CHAPTER NINE: Boom-and-Zoom
"Junior Speedsters are our lives! Sky-bound soars and daring dives...!"
Zoom! Pink-E blew past as I exited the elevator. "Come back here! I'm responsible for you!"
Zoom! Three seconds later, a blur resembling Tag-End went by. "Y'want bucked inna face? Try grabbin' my hooch again!"
Zoom! Aaaand there went Pink-E. "Look me in the eye and say that!"
Zoom! And Tag. "Aw, hell naw! M'not fallin' for that one after las' time!"
In the few hours I'd been away, the Lucky Chance's Celestial Suite had become Bedlam.
There was no free-standing furniture that hadn't been knocked over. Puddles of exotic liquor, decorated liberally with broken glass, were everywhere. The kitchen's toaster oozed something black and smoking which had probably never been bread-related to start with. Ferns and soil from half of the pillar-planters were scattered all over the carpets. Through this mess galloped Tag-End, a bottle of something bile-green held telekinetically aloft as he charged past a third time, Pink-E still hot on his fetlocks. From the look of it, the chase had been going on long enough to start wearing a circular track in the carpet.
This situation clearly called for just a teensy bit of tact and diplomacy.
Given the day I'd had so far? My head reared back:
"What in the wide, wide, world of Equestria is a-goin' on here?!"
Both up them pulled up short, Tag staggering to a halt with some effort while Pink-E's hover servos made the highly unlikely noise of rubber screeching against pavement. She peered at me dubiously.
"Equestria isn't a world, it's a country! That'd be like, I dunno, calling the planet Germaney or Fancee - "
I cut the little 'bot off before she could get started. "Like I give a shit what the planet's called! What do - "
Now Tag cut ME off, giving Pink-E a bleary-eyed gaze. "I tho' it was Equestria, too. Whassit called if s'not Equestria?"
I glared at him. "That's not important - "
Pink-E happily indulged Tag's sudden attack of drunken curiosity. "Earth!"
Which, naturally, made him even more confused. "Whaddya mean, like... dirt?"
"Yeah! Because it's mostly dirt! Like in this one pageant they used to have, where -"
A few moments of rummaging around in my saddlebags produced the collar's control key, which I held up in my teeth while giving Tag-End a look promising raw murder. Pink-E yammered on for a few moments until she realized that the unicorn had, appropriately, shut the fuck up. I spat the control back into the bag and rubbed my face, grimacing. Yup. That's definitely a migraine coming on.
"Okay now... I only came back to grab my kit and head back out to see about the Zoomers, and here you two've been ripping the place apart. If it takes me until morning to get back, should I be expecting, oh, something on the order of spray-painted graffiti and torn-up corpses? Because this is about as close to a raider's playground as I even want to think about living in!"
Tag managed to look abashed. Pink-E didn't have to try very hard; she was already quite experienced in configuring her programming to look miserable when I was around.
"I'm sorry, Cherry..." squeaked the little 'bot. My headache spiked.
"And stop calling me Cherry! I hate that name, always have! My name is Dead-Shot! Because I'm a damned good sniper --- not a snack food!" Her starting in with the Weepy Face wasn't helping my headache one bit, either. "And stop looking at me like that. It's..." I squeezed my eyes closed in a vain effort to dull the throbbing pain behind my sinuses. "It's just been a long day already."
Pink-E obediently ceased and desisted from venting her robot tear ducts, switching to a look of what I supposed was meant to be motherly concern. "Do you want to talk about it?"
I shook my head. "No time. It's a fair trot out to Zoomer-land as it is, and I can't take either of you along."
Tag shrugged, a motion which caused the still-inebriated unicorn to stagger in place for a moment. "No... ssskin off my nose. Plenny t' do right here." Levitating the bottle to his lips, he took a unhealthy swig of whatever the hell that green stuff was. Pink-E gave him the stink-eye and opened her mouth.
"Don't even start with him, 'bot. He didn't make you any promises, did he?" Her muzzle went contrite.
Tag's, conversely, adopted a smirk. "Thass right, you ain't the bossa me..."
A moment later I had the collar key back out of my bags and was flipping it up to Pink-E, who caught it deftly in her mouth. "Now she is." The lime-green buck's expression drooped. "Don't give me that look, either. This is your mess. Clean it up before I get back or I'll be looking for a new apprentice --- and you'll be finding a new owner, somewhere a lot less cushy."
Tag's look of sudden comprehension couldn't have been improved unless you installed a light-bulb over his head. You could almost hear the alcohol-sodden gears clicking into place: Shitting where I sleep is a bad thing!
My mood and migraine both lifted a bit. "I don't mind if you hit the bottle now and again, Tag. But keep it easy. If this stuff runs out, I won't be buying any more --- you will, out of what you earn while working with me. Otherwise, just keep this place straightened out, and we won't have any problems."
The unicorn looked around despondently at all the smashed bottles and sopping puddles slowly soaking into the carpet. The only way he was going to enjoy that alcohol now was if he got down on his knees and started sucking. "Ssssure thing, boss."
