CHAPTER TWELVE: For a Hoof-Full of Derps
I don't think it's nice, you laughin'.
The interloper took another drag on his cigarette. Another exhalation sent smoke puffing from between gaps in the decayed muscles of his neck.
After about a minute of the three of us just staring at him, his too-easy smile began to look a little forced.
"Eh, kid... this's the part where you act all surprised to see a genuine pre-War celebrity. Y'know, go a little nuts, maybe ask for my autograph, that whole bit...?"
I gave him a flat look from under the brim of my mushroom-smeared stormchaser. "Never heard of you."
His expression went from "smugly expectant" to "shot by best friend" in zero-point-one second flat. I'd've sworn I could hear the crack of his jaw breaking the sound barrier on its way to the floor. Then again, as a ghoul, various of his body parts might well make similar noises on a regular basis.
"You've never heard of Domino Mask?! Original founding member of the 'Hat Pack'? The headliner, five years running, Kaiser's Castle?"
Somehow, his cigarette managed to stay in his mouth, but its ember was rapidly being eclipsed by the fire boiling those dead-green eyes down to little chips of malachite. The ghoul stepped forward, angrily pressing his face into mine, reeking of a cologne my brain immediately dubbed "Tanning Solution #5".
"Unless New Pegas burned to the ground --- and I think I'd've noticed, even from here --- there's no way in Celestia's heaven or Luna's hell you haven't seen my posters plastered from one end of town to the other. I paid good goddess-damned money to make sure of that!"
I pressed right back, harnessing my building annoyance to shove the pinstripe-clad ghoul halfway out the door. "That'd assume I gave a buck about anypony's two-century-old posters, mister. Books and magazines have practical value, but promotional crap for dead acts? Doesn't."
Head-to-head, we were now shoving in equal measure back and forth across the townhouse's threshold, my poor abused hat getting squished in the middle. Domino growled, "Do I look dead to you, you ignorant fucking tourist?"
God cleared his throat, calm and collected and bass-toned once more, like he hadn't just had the world's shortest mental breakdown. "Let us confirm or deny that. Food or friend?"
Oooh, I've seen THIS number before! I backed away, watching as God stood up and approached Domino with a broad smile that sported both fangs, and looked forward to seeing this slick-talking ghoul try to worm his way out of -
Dust-whirls, on the plain
Making patterns, as we trot down Lover's Lane
Seems that each new step is somehow, preordained
I've not traveled this way... before...
"Worm", nothing. He just loosened up and slid right into the number, like it was the most natural thing to croon bluesy baritone for a cannibal demon-alicorn.
Those clouds up in the sky
Go on forever, but we know, by-and-by
They'll fade out like the sunshine of our lives
Love seemed that way, before...
Slowly he traversed the room, swaying in rhythm , leaving pungent grey contrails of cigarette smoke in his wake. Every now and again he'd pause for a sweeping gesture or gentle nod to punctuate his song, then resume that practiced stride, as though he were performing for a crowd of thousands.
Now that I've found you, no doubt's left in my heart
I've blown the changelings all away
It comes clearly as we each play our own part
Balefire won't burn away
Our coming, dawning day...
I stole a glance at my erstwhile "companions".
Pink-E was slowly bobbing and turning, following the singer's moves with polite interest. But God? He was completely enraptured by the honey in that voice. The demon-alicorn had flopped onto his belly and propped his head on his hooves, ears perked forward while those ruby-red irises threatened to transmogrify into little heart shapes.
Ew, gay... ooooor maybe he just really really REALLY appreciated music. I shivered for a moment, hoping God's allegiances weren't overly prone to swapping. I hadn't a prayer of matching this guy's pipes!
New Pegas, in the night
Like love of Cadence for Armor, Shining... bright!
And maybe with a little passing luck
We might have again, what we've had... before...!
Like dust-whirls and high clouds
History just fades... away... because
It can never be exactly like...
By the time the last notes trailed off into the night air, I wasn't just feeling a bit nervous. I was feeling good and ready to kick myself. Here I'd gone and given this buck a ration of shit for claiming to be exactly what he was, and the fact that he was actually damn good made it worse. Every stomp of giddy applause God doled out was like a hammer nailing what little conscience I had to the floor.
Okay, so I AM an ignorant tourist. But Celestia fuck a buck! How did he know...?!
Domino noticed my discomfort and turned a professional screw-you-sir smile my way.
"I've been around here long enough to see at least three other tourists try to enlist this guy's services since he showed up. From a respectable distance, of course. Having seen how he goes after the Ghost Herd like a hog in slops, I was considering paying his little 'Casa de Hobo' a visit myself. Looks like you beat me to it."
He stopped, rolled his eyes, and made a show of rubbing his chin. "Which reminds me," he drawled out, "I still gotta deal for ya. Interested?"
Unbidden, Pink-E bounced her way into the conversation. "What kinda deal?"
That prompted the raise of an entirely-too-intact-for-a-ghoul eyebrow. "Kid --- if this 'bot don't answer to you, personally, ya mind if I just shoot it? 'Mom's the word', ya might say."
I bodily shoved Pink-E back with both forehooves. "Let's just say it's a very personal relationship, and I'd take it really badly if you managed to damage any of h --- its --- memory cores."
If Domino noticed the brief slip, he didn't let on. The well-groomed ghoul just shrugged. "Your funeral, kid. Speaking of which, you're planning on heading into the main casino soonish, ain't'cha?"
I put my best blankface on, but before I said a word he annoyedly waved me off.
