CHAPTER THIRTEEN: For a Few Derps More
If you're going to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
Domino stepped up alongside me, casting a casual gaze across the same pink-filled alleys and streets I was doing my best not to grimace at. The immediate reality laid out before me was made worse by the discovery of how it came to be there in the first place.
Bug spray. It's an overpowered-death-magic bug spray, repurposed to kill zebras. It works just fine on us ponies too. On everything that lives. It even worked on our Princesses.
Everypony, down to the village idiots of the most backwater burgs in Coltifornia, knew what had ultimately destroyed Equestria. It wasn't a lack of coal, or a war, or even the hellish rain of balefire bombs.
It was losing the Princesses.
Celestia and Luna were loved and respected by all --- at least publically, if not in some folks' honest hearts. While our ruling deities lived, directing the paths of sun and moon for the benefit of all and stepping in to settle our occasional squabbles even-hoofedly, rebellion and feuding had been undesirable things.
So the zebras bombarded Canterlot. They forced our Sun and Moon to put all their powers into maintaining the city's defensive shield. Then, from within the city itself, they triggered a massive Pink Cloud release. When the shield-bubble filled up, the Princesses and nobles and people inside all just... melted away.
And so did the heart of Equestria.
All because we wanted a better way to protect crops. And then somepony decided it would be even better for killing zebras. And then the zebras got their hooves on it, too.
The end of everything began right here.
The pegasi were first out of the gate, citing the dual loss of Cloudsdale and Canterlot as justification to leave the ancient Triple-Crown Accord. They founded their "Grand Pegasus Enclave", sewed up the skies over most of the continent --- probably would have done it everywhere, if they'd had the horsepower to pull it off --- and declared any pegasus who didn't retreat with them a race-traitor. I briefly wondered what the Zoomers thought of that.
For most of everypony else, surviving Balefire Day didn't mean surviving the Wasteland it left behind.
Even with so many dead, there wasn't enough left to go around. It didn't help that the Enclave's perpetual cloud cover blocked out sunlight and over-watered the land, making it hard for even the best earth-pony farmers to till the soil productively. Here in the Desert Southwest it was the reverse: without dedicated pegasus weather teams to bring rain (not counting the occasional random "assists" from Nellie AFB), our high plains yielded little. We'd've starved out a long time ago, if not for the crops from central Coltifornia's few untainted river valleys.
Scavenging made up the difference for a while, but as pickings grew scarce, fighting began over what remained. Even before that, many had turned to raiding as an easier way to get by than hard, honest labor. What was left of Equestria --- if anything of it really could be said to have made it past B-Day --- broke into hundreds of armed camps, squabbling over the bones left behind.
Who can laugh, in a world of desolation? Who can be generous, when sharing means suffering? Who can be kind, when it invites attack? Who can be honest, when survival demands deception? Who can you be loyal to, when everypony is a cynical, greedy, paranoid liar?
And come to think of it, didn't that last bit describe ME just about perfectly?
I'd taken a dragon's hospitality for the night, then the playing cards off his warm corpse in the morning. I'd left a petty thief nailed to a crucifix, without so much as a drop of water or a mercy bullet. I'd promised to help a buck, just to get the key to his room and rob him blind. I'd gotten so angry at Pink-E's incessant artificial cheeriness, that I said and did things just to twist her programming into a miserable knot.
So much for generosity, kindness, honesty, even laughter. And loyalty? A bounty hunter's loyalty began and ended with a sack of bottle-caps. I felt a smothering blanket of depression settling onto my shoulders.
Celestia help me. I'm just another part of the fucking problem.
Domino bobbed his head, satisfied with his idle survey. "Yeah, that's about what I figured. Time to take the high road, kid."
My self-deprecating reverie popped like a soap bubble, leaving me blinking at the ghoul. "What?"
He turned a smirk born of the ages on me. "The 'high road'. You think I've stayed this good-looking, this long, by hiking around in that crap when I didn't have to?" He pointed a hoof across the rooftops, porticoes and archways, their tops for the most part standing above the Cloud's cresting undulations. "The only drawback's that it wasn't meant as a road. Lotsa scrabbling, climbing, jumping and backtracking to get where ya need to be... or it would be, if I hadn't been doing all that for longer than I really care to think about."
It was like seeing one of those trick paintings, you know, where somepony shows you a black vase but it turns out to be two white Earth ponies looking at one another? Maybe it was because most of the sleep I'd gotten in the last week had been drug-induced, but now that it was pointed out to me...
Uugghh... if only I had some Mint-als right now to help pick myself up. And if only it wouldn't set off a load of whining from the robot-skull of my great-whatever-grand-aunt if I did.
