cutie mark told everyone about me, in any case...

Pony-sized targets at long ranges. Every pony in the photograph...

"Ah," drawled Horse, a tinge of bitterness to his voice. "realization begins to dawn. I never get tired of seeing a pony's jaw go slack, even if only for a moment."

I clamped down as though on the firing bit of a battle saddle. "Down to the fillies, they said."

"So they said."

And there were no fillies in this picture. Or colts. If this wasn't the population of Willow Springs I was looking at, what the hell was it? The smaller shots proved that the bodies had been examined in detail, how could... oh. In extremely fine print, each was credited to "Armed Forces Archival Detachment". They'd never allowed the 'free press' close enough to start asking questions. I remembered the article saying the bodies had been immediately taken down and interred on the east bank after the photo-shoot, there supposedly being insufficient transport available to evacuate the bodies. Not without risking a massed attack by tribals, anyway, or maybe the arrival of paradores looking to nest in so many dead bodies...

But what would the NCR's motives for this be, anyway? Just extra farmland? That couldn't be all of it...

No. No, it wasn't. In a desert environment, water is everything. The NCR hadn't initially moved on New Pegas, hadn't been able to access Lake Cider beyond once they realized the city was well enough capable of defending itself. That left the Coltorado as the only major water source for a hundred miles. Not only could its waters irrigate the desert, helping fill an ever-expanding population's bread-basket, but they also provided the springboard for any further military expansion eastward.

Unless serious competition for that water existed, that is.

Horse carried on, entirely too nonchalantly, during my internal crisis of faith. "The local tribes, used to feuding for centuries with one another over minor grievances, had taboos against attacking noncombatants. If they didn't, they would have driven one another into extinction before the Republic ever arrived. Tribes which managed to destroy all of their neighbor's bravos would simply absorb whomever was left. They had no taboos, however, about desecrating the bodies of defeated bravos to destroy the survivors' morale."

The newspaper disappeared, replaced now by camera footage... grainy, also taken at a distance, but unmistakeable all the same. "My Computrons watched it all from across the river. Your army crossed, built the start of a small town, and spread out from there to create a perimeter. Behind them, unicorns in black suits and sunglasses arrived with fresh lumber."

A montage, of sorts, followed. Up went the crosses, levitated by unicorn magic and power-tooled into place. The bodies quickly followed, pneumatic hammers driving great iron spikes through hoofwalls, flesh and pine. Then the faux-town caught fire. By the time the soldiers returned from their distant patrols, the "massacre" had already happened, with nary a black-suited unicorn to be seen.

"Having arranged a suitable casus belli for the public to rally behind, the Republic's campaign began in earnest, and of course at first it all went swimmingly. It always does, when one has the element of surprise, better-armed and -trained troops, and overwhelming local numbers. On their own, the riverside tribes had no chance at all. Nor were their neighbors, having their own long-standing vendettas, unhappy to see them go. Incitatus, however... he saw a much larger picture."

Another shift, another photo. This one was sharp, clear and in full color: a grey stallion in red robes, golden mane gleaming under a wreath of laurel branches. He had one hoof held up to the side, as though explaining something to the four rather-less-civilized-looking ponies before him. All were filthy, scratched and gaunt, but held themselves with airs of authority, ears pricking toward their guest in curiosity. Each also had their own unique look --- a black stallion who'd braided every bit of hair on his body that was long enough, a white mare who'd scarred and painted her face to resemble a skull. A rather plain brown mare, with tears tattooed beneath one eye. The last, a stallion bright purple in both hide and mane, had powdered his legs with chalk.

"He convinced the elders of his own tribe, the Phoenicians, to let him go forth and seek a few alliances. From what my agents tell me, none of their immediate neighbors were any more interested in the conflict than they were, but they thought Incitatus might learn some humility trying to unravel the skein of inter-tribal feuding."

Suddenly, the map linked several blobs together, all on the edges of the NCR advance.

"Instead, he took the vague authority given him and welded the remaining river-tribes, mostly buffalo, together. Before his elders realized it, he had begun arming, training and leading his 'Herd' to conduct hit-and-run attacks. Slowing the Republic, even a little, encouraged other nearby tribes to join the alliance."

The map's borders began to stabilize.

"The Republic brought in more troops. Incitatus left his best lieutenants in charge, then proceeded on a grand tour of Mareizona, recruiting tribe after tribe in a rather brilliant campaign of pure diplomacy. He could assess what each tribe needed. What it wanted. How it dealt with its neighbors, and how it would respond to either carrot or stick. Only then would he wield either, doing so with decisive success time and time again. His own tribe was, ironically enough, the last to join... perhaps bitter over how the stallion they'd thought so little of had accomplished so very much, in so little time. I've had my own experiences, in that regard."

Only a few of those starting blobs remained. The rest formed a sea of red, unified against the stalled and blunted blue arrow.

