CHAPTER FIVE: No-Pony Knows the Trouble I'll See
"Magic is as magic does... s'jes' funny thet way."
If you've never felt what it is to be utterly and completely bone-tired, try galloping and cantering and skulking and trudging your way across a few dozen miles of hostile wasteland in a single long day. It didn't help when Pink-E spontaneously discovered how to pull in and broadcast (at maximum volume, naturally) radio signals. With her long-range sensor suite feeding automatic updates to my Pip-Buck, I usually spotted ambushes as much as a mile away, but her one-pony block-party also let every damn thing for at least twice that distance know we were coming in the first place.
By the time the flickering lights of my destination hove into view, I was barely able to keep my hooves moving towards the hope of warm shelter, having battled through a good half-dozen or so firefights with gang-banger scum, local wildlife, and the odd wandering idiot with a death-wish messiah complex.
I was also ready to find and kill beloved radio personality "Mr. New Pegas", purely in the interest of self-defense.
My weariness was somewhat compounded by the double set of blood-soaked saddlebags I'd draped atop my own, stuffed to bursting with firearms, ammo and the odd valuables seized from the aforementioned gang-bangers and idiot. A true scavver would've spent hours checking their bodies for anything worth a few caps and then stripping down their guns and armor for the choicer parts, but I remained ever-mindful of the need to narrow Benny's lead on me. So it was nearly ten in the evening (according to the ever-useful Pip-Buck) when I slogged my bedraggled ass up the Imperial 95 and into the little town of No-Pony.
The joke went: "we call it No-Pony 'cause nopony really lives here!"
That was a double-barb, actually. The town existed mainly as a rest stop for caravans servicing the several other settlements south and east of New Pegas proper, so its population was small and mostly transient. But it was also home to a local loon who went by the moniker of "No-Pony". Whenever asked about his past, he'd just shrug and say "I'm nopony special" --- and then tell you about the lice on his underbelly and their plans to start up a racetrack sponsored by insurance-selling geckos, all of it a zebra plot to put the casinos on Mr. Horse's Pegas Strip out of business through unfair competition. Or something equally insane. At least he gave the place some local color.
But the main reason I was lugging around these otherwise useless, beat-to-hell weapons and assorted trinkets of dubious worth was No-Pony's biggest claim to fame: Doofy Draco, an ancient tourist attraction slowly mouldering away under the desert's blistering sunshine and battering windstorms, and now rising up before me as a stark silhouette against the star-lit sky. With one arm raised in a too-cheerful salute to the I-95's much-reduced postwar traffic, and a smarmy grin literally plastered across its cheeks, the gargantuan eyesore also housed a "scenic" lookout and gift-shop-turned-trading-post in its thirty-foot-tall dragon body.
I was going to be damned if I didn't at least try to rake in a few caps for the trouble I'd been through today.
Still, first things first: I wasn't about to stand around and haggle with a shopkeep while I was half-comatose. Doofy Draco and its internal workings were one part of a larger relic of the old world --- a "motel", where highway travelers in vehicles of both the pulled and motorized variety could find a soft bed and secure walls against the chills of the night for a reasonable fee.
I considered myself fortunate to be gouged a mere hundred caps for the use of a suspiciously-lumpy mattress in a drafty room, and not have to battle a radroach colony for it. Piling up the overpacked saddlebags made for a reasonably comfortable sort of nest, despite the coppery scent of still-drying blood spatters, into which I promptly collapsed. All that really mattered to me was that it was warm, didn't hurt, and quickly swept me away into a world of psychological resolution to the day's indignities...
I was suffocating, my hooves floating slowly across the ground as though I were underwater. All around, swirling snowflakes blocked my view of the horizon. I fought through the sludgy atmosphere, wordlessly screaming with lungs that seemed never to have known the blessings of oxygen. Could you drown, if you'd never breathed air to begin with?
Kicking at the hard-packed ground did little but push me half a length into the --- air? Water? --- after which I languidly floated back down, until I could finally scrabble with my hooves for purchase again.
So this was what it was like to die. Perhaps I'd shifted in my sleep so that a poorly-perched saddlebag had fallen over my face, or a midnight thief had decided to smother me before helping himself to my goods.
Not only was I not going to let myself die today, I was fucking-well-not going to die just because some skeevy bastard was after my own hard-won loot! If I couldn't get my head above --- whatever this was, and I couldn't dig through the ground, then I was damned well going to bash my way through the blizzard itself, putting one hoof in front of the other, my brain screaming out its red death-song, one hoof ahead, and one more, and then one more -
I stopped suddenly with a muffled BONK.
"Bonk"? The snowfall suddenly parted and fell away, as though striking against... striking against a glass -
<<< oOo >>>
It's a cliche to hear about somepony waking up by "sitting bolt upright". That's unnatural. Our spines really don't work that way.