I turned back to see Pink-E and God waiting expectantly. Domino was already, carefully, stepping out of the ruined upstairs bedroom and onto the glazed-clay tiles of the adjoining roof. "Don't slip," he cautioned needlessly. "If the Ghosts hear you hit the ground, they'll come running. And if they don't getcha first, you'll still only have maybe a minute to get outta the Pink."
With that on our collective minds, we moved out on the last leg of this little odyssey.
* * * * *
Well, Domino and I moved out with it on our minds. Pink-E bobbed along on her levitation field, as usual, while God spread out those huge bat wings of his and flapped idly behind us just a pace or so above the tiles. Any higher, and the casino's defensive batteries would probably start picking him up and taking potshots.
It was kind of unnerving how quiet he was, even this close. By all rights, displacing that much air should be sending resounding booms to echo through the streets instead of his fwuf-fwuf-fwuf. Then I remembered:
Freaky alicorn magic. Right.
At least the Asspanic architectural style meant the roof slopes weren't bad, though we still moved slowly and carefully enough to avoid taking chances. Remembering to take my bloodied brass shoes off and stow them away also helped; I stole a look at God as I did so, to see how he was bearing up after my assault. The healing potion had fixed up his face right enough, but the wounds on his chest were slower to heal. Most likely, he was doing that himself, working off some of the magic he'd recently consumed in the form of disintegration bolts and Ghost-pudding.
Thinking about his dietary habits still made me shiver. Despite considering myself a discerning omnivore, I pretty much drew the line at things like sucking the souls of the undead through a juice-box straw. I took a moment to pat the top of my beaten-up old stormchaser hat, sighing with relief at feeling the lump of metal tucked into its interior sweatband. Last thing I wanted was to lose that, and with it God's loyalties.
The second-to-last thing I wanted was Domino behind me instead of ahead. I was pretty sure he'd tried to rifle my kit when pulling me off of God, from the way my stuff had been subtly shifted around without anything actually missing. There was one obvious reason for him to do that... if he had God's jail key, he wouldn't need the idiot tourist or his Ministry-of-Morale 'bot tagging along to cramp his style.
Sure enough, from time to time the ghoul would stop and point something out down below, waving at me to move a little ahead so I could "see better". I would just smile and say that we should keep moving if there wasn't any immediate danger, and that I put my trust in his expertise. He never seemed to take those compliments with better than a sickly smile.
The Ghosts left us alone, so long as we passed their ever-more-numerous clusters slowly and quietly. Once or twice, an inadvertent noise like a sneeze or cracking roof tile drew grunts and inquisitive howls, but they never seemed to look up. Eventually they would move along, and then we would do likewise.
On several occasions, the gaps between "road" segments were too far for me or Domino to leap. Pink-E could just hover across, and God could fly of course, even teleport. Domino explained that he'd always managed before by heading downstairs, crossing the street, and darting back up again, using routes he'd painstakingly cleared of debris over the decades. Why go to all that trouble, though, when God could just ferry us across? I saw no reason to expose ourselves to the Cloud any more than we had to.
But the big alicorn's head shook when I asked if he could take us both at once to speed things along. "My teleportation skills are good only for a few lengths, Redeemer, and I have never used them in conjunction with another being. Neither have I carried another in flight --- one of you might ride aback, but both at once would incur great risk."
Well, it was still faster and safer than running through necromantic bug spray, which was getting ever-thicker the closer we got to our goal. With Domino guiding us and God hopping us over the rough bits, our only real problem was the damned P.A. system.
And the deeper we went, the more literal that seemed to get.
The pops and squawks of the speakers we'd encountered so far slowly came to be replaced by never-ending static, hissing and growling like it had a mind of its own. The moment you heard its first faint whispers, you started developing a headache. The closer you got, the worse the pain, until you realized your nose was bleeding. That was also usually the point where my collar would begin to hiss, whereupon I'd start backing the hell up before I blew up.
I was never happier to have a silenced weapon. If I'd had to take those broadcasters out with the usual bang bang bang, we'd've been swarmed with Ghosts every time. As it was, I sometimes had to wait until one or two wandered away from a speaker, just in case the impact might get their attention.
"Try not to stumble into those close-up, kid," the ghoul said as I popped one at range. "The Pink's soaked into 'em for so long, even the static they put out's necromantic. And no -"
"- you don't know, so I shouldn't ask, got it," I finished for him, another smile on my muzzle to take the sharp off.
"Yeah," he half-muttered, taking a look down the street to make sure I'd hit what I was aiming for, ignoring the lack of static telling him I had. "I've seen a griffin gal try going after one with a sledgehammer. Halfway to it, her eyes started bleeding. She missed, then kept bumping off the walls trying to get outta there. They might say there's no good way to die? Well, that's one've the real bad ones."