Pink-E beamed, Tag's key poking from the side of her mouth. " 'M rshpns'ble!"
* * * * *
It never seemed to fail: anytime I started feeling better about the world and its inhabitants, somepony did something to piss me off. Or in this case, to piss on me.
The Zoomers were doing thunderstorm practice.
Most folks considered Zoomer storms the one decent thing pegasi ever did for anypony in the Moohave Wasteland. Every month or so, a mess of 'em would fly up and start shuffling clouds around, seeding and packing them into full-fledged thunderstorms before letting them drift off their little reservation. Otherwise, the desert would have been a lot drier and less hospitable than it was even now.
That knowledge didn't make wading through a downpour any happier of an occasion. Water hammered down from the sky in near-solid sheets, turning the Imperial 93 slick where it was still asphalt and muddy where the NCR had patched it up with dirt. Behind me, the fortified junction of the I-93 and I-95 had already faded into the rain, along with its little trading post. Not even the shot of whiskey I'd taken at its pole-and-tarpaulin excuse for a bar (strictly for medicinal purposes, I silently promised the little Pink-E in my head) had done much to warm me up.
It was cold, it was almost dark even before the storm rolled in, and rain was soaking through the brim of my stormchaser hat. I was also reminded, by the cold dripping across my withers, that I'd once again forgotten to patch the holes in my threadworn poncho. Or, you know, actually just buy a new one on the way out of town. With more than fifteen thousand caps to my name, it wasn't like I couldn't afford nice things anymore.
Well, nothing for it now. I was already coming up on the first craters pockmarking what was left of the Imperial 93. Not that the NCR had ever maintained much of it north of "Firebase 188", since they had no interest in sending troops in that direction --- yet. If anything was true about the NCR, it's that if they saw something of value, they went after it sooner or later. If the Herd hadn't presented a far larger threat, Nellie AFB would probably have been overrun by Republican commandos by now.
A look to the sky showed nothing. It's hard to see anything with water slamming into your face, but even if that hadn't been true, the cloud cover completely blocked out the moon and stars. A pegasus could be flying six lengths overhead, and I wouldn't see a thing even with my uncanny night vision.
What worried me was that I had no idea how well the pegasi could see in these conditions.
Nellie AFB was an old-world military complex, one of the farthest outposts of the original Equestrian armed forces, and from anything anypony could tell, it had completely escaped the destruction of Booms-Day. Horse's top-down images (from a pegasus on the inside?) had confirmed that much, if nothing else. Two centuries later, nopony even knew if Nellie's pegasi were somehow affiliated with the so-called "Grand Enclave". Traders from the ruins of Manehattan and Hoofington often spoke of the Enclave as a major power, but as far as anypony this far west was concerned, they weren't much more than rumor material.
The Zoomers were definitely not a rumor, and I was in no mood to take chances on whether or not they had scavenged any infrared or low-light gear --- or even just had a pony or two on the perimeter who counted themselves friends of Nightmare Moon.
Slithering into the first substantial crater, I made my way carefully along the inside rim to maximize what concealment the shallow, muddy pit could offer. Its puddles were brackish, frigid and filthy, but did a great job covering my pink hide with harder-to-discern earth tones that nearly matched my mane and tail. When I'd gone the crater's length, I belly-crawled to the next closest of its kin.
One of my ears twitched, wrapping around to slap me in the eye. I growled with annoyance and pushed it back into place, only to have my knees start shaking. I glared at the offending appendages, blinking hard against a fresh eye-twitch.
Okay, okay, I get it. I'm nervous. Here I am, trying to sneak through no-pony's-land at night in terrible weather. I have every right to be nervous. But this is the worst time and place to let myself go to pieces!
Fortunately, that seemed to be the end of it. Before long I was nowhere near the road, slinking from crater to crater, angling towards the base's perimeter chain-link fence and ignoring the persistent twitch developing in the base of my tail. My fervent hope was that anypony watching for intruders would have their eyes on the road and front gate. No sane pegasus would be trying to fly through this drench-party, that's for sure...
A sharp whistling noise was my first reminder that pegasi were not known for being terribly rational.
S.A.T.S.! Now! The world stopped cold.
I could see individual raindrops hanging in the air --- and, as I looked up, my heart damn near joined the rest of the universe in stillness. A goggled face glared down, framed by outstretched wings and forehooves. The rest was clad in a solid-black bodysuit, blending almost perfectly against the storm-choked sky, the only spots of color being silver lightning-bolts sewn to its cuffs. The beginning of a rainboom ring was already forming in the pegasus' wake --- and he was still moving, albeit slowly.
Still too fast for my taste! I had zero chance of getting out of the rainboom's blast radius, but the pegasus had made one small mistake by coming in from almost directly above. He'd been expecting to take me completely by surprise, or that I would try to run for it, or maybe he was just a little too green for his own good. Whichever it was didn't really matter at the moment... I needed to get directly beneath him!
