Chapter 19: The Mare Who Fell
"Do you really think friendships can last more than one lifetime?"
I needn't have worried that I might wake up in Rainbow Dash's bed.
Sometime after I crashed out, the drunken old bloodwing ended up crawling into mine!
It was more surprising that I slept at all, what with the New Coltifornia Auto-Axe Chorus sounding off right next to my ear. Or maybe not, considering it'd lost all hearing by now. My other was so deeply buried in the rare luxury of an actual pillow, I didn't realize I was being deafened until my uninvited visitor rolled over and smacked me with a wing.
For the record? Being startled awake by a faceful of feathers, accompanied by extremely loud noises, is not the best way to greet the morning sun. Between bedsheets, air time, and floorboards, I managed several choice expletives before my wakeup call ended with a solid whump of face to wood.
While I was still flailing around in the one sheet that had insisted on clinging to me, I heard Rainbow Dash yawn and start stretching her aged body through a cringeworthy crack-a-thon.
"Hope you didn't mind me sackin' out here last night, Tank. I was so blitzed, I couldn't find my own room..." There was a pop, and she groaned. "...oooh, there's a sensation I never thought I'd have. Figgered I'd be dead, looooong before I got to be a greymuzzle."
I finally kicked the sheet loose, muttered something even I couldn't understand through the ringing in my ear, and managed to get up on my hooves. Slogging my way into the small bathroom, I shook my head to clear the ringing while the pegasus worked out her kinks. Once my bladder and the toilet concluded their business, I turned to the stainless-steel sink and got some hot water going.
Either Rainbow Dash was big on maintenance, or military-grade piping and filtration was just that much better back in the old days, as the tap water was actually good. Most places, if the ancient valves worked at all, they brought up a silty, rusty gunk you had to filter before drinking, assuming it wasn't irradiated or tainted by magical residue. Whether from balefire fallout dating to the War, barrels of discarded waste, or a leaky old reactor seeping into the groundwater, looking for the rainbow sheen of contamination was Wasteland Survival Rule Number One.
In that respect, I'd been very fortunate during the last week's craziness. The Lucky Chance, Casino Royale, and even Vikeans had all provided near-limitless access to clear, fresh water. I tried not to remember the other source I'd recently been forced to rely upon... which, naturally, brought it straight to mind.
Soon I was drowning memories with clean heat, breathing steam into my sinuses, even indulging in a bit of gargling. Wow, how long had that been stuck in my back molars?! Ptui! A few deep breaths, and I almost felt ready to face another day of running around the Wasteland like the proverbial headless chicken. It was going to be a bit of a hike back down to the Imperial 93 and then into New Pegas...
"So. Tank." For an old flutterbutt, she sure could move quietly when she wanted to. I wiped a swath of the mirror clear, revealing an unkempt spray of silvered rainbow propped against the doorjamb. Its bangs hung low in her eyes, leaving only the slight backward tilt of an ear to suggest a mood.
"Dead-Shot," I reminded her without turning around.
"Whatever." She scuffed a gnarled hind hoof on the floorboards, her voice quavering perhaps a bit more than usual. "We talked a lot in our cups last night, didn't we?"
"Your cups. I made Pink-E a promise about chemming, which turns out to include booze." I cupped some water in my hooves, slicked it back into my mane, and scrubbed. "Recently, I've been trying to keep it."
"Right. Pinkie Promise. Got it." Did she say 'Pinkie' or 'Pink-E'? "And I told you about me and Gilda."
"A-yep. You did." I quickly quashed the images that'd sent me rolling around the floor last night, remembering the devastated look she'd given me. An old friend had tried to kill her, dying instead in literally craptacular fashion, but she still carried too much respect to laugh about it.
"Never told anypony about that. Not in all this time being 'Mother Matrix'. Not until you."
She'd kept it bottled up for that long... but a few drinks in the real world, and she's spilling her guts to me? The uncomfortable following silence begged somepony to belabor the obvious. "You don't seem too proud of it..."
Her head jerked up, fading forelocks flipping back to reveal angry amethyst irises. Angry amethyst irises... say that five times fast! The ear rotated sharply back, flattening out. "Of course I'm not! I can't think of a more disgusting way to go than... well, choking on a storm of horseapples! Gilda was my best friend growing up. She... she deserved better than that!"
I kept my voice and gaze as even as I could. " 'Deserved?' I thought you said she was trying to kill you."
Wrinkled eyelids scrunched shut on a misery that her voice tried to mask with anger. "Nothing else I tried... nothing even slowed her down, more than a few minutes. If I hadn't gone all out... if she hadn't pushed me to it... she made it out to be her, or me!" A frail foreleg stomped futilely.
"And you're kind of wishing it'd been you...?" The gathering steam was fogging up the mirror again, but I could still see her visibly deflate.
"...Yeah. I kind of am." We stood there for a minute, saying all the nothings that needed to be said.
"Must've been some good times," I finally offered. An acknowledgement of history lost; that was all I really had.
"Yeah," the ancient azure mare finally managed, letting go a sigh. "Good times. Once upon a time."
I let the fog overtake the scene.
* * * * *
With the Zoomers still leery of having their unwanted guests run around the base, the Vikeans had adopted the training hangar as temporary quarters. Provided with the basic hospitality of mattresses and blankets, they were mostly left to their own devices, so long as they didn't leave the building.
Except that even with Mother Matrix out of her pod and (theoretically) in medical care, nopony had thought to call off the daily simulator exercises she was no longer overseeing. Cadets kept coming in for their pre-training meals and then sat around fidgeting, waiting for orders, until their assigned time ran out.