"Hundreds of years of bickering, robbery and murder... the New Coltifornia Republic burned that all away in less than a year, giving their would-be victims a central enemy to focus on. 'The enemy of my enemy' may, as some say, be 'nothing more than my enemy's enemy'. But you'd be surprised how often that's enough."

Color me unsurprised. Sick to my stomach, but unsurprised. Try following NCR politics for a year, and you might understand.

"I trust we have a mutual understanding, Mister Shot...?" Swallowing hard, I nodded. "Good. Then I think it should be obvious why time is of the essence here. The Republic's current leadership has invested far too much political capital, in what they believed would be a short and victorious annexation. Suing for peace, at this point, would leave them worse off than before the 'Willow Beach Massacre'. Meanwhile, Incitatus' Herd has slowly been transmogrifying into a new take on the ancient Zebra Empire, complete with Tribunes and Senators and so forth. Which I suppose is, at least, a better route than it could have taken..."

The holo-table returned the situation map to current-day, bringing with it a flurry of red-and-blue movements around the Dam.

"Regardless, the Herd now sees New Coltifornia as a rival Republic in need of crushing. Both nations have locked themselves into a purely existential conflict, one which will most likely be decided by whomever can seize and control the Hoofer Dam... and with it, naturally, New Pegas."

Blowing out a sigh, I nodded, while internally my gut gnarled around the idea of becoming a traitor. Not like the NCR had ever been my buddy, my pal, my friend, but it'd always been my home. And while I'd always been something of a bastard (probably literally), I liked to think there were lines even I wouldn't cross.

The map refocused once more, lighting the neutral factions surrounding New Pegas in bright green. Nellie AFB flickered and turned white, showing its new allegiance. So far as Horse knew, anyways. Half-a-dozen others remained green. I recognized the Vikeans on Lake Cider, but things quickly went downhill from there.

"Seriously...? The Cossacks, hell, sure, they're mercenaries through and through. You could just throw a load of money at whoever hasn't been hired by some NCR concern by now. But Stable Twenty? You can't not know who the Friends are!"

The smirk was audible. "A wise individual once said, 'we must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately'. That, Mister Shot, is the problem we face in the short term. At the minimum, if you cannot negotiate an alliance with one or more of these groups, then that group must be eliminated from contention. Never roll the dice when bets are still being made."

Now the holo-map lifted into the air, wrapping itself into a giant globe before spinning to the left and down slightly. When it settled once more, nearly a third of the Old World was depicted in a patchwork rainbow of conflict, literally dozens of factions springing into being. Bright red circles popped up around several: Fillydelphia, Manehattan, Hoofington, and someplace called Maripony.

"Not to mention, ours are hardly the only dice in play. Even now, bets are being made at tables where we have no seat, no say in the matter. Until recently, all the betting was strictly small-potatoes, with inter-factional conflicts preventing any one group from achieving regional hegemony. That was, essentially, the goal of the Enclave..." Most of the continent went light-blue, overlaying the other colors. "...to keep the wasteland's denizens at each other's throats, while they constructed a massive invasion armada. Classic divide-and-conquer strategy. Quite admirable, at least in terms of planning and execution."

My brain felt like it had been hit with a flowerpot. And then an anvil. And then a wagon full of hay-bales.

And then a piano.

"Honestly, Mister Horse... doesn't that make my job kind of pointless? Unless you're planning to hold off the NCR, the Herd, AND this Enclave somehow...?"

"Not at all, Mister Shot. The Enclave is not what concerns me. Even with their regional technological superiority, they are simply too few to properly occupy such a large area. Despite using most of the old weather-control towers to make their clouds farmable, they have never been able to support a large population. Nor is the idea of all-out conquest without its opponents in Enclave social and political circles."

Rainbow Dash's comments on Pegasi being poor farmers, even on the ground where agriculture belonged, came to mind.

"No, my fine buck, what concerns me is that somepony --- or someONE --- seems to be trying to activate the 'Gardens of Equestria' project."

The who with the what now? Every time it seemed Horse was about to wrap up this showboating, he came up with a whole new set of worries I couldn't possibly do anything about. That way lies neurosis...

"If the worst came to worst --- as it ultimately did --- Gardens of Equestria was meant to harness those same towers as focal points for a particular megaspell called 'Fail-Safe'. Designed by no less a Unicorn than Twilight Sparkle, whose work on it goes back to before even the Discordian Conflict. It sputtered rather laughably at the time, but it's quite amazing what a determined pony can achieve in the course of a few decades. Its function? Nothing less than purging Equestria of the magical radiation and similar contaminants expected to be released in event of a significant megaspell exchange. I only learned of its existence through my Interministry doppelganger, and that shortly before he went rogue. I never learned of its location."

I am not going to ask what a "doppelganger" is.