"Don't even try to feed me any brahminshit. From here on in, there ain't nothing but Ghosts, the Pink, and the casino. And I've been watching... you've made a zippy little bee-line past a dozen prime spots any real looter would be drooling over. Not to mention that anypony going after this guy," he added, poking a hoof in God's direction, "has made it pretty obvious that he was just there to get them through the Ghosts."
He gave the alicorn a polite nod. "No offense, big fella."
God returned the gesture with a graciously regal air. "None taken."
I snorted disgustedly and rolled my eyes. "Okay, fine, yes. Not that this was the plan anyways. I'm -"
"After the Auto-Doc Seven," Domino casually interrupted, making a show of inspecting his hoof for chipping. "Same as the other tourists who've been bouncing around the place in those goofy rubber 'Fun Suits'." He stole another glance at Pink-E, who just smiled at him. He shivered. "Ah, again, no offense meant."
"None taken!" squeaked the floating head of Great-Great-Grand-Aunt Pinkie Pie.
Sometimes I needed to focus on such details to remind myself that, at some point, my life had turned into one long slide down a rabbit hole. My dream of amassing enough wealth to hunker down somewhere safe and private, while the rest of the world went off and fucked itself without involving me in the process anymore, seemed to get more remote with each passing day.
I fixed Domino with a sidewise look. "So you're gonna tell me you know where it is, right?"
He preened, striking a pose with a hoof in his jacket pocket. "Of course."
My look didn't waver. "And there's a catch to getting your help recovering it, right?"
Neither did his pose. "Naturally."
He took a last long drag on his cigarette, dropped it, and crushed the butt into the carpet. Smoke seeped out from his neck and jacket, wrapping around his head in a toxic wreath before he spoke again.
"You can have the Auto-Doc. But you'll never get through the Pink without somepony who's hung around this place long enough to figure its drifts, its patterns. Somepony who knows where and when it puffs up from below, how to avoid the thick parts, and where it gets thin enough to dodge through before your hide turns to slime."
He brought up those dead-green eyes, staring into mine.
I don't care what God thinks. There's nothing behind those windows.
"You and your new friend, meanwhile, are what I need to get through the Ghost Herd and into the casino myself. All the way to Eclair's little Stable. Even then, I guarantee you'll still need me to get it open. So you get what you want, and I get what I've been hanging around here to grab for two centuries."
My head finally got around to clicking that piece into place. "You're after the Derp Money."
A half-crazy grin threatened to split the creaking flesh of Domino's muzzle; he visibly fought the impulse down before continuing. Despite his well-preserved appearance, the old crooner still bore the leathery skin of any ghoul... he'd just taken obvious pains to not let himself fall apart under the weight of years. But that didn't say anything about the condition of his brainmeats.
Domino's voice slipped down half an octave, smoothly exchanging the brush with insanity for caustic, tightly-controlled mockery. "Yeah. Eclair's fabled golden treasure. Smug bastard spent weeks bragging about how he was going to win the heart of that stupid pega-floozy with a personal palace of riches. Riches that'll make it worth living the rest of whatever eternity I've got left to me. Riches I'm fuckin' owed."
He pranced a quick circle around me, creaking slightly with each step. "And from how the radio tells it, New Pegas is still in the market for quality talent. Place might be a little run-down by now, but money and fame never change, baby." The ghoul paused to pull a fresh pack of cigarettes from a pocket, draw one out, and fire it up with an old burnished-silver lighter. "It'll be just like..."
He raised his head and swept up a hoof, a snippet of his showpony refrain returning:
A sudden growl from my belly decided me that since I'd gotten a floor show, now was probably a good time for dinner too. It was already well after midnight, I hadn't had anything since sundown, and the odds were high that there'd be little chance for a break once we left Ms. Hooves' old digs.
Normally I might've decided to push on. Pink-E didn't need anything, God'd just eaten, and Domino didn't look hungry... not for food, anyways. But screw them. Being chased around the medical clinic and damn near dying of asphyxiation in the process had taken a lot out of me. I started rummaging through my packs, putting together the fixings for a light meal: some canned pre-War meat ("Cram THIS in your face!" demanded the label blurb), half a loaf of old trail-bread, a Sparkle-Cola...
I looked up, suddenly conscious of the fact that nopony was saying or doing anything.
Domino was staring at me like I was an idiot. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and tapped ashes onto the floor. "Kid... you've got a paid-up suite at the Casino Royale, and you're going sack-lunch?" The ghoul reached into the pocket of his jacket, produced a small pile of golden coins, dumped them into the little red machine, and turned to select Dining from the room's screen menu. "I swear, this is the first and last time I take pity on a tourist."
Everything in the room moved at once. The couch and coffee-table flipped over (so did my heart!), while other parts of the floor opened up and disgorged new furniture. But before my wasteland-honed preservation instincts had a chance to reach full panic mode, it was already over and the entire room seemed to have changed.
Where the couch had been was now a low round table, laid with white linen and surrounded by plush blue pillows in silver frames. Clean white plates, matching bowls, silverware, and glasses for wine and water sat atop blue mats of woven straw. From the center of the table rose a metal dome with a little green light on top.
Domino took a seat on one of the pillows, cleared his throat, and spoke towards the dome. "Lemme get a summer Vivaldi to start, with a baked and julienned red onion for the appetizer. Ranch on the side." The ghoul nodded towards me and God. "C'mon, siddown and order up. It's paid for."