Crag grinned a double-row of dragon's teeth across one of the mess-hall tables. Opposite sat a blue Shadowbolt, whose grey eyes were so wide her goggles could scarcely have covered them, had they not been pushed up into the wheat-colored expanse of her mane. The rest of the Zoomers on that bench, khaki'd and jumpsuited alike, were barely less impressed by his storytelling --- or maybe it was just that none had ever met a dragon who wasn't trying to kill them.
"Soon's we got the hatch off, I started frying that Dog up nice an' slow, right where 'e sat. You shoulda seen the bastard burn... screaming, still strapped in 'is seat, trying t' slap the flames outta his clothes." Harsh laughter growled up from the back of his throat. "Dragonfire don't work that way. It consumes. An' it keeps going 'til there's nothing left."
The lanky green leaned in a little closer, clearly enjoying their transfixed stares. His talons curled in the air, illustrating with small, economic motions as he went. "When it got into 'is fur, 'e started tearing 'is straps an' clothes off. Tried clawing past me. I kept 'im down in that lovely li'l oven with th' haft of my axe, good solid oak. Spent a year carving its runes with my own claws. It took 'im seconds t' make splinters outta it."
I wouldn't have thought his smile could get any toothier. "Then th' flames ate into 'is brain." I was wrong. "Never thotta mutt's dying screams could be so... musical." The tale being told, Crag settled back on his bench and made a show of cleaning his claws.
"You," Hard Way rumbled, poking the dragon's side with a hoof, "seriously need to get laid when we make port again."
The resulting cheers and jeers from his shipmates got nothing more than a grunt from Crag. The Zoomers, meanwhile, took the opportunity of distraction to get up and find another table, where they began whispering animatedly back and forth. Occasionally, one would shoot a skeptical glance back at the seated Vikeans. I couldn't very well blame them... who ever heard of Diamond Dogs bursting from the desert sands in giant mechanical contraptions? They'd have to be idiots to take Crag's story as more than a lost-Stable fable, but none were dumb enough to say so to the dragon's face.
Meanwhile, I plowed into yet another helping of scrambled eggs on toast, determined to get down as much free food as possible while the opportunity presented itself (and while nopony was lurking behind me with a syringe). I managed fifths before Rainbow Dash showed up, at last having made her escape from another of Fly Right's check-ups.
"AWRIGHT, YOU MANGY FLUFFERS! OUTSIDE ON THE DOUBLE! Your sergeants have your next assignments!"
Instantly the Zoomers dropped their conversations, zipped into an orderly line, and filed out under the old mare's watchful eye. When they were gone, she walked over and stood at the end of one table, casting her eyes over the lot of us. Unlike yesterday, she seemed to be in top condition for a pony of her age --- mane and tail combed out, hide clean and gleaming. She'd even taken the time to preen her wingfeathers. The undisputed leader of New Pegas' surviving post-War pegasi looked ready to take on the world.
"Lemme say, first thing, that I love your attitude. You Vikeans get things done, and you don't take any guff! Now that's the kind of can-do spirit I can get behind! Plus, from what Doc Right's told me, I owe you guys for getting Dead-Shot here back to Nellie in one piece, so he could save my neck."
Oh, so it's 'Dead-Shot' instead of 'Tank' now, is it?
She cleared her throat and continued. "So, I'm willing to let bygones be bygones..."
A big yellow fist slammed on the table, startling everyone. Even Hard Way looked taken aback.
The griffon stood, scraping the bench and everyone sitting on it back a pace. The brown plumage around his neck fluffed out comically... until I remembered what that meant, on a griffin. He planted his open talons on the table and, leaning forward, directed a gaze full of unblinking green hatred at Rainbow Dash.
"By-gones," he mocked, his beak twisting up into a cruel snarl. "Bygones, she says! There's barely a storm that's hit Lake Cider since the bombs, what didn't have pegasus hoof-prints all over it!" His sneer swiftly devolved into something much uglier. "A thousand sailors, sent to Vattengrav, for your fucking bygones!"
His only warning was an instant of talons, clenching on the tabletop for purchase, before launching himself right over the top at her.
Hard Way didn't need any more than that. With only a hoofs'-breadth separating griffon claws from pegasus jugular, the huge beige earth pony bodily tackled his first mate to the floor. Rainbow Dash fluttered backwards out of reach, the creases of her face slack with shock. The Vikeans scrambled to their respective hooves, paws or feet, spreading out into a semi-circle of gabbling confusion --- half seemed to be as edgy as Gore-Nest, while the others watched the scuffle (and their own ship-mates) warily.
Gore-Nest didn't resist, but he didn't relent, either. The restrained fury behind his voice was a sword-edge waiting to leap from the scabbard. "Kapten Way, the First Mate requests permission by blood and honor to eviscerate this mass-murderer."
Dashie's eyes went wide with horror. "What... what are you talking about...?!"
Hard Way's voice held the eerie calm of a gathering storm front. "Permission withheld, First Mate Gore-Nest. We are going to hear this out, for all of Häsverige. The living, as well as the dead. Is that clear?"
"Centuries' worth of blood, Kapten - " The griffon's growl was cut off by the resounding noise of his head being slammed into the floor, hard, once.
"I said, is that clear?" Despite the emphasis, only a bare hint of annoyance traced the Vikean war-lord's voice.
It was enough. "Aye... Kapten." Both of them stood up, Hard Way eyeing his first mate reproachfully, until the griffon's feathers finally unruffled and he stepped back to join the others.