"I had assumed that, since the GoE facility was never activated, it must have been destroyed. Even if not, its operation was reliant on six ponies working mutually as embodiments of the Elements of Harmony. As all of the Element Bearers were killed or went missing on or around Balefire Day, and as wasteland life tends to agitate against even one such Bearer coming into their prime --- let alone six --- I felt secure in believing 'Gardens of Equestria' posed no threat to me."

'Threat to...'?

Clarity washed over me. "You're stuck in a pod powered by magical reactors. If the Gardens fired off..."

"My reactors would likely go dead, and then so would I."

"Sooo... you want me to find and destroy the Gardens?"

A derisive snort, sounding not altogether equine, as though he had a cold. Or his intercom had just glitched.

"Oh please, Mister Shot, nothing so dramatic or unnecessary. It's entirely possible that no one will ever manage to put a full set of Bearers together to begin with. But even if I work from the presumption that GoE activation is inevitable, I am already fully occupied with the situation here in the West. I'm not about to send my would-be protege thousands of miles away on the slimmest of chances that you might affect the outcome in my favor. Particularly not when a far superior solution is already at hoof."

The map zoomed out, the globe shrank. A thin white ring appeared, circling the planet at an upwards angle, with small arrows indicating movement of some kind from west to east. Just appearing now at the far left was a little dot. Above it, in tiny text, was a name:

Celestar One.

"Equestria's reliance on coal for power was a concern even before the War began. Other sources already existed, such as with hydroelectric dams and use of raw unicorn magic to directly power machinery, but that went only so far. I proposed to Celestia's government the idea of putting power stations into orbit around the planet, each one bearing panels to transform sunlight into useful power, which could then be beamed down to ground-side receiving stations. Celestia herself liked the idea, but none of her advisors did. Too expensive compared to coal, they said. The more paranoiac of them claimed that being first to orbit an artificial satellite would be provocative towards the Zebra Empire. It was not until a few years before the end, when things got truly desperate, that an off-planet power source began looking strategically worthwhile to them."

"I had already, of course, begun moving on my own, having Robronco buy out Rep'Corn Rocketry and working through the inevitable bugs endemic to any new system. When permission was finally granted for launch, Rep'Corn began firing all the necessary parts into space. Teams of astronauts were sent up to piece it together. All done with Earth Pony hooves and ingenuity, not a scrap of magic involved. Naturally, I arranged for the Lucky Chance to be the network's first power-reception station."

Naturally.

"Were it still working properly, I would have no worries about Gardens of Equestria. As it is, however, a serious malfunction was still being repaired when the War ended. I lost contact with the Rep'Corn site, and thus Celestar One, after a pair of balefire missiles struck the area. I'd always meant to eventually reclaim and repair both, but believed I had more time. This news of the Gardens has reminded me that making such assumptions can have... disastrous consequences."

"Ooookay then. You want me to scout and clear the Rep'Corn site, and then see if I can't bring the satellite on-line."

"No."

Then what the hell was that all about just now?!

"Clearing the site of hostiles is one thing, Mister Shot, but unless you're hiding a degree in theoretical astrophysical sciences under your hat, you are simply not qualified for the second part of that job. No, I need you to deliver a packet of instructions to certain of my employees who are scientists. While you're away I can hire any muscle needed, via my usual channels, to secure the facility."

Oh. Well, derp.

"The packet I'll be giving you also contains a transponder, so their defense systems will allow you to pass. You'll find the research center's location on your PipBuck map, but do not show it to anyone."

Bringing up the PipBuck, I tapped a few buttons. Sure enough, there it was... waaaay off to the northwest, practically halfway to the Ponave! It would take at least a couple of days to get there by hoof.

"Um... with all due respect, sir... they don't have radios, or a terminal hookup, or anything so you could just, you know... call?"

"They do, and I already have. What you are carrying will ensure their compliance with my directives. The staff are sometimes, shall we say... 'eccentric' in their behavior patterns. Besides, I want them to look at your invisible companion, the one you and your 'apprentice' always seem so irritated with. I'm curious as to whether its ability to evade my sensors and cameras is innate, an improvement in zebra cloaking methods, or something else altogether."

If I'd been chewing any gum, I'd've swallowed it.

"The clock is ticking, Mister Shot. The package has already been delivered to your suite. I expect that as soon as you get some rest, you will be on your way. Good night." The elevator door, at long last, hissed open.

"Um... but, ah..."

"...yes...?" The impatience was palpable.

"What about Benny?"

A long pause.

"Let's just say your original contract with me is pending... certain considerations. No need to rush delicate affairs."

The lights went out.

* * * * *

My "Lifetime Elevator Ride" tally increased by two before the doors to the Cherry Pit slid open, a blast of noise greeting my arrival. Not that anypony had set up a surprise party for me, or anything like that. It was just packed in there, examples of every sentient species in and around the Moohave literally rubbing flanks for lack of space. Normally that would've started fights, or been prime grounds for pickpockets... but who'd want to risk getting kicked out of a place like this?