Not without a bit of trepidation I settled onto a pillow, half-expecting the thing to be an ancient mess of mildew and bugs. Instead, it turned out to be surprisingly soft and comfortable. I felt my eyebrows go up.
It was brand-new! Nothing in the wasteland is brand-new!
God followed my lead, neatly crushing his pillow and its frame almost flat. His muzzle twisted into a frown and he pinned his ears back. "I do not see the benefit in this. Where is the food?"
Domino just laughed. "Ya gotta order something, big guy. Just tell the dome there what you want."
God leaned in, looking a little self-conscious, and eyed just about everywhere but the dome. "Meat."
The light on top switched to red and there was a brief buzz. Domino face-hoofed --- very lightly, I noticed, almost as if he was miming the reaction. "Little more specific?"
While the ghoul and demon had a brief back-and-forth about getting a meal from machinery, I shot Pink-E a sour look. "You knew about this, didn't you?"
She bobbed her head in the affirmative, smiling like she'd just taught a pet radroach how to fetch. "Yepper-pepper! My files indicate that no fewer than thirteen attempts by Ministry of Morale agents to acquire nanosprite technology from the Casino Royale failed right here in this very room!" She rotated slightly, in that cocking my head without a body attached way she had, and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Then again, my files might be cross-referencing the Marzipan Incident."
I'd caught about half that. "Wait, there's supposed to be something here actually worth stealing?" I looked around, but didn't see anything that particularly stood out. She couldn't mean the monitor, and, as nifty as it might be, I couldn't see how or why a pony would steal a furniture-replacement system.
Pink-E giggled. "Oh, you bet! But you can't see nanosprites --- they're teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, eensy-weensy -"
That old familiar feeling of wanting to shoot annoying robots began to slide back up on me. "I get it..."
"- little machines that kind of look like bloatsprites, before bloatsprites got all tainted and bloated, when they used to be called parasprites, and they'd eat all your food but then Twilight Sparkle, who later became a Ministry Mare but that's a whole other story, hit 'em with a spell and they stopped eating food and started eating everything else, so when the War broke out Robronco started studying how to adapt parasprite magic to industrial manufacturing, 'cause see, the idea was that you could feed a mechanical version of a parasprite just about anything and then it could spit that out as something else, like turning scrap metal into bullets, but then there was this horrible accident, and a city almost got eaten, and then..."
If she had been a living pony, or even a ghoul, Pink-E would have had to pause for at least one deep breath at some point. Since that wasn't going to happen, I tried ignoring her so I could order that promised meal.
"Let me get a -"
*BZZZZZZT!* Red light.
"How about -"
*BZZZZZZT!* Red light... and this time, my ears caught the faint sound of feedback. Pink-E's blathering was screwing up my order! Just about ready to turn and yell at the little 'bot, I suddenly noticed that Domino was glancing in her direction --- and trying to look like he was still fully engaged in explaining a "menu" to God.
What was she going on about that he thought was so important...? I cocked an ear back, trying to refocus on her unfocused rambling.
"...so then the Ministry of Morale found out that the Casino Royale bought a license to continue Robronco's development of 'nano' technology, which just means really small anyways, through [INFORMATION REDACTED] at... huh?"
The little pink robot stopped and blinked with what I could swear was genuine surprise. "Through [INFORMATION REDACTED]... no, wait, um, [CLASSIFIED]..." Her rubbery expression shifted to a very convincing version of annoyance. For some reason, the idea that she could be annoyed by herself made me feel a little better inside.
"That's not right... I've got clearance! Pinkie Pie installed my clearance, honest-buffalo she did! Let me try... [FILES LOCKED BY ORDER OF THE OFFICE OF INTER-MINISTRY AFFAIRS, DIRECTOR E. R. HORSE PRESIDING]... what?!"
That brief sense of schadenfreude began to slip away, replaced by a growing sense of wrongness. "Pink-E..."
Domino wasn't pretending not to watch anymore. Now, he looked like he was staring at a balefire bomb ticking off a two-minute countdown. "O.I.A.? Your 'bot's carrying around classified info from the fucking O.I.A.?"
Pink-E started wobbling in mid-air, her eyes corkscrewing in their sockets. "This isn't right! Plotting data references against timetable Alpha Gamma Six, cross-referencing against 'Big M/T': [TERMINAL ACCESS DENIED]." I could smell smoke as her voice rose to a pitched squeal. "Oooooh! This is so frustrating! Let me IN THERE! I KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE!"
Suddenly everypony was staring at me, upright on my hind legs with my forelegs and face raised to the ceiling. I could hear my shout beginning to echo faintly back from the streets beyond the doorway. Aside from that, everything and everypony had gone dead quiet --- even Pink-E.
Her eyes blinked, once, accompanied by an unusual whir-and-click. "Command-line authority recognized. Resuming normal subroutines. So anyways, yeah, the Ministry of Morale wanted to find some schematics to help figure out how they finally got the whole ‘nanosprite’ thing working." She bit her lower lip for a moment, as though worried that saying even this much would set off something in her programming again.
God, looking completely nonplussed, leaned forward and cleared his throat to say something. Domino, Pink-E and I turned to give the crimson-eyed alicorn a collectively expectant look... what could he, the god-pony with the technology issues, be thinking about all of this? About a machine, like Pink-E, that could be surprised by unknown quirks in its own programming? About the implications in making something new, just by feeding another machine something old? Or about ponies long dead, whose ancient machinations yet lingered like a plague upon the living?