Didn't stop mine from doing so, just for a moment, before I collapsed painfully back onto the saddlebag-nest in a slather of rank, cold sweat. I couldn't remember the last time my heart had thundered away like it was now, my breath coming as hard and fast as that of any newborn foal fresh from the watery womb.
Scalding sunlight speared through gaps in the boarded-up window, forcing me to shield my eyes with a sudden hiss of pain. Which was of course when Pink-E bounced in from the bathroom with a sweet, syrupy, happy-go-lucky song-of-the-dawn on her robot lips. I couldn't hear the lyrics, though, over the din of battle between the parts of my brain that still wanted the information locked in the bot's memory cores, and those that wanted to take Batter's old piece of sports equipment and invent the game of Pinkieball on the spot.
Luna save me from Morning People.
* * * * *
A tiny bell thunked, more than dinged, as I shoved my way through the door to the Doofy Draco Gift Shoppe and Resupply Emporium (Skinflint Oatflanks, Prop.). The memories of my first time here, when I'd asked after Mr. Oatflanks, brought out a tired chuckle that helped to chase off the last cobwebs of my nightmare. I wondered if they still showed newcomers the resting place of his skeleton, out by the highway where he'd been lynched for trying to hoard army supplies right after the bombs fell.
A real skinflint, right to the end.
I didn't recognize the nondescript gentlecolt behind the service counter, a middle-aged unicorn of beige hide and dusty black mane. I couldn't even tell what his rump rash, only a few shades lighter than the flank it rode upon, was supposed to be. Not that it was any big concern of mine, as I was much more interested in his expression when I dumped the contents of my saddlebags on the broad oak countertop. I noted with satisfaction the height to which his brows rose as a dozen or so pistols, shotguns and rifles of varying types tumbled into view, along with several cans of ammo in calibers for which I had no use.
And that was just the first set of bags. From the second I poured a collection of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, both medicinal and recreational. It'd taken some arguing, but Pink-E had to admit I'd only promised not to use the stuff myself. No way was I was going to leave behind a gold-mine built on somepony else's choice in addictions!
From my own bags, I produced an array of small valuables on the same premise: I might have no use for these bits and baubles, but I knew somepony else would. A small pile of pre-War bits, a few books in legible condition on esoteric subjects like Breast-Feeding and the Modern Businessmare and How to Train Your Dragon (Toothless Edition), some powertools in need of fresh spark batteries, and...
...I froze, my hoof resting on the last item.
I couldn't recall that I'd ever seen or even heard of one, yet I didn't need the Pip-Buck's inventory to tell me what it was. A half-globe of duraglass, set atop a solid resin base, filled with water and tiny white particles. You could shake it up, and the little flecks would drift around the miniature diorama mounted within. This one had a tiny little stylized version of a pony, like those in the old Stable-Tec posters, posing with an overly-merry grin in front of a saloon that looked very much like the one in Goodsprings.
Where the hell had I gotten this? I couldn't remember ever picking it up. Tipping it over revealed an inscription etched into the resin: "Bottoms up, pardner!"
A sudden, inexplicable sensation flushed up from where my hoof touched the snowglobe, warmth shooting up my foreleg to wash through the rest of my... soul, I suppose. It swept in, bone-deep, strong and pure, with a tinge of whiskey I swear I could taste in my marrow.
[BONUS PERK - Hay Tripper: The effects of addictive Chems last 33% longer.]
The brief moment of spiritual alcoholism ended with a similarly brief flash of light streaked with soft amber rays, while both the shopkeeper and Pink-E stared at me like they'd seen a zombie pony. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, it was matched by the unbidden mental image of a nattily-dressed pony with a monocle, haggling politely over a top hat while trying to hold its lower jaw in place.
I couldn't help myself; I busted out laughing. Pink-E joined in a moment later, regardless of having no possible idea what I was even laughing about, while the unicorn just stared until we finally got ourselves under control.
"Oooooookay...you wanna do some business today, mister?"
For some reason I just didn't care right then, not about anything I should have been focused on. Not the caps, not the loot, not even Benny. I just felt really, really good, like a three-day bender on the Strip without the hangover.
"Go ahead," I offered through a happy smirk, slipping the snowglobe back into my saddlebags, "make me an offer on the lot. I'm feeling generous today."
I really should've included the damned thing in the deal too.
* * * * *
We weren't even out of what passed for No-Pony's city limits when Pink-E started complaining about not having had the chance to stick her head (well, essentially, all of her) into a giant plaster dragon mouth. I sighed and gave her a sideways glare.