Even with everything Tag had already told me, the nightclub was a lot more impressive than I'd been expecting. It resembled a giant stepped roulette wheel open to the sky, with a well-stocked bar wrapping around the casino's main support pylon. Four ancient airship docks oriented along the points of the compass, supported by insulated cables the size of mooring hawsers, called back to the casino's origins in bulk-shipping and passenger service. Green tarpaulins, neatly furled along each cable, promised plenty of shade for daylight hours and lingering hangovers.

At the very tip-top rode the Lucky Chance's ancient navigation lamp, its glow the cherry on New Pegas' glitter-strewn sundae, casting bloody hues and black shadows across the pulsing crowd below.

The outer ring's northern quarter had been set up as a bandstand, where none other than the Lords were playing a mellow slow-dance number on sax and piano. Practically wrapped around a tall silver microphone stand was The King himself, warbling passionate lyrics in a white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit. A dozen or so couples in leather jackets and bobby-socks swayed back and forth to the music. I never did get how socks got to be popular. You couldn't wear horseshoes with them. If you needed to sneak around or run, for whatever reason, they seemed just the thing that would get hung up on a cactus spine or rusty old nail...

Best of all, though, the place didn't stink like every other nightclub I'd ever been in. Warm, dry breezes washed in from the desert scrublands, wicking away all traces of sweat. In the skies above (if you squinted a bit), you could pick out the constellations as they slowly wheeled along, the grey-on-white orb of the Moon drifting through their midst.

Kind of idyllic, really. Almost like stepping into an age that had never looked on Hell.

...and, speaking of Hell, here comes the Vikean Snowplow.

Still wearing his wrench-and-screwdriver helmet (seriously, did he ever take it off?), Hard Way stood a half-length taller than most of the crowd he waded through. Some were smart enough to get out of his way, the rest were smart enough to apologize for failing to do so. Hovering beside his great braided noggin, Pink-E seemed about ready to explode with happiness by the time they reached me at the crowd's edge.

"Guess what? Cherry, guess what, guess what, guessguessyou'llneverguess!"

An eyeroll, a sigh, and a hoof-point indicating where my satchel now hung by a chain around Hard Way's neck. "I'm ten thousand caps worth of Republic greenbacks poorer."

She tilted to one side in a simulated slump, her rubbery features going all crestfallen. "Awww, you guessed!"

Hard Way rolled his shoulders through a wide, languid shrug. He was good at that. "Your Republic will have them back, soon enough."

Suddenly Pink-E was in my face, her white ceramic grin shifting to bloody-red under the ambient lighting. "Betcha can't guess something else, though!" Something horrible flashed briefly from behind the smile, then was gone. I managed to keep from blurting does it have anything to do with the baking temperature of a pegasus?

I'd been through a lot, over the last week or so. Maybe it was just getting to me. Horrific hallucinations aside, Pink-E's ever-forward attitude really didn't help with that. An added stress was knowing Mister Horse was probably watching me closely from some hidden camera or other, hoping to spot clues about her existence. Given Rainbow Dash's warning about a feud between Horse, the wartime Ministries, and some "Office of Interministry Affairs" --- not to mention Domino's references to the MoM being a domestic espionage outfit --- it would probably be a bad thing to let slip that an MoM robot was flitting around his casino. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how any camera or microphone could possibly miss the frenetic little ball of noise...

Then I realized that I had no idea what Pink-E was going on about. "I'll... bet you're right?"

"Hokey smokes! We BOTH won our bets! How often does that happen in New Pegas?!" Blue and green confetti popped from somewhere, kazoos blasted a goofy fanfare, and I fought the edges of a smile down. Adopting a playfully coy expression, she finally got to her point: "Soooooo... you can't guess what you and Ambassador Cropper were talking about for six hours, huh?"

Those smile-edges yanked firmly downward, almost of their own accord. "I thought I said I didn't wanna talk about that."

She cocked her head, then nodded despite the lack of a neck. "That's a good point! Why don't you wanna talk about it?"

"I'm gonna say this one last time - " No, wait a second. Much as I might not like to admit (or even think about) it, she had a good point. Why didn't I want to talk about being unable to draw more than a blank, on six hours of my life, for no apparent reason?

It doesn't matter. It's in the past!

Everything's in the past. It's still a good -

The world seemed to make less sense, moment by moment. I couldn't focus. Why was I arguing with myself? Why was everything dissolving into conflicting patterns of black and white?

Asante sana, squash banana, mimi nina pundamilia, na wewe si, now hear me say...

-BONK-

A strange sensation, not unlike a gold brick wrapped in a slice of lemon smashing through my brain, cleared things up in a fashion which blunt-force trauma shouldn't have been capable of. Hind-brain reflexes took over, pivoting my body, legs and hooves through a stagger-tastic dance, by the end of which I somehow remained upright (if unsteady). If "Dancing While Hammered" had ever been part of the Equestrian Games, I'd've been a shoo-in for the gold.