"That goes for the rest of you," the stallion evenly intoned. "We all know how this began. When of old our longships would raid throughout the Moohave, we did not exclude the Zoomers from our reavings."
Rainbow Dash looked askance at me, mouthing: Zoomers? Really? Given their isolationism, I wasn't surprised nopony had told her what label the Great Western Wasteland had laid upon her people. I just nodded back towards Hard Way, who seemed to be getting into his little history lesson.
"My father told me of those days, as his father told him, and as his father told him. For a long time we Vikeans considered Nellie's defenses the ultimate challenge. Many of the sailors Gore just mentioned were lost in assaults on this very place. You might recall Sigmund's legend? How his lust for glory and gold led ten longships to destruction, smashed by spectral light dealt from above? We can hardly fault the Zoomers, for defending their territory and lives."
"Of course," he added, eyeing Gore-Nest once more, "it does not end there, does it?"
Heavy-clopping hooves paced back and forth before the Sjönhäst's survivors; thick brown braids swayed beneath the hex-wrench helmet. "Every time we were repulsed, it led us to redouble our efforts. We did not relent until the Year of Storms, and only then because we had no fleet remaining to attack with. While we rebuilt, our adventuring eyes turned southward, to the Minotaurs of the Macintosh Hills and Detrot's ruined wealth beyond."
He stopped in place, stomping one great hoof emphatically. "That is where our war with the Zoomers ended! A fight we picked, a fight we lost, no love lost since, no attempts to reconcile. Yes, they've heedlessly sent their gales into our waters from time to time. And every now and again, we've killed one of their strays for it."
Obediently they listened, but not happily. Nearly half --- Gore-Nest, Crag, and Bright Son --- were visibly simmering. I had no doubts that if Hard Way had ordered them to destroy the base and everypony on it, they would have gone to their death with smiles all around. Meanwhile Flap-Jack was wringing her talons again, Sun Bright was giving her brother worried glances, and the two ex-mercenaries, Typhoon and Ricochet, looked positively bored with both the tussle and the speech.
"Right now, we have a chance to change things for the better. That's worth more to our people than any blood-price we could name or claim." Done with proselytizing, Hard Way turned back to Rainbow Dash and politely tipped his helmet.
She blinked... looked at me... looked at Pink-E... and then, with wings flaring outward, dropped a knee.
No, not literally, sheesh! She wasn't that old!
"When your people attacked, I advised mine on their defenses. I couldn't see what was going on, but every detail was reported to me. I taught them how to pull off everything from the Sonic Rainboom to the Buccaneer Blaze, how to corral the thunderclouds, and how to strategize. The Year of Storms? That was my idea."
She stood up again, a fierce glow suffusing her expression. "And if you attacked us again, I'd order the same. We destroyed your ships at anchor, prevented you from building new ones, because you wouldn't quit otherwise. But I never ordered another attack after that. Whatever you've suffered at our hooves since, I'll work to make it right."
Crag snarled, "Like bringing back the dead?"
Even as Hard Way turned a baleful glare on him, Dashie shook her head. "No more than you can return my lost fliers. Are we square yet?"
The dragon didn't have a snappy comeback for that one. When no one else said anything, she nodded and kept on.
"But if there's anything we pegasi can do, it's weather-control." She reared up and punched one forehoof into the other for emphasis. "Heck, my first career was being Ponyville's weather-control manager! So besides just being careful that our storm practice never bothers you again, we can also keep wild storms away from your ships."
"Plus," she continued, "We know your territory's mostly beachfront and that long slope down to the highway, all of it pretty much useless for farming. You'll have had to raid, scavenge, or trade for anything but fish. Am I right?"
Collectively, the Vikeans nodded.
"Well, Nellie AFB's got plenty of open land, maybe half of which we farm to feed ourselves." An embarrassed look crept over her face. "Except, even after two centuries at it, we pegasi haven't really gotten much better at the whole 'seed the earth' thing. I'm kinda hoping your earth-ponies might have a natural knack for it. You know, like in the old days."
Crag squinted at the mare formerly known as 'Mother Matrix'. "Farmland for blood?"
Hard Way gave a diplomatic head-bob. "Warriors have often bled for less. I cannot speak for the other Houses of Häsverige, but House Way accepts... for, say, twenty percent and first pick of the offered plots?" He stepped forward, extending a hoof.
She beamed, returning a firm hoof-bump. "I'm totally cool with that."
* * * * *
She wasn't beaming any more.
Off at the main gate, Hard Way was giving the rest of the Vikeans his final orders and goodbyes. The plan was for them to get back and inform Häsverige about the Zoomers' peace offer, as well as the details of the Diamond Dog attack. Meanwhile, he would accompany Pink-E and I back to New Pegas for the ten thousand caps I still owed him for fishing me out of Lake Cider (a debt which continued to send my greedy little head-pony into fits of mane-tearing).
Rainbow Dash and I had hung back at the hangar to discuss a few things before parting ways, while Pink-E's decision to go investigate a bug in the kitchen fooled nopony. Those sensors could pick up a bloatsprite's fart from a mile away.
I let her go first.
"Like I said, I'll accept Horse's alliance, but not without conditions. First off, I need you to not tell Horse about me. As far as he needs to know, 'Mother Matrix' is in charge here and you never met her in person."
I gave her a sidelong look. "You realize he's my employer. I'm here on his business - "
She stopped me, pressing a withered hoof to my chest. "Tank. If he knows I'm the Mother, there won't be an alliance." The old greying mare let go a tired sigh. "Not only did my Ministry and his Office not get along, but I was in charge of clandestine operations for the whole country. If he knows Rainbow Dash is alive, and if he's anything like the buck I knew, it'll be war to the knife... whether to pick my brain for Ministry secrets, or just to kill off a potential threat."