“Roast brahmin. Rare. Twenty kilograms. Now.”
The dome in the middle of the table went ding, slid open on one side, and instantly spat out an overloaded platter of steaming red meat. Except for the sounds God made, supper went quietly after that.
* * * * *
The alicorn and the ex-lounge singer seemed to get along like kernels on the same cob as we made our way out of the posh district. The one would toss off occasional verses of song for his newfound audience, while the other answered questions about his origin and abilities in return. God didn't appear to mind the polite interrogation, but I can't say it didn't bother me that the ghoul was having such an easy time pumping him for information. I resolved to keep a close watch on the key that God had decided made me his "Redeemer".
"You can eat magic?!" Domino's gait and attitude were practiced-smooth, but the tone gave away his incredulity.
God placidly clopped along to one side, rumbling his response. "All alicorns can absorb magical radiation, even subsist upon it to an extent. A spell is a magical construction, much as bread is a construction of grain. Though I knew them scantly before my expulsion from Unity, I doubt it is different for my former sister siblings."
Domino took a moment to absorb that before following it up: "So, a big buck like you must really need a lot of fuel to get by, huh? I've seen ya out hunting. Watched ya tear up and chow down an entire Ghost pack, once."
God shook out his mane indifferently. "That which I do not immediately use is stored for emergencies, or for what you would call 'lean times'. And while magic may sustain, it does not... satisfy."
I eyed the alicorn sidelong at that sudden shift towards a darker tone, but said nothing. Normally I'd've also had a major issue about all the gabbing and casual attitude --- this was the Casino Royale, and I would have preferred to keep as low a profile as possible.
But Domino didn't seem a bit worried. Being as that he was as close to 'friendly and knowledgeable local guide' as Celestia could have provided, I figured that if he wasn't concerned, I shouldn't be. Didn't mean I didn't keep my eyes and ears open, regardless...
And a good thing, too. I heard the faint crackling of radio static, just before crossing beneath a terracotta arch leading into a four-way intersection. Stopping to look up, I spotted an old public-address speaker hanging by a pair of twisted wires, which sparked where their protective sheaths had been worn through by decades of rubbing against one another.
The minor and remote threat of potential electrocution wasn't the problem, though. The problem was the radio box the PA speaker's wires led to; whoever had designed this place had apparently decided not to bother with ground-wire connections. What were the odds that this was one of those "radio interference zones" I'd been warned about?
Any odds, I figured, were too high to risk the embarrassment of having my nominal allies watch me blow up like a party balloon. Again. Pulling my gussied-up old varmint rifle from its pack holster, I could feel my ears burning pinker than normal from the memory of having that happen in front of God. I sure didn't need any hassling from smart-mouthed ghouls thrown into the mix!
One nearly-silent pyewt produced a louder squawk from the radio as it went dead.
Glancing to either side as we passed through the intersection, I could see the streets curved away until line-of-sight was blocked by villas and offices and shops that all looked the same: un-looted. Domino caught my attention with a cough, followed by a grim headshake and forward-pointing hoof. My greedy little inner pony grumbled as we moved along.
The air slowly came to resemble a tinted veil, casting everything in bubblegum hues and leaving a sickly-sweet taste on the tongue. Wisps like cotton candy would drift past at fetlock level, Domino hopping idly over them as they passed. God and I followed suit, and even Pink-E gave a pointless little bounce each time, despite already floating half-a-length above it all.
Every now and again, one of us would hear another burst of static from somewhere, and we'd hold up until I could find and pop the squawker. At first, the delays annoyed Domino --- until God whispered something in his ear. The next time I caught his smirking look, I felt my ears start burning until I flicked them beneath my stormchaser.
The streets here were a bit narrower, but the buildings had gotten taller by an extra story. Still following the same terracotta-and-tile motif from the outlying villas back near the main gate, the idea had probably been to foster the atmosphere of an old-time-Mexicolt fiesta town. It even had place- and street-names mostly in bastardized Asspañol, such as the "Rio del Loco" we followed now.
Absent any party-goers or decorations --- or, for that matter, much to indicate that living ponies had set hoof here before us --- the "River of Crazy" was nothing more or less than silently claustrophobic. There wasn't even any graffiti, though a few patches of brown paint suggested there had been at one point.
Domino caught my wandering gaze. "Ghost Herd cleans up everything out here, same as when they were alive. Don't ask where they get the paint from."
I smirked at him, despite the tense atmosphere. "Yeah? How about that plasma-blasted toy store back there?"
He chuckled, then stopped and held up a hoof. Several lengths ahead, a sewer grate suddenly ejected a pony-sized puff of pink, which the ghoul watched carefully as it drifted away into an adjoining alleyway. Once the danger had passed, he picked up the pace and the conversation as though nothing had happened.
"Sure. You could set your watch, or in your case, that PipBuck, by it. You don't see more than one of them try it at a time, though, 'cause the further they go from the center, the more they disperse. Dunno why, so don't ask that either."
The ghoul gave me a serious look with those dead-greens. "What I do know is that they'll stand there and do their thing while ignoring anything thrown at 'em. Eventually they get disintegrated like anything else," and here he gave a significant nod towards God, "but even then, I've seen the ash itself fucking-well regenerate. Only thing that ever puts one down permanently seems to be a solid headshot. Or, well..." Another nod at the alicorn.
This time God was looking right back at him. "I am that which I am." He shrugged those broad shoulders, as if the short sentence had explained everything.
