CHAPTER TEN: Derp Money
"I just don't know what went wrong!"
My ears heard, before my eyes saw.
"Welcome to muffins. I mean, the casino. I mean, muffins are great with butter, especially if you're eating them at a casino! While gambling. Oh... do I have to begin again? Okay! Welcome to muffins."
Slowly my vision advanced from black, to fuzzy greys, to a more solid grey surrounded by browns and blacks, as the message repeated. Sensation returned in the form of something cold and hard under my chin and hooves, contrasted with an almost-suffocating warmth everywhere else. I took a deep breath to center myself --- and was suddenly reminded of an unaccustomed tightness around my neck.
With the chill of that realization, I was as completely awake as if I'd been doused with a bucket of water. A chuckling sounded below my right ear, drowning out the more distant talk of casino muffins.
"Awake at last, are we, earthworm?" DeLoup was too busy gloating to let me answer. "Good. We took advantage of your little nap to get you fully outfitted and positioned for your mission, whether or not you choose to accept it. Your saddlebags are to your left, the casino is to your front, and you're not getting back over the gates to your rear until you have an Auto-Doc Mark Seven for us to pick up along with you."
I stood up on the cold hard pavement, still a little groggy, and tried to shake the cobwebs out of my head with a soft squeak.
The speaker on my collar emitted a sharp laugh. "By now I'm sure you've noticed your new 'choice' of apparel? That's the Fun Suit Mark Two, another fine Aegis Security product for the Ministry of Morale. The Suits replaced their initial line of explosive collars, when those turned out not to be as effective as desired for restraining prisoners and malcontents. It seems that interrogating someone who's lost their head can be somewhat difficult."
Looking down revealed a shiny light-blue surface curving away from the collar, a one-piece rubber skin stretching to cover my barrel, belly, rump and legs. Only my head, tail, hooves and PipBuck escaped the overly-snug get-up. Every motion pulled against the thing one way or another, drawing it taut and resulting in that quiet squeaking noise.
I snorted my disgust. "Not only is this a lot kinkier than I had you pegasi figured for - ", which statement prompted a harrumph from the speaker, " - but do you really expect me to sneak around the Casino Royale in this stupid thing?"
"No, my little earthworm - " came DeLoup's sneering reply, "I expect you to obey orders."
Suddenly, a loud hissing erupted from just below the collar.
An air talisman?! What the -
In the moment it took to form the thought, the hidden gemstone's enchantment blew enough gas between the suit's double layers to transform it into a blue globe, made imperfect only by the indentations occupied by my hooves, head and tail. These six anchor-points neatly stretched me spread-eagle within the imprisoning ball, its expansion so rapid that it rebounded from the unyielding tarmac into the air.
For those few seconds, I was too surprised to react --- then as the ball fell back to earth, only to bounce me helplessly back up with an audible boing, embarrassment flushed my muzzle a darker pink than usual.
If anypony saw me like this, I'd either die of shame or have to kill the witnesses!
Commander Bitchy, on the other hoof, was having a high old time. "Every time you decide to give me some lip instead of listen, you're going to find yourself bobbling around like that, hoping nothing comes along to kill you before I get tired of laughing. The Pink Cloud? It'll melt your face off while you're stuck there trying not to breathe it in. The so-called 'Ghost Herd'? They'll cut you apart without a word, like they do to anypony they catch. I'm sure you've heard the stories."
I had, but I was having trouble focusing on the details while bouncing around in a giant rubber ball. Especially since, having an offset center of gravity in the form of yours truly, it had a propensity for sudden spins and turns. I fought to keep what little breakfast I'd had down in my stomach, where it belonged. So this is 'motion sickness', huh? I want a refund...!
"But hey, if we're really lucky," my tormentor added with an audible smirk, "the holo-guards will zap you, and I'll get to hear you scream while the hydrogen in that suit burns you alive."
Just as I rebounded off a nearby wall, there was a sudden loud sucking noise. The suit instantly returned to its skin-tight norm, sending me flailing until I hit the pavement with a smack that nearly knocked my wind away. I found myself wishing Bitchy was watching me on a camera, so I could glare at it. Instead, I took my time getting back on my hooves, collecting what little dignity I might still lay claim to before continuing the conversation.
"Hydrogen? What idiot would design one of these things to use hydrogen?!"
Bitchy's sniff of indifference was needlessly theatrical. Which, thinking about it, made the gesture kind of pointless, but it would probably have been a bad idea just then to needle her about it. "Apparently, Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie said something about balloons not really being balloons without helium, which also made prisoners lighter and easier to manage when their suits were inflated. Those were the Mark Ones."
Sarcasm began slipping back into her voice as she warmed to the subject. "Somepony afterward got the bright idea that hydrogen, being much lighter than helium, would make the job even easier. Hence the Mark Two. Which, in all honesty, made flapping your fat earth-pony butt over to the casino courtyard a lot less work for us. Isn't progress a wonderful thing?"
Doctor Fly Right, to my relief, stepped into the conversation. "That's quite enough, Commander, you've had your fun. Now let's get on with saving Mother, shall we?"