I made the obvious observation. "You haven't killed me. We both know that'd be your easiest out."
A shrug. "Once upon a time, I'd've agreed. I've made that call before." The admission provided an utterly nonchalant reminder that Equestria had possessed a ruthless side, even before Balefire Day. Her eyes shifted towards the kitchen door.
"All of us did. We kept making the wrong choices, for what we thought were the right reasons. Ignored that the lesser of two evils is... well, still evil. Each bad decision took us further away from everything that made Equestria worth fighting for."
Those eyes came back to me, something twisting in torment deep beneath black pupils. "I got to see it all fall apart. Someone once told me, 'a weighty choice is yours to make, the right one or a big mistake'... I thought he was talking about what was happening right then. But that was the cruelest joke of them all... he meant the choices I'd make later. When it mattered more than a skyful of chocolate milk!"
Suddenly we were muzzle-to-muzzle, her forehooves gripping my shoulders. "I was the Bearer of the Element of Loyalty, Tank. Far as I'm concerned, I still am. That means doing better than taking the easy way out. The next time I see Pinkie Pie, I'm not gonna hafta tell one of my best friends of all time that I murdered her great-whatever-nephew."
She backed away, but those eyes never left mine. "If you want to tell Horse about me, I won't stop you. But you should know he took over Interministry in the last few months before the bombs fell. His predecessor ran the O.I.A. like his own little kingdom, complete with a big fat web of pet projects and conspiracies we were still uncovering when everything went hooves-up. It was plenty enough to convict for treason... and then, right after that, Horse finagled his way into the O.I.A.'s Directorship. I'm positive he was in the thick of it."
My brow furled in annoyance. "So what? That was hundreds of years ago. Everypony died --- present company excluded. Whatever plots he was into, back then, it's a whole new game these days. Or are we talking vendetta here?"
She gnawed thoughtfully at her lower lip before responding. "It'd be easy to say yes, I want payback. But what I saw coming out of the O.I.A.'s Hoofington mess was... bad. Really, really bad. And even before that, Horse totally stymied our Ministries from setting up Hubs in Neighvada. That took resources, contacts, a network all his own that I was never able to crack. The more I think about it, the faster I wanna find a working MAw network. If there even still is one...!"
A shiver, and then she shook out her mane, as though to shoo away bad memories. "No matter what else, Horse's still a big-time schemer. You're a useful chess piece, nothing more --- so if you're gonna work for him, watch that you don't end up on the bad end of a sacrifice play."
If I didn't already know how right she was (I'd never had any illusions about being indispensable to any of my employers), I'd have rolled my eyes. Paranoid or not, it was still good advice. "Okay, I'll keep your identity secret. You said that was the first thing. What's the second?"
"I also want an alliance with this 'New Coltifornia Republic' I've heard so much about. Without Horse knowing."
Oh, just drill me with a pitchfork, why don't you?! If I could have seen my own expression at that moment...
"And ponies in Fillydelphia want ice cream! If you know anything about Horse and the NCR, you know they don't get along real well. What am I supposed to do? Walk into the Embassy, right under Horse's nose, and say 'Mother Matrix sent me'? Maybe I should throw on a grass skirt, and do a Ponyesian Hula Dance while I'm at it!"
She snorted out a laugh. "If you do, I want pictures!"
Once the moment passed, she was right back down to business. "Look, I'll understand if you can't swing it, but I'd consider it a huge favor if you at least gave it your best shot. Maaaaaybe Horse's mellowed out after all this time. But if he hasn't, I'm going to need the NCR to prevent things from turning into an all-out massacre here. If it helps, feel free to drop hints of a link to the Ministry of Awesome here... since hey, I am one, right?"
That... could actually work, now I thought of it. The Republic desperately needed allies in the region, if for no other reason than being stretched too thin to handle what was already on its plate. Having the Zoomers turn from isolationist obstacle to active ally would be a significant win. And as an NCR citizen, I could at least get the idea as far as the Embassy receptionist.
If, that is, I could avoid looking like an uppity flunkie trying to put one over on his new boss. Horse's robot patrols were ubiquitous in and around New Pegas. Then again, I pride myself on being pretty sneaky for a pink pony...
"All right... deal."
"Great!" Her grin, replete with teeth which REALLY needed bridgework, was the scariest thing I'd seen all day.
Now, my turn. "Before I get going, though, I'd like a couple questions answered."
She nodded, dialing back to a regular (and thus not-so-horrific) smile. "Shoot."
"Number One: I thought stasis pods kept folks from aging?"
A snort of disgust momentarily blew aside her most prominent forelocks. "Not if you're conscious. If the brain's active, you can't be completely shut down, so you'll still age... just a lot slower, like eighty percent slower or something, according to the eggheads. The training pods weren't built to keep a pony in full stasis to begin with, so I was kinda stuck for the 'Granny Smith makeover' --- "
She stopped herself, then quickly shook her head. "Nevermind. You wouldn't've heard of her."
"Fair enough," I said, taking a seat and leaning back against its neighboring table. "Number Two: how about those Diamond Dogs?"
If she was trying to fake a blank look, she was doing a great job of it. "What about 'em?"
That was a wee bit disconcerting. "Your pegasi have been winging around Nellie for all this time, and you haven't seen any Dogs up to anything unusual? Even if they never wandered off the base, they must've seen something nearby..." I found myself holding back, wondering if she was doing the same.