But it was something the ancient show-pony had said that really didn't sit well with me. I gave him a dubious look. "So what you're saying is that, over multiple centuries, the Ghost Herd's been getting its numbers zapped one by one, like bugs in a high-power lamp. Just how damned many of 'em are there?"
Domino suddenly waved a follow-me hoof and bolted a good dozen lengths. We followed suit --- just in time for another alleyway to disgorge a roof-high avalanche of pink fumes behind us. A few seconds slower on our part, and... I didn't want to think about that just now. My brain, on the other hoof, decided to replay some of the choicer recordings from Pirate Friends Radio, sending an involuntary shudder up the length of my spine.
The stuccoed porticos, little blue-tiled fountains and random drifts of pink death impressed upon me the sense of being blocked in, a feeling which only got stronger with every few lengths we moved deeper into the Royale.
It was God who, breaking the awkward silence, finally provided an answer to my question. Or rather, opened up a few new questions: "No matter how many are consumed, always more come from below. It is a worthwhile relationship."
It was Pink-E who, in her inappropriately-upbeat way, made the new questions moot: "Hey! Listen! A bunch of mean old meanie-pants are coming this way!"
Red bars flickered into existence ahead, my PipBuck updating its Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell with Pink-E's telemetry. From further down the street, whorls of pink mist began to gather, accompanied by muffled clopping noises. Behind us, the wall of Cloud had slowly begun dissipating towards something we might be able to duck through... eventually. The timing was way too convenient to be a coincidence.
Galloping to the nearest villa on our left, I tried the door. Naturally, it was locked. I fumbled with my screwdriver and bobby pins for a moment before Domino bodily shoved me out of the way.
"Step aside, kid," the old ghoul muttered, producing a set of professional pre-War lockpicks from his tuxedo jacket, "Let a pro handle this. You just keep 'em off my flank, willya?"
That, I could do. "God, start in on 'em as soon as you can. Pink-E, get up there on the roof and out of the way --- we'll meet you up there once that door's open. As for me..." I still had my good old varmint rifle slung around my neck. Dropping to a crouch, I braced it more for stability than against any recoil, and sighted through its night scope.
Indistinct shadows appeared against the lighter backdrop of mist. Good enough for government work...
I carefully aimed for center-mass, then elevated slightly to get a good sight picture on the sphere-like blob that could only be the thing's head. Holding my breath, I gave a gentle squeeze of the tongue and pyewt went the silenced rifle.
Thwap! came the sound of a solid hit. I grinned with satisfaction, worked the rifle's bolt to eject the spent round and load another, and then my scalp tried to crawl off my head at the scream --- not of pain, but fury --- that warbled back down the street.
A horde of yellow-clad figures came charging out of the pre-dawn gloom. Their bubble helmets held nothing but the pink glow of equally transparent skull-faces, their voices joining into a single scream like a hideous choir. One of those helmets, and the face behind it, was already re-sealing the little hole my beloved varmint rifle had punched.
God threw me a curious look over his shoulder: "You appear to have angered them, Redeemer..."
The only reason the rest of us didn't die right there was because the black, bat-winged alicorn presented the Ghosts with an irresistable target, plowing headlong into their first wave like some dark avenger of the night.
But that wouldn't last. More red bars were appearing on my EFS, though they seemed further off. Domino was still working on that door and my rifle was useless here. I stuffed it back into its pack-holster, mouthed the ten-millimeter pistol that had once belonged to another of Mr. Horse's poor damned errand-bucks, and triggered the PipBuck's Spell-Assisted Targeting function.
The world halted in freeze-frame. God was simultaneously rearing up to kick a Ghost at his front, while turning his head to bite at another which had leaped and was trying to grab his neck with its forelegs. I decided that one needed to die first, in large part because if I missed it I'd also likely miss God. I preferred to minimize the odds of making yet another hell-beast angry at me.
I queued four shots, all targeted to its head, groaned at the low projected odds for a hit, then let fly.
The heavy pistol bucked against my jaws, once, twice, thrice... what's the term for four times? "Quice"? It didn't matter. Only one shot struck home, the other three gouging holes in the stucco wall beyond. Still, that one hit was clean: the creature's ghostly head exploded, coating the inside of its helmet with dark pink viscera like a giant gum bubble had popped. The stricken Ghost tumbled to the asphalt like a rag doll and lay still, venting a jet of pink gas from the hole.
Knowing SATS would need some time to recharge, I lined up the pistol's iron-sights on a second Ghost trying to get around God's flank. Now this was my normal bread-and-butter style --- PAM PAM PAM went the gun, and the Ghost's helmet shattered under the triple-strike lead barrage. So did its head.
But this time, the pent-up pink within exploded from its now-helmet-less neck. I scrabbled backwards as the poison spread out into the street, nearly bumping into Domino. I hoped the rising worry in my voice wasn't too obvious: "How's that coming along, old-timer?!"
On the ground next to him were two small bits of a broken bobby pin, and he was wiggling a third free with his picks. "Some moron tried forcing it," he growled. "I gotta get this crap outta there first, and bugging me about it ain't helping!"
God had already eviscerated two of his assailants, but while he was engaged with trying to consume one, the other resealed its suit and rejoined its brethren. While he ate the one, like a bilge-pump sucking sludge, the others were able to get a few solid strikes in, though the big alicorn seemed almost to take them in stride. For now.
"The others are almost here!" Pink-E shouted down at us. I counted another five bars incoming, in addition to the three --- crunch, munch, slurp, make that two --- still on God. There was no time left to let this play out.