"You didn't have to hit him!" half a dozen Pink-Es indignantly squealed.

Each of the five, three (five again!) Hard Ways casually spoke around the sledges in their mouths. "Calm yourself, little one. You wanted his attention, now you have it."

For just that moment, I felt inordinately proud of having taken a cheap shot from a Vikean warlord and NOT being dead as a result. I may have done a lot of weebling and wobbling, but I hadn't fallen down. Still, as soon my eyes focused, I was going to do my damndest to project pure death from them. Finally, I got my Mark Ones underped and pointed in the same direction.

"What in Celestia's crotch-corona was that for - ?!"

It was also, unfortunately, the direction where half of Pink-E's gaze was spinning its way from sapphire-blue into the green spectrum.

"Nevermind that, Cherry! Look what I've got in my eye!"

>>>oOo<<<

I'd been in this office building before.

Many times. I knew every crack and crevice... which was hardly a matter of bragging. This was the only room left fully intact after the roof's collapse, many decades before I ever found the place.

Third floor out of four, southeast corner, one window which I'd mostly boarded up. One slat left open, to let daylight in and a rifle muzzle out. The view was of an old drainage arroyo near Bearstow, its dirt-edged lip having eroded over the centuries to meet the building's foundation, forming an artificial cliff. Very defensible, with a commanding view that went on for miles of nothing.

It was one of my favorite old safe-houses. The only way in was a narrow tunnel I'd dug through the rubble, shored up with concrete blocks and rebar. A couple of weatherbeaten orange traffic cones marked the way in... and also hid the landmines I'd placed to keep vermin out. If I really had to have a "happy place", this would probably be it... isolated, remote, quiet. Perfect for a lone pony, reflecting on his place in the cosmos, with no one trying to fuck him over while he was about it.

And the best part? A fully intact office suite --- desk, blotter, lamp and dinged-up Robronco terminal --- all crowded into the far corner, next to a nearly-pristine Stable-Tec poster. Somehow the terminal had both power and remote access to a functioning network server somewhere. Every so often, some other pony would run across a similarly-connected terminal and post something pithy to the server's open mailbox. Sometimes, I would too. If we both happened to be online at the same time, we might chat. That's how I met Inkwell, the Steel Ranger "Elder" for what was left of the Wintertrot Chapter.

Funny, how distance seemed to make ponies more civilized. Less willing to pick a fight with one another. Because what was there to fight about, "online", other than which flavor of Sparkle-Cola could hold a candle to Sunrise Sarsaparilla? Sometimes, it seemed that the best ponies I knew were the ones I had never met.

And then there was Pinkie Pie. No, not Pink-E. Pinkie Pie.

Sitting there in my favorite chair, the flesh-and-blood version of Slimm's animatronic show-pony was tapping away at the terminal keys like it was the most normal thing in the world. Except where the robot had worn a cabaret-parody of a business suit, Pinkie's getup was thoroughly professional. Even severely so. The terminal's green light cast strange shadows across the profile of a mare I'd never met.

"You remember having had some mixed drinks with Cropper. After that, nothing." Casual, matter-of-fact. Her mirthless blue eyes didn't wander from the screen. Except for that face, that mane, she might've been just another NCR bureaucrat. But not even the streaks of curling gray could disguise her entirely.

I made to dump off my saddlebags, like I usually would before settling in to relax, but today I didn't have any baggage. So I just stood there. "We made a deal. It's all going to work out."

More tapping. Something scrolled up the screen, flashing new patterns of light across her muzzle. A noncommittal hum. "You're a bounty hunter, Cherry. You literally live and die by your contracts. But you can't remember this 'deal' to save your life. Again, literally."

"And you're my however-many-Greats-Grand-Aunt. Except you're not really here. Not really her. She's dead."

To that moment, the only lighting here had been the slat-ful of sunlight and the terminal's monochromatic green. In the next instant, the world was a chalk-drawing on a black background. Some of the lines didn't want to stay in one place, squiggling slightly... even those belonging to theoretically inanimate objects.

Chalk-Drawing Pinkie Pie swiveled in her chair, leaned back in it. Gave me the look a boss gives a mouthy underling. I remembered that look real well, from my days with Stiff Lip Security. I hated that look. "You're not really here either, Cherry. There's no 'here', here. It's all just shades of black-and-white. Why is that?"

"Don't know. Don't care. What I care about is that Pink-E put me under a trance with that fucking eye of hers for some damned reason, and I have shit I need to go get done. This is a waste of time."

She crossed her hindlegs, completely unruffled. "Not even a quarter-second has passed in the real world. You have the time to waste."