"Yeah, a whole lotta nothing." Apparently not. "Seriously, we've got New Pegas off to the southwest, Lake Cider southeast, an occasional hermit shack, and that's it."
Then her eyes seemed to slip behind a layer of fog. "But yeah, I remember the Dogs, back before balefire. Ponies never had a particularly great relationship with 'em, y'know. Friend of mine got ponynapped, there was a whole lot of drama, yadda, yadda, yadda..." She twirled a hoof in the air, rocking her head back for emphasis.
"Still, when the War got really bad, we asked 'em to pitch in. Some did, but the rest decided they didn't want anything more to do with Equestria. They split up, one bunch settling in Splendid Valley back east while the other headed out west. Never heard anything out've the Western Dogs again, before or since I got in the pod."
Huh. Well, time to flip the last card. "So... nothing about Diamond Dogs lumbering around in giant, steam-driven mechanical monsters that walk on two legs, stomping ships into the dirt?"
Those violet eyes of hers went very, very wide. "Something that awesome is going on... and I don't know about it?!"
* * * * *
Apropos of nothing, it was storming as badly when I left Nellie Air Force Base as when I arrived. Zoomers still had storm practice to do, and the results had to go somewhere other than Lake Cider now, friendships and alliances be damned. My ratty old poncho hadn't improved its ability to keep rain out over the past week, so I was in something of a mood as Hard Way, Pink-E and I gallumphed our way back down to the Imperial 93. I tried not to take it personally, mulling over my last conversation with Rainbow Dash.
Rain pattered on my hat, collecting in rivulets that dripped from its brim. The regular rhythm seemed, similarly, to help in collecting my thoughts.
As soon as I'd mentioned the walker, she'd been all over me for the details of our battle with the thing. The very idea seemed to fire up her enthusiasm to new heights, but she definitely had nothing else on the Dogs. So far as she recalled, they'd always been a sort of tribal group, digging up and hoarding gems in large semi-organized packs, living most if not all of their lives underground.
But they'd never gone beyond that, so far as anypony knew. Strictly iron-age technology, no use of magic either natural or learned... unless maybe you counted how quickly they could dig through just about anything. Dashie'd said that some of the Eastern Dogs had been enlisted to help construct the Hoofington subway systems and such.
So what did I really know about the Western branch? Their most obvious face --- the one they openly showed to the world --- was the same schtick Rainbow Dash had described. Tribal, pack-like, intelligent but primitive.
When they thought no one else was looking, though, they adopted dapper clothing and mannerisms. A bit like old-world Unicorn society, really. They built complex machinery and weapons with a style both peculiar and distinct: Mouthkicker, Thunderchild, and the walker all put functionality first and ornamentation second. A variation on the so-called Earth Pony Way, for designs no pony was intended to wield.
Had the Dogs been ponynapping NCR citizens to design and make these things? With all the other ways a body could go missing in the Great Western Wasteland, a species capable of grabbing you from underground might pull that off with relative ease, and without being noticed besides. Considering Dashie's memory of how the Dogs had nabbed and enslaved her friend Rarity, the idea seemed to fit their long-standing modus operandi pretty snugly.
None of which suggested what, exactly, the Dogs I'd encountered so far were up to.
And they were definitely up to something. Why had they seized Slimm Pass? Had they been intending to cave it in, even before Pink-E and I stumbled across "Mister Pips"? What about the Dog in the Casino Royale --- the one who'd just called himself "Dog"? Why had he been looking to whistle God's tune, to begin with?
Maybe it had to do with the "package" mentioned in the Leftenant's orders. I mentally walked the chain backward: the orders had been sent by some Doggie General. Generals don't go out and get intel, they have other people get it for them --- someone who knew I had a "package" to begin with. "Dog" had been surprised by my appearance at the Casino's police station, but dismissed me out of hoof --- er, hand... claw? Whatever.
So it stood to reason that the Dogs hadn't known I'd gone into the Casino Royale, but they sure as hell knew I'd taken something from it. Something they thought important enough to send what would normally have been massive overkill (if not for the Vikeans' insane counterattack) to retrieve. I'd only taken two things out that'd been at all special, one of which was now in the hooves of the Zoomers. The other...
I peered over my shoulder at my right-side saddlebag, where Eclair's blueprints on nanosprite technology sat snuggled deep into my holdout pouch, away from the rain. They'd served as wrapper for his "Golden Treasure" --- seriously, a box of muffins? That still made no sense to me, like I'd missed the punchline to some colossal joke. But if the Dogs hadn't been after the Auto-Doc module, and they were certain I'd been carrying what they wanted, they would've had to be searching for this... or whatever they thought it was.
Which put me smack into the realm of pure speculation.
Folks were always finding fragmentary, often unfathomable, bits of info, whether in old computer terminals, battered file cabinets or even cast-off memory orbs. Making sense of it was usually a matter of luck, sleuthing around, or both. Was it possible the Dogs had discovered leads to Eclair's research, when nopony else seemed to remember anything about it? Not even Domino, who'd been fixated on it for centuries, had guessed the truth about the Treasure.
Not to mention, how would the Dogs have even known I'd taken it? If they had the tech to track radio signals, they could have known somepony (me) was escaping the Royale's destruction and pursued on the off-chance I would have it, as opposed to searching through a mountain of radioactive rubble. That pursuit would have been thwarted by my falling into Lake Cider, but then, why wouldn't they have assumed I drowned? Three days is a long time to hold your breath (I remembered, with a shiver). The radio collar of my Fun Suit had fallen away once I hit the lake, so they couldn't have still been tracking me that way, especially not once Hard Way fished me out.