I thrust a hoof at the door Domino was working on. "God! Make a hole! Domino, MOVE!"
The ghoul's self-preservation instincts were definitely firing on all chambers. As the big alicorn turned and charged for the door, he scrambled to one side, pulling out a sizable revolver from his jacket and turning to unload it on one of the pursuing Ghosts. I took the other.
By the time God hit the door, we were already spreading a hail of lead into his wake. Both Ghosts went down, their helmets exploding with a wash of pink that joined the rest in surging towards us. An instant later the air filled with splinters and powdered stucco, our cue to turn and gallop through the alicorn's breach.
As though making up for the jammed lock, fortune presented us with a flight of stairs just a few paces within. The ground floor otherwise was just a clumped-up ruin of rotted furniture and pre-War bric-a-brac. God was stomping his way up the stairwell, all flanks and fetlocks; we followed after as the cotton-candy Cloud began pressing through the smashed doorway behind us.
The alicorn pulled a hard right turn at the top, kicked in the door, and squeezed his way through with a grunt. We wasted no time in joining him, but before I could slam the door shut and start looking for something to barricade it with, Domino stopped me. "Hang on," muttered the ghoul, "I got this." He took a moment to reload his gun.
I'd heard the sharp report from that pistol down below, but there hadn't exactly been much time for thoughtful analysis. Now as he cracked open the cylinder, removing the spent shells and replacing them with fresh ones, I could see that I was in the presence of a true legend. An Ironshod Firearms IF-69, known by aficionados of bullet-fu simply as "That Gun".
The reason for its fame was equally simple: some lunatic at Ironshod had chambered a pistol to use assault-rifle rounds. That's it. A pistol which fired .223 cartridges, including associated types of specialty ammo from tracer to armor-piercing, so long as you had the teeth and the stones to keep it on target.
It seemed that, for all his advanced years and ghoulification, Domino still did on both counts. He stuck That Gun, and his head, back out into the stairwell and started firing without another word. His head kicked back with each shot, but the buck held his ground until the cylinder went dry.
I took his place with the ten-mil while he reloaded again... but I needn't have bothered. There was a pile of yellow-clad corpses on the stairs and floor below, rapidly becoming obscured by the fog billowing out from their shattered helmets and drifting back down towards the ground floor. Not one red bar remained in my EFS.
"Well," I muttered, "No going downstairs for a while."
"That a complaint?" Domino retorted with a grin full of bullets as he worked the Gun's cylinder, spitting fresh rounds into it one by one.
I bit back the pointless snark which came to mind and turned to take a look around, then found myself side-stepping to get out of God's way as the alicorn shoved his way back into the stairwell. The chomping and slurping noises which ensued made asking him why a moot point.
The upstairs room had three attributes which stood out: a single large bed, a rusty old desk with a functional if weathered terminal sitting on it, and half of its walls missing. Like a giant balcony, it opened up onto the rooftop of the neighboring villas, revealing a network of common-access courtyards and service alleys hidden away from public view. To the east stood the Casino itself, dispassionately waiting for new guests as it always had, the faintest hints of dawn beginning to compete with the dusky orange ambience that surrounded and lit its tombstone silhouette.
That wasn't nearly bright enough to get the view I wanted, so I pulled my rifle back out and put its scope to good use once more. Scanning across the tile-roofed horizon, I could see that Domino hadn't been kidding around. The closer to the casino proper, the thicker the Pink Cloud and Ghost Herd got, like sediment murking up a glass of bad well-water.
Even Pink-E seemed at a loss. "That's a lot of bad ponies, Cherry..." A sharp guffaw snapped my head around.
"Bwa-hahahah! CHERRY?! Your name's Cherry?" A wheezing parody of laughter burst from the gaps in Domino's throat for a moment before he opened up his muzzle to let it out, clutching That Gun to his belly with both hooves. If he'd tried to hold it in his mouth, he'd've shot everypony in the room with the way his jaw and tongue were going.
It's amazing how little it can take for every hateful moment of your colthood to come rushing back at you. Every new place my Dad would take us on his trading rounds, I'd try to keep my name from getting out. Because once it did --- and it always did --- I'd hear the same words, in the same tone. Then there would be a fight. Every time our rounds brought us back to that place, there would be a new round of teasing, from new bullies, and a new string of scores to settle.
And now the cycle was beginning all over again. I felt my blue eyes narrow down to "burn-your-soul" mode, my nose snorting twin blasts of hot anger in the ghoul's direction.
Not that I'd lost it, not yet. That was just me giving fair warning. It was understandable that someone might find the name funny. It was funny. So I let them know just how funny I thought it was, to give them a fair chance to back off and apologize. If they kept on going, or thought the warning itself was funny, then they had no excuse. And I had what the Zebras called casus belli --- a cause for war.
Look at me, I said in the strongest non-verbal terms short of conflict. Notice that I'm about to get violent.
Domino showed no signs of reining it in. He just pointed a hoof at me and then, wiping his eyes with the fetlock, fell over backwards with redoubled laughter. The world began to turn a familiar shade of red and my jaw grew tight.
Somewhere just outside my narrowing field of vision, God squeezed his bulk back through the doorway. In a more lucid moment, I might have wondered how the big stallion had managed to turn himself around within the narrow space of the stairwell. Or why he didn't just teleport back. His booming voice, against the heat thumping through my ears, seemed to come from a long way off. "...Redeemer?"