"Even assuming I buy that, you're not Pink-E. You're not some aspect of me, either, just somepony else bucking around in my skull. I don't even know how I know that... it's like you taste different to my brain. So who the fuck are you supposed to be?"

She steepled her hooves, in the same weird way Horse had done. Even in a world of chalk, those hard eyes stared into me, unblinking. Unchanging. It was a long minute before she spoke again.

"That story began a long time ago... in the heart of a very dear friend, and the pages of a very nasty Book. It wasn't hard to find out what she was doing with it, or to borrow it for the same purpose. Cutting shards out of my soul."

Out of all the imbecilic concepts I'd ever heard of, that one took the cake. For a few moments, literally stupefied, I couldn't remember how words worked.

"Rarity," she continued as I mouthed uselessly at her, "was more sentimental in her use of the Book, I suppose. Her acolytes snipped bits of her soul into sets of little dolls, and that drew bits of our own souls in to match them. The Ministry Mares, I mean." Like a deflating balloon, Chalk-Drawing Pinkie's harshness began slipping into wistfulness.

"We'd all been such good friends, for so long... we'd forged such deep, personal bonds that it... it tied us together. Even in death."

Her gaze never faltered even if her voice, momentarily, did. "I could see those deaths coming... at least when I was taking Mint-als. Coming for everypony, but especially for us. Right from the moment Luna had us form the Ministries. We didn't even think about the targets we were hanging around our necks. We did it because she was Princess Luna, and because she was a good friend, and because she asked us to."

She smiled, then. "Except for Twilight, kind of. Luna wanted her to be Prime Minister, and then they had an argument about all ponies being equal but Alicorns being more equal than other ponies, and then Twilight decided not to be an Alicorn anymore and that was that."

Looking down at my foreleg, I saw the PipBuck still riding there, remembered the encrypted holotape of Horse's voice telling his version of the same story. Pinkie nodded, as though reading my thoughts.

"Yes, I can read your thoughts." The drawing laughed at my surprise. "I didn't put my soul-shard into a doll. I had most of it divided up into a whole bunch of nanosprites, for your birthday balloons."

I scowled at her, remembering that episode at the Dance Hall all too well. "Along with a load of knockout gas...!"

Chalk-Pinkie got up out of my chair and rolled her eyes, waving a hoof dismissively. "You wouldn't have wanted to be awake, what with all those tiny machines rewriting the codes for every cell in your body, Cherry. It would've itched like crazy, even where you don't have nerves to feel it. Soulstuff is like that. Also, the multiple diseases in your skin, bloodstream and urinary tract which you didn't know about? Gone now. You're welcome."

"I'll... take your word for it. Thanks." I was unsure how to deal with these revelations... if they were even that. All I really knew was that Pink-E had hypnotized me without even asking permission. An imaginary Pinkie Pie, sharing my thoughts and happy place? To somepony whose knowledge of psychology came from half-legible bits of ancient books, that didn't seem terribly far-fetched. Thinking in those terms seemed to wipe the smile from Pinkie's face, though. She gave me a look so flat, it was out of place even on a chalkboard.

"I'm the reason your tail twitched, when the Zoomers were coming after you. I'm the reason you slipped between the Casino Royale's stairwell and elevator, without having to run its hologram gauntlet. All my old instincts, about how the universe works behind the scenes? You'll get used to them. You don't have a choice. In blood and soul, we're here to stay."

Hot, familiar fury began to wash back in. "I never asked for this...!"

All the chalk-lines smeared together, creating a formless grey mass. Then, slowly, stuttering like old pre-War training films, Cropper's office came into focus. So did the zebra herself, almost as afterthought. A gem on a chain twisted through the air between us, its emerald-green hue the only real color to have ever existed. All else was, and had always been, black, white and grey. It always would be.

"You will tell the press this was my idea, little one. You turned yourself in after stealing Republic funds. I granted leniency. I debriefed you. I discovered your Vikean contacts. You were thankful when I offered the chance to broker a peace. You will ensure the Vikean gives me the money, as reparations and tribute, in front of the cameras. When all this is done, you will go quietly with Black Clops agent Fair Weather, to the desert. You will dig a grave. You will stand beside it, close your eyes, and wait."

Her smile exuded nothing but spite. "Then, and only then, will you and 'Mister Horse' be out of my mane. Upon the count of three, wake and remember nothing..."

---OoO---

I woke, remembering everything.

The Cherry Pit's red-and-black world seemed to smolder, growing bloodier, vibrating before my eyes. I felt the muscles in my neck and jaw growing taut.

That fucking bitch.

That fucking bitch.

That fucking bitch.

Pink-E's left eye twitched slightly. "Cherry...?" She sounded nervous. Wasn't she supposed to know the future? How would she not know how I'd react to finding out my brain had been programmed like a... like a robot?!

"I'm going to kill her. I'm going to murder that zebra right back to the Pone Age..."