Inventory, inventory --- I still had those chems I'd promised I was going to sell instead of use, what were they? If it was a choice of a crying Pink-E or a dead Cherry (Dead-Shot!), the decision was a no-brainer, but what did I... ah! Scrolling through the list showed some Buck (nope), Stampede (nope), did I have any Dash? Nope! ...wait.
What was "Turbo"? Was that even a chem...? *click*
Suddenly every nerve in my body sang out a need... a need for speed.
Mud under my hooves? No problem. Rain slashing my face? No problem. Goggle-eyed pegasus bringing multicolored death from the sky? No problem! I shot out of the crater like I had rockets strapped to my flanks, reaching the eye of the rainboom just as the pegasus broke away at a perfect right angle back into the storm.
Every color of the spectrum blasted outward with blinding vibrance, shattering the ground below my hooves into a fine spray of mud trailing after its circular wake. Behind that thick brown wave, I galloped like mad, stretching my legs over ground stripped level and dry by the expanding ring of rainbow destruction. Even the rain was smashed back, by the sheer vehemence of destruction, into a brief-lived bubble which I sailed right on through.
In those long, glorious seconds, I could outrace the wind. Every muscle sang with joy, glad to be called upon for the test, reaching towards breaking-strain; my mane and tail flapped behind like personal battle flags, my nostrils snorted hot breath. A strange sensation descended, of ghostly ancestors from down the ages matching my strides in a great communal outswelling of pure motion --- a sudden epiphany that, somehow, this was everything a pony was meant to be.
Then that brief burst of turbo-speed departed, leaving me stumbling headlong for a bare second before a second rainboom's blast front smacked me dead in the ass. Two pegasi had bracketed me; I'd charged into the eye of the 'boom to my front. It had just taken a bit for the one in back to catch up, and when it did, the ground lit up and blew away from me.
* * * * *
The filly's voice came as a tiny, distant whisper. "Is he dead?"
Her friend's reply was only slightly less so. Sounded like a colt. "I don't think so. Breathing doesn't count as 'dead', does it?"
"Well, maybe he's mostly dead?"
Survival instinct demanded that I at least open my eyes to assess the tactical situation. The rest of me demanded to know what my instinct planned to do with that information, given the widespread damage reports arriving at my brainstem every other nanosecond. There was, however, a general consensus between the two parties that my PipBuck should shut the hell up with its reminders that I'd suffered crippling injuries in a variety of places. WE KNOW!
"You kids back away from that dirt-pounder! Now!" Definitely an adult. Female, probably armed, and most definitely not happy to see me.
"Awww!" Deprived of their curio of the moment, the two audibly scampered away. A hoof prodded me in the side, creating a sharp lancing pain, which at least reassured me that particular rib was merely broken instead of shattered. Even if I'd thought playing dead might have been a good idea --- and I didn't --- my body's decision to release an anguished groan would have betrayed me.
"Good. You're alive and in pain. Mother Matrix would be disappointed if you were dead, and I'd be disappointed if you weren't suffering for what you've done."
Ignoring Bitchy-Bitch for the moment, I brought up S.A.T.S. and went to work on myself. It was too bad that I had no real remedy at the moment for my broken bones, but I'd be damned if I wasn't at least going to load up on some Med-X to dull the pain. Two syringes fed my PipBuck's internal needles, bleeding sweet relief through my bloodstream. Queuing a pair of healing potions up after that started me on the road back to where I'd been prior to discovering the wonders of involuntary flight.
Another prod, this one more a kick, but all I did was grunt with annoyance now. The Med-X had done an admirable job of silencing the new howls echoing through my nervous system. "Fuck off, Mom. I wanna sleep in."
The following punt drove the air from my lungs and rolled me onto my side. Robbed of the ability to grunt now, I settled for glaring up at a teal pegasus wearing --- oh. The black uniform and its lightning-bolts were unmistakably those of my airborne assailant. Her night-vision goggles were slid up onto her forehead, under-lighting a forelock with dim shades of green set against the imposed greys of moonlight.
Moonlight? The storm had already moved along to the south, clearing the sky for Lady Luna to cross overhead with her stellar consorts. The poetry inherent to the vision might have had more impact on my brain, if it hadn't been starving for air at the moment. I gasped hard, producing a giggle from my tormentor --- with a vicious edge to it.
"Not so tough as all that, are you? You're just lucky you landed on the foal pads."
Foal whatnow? My neck being one of the few unbroken things left in my body, I hazarded a look around. I'd landed smack on top of a pile of old mattresses, one of many spread across a wide section of tarmac in rather specific-looking patterns. Two lengths in any given direction and I'd be a pony pancake. Lucky for sure...
Three other pegasi came running up out of the darkness, one dressed in doctor's whites, the other two wearing battle saddles with an assortment of implements of destruction --- all pointed at me, naturally. Something struck me as really peculiar about the scene, but I couldn't put my hoof on it at the moment.