Finally having the opportunity to take a good look, I swept my gaze around the courtyard. It was fairly simple on first glance: a circular roundabout with a central fountain, age-rotted villas lining streets leading away in three directions, and a massive pair of tall, ornate steel gates rusting away behind me.
No way in Luna's Hell am I getting over those without an airlift or grappling hook...
The glazed terracotta fountain, a wide squat stack of three progressively-larger bowls spilling water down to a shallow pool, was surrounded by weirdly-flickering spotlights. These focused on a point just above the waterspout, creating the illusion of a grey pegasus mare slowly flapping her wings to hover in place. Her ditzy, unfocused speech kept repeating over and over from speakers set around the courtyard, strangely appropriate to the misaligned yellow eyes and fizzy-themed flank that nature had afflicted her with.
Where've I seen that bubble-head before?
There came a tapping from my collar speaker. "Ahem. Let's get on with it, Mister Pie...?"
I grimaced at Fly Right's impatience, not caring that he couldn't see it over the radio. "Just getting a feel for the lay of the land, Doc. I understand you pegasi probably wouldn't get that --- hell, do you even know where I'm supposed to be going?"
A frustrated snort sounded from the other end. "All the time in the world to gawk, but none to look at your PipBuck?"
Oh. Right. This thing on my leg had that "mapping-and-questing" function Nash Rambler'd shown me back in Slimm and --- whoa, Nellie! Look at all that junk! Apparently, I'd finished up four "quests" and most of the listed "objectives" for each one over the course of the last few days. They were all greyed out on the PipBuck's little display, but three more were shining brightly green:
Derp Money: Retrieve an Auto-Doc Mk VII from Doctor Stable's Clinic. Pretty straightforward...
Terrible Creatures from the Stars: Watch a movie with Pink-E. Yeah, that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. But it did remind me to drop by an NCR outpost soonish and report on that satellite Pink-E'd wanted to play her stupid movie on. Assuming somepony else hadn't already reported it (and assuming I got out of here alive to start with), that might help smooth over any rankled withers from the recent brouhaha at the Embassy. Though with Riposte dead, nopony might even know about my involvement --- feh, enough ruminating on maybes!
Benedict Barn-old: Find out what Benny's really up to. Another back-burner job list. And what was that about a barn? I hadn't seen anything in or around New Pegas that even looked like a barn from my Celestial perch yesterday...
Under each listing were several related objectives, making me wonder again how the hell this thing knew all this stuff before I even knew to ask it. Of the three active quests, "Derp Money" was set as the "primary", directing my attention to a little square on the small-scale map of the --- wait.
Except for where I was standing, there wasn't any map at all! The highlighting square was positioned in the middle of a black, empty space --- so this PipBuck knows I need to go there, but doesn't know what's there, so it shouldn't even know I need to go...ow! Damn migraine! Something bright and sickly-green flashed before my eyes, making me blink with surprise.
"As you can see," Fly Right's voice continued, disrupting any thoughts I might have entertained about piercing headaches and their effects on optical nerves, "we've pre-loaded the coordinates for the casino's clinic, although we couldn't get your Pipbuck to accept the map data. Apparently you've got an older model that doesn't like color graphics." Oh. Well, that explained that.
"One last note: we're transmitting through a relay placed atop the tallest building we could reach without triggering the casino's defenses --- which isn't very far in. There's a lot of radio interference from various sources we've never been able to pin down. So, we won't be able to maintain consistent voice transmission, but the signal for the collar's punitive functions doesn't require such fine-tuning."
The good doctor's voice dropped half an octave, to where he apparently thought it sounded menacing. "Stray too far from your objective, or try and remove the collar, and it will lose the relay's 'deadpony switch' signal. Without it, your suit will automatically start inflating, albeit slower than what you've just experienced, so you'll have a few moments to correct your error. If you DO get yourself well and truly stuck, you'll have about thirty seconds before that suit explodes --- shorting out your collar right in the middle of a high-pressure cloud of hydrogen. Now get moving!"
Sheesh, what a sore-head... But I picked up my saddlebags, slung them across my back, and got moving nonetheless. Standing there wasn't going to get the job done, and not getting the job done wasn't going to get me out of here. And with the collar's radio no longer crackling in my ear, the only other voice in the area became impossible to ignore:
"Oh... do I have to begin again? Okay! Welcome to muffins."
And who knew? Perhaps I'd run across something that'd give me a new quest. Something like Detonate the Ditz: blow up the stupid fountain and its smarmy hologram would be a nice reward for my troubles...
* * * * *
Anything in the Moohave with ears and the ability to understand speech knew about the Casino Royale: a towering edifice, located on a bluff overlooking the Coltorado, about ten miles upriver from Lake Cider. Scenic, luxurious, fitted with all the most modern pre-War security systems, it had been slated for a Gala Opening --- for the day after the missiles flew. Its gates had never opened to the public, and no one knew if anypony inside at the time had ever come out.
The place wasn't hard to find. Although surrounded by a thick forest of conifers, you couldn't miss that ten-story building jutting up from its sprawling entourage of guest villas and supporting service centers. Hundreds of ponies, if not thousands, could have lived relatively comfortable lives within its security-gated confines.