Hard Way, hammer still in mouth, gave Pink-E a sidelong look. "Should I tap him again?"

"Nononono! I'm sure he's fine now! No more tapping, please and thank you!"

For once, I agreed with the little pink 'bot. No more tapping was a good plan, one that I could really get behind! I rubbed my forehead with a hoof, pushed my hat back, and managed to put a lid on the angry little cauldron inside. "I'm okay, I just... thanks, Pink-E. I, ah, guess I needed that thing you did with your eye. I'm just glad my head didn't explode."

She winced, apparently remembering the Diamond Dog she'd tried to hypnotize back at Slimm Pass. Hard Way just shrugged again, stowing his sledge in its saddlebag loop. "I didn't hit you that hard. Or it would have."

A sudden squeal of microphone feedback caught our attention, as well as that of everyone else in the Pit.

"Oh hey, look folks! It's Mister Slavery, back from terrorizin' the Moohave with his raider pals! Give 'im a round of applause!" The King's hoof was pointed straight at us... more specifically, at me. As everyone turned to stare, the less-intelligent (and more-inebriated) celebrants dutifully applauded, until shushed and thumped by those who still understood sarcasm. A low muttering replaced it.

Oh, yeah. Freemaners still kind of had a problem with my technically owning Tag-End. Which was another thing I'd never asked for, but who was keeping track? Not the Freemaners, that's for damned sure. And they were a sizeable chunk of the packed-in crowd.

A flash of yellow and green caught my eye: Tag himself had jumped onto the bar and was waving a foreleg at us. "It's okay, everybody! Have a free soda on the house - we've got a whole crate of Sparkle-Cola Rad to go through, and it isn't getting any colder!" Some folks shrugged and turned away from the confrontation, but The King just laughed.

"Soda, huh? Boy, I'll tell ya what I'm thirsty for..." He paused to jab one hoof dramatically at the sky. "...freedom, baby." Did a bird just scream in the distance? At this time of night? Ponies, griffons, and even buffalo began exchanging those looks you give someone to see if they've got your back when shit starts. Lots of nods were exchanged, too.

What in Tartarus could I say, that I hadn't said before? The King knew damned well this was as much Tag's decision as anypony else's. And after everything I'd gone through in the past few weeks, I still found it hard to stomach the idea of letting the little gangster-wannabe off the hook entirely... especially if it was just a matter of somepony else having a problem with that.

Granted, at the moment, it was a LOT of someponies having a problem with that. Also somebuffalo, somegriffons, somedragons...

Tag shot The King a glare, hooves planted on hips. "I already made my choice," he yelled across the crowd, "and you were there when I did! If you're going to wreck this place I built, on my account, then you can take your band, and find some other bar to play in!" That got some grudging applause from some in the crowd; The King tipped a hoof to his mane in mocking salute.

"That's why it pains me t'seeya like this, kid. There's a bronco I see in ya, waitin' t'bust out someday. But okay. Howzabout this then..." He gestured to me again, this time with a come-hither wave. "We'll let it go if yer boss gets up here an' sings for us. He hates that, doesn't he folks?" The crowd roared and applauded; I winced.

Cadance pike me, right through the heart. What IS it with ponies and musical appreciation?!

Resigned and grumbling, I threaded my way through the masses and jumped up on stage, my hooves clacking against the boards. "All right," I growled as The King stepped away from the microphone, letting me take his place. "You've got your catchy little bubblegum tunes, that's all good. But this one's for those who died giving a shit." I nodded to the Lords' guitarist. "You know there's no rest for the wicked."

The first quick strums sounded out as I pulled the mike down to my level. It was an old bounty-hunter favorite, the kind of tune you sang to celebrate coming back alive, more like a talking-blues number full of snark and sarcasm. If they were going to drag it out of me, it was going to be on my terms.

I was settin' up my blind, when out the corner of my eye
I saw a pretty little thing approachin' me.
She said, "It's strange to meet a buck
Who looks so all alone, could you use a little company?

I checked the photo in my pack, and whadjaknow, it matched
I shot her right between her pretty little eyes.
I said, "You might've been sweet, but you snack on pony meat,
And my contract says all cannibals die."

The guitarist joined in on the chorus with surprising feeling, just like an old merc might.

Oh, there ain't no rest for the wicked
Smiles don't pay your needs
I got rounds to buy, I got wounds that bleed
There ain't nothin' in this world for free

I know I can't rein it in, I can't take it back
Though you know I wish I could
Oh no, there ain't no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good

Somepony joined in on harmonica, turning somber chords into airy taunts.

Now in the evenin' of that day, I was about to hit the hay
With a shadow slinkin' 'round just outta sight.
Then the door was busted in, he had a shiv made outta tin
But I always bring a gun to every fight.