"We're not tourists, we don't need the benefit of the view from up there, and on top of it, it's the town's sniper nest. Don't ever be a bother to anypony who can put a three-oh-eight round through the back of your noggin, especially not when he's got a clear line of fire for a good thousand yards."
Pink-E just rolled her eyes. "Boooooo-ring! You never want to do anything fun, Cherry!"
"Stop calling me that, 'bot," I growled. "My name's Dead-Shot."
"That's a nickname, not your real name, silly! You're Cherry!"
" 'Cherry Pie' ain't a name, it's a snack food!" Now I was getting riled. It didn't help when Pink-E started bouncing around me, chanting my real, very stupid name in singsong tones.
Thirty seconds later, she and I were a whirling ball of --- well, half fury, that being my half. Hers was all gleeful rambunctiousness, like she hadn't noticed I was actively trying to pummel her speaker grille to scrap with my bare hooves. Forty seconds later, the ball was a threesome, having somehow included the person of an old coot who'd been passing by.
When it all wound down, I had my teeth around the old guy's ankle, my rump was all up in Pink-E's grille, she'd managed to entangle herself in my tail, and the cooter was sitting on my withers while smacking my saddlebags with a rat-flail.
Never heard of a rat-flail? It's simple: tie a rat, by its tail, to a stick. Hold stick in mouth. Flail vigorously. It's okay, I never heard of one either, before I met No-Pony.
* * * * *
Looking through the door of No-Pony's shack, where he'd insisted on "making up for the impropriety" of piling in on our ruckus, was a bit like looking into a junkyard where the garbage had decided to create its own representative form of government. Not only did he seem to be the type that never threw anything away, but No-Pony also managed to find a use for whatever he probably should have tossed out. No matter how completely useless the use.
Dusty old bottles of Sparkle-Cola and Sunrise Sarsaparilla sat on the floor in rows meant to trip up intruders... or was it as guidance past other booby-traps? What use did the bowling ball, precariously perched on several creatively-positioned pins, serve (for that matter, what are the little holes in those balls for, anyway)? Was the model flying machine hanging from the ceiling a decoration, or were its tiny wing-mounted rocket launchers functional weapons? Everywhere you looked, something distracted the wandering eye, promising slight gains in personal wealth at the likely cost of substantial personal injury.
No-Pony freely (and happily) admitted that he could never remember what he'd meant to do when he first set a given bunch of items up. And since he couldn't remember, he just avoided them all, performing an intricate dance that probably would have netted him a spot on a ballet team --- provided the last Equestrian Ballet Company performance hadn't ended with a standing mob panic and balefire pyrotechnics over two hundred years ago. Following in his hoofsteps was an adventure in itself.
Thankfully, the dance of potentially-ridiculous death ended only a few yards into the mess when No-Pony sat down at a rickety card table covered with... cards.
Huh. Well, at least that much made sense. The cooter gestured me to sit down, but I shook my head.
"Thanks, but before I make myself comfortable, I'd like to know what this's all about."
Now that he wasn't smiting me with dead animals, or walking away in a flurry of invitational gestures, or pirouetting through the Imperial Landfill Obstacle Course From Hell, I finally got a good look at the pony that lent the town his name, or maybe vice-versa. No-Pony was the sort that, if someone were to tell you that he spoke "Genuine Frontier Gibberish", you knew exactly what he looked like already.
Squinty blue eyes, missing nothing and everything in equal measure, were set into a face composed of so many crags and crevasses that there wasn't much else of a face to compare them to for reference. I'd seen rotten dried-out apples with smoother complexions. His mane was a greasy grey bush forming something of a halo about the back and top of his head, with a tail that might've been identical except that he sat on it from time to time. The rest of him was a darker grey, but what really stood out was his big red question-mark tail-tattoo.
Not even the natural laws of magic knew what to make of this pony, who shrugged diffidently at my reluctance to be comfortable in his house of traps and began to collect and shuffle the cards laying on the table. In moments he'd expertly assembled a functioning deck and thrown out a hand for a game of Caravan. I narrowed my eyes.
"You invited me in for the privilege of gambling with you? Sorry old fella, but I've gotta -"
"Siddown, sonny-buck, and get what's comin' to ya. Played with the trolls yet? No? Didn't think ya had th' sand fer that anyways." Those might've been fighting words given a different tone --- and maybe a little more comprehensibility --- but the cooter delivered them with a quiet aplomb that could have just as easily been used to request another salt lick from an ornery bartender.
Well... okay. Why not.
I took my own deck out, the cards I'd gotten off of Rango's cold, dead reptile body. My hooves deftly shuffled the colorful rectangles against the table, offering No-Pony the cut. He just looked at me funny until I shrugged and did it myself, then dealt up my own hand.
