CHAPTER SIX: "Why Don't You Do Right?"
"Like some other bucks dooooo..."
The highway from Big Rock to New Pegas was the single most-traveled road in the entire Moohave Wasteland, what with all the military traffic staging to Hoofer Dam from the NCR's central base at McMaren Airfield. At least twice a week a huge airship would disgorge another load of troops or supplies, take aboard any casualties and mail bound for parts west, and then putter away, while the newfoals marched off to their assigned duty stations throughout the Moohave --- most of which required starting out along that one road.
Add to this Big Rock's quarry workers heading the other way every weekend to blow their pay on a stab at high living, as well as the trade caravans piling in and out of New Pegas on a regular basis, and most predators of both the sapient and critter variety got smart enough to seek easier prey elsewhere. Plus, the road's strategic value meant the NCR routinely put some effort into filling in the bigger potholes.
So just a few hours of breezing along at the hard gallop brought us to the end of the traffic queue wending its way through New Pegas' eastern gate . We continued to breeze right through said traffic, ignoring the yells of "hey!", "dammit!" and "piss on ya!".
There's polite, and then there's five thousand bottlecaps worth of polite.
As we barreled through the gate and into the New Pegas suburb of "Freemane", me blowing flecks of overheated lather and Pink-E lip-miming the trumpet solo of a popular jazz number she'd found on the usual channels, my eyes were already peeled and scanning for welchers in checkered suits.
Our somewhat dramatic entrance collected only a few turned heads and raised eyebrows, before everypony went right back to whatever they were doing.
Like most other wasteland slums, Freemane was populated with the sort of people who really didn't care much about anything unless it was trying to kill them, or they thought they could make a few caps off of it. The difference was that here, there were a lot more of them, all packed together into pre-War office and tenement buildings that hadn't yet had the decency to collapse under their own weight and age. Freemane provided and served the cheap labor which New Pegas needed, but didn't want messing up the aesthetics by actually living there.
Access in and out of the actual Strip was controlled by a single heavily-fortified gate swarming with armed robots, which you weren't allowed to pass unless you either were an employee going to or from work, or had some serious cash to spend. Freemane's denizens obtained few benefits from Horse's benign overlordship beyond employment (which for the Moohave in general was a pretty good step up), but since Horse's 'bots only intervened when predatory gangs tried moving in on a permanent basis, the place proved the ancient adage: freedom's just another word for "nothing left to lose". Total freedom from government meant nopony had to do the dirty jobs of cleaning anything up or keeping order, so nopony did. Poverty, drug abuse, and a thriving black market were the common themes in a town whose inhabitants were too hooked on their weekly pay chits (or plain stubbornness) to pack up and leave.
It still beat what passed for a standard of living most elsewhere.
I finally slowed up enough to let my lungs catch up with the rest of me, which also helped me better deal with Freemane's incredible pong of rotting garbage, rotting buildings and rotting people. Ponies and mules alike walked the streets looking for work, or lounged on corners and in doorways looking for an easy score. Some, with half their teeth gone and breath foul enough to set a ghoul's hoof waving in disgust, staggered around pestering passersby to help with their starving children and medical expenses. None of the money they cadged ever seemed to make it beyond the saddlebags of the nearest dope peddler, though.
As if to punctuate the stench and sense of hopeless decay, a filth-caked griffin suddenly stuck most of her upper body out of a second-story window overhead and loudly expended the contents of her stomach straight down. The stream of chunky gray-green forced me to skip aside to avoid being spattered in one moment; in the next, I skidded up short to avoid a stampeding mob of blue-collar workers on their way either to the punchclock or the punchbowl.
Somewhere along the way, Pink-E had dropped the musical accompaniment to hover quietly along in my wake, a small mercy I didn't fail to briefly thank Celestia for.
Before long, we began encountering the next best thing to the pony I was looking for: street vendors hawking their trash and services. My first choice, a slatternly old mare who wouldn't shut up about the tricks she was sure she could do me, finally let me slip Benny's name and style in apparel in edgewise, then pointed out the direction he'd gone for the bargain price of twenty caps --- and just a few minutes ago, too.
He really was heading back to the Pegas Strip, whose absolute lord and master had a bounty out on his head! I couldn't believe either that I was that lucky or he was that stupid. There had to be some kind of angle, some elaborate play in the works. Maybe he'd dropped off or hidden Horse's poker chip somewhere as insurance, which would be a smart move, given that Horse was willing to pay five grand for its return. Benny and his Cossack goons put together were only worth five hundred, a pittance by comparison.