"This'll hurt for just a moment. Hang in there," muttered the doc, shoving a syringe into my flank.
Soothing heaviness fell over me like a blanket. "Oooh, thanks --- that's even better than the Med-X..."
There was a pause. "...Med-X? Who here gave him Med-X?" A muttering of denials filtered through the cottony sensations filling my ears. "Well he can't bloody well dose himself with his legs bent like that --- oh, crap. He's got a PipBuck?!" My vision went dark. Something was wrong. But then, something was always wrong... "Get over here! Grab this! Now stand back --- CLEAR!"
* * * * *
"...picked 'im up and chucked 'im like a foal's feedin' dish!" Laughter.
"That's enough out of you lot. Don't you all have patrols to fly?" Grumbling, a shuffling of hooves, door slamming.
I could barely feel anything, inside or out. My eyes blinked open, but everything remained dark. "Whuth'ell'joodoo't'mee..." And apparently my tongue was half-dead, to boot.
"Dammit, what are you doing awake? Close your eyes, you'll burn them out staring into the lamps."
"Can'see'thng..." I struggled to move my head, or anything, but came up against firm restraints. I'd've started panicking, but that seemed like more trouble than it was worth at the moment. My thoughts squirmed through a muzzy backfield of internal noise.
"Of course you can't see." A moist towel was laid over my eyes. "Mixing Cloudpack and a double-dose of Med-X could have killed you outright. Instead, you've gotten off light with heart palpitations followed by a mild stroke, which would still have killed you if I hadn't been there to stabilize your would-be corpse."
More shuffling, this time from a single set of hooves. Clinks and plinks, doctor's tools being dropped into bowls and onto trays. I held my tongue, since it wasn't behaving anyway.
"Pulse: normal... heart rate: acceptable... ganglion response: nominal conductivity... I'll have you know this is no matter of pure-hearted charity, by the by. Were it up to me, I'd have had you thrown right back over the perimeter fence. But orders are orders..."
A needle pricked my right foreleg. I hissed sharply, more out of surprise than at the slight infliction of pain.
"Ah, good, the return of nerve synchronization. You should be just fine by the time you wake up." A sigh from the darkness. "If only I could say the same for everypony else..."
* * * * *
Waking up to shouting is rarely a good thing. Especially when there's a lot of it.
"Back up! Back up! Make a hole!" Ah, Bitchy-Bitch again.
"You back up! No dirt-pounders in the sanctuary!" Dozens of voices took up the chant. "NO! DIRT! POUNDERS! IN THE SANC-TU-ARY! NO! DIRT! POUNDERS! IN THE SANC-TU-ARY!"
"Orders of Mother Matrix! Back the hell up!"
"Rule Thirty-Four stands! He cheated!"
Now came the sound of several battle saddles being cocked and locked. "Enough! That's for Mother Matrix to say, not you!"
As the shouting and chanting died down into grumbling and vague threats, somepony rolled me forward. I was still strapped into the gurney, but the towel over my eyes had been replaced with a too-tight blindfold that was working a number on my returning migraine. Crawling around in puddles at night during a thunderstorm had done my head no favors, nor had being blasted however far the rainboom had "chucked" me. On the plus side, feeling had returned to my extremities, and it didn't feel like anything was still broken. Whatever Cloudpack was, it sure worked!
A door opened, and I was hustled through as some ponies made a sudden attempt to surge forward. Scuffling and renewed shouting broke out, then was cut off by the slamming door. A click, a sigh, and my gurney started moving again.
I might've been curious as all hell, but I wasn't going to say so. Wherever we were going, we'd get there soon enough, and whoever was wheeling me along, it wasn't likely that they were empowered to negotiate my release. All I could do was relax, listen, and wait.
The gurney's creaky wheels rolled along a very smooth floor, echoing their racket from distant walls. I was no expert at gauging distance by sound, but I was pretty sure this was one of the Zoomers' airfield hangars. We eventually slowed to a halt, orderlies to either side adjusting the gurney. Three sharp jerks later I found myself lifted up, rotated into a half-upright position, and slid sidewise into --- something that made me feel just a little bit claustrophobic.
Coffin-style claustrophobic, in fact.
"Is he stable? Please say 'no'... I'd hate to waste this on a wastelander," grumbled Bitchy-Bitch.
Doctor Feel-Good was all business: "Healthy as a buffalo. For what that's worth. Now let's check his PipBuck..." I could feel somepony's hoof picking at the device's buttons but, still being strapped down, I couldn't do much about it.
Except bitch, that is. "Whaddya think you're doing with that?"
"I'm making sure you haven't 'accidentally' dosed yourself with something again before putting you under. Last thing anypony needs, including you, is a lot of flailing around while you're inside." He didn't even pause in his button-pecking.
I could try stalling, too. Weren't mad doctors supposed to take moments like these to explain whatever they had in mind to their curious victim? "Inside? Inside what? What are you plotting at here, doctor?"