We took turns tossing the starter cards for each "caravan" onto the marks notched and named on the table for that purpose: Hub, Boneyard, New Braynan, Phoenix, Manehattan, Hoofington. Each pairing represented caravans in competition for the trade in that area, not that it really affected the styles or methods of play at all. It was really just a game of numbers where...
...I did a double-take, finally noticing No-Pony's cards didn't actually HAVE any numbers.
He was dealing tarot! I glared at him. "What kinda damnfool business -"
He cut off my snarl with a hoofwave of the no-nonsense variety; a distinctly uncharacteristic gesture in his case. "Pipe down while I read this mess. Good dragon died so ya could get these, did he? Not a good death, either, I see. Not that any've 'em are, so th' geckos say. Keep tryin' ta sell me life insurance. What good's life insurance, if it only pays off when ye're dead?" Then he proceeded to toss an extra card onto each of my three "caravans".
Angrily, I kicked back the chair and got to my hooves, figuring his game for a huckster's fortune-telling scam. He didn't seem to notice, working hard to look the part of concerned seer with his beetled, furrowed brows. At this point I didn't even give a damn about getting my cards back; it wasn't as though I were a big Caravan player to start with.
As I turned away, two things drew my immediate attention: one, Pink-E looked distinctly freaked out. Her eyes were huge, with pupils dilated to pinpricks, and she was visibly shivering. Two, all the garbage in the shack had somehow rearranged itself when I wasn't looking. Not only were all the traps completely reconfigured, but now they looked a lot more lethal... and they also completely blocked any view of the door. I felt sweat prickle my scalp.
"Might's well siddown, young'un. Fates don't like it when ya walk out on 'em."
His blue eyes were open, honest, and maybe a little pitying. Trying not to let the shaking that had started up in my legs seem too obvious, I carefully retook my seat and examined the state of play.
Like I said, Caravan's about competing for cargo contracts between towns. The idea was that you played cards from your deck to outbid your opponent for each of three separate contracts (Hub-to-Boneyard, New Braynan-to-Phoenix, and Hoofington-to-Manehattan), without spending too much or too little. A contract value less than twenty-one wouldn't cinch the deal; more than twenty-six meant you were saddled with a job that couldn't make a profit.
No-Pony's towns were the Hub, New Braynan and Hoofington, while mine were their opposites --- the Boneyard, Phoenix and Manehattan. Matching that order, he'd thrown the Emperor, Tower, Star, Foal, Wheel of Fortune, and... Hanged Pony. Of course. Not suggestive at all...
I looked up at the cooter. "Stakes...?"
There was that hoofwave again. "Pshaw, stakes're already in. This's about fate, ya durn foal! Now draw!"
I was halfway to my gun when I realized he meant "draw from your deck". Sheepishly, I pulled seven cards off the top of my deck and bent to examine what I'd just dealt myself.
It was a pile of shit. A couple of sixes, a three, two aces, a jack and a king. I'd never bothered to flip through the deck, much less bother to optimize it for any particular strategy of play... like I said, I wasn't big on Caravan anyways. So Rango's deck was just a mess of all the cards he'd owned at the time, and my hoof sure showed it.
On the plus side, I'd been putting up actual cards as my starters while No-Pony'd laid down nothing of value. He didn't seem to notice, or care, that I effectively had a three-card headstart on him. He pulled seven more cards from his tarot deck, then laid down the King of Swords beneath Hoofington's Star. Opposite, on Manehattan, I played my own King of Hearts to match.
Down came a second King (of Wands) on Hoofington, doubling the first King's value to twenty. Any small card would now win that route for No-Pony, but I was in no rush. The game couldn't end until all three routes had winning bids, so I still had some time to work with. I drew my replacement card, the Queen of Hearts, and laid down my seven (of Diamonds) on Phoenix. No-Pony flipped a six over on the two Kings of Hoofington, locking in that route... or he would have, if I hadn't had that Jack. With a "screw-you" smile, I tossed it down on Hoofington, removing it and both Kings from play.
No-Pony just chuckled. As he swept the cards aside, I could swear I saw the faces of each transmogrify. I caught brief glimpses of three unicorns: a grinning mare with red-and-black mane, a dapper-looking ghoul exhaling a stream of pink smoke, and a white stallion who looked like he was suffering from every disease known to ponykind. "One-eyed jacks'll take th' piss, every time..."
Play advanced haphazardly; No-Pony would drive towards victory on one route or another, I'd pull a lucky draw to head him off, or not, and I'd counterattack when I could by building up my own caravans. One thing that irritated me was that his tarot deck had Pages and Knights, but no Jacks, so as face-cards without special rules attached they were all worth ten points each. No-Pony just shrugged. "Means I can't remove any of yer cards like ya did mine, an' they can't double up on each other like Kings. Them's jus' th' rules, friend."