* * * * *
Then there's the times you just wish you were dead.
It began with me asking: "How the hell are we going to get past that mess?"
Despite having worked our way up, down, around and across easily a mile's worth of the labyrinthine rooftop route, we'd finally hit a dead end barely halfway to our objective.
Centuries of magical-pesticide saturation had taken its toll on the stucco-and-gypsum-board construction. It had grown increasingly rickety as concentrations of Cloud got thicker, to the point where the last couple of office buildings had rumbled and swayed threateningly when Domino and I jumped from one to the other. A broken stub of archway jutted out halfway across the street, beyond which...
Beyond which was a roiling expanse of pink, lapping against the unyielding monstrosity that was the Casino Royale proper. Built of seamlessly-fitted granite and marble blocks, rising up to tower against the sky, it gave off the inescapable impression of a great tombstone marking the death of an entire civilization.
What buildings had once stood between hither and yon had since fallen beneath the mists, barely visible save for the tips of the tallest ruins. Not even a zebra-circus acrobat could hopscotch across that, and even if she could, it was unlikely that any of the protrusions would hold much weight.
The Pink burbled and hissed with a regular rhythm, setting my teeth on edge.
Domino pointed to our left. "Somewhere down that way, if you're feeling particularly suicidal, are the ponyholes down to the talismans. I spent a year or so triangulating the Cloud's flow, mostly just out of sheer boredom." His hoof swept further left, into a wide arc that took in most of the complex. "From there, the stuff filters through the whole sewer system until it gushes into the Coltorado. Can't've managed to poison Lake Cider yet, or everypony'd be dead and you wouldn't be here. But hey, if you wanna be a big-damn hero? You might even make it down there and shut this crap off before you're slimed."
I shot him a grin. "What? And take God's key with me? You wouldn't mind holding onto it 'til I get back, wouldja?"
For the barest of instants his eyes flashed, and then he caught himself with a not-altogether-forced laugh. "Can't blame a buck for hoping, mister." Then his eyes grew serious. "Just remember, though --- you'll still need me to guide you out, same as I'm getting you in. Don't even think about double-crossing me."
A toss of my head and a dirty look indicated the expanse of Pink between us and the Royale. "Before I double-cross you, I'm pretty sure we've gotta single-cross that."
Pots and kettles... and did he just call me 'mister'? I must be moving up in the world.
Idle banter and one-ups weren't going to solve this problem, though. We were still about an eighth of a mile from where a broad half-moon of marble stairs spilled down from the courtyard patio into the Cloud. Just past that I could glimpse the doors themselves, big and solid and logo-stamped like a letter with unbroken sealing wax. Down below roamed the shadows of Ghosts, moving slowly through the corrosive currents.
A mountainous island awash in pink seafoam, the Royale awaited our decision with monolithic patience.
A sudden thought struck me upside the brain. "Even if we get across, how do we know the doors'll open?"
Domino smirked. "I said I was 'getting' you in. There's probably other ways, somewhere around the place, but I had the penthouse reserved before everything went to Tartarus. Never even got to activate my key... so as far as the casino knows, I'm still paid up with V.I.P. come-and-go privileges."
The smirk shifted into a mocking bow. "And you guys? My valued guests. Just have the big guy fly me over, and I'll get the red carpet rolling."
Oh, like FUN you will. I lifted a hoof to my muzzle and pondered the factors.
We needed the ghoul in first, to get those doors open as quickly as possible, and he at least theoretically still needed us to get him back out past the Ghost Herd. But who knew what really lay inside the Casino itself? He might. For all I knew, he could pull out a passkey, laugh maniacally, activate an army of robots hidden away centuries ago expressly for the purpose of taking over what was left of Equestria, and lord it over everypony like a colt with a toy snowglobe.
Sure, that sounded kind of stupid once I'd had a moment to reflect on it. But in the end, I still didn't know jack from molly about the two-hundred-and-whatever-year-old schemer, much less what he was capable of.
Pink-E, for all that I'd been thinking of her in terms of being a live pony, was an unliving machine. The Cloud's necromantic effects wouldn't likely do much to her, and she should be able to stay above the Ghosts' notice, but her servos weren't powerful enough to carry much more than a set of saddlebags.
And God couldn't teleport that far, or carry more than one of us at a time. If he was still fwuffing his way back to me after dropping Domino off, the ghoul might duck inside and slam the door behind. Maybe Pink-E should go over with him --- and do what, her Mesm-O-Tron thing? Would it even work on a ghoul, and if it did, what was the risk of our doorpony's head spontaneously exploding? There were so many ways this could go pear-shaped on a moment's notice.
"Somehow," I muttered to myself, "we need a way for all of us to get over there at once..."