I took one step towards the ghoul, another, and then a black wall was suddenly in the way. Which was to say, God's barrel chest. Just beyond the impermeable barrier of horseflesh, the hilarity continued apace. Words carved their way up from my throat. "Get outta my way, God..."
"Redeemer, no. You need him..."
I moved left, so did God. Back to the right, and there he was again. Not even a double-fakeout worked, though from the sound of things, Domino must have thought the sight of a little pink pony trying to get at him around a giant black alicorn was even funnier than my name.
Now I was rising up to pound God's chest with my forehooves, snarling and yelling something so incoherent I didn't even understand it. But what I meant was: Get out of my way! I'll fucking kill anypony in my way! MOVE!
He just stood there and took it all. It wasn't that I was doing him no damage, either. It was hard to tell except up this close, but his gloss-black hide was marred with hoof-shaped bruises and even a few indentations from his fight with the Ghosts. He might even have had something broken... and I was doing my best to make it worse. All I cared about at that moment was exacting justified retribution from the laughing ghoul, and this Goddess-damned alicorn was denying me that right! I slammed my hooves into him, as hard as I could, again and again, cutting his hide, drawing his blood, and when I glared up at him, and saw his sad red eyes, I tried wiping that face away...
...Domino was on my back, his forelegs wrapped around me in a headlock, pulling me off of God.
"Kid...! KID! Snap out of it! HEY!"
What? How did he get around behind me?! I snarled and turned my head to snap at him, squirming to get loose, but he already had the advantage and pressed it. My face hit the wooden floor, my hooves scrabbling painfully to either side in a vain attempt to get them back under me.
"Whaddya think you're doing, you idiot?! You could've killed him! Look, damn you!"
Unable to do much else at the moment, I looked.
God's face and chest were a mass of distorted, bloody bruises. He lay slumped before me in a silent black pile, nostrils clogged with dark streams, blowing red bubbles whenever he exhaled. I realized that somehow I was wearing my brass horseshoes, newly-slick with his blood. I didn't even remember how or when I put them on.
Those sad incarnadine eyes lingered on me, for just a moment, from above cheeks lacerated by the punches I'd thrown. Then they dropped to the floor, and he bowed his horned head. Blood dribbled down, creating dual puddles below.
"Thank you, Redeemer. My penance remains yours to afflict, my redemption yours to determine. Thank you."
I stared back down at my red-soaked hooves, at the weighty metal glinting beneath the gore, as Domino slowly let go of me and backed away. He's not stupid. He's probably got That Gun on me right now. I would, in his place.
They were right. They were both right --- we needed God to get us through the Ghost Herd, Domino to get us through the Pink Cloud. God was right to stop me. And hadn't I admitted, even to myself, that my name was funny? All I wanted was a little respect... and I had been ready to kill those who'd thrown in their lot with me, whatever their reasons for doing so, to get it.
Would I have? No. I'd sometimes gotten respect by beating bullies in fights, but I'd always been pulled off them by others, usually adults or the other colts and fillies watching, before it came to a death. What reason would anypony have to respect me, just for killing somepony else in a fit of raw anger? They'd either fear or hate, but never respect. That was the way of it.
I squinted hard against a flood of heat from behind my eyes, unwilling to let it go, to let anypony else see this moment of weakness.
"Hey... look. I'm... I'm sorry I laughed at your name."
I didn't move. If I did, I'd've looked at him through a wash of tears, and I wasn't about to do that. Anything but that.
Awkward, motionless silence dominated the room, broken only by God's quiet breathing and an even quieter beeping from Pink-E. She had busied herself with the old terminal and seemed to be paying no attention to anything else, another in the day's few and small mercies. Domino finally spoke up again.
"Didn't know it was that big a deal to ya." I felt his hoof on my shoulder, and now I looked up at him, my waterworks more or less under control. He forced a smile, but his tone sounded genuine enough. "A buck's name is really all he's got in the end, right? I guess I should know that better than most."
I slowly stood up, nodded silently, not trusting my voice to behave. Then I made the mistake of trying to take a deep breath through my nose, kicking off a snifflefit and a few rounds of my repeatedly trying to wipe it away with a hoof. Domino at least had the good grace to look away and pretend it never happened. God, for his part, was still looking at the floor.
There was really only one thing to do after all of that. The least I could and should do... I walked slowly over to God, pulled a healing potion out of my saddlebags, popped the cork, and upended it over the alicorn's bowed head. He gasped and recoiled, pulling away with eyes gone wide, scooting backwards until he bumped into the wall.
"Redeemer! No...! I... I must suffer the consequences of my actions!" He tried shaking the wetness out of his mane, but the cuts and bruises on his face were already fading back into the realm of normalcy.
I shook my head and pointed to the floor. "You just suffered the consequences of MY actions. Now I'M repenting. Get back down here... or do I have to chase you around with this bottle?"
He shook his head back at me. "You do not understand. My sins are too many, too great, to repent of by myself. That is the purpose of the key. It grants another the right to dole out my penance. How can I achieve a final balance if you are... what is the word...?" The big black alicorn sat there on his rump, suddenly lost in thought with a hoof to his chin.
Pink-E chimed in. "You mean nice?"
God nodded at her. "Yes. 'Nice'. As the penitent, I cannot set my own penance. For there to be penance, I must be penalized for my crimes through the judgments and acts of others."
Now those big red eyes pleaded with me. "Redeemer, if you are 'nice' to me, how can I gain absolution?"
A demonpony with fangs and bat-wings, pleading with me to punish him. How is this my life?