Anytime I threw a Jack --- and I had a lot of them, as it turned out --- they, and the cards they removed, would resolve themselves into faces I'd never met. My Jacks always came across as a little heroic somehow, even when that seemed ridiculous. A little pink filly in an environmental suit, for example, or a toaster-repairpony with a Pip-Buck symbol on her flank.
Really? A Pip-Buck? What was that even supposed to mean? That she was good at sorting inventory?
Still, they each had a look on their face and a pose which suggested they were meant for greater things --- you know, like those junky pre-War propaganda posters you run into here and there across the wastelands. The important thing was that they were doing a good job of knocking down No-Pony's villainous-looking Kings and Knights and Pages: a severe-looking pegasus in bug-like power armor here, a mechanical abomination there, sometimes even whole groups, like raiders, crammed into the small white rectangles.
It was like some kind of massive war. Bit by bit I built up haphazard arrays with the junk cards I pulled, but if not for the Jacks, this mess would have been over and done with long ago. It wasn't like there was really anything of value to be had in the end, but at this point just kicking No-Pony's raggedy old ass for wasting my time like this would be immensely satisfying. Pink-E was (blessedly) silent and still, watching each play with the rapt attention of a scavenger kid waiting for her parents to toss their dinner scraps her way.
After what seemed to be hours of hoof-chewing tension, No-Pony gave a sage nod. "That's it then," he said, stretching out in his chair with a crackling of bones that sounded like the distant pop-pop-pop of an assault rifle, "Done an' done."
I blinked, looking at the table. My Foal was narrowly victorious over No-Pony's Emperor, his Tower had defeated my Wheel by a similar margin, and we'd deadlocked at twenty-six points apiece over the Manehattan-Hoofington route. All I needed was to pull one more Jack to yank one of his cards from there and it would be a clean win. But No-Pony was pointing to my deck, which had run out. I snorted.
"You and I both know that's a load of brahmin-shit. When a Caravan player runs the deck, they just shuffle and keep playing!"
No-Pony barked a laugh. "Can't re-shuffle th' universe, young buck! But heck, you've been a pretty good sport about it, so I s'pose ya deserve a consolation prize." He bent over to one side, grabbed a ratty-looking old toy, and threw it at me. I caught it entirely by reflex, then found myself staring at what I'd caught: a lifeless, completely grey rag-doll wearing a set of suspenders a few shades darker.
"That's a genu-wine Smartypants cutie-doll, fella! Lost th' quill-pen an' notepad years ago, but she'll do well enough fer ya I s'pose. With a game like that one, you'll need all th' help ya can get."
My stare shifted to No-Pony, who'd gotten up and started walking to the door. The shackful of junk had once again re-arranged itself to reveal a single broad aisle to the door, without so much as a creak or clink, sometime during our game. I didn't need an invitation to hastily get up and follow on the cooter's fetlocks, nor did Pink-E, who actually jostled with me getting out the door.
He seemed a little younger in the early morning sun, as he stopped a moment to yawn and stretch out a bit --- wait, early morning? I checked the Pip-Buck's clock: we'd left the motel room exactly six minutes ago. Enough time to walk here, get in a fight, go inside the shack and come back out. And that was it. In disbelief, I looked back up into No-Pony's grin.
"There's more in th' heavens an' dirtside than dreamt of in yer filly-o-sophies, bucky --- now, ya want th' straight scoop or not?" I nodded dumbly, and he lit straight into his spiel like a professor of economics holding forth on the value of a gold standard for post-apocalyptic societies.
"Th' Moohave Desert's smack in th' middle of an X formed by th' Boneyard, th' Hub, New Braynan an' Phoenix. So th' Wheel, Foal, Tower an' Emperor all overlap here, a close match either way. It ain't a sure thing that'cha actually win or lose either one, but I does guar-an-tee it'll be a rough patch, no matter which-way.
"Th' Tower's chaos an' ruin, matched against th' Wheel of Fortune --- that's yer luck seein' ya through bad times, straight up. Way th' game ran, with all those Jacks? I'd say ya got a good run of that stuff, so use it anytime ya can. Trust fate t'seeya through, young'un."
My eyes rolled skyward, almost of their own accord. "Fate, fate, fate, my fat flank - ow!"
He'd kicked me in the shin. "I ain't done yet, foal! Which, by th' way, that's you --- th' Foal card, against th' Emperor. Ya got three guesses who that is, since there's only three folks what could be an emperor 'round these parts."
That'd be the Herd's Caesar, NCR's President Thimble... and, of course, Mr. Edwin Robert Horse, my employer.