Pink-E giggled. "Oh, I think I know a way!"
Before I even looked up at her, I knew I was going to regret asking. "You do, huh...?"
Her smile spread from one rubber cheek to the other. "It's really no stretch of the imagination! Don't you always do your best work under pressure? If you just think inside the ball, you'll expand your horizons...!"
I was still working through the pun barrage when an unwanted hissing started up from below my chin.
Luna's coagulated afterbirth, NO!
* * * * *
Squirming and flailing to no effect against the constraints of my godsdamned suit, I wanted nothing more just then but to travel five minutes back in time --- just five fucking minutes! --- so I could warn myself to shoot Pink-E before she did this to me!
How could I have been so stupid?! Built by the Ministry of Morale, programmed by its Ministry Mare, dropping hints all the time about having classified information in her memory blocks... of COURSE she'd have the fucking control codes for the MoM's "Fun Suits"!
Deep down I still thought of Pink-E as a robot, and robots shouldn't be able to make their own decisions. Even so, I should have noticed that she would often do things that seemed random, but were usually meant to benefit me --- from the robot's point of view. Now, she'd figured out a way to get all of us across, and it did have a certain elegant mathematical model to it... the appreciation of which I verbalized as:
"When I get out of this thing, YOU'RE ALL FUCKING DEAD!"
It came out somewhat muffled, given that everything in our collective inventory which could be wrapped protectively around my head, hooves and tail had been. Every other part of me was already covered by the suit itself, which had been inflated to the point that it bulged out around my extremities. At least my stormchaser was still on underneath all the bandages, its ratty old goggles slid down over my eyes for whatever protection that might still be worth.
Great. I'm a rubber-ball mummy. I bet somepony somewhere would pay good caps to see this if they perched me on an Asstec sarcophagus, maybe threw in a stupid ghost story to boot...
Pink-E giggled, Domino barked a laugh, and God called out, "REDEEMER! PREPARE YOURSELF!"
The three of them lifted me up, balancing the oversized spheroid and its unwilling occupant atop the ruined half-archway. Faced with the threat of unbalancing, looking down into the depths of imminent dissolution, I ceased my pointless struggles. It'd become tougher to do, anyways, what with the pit of my stomach having suddenly decided to go on vacation. I wished that I could join it. Maybe on some sunny southern Coltifornia beach, sharing a cold beer together -
God bucked the big blue balloon-suit, and my ass with it, into next week.
For two-point-seven seconds, I prayed to every angelic being I could think of that my slightly-upward trajectory might cross the entire hundred lengths, depositing me neatly and safely on that distant patio of white marble. Once the inevitable drop began I closed my eyes tight, tugged my head as far back into the suit as I could, and silently cursed everypony I'd ever known, starting with Pink-E.
Even through the wrappings, I felt the Cloud caress my scrunched-up face, tickle my hooves, and tease at my tail as the balloon-suit and I plunged into its depths. It wasn't the least bit comforting.
In the space of half a length and one instant, I came to a complete stop, the shock of impact spreading throughout the ball's horizontal axis. The sphere distorted, yanking my neck, dock and ankles apart for that same instant before rebounding up and forwards. I wanted to be thankful that the suit hadn't simply burst on impact, but I felt a cold dread instead as my wrappings loosened just slightly. A renewed set of prayers, this time for the duct tape holding it all in place...
My upward progress began to slow, and then something slammed into the suit below my rump --- Pink-E, doing her job of keeping the momentum going. With her ability to track the suit's collar, as well as any threats and potential terrain problems invisible to the rest of us under all that Cloud, she was acting as both booster and guidance system.
And here comes GOD!
The big black alicorn had his own job. Flapping his way across the swirls of candy-colored necromancy, with Domino and my saddlebags draped over his back, he applied some raw horsepower whenever my ball bounced back into the clear. Pink-E'd called it "dribbling", saying she'd gotten the idea from an ancient game about trotting around with a globe or some other inane drivel. And was God whistling while he did it?
With the Cloud almost three lengths deep, the casino's defenses likely to trigger above five, and the suit itself being a bit less than one-and-a-half wide when pumped this big, the math was clear-cut. Pink-E calculated that after God's kick-off, it would take ten bounces to get me to the patio... assuming nothing went wrong. In theory, it could be done in three, if all caution was thrown to the wind, and I didn't mind a high likelihood of rebounding off the Casino and back into the Pink...
Steady and careful it was, then.
My first trip down had been in utter blackness, being as that I'd had my eyed squeezed tightly shut. This time I couldn't help myself: if death was coming at me, I wanted to see it in time to scream first.
It wasn't the worst idea, and it wasn't the best. I nearly hit a pair of Ghosts walking along below, who startled and reared with surprise.