It was more likely they'd first chased after DeLoup --- the larger set of signals, thanks to the bouquet of Suits I'd lashed her to. Once they found her, and no Treasure, my own collar would have been their last lead, and it would have been at the bottom of the lake by then. But Pink-E, her bright-pink bobbling cheeriness hard to miss against the wasteland's backdrop, would have been carrying my saddlebags to Häsverige at that point. Assuming the Dogs didn't want to risk tipping their cards, they might have watched and waited for us to leave.
So how would they have known the Sjönhäst would split off from the fleet towards Nellie AFB? The buried walker had been precisely positioned for its ambush. Did they have a sympathetic Vikean on the inside as a spy? Mmm... nah. From Dashie's description, they were more likely to have listened in on our plans by digging around underhoof.
Now there was a chilling thought. Tunneling where nopony could hear or see them, the Diamond Dogs could (at least in theory) get ready intel on virtually any faction in the Moohave. With radio capability, they could have listening posts and devices set up just about anywhere they liked.
What kind of poker game were the Dogs playing at here?
And as long as I was putting together the details of recent events, why hadn't the Royale's six main reactors exploded, instead of just the security-floor auxiliary? Not to check my own teeth, but I didn't think Eclair'd been the bluffing sort. So had the Dogs stopped -
A sharp pain kicked in near the back of my cranium; I reflexively slapped at the buzzing insect.
My mud-caked hoof came away with blood on it. Through the drizzling distance came a pam, chasing the bullet that'd grazed my skull.
Hard Way dove behind a clump of big boulders. I followed suit, snugging myself against another rock a few lengths away while he readied that oversized hammer of his. Better to force whoever was shooting at us to spread their fire out, than let them concentrate against a single point. I began to carefully work my only scoped weapon, the (t)rusty old plinking rifle, around the far side to get a better view.
Pink-E, on the other hoof, simply popped up into the air for a look-see. Instantly, a dozen or so red marks and several green flashed into my field of vision: Eyes-Forward-Sparkle working its magic, linking to the bot's far-better sensor arrays.
"Oooooh, lookie there! Those poor ponies are being attacked by a whole bunch of nastybad jerkwads!"
She stopped with an eep, looking like she wanted to cover her mouth in shame. "Sorry, sorry! I don't know how that last word got into my vocabulary files!"
"Maybe I'm rubbing off on you," I muttered, peering through the scope. "In which case, the apology should be mine."
"Well I should hope so!" she harrumphed. Of more immediate concern than the fact a robot could harrumph, though, was the incidence of incoming bulletry.
Fortunately, it wasn't being aimed at us. A quarter-mile away, an everyday occurrence was well underway: raiders hitting a caravan on the Imperial Ninety-Three. I'd been nicked by a stray round, an unfortunate roll of the dice given the distance. I ignored the minor wound, squinting through the scope to get a better look.
Friends. Well... shit.
The Moohave tended to breed a pragmatic type of raider. Become a big enough annoyance, and your odds for long-term survival would plummet, in direct correlation to the sudden appearance of extermination squads on your doorstep. They even came in three flavors: Coltifornia Lead, Pegas Plasma, and Herd Steel. If your band was particularly obnoxious, you'd end up choking down the entire sundae.
That'd happened to the Cossacks, who'd made their living in the classic Wasteland Raider traditions of raping, looting, and burning. Sometimes even in that order. When the hammer finally came down, their survivors re-settled outside New Pegas, switching to the mercenary lifestyle for reasons of health. The Vikeans, then enjoying irregular tussles with the Cossacks, learned the same lesson by proxy, shifting away from raiding and more towards trading.
The Friends were another kettle of Taint entirely. Now, if you've been living under a rock all your life, don't feel too bad if you don't know what the Friends are. They're Stable ponies... just like you.
Given over two hundred years since B-Day, enough Stables had opened for the truth to come out: Stable-Tec had been less about saving lives and more about not repeating Equestria's pre-War mistakes. How to do that? Why, by making Brand-New All-Star-Quality Mistakes! Like, say, stuffing a Stable with every chem known to ponykind, plus a manufacturing lab to synthesize more, and trusting its inhabitants to partake with care and moderation.
Stable Twenty's motto had been "Better Living Through Chemistry".
When they finally opened their giant steel door after a hundred and fifty years, it wasn't because something critical was broken, or ponies were starving, or anything like that. They weren't desperate or endangered in any way. They were just plain bored.
A thousand screaming maniacs hit Pegas' southwest 'burbs looking for new kinds of fun, the more extreme the better. All that mattered, to them, was one-upping everypony else on the Crazy Scale. "Hey guys, watch THIS!" might as well have been Stable Twenty's new slogan, especially with their new Extreme Mega Ultra running the show... and yes, that's both title and description.
Here, a good dozen or so were demonstrating the magic of Friendship to a caravan, on one of the most heavily-patrolled roads in the Moohave. I was genuinely surprised an NCR rifle squad hadn't already galloped to the rescue, rain or no rain. But so long as the last few survivors, huddled behind their dead brahmin, kept drawing all the fire, the only bullets coming our way were from wild shots and ricochets. If we stayed hunkered down this would all be over soon -
"HAH! Another fight! And here I thought this trip would be dull!"
Hard Way tilted his helmet down, grinned toothily around his hammer, and charged straight in, hooves churning mud like the wake of a ship. Trying not to think about how satisfying it would be to pound my head against the rock, I focused instead on finding a worthwhile target down below.