Nor was it hard to get in. The driveway outside the front gate was known to be littered with everything from ladders to box-steps to homemade trampolines, all left behind by bands of would-be looters and plucky adventurers. Once or twice, enough wall-scaling junk had accumulated that somepony or another dragged it into town and bragged how they'd "struck it rich at the Royale".
Not that nopony'd ever done well for themselves scavenging the grounds. The courtyard I'd woken up in was known to be safe, as were a few areas discovered more by error than trial over the centuries. Those had all been thoroughly looted long ago, though tales of recovered tech and luxury goods had kept up interest for decades afterwards. No surprise there: the Royale'd been set up by an ultra-wealthy financier to be a showcase for the fanciest cutting-edge gadgetry of the day.
It had also been meant to serve as his personal little kingdom-away-from-Canterlot. Rumors of lost golden wealth, surrounded by every decadence a pony's heart could yearn for and protected by guardians of light, still drew the occasional sucker into trying for what had become known as "the Derp Money".
Because you'd have to be a complete herp-a-derp, to believe that you alone were the special snowflake capable of getting in and out where none of the hundreds who'd tried before had managed it. Beyond a certain point, no one --- unicorn, griffin, earth-pony, mule or buffalo, whether single or in teams, no one --- ever made it back. Only the screams of the dying, begging for rescue over the occasional radio transmission, told of the ways they'd lost their lives. There'd also been some colorful displays from hidden batteries of magic-fed weapons, the few times someone had tried flapping their way into or out of the casino's innards.
These days, only fools and the ignorant tried their hoof at cracking the Casino Royale.
Well... "fools", the "ignorant", and now the "shanghaied-by-pegasi", I guess.
For all those stories of riches to be had, I couldn't see it. Literally. I picked my way along the casino's outermost ring, a litter-strewn street whose bordering villas weren't bearing up terribly well under the weight of two centuries. Each time I found one that didn't look quite ready to collapse on my head, I peeked inside for a quick look around.
A pattern quickly emerged: the closer to the courtyard, the more likely a given place had been picked clean of anything not requiring heavy machinery to haul away. Frustrated greed had then coaxed scavengers to push the boundaries of the "safe zone" further along, testing their luck against whatever hidden dangers might lie in wait.
Graffiti dappled the walls here and there, some of it faded and flaked enough to belong to the original residents, but most being substantially fresher and saltier in tone.
WE CAN'T GET OUT was painted, in wide white letters, on a rooftop whose red tiles had weathered the years better than those of most of its neighbors.
The classically-dismissive line of like I give a shit appeared in marker ink here and there, often in response to somepony else's unanswered plea. Assuming the jokers had tried their own luck further inside the Royale's compound, I was pretty sure they'd given a shit or two before they died.
I snorted at fuck the NCR and fuck YOU, spray-painted with the stenciling of a dead Desert Ranger next to it. Stuck in this deathtrap, somepony had to spend their precious time blathering about grudges that nopony --- rather, no thing --- in the Royale gave a damn about? Really?
Rust-red smears formed the single word HELP along one wall. No other sign of the author was anywhere to be seen.
If you can read this, gather in 24b and help make a stand was my personal favorite. At least that pony'd had a plan, instead of just wailing about how unfair life was or waiting for somepony else to bail them out. As I made my way from house to house down the street, I worked on developing a plan of my own.
Bitchy and Fly Right could probably tell that I was moving, but not which way I was actually going, since they hadn't been bugging me since I started walking. I wasn't planning on blindly charging into the casino's uncharted depths, either, being as that I wasn't suicidal. The odds might be against finding anything worthwhile in the abandoned guest-homes, but it didn't hurt to exhaust the safe options before dipping my hooves into deeper waters.
It wasn't long after the courtyard disappeared from view, obscured by gently-curving rows of rotting stucco walls and dilapidated tile roofs, that both the litter and indications of exploration began to taper off. No political commentary or witty remarks marred the walls here, where the oppressive silence of an empty street began to lean in on the mind, and where one's thoughts began to turn more towards just how far away the relative safety of the courtyard now was.
It was also where I found the first body.
I initially mistook the charred mass for another pile of garbage, heaped by the stairs leading up to a larger villa whose door seemed invitingly untried. The illusion was helped along by swaths of clinging trash, empty cigarette packs and Fancy Buck wrappers obscuring features until I got close enough for reality to assert itself.
The gender wasn't clear, but the short, stubby horn protruding from its blackened, hairless skull was unmistakable. The rest of the corpse was impossible to examine more closely, being almost uniformly coated with a hardened orange sludge which terminated at the neck in...
...a broken collar, otherwise identical to the one binding my own throat.
The Zoomers had been at their little reclamation game for some time.
Not so long, fortunately, that somepony else had wandered through and looted the poor bastard's saddlebags. Those had ended up on the far side of the stairs, upside-down beneath several large scraps of orange rubber. The rest of the Mark Two suit had likely been scattered across the street by its explosion and eventually blown away by the wind --- the corpse was perhaps a few months old, by the dessicated look of it.