I bounced over their heads and away, hoping they would forget what they just saw... and then the screaming began. No, not mine! I was saving that for later, when holding my breath might be less important than cursing the planet.
A vaguely sprawling shadow ahead resolved into a giant pile of rubble, and then Pink-E was shoving me up and to the left, sending the suit over a gap and into clean air once more. I chanced a quick gasp, regretting it as the slightest taste of Cloud settled on my tongue, then spat into the wrappings. It was nothing so bad as what we'd been through earlier, but I wanted as little of this stuff in me as possible...
Back down, and now it seemed that we were over a wide, clear space. The screaming of the damned got louder. This time I didn't land anywhere near the Ghosts, but I could see them around the periphery, trotting around and clearly agitated.
The bounce, the rebound, the wrappings were definitely a little looser. Cold sweat prickled in the roots of my mane as I was bumped up to meet God's hooves once more. I thought about trying to shout a warning, though not about the Ghosts... I was sure they could all hear the noise better than I could, at the moment.
But if the duct tape came loose --- well, it didn't really matter anyway. I could figure the odds of reversing course in my head, and they weren't better than just muddling through. Fourth bounce, coming up...
A half-dozen yellow suits with bubble helmets were already converging on where they apparently expected I'd land, much quicker on the uptake than we'd been hoping. Domino had better be able to get those doors open the second we get there! Pink-E bumped me to the right.
I struck just short of a long planter full of slime-encrusted dirt, missing the unwelcoming committee entirely, bouncing away once more as they charged after. A bump from below... and then shortly after, another? Pink-E was extending the bounce for some reason.
The sudden secondary impact popped the tape free from my tail-wrap. I almost let that reserve scream loose as the previous teasing instantly shifted to the sensation of hungry clawing, strands of death-magic plucking at the longer strands of hair trailing behind. Fortunately the suit itself acted as a Cloud-plow of sorts, pushing it briefly aside as I sailed through, but not well enough that it couldn't still grab a nibble.
I mentally revised my list of things I never wanted to happen, moving "Necromancy Eating My Dock" to the top. I could hear Domino shouting something as I reached the apex of this longer arc, but I couldn't quite catch it...
*BOMF* Five. Halfway now...
My goggles were fogging over with Cloud residue. The suit seemed to be holding up well enough, but I couldn't tell how the wraps were doing. I also couldn't tell what the Ghosts were doing. Whatever it was, Pink-E gave me two course corrections on the way down...
...and another pair of boosts going back up. I was definitely going faster, and that was not according to plan. Domino's yelling was louder now, but higher-pitched and rather panicky-sounding. If not for these damned wraps --- which, I reflected, kept my face and other bits from melting off, that being kind of more important than hearing whatever the ghoul had to contribute at the moment.
*BOMF* Faster yet. Now God was accelerating me.
So, are we into 'oh fuck' territory yet?
Other than that, I had no time to think about anything before the next impact.
It knocked my breath out. It popped every shred of failing duct tape free. It shocked my wrappings loose and they fell away. It was all I could do just to keep my mouth and eyes closed as Pink Cloud covered me.
And then somepony was smearing pepper juice into an open wound covering every exposed surface of my body, burrowing deep into hide and flesh. Oh wait, that was just the start of my body melting down into sludge. I found that my lungs still had enough air left for me to scream, all the way back up to open sky.
My upward momentum slowed. I started back down. No God-smack this time? No Pink-E boost or nudge? Had the Ghosts gotten them somehow?
I couldn't take the suspense of passively waiting for my doom. My eyes snapped open behind the rotting goggles, just in time to watch the marble-faced tiles of the Royale's front patio arcing towards me, three bounces too early.
Too fast, too fast, oh fffff -
A sudden bump from behind, I heard Pink-E... scream? and I was spinning backward. The whole of the Royale filled my pink-tinted vision as it spun past. And then I bounced.
The ball's deformation threatened to quarter me then and there. My ass smacked tile right through the rubber, my head felt like it was about to be ripped off my spinal column, and then I was airborne again, with a huge pink puff of Cloud residue and the remnants of my long-abused hat trailing behind. Then I bumped into, and off of, the solidity of the Royale itself.
Oh hey! We made it! said one of the little versions of me that staggered around my head as I spun backwards, out of control. Sure, said one the of the less-concussed-looking ones, And since we hit too hard, we're all gonna bounce back into the Cloud and die now.
Y'know, sometimes there's such a thing as being a little too frank with oneself.
"Hey! HEY, DON'T...!" Then a loud curse. That was Domino.
Fwuf-fwuf-fwuf-THOOMP! That wasn't. Both spin and backwards motion stopped. A moment later, big red eyes and sharp white fangs were smiling upside-down at me. Wait, no, that was a frown. "Are you well, Redeemer? I heard you shout."