"Star? That's hope, discovery, Foal's enlightenment --- but not yours, fer that route. That's where most've yer Jacks came in when we were goin' at it... they're th' Foals, that's their journey ta make, around Manehattan an' Hoofington way out east. But what happens t'them is still gonna end up contributin' ta yer own path... after a fashion."
He seemed to have finally wound down, taking out a corncob pipe and proceeding to stuff it with something I was pretty sure was plant-based and definitely sure wasn't tobacco. While he struck a match and puffed it to life, I mentally rolled the bits of craziness around. I didn't exactly need to right now, since escaping the shack, but given the surreality of the whole episode...
"So what about the Hanged Pony over Manehattan?"
Shaking his head slowly, No-Pony turned away. As he disappeared back into the insanity of his shack, he muttered, "That's all of us, young'un... that's all of us."
Pink-E and I just looked at each other for a moment, shrugged (her lack of a body not seeming to matter at the time), and started down the road towards Big Rock City. As the town of No-Pony faded away behind us, so did the sound of No-Pony's yelling:
"Naw, I dun want no motto-sickle insurance! What th' heck is a motto-sickle, anyways?!"
* * * * *
Anypony who says "the trip to Insert Destination Here was uneventful" is a liar.
Even if you never run into a single bandit, and even should you keep to what's left of the old roads, there's still the native fauna trying to take a bite out of your flank from time to time. To a lesser extent, so does the flora. The smarter caravaneers, mindful that ammo costs caps, tend to judge the best and worst routes by "bullets-per-mile"; I've never heard of a run that had a BPM of zero.
But by any standard, the trip up to Big Rock City was about as uneventful as a body could hope for. With the Imperial 15 effectively blockaded by the Diamond Dogs, I-95 became the only good road up to Pegas, so armed caravans making their way up and down the highway effectively plowed aside anything not capable of stopping them altogether. So far, none of the local gangs had tried anything more than picking off the occasional straggler.
So with a nice clear road before me and a full night of sleep behind, I adopted a relaxed, long-legged gait to chew away the miles. Pink-E, bobbing and humming happily alongside, managed to find a radio station that wasn't half-static and didn't have "Mr. New Pegas" running his overly-perky morning-DJ routine. Traveling music was a novelty to me --- most radios were heavy, clunky pre-War boxes that tended to shift around and break if they fell any significant distance.
Like, say, off the back of my dad's old caravan wagon.
As some newfoal calling himself "Radio Mike" introduced the next song, a sad-but-strangely-jaunty piece, I began to wonder about Whiskey Rose and how she was holding up back at the border post. That mule gal'd sure make some caravaneer a decent partner someday... smart, capable, quick on the draw... and at least the memory of our meeting gave me a little something to think about while the day, and the horizon, advanced.
Troubles by the numbers,
Heartaches by the score...
* * * * *
One thing about Big Rock City: it sure wasn't boring.
Nope. It was one big combination of quarry-working miners and bivouacked NCR troops, all crammed into a sprawling tent-city in addition to the remnants of what had once been the original city itself. When the Herd had swarmed Hoofer Dam, a major pre-War hydroelectric and irrigation project, the NCR couldn't stop them from crossing over and seizing most of Big Rock's old buildings. Vicious house-to-house fighting reduced the place almost entirely to ruins before the zebra-wanna-bes were finally shoved back across the river.
Both before and after the fight, the town's quarries had been the major source of new stone and gems for the repair and renovation of the dam itself, so the workers simply moved from crappy, leaky, run-down apartments to crappy, leaky, drafty tents. As you moved through the disorganized mess of miners, their tents eventually gave way to the more orderly chaos of the army's support area: supply dumps, medical pavillions, mess halls and officers' quarters clustered around the few real buildings still standing (which naturally included its one remaining saloon). Beyond that, it was all
soldiers until you hit the Dam itself.
Threading my way through the miners' camp, I tried to figure out why Benny and his Cossack goons had planned to come here in the first place.
It sure wasn't for the purpose of crossing the Dam into Herd territory. They could have gone cross-country from Nipton to any of several black-market trading ferries across the Coltorado --- the NCR and Herd might be at war with one another, but that didn't stop entreprenurial bucks from making illicit caps in both directions. Anypony wanting to keep a low profile would have slipped quietly across downriver, instead of having to announce themselves by begging the NCR for permission to cross at the Dam.
It made even less sense for the Cossacks to still be accompanying Benny this far. The NCR habitually shot any gangbangers on sight, and no Cossack ever hid their colors for any reason... not unless he wanted to be brutally murdered by the rest for being a coward. Cossacks got by as much on their reputation for sheer machismo as by their numbers; they didn't much mind thinning out the latter, if it meant preserving the former.
So whatever business my marks had, it was here on the miners' side of Big Rock City --- somewhere.
