The high as fuck guard wasn't on the gate when I left, so I headed in the general direction of downtown San Cimarron without hanging around. I know they told me not to go straight there, but I didn't feel like having to navigate this dump when it started getting really hot. I couldn't really bolt without shaking the toaster on my arm loose anyway, so the reasons to beeline outweighed those not to.
The walk gave me some time to think. My mind immediately turned to shower thoughts about the area. How many ponies were living in the San Cimarron area? Surely a desert settlement would have serious challenges with water, particularly considering that in a post-balefire landscape, there wouldn't be many living cacti. The Rangers probably had stuff like condensers and the tools for drilling down to the water table, the Enclave could have clouds shipped in or something, and Los Arabos had the ability to strip hydrogen and oxygen straight from rocks or something for all I knew. But the local settlements would have some real problems.
After a half-built housing project, the shell of a community college, another U-235, and an ostentatious glass-roofed shopping mall that looked like it was in decline even before the world ended, my thoughts had ended up on, like, how pretty much any music you can think of can be improved by the addition of a brass section. Don't ask me how I got there from plumbing logistics, I haven't a fucking clue. Point is, this is the part where I started... what is it. Humming? Scatting? That thing where you're making noises along to a tune, but it's definitely not singing. That thing. I started being really loud, and the slapback of that echoing around whatever shitty single-storey commercial block I was in stunned me to attention.
I stanced wide and looked around. The noise faded back to nothing. Not even a gust of wind or a creak of crappy old buildings. I checked my map. This thing had no fancy EFS or SATS to play with, which is just as well because I'd probably get distracted queuing up pokes on Rainbow or something - I was reorienting myself because I'd been walking on autopilot for a while. The sun was still low enough to be casting significant shadows, and I'd veered a little off course, but I was still closer to Isotope City than Roswhinny. This was when I noticed how quiet everything was. I mean, the wasteland's always quiet. When most of everything is dead, there isn't a lot to make noise. But without paying any attention, I'd walked the guts of ten miles in one piece. No raiders, no wild animals, not even traders. Then the thought occurred to me that if there was anything vicious living out here, it probably only came out at night. That wasn't an encouraging thought.
I rejoined Route 66 about a mile out from Isotope City - close enough to see puffs of smoke and the top of some cast iron loop over the roof of some edge-of-town warehouse - and followed the signs for Isotopes Park. (Brilliantly creative naming.) Somewhere around the exit for the park, the big metal loop came into view.
It was a fucking atom.
I jumped on the roof of some wreck and squinted. Nearly identical to the one on my ass - three ellipses and a ball in the centre. There were baseballs in place of electrons, and the letters "SC" in the centre, but it was still close enough that I rolled off the autowagon laughing. I poked around on the discount Pipbuck for a camera, but couldn't find one. Of all the logos, they had that. This sun-baked, crumbling ruin of a city was fucking calling to me. I glided off the overpass to the edge of the parking lot and pranced the rest of the way, eyes set on the big iron atom the whole time.
This thing was fucking massive. I was about thirty paces out from it, looking up at it in awe, when the ground next to me grew a fresh pothole. A glowing green, hot enough to liquefy some of the nearby asphalt, pothole. I jerked to the right and readjusted my glasses. I wasn't panicked. In fact I sighed. This was not unusual for Equestrians.
"Oy!" I called out. "What d'you think you're doing?" I paced, not coming any closer. If they didn't feel like talking, then I'd have no time to dodge, and I didn't feel like counting on my luck enough for another jet of plasma to inconvenience San Cimarron motorists more than me.
A few seconds later, some shaky voice with an accent steeped in the local flavour called back. "Defending our town!"
I sat and rubbed my face. "Do I look like a bloody raider?" I started scanning the walls for like, a ten gallon hat, or a moustache or something. Eventually I spotted some glowing green in a broken window above a big fat metal gate. The probably untrained operator of this magical energy firearm was obscured by the strong shadow of the late morning sun.
He paused again. "A little."
I sighed and muttered to myself. "Ask a stupid question..."
"J-just... just go away or... or I'll shoot!"
"Listen, mate." I stood up again and started walking. "I'm tired, I'm thirsty, I'm not from around here..."
"I mean it!" The little bar of green swayed around wildly. "Stop! Please?"
I parked myself in front of the gate and sat again, looking up at the window with the gun pointing out of it. "Just let me in?"
"I don't... have to, I... oh, gosh..."
I chuckled. "Look, your mum isn't here. You can swear all the fuck you like."
"Don't you start talking about my momma!" This just made me laugh even more.
The barrel of the plasma rifle disappeared into the window, and there was some scuffle. I only heard one side of the conversation, and it wasn't the side of whatever chicken-shit sentry I'd just been talking to. It was far too, like, assertive, and... gravelly. In fact I think I raised a hoof to shield my face from stray pebbles coming from his throat.
"Who in the sweet hell are you talking to, Caliber?" A pause. "You good-for-nothing pansy-ass waste o' skin, get out of the way!" Following this, a sweeping brush popped out of the window. Sorry, correction: it was a pony. He glared at me with deep-set eyes, hidden under some serious eyebrows. Like, I had a hunch where all the missing wildlife was - in this guy's face hair.
I smiled and turned my shielding hoof into a wave. "Hi!"