"Fuck HIM, you dropped ME!" shouted Domino from somewhere below. "Nevermind, I'm on the door! Get him down here before those dead fuckers crash the party!"
Where was Pink-E? God had clamped onto the still-inflated Fun Suit with all four legs and was trying to set me down as gently as he could. I felt pressure beneath my belly as we touched down... and then more pressure from above. A lot more pressure. "Um... God?"
An irritated snort sounded from above. "I am... stuck." A fwuf-fwuf, and we both lifted slightly into the air before he set back down. "Damnation! I did not have difficulty gripping this ball, why can I not let go of it?"
The collective wails of the luminescent undead drew closer. The only plus-side right now was that my face and hooves were no longer in the process of melting off. That last big impact had knocked all the Pink off --- and also my hat with its attached goggles. I was going to miss that old thing; we'd been through so much together...
Domino sounded less than amused. "Stop playin' around and help me with these doors, dammit!"
Help HIM with the doors? Fuck! And why wasn't Pinkie just deflating the suit by now?!
Sweat rolled down my cheek. "Try rocking to get your hind hooves on the ground, then walk backwards!"
"Ah, yes, of course, that should work..." The balloon shifted forward, back, I heard a pair of solid clops, and then God walked the Fun Suit off of his belly until he held its still-spherical form --- and me --- steady in his forehooves. "Thank you, Redeemer. But now we must get you inside, once the doors are open. Perhaps if I rolled you to your objective..."
"That isn't funny!" At first, I thought it was Domino again --- the ghoul's voice had been pitching anxiously upward on his last couple of comments. Then the suit made its giant sucking sound, I landed on the cool, sweet, not-burning-my-face marble, and Pink-E was all up in my grill.
She looked like nine kinds of hell.
Her face was squashed, half-melted, burnt black in places. The bouncy pink mane had gone flat, singed and tattered. Her antennae sparked erratically, and even her blue-sapphire eyes were surrounded by whites gone --- bloodshot?
"GET. IN. SIDE."
That wasn't a request, it wasn't a suggestion, and it wasn't a robot trying to be helpful.
I got my hooves up under me and moved.
When God had dumped Domino in order to catch me, he'd also dumped my saddlebags. Their flaps were open and several tchotchkes had spilled out across the patio, such as that saloon snowglobe I'd picked up in Goodsprings. If the buckles had burst, that'd be one thing, but it wasn't. The ghoul'd been looking for God's key again...
I looked around for a few half-panicked moments before spotting it, lying amid the disintegrating remnants of my poor old stormchaser. I ran over, mouthed it up, and galloped to my bags, hastily shoving everything back in and fumbling with the buckles.
"Domino?" I yelled, trying to keep my voice at the level of concern instead of panic, "How're we doing back there?"
"Took my ID, but the fuckin' things're heavy! They're supposeta open automatically, dammit!"
Down where the half-moon stairs dropped into surging pink fumes, the first shadows had arrived. Hazmat-suited hell-ponies, howling in their bubble helmets, charged upwards out of the mist. I reflexively went for the holster of my ten-mil pistol... and it wasn't there. Because I'd packed it into my bags, along with everything else but my hat, since when the suit inflated it would knock everything else I was wearing right off. ARGH!
God came flying out of nowhere, sideswiping the entire first wave with a colossal body tackle. As he bucked and kicked and bit at the first few Ghosts, more came running up out of the Pink, converging on him. Using the moments purchased with alicorn heroism, I threw my pack onto my back, secured it, and grabbed my pistol out --- then blinked down at the ornate piece of brasswork in my mouth. That wasn't my pistol --- it was Dog's, and it tasted funny. Was that hickory?
Well, it's mine now, and to hell with how it tastes. Wastelanders can't be choosers!
The broad, curved staircase was not terribly defensible, not against sheer numbers. A third wave was already coming up from another direction, ignoring the mob still trying to drag God down. The alicorn didn't have to be told that we were fighting for time; he would let them pile on, then back up a step while punting a Ghost or two back down with main force. I snapped into S.A.T.S. and started queuing the newcomers.
Celestia bless whoever came up with this PipBuck thing. I love it! There's not much better, in a pitched battle, as being able to take your time with decision-making. In this case, I figured I'd best double-tap the first two of the four charging me, even though the --- wait, what the fuck?