"Shush. It''ll be over before you know it."
Or complaining! There was always complaining! "Could you at least take off this blindfold? It's too tight! It's chafing my temples; why do I have to wear it if I'm going inside something?" I threw in a little creative wiggling, which was all I could manage against my restraints anyways.
The master of passive-aggressive warfare, I was not. "You're fine." He clicked one more button, and a newly-familiar sensation flooded into my system from the PipBuck on my foreleg. "Bon voyage...!"
Something softly clicked into place over my head...
>>> oOo <<<
Everything was white and blue. Relentlessly so.
But then, that was probably to be expected of an environment completely made up of cloud-stuff hanging in an endless sky.
The giant stadium was laid out as an oval surrounded by high-stacked seating for an audience that could have numbered in the thousands, if there'd been any audience at all. Decorative pillars and arches, a bit reminiscent of the Velvet Stocking's interior, lent a feeling of style and grandeur to the place --- like big things were meant to happen here. Colorful pennants flapped from tall colonnades, providing the only sound other than the wind whistling by. All in all, it was pretty damned impressive...
And then I made the mistake of looking down.
Vertigo nearly pitched me over the edge into azure infinity for several very long moments, until I finally managed to coax my shaking legs into a hasty retreat. Immediately after which harrowing experience with near-death, I was treated to the most annoying laugh I'd heard since Pink-E.
"BWAAA-hahahahahaha! Oh, you should see your face right now!" I flushed with heat, spinning about to angrily confront...
...possibly the goofiest-looking pegasus my drug-addled brain could come up with at the moment.
For a start, she was a bright cyan, of the shade only seen at the very top of the welkin on the hottest, clearest days of summer. Her eyes were a stunningly unlikely shade of violet, bordering on amethyst, with thick lashes crinkled up in laughter, and her mane --- was dyed up like a goddamn rainbow. At the moment, I wanted to rip that stupid mane off and feed it to her.
Laugh at me? I wrath at you! I didn't know where I'd heard that, but the advice seemed sound enough...
The arrogant pegasus grinned down from her seat on a cloud-throne set atop a raised dais of clouds, itself perched on an island of --- okay, yes, everything here was made of clouds, all right already --- in the middle of the coliseum's so-called floor. "So you think you're tough? So you think you've got what it takes?"
I glared back up at her. "How about -"
In an instant, she'd shot down off the dais to hover with her muzzle damn-near pressed into mine. "Well, listen up, buck, because this mission's vital to the security of Equestria, and you've been drafted!"
Reflexively in part, and partly because I really wanted to anyway, I swung on her --- and connected with air, stumbling off-balance into the bargain. She was already "marching" away from me in mid-air on her hind legs, forelegs behind her back and similarly-prismatic-tail held high like she was addressing troops. Odds were, she hadn't even noticed my horrible failure of an assault.
"It will be dangerous! It will be deadly! It will test you to your absolute limits! But I know you have it in you..."
Monologuing with her back to me? GOOD. A brief charge to build up speed, a flying tackle --- and I hit open air again, shortly before my face hit the first steps up the all-too-solid dais. Pain and stars exploded inside my migraine-afflicted skull. AUGH! I thought clouds were supposed to be SOFT! I barely managed to get back on my hooves and wave the stars away by the time she sat back down on her throne to face me again.
"...because only the finest master ninja could possibly have snuck past my loyal legions onto Nellie Air Force Base!" She leaned forward and grinned expansively, those amethyst eyes glittering with excitement. "Now tell me all about how you did it!"
I looked down at the clouds I was standing on as though I could see the ground through them, far far below. "First, why don't you tell me why a non-pegasus isn't plummeting to whatever doom this place has in store for ponies that aren't supposed to be able to fly?"
She flipped her mane and snorted, like she was talking to an idiot. "You're not falling through, because nopony programmed the pod for anything but a pegasus. Computers don't know that you're not just a pegasus who was somehow born without wings. Guess you're not one of those egg-head types --- which is fine, 'cause obviously you're sneaky. And we need sneaky, not smart. Just... don't do anything really stupid, like step off into the wild blue yonder, okay?"
I'd figured as much. Nellie's pegasi had strapped me into one of those virtual-reality pods, of the kind the NCR was rumored to use for training its most elite troops. I'd always kind of thought the idea was a load of brahminshit --- magical orbs were used to capture the memories various ponies had of a given environment, then placed in an array from which a computer would develop a consensus view. A senses-deadening pod was then built around the array, with a reclining couch for the viewer to rest in while a magical headband fed the computer's data directly into their brain.
Using such pods, soldiers could be taught tactics and strategy "the hard way" --- by giving them experience on a battlefield which wouldn't actually kill them. While I had to admit all of that sounded really cool, what sounded even better was my own memory of a standing NCR bounty for recovery of VR pods, intact or otherwise. A grin crept across my face.
As with Pink-E, Whoever-This-Cunt-Was thought I was grinning at something she'd said.