Not many ponies outside of the big NCR farms out west had ever really seen a "haystack", since usually the hay would be eaten or stolen before there was enough of it to stack up. But the idea of finding a needle in one seemed like it might be easier than finding anypony in the camp's packed-together maelstrom.
You couldn't see over any of the tents, or any further than a few rows deep, before your line of sight would be blocked. Nopony seemed to know or care where anything was unless it involved people or services they needed. Paths were cramped with ponies pushing and shoving to get where they wanted to go, scavengers set up one-pony salesrooms on tattered blankets in every open spot, camp followers and hustlers wandered around shouting where to go for anything from laundering to liquor to "legwarming"... now there was a euphemism I hadn't heard before. Well, at least the experience had been educational, so far.
With no real rhyme or reason to the camp's layout, my only real option was to make discreet inquiries to the sort of folks who might know...
"Candy and cookies and cake, oh my!" Pink-E yelled, plowing into a food vendor's stall.
"You gonna eat that?!" Aaaaand another one, two seconds later. Both stall owners, the moment their shock wore off, started brandishing shotguns and yelling for payment or death. Pink-E stopped, beamed, went "Okie-dokie-loki!", and licked the cream from a box of Fancy Buck snack cakes off her face with a single broad tongue-swipe.
Then she looked at me expectantly. As did the stall owners. As did the gaping barrels of their sawed-off smokewagons.
...right. Discreet inquiries, I noted mentally, as I paid out enough in caps to wipe out everything I'd made from my sales in No-Pony. Yes. Discretion would be good.
Having concluded the transactions, I grabbed Pink-E between my forehooves and dragged her down to earth, giving my best growling glare. In retrospect, I can't say why I thought this display of emotion might affect the programming of a machine in any way. I had simply gotten into the bad habit of treating a floating pony-head-robot like a real person, which was probably also why it didn't faze me that it was eating organic material instead of, say, spark batteries.
"Pink-E, I'm trying to keep a low profile here!"
I received a look of uncomprehending innocence for my trouble. "You ARE?"
"Yes! You're gonna blow my cover!"
That look shifted to nigh-cherubic levels. "I AM?"
"You are! And if you keep this up, we're gonna get..."
...I stopped and looked around. Aside from a few stares from passersby, who clearly thought my argument with a disembodied robot head was either a bad street performance or a sign of insanity, nopony seemed to care. I had no idea why I'd expected to find myself confronted with some sort of angry mob. For her part, Pink-E seemed to be disappointed that none such had materialized.
I shook my head free of surrealistic cobweb, tossing Pink-E aside to resume my search for the Cossacks. At least now she seemed somewhat subdued, hanging back slightly and humming to herself while I asked around about ponies in gang livery and checkered suits.
Fortunately, colorful types like the Cossacks made that easy. It was early afternoon when I found an ad-hoc tavern, cobbled together from several battered old pavilions, where four burly earth ponies sat around an old picnic bench busily drinking and laughing and occasionally punching or kicking one another.
When I say they were "colorful", I don't mean in terms of personality.
Each wore a longcoat of brilliant crimson, embroidered with wildly varying threadwork of green, gold, blue and silver. The intricate patterns could supposedly tell you anything about them, from tragedies of childhood to personal victories in battle. Broad yellow sashes tied across their barrel chests carried marks denoting their loyalties, clan affiliations, and lots of other information which for the most part I really didn't care about.
But what let you know that they were not ponies to be messed about with, were the HATS.
Nopony else in the wasteland, neither the Moohave nor anywhere else, would be caught dead wearing the sort of hats Cossack warriors favored. Literally. No qualified sniper could possible fail to notice the towering red stovepipes, with their squared-off tops and golden galloping-pony insignia. Broad black brims kept the sun out of the wearer's eyes, as well as lending the thing the air of a train's brahmin-catcher. In fact, looking right at a Cossack, you sort of got the impression that a steam engine was bearing down on you.
Perhaps that had been the idea from the beginning, because that was definitely the feeling my gut developed when one of the carousers elbowed his friend and suddenly all four of them turned to stare at me. The burliest buck of the lot, sporting a glossy-black beard and handlebar mustache to match his hide, grinned like he'd just spotted an unguarded sack of caps.
"Hoy! Can ve help you vit somet'ing, coltchik?" His friends laughed as though he were doing stand-up comedy at the Trots. I let a smile curl across my lip until the mirth died down.
"Why, as a matter of fact," I drawled out in a bit of dramatic license, "you can. Me and my friends're looking for a gentlecolt by name of Benny --- checkered outfit, New Pegas type. Traveling with a set of Cossacks, word is..."