And I intended to earn every cap. I'd bust all four of Benny's knees with brass hoof-knuckles to find out where the chip was, if I had to. Having gotten most of my wind back, I put hoof to pavement and broke to gallop, dodging everypony and everything in my way. Pink-E zipped along above, high enough to avoid it all.
Whipping around two mules pulling a dilapidated cart, I spotted a glimpse of black-on-white, the back of a slick, well-coiffed mane perched atop a fine nice suit jacket. A jacket which, as I rapidly closed, resolved into a lovely black-and-white checkerboard pattern. Just as lovely as the clinking of five thousand caps in my saddlebags. The bastard was mine!
This, apparently, was too much for Pink-E's sense of excitement; she let out a high squeal of nervous glee that made me wince reflexively in mid-stride.
Benny looked over his shoulder at the bright pink pony head floating above --- and then at me, bearing down on him at speed. His casual, honey-brown eyes suddenly grew very round and tiny.
And he bolted.
Less than fifty yards separated us when he started running. We were down to ten by the time he got up to speed. He had the fear of a prey animal lending him adrenaline, I had the hunger of a bottlecap-fed predator tapping my inner reserves.
He broke right, down an alley; I stayed with him. He bounced off a garbage bin and over a wall; I followed. He threw garbage in my path; I dodged, leapt, smashed through.
The hairs of his tail were almost in snapping distance when a chicken ran in front of Benny. He jumped it easily.
I would have too, if it hadn't been for the pack of three little fillies chasing the chicken. Them, I slammed into at full bore.
My forelegs were clipped out from under as neatly as if I'd hit a tripwire, sending me into a flying, flailing, wailing half-somersault. The impromptu acrobatics ended with my rump in the air, and my chin scraping asphalt, until I hit the hulk of a rusted-out airwagon. I barely had time to pick myself up and shake the stars out of my vision, before Benny made it to the Strip checkpoint. He flashed something at the 'bots and started inside, but not before taking a moment to look back over his shoulder and flick his glossy black tail in a teasing motion.
"Sorry, kid. For you, it just wasn't in the cards."
And then he and Horse's five-thousand-bottlecap poker chip were gone.
"Oooooh," clucked Pink-E, bobbing innocently overhead. "Too bad. B-GAWK!"
* * * * *
The Atomic Bronco could have defined the word "seedy" for any dictionary, even one written by a schoolfilly or perhaps a chicken.
The proprietors of the combination casino-and-flophouse put only enough caps into its maintenance to keep the slot machines running, the booze and drugs flowing, and the walls from falling in. The latter looked like they might have been painted over, in a fit of misplaced optimism, when the place was first opened fifty years ago. Now, it was just another place for locals foalish enough to gamble what little they had, as well as the low-rent tourists too poor to get into the Pegas Strip proper.
Then again, I wasn't here for the decor, the blackjack tables, or the slots. I was here to get completely shitfaced on whatever I still had left to spend or barter with, then go find a new contract on somepony that somepony else needed dead. With any luck --- and I wasn't counting on it --- I could at least turn in my markers on the dead Cossacks and make a few hundred caps for the kills.
But I'd missed the big score, the five thousand for getting that godsdamned poker chip from Benny. That would've been enough for me to fort up somewhere relatively safe, stockpile some food and ammo, maybe even live out the rest of my life in what passed for a peaceful (if frugal) existence in the Moohave. So close... I'd been so close... best not to think about it. Best to get something in between my brain and remembering what I didn't want to think about. I signaled the bartender, a mule in a cheap suit and red tie with what looked like a permanent scowl.
He signaled back, in no uncertain or polite gestures, that he already had his hooves full with a group of five of the aforementioned cheap tourists, who nonetheless almost certainly had more money to spend than I did. As I waited my turn, I began stewing over all the people and events that had delayed me time and again, that had given Benny those critical few seconds to escape my hooves.
Fucking Mite-ys and their grandiose shoot-'em-up takeover plans. Fucking Deputy Deagle, getting himself caught spying on Benny so I had to go find his dead-and-battered carcass. Fucking dead relatives and their lame-ass tourist traps, gassing me and sticking me with a loudmouth of a fucking robot head. Fucking Diamond Dogs, blowing the pass, forcing me to go all the way the hell around Nipton --- hell, fuck that one Mite-y hanging on the cross, and fuck me for bothering to talk to him! Even that one conversation blew time I knew I couldn't afford to waste!