Six ponies in classic Stable-Tec blues were edging around the dead brahmin, bolting between whatever bits of cover or concealment they could wrangle from the scrub and rocks bordering the highway. I didn't give the scraggly melee types much chance against Hard Way, given that their nastiest weapon was an old taped-up fire axe. But the rest, off in the brush and less colorfully-dressed, were providing covering fire to keep the merchants' heads down. They quickly switched to taking pot-shots at the Vikean as he closed in. If they'd seen the hex-wrench on his helmet, they had to have realized he was the biggest threat on the field.
Well... the biggest threat they could see, sure.
Between the extra range and ongoing drizzle I was effectively invisible, likely even if they had PipBucks of their own. After all, I hadn't seen their markers without Pink-E's help! I slowly scanned left-to-right with my scope, until I spotted a slight flash and tiny spray of mud. That'd be kickback from the muzzle of a rifle, so low to the ground its shooter had to be in the prone position. Shift a bit further back, into those tumbleweeds, and...
My patient calculations were rewarded a moment later, when the five-point-fifty-six round reached the downward end of its trajectory. The Friend laying there, a dusty tan mare in raggedy old NCR khakis, jumped up and yelped loud enough for me to hear it even at this distance. Clutching her face with one hoof, she tried to scuttle away on the other three, but by then I was reloaded and sighted back in.
Another pyewt, a moment for the bullet's flight path to intersect with her own, and she buckled, blood spouting from the entry point in back of her head. Working the varminter's bolt, I rammed another round home and hoped that'd been the bitch who'd nicked me to start with. Then I went looking for her buddies.
There's one! Squint, breathe out, squeeze with the tongue... another Friend literally bit the dust, slumping face-first from concealment, a bloody disfigurement where his right eye had been.
There was little chance anypony saw me, my varminter's silencer effectively doubling as flash-suppressor. Which didn't mean they were completely blind; Pink-E was right there. Shouting and hoof-pointing commenced presently. The familiar mental pressure came surging back: shoot fast or shoot accurate? And as always before, when working at range, I chose the latter. Why send extra lead downrange, if you're not hitting anything with it?
Hard Way's hide, meanwhile, turned out to have benefited from his years of doing nothing "the easy way". Lighter rounds caromed away, leaving welts but nothing worse. The big beige shrugged it off and poured it on, building steam like a warship at ramming speed. From the sounds of it, though, at least a few Friends were packing heavier artillery in the .308 range. In my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle, the bar representing Hard Way's overall health dropped slightly with each impact.
Another flash-and-splash. I shifted my scope right, spotted a patch of blue shirt with yellow piping behind a barrel cactus, squinted -
Startled, I sent my shot wide and the buck scampering to a new hidey-hole. I cursed and reloaded, amber text helpfully informing me of an INCOMING COMMUNICATION! while completely destroying my sight picture in the process. The disruption was capped off with a brief howl of eerie music, accompanied by the icon of a happy hypno-eyed filly wearing a propeller beanie.
The instant that mess cleared away, my PipBuck screen auto-switched to a text feed... detected my Earth Pony-ness... auto-toggled voice response for my non-typing convenience... and put each godsdamned notification in the heads-up display to boot.
Oh Celestia, just spin me on your horn and get it over with already!
This uber-important, not-to-be-missed message was from none other than Inkwell, a Steel Ranger Scribe up in Wintertrot with delusions of founding a new chapter for his order in that icy hell-pit. I'd made his long-distance acquaintance while holed up in an old office building a few weeks ago, via dilapidated corporate terminal... and how the unholy fuck did he get access to my PipBuck?! I took another moment which I didn't have to collect myself, breathe in, and brush him off as politely as possible.
"Oh hey, it’s you. Sorry, kind of in a firefight right now. Friends on the Ninety-Three into Pegas. Call you back!"
I tapped a button to close the PipBuck's commo console and got back into the fight, hoping I hadn't offended. Inkwell wasn't a bad guy. He just had the worst timing...
Or, at least, he was vying for that honor with Pink-E. "Who was that?"
"Steel Ranger, up in Wintertrot, we exchange correspondence. Now shut up and help me spot these plotholes!"
When Hard Way finally made it to cover with the caravaneers, they seemed surprised and relieved --- also anxious --- at his appearance. For all they knew, the Vikean chieftain wanted to sell them a dining-room set! But a short conversation later, they were digging rounds out of his hide and pouring healing salves on. If they had any pre-War potions, they were saving those for themselves. Fortunately, the home-made goop seemed to work well enough.
Now that they realized they were being counter-sniped, the Friends had fallen back to better cover, including the melee squad. Not that they'd given up. Instead, they shimmied through the grass and brush, regrouping; I took shots whenever I spotted bright color or movement. But they were canny about it, trotting out the old tricks like wiggling cloth swatches on sticks or tossing rocks to splash mud.
Old as they were, the tricks still worked as often as not. When you only have a split-second to spot, shift, and shoot, you can't always be right, even without rainwater slipping down your hatband into your eyes. I wasted a few rounds, they moved a few ponies up. I got in some hits, they downed some potions. I watched with mounting frustration as their health markers ticked back upward in my E.F.S., same as Hard Way's had.
Absent the element of surprise, my old plinker was only slowing them down. Problem was, everything else I had was useless at this range.
Thunderchild's lack of scope or proper mouthgrip gave me little chance to hit anything outside of S.A.T.S., which wasn't giving good odds even for the plinker right now. Nor was there any good cover, where I might set up shop, between here and the highway. My new riot armor might take the same kind of abuse Hard Way had, but my unprotected head wouldn't. If just one of those colt-bangers down there got lucky while I was in the open... noooo thank you. So getting in close wasn't an option, either, leaving That Gun and Mouthkicker out of the battle for the time being.