On a hunch, I took out my combat knife and poked at the scraps. They sliced up easily enough, so I tried the same with the orange shell still clinging to the body --- no dice. I had to stab repeatedly even to make a slight cut, which didn't go all the way through before it sealed right back up again. I'd figured as much; it would be too easy to just cut the rubber suit away if the collar it was attached to wasn't enchanted to repair such damage. It would take something extreme, like a laser cutter or industrial drill, or, well, the suit over-inflating until it exploded, to overcome the spell's limits.
And in every one of those scenarios, or anything similar I could think of, the pony wearing the suit would be horribly maimed at the very least. Nooo, thank you.
Dumping out the dead unicorn's bags and sorting through the resulting pile of junk yielded a pack of bobby pins, an Ironshod Firearms Model 44 Angel Bunny submachinegun with several magazines of assorted specialty ammunition, and some sort of small round electronic device which my PipBuck immediately labeled a "StealthBuck". Beyond that, there was a mass of rotted food, some books that had become fouled by the rot, and a few bottles of nasty-looking water.
"What's the holdup?" Bitchy's voice snapped from the collar.
Just as I thought... "Found a body. One of your earlier recruits, looks like."
The pegasus commandant let a telling note of anticipation slip into her voice, as though she already had a hoof hovering over a button. "You heard the doctor. We're on a tight schedule..."
"Can't bring you back your miracle machine if I don't survive, can I?"
Now she sounded a little irritated. "Is that supposed to excuse your lollygagging?"
"Taking a minute or two to maximize my chances for survival, means improving your chance for getting that Autodoc. I'm no use to you dead."
A dismissive snort. "You're hardly the first - "
"I can see that. But if you are on as tight a schedule as can't tolerate a little circumspection, then you've got no time to find a replacement. Do you?"
A pause, then Fly Right was on the horn. I could almost hear Bitchy simmering away in the background static. "No, Mister Pie, we don't. But it's also in your best interest to watch the clock. If Mother Matrix doesn't make it because you were off sightseeing..."
"Don't think I'm not keeping that in mind, Doc. Mind if I get back to it now?"
An audible huff, followed by a click, was the only answer I needed.
* * * * *
Nothing but wind and the odd wisp of fog wafting across the street, pinkish in the fading sunlight, inhabited the outer arc of guest housing.
It struck me as strange, for a minute, that night was coming on so fast. Then I remembered how many times I'd been rendered unconscious today. So did my belly, which reminded me with a few harsh growls that I hadn't had anything but a few mouthfuls of interrupted breakfast in most of the last forty-eight hours. My fault for thinking I'd be able to sneak my way into Nellie Air Force Base and get back to the Celestial Suite in time for dinner.
Stupid, stupid, stupid...
Well, at least my rummaging around the old villas hadn't been for nothing. A couple of first-aid lockboxes had given up their bandages and potions, I'd found a couple of minor ammunition caches, and most importantly of all, there'd been untouched cupboards in the far villas that'd been practically loaded with packaged and preserved pre-War noshables!
As the last of the day shimmered through twilight into moonlit dusk, I holed up in one of the apartments closest to the courtyard and proceeded to gorge myself on boxes of Sugar Apple Bombs and Fancy Buck cakes, with several lukewarm bottles of Sunrise Sarsaparilla to wash it all down. Reflexively, I bagged the bottlecaps: saving is earning, after all. Having loaded up my digestive system with sugar and carbohydrates, I made a final check of my gear by PipBucklight, and out the door I finally went.
The hologram-pegasus still hovered in the mists thrown up by the fountain, casting a muted grey light across the courtyard as she repeatedly recited her idiotic lines.
"...do I have to begin again? Okay...!"
Beyond the babbling waters (and image), past the skyline of long-abandoned housing, the Royale's exaggerated art-deco ziggurat rose up against the moonlight. Its face, lit with ambient orange from hundreds of ancient light fixtures glowing across the complex, suggested a soft, dim moodiness contrasting with the white squares of its checkerboard window-patterns.
Not that I was terribly surprised, given the various tales that spoke of the Royale still having a reactor or two going. But there's knowing something as a distant, dispassionate set of facts, and then there's seeing it firsthoof, rearing up like an image out of the Feudal Ages of Unicornia.
All it needs is a moat, some lightning, and maybe a few inbred royals hanging around.
I'd done all I could in the way of preliminary scavenging and getting my belly full. Being honest with myself, I could also admit that a lot of that had been rationalized stalling: this place was a well-known deathtrap. But it was either get my flank in gear, or sit on it until I met the same disturbing fate as my predecessor.
The mental image of some other pony finding my dried-out carcass, wrapped in an impermeable rubber burial shroud, finally got to be too much. Steeling myself against the inevitable, I stood and faced the flickering lamps that lit the last of the three ways out of the courtyard.
"If I'm gonna die," I growled to nopony in particular, "it's gonna be with my horseshoes on."
"THAT'S THE SPIRIT!"
If I'd actually been wearing any horseshoes at the time, I'd've jumped out of them right then and there! As it was, I somehow managed to land facing that voice...
Pink-E cocked her head to one side and grinned wide, those big blue-on-white electronic eyes shining luminously in a bright pink face. Amid the courtyard's grey-lit evening gloom, the effect was like somepony lighting off a firework that wouldn't die out.