The stew in my skull-cauldron was quickly boiling over. Fucking gangs and their fucking ambushes, why couldn't they have slowed up Benny half as badly as they did me?! At least the Cossacks were straight-up with their info. If I hadn't been so fucking greedy, I might've remembered my contract requires me to nail ALL of the thieves to get that five hundred caps, which INCLUDES Benny, so without Benny dead I might not even get... aw FUCK...
By the time the bartender clopped his way down the bar to me, I was ready to chew glass.
"Ya want somethin', it's caps up front. We ain't a charity -" I dug into my saddlebag, took out a small pouch of about a hundred caps and slammed it down with a chink.
"Do yourself a favor. Shut the fuck up, gimme the best bottle of hooch you've got on that wall behind you, and if you don't smart-ass me again, you can keeping the fucking change. Got it?" He bit back what was probably an habitual snark, pulled a fifth of tequila in a silver label down from the wall, and scooted it across to me with a shotglass. A clean one, even. Guess he wanted that tip.
He even managed a polite tone. "That's Tres Generaciones, last of our pre-War stuff. Enjoy your stay at the Atomic Bronco, sir." I shrugged as he pocketed the pouch and left me the hell alone, which was what I really wanted anyways.
Of course, I wasn't actually going to get that, was I?
Pink-E's face took on a warning frown. "Cherry... you promised..."
I grabbed the cork in my teeth and popped it out, then poured a shot. Time enough, later, to lose all sense of classiness and just swig from the bottle. For now, I needed the bracing sense of civilization that only a clean and measured shot of hard booze could give. "Fuck you, 'bot, and fuck your Pinkie-Pie-Swear brahmin-crap. Right now, I need this like you wouldn't believe."
The robot head of Pinkie Pie floated across the bar, dipped her muzzle, and knocked over my drink.
I... in that moment, there were simply no words. There was nothing except a deep-red rage rooting me to the spot like a statue, my very mane feeling like it might explode into balefire at any moment. The part of my brain which first recovered some level of cognizance reminded me that, if I lost it now, it wouldn't end with Pink-E. Casino security would be all over me, with the aim of making an example out of anypony that dared to disturb their other paying customers. Especially if I did what I really wanted to, and stuffed my hold-out pistol into the pink pony-head's mouth before pulling the trigger...
But I just had to kill her! NOW! Somehow! It needed to happen!
While I stood there in full-body seizure, making inarticulate noises, Pink-E calmly nosed the cork back into the bottle and stowed it in my saddlebags. After all, it was still an item of value for potential resale, which my Pip-Buck immediately assessed as being worth fifty caps. Now I wanted to kill the bartender, too.
Perhaps it was because I wanted so many ponies dead, but couldn't put my hooves on them right just then, that I suddenly deflated. Slumping forward and flopping my head onto the bar in surrender, I moaned, "I give up. I just give the fuck up. Somepony shoot me. What else do I have to live for at this point? My contract is blown, most of my caps are blown, the entire last week has been a total waste, and now I can't even get a Luna-damned drink in peace."
Pink-E made a disapproving face at me. "You're looking at this all wrong. You need money, to get into the Strip, to find that guy you're after, and get that thingy you want from him, right?"
I turned my eyes, not bothering with the rest of my head, to stare at her. "Yeah. FIVE THOUSAND CAPS. I'm sure I can find that kind of cash lying around just anywhere, huh 'bot? If I even had that kinda money, I wouldn't've taken this job in the first place!"
She snorted and rolled her eyes dramatically. "It's like that crazy old pony said, Cherry! You just have to trust to fate!"
I snorted back, harder. "Fate's a load of horseapples. We all make our own way in the world, and Luna takes the hindmost."
Now Pink-E looked thoroughly offended.
"Hmph! That's just an old mare's tale, Princess Luna never gobbled anypony's hindmost! How would she even do that when most ponies were almost as big as she was, anyways?! I mean, duuuh! Besides that, she was one of the nicest ponies your great-great-grandaunt ever met!"
My stare intensified for a moment until I remembered that talking about my dead relations chumming around with a hindmost-gobbling goddess was standard Pink-E insanity. For another moment I wondered if a robot really could be insane, if robots didn't have minds to be sane to start with. "Whatever. Point is, I don't gamble. That's a sucker's road."
Pink-E began bouncing up and down excitedly in a complete reversal of attitude. "Well, you did pretty well in No-Pony, didn't you? I was watching the whoooooole time! That guy was a master at Caravan, and you almost beat him!" She nodded rapidly, encouraging me to agree with her.