"Awww, yeah, I see that smile! Thinking about doing it anyway, huh? You've got guts, I'll say that. And maybe guts is enough. That and being sneaky, of course! So, like I said --- tell me how you got here." Now her chin was propped up on a forehoof whose elbow was resting on an arm of the throne, a bored tyrant looking for amusement from a would-be jester.
Not today. "Two of your night flyers came at me with tactical rainbooms. I made it into the eye of one, but not the other. I'm told it kicked my ass clean over your perimeter fence, far enough that I landed on a bunch of old mattresses. Stuck the landing with nothing more than a lot of broken bones and a shitload of pain, so I doped myself up to kill it, and then your doctor shoved a needle in my flank that damn near polished me off. That's the story."
The mare produced an expression that fell neatly onto the border between Surprise and Letdown. "Well... I guess... that's kind of awesome..." She looked around, as though hoping another candidate for her "vital mission" would materialize from thin air.
When none did after a minute or so, she hung her head and gave a low sigh. "Okay, okay, if you're all I get to work with, fine." Suddenly, she perked up and smiled. "Then again, it's not like I haven't had competitions turn out weird before... maybe you'll turn out to be a turtle! Heh... a ninja turtle. That'd be all kinds of awesome right there."
I peered dubiously at the overly-colorful mare. "A what?"
"Turtle. You know, short li'l guys, stubby legs, thick protective shells, cute little beady eyes..."
"I think you mean tortoises."
"Whatever..." She rolled her eyes and sighed again, more heartfelt this time. "I miss Tank."
I cocked my head to the side. "I take it that's a 'who', as opposed to a 'what'?"
She nodded; red, orange and yellow forelocks bounced in sympathy. "Yeah. He was a feisty li'l guy. Never quit, even when I ordered him to. He stuck it out to the end. Kinda like an earth pony, I guess, who doesn't give up after he gets blasted a good quarter-mile or so. That's how far it is from the fence-line to the nearest foal pads. So I'm declaring you the new Tank."
I rolled my eyes. "Name's Dead-Shot."
A grin. "Sure thing... Tank."
My eyes narrowed. "And you'd be Mother Matrix?"
She shrugged and settled back on her throne, making a show of wing-preening. "That's what they call me."
"Did your parents seriously stick you with that name, or did you just make it up all by yourself?"
"It's more of a title ---" She did an impressive double-take, snapping her head back around to re-focus on me. "Wait. You don't know my real name?"
She leaned forward. "You don't know who I am?"
I took a step back, suddenly self-conscious about the potential tactical error of offending what might well be some wanna-be goddess with delusions of grandeur, or maybe an artificial intelligence bent on proving it was a real pony, in a virtual universe that it probably had direct control over. "Ah... this is where you tell me you're a pony everypony should know, right?"
The pegasus leapt straight up out of her throne into the air with a wild cheer. "Woo-hoo! Finally, somepony who doesn't know who I am! YyyyyyyyyyYYYYES! This. Is. AWESOME!"
The stands suddenly populated with throngs of cheering, happy, healthy pegasi, the tops of the colonnades exploded with fireworks that seemed to threaten their pennants with incineration; patriotic music blared from hidden speakers all around. And then for the next thirty seconds, I was treated to the most amazing acrobatic airshow I'd ever seen. Well, actually, the only airshow I'd ever seen, but still...!
She was wild energy, tethered by pure ebullience and joy, bound up only by wings with which to cut the sky. All of this might have been a simulation, a computer's networked dream, but she? She was not. Speed, gravity, inertia, acceleration, shearing planes of force intersecting and opposed to one another --- these were the paints she applied to the canvas of her virtual world. I can tell you she looped into a barrel-roll, pulled out of it with a snap turn followed by a wingover, and then swooped to shoot straight past me with what she loudly proclaimed to be "The Buccaneer Blaze" --- but that would be like describing a desert sunset to a blind foal.
When the actinic explosion of the "Blaze" finally stopped dancing in my eyes, the cyan-blue pegasus with the unlikely mane stood so close that I could feel her post-exertion breathing.
"So yeah. I'm 'Mother Matrix'. And when you get back, the code phrase is 'Bet Big'. Seeya around, Tank."
I blinked again, this time with shock, as she leaned in and playfully kissed me on the nose.
<<< oOo >>>
"Aaaaand he's out. Pop the top." A soft hiss of escaping air; apparently these things were airtight? The blindfold came off, and I found myself blinking hard with my real eyes against the floodlamps lighting the inside of a hangar.
So I guessed right, for once...
Doctor Feel-Good leaned in, shone a smaller light directly and briefly into each of my eyes, and prompted a round of cursing from me which he entirely ignored. "Dilation's a little off, but it looks like the dosage was spot-on otherwise. He's lucid."
"Good." Bitchy-Bitch didn't sound like she meant it one little bit. "You two, stand by." Then her face replaced Feel-Good's, those goggles still underlighting a mane which --- oh, hey, it was actually gray-on-white. It hadn't just been a trick of the moonlight. "Code phrase. What did she tell you?"