"Hi, Cherry! Miss me?"
"Wha - hahn...?!" My traitor mouth, instead of the full sentences I was sure were forming in the back of my brain somewhere, decided to make those noises instead. Pink-E hardly noticed.
"You didn't come home by morning, so as soon as I could, I zoomed right over to where your PipBuck signal said you were! And boy was that a crazy trip, wowie-zowie!" Without letting up for a moment, the pink robot-head spun about to take in the view. "The Casino Royale, huh? Boy, you sure are brave! My records show this place had enough firepower and internal defenses when it was built to fight off an entire combined-arms Zebra legion!"
She began to bounce up and down excitedly. "Ooh, ooh! Did you find a super-secret codeword to shut down the hologram police? What about the pressure-detection grid? I'll bet you've got this heist planned to the Nth degree, don'cha Cherry?!"
If I hadn't known better, I'd've thought that was sarcasm. I gave her my best This-Is-Me-Not-Kidding look, hoping it might get through to whatever passed for a mind in the little 'bot's noggin. "I have what amounts to a bomb collar on my neck, and the pegasi who put it there want an Autodoc from the clinic. That's all."
Pink-E blinked and stared at my chest as though noticing my overly-tight garb for the first time.
"Oooooh, a Fun Suit! I thought you looked kinda blue, but at first I thought it was just because you're depressed all the time." She stopped, swiveled to one side, and grinned widely, waiting for me to laugh.
I turned and started walking down the darkened street towards the casino proper.
"Hey! Wait up!" Although I didn't, Pink-E had no problem pulling up next to me with her needlessly-bouncy gait.
Why does she even do that? It's gotta play hell with her servos... That was the first thought which occurred to me. The second made me arch an eyebrow at the bodiless robot head:
"So, if you're here... where's Tag-End?"
"Back at the Lucky Chance, of course! It took me a whole day flying to make it here. It would've taken poor Tag most of a week, even if he galloped non-stop! It's okay, though. He promised to behave himself while I was gone!" She didn't even bat an eye.
I stopped, turned, and fixed her with a stare. "You left the unicorn slave with entitlement issues alone. With the key to his collar. And with the run of top-shelf accommodations, that I'm probably responsible for if anything gets damaged. Like the last time I left you two alone up there?"
She bobbed her head agreeably. "Yep! That's about the size of it!"
Shaking my head, I sighed and brought up my PipBuck's Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell. Concentrating on dangers looming in the shadows ahead at least meant a respite from trying to deal with Pink-E Logic. Then again, if she was going to get here in timely fashion, it meant either leaving Tag's key behind or letting his collar detonate once they got too far apart. I supposed that whatever priority matrix Pink-E's programming might have, it probably concerned my well-being first, followed by keeping my property intact, and somewhere along the line after that must have been a routine for blowing up my property just to hold onto a thereafter-useless key.
If I was honest with myself --- and I had to admit I didn't really want to be, as it made it more difficult to be angry or annoyed with her --- she was just trying to help.
The ubiquitous run-down villas quickly gave way to what had once been kitschy little curio shops and sidewalk cafes. Here, too, the looting of centuries showed its mark, though nopony had evidently cared much for the scattered "Genuine Native Buffalo" trinkets most of the shops had specialized in. The buffalo tribals I'd met in my travels would have been insulted at being associated with the dust-catchers, faux tent rugs, polished rocks and "noble savage" carvings still lining the shelves. Some especially graphic graffiti and a bit of extra-gratuitous property damage suggested that at least one such tribal had weighed in on the subject.
At the tail end of of all this tourist-trap entrepreneurialism stood two little toy stores on opposite sides of the street, displaying competing advertisements:
"Foals with SMARTY-PANTS do 67% More Homework!"
"Real Engineers Say BUTTERCUP's Their Buddy!"
"Today's Teaching Begins with SMARTY-PANTS DELUXE!"
"BUILD-ME-UP BUTTERCUP is for Tomorrow's Technologists!"
On closer examination, I pulled up short. Unlike the common vandalism characterizing the rest of the district, these two stores looked like a miniature war zone.
The one selling "Buttercup" toys looked like it had had the worst of it, its street-facing picture window completely blasted in and its walls pockmarked by numerous bullet holes and scorch marks. It looked like somepony --- a lot of someponies --- had lined up and used the storefront as a casual shooting gallery.
If that'd been the case, they weren't very good, because none of the toys in the window seemed to have taken any hits. All of them were the same: robotic-looking equinoid things, with a look of cheap plastic and a couple of cartoonishly useless clip-on tools. A shot-up neon sign still hung by one hinge over the door, proclaiming the establishment's name to be "Starlight Dreams".
Across the thoroughfare, the competition had hardly been damaged... by comparison, at least. The display window of "Magical Treasures" had been similarly smashed, but from a distance its unique polka-dot paint job seemed to be almost wholly unmarred. A few "Smarty-Pants" dolls could be seen hanging forlornly from sales stands, drab-looking bags of stuffing with paper pads and pencils crammed into pocketed overalls.