Not happening. "Pfeh. 'Almost' only works with horseshoes, grenades, and balefire bombs. The only reason I even came close was because I kept drawing all those jacks. Pure dumb random luck..." I stopped and facehoofed, realizing too late what my mouth had just trotted itself into.
Sure enough, Pink-E cocked her head slightly and her blue eyes went sly. "Pure luck, huh...? I'll bet you a whole day of silence that you can win that five thousand caps right here, in just three big-bet spins. Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye."
I stopped short of reminding her that she didn't have a body to house a heart in, that she flew around as her standard means of mobility, and that if I had a cupcake, I'd eat it instead of wasting it on obscuring her optics. Was it really worth three maximum-bet slot spins, at two hundred caps each, for a single day of Pink-E not nagging me? Not squealing in my ear? Not blasting her radio all over town? A whole day of peace and quiet, plus my getting to be smug about proving to a stupid robot that it was just plain wrong?
A week ago I'd have laughed at the idea of wasting my money on something so pointless. Now...?
"Oh, it. Is. ON."
* * * * *
If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I picked out a machine at random, planted my haunches on the rickety short stool in front of it (wondering what weird tradition demanded the stool be there in the first place), plunked a pair of one-hundred-cap casino chips into the slot, rubbed my hooves together for luck, and yanked the lever like I was cocking the bolt on the world's biggest hunting rifle. The wheels spun through their hypnotic, routine-inducing pattern...
whizzzzzzz-clunk A cherry. I supposed that was appropriate for me, but it was hardly promising. I may not have been a gambler, but I knew as well as anypony that the one-cherry payoff was the way casinos kept you playing for the long haul. Frequent little rewards, but not too frequent, as you fed chip after chip into the machine...
whizzzzzzz-clunk Another cherry. Huh. That was uncommon, but not overly so, a somewhat bigger payoff than a single. It just meant I wouldn't be out quite as many caps for the promised silent day...
whizzzzzzz-clunk Another cherry. Wait, all three?
Dozens of chips rattled down the chute into the reward box in a measured series of clink-clink-clinks.
A big blond-on-white draft pony with a natty grey suit and a bedraggled cigarette hanging from his lip trotted up, pounding out applause on the floorboards with every step. "Winner, winner, winner, we gots a big winner here! Everyone's a winner when they play at the Atomic Bronco, folks!" His rump rash was hidden under flank-pouches carrying the casino symbol and colors, a black pony in rodeo gear bucking a red Diamond Dog off its back. From one pouch, a deft nip pulled forth a voucher, which he presented to me with all the flourish of somepony trying to let nearby patrons know that they should keep blowing their cash here if they wanted a chance at similar respect.
"There you are, sir, one free ticket to our fabulous theatre venue, tonight showing the classically-comedic talents of Madame LeFlour and Sir Lints-A-Lot! Courtesy of the Atomic Bronco, our thanks to you for your patronage today!"
My hoof reached out numbly to take the proffered slip of paper, an aged and stained thing that obviously had been the object of hundreds of similar presentations. "Er...thanks." The floor boss had already turned and walked away, trailing a cloud of nicotine, his job having been finished the second he let go of the ticket.
I blinked, then counted up my winnings while Pink-E beamed like a wasteland mother proud of her foal's first kill. It couldn't have been that easy, I thought... and I was right. A check of the payout chart plastered to the side of the machine showed that three cherries was actually the smallest jackpot you could win, short of the single- and double-cherry payouts. Still, that was ten times my bet... two thousand caps!
A huge grin crept across my face to replace the knock-me-over-with-a-tin-can look. Even if I completely busted on the other two spins, this was enough right here to make the entire trip profitable by a fair margin! The greedy little pony in my head was turning cartwheels and backflips, tempting me to join in.
"Gee, Cherry," came Pink-E's syrupy i-told-you-so, "that's not bad for your first spin!"
Oooooh, I was so going to enjoy my Day of Silent Robot-Head. I wasn't even in the mood to argue; so what? It's called 'Beginner's Luck' for a reason. I plunked in two more hundred-cap chips and pulled the handle again.
Whizzzzzzz-clunk, cherry, whizzzzzzz-clunk, bell, whizzzzzzz-clunk, orange. DINGDING!, out clinked the two-for-one payoff for a single cherry. Nothing to sneeze at, but my smile stayed in place.