My pistol wouldn't let me queue more than three shots. Then I noticed each was taking up segments of an indicator bar marked "Action", something I'd paid no real attention to previously. More than that, each shot had its own sliding bar... I could allocate extra "Action" if I wanted. When I tried jiggling that, a notice popped up:
The Ghosts were nothing so speedy as a Zoomer launching a rainboom. They were still locked into the same frame of motion they'd been when I kicked S.A.T.S. on. So I could afford to mess with this a bit... whoa! Apparently I could allocate the ENTIRE "Action" bar to a single shot, or even carry it over to another "Action Phase", whatever that was. It probably just meant that it would take longer than firing four normal ten-mil shots to fire one overpowered round from Dog's gun.
Nah. I didn't have that kind of time to experiment. Maybe once we weren't all about to be killed by ravening janitorial-minded demons. Besides, even just using up the one bar for a single shot brought up a new indicator, suggesting possible damage to the gun. No thank you!
I finally decided on one shot apiece for the two closest, powered up to half-again the projected firepower, let S.A.T.S. loose, and damn near lost the pistol as it kicked me in the tonsils. If it'd been small enough, I'd've swallowed it! Each of my targets fell back with explosions of pink mist, their suits blasted down the stairs like headless rag dolls. What the hell was this pistol packing?!
No time to worry about that, here come the others! I scrambled backwards, lining up Mouthkicker's brass sights on the closer of the two remaining. Eh... not a terribly creative name, I guess, but it works. Weird as all hell, though: the grip tasted of sweat and grime (Dog's for sure), and my tonguetip was still stuck up in between the trigger and something else from when S.A.T.S had taken me over to do its thing. When I squeezed down to fire, a little green light flickered on just below the rear sights, but no joy... frustrated and with that third Ghost almost on top of me, I yanked the trigger with a desperate prayer.
Sometimes, apparently, religion pays off. Mouthkicker bucked again, this time nowhere near as hard but just as effectively. The Ghost's head and helmet popped with a sound of shattering glass.
Then his buddy tackled me. Rubber-booted hooves clamped onto both sides of my head.
Back to S.A.T.S., please!
Time froze once more, but it didn't look good. My action bar hadn't had much time to rebuild itself. I regretted never having taken the time to learn a few take-down manuevers, something like a Zebra Flip or whatever it was called. I regretted promising Pink-E to lay off the Buck and Dash, both of which'd been so useful for close combat back in Slimm, and further chastised myself for not keeping a dose in my packs "just in case".
Eventually I'd have to come out of the spell, and then this thing would probably crush my head or break my neck. I scanned through every menu my PipBuck had, searching for anything that looked like it might... no, not Turbo again. That helped me run, and I didn't see that as being helpful while flat on my back.
But right below "Turbo" was something new... "Wallbuster"? Worth a shot. What's the worst that could... now I was looking at Domino. What?
He yelped with surprise and blinked at me through the barely-open doorway. "How the fuck... nevermind! Grab here and PULL!" I did, putting everything I had into it. The door slowly opened, accompanied by a harsh grinding noise.
The ghoul finally managed to push his way in, followed immediately by Pink-E. Back on the patio, God was in furious melee with a full dozen Ghosts, snapping and whirling and bucking as they tried to swarm him under. I cupped my hooves together and yelled at him.
"GOD! WE'RE CLEAR, LET'S GO!"
He didn't need a second invitation. The big alicorn popped open his wingspan, sending several Ghosts flying in all directions, then spun and galloped for the door. Domino and I pulled, grinding it open as far and fast as we could, and then God was through, trampling the plush carpets of the Casino Royale. The patio outside was almost invisible beneath the lines of emergency-yellow and howling pink murder coming straight for us.
We let the door go.
* * * * *
"Slap me with a trout and call me Sally," breathed Domino. “I’d forgotten what nice things look like."
It was like being transported through time, to the hay-days of Equestrian society.
Where the Lucky Chance had been dim, dusty, and faded, the Royale was bright and sparkling-clean throughout. No cracks marred the glossy-beige walls, no water stains spoiled the parquet floor. Broad carpets, sporting exotic patterns of white-on-blue, contrasted with the interweavings of mahogany and teak beneath. No trace of dust suggested the passage of even a day... let alone centuries.
And this was just the entry foyer. An oaken service desk dominated the center, effectively demarcating the casino’s threshold by its massive presence. Pristine information terminals sat in an orderly row, each one flanked by four-color brochures and event schedules that didn’t seem to have aged any more than their surroundings despite their supremely disposable nature.
Even Pink-E, despite her singed edges and warped features, seemed impressed. "Ooooooh," she sighed, "Look at those data ports! I bet the transfer rate is through the roof!" The little robot darted towards the desk, eagerly extending her probe.
Even on my best days, she was much faster than me. Today wasn’t one of my best; between sleep-deprivation and gawking at our impossibly-well-preserved surroundings, my mouth was still opening to bark a warning when each service station flashed with soft orange light.