There was a wrongness about all this that I could practically smell. I'd seen a lot of random vandalism in my time, but who in their right minds would expend so much ammunition for no better reason than not hitting a bunch of harmless-looking toys?
I did a quick check for threats on the EFS, finding nothing. Pink-E perked her mechanical ears in my direction.
"What's up, Cherry?"
"It feels like we're walking into an ambush. And I said to stop calling me that."
The little 'bot-head swiveled, making a show of looking in all directions. "Nope! No hostiles detected! Not even horse tiles!"
I looked up from my PipBuck, feeling my left eye start to twitch. "At least stop making up nonsensical names for things..."
My plea was answered with an uncharacteristically serious gaze. "Oh, I didn't make that one up myself. Anyways, let's see what's got you so spooked!" With that, Pink-E buzzed straight ahead, looking back and forth between the two stores.
Had it not meant pitching face-first into the tarmac, I would have double-facehoofed. As it was, I almost hurt myself with the single-digit version of the gesture. "Pink-E, get the HELL back over ---"
Two ponies flashed into existence, flanking either side of the "Buttercup" display. I reflexively backed up several paces, my eyes growing wide. I can't be so unlucky as to run into holo-guards this soon!
As it turned out, I wasn't. Both were off-white unicorns, dressed in casual shirts of vertical red-and-white stripes and wearing straw boaters --- attire of the type that'd get a pony shot in most areas of the wasteland, just for being too chipper. One had a big red mustache, the other not, and both immediately launched into a pre-programmed pattern of sales patter.
"My dear Flim," said the mustachioed image, "it seems we have visitors to our fine filial franchise!"
"We do indeed, Brother Flam!" replied his near-twin. "Could it be that they've come to see the most amazing new toy line available to Equestrians anywhere?"
"I can't see why else they'd be gracing us with their presence! Now you, miss," Faux-Flam exclaimed with a tip of his photonic hat to Pink-E, "I see by your contraption-like configuration that you are a robot, presumably in honorable servitude to this gentlecolt over here, is that correct?"
Pink-E giggled, nodded, and, I swear, actually seemed to blush slightly. "I am!"
Both of the holo-ponies turned their attention directly to me with wide, earnest smiles. I groaned and rolled my eyes. Okay, maybe THESE guys were the reason for all the shooting, whether due to spooking or annoyance...
"Sir!" said Faux-Flim, stepping into the street and towards me with that unwavering smile gleaming in the night. "You're clearly a buck of action, a pony who takes no guff, so I won't give you the usual spiel. You don't have a special somepony or little one waiting at home to give one of these precious, useful, educational Build-Me-Up Buttercup toys, now do you?"
I double-checked my EFS. Still no bars in my vision, except for Pink-E's friendly green. Not even amber... Oh, GREAT. Holoponies don't show up on this thing at all!
The sales pitch didn't stop as Faux-Flam joined in, trotting a quick circle around me as I stood there. "Of course you don't! You're a busy one, out to make some good honest money from good, honest work! Now, what if I were to offer you a ground-level investment opportunity in something that every little colt and filly will be dying to get their hooves on this upcoming -"
A sudden staticky glitch caused Faux-Flam to nearly fade out, briefly becoming a mere outline of a pony filled with grey noise and flashing alphanumeric sequences casting horrific shadows. The instantaneous contrast to the otherwise silent casino grounds succeeded in creeping me right the hell out; I began to back away down the street. Just as suddenly, Faux-Flam was back as though nothing had happened.
"- Hearth's Warming Eve!"
"Absolutely, sir!" Faux-Flim chimed in. "For a mere five thousand bits, you could have your very own Build-Me-Up Buttercup franchise just like this one (choice of location and market fluctuations may incur extra charges), with fully HALF of the profits remaining in your soon-to-be-bulging saddlebags! Why, there's no easier way to get incredibly rich, obscenely quick!"
The two looked at one another, grinned precisely on cue, and... launched into an actual song-and-dance number, pirouetting on their hindlegs and waving their straw boaters in the air.
"Yes, it's an opportunity! In this very community!"
"We're the world-famous Flim-Flam Brothers...!"
That, I figured, was enough of my time wasted. This whole setup was obviously harmless, which the lack of dead bodies should have clued me into, and I had an Autodoc to retrieve. I started walking, waving at Pink-E to join me. "C'mon, let's get moving."
Pink-E didn't turn towards me. She was backing away from the window. "Cherry..."
"I said stop calling me that -" In mid-reprimand, my attention was caught by what was following Pink-E out of the window.
The Buttercups were on the move, hopping out of the window by ones and twos and then tens, forming an arc that crossed the entirety of the street and blocking our way through. Their little plastic eyes glowed red, their little silvery legs bowing out and then back in, as they chanted a low, electronic chorus:
"Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup..."
Red is never a good color.
A hoof made entirely of off-white light, with no weight to speak of, draped itself across my shoulder.
"So, what'll it be, friend?" asked Faux-Flam, nonexistent mustache a-quiver. "Yea or neigh to the opportunity of a lifetime?"
"You don't want to pass this one up, believe you me!" Faux-Flim chipped in with an affirming hoof-swing.