Peace and quiet, here I come! In went my two chips. This time, I grabbed the handle of the one-armed bandit with both hooves and an air of authority before yanking it back.
whizzzzzzz-clunk Orange. Hah! That was that. Three oranges were the top jackpot, a hundred-to-one payoff. The best I was going to do was another cherry or two. Dead-Shot rules, Pink-E drools!
whizzzzzzz-clunk Another orange. Now that was the standard sucker-bait: promise a big payoff on the second wheel, get the player dreaming about a third-wheel match so that they blow all their previous winnings chasing that particular myth. There was no way in Discord's Hell or Celestia's Heaven that...
whizzzzzzz-clunk Another orange.
Everything seemed to happen at once. Pink-E started cheering and bouncing around like crazy, the machine's dinging went mad, chips started pouring out of the slot and wouldn't stop, lights began flashing all over the place, and everypony turned to stare with their jaws hanging open. The floor boss, who'd just gotten comfy against a doorjamb, at first looked annoyed that he was actually being called upon to do his routine again, and then more annoyed that it was me instead of another player he was having to do it for, and finally shocked that somepony had actually hit The Big One. He jolted into a trot towards me.
"WINNAH WINNAH WINNAH, BIG WINNAH HERE! Nopony wins like everypony wins at the Atomic Bronco, yessir, you bet! Looks like we have our Player of the Day, don't we folks?" Several of the casino's security types began carefully moving into the periphery, making me a little nervous. "Now back up, folks, back up, give the stud some room, big day, big winner!" I hadn't noticed anypony getting any closer, aside from the floor boss and his troops...
The big draft grinned hugely, presented another voucher --- this one almost perfectly pristine --- and hoofed it over to me. "There you are, sir, yet another big reward for your victorious display at the Atomic Bronco! All drinks for you and your friends, this night only, are on the house."
NOW there was a sudden swarm of gamblers leaving their machines and trying to converge on me, which the security types held off with some effort. The floor boss just turned his smile on them: "Easy, easy, everypony! Give the stud his space! Enough time to make some friends at the bar!" That seemed to be cue enough for most of them, at least those who didn't want to keep watching the show. The room began to empty as everypony began piling up at the bar, yelling their orders and pointing their hooves at me.
Unbidden, something in my head went: Dear Princess Celestia, today I discovered something new about friendship...
Then the big draft was posing with me, a foreleg wrapped across my shoulders, while somepony with a camera appeared out of nowhere to snap a quick picture for the casino's inevitable "wall of winners". As soon as the bulb popped, a whisper sounded in my ear. "Get'cher chips off the floor, cash out, and don't come back in here. You're good for your drinks and entertainment, but you're done taking our money."
Pink-E harrumphed as the floor boss and casino security melted away, somehow taking the rest of the crowd with them, while I hastily grabbed up the slot-spilled wealth.
"Well, that's just rude of them! How do they expect ponies to come back if they don't like when they win?"
I shrugged and started for the cashier's booth with my saddlebags a-clinking. "They only want folks to win big enough, often enough to tempt others to keep losing, Pink-E. They hope that even the big winners will have been long-time players who spent more money previously than they won in the end. Somepony like me, walking in here and winning huge like this? They want the publicity they can milk out of it to draw other players in, but in the end it's still a business and losing money isn't how they make a profit."
The stonefaced cashier took my chips, gave me my winnings in a big leather valise that I stuffed into one of my saddlebags, and nodded a good-bye. Leaning slightly to one side under the weight of my newfound fortune, I walked into the bar lounge towards the exit with Pink-E in tow...
* * * * *
...and didn't make it out of the casino until well after midnight.
How could I have left any earlier? Should I have left all my new friends to drink alone? I was suddenly the toast of Freemane, the source of free booze for any pony, mule, griffin, or even buffalo whom I was willing to point a hoof at and call "friend". Ponies would have a few drinks, then go run and get their friends, and my "authority hoof" would get a workout, smiles and grins beaming all around while the looks on the bartenders and casino staff got stonier and stonier. It was diplomatically pointed out that as soon as I left the casino, the deal was off, which was repeated somewhat less and less diplomatically as the evening wore on.
I responded to the pressure by digging in my hooves and staying put. Ban me, will they? Then try to welch out on the free booze for all my friends? Fuck 'em!