He said, "It's all a big mistake, I thought that you were Mister Cake,"
That means "push-over" in raider slang,
So I shot him in the flank and then I watched him limp away,
Because he wasn't worth the extra bang.

The crowd seemed to be getting into it, those with fingers snapping them while their neighbors with hooves tapped the floor instead.

Oh no, there ain't no rest for the wicked
Smiles don't pay your needs
I got rounds to buy, I got wounds that bleed
There ain't nothin' in this world for free

I know I can't rein it in, I can't take it back
Though you know I wish I could
Oh no, there ain't no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good

I bobbed my head, keeping with the time as guitar and harmonica slow-danced their mocking instrumental.

So now it's two weeks later, and I'm sitting at the bar
Half of my pay tied up in bottles of old booze
When in walks Bloody-Flank and the Cannibal of Kings
And they were out to write the evening news.

That was a hell of a fight, underneath the swingin' light
I barely got away with half my buckin' skin.
But I shoulda seen it coming, 'cause you know we're all the same
Just a flip of the coin, and our grace turns to sin.

Now the crowd joined in on the final chorus, swaying and clapping as though they hadn't been ready to kill me two minutes ago.

You know there ain't no rest for the wicked
Smiles don't pay our needs
We got rounds to buy, we got wounds that bleed
There ain't nothin' in this world for free

I guess this hadn't been so bad, after all. As the last verse left my lips, I slouched a bow from beneath my hat, the final notes dwindling away under the sound of respectful applause.

You know we can't rein it in, we can't take it back
Though you know we wish we could
Oh no, there ain't no rest for the wicked
Until we close our eyes for good...

"Oh, you can say that again, darling."

I'd only heard that voice once before, but I knew it even before my gaze snapped up to find the source.

Ranseur.

Pretty in pink as always... well, that part of her not covered in black cloak, hanging from one of the tarp lines like some kind of weird bat-pony-thing. With one hoof, she clutched a huge pendant to her chest, prompting one of Tag-End's clients to scream "MY DIAMOND!" and swoon dramatically. Heh. Ranseur, the infamous gem thief, gracing my bar with her lithe, all-under-control attitude. I almost felt sorry for the poor high-society sucker who hadn't been better at holding onto her valuables...

She was already reeling something else up on a hook and chain. I squinted, wondering how she'd gotten in without being seen, as well as why she wasn't already running. Also, what in Hell could that squarish, brown, satchel-y thing... um...

"MY GREENBACKS!"

I shot a look of pure hatred directly at where Hard Way was already giving me one of those shrugs. He failed to explode into flame. I'd have to see to that later. For now, my money was already flickering out of sight along with its abductor - a StealthBuck. Had to be. I thought those didn't work without a PipBuck to slot one into, and I could swear I hadn't seen one on Ranseur even when she was completely naked and up close.

Focus, buck, focus...!

"Tag," I yelled across the increasingly nervous crowd, "tell me you've got security pacing her already?!"

He gave me an incredulous look. "We're on top of the Goddess-damned Lucky Chance, boss! I don't even know how she got up there!" I'd have to have a talk with him later about the ways I could think of off the top of my head and see about installing precautions against future incidents. Like maybe electrifying those support cables.

There she was!

Her black cloak, fluttering away from the western mooring platform, had caught my eye despite the darkness of night; the Cherry Pit's red lighting was to thank for that, I was sure. Ranseur flickered back into existence, a convoluted contraption of silk and struts erupting from her saddlebags, and then she was leaping into open space...

I was already shoving my way through the crowd, towards the platform, when I heard the fluttering sound of a canopy opening. By the time I broke loose, she was already too far for a good shot with Mouthkicker, and she'd be out of rifle range before I could bring the proper artillery to bear. Ranseur, her Zebra-striped mini-glider, the diamond pendant, and my money, all sailed away before my eyes over the Strip wall and into the ruined darkness of New Pegas' western suburbs.

Towards Stable Twenty, and the Friends.

Tag-End finally made it through himself, gasping for air. "I can't believe it. I just... I... I'm sorry, look, I'll make it up to you..."

I turned my head, gave the kid a hard look. He was awake, alert, lime-green coat shivering with the passage of adrenaline, his mane looking more rough-cut since he'd started doing more real work and less preening. And he still had his hoof-knucks on. That was good.

"Welcome to your first official bounty, apprentice. It's hunting season."

The mare who'd swooned was yelling something at us about lousy security, her husband (the NCR General, of course it would be) was glaring at us, the crowd was getting riled up again, and I ignored all of them, pulling out the gem-studded key to Tag's slave collar. I held it out to him in the cup of my hoof.

"Call it an advance on services rendered."

Everyone suddenly went silent. Rhinestones glittered in the edge of my vision as Tag took payment, nodding slowly as he stowed his freedom into the back of his mane. His voice shook a little... not much, thank Luna.

"I'll use it when I've earned it, boss."

So far as I was concerned, he already had.