Instantly, a row of smiling ponies appeared behind the desk terminals. Blue and green and yellow and red, with pure-white manes and teeth to match, they nodded in polite unison. If not for the lines of muted orange flickering up and down their bodies, they could almost have passed for real.
"Welcome!" the holo-greeters cheerily intoned. "Thank you for choosing the Casino Royale to meet your entertainment, gaming, and relaxation needs.” The yellow one --- nearest to Pink-E, and thus probably the trigger for this automated welcome --- focused on the 'bot as the others went silent.
"You are registered as property, of a guest, of Mister Domino Mask. Informational access is restricted to Guest Level. VIP access may be obtained with the vocal permission of Mister Mask, plus affirmation of such authentication from our concierge.”
There were a few long moments. Then the holo-pony blinked, as though remembering something important. “I am afraid all management personnel, including our concierge, are on extended sick leave. VIP authorization cannot be granted at this time. Our apologies for any inconvenience this may cause."
Pink-E turned back with a pouty “hmph!”.
I gave Domino an incredulous look. "The place looks like it just opened yesterday."
The ghoul flashed a grin and took a moment to adjust his frayed old pinstripe tuxedo. "Still a tourist. This place never did open, kid, not officially. Day before it was gonna, bombs fell, everypony died. Hell, I only got my access and penthouse a day early because Uptown Eclair owed me big-time.”
He took a long look around the foyer, a glint in his stone-green eyes. “And it’s long past payday.”
A little pink pony in my head yelled brahminshit. I shook my head. “Even places that’ve been kept up since the bombs dropped are run-down. Everything ages, but not this place...”
Domino was already edging towards the casino proper, focused on two centuries’ worth of pent-up greed while blithely ignoring the obvious. I blew out a sigh of frustration.
Something is just not right here...
The only one who didn’t seem at all impressed was God, still busily licking bits of Ghost from his hide and hooves. The dull-black areas where he’d been bludgeoned were slowly regaining their glossy sheen as the alicorn swapped magical energy for physical rejuvenation.
I couldn’t help but smile at the big lug. “Nothing really fazes you, does it?”
He turned, focusing calm crimson eyes on me. “Shock and awe are paralytic. Indulging in them could hinder service to a Redeemer, delaying my redemption for no useful purpose.”
Well, damn, son. Talk about stoic as all Tartarus...
Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash.
Five balls of orange light resolved into two white ponies in crisp-looking bellhop outfits, flanked by three more in the business-before-pleasure attire of security guards.
The bellhops smiled, gesturing towards small cubicles adjoining the casino entrances. “For the convenience and comfort of our guests, the Service Desk manages all luggage. Please place your luggage in one of these containers for transport. Penthouse residents, and their guests, will find their bags awaiting them in their suites. All others will be stored safely in the casino vault until your departure.”
The security guards did not smile at all. “For the safety and security of our guests, no weapons of any lethality are allowed beyond this point. Please move to either side of the Service Desk, and place all such items in one of the Security Transport Lockers you will find there. They will be placed in the casino vault, to be returned upon your departure.”
Son of a BITCH!
For a moment, I was paralyzed with indecision. Eclair’s Stable was somewhere under the casino, while Domino’s penthouse was all-too-obviously in exactly the opposite direction. And where was this vault located? Domino had said there might be other ways out of the Royale, but if we couldn’t get our weapons back without returning to the foyer, we’d end up having to fight our way out the front door, through an already-aroused mob of Ghosts...
The guards were turning yellow. All three intoned, intimidatingly, “You have ten seconds to comply.”
Screw it, we can figure this out later!
I quickly dashed to the right-side locker and started tossing in everything I had on me that might be considered “lethal”. Domino, on the left, was already done and setting his saddlebags into the luggage cubicle by the time I finished. Purple flashes of teleportation magic signaled the departure of his gear.
But the important thing was that the hologram-guards were settling down to normal colors, instead of riddling me with laser beams. I had a sudden mental image of my legs shot so full of holes they looked like Swish cheese, just as I dropped my saddlebags into the bin and everything I wasn’t wearing disappeared with a purple flash.
Pink-E bobbed on through the left-side checkpoint, followed by God and Domino. Apparently the ‘bot’s brain-exploding eyepiece still counted as “non-lethal” to the casino, while the alicorn depended on no artificial augmentation to be a natural engine of destruction. And me? I still had my trusty ten-millimeter pistol, tucked safely into the hair of my tail -
“You have FIVE SECONDS to comply.”
The klunk of my last gun hitting the bottom of the locker, just before it flashed away, left me feeling more naked than if I’d stripped down and done the hula for a bunch of zebras.
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Somepony (+1 CHA) - You've become less self-centered, more considerate of the needs and well-being of others. Pinkie Pie would be proud of you!
Skill Note: Speech (50)