By the time the sun set, it was a full-blown block party with radios propped in tenement windows blasting whatever anypony could get reception for, and happy drunkards cheering and dancing and swaying in the streets (except for when they were puking in the alleys). I couldn't leave the casino, but they could, and they had to, as the place itself was completely packed. Some of the partiers gambled while they were there, but it was obvious that the Atomic Bronco was hemorrhaging cash at a prodigious rate.
And, well, I started drinking too. What else was I going to do in a casino where I couldn't gamble?
At first, Pink-E tried knocking over my drink again, which worked exactly once. The mule bartender's eyes lit up like he'd just been given a cattle prod and carte blanche, and he wasted no time in warning me that if I couldn't keep my robot under control I'd be ejected. The party would be over.
The crowd practically ponypiled on Pink-E at that point, with two big beefy buffaloes volunteering to take turns sitting on her. That was enough to get a promise out of her not to spill anything else, which she was not happy with. Which made me that much happier, of course.
With her interference out of the way, I ordered my first whiskey double and motioned to keep 'em coming. I'd come in with getting shitfaced on my itinerary, after all. Tonight I was surrounded by friends, the booze was free, and I had the perfect opportunity to mark that box off my checklist. So why not?
I almost had that first shot down the hatch before Pink-E completely lost her cheese.
"I had heard about conniption fits," said the exotic zebra comedian, during the one time my dad had taken me to a real New Pegas show, "but I had never seen one. My wife's eyes receded into their sockets, to be replaced with pits of hell-fire. The skin, on her face, pulled so far back that I was able to trace the lines of her skull. Her voice reached a pitch reserved only for the demon-foals of the Ninth Abyss, and in that voice, she pointed at me and said: 'WHERE. IS. MY. CHOCOLATE CAKE?!' "
That's what went through my head as the basic idea of a conniption fit. The reality of a Pink-E scorned was worse.
Blue eyes became brands of orange flame. Pink rubbery skin drew so taut over her cheeks and muzzle that rivets and armatures beneath drew into sharp relief. She actually vented steam through not only her ears and nostrils, but also the top of her head where no pony would ever properly have a hole for anything to escape. Her mane flared straight up to form a mohawk from Hell, coruscating with electric-blue arcs that writhed and snapped. And she screamed, in proper demon-foal pitch:
"NOPONY BREAKS A PINK-E PROMISE!"
She was promptly buried under both of the buffalo, five ponies, and a griffin.
If anything, the screeching got louder, despite being muffled by layers of bodies, but I didn't give a damn. So long as she wasn't exploding anyone's head with her stupid hypno-eye routine, and it kept her out of my way, I was happy enough to sit there and grin at the futile fracas.
Pink-E's yelling and struggling soon became lost amid the clapping and back-patting and cheering from all my other new friends, so at last I got to have my drink... and another one, and then another... ooh, what's a Horsey Wallbanger? Let me try that! I drank and grinned and yelled and danced and I could do no wrong with the lovely, beautiful citizens of glorious Freemane...
Late in the evening there was a brief argument with management, where it was suggested very strongly that I depart, to which I protested that I hadn't seen my free theatre show yet. Faster than you could say "let's get outta Creepytown", the little side-theatre room was crammed with an audience easily four times its normal capacity, to the point that it's hard to imagine anypony else who could have wedged in there.
Pink-E sure couldn't. Each time she tried, she was grabbed and ejected forcibly by the crowd. At some point, somepony called her a "party-pooper", after which she puttered off somewhere to fume and sulk while the show went on.
And what to say about the show...? It was hilarious! I can't remember much of it except that it was funny... things were already a bit blurry by that time. Okay, a LOT blurry. Which might have helped explain why it was funny that a pony-sized bag of flour and an equally giant wad of lint were throwing pies and one-liners at one another across a stage. Pink-E probably would have loved it, if she could have just loosened up enough to be a little more sociable. At least, that's what I thought at the time...
Everyone laughed, everyone drank, everyone threw coins and chips and occasionally bottles when things got a little too out of hand, and when the show was over, and Madame LaFlour took a bow alongside Sirs Lints-A-Lot, the crowd cheered and piled out of the theatre and I went right along with them.
Right along with the tide of partiers, flowing out of the theatre under the more or less gentle guidance of casino security, right out the door which slammed behind me.
Oh. The OTHER door. To the alley outside...
Fortunately, nopony seemed to hold it much against me. There was a lot more back-clapping and a last cheer, some raucous shouts at one another as we parted ways (and some less-salutory phrases at the doors of the Atomic Bronco, which had locked down), and then everypony just sort of meandered off down the streets.