A snarky response would have felt very nice right now. The expression on her face, though, made it seem like she was actually hoping for one. Not the time for fun and mind-games... "She said to bet big. Whatever the hell that means."
Bitchy facehoofed. I couldn't see, but could actually hear, both of her guards doing the same.
Feel-Good stopped whatever he was doing with the pod out of my sight and rushed back to stare at me. "You're positive that was it?"
Bitchy wasn't having any of it. "He didn't stutter, Doctor. But I'm pretty sure I misheard him." He shifted that glare back down to me. "Or maybe HE misheard HER. I'm SURE she told him the phrase was 'CASH OUT'. Wasn't it, you little earthworm?"
The good Doctor actually shoved her back from me. "Shut up and get out of here! And take your goon squad with you! You know the rules!"
"We can't risk the Mother on this wad of Flim-Flam Flux! Look at him! It has to have been a glitch in the system!"
A warning growl was Bitchy's reward for that line. "IF that is true, then the Mother's matrix is further gone than we can afford. Unless you have another Rule Thirty-Four candidate in mind...?"
"There's no reason we can't just storm the casino and take what we need - "
"You mean, aside from Rules One, Two, Three, Fifteen and Forty-Seven? We've had this debate before!"
I cleared my throat.
Both pegasi instantly turned on me and shouted, in perfect chorus: "WHAT?!"
"The restraints are kinky and all, but lying here like this is killing my ass. Plus I'm starving. Can we fight this out over breakfast or something, like civilized raiders?"
* * * * *
The nearest mess-hall, it turned out, was directly attached to the hangar itself, which served mainly as shelter for two dozen pods identical to the one I'd been crammed into. A sign over the back of the doorway read, in faded black lettering: Avionics / Tactical Assessment Bay - Epsilon Clearance Required.
Before Bitchy's guards had a chance to shoo out the kitchen staff and cover up the few windows (obscuring what looked like a really beautiful post-storm rainbow in the sky beyond), I was already into what was left of the morning buffet, slapping spatula-loads of scrambled eggs and wheat toast as high as I could onto a clean plate. Bitchy and Feel-Good actually got into line behind me, patiently waiting their turn until I'd taken what I wanted, but "hunger" won out over "opportunity to screw with these guys".
A minute later we were all seated around a small round table, me swallowing only slightly faster than I could shovel it in and the others pecking dispassionately at the few scraps they'd taken for themselves.
"So," said Bitchy, pushing her plate aside and folding her forelegs atop the table. "She said to 'Bet Big'."
"Mm-hmph!" I managed around a mouthful of the best eggs I'd had in months. The cooks apparently used pepper sauce in their mix, giving the otherwise bland fare a nice sharp -
"Well, have fun with that. I hear the Casino Royale is particularly deadly this time of year."
- kick in the balls. I spewed what was in my mouth all over Feel-Good, who was still nibbling at some toast. Bitchy looked satisfied with my reaction, reaching across the table to tip my lower jaw shut with an evil grin, while the doctor scrubbed egg off his face with an air of disgust.
"Thaaaat's right, hot shot --- your webelos just went from frying-pan to fire. How d'ya like them apples?"
Feel-Good brushed the last bits of mess off his lab coat. "No need to taunt the help, Commander. I believe, while we're at it, introductions are finally in order." He gestured to Bitchy. "This here is Base Commander Loop DeLoup - "
"That's Air Wolf," growled Bitchy, "and you goddess-damned-well know it."
"I do not introduce ponies by their battle monikers, Commander," came the prim retort. "As for myself, I am Doctor Fly Right, Chief Medical Officer for Nellie Air Force Base. We serve Mother Matrix on behalf of her flock. And you are...?"
I worked for a moment at swallowing the last bits of egg still in my mouth before answering. "Dead-Shot. Bounty hunter and, at the moment, a messenger to you people."
"Pfft," snorted DeLoup. "Scavvers like you try to hit our fenceline at least three times a month, looking to sneak in and get out with whatever pre-War gear you can steal. You'll have to come up with a better story than that if you want to try yanking our wings."
I shook my head, tapped a sequence of buttons on my PipBuck, and let Mr. Horse's recorded voice speak his piece.
"Good day to you, residents of Nellie Air Force Base, and salutations. I would have spoken with you sooner, but you never pick up the phone, nor do you accept mail delivery. Forgive the small effort at humor; my name is Edwin Robert Horse, and I essentially own New Pegas. I would like to keep it that way."
Both DeLoup and Fly Right stared, eyes wide as dinner plates with surprise, as the recording went on.