"What do you want?"
"A map to Blackbeard's treasure, what does it look like?"
He... wrinkled. That's about the right word to describe the thing that he did with his face. "Wise-ass, huh?"
"Oh, speaking of ass!" You can already tell this is going in a fantastic direction. "Did you know! My ass is on your stadium?" I stood up and turned to the side, grinning like the kid who's just learned to tie their shoelaces.
Then I heard his gun cocking. Somewhere in that forest of a head of his there was a horn, which was now directing the business end of a hunting rifle at me.. "You got 'til five to give me a damn good reason not to blow your head off, birdie." Oh yeah. Of all the wings presently in the San Cimarron metropolitan area, the number not belonging to the Enclave was in the single digits, and two of them were on my back.
"Well that escalated quickly!"
"You sure we can't just have a friendly chat about this?"
"Two." He sounded... bored. Like, did this happen often? If so, the Enclave were fucking retarded.
"Well, I guess this would be your idea of a friendly chat, wouldn't it, since you haven't just shot me already..."
"Uhhh..." I started looking for something that wasn't legging it. I squinted at him. Let's see... leather shoulder pad, roughed-up face but a little saggy... the number 51 on his collar...
Wait, that's it! "You're a stable pony! I came out of one those things too!"
He paused. He was definitely thinking about it. "You're pulling my leg." Well, he hadn't shot me.
I chuckled. "I uh... I threw away the pyjamas because it was kind of a 'mug me' target. My original Pipbuck is in some Steel Ranger lockup in Jockeysonville."
"A likely story."
I scratched my chin. "That does leave me kinda stuffed, doesn't it?" I muttered.
"I ain't never heard of no birdies cooped up in those cages." Thank you for throwing me a bone. It's like you want me to get in or something.
"You haven't seen my flying!" I saw his eyebrow go up because of the amount of hair that went up with it. "I am a shitty flyer. There's no room in a stable to learn how so I only started like, last year."
He snorted. "Well then. Impress me."
Fuck. I was actually going to have to try and fly. "You're gonna make me embarrass myself, aren't you?" Wouldn't be proper security if he didn't.
He waved his gun. "I can still put you out of your misery if you like."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." I rolled my eyes, crouched, and jumped. I flapped my wings a little too late, and came straight back down. "Shit." On the second attempt I caught some lift and needed to tilt forward a bit to stay airborne, then I leaned back because he was pointing his gun at me. I got a hover going, and it was really hard work. I was listing very slightly to the left and struggling to maintain altitude, but it was a hover. Did you know that I wasn't kidding about being thirsty? I wasn't expecting a workout at gunpoint. "Hhhhhh," I panted. "Happy now?"
I could just about make out the wrinkled smirk somewhere under the woods of his upper lip. "I ain't never seen a stable pony fly, but I bet it'd look something like that."
I let myself drop and proceeded to vacuum up all the air in the parking lot. "Fuck, that took it out of me." That's what I get for not using my wings for a week. While catching my breath, I didn't hear the order to raise part of the gate. I shook myself off and ambled inside.
The foyer, to use a generous term, of the city had a grate blocking the stairs into the stadium proper. The staircases to the upper stands had been demolished, so that the only way to proceed was through this grate. A minute or two later, the living tumbleweed appeared on the far side and opened it. When I approached, he stopped me - gun still floating around - and undid the strap on my bags. I sighed.
"I packed my bags myself, I'm flying domestically, and there are no bottles of liquid larger than three ounces in my carry-on luggage."
He stopped searching me for a moment. "Sure got a mouth on you, don't you?"
"Hey, you're the o-"
"Keep it shut."
I huffed. "Well aren't you a blast?"
He finished with my right bag and moved to my left. He lifted out my raygun. "The heck is this?"
"My trusty sidearm. Alien construction." I think I actually caught a glimpse of his eyes, he looked so alarmed. "Vaporises hellhounds at a hundred paces. Careful, magic might destabilise it!" He dropped the fucking thing like it was diseased. "I'm fucking with you. It's a toy."
Oh dear, that sour look on his face. "You can have it back when you leave."
I scoffed. "Fine."
Once he was satisfied with his rummage, he closed the grate behind me and started walking. I followed. "Alright. Name's Winchester. I'm the sheriff here."
"Can I call you Chester, or just Winnie? Or how about like, Winch? Sounds like a heist nickname."
"If you call me anything but Sheriff again, I'm going to start reminding you what 'Winchester' means." He conspicuously did a thing with his gun. I don't know what the thing he did was but it made a clicking noise.
"Man, you've got this hospitality thing down pat, y'know?"
Winchester nudged me with the butt of his rifle. "Listen, missy. My patience with you ran out somewhere around the time I started lookin' atcha. Y'can spend your caps in town and stay out of the heat, but I want you gone by sundown. And if I hear a peep about you, consider yourself out on your ass."
"What happened to the other two strikes?" I grinned open-mouthed, and a rimshot played in my head. He'd probably heard that one a billion times.
"It's been a long time since anyone's played baseball in this here diamond. You're lucky to have even one chance. Now skedaddle." He turned to get back to his post, leaving me at the entrance to the city proper, overlooking the field.
Now here was some classic wasteland construction. Corrugated iron, girders, and tarps had been hauled into the