Leaving me to stagger on along, alone, happily singing every stupid song that came to mind, higher than a pegasus on rocket fuel and feeling better than I could remember ever feeling before. After a few minutes I noticed the familiar hum of a levitation talisman and looked behind me to find Pink-E floating along. Her silent, sullen look accused me of every crime the world had ever suffered.
Well, fuck her, if she couldn't be happy for me. I was rich now!
Fuck Mr. Horse's contract too, I had more than four times what he would've paid me for his stupid little poker chip! Twenty-two thousand bottlecaps in my bag, hundreds of wonderful friends who loved me, and as soon as I found a place to crash for the night...
Suddenly the night crashed in on me, from out of the dark alley I only just noticed I was passing. WHACK, went an old police-issue baton against my head.
Oooh, stars! The stars at night, are big and bright...
WHACK WHACK WHACK
Way deep down iiiiiin my brainpan...!
Dark, cold, underwater. Not drowning this time, exactly, mainly because it seemed that I didn't really have to breathe at all. It was just that I really really wanted to. But since I wasn't drowning, I relaxed as best I could and drifted, legs hanging loose on my body, letting the water carry me where it would.
All around swirled flakes of simulated snow, some of which would alight on my withers and rump as I floated bonelessly along and alone, inches above the brown plastic ground.
Where were my friends? I couldn't see anything beyond the little circle of light I drifted within, spotlighting my course from somewhere far above, blinding me to whatever might lie ahead. Only muffled noises reached my ears through the thick weight of surrounding liquid, making no sense to me at all, just a jumble of broken consonants and vowels slurred through wavelengths carved in graphite.
This time, it didn't terrify me that I was in a giant snowglobe. Somehow I knew, and I also knew I deserved this. Wanted this. Wanted to be left to unyielding isolation, but still protected by the glass bubble surrounding. The glass held in the water, keeping me cold and uncomfortable, but wasn't that the price for what I wanted? I couldn't have the bubble if I didn't have the water. What else would go inside a snowglobe?
The snowflakes kept piling up, their slight weight pushing me slowly downwards. My hooves touched the plastic vacu-formed pebble-patterns that made mockery of the earth from which my ancestors drew their vaunted strength. I didn't care enough to support myself, letting the snow push me to my knees and then my belly, where I drew my legs up beneath me and settled into a mounting hillock of white. The flakes came pouring down, slow but sure, coating my body and the ground in a thick cold blanket that stirred only by the sluggish currents of all-engulfing water.
I laid down my head upon a drift of white falsehoods and let myself be buried alive...
<<< oOo >>>
Oh gods. Oh gods.
For long minutes, I thought I'd simply shifted into a new nightmare where the only parts of my body I could feel were the eyes and brain, both of which were lit from end to end with white-hot branding irons.
Luna drill my ass, it hurts! AUGH!
The evil, hateful, horrible sun was trying to burn my eyes from their sockets; attempting even the slightest squint made me hiss and wince like a stabbed bloatsprite. Cursing Celestia's name with a tongue that wouldn't obey, I tried shielding my face, but found the rest of my body to be in a state of insurrection as well. Hell, I could barely feel my extremities, let alone move them!
A shrill, disapproving voice hammered on my eardrums from above. "Well, I hope you're happy!"
Oh gods and goddesses of faith and mercy, murder me now. Driven by the need to put something between myself and that noise, I somehow managed to drag my forehooves up to cover my face. The shade soothed my eyes a little... just enough that I began to notice the headache that had been pounding behind my sinuses all along.
Pink-E had me completely at her mercy, and, being a robot, she didn't have any. "You broke a Pink-E promise! You got drunk! Alcohol is addictive, and you promised you'd never use anything addictive ever again! And that's why those ponies were able to beat you up and steal your money, and there aren't any other big casinos outside the Strip and now you won't get to see Mister Horse and everypony is going to die all over again and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!"
I wailed something inarticulate and tried to roll over in hopes of digging my way to some sort of safety, away from crazy robots and their pain-inducing volume. The results were less than stellar, ending with my head in a musty old wooden crate full of grungy oil cans and a stinging pain in my rump, but I was heartened slightly in that both were distinct improvements over my previous state.
The respite from sunlight afforded by the crate, plus the muffling effect all those oilcans had on Pink-E's voice, gave me a better chance to assess the situation. Peering carefully outside my dubious shelter revealed the inside of the dumpster I apparently had spent the night in, half-full of everything that even a town full of impoverished bums didn't want. I'd probably caught three new diseases in the last eight hours, judging by the smell alone.