Which meant I was stuck here, slinging as many rounds as I could, hoping for the best. And when you're down to betting on hopes, you're in serious trouble.
Whenever I paused to swap or reload magazines, several Friends would dash for new cover closer to the road. Their E.F.S. markers slowly massed, just across from the brahmin corpses, forming a long line of red blips. Shooting blindly into and around their markers yielded little. Trust Stable ponies to know when a PipBuck was being used against them!
Say what you would about them: Friends weren't stupid. Just crazy. And they clearly had their blood up for whatever this caravan was hauling. Gold? Weapons? Luxury foods? It sure wasn't drugs... that, they could get at home for a song. Literally.
All at once a banshee scream went up and they broke from cover, guns blazing and sledges swinging, converging at the gallop upon the tiny knot of defenders from three sides. They even had a few unicorns whose horns now flared to life, levitating sawed-off shotguns over and around the makeshift wall of carcasses.
I plinked one of them, a wild-eyed roan red coming around the left, right in the horn. She screamed, stumbled, and clutched at her face, the vermillion field holding her weapon flickering for an instant before dying. It clattered uselessly to the pavement. So did she.
And that was it. They'd be over and around the brahmin, with a three-to-one advantage, before I could reload and put another round downrange. Hard Way was likely our only qualified melee specialist. The caravan ponies would go down quickly, and then it'd be ten-to-one.
Sucker's odds. I'd have to make a trip back to Häsverige, bringing Vasstunga her husband's caps and news of how he died a hard-charging, heroic moron...
A cloud of dirt, powdered asphalt and smoke exploded into being, instantly smothering the scene. Moments later, the reports from a string of detonations reached me.
What the... shit! Shit shit shit! I can't see a damn thing!
Well, aside from the PipBuck's E.F.S. tags, I couldn't. Most of the red was just plain gone, deadified instantly. None of my green markers were missing, though from the health bars they were likely suffering from blast and concussion. I tried sighting on one of the reds, which was wobbling slightly, but then it disappeared. Switching to another, I saw Hard Way's tag rise up, and then it was gone too.
The pattern repeated again, and again: the last two pairs of red tags blinked out, one at the Vikean's hooves. The other... I couldn't tell. None of my green tags were close to the last two reds when they went down. Maybe the merchants were using silencers or crossbows? Another good question: what'd caused those explosions? If they'd tossed a bunch of landmines over the brahmin-wall... but no, those had looked more like grenades, and nopony had been throwing anything. If they'd laid a minefield on the tarmac already...
Only one way to find out.
Just in case, I got my teeth around Mouthkicker before galloping down to the roadway. By the time I got there, the rain had settled out the smoke and dust, revealing your average everyday wasteland helping of gruesome carnage. Nearly twenty dead ponies littered the highway around the dead brahmin, mostly Friends. On the far side, where the explosions had gone off, the bodies had been splattered-and-scattered like bad cookwagon hash. A few others had died by blunt trauma, one with a very distinct brick-shaped dent in her skull. Had to be Hard Way's work, that.
The surviving merchants --- three almost-identical earth-toned earth ponies --- were still huddled up against the dead brahmin, tending each others' wounds with salve and bandages. A half-dozen others, scattered around the scene of the ambush, would never need medical assistance again. No potions, then... not a very wealthy caravan. One of them looked up, forcing a wan smile across her weatherbeaten face.
"Thank ya, fer what it's worth. Wish you an' yer pal coulda gotten here fifteen minutes sooner." Her head bobbed in Hard Way's direction, where his helmet, head, shoulders and horseapple-munching grin were visible over the protective perimeter of dead beef. The Vikean's eyes held an uncharacteristically sly look.
"Ah, Dead-Shot! Caught this one trying to skulk away, having stolen my share of battle. Poor form, that."
It sounded like he'd caught an angry rock drill. "You... plot-faced... idiot! Get off of me!" I clambered up a body with ragged, bleeding stumps where its heads should have been for a better look.
Hard Way's tail flicked idly back and forth over his prize, most of which was completely obscured by his butt. What wasn't blotted out was almost completely obscured by one of the Top Five Most Ridiculous Outfits I'd ever seen. Relentlessly purple and black, from hooves to hairline. Collared cape. Full mask, with opaque sky-blue lenses built in. And a fedora with a brim so wide that it verged on sombrero territory. The outfit even covered the individual feathers of her... wings.
A pegasus? I hadn't seen anypony dressed like this anywhere on Nellie... maybe Rainbow Dash hadn't been quite so paranoid, in worrying about Enclave spying. It'd explain both this one's shadowy disguise, and her proximity to the old airbase. Two things provided relief from all the midnight-mystery silliness: a mess of buckshot holes through her one visible wing, and the right side of her face. A hideous scrape there had torn the covering fabric clean away, not to mention a lot of skin. Framed by rotted grey muscle and underlying patches of white skull, one sullen eye glared at me from beneath that giant hat.
My legs instantly went nerveless, slipping out from under, tumbling me to the pavement in a slow-motion wave of vertigo. As I hit chin-first, my rump and tail hanging in midair like a tribal village had lost its prime idiot, the classic star-explosion with complimentary side of pain made its appearance. Unfortunately, not even a concussion would erase what I'd seen. That angry amethyst eye, mirror to a soul I'd already met.
But Rainbow Dash wasn't a ghoul!
"If you don't get off of me in the next five seconds," growled the still-wriggling pegasus, in a gravelly, synthetic-sounding voice, "you're both dead."
Footnote: Level up.
Skill Note: Medicine (50)