By this time, they'd all risen from their benches and drawn down, grins and stares turning to frowns and glares. But Cossacks weren't known for wasting ammo at the drop of a mane, either... a fact I'd been counting on. Beard-O kept talking while the rest made quick scans of the area, obviously looking for my nonexistent "friends".
"Col'chik, you ask dangerous kvestions. Dangerous enough, mebbe, that you either very schmot guy mit lotsa backup, or chust really schtupid ballsy type. Keep talkink, mebbe ve find out vich, hah?"
Time to drop names.
"One of my friends is a Mr. E. R. Horse. His business is with Benny, which makes it my business. Were you interested in making it yours...?" The glares subsided into grumbles as the four sat back down and made an effort to regain interest in their drinks, Beard-O still scowling.
"Fine, vhatever. Benny drag us all over hell, ve keep his sorry city-soft flank in vun piece, ve all come here for divvying up. Undt zhen he bolts for Pegas de second ve ain't vatchin' him." He turned his head and spat. "You catch up mit Benny, you tell him turncoats ain't velcome in Kazhakh territory. Undt dot's a nize beeg territory, you betcha."
A dismissive hoof waved at me as he turned back to his own drink. "Ve done mit Horse, den."
Maybe if they hadn't already been drinking for a while, they might not've leapt to the assumption that Horse's concerns were solely with Benny. But the stud didn't just want his souvenir back, or Benny's head alone --- he wanted payback in full for the theft of his property. And he was paying good caps for dead ponies.
This situation didn't call for finesse. It called for point-blank murder. And after a few days of on-and-off fiddling with the Pip-Buck, I felt confident enough to give its Spell-Assisted-Targeting System another whirl. Mentally triggering the command slid me neatly between two unmoving instants in time, allowing a leisurely assessment of how I might most efficiently manage the job. Four shots to queue up, four hatted Cossack heads: no fancy mathematics here.
I almost felt sorry for the poor bastards; the first indication they could have had of my hostility was when I let go of S.A.T.S. and it began to move me through the paces. A flick of the neck, a firm nip, and my mouth was wrapped around the courier's old hard-worn ten-millimeter pistol, bringing it up on line with my first target: Beard-O. I'll never know if he noticed the look of surprise on his friend across the table. What I do know is that the hollowpoint round blew clear through the back of his skull, out his left eyeball, and into the chest of the pony opposite, knocking him over like a bowling pin.
Everypony around the tavern began reacting to the sound of the first shot, though to me they were barely more than flies trapped in amber. I was already unloading my second round into the stud who'd caught the blow-through from the first, finishing him off before he hit the ground.
My body simultaneously shifted right and spun left, forming an axis in perfect sync with the ten-mil's smoking barrel and the side of the third Cossack's noggin. Blood sprayed in an arc across the table.
The fourth, a lanky grey colt barely out of his foal teeth, might've been considered a fast draw... but against magical augmentation, he had no real chance. His oversized pistol never cleared the holster.
Just like that, it was over. Or at least, it was once I flashed my bounty marker at the tavern-keep, whose shotgun was out and propped on the counter in my direction moments after S.A.T.S. had run its course. It was the work of a minute to check the bodies for valuables and take the yellow sashes fluttering in the breeze as confirmation for the job done. On my way out, I tossed a shiny pre-War bit to the scowling proprietor.
"Sorry about the mess."
To the west, the high-rising casinos of New Pegas beckoned, none more clearly than the legendary Lucky Chance itself. With any luck, I'd catch "city-soft" Benny still on the road and give him the Cossacks' message --- as well as that of my employer. Ratcheting up to a full gallop as soon as I cleared the edge of the tent-city, I gave Pink-E a grin.
"Y'know what, 'bot? I think I feel like a little travelin' music. Let's have it."
I wasn't disappointed in her choice, either, though I wondered why I'd never heard anything like the hard-charging beat of this particular tune before:
When I get high, I get high on speed
Top fuel funny car's a drug for me
My heart, my heart!
Kickstart my heart!
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Pinkie Sense (2)(of 5) -- from time to time, strange things seem to happen around you. Each level of this perk escalates the weirdness.
Aligned Perk: Twitchy Tail -- at the second level of Pinkie Sense, you start to have physical reactions to dangerous or unusual phenomena about to happen in your immediate vicinity, or to persons closely affiliated to you. While the meanings of these reactions are not immediately evident, they are consistent from event to event. The more unusual the event, the more severe the physical reactions, to the point where they can slow, immobilize, or even cripple you.
Aligned Companion Perk Radio a-Go-Go -- if Pink-E is a companion and you have Pinkie Sense, her symbiotic affinity with you increases. She is now able to pick up and broadcast strangely-appropriate radio signals from beyond the mythical "Fourth Wall", strictly for entertainment purposes.