My headache had two sources: internal, from my brain exacting its vengeance for the abuse heaped upon it last night, and external, from a series of lumps on the back of my head. They seemed to throb in time with each other, producing bursts of pain in metronome-like stereo.
That sharp pain in my flank wasn't going away, either. I reached down a hoof to smack away what I thought must have been a radroach, only to feel the fluttering of paper.
What the hell...?
My hoof came back smeared with blood, obviously drawn by the steel tack somepony had used to fasten a note to my butt: "Thanx 4 a grate nite, was fun, thanx for caps 2 ~ schmuck!"
I'd been rolled by a bunch of illiterates who thought swapping numbers for words made them witty. My aches and pains began to slowly subside into the background of a rising, simmering rage. Twenty-two thousand caps... twenty-two thousand caps! A fortune I hadn't had to kill anypony for (not that there was anything wrong with that), had gotten by honest means, and which I wouldn't have lost except I'd wanted to be nice to other ponies! Well, that, and if I were honest with myself, because I'd also wanted to give the casino a little payback for being winner-banning jerks.
Now that I knew what all was wrong with me, I slowly heaved myself towards the lip of the dumpster, a movement which my internal workings immediately decided was a red-line manuever. Okay, so I hadn't discovered everything that was wrong --- something awful blasted up my throat so fast that I couldn't open my mouth in time. Instead, acidic bile blew out my nostrils in long burning streams.
My next few minutes were spent as a miserable pile of coughing, puking, hacking, gasping equine refuse. How could I have gotten this drunk?! How could anypony?! My gut clenched up hard, puking up gallon after gallon of the alcohol poisoning it hadn't yet been able to filter through, almost as fast as I could inhale what passed for air in the vicinity. The dumpster began to get dangerously sloshy as I ran out of niches to deposit my latest exhumations. Finally I ran out of liquids to hurl, which didn't stop my stomach from trying to produce more with dry-heave after dry-heave. Every time I thought it was over, I'd breathe a sigh, catch a whiff of myself, and start in all over again.
When at last I was able to drag myself from the dumpster and fall bonelessly to the blessed asphalt paving the alleyway, I had absolutely no will to live. I was a pony-shaped slug, smeared with the slime of my own barfing and only needing a nice coating of salt to finish the job.
No... wait. I couldn't. I couldn't just lay here.
Twenty-two thousand bottlecaps in a leather valise.
It wasn't the promise of a better life that moved me. It was the need to end someone else's.
I lifted one hoof, braced it against the ground. Shoved. Got a hindleg under me, pushed up, caught myself on the other leg, stood up... and stumbled left until I hit the wall of the nearest building. Slightly less slug-like than I felt, I slid along the wall until I reached the corner... I was missing something, here. What was it? I looked over my shoulder.
She hovered there, silently crying. She'd been crying for some time, by the look of it. Huge drops of water welled up in those blue eyes to slide down the tear-shiny rubber of her face before plopping quietly upon the ground. How long had I been in that can, spewing my guts, while she wept? The little 'bot sniffled and scrunched up her muzzle.
"Cherry...? What are we going to do? How can we fix this...?"
I was done wondering how the hell anyone had programmed a robot to have such complex emotions. I wasn't even in condition to think on that level at the moment, in any case. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and concentrate on working my tongue.
"Not we, Pink-E. Me. I'm going after them."
She blinked with surprise. "How? I mean, I couldn't follow them, I had to stay here and make sure you were okay, so all I have is the telemetry I tracked before the ground clutter got too thick and I don't know -"
I managed to lift a hoof and still stay balanced long enough to weakly wave her down. "If that's not already on my PipBuck, get it there. Don't have a lotta time to debate this, right now..." She looked ready to argue until I shot her my best try at a glare, though my heart wasn't in it. I hacked up a last chunk of something I should never have put in my body in the first place, found a little more strength somewhere inside, and pushed off the corner to stand more or less solid on my own four hooves.
"There's one sort of pony you never want to cross and leave alive, Pink-E --- a professional bounty hunter. I took a contract. And..."
I blew out in a long sigh, snuffing the last of my resistance to this madness.
"I made a promise. I did. I broke it. So I'll fix it." I told her where to wait and watch for me, checked my PipBuck, and headed back towards the Atomic Bronco. They'd taken my guns when I trotted in yesterday, and I was going to need those back...
Footnote: Level Up.
Skill Note: Survival (25)