"I have no designs on you or yours, but as you likely know, others do. The NCR considers your airbase a military asset to be seized when they can, and the Herd considers you a latent threat to be eliminated when conveniences allow. I therefore proffer an alliance of mutual defense, if not actual cooperation, presenting a stronger combined deterrence to any moves against the independence of either party. If this be amenable to your group, simply inform my messenger and release him with any instructions you may wish to include for further communications. We can work out the details at your convenience and leisure, but remember --- while I am a patient stallion, neither President Thimble nor the Herd's so-called 'Caesar' can be counted upon to wait forever."
The recording clicked over, starting to repeat itself, before I could kill it. Then I gave the two my best deadpan look. "Well?" They looked at each other, looked at me, and then at each other again.
Fly Right finally broke the silence. "Um... this has actually been a matter of some recent debate, actually..."
DeLoup smacked the table. "It has not been a matter of debate; Rule Six explicitly forbids taking sides in any external conflicts!"
The doctor facehoofed. "Self-defense is not a matter of taking sides - "
"It is if it means an alliance! Nellie flies alone, and if necessary, dies alone!"
"The Rules are meant to protect us, not lead us into blind suicide!"
"And you think Horse and his robot popguns won't throw us against one side or the other as cannon fodder?"
"This is not the time to argue, Commander! Mother Matrix has already made a decision about..." Fly Right stopped to look at me. "...the messenger..."
DeLoup sighed. "Fine. I suppose that'll settle the argument one way or the other."
I was getting a really creepy vibe here. "Maybe you two should fill me in on exactly what's going on."
Fly Right leaned in and folded his forelegs over, gazing intently at me. "The situation is this: when the world went balefire, Nellie AFB survived intact --- but with most of its systems blown. From what we've been able to tell through our own research over the centuries, it was deliberate sabotage, triggered by remote access from a linked network. When the 'Grand Pegasus Enclave' seceded from Equestria and ordered the recall of all 'loyal' pegasi, the military personnel here took what they could easily transport and left the crippled base behind --- but most of the civilians had grown up in and around New Pegas and refused to leave with them."
I nodded along, which seemed to satisfy him.
"The mare we call 'Mother Matrix' arrived shortly after that, gravely wounded. She slipped into one of the VR pods and activated its emergency stasis function, hoping to get well enough to eventually leave on her own. But the pods don't actually heal anything --- so she's been stuck in stasis like that, on the edge of death, for centuries. When the first few pegasi scavvers ventured onto the base and found her in there..."
DeLoup chipped in. "We couldn't just leave her. We all migrated to Nellie, formed a citizens' militia, and swore to protect her until we could find some way to get her out of there. She set up the Rules which keep us safe from outsiders, in turn." Her face went hard. "And since we can't move her pod without turning it off, we're not about to put her in danger for your damned alliance."
I rolled my eyes. "Then why didn't you just SAY 'no'? I'll go tell Horse the deal is off."
Fly Right shook his head emphatically. "We can't say 'no', or 'yes' for that matter. That's Mother Matrix's sphere of authority under Rule Ten. But her health is deteriorating. If you want any kind of deal, we have to save her life first --- and no regular Auto-Doc will do. We've already tried that, which is what triggered the deterioration in the first place." He gave DeLoup, who looked away and whistled for a moment, a dirty look.
Was that my migraine coming back already? I rubbed my face. "Soooo... let's see if I have this straight. You need a special Auto-Doc, from no less a place than the Casino Royale, so your 'Mother Matrix' doesn't drop dead in her pod, so she can agree or not agree to this alliance. You want me to volunteer for a suicide mission, just for a 'maybe'?"
The good doctor sighed, stood up from the table, and walked back towards the buffet, despite not having even finished what he'd taken. I was about to get back to work on my own now-cold stack of scrambled yellow heaven, but Commander Bitchy wasn't about to allow that without a good haranguing first.
"Maybe you didn't understand when Mother Matrix mentioned, as she does to anypony who qualifies as a Rule Thirty Four candidate, that you were drafted into her service. We're not asking you to do anything. You don't have a goddess-damned choice in the matter!"
I swallowed and glowered back. "Fuck your Mother, and fuck you. You can drop me off at the Royale, and then I can turn right the hell around and leave. That's my choice, if you really wanna push things, and you can bet your flank Horse won't be happy about - "
An injector into my shoulder, from behind. Of course. Why would the good doctor be going for any more food? I'd just fallen like a lead balloon for one of the cheapest distractions in the book. Which was also the way to describe how I hit the floor a moment after.
As the world faded out to black for the fourth time in one day --- frankly, I was getting kind of tired of it --- I felt something snick into place around my neck. Bitchy's voice was low, vicious, and altogether too satisfied-sounding.
"For once in your miserable little existence, earthworm, you're going to buck up and obey somepony's orders. My orders. And if not?... boom."
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Mysterious Stranger - Somepony's decided you need a little help every now and again, usually with a head-shot to whomever you're having trouble with at the moment. Who is this mysterious bell-ringer? Who? What is his purpose? What? How can he even DO that to a Behemoth? How? *WHACK* Ow! Hush, and Cloppin shall tell you...
Skill Note: Speech (25)