The battalion of expectant little robots just kept chanting, "Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup..." They raised their right hooves, in perfect synch, as though in salute. Each wielded a clip-on tool resembling a little drill, the tips of which began glowing a bright green. And suddenly, my EFS lit up with a forest of amber lights.
Oh, THANK YOU very fucking much! The realization struck me: nopony would paint a store in black polka-dots.
"Ahhh... I left my money in my hotel suite. I can just go get it, and we can work out some sort of -"
Both Faux-Brothers flickered with static this time, a purely electronic voice buzzing from each: "REJECTION SUBROUTINE 1A: HOME-SECURITY DEMONSTRATION AND RE-PITCH."
I didn't need to be told what was going to happen next. It was going to be the same thing as had happened to previous passers-by.
All of those amber bars went red, just as I turned and bolted for the vandalized curio store with Pink-E hot on my fetlocks. Green flashes of magical death crackled through the air, two of them grazing my barding with pencil-thin streaks of black before I leapt through the window's jagged-glass border to safety.
Momentary safety. The store was just a big single room of smashed-up display cases with a long counter at the back, the colorful beads it had once sold to tourists now scattered across the floor, while a few remaining rugs hung and rotted on the walls. Outside, the clacking on pavement of hundreds of tiny metallic hooves let me know me that the "security demonstration" included a pursuit mode.
After two centuries without maintenance, why was it that the crazy-shooty part of a robot's programming was never the bit that went offline?!
With no time to ponder the perversity of the inanimate, I ran to the back wall to scrabble at one rug and then another. The third swept aside, revealing the service door I'd been counting on --- no front-door deliveries for businesses at a high-end place like the Royale, no matter how cheesy the trinkets! Fortunately the lock was a simple twist-bolt, which opened readily enough after a little jiggling against the rust of ages.
Unfortunately, I discovered as Pink-E and I dodged out the back, the first salvo of little green power-blasts erupting from behind us, there was no way to re-lock the door without the key. Cursing, I left it and charged up the alley, exiting onto another street just around the corner from the store with the deadly sales-pitch. I turned right and kept running, looking for someplace we could hide from our pursuers. Besides, the navigational arrow on my PipBuck pointed in this general direction anyways.
We were out of the commercial district and into a more utilitarian one, passing the column-fronted facade of the "First Equestrian Royal Bank" to one side and a "Visitor's Center" to the other. The doors to both had been smashed in; if we tried hiding there and weren't fortunate enough to find a way to barricade the openings, we'd just get trapped. Galloping on down the block, I was thankful for the small mercy of Pink-E's uncustomary silence as we finally found an intact set of double doors and ducked inside.
My brain hadn't quite registered the shield symbols, both over and upon the doors, as I closed and bolted them behind us. Nor had it properly assessed the two amber bars which appeared in my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle upon our entry. As long as it wasn't red, I didn't really care at the moment!
Only after I'd locked us inside did I notice that just past the dusty desks and file cabinets one might find in any pre-War police station, there was a single big jail cell dominating the room. Just outside the cell, half-turning to stare at us, stood a Diamond Dog in exceptionally fancy clothing --- burgundy velvet smoking jacket over white shirt, beige trousers and a yellow ascot, all impeccably tailored. I was sharply reminded of the last Diamond Dog I'd seen, also unusually well-dressed, before his brains had splattered all over creation and Slimm Pass had come tumbling down.
In his right claw was a tin penny-whistle, the kind you sometimes saw caravaneers carving and bending out of old cans as giveaways for the children of their regular customers. In his left was the key to the jail cell, already turning in its associated lock.
My brain finally caught up to what my eyes were seeing IN the cell as the lock clicked open.
It would have been easy to describe it as simply "the biggest, darkest, most dangerous-looking pony I've ever seen", which would have been a distinct injustice. It was MASSIVE, nearly filling the cell with its --- HIS --- muscular bulk. He wouldn't have fit in there at all, if he hadn't been lying down and curled up with his head on the floor. The coat, mane and tail were all of a glossy black, overgrown fetlocks nearly hiding silver-colored hooves. A long, spiral horn of matching silver jutted upward from a broad, thoughtful brow.
I'd have thought he was a unicorn, albeit an oversized freak of nature, if it hadn't been for the huge set of bat-wings growing out of his shoulders.
The alicorn turned subdued red eyes on me, ruffled out his mane within that confined space, and asked: "Food or friend?"
Pink-E, taking this monster completely in stride, piped up with, "Friend? I love making new friends! We're definitely friends, you betcha!"
He didn't so much as blink. "I hear only noises from machine." His gaze locked on me. "What about this one?"
"He's food," barked the Dog, backing away from the opened cell door. "Kill him and let us be on our way!"
"You carry atonement and voice," admonished the alicorn, "but you do not speak for whole world." There was a momentary flare of red along his horn, expanding into a flash which enveloped his imprisoned body... and suddenly he wasn't imprisoned anymore, having teleported straight through the bars of the cage. The gargantuan beast heaved itself up onto its hooves and walked slowly towards me, baring sharp white fangs; even though he was crouching slightly, his mane brushed the ceiling. "Food or friend?"