This was probably the best of all possible times for a distraction, and for once Pink-E's timing on that score was perfect. I turned, trying my best imitation of her grin and lilting, squeaky voice. "So... what did you find in the computer?"
She gave me a critical look, peering intently with one sapphire eye and then the other, then seemed to shrug. "Meh... I've seen better. But the files are open right over there, if you want to see for yourself!"
I most certainly did. Anything other than continuing discussions about either a personal hissy-fit or self-imposed flagellation, thank you please! Quickly trotting over to the terminal, I scanned through the documents Pink-E'd been able to salvage from its memory. Three remained, and I read through each in turn:
PRIVATE - PRIVATE - PRIVATE
Unauthorized employees reading this, or other executive materials, are subject to immediate termination.
My Dear Rapid,
I have said before, and shall say again, that your concerns are the unfounded foalishness of mere superstition. There is no such thing as "necromancy", not even amongst Zebras.
It is irrefutable that the shamans of Roam have mastered the arts of rune-craft and talisman development, but our own adoption of these arcane sciences - and that is precisely what they are - has gone without incident, to date. I see no reason to refrain from development of related channels, especially if it can help our war effort in the region of targeted pesticides.
Think of the benefits to be had! Croplands planted with a few properly-engraved talismans, completely immune to infestations! Industrial sites, free from bugs gumming up the works and distracting workers from their tasks! And those are just the little toe-claw on the proverbial Ursa Major!
My department will not be held back any further by your complaints or your baseless, primitive fears. You may think you're a lucky Zebra to be working here, but I have it on excellent authority that these days of government-enforced tolerance are coming to an end.
It may behoove you to seek employment elsewhere before things develop further. Consider this a warning from a mare who was once counted amongst the best of your friends.
Regional Manager (Neighvada)
Eclair Entertainments, Ltd.
Wow. What a bitch. Even if only to a zebra.
PRIVATE - PRIVATE - PRIVATE
Unauthorized employees reading this, or other executive materials, are subject to immediate termination.
I was pleased to make your personal acquaintance at supper last week. As you requested of me then, I have investigated the idea of supportive funding for your talisman-based pesticide development with my superiors.
I believe I told you I would be surprised if they agreed... but they did! There were two catches, however. You will be required to forward copies of all current technical information on your project, in furtherance of a related issue which was already under consideration further up the chain. It seems that your goals happened to be serendipitously in line with what was already sought.
The other catch? Well, as I understand it, you were already considering termination of a Zebra by the name of Rapid River. Simply give him the files for transport, and my superiors will ensure that he is gainfully employed in highly-strategic matters sure to benefit all ponykind.
- Mr. C. D.
Uh-huh. "Gainfully employed." That didn't sound even slightly ominous, considering the previous note.
***CLASSIFIED/RED OM#$% #ERG@Y%Gfgvft4T@#%G
***RED OMEGA CLASSIFICATION LIFTED*** ***ZERO INFORMATION REDACTED***
REMOTE ACCESS GRANTED. Good morning, Minister Pie.
Collation Entry: "Project Pink"
Primary Site: "Big M/T", Section B-17
Subsection: BioChemical Warfare
TEST SUBJECT: Zebra, "Rapid River"
LEGAL STATUS: Insurgent (Convicted - Espionage)
TIME ON TEST: 15 days, 12 hours, 52 minutes, 17 seconds
RESULT: Total molecular dissolution.
(DR. J. BLUE): I consider this test an abject failure. Subject's expiration did not occur until well over a week past initial exposure. Although ultimately the condition incurred was incurable and resulted in dissolution, meeting two of three primary objectives, the debilitation objective was not met for more than forty-eight hours. It can be expected that, after initial battlefield introduction, Zebra forces struck with Agent Pink will choose to launch suicide waves before they are rendered combat-incapable. This will severely limit Pink's strategic and tactical utility.
(DR. Q. OCHO): A simple concern, readily addressed by quark acceleration of the active particle chains. Induction of fire elements through these chains will speed up the dissolution process, theoretically producing a meltdown similar to that seen in the final state of the current subject, within minutes instead of weeks. However, I must point out that this approach is likely to render the desired infection vector improbable, as the chains will not have time to complete the adherence process...
There was more along those lines, but my eyes were starting to feel like bleeding from the technical jargon. I skimmed ahead until I found something more legible:
(DR. TRUEBLOOD [VISITING]): This final process is acceptable. It's just too bad you idiots couldn't have thought to provide your initial subject with a PROPER escort to your vaunted 'M/T' complex. Your bungling forced the expenditure of a special forces unit getting him and his papers back. I'm still unconvinced that he didn't manage to sneak an extra set of copies to Caesar's goons.
So you want my stamp of approval for full militarization of this colossal cock-up? Fine. You still require a 'mass-bombardment' test phase. It just so happens that I know of the perfect site, well away from anywhere that anypony cares about, operated by somepony that NOpony should care about. Specifically, the employer of the same stupid cunt that let the zebra "move to his new job" on his own. It seems that they have a sewer roach problem...
I turned my head to look outside, out across the quarter-mile of alleys and twisting streets between us and the Casino Royale. The sun was just beginning to poke above the treeline-horizon beyond, casting its first rays across the murky fog permeating those streets and alleys. All that murky pink fog.
Celestia's sweaty ballsack.
For all that I liked to think I prized knowledge, sometimes I hated learning new things.
Footnote: Level Up.
Skill Note: Science (25)