Having finally decided to join the party at this late date, my mind went into overdrive. Saying or doing the wrong thing right now, I was positive, would get me killed. I had to think!
Atonement... he means the cell key? Then that means... Seized by inspiration, I frantically brought up my PipBuck, scanned the command list, and punched a button. A brief burst of static blared out, and then...
...Ev'rypony in the Resident Block!
Is dancin' to the Stable Nine Rock!
Inwardly, I groaned. Of all the tunes that Radio New Pegas could've chosen out of the King's repertoire, why that one?!
The huge alicorn bent down, sniffed at my PipBuck, and then fixed me with an expectant look.
Oh, he doesn't really want me to...
Pink-E's voice took on a worried tinge. "Cherry? I think he wants you to..."
I closed my eyes, breathed in deep, and started belting it out.
"Reactor Boss plays the tenor saxophone,
Pony Joe's blowin' on the slide trombone.
The PipBuck Technician goes crash, boom, bang,
The whole rhythm section is the Maintenance Gang!
Let's rock! Ev'rypony, let's rock!
Ev'rypony in the Resident Block!
Is dancin' to th -!"
A massive hoof pressed on my muzzle. "Friend, then." My eyes opened onto a kindly smile --- which was something of a trick to pull off, what with the protruding fangs, incarnadine irises, and sheer mass behind it. I carefully reached for the radio button and silenced the overly-bouncy melody. Pink-E, meanwhile, kept on happily bouncing around both me and the giant, bat-winged, sharp-toothed monster.
"Yay! A new friend, after all!" She finished up with an excited squee, drawing a glare from the Dog. That glare was quickly redirected back to the alicorn, redoubled.
"Do you not obey orders? I told you to kill them and be done with it!"
The aforementioned monster gave his theoretical master a disapproving look. "I will not feed on him, for same reason I will not feed on you. He has soul."
I think I may have goggled at that. I know my voice sounded like I had. "Seriously? Because I can sing...?"
He snorted. "One with soul is not food. For making music, one must have soul."
Given that I was not acting the part of a mutant alicorn's snack at the moment, I declined to argue the point further. The Dog, on the other hoof, didn't quite want to let it go.
"I have come to liberate you, at great personal price and peril, because the needs of my people demand it," he growled. "Have you already chosen to violate your redemption?"
The great beast lifted, and then smashed, a single huge hoof into the floor with a resounding CRUNCH, his face twisting into a dark grimace. Stepping closer to the Dog --- and leaving a hoofmark the size of my head behind him --- he intoned, "I have collected sins, Redeemer. I will not collect more."
Ooookay, there's a lot more going on here than I either know or probably want to...
I coughed into one hoof. "Ahem. Name's Ch --- I mean, Dead-Shot. Bounty hunter by trade. This's my robot, Pink-E. You two are...?"
The hanging invitation was answered with a low, polite bow of the alicorn's neck, his mane draping like black silk across the floor. "I am God."
Now I knew what it felt like to be completely nonplussed. How do you respond to something like that?
The Dog stepped around God and executed a prim half-bow from the waist. "You may call me 'Dog'."
Pink-E said it before I could. "But...you are a Dog."
He smiled thinly. "Then the appellation is both accurate and sufficient, would you not agree?"
I gave Dog a dead-eyed look. "I don't know about that. With the exception of one other Diamond Dog, I've never seen or heard of any of you folks wearing anything other than cast-off rags or rawhide. You're being pretty damn secretive for someone dressed to the nines in a place like this."
Dog returned my gaze without batting an eye. "A fashion critique, from this month's model for deviant leisure-wear? How droll."
He rubbed his hands together and nodded as though that had settled the issue. "I believe we are done here. I would like to say it has been a pleasure to meet a bounty-hunting pony who wears four-fifths of a 'gimp suit', and who is accompanied by the most eye-searing excuse for a land-mobile fishing lure it has ever been my discomfort to witness, but I consider myself a canine of honesty. Come along, 'God'... we have work." With that, he stalked off towards the exit, the giant alicorn following with the disturbingly meek look of a repentant child expecting to be punished.
Something in that look made me lift a hoof in warning. "Um, I wouldn't go out there just yet, if I were you..."
Dog waved it off. "We are in quite the hurry, sir." He opened the door, turned around, lifted a single claw, said "I bid you -"
- and disappeared amid a barrage of tiny green power-bolts, his silhouette wavering for an instant before collapsing into a cloud of fine grey powder with a piff.
There was a long moment where God simply stared at the pile of settling ash, his jaw nearly on the floor --- and then the behemoth charged, roaring with deafening volume, through a door half his girth and three-quarters his height. In the next moment, I caught myself staring at the God-sized hole and cloud of debris resulting from that impact. The moment after that a scream of pure, bestial rage sounded from outside as God tore into the miniature robot army that had finally caught up with us, the purple twilight beyond the hole lighting up with the Buttercups' magical green fury.
Pink-E turned, giving me a quizzical look. "Gee, Cherry... d'ya think he's angry?"
Footnote: Level Up.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Shoutout to Baldumborat, my eternal inspiration for all things Derpy. I just couldn't type those first lines without thinking about how it would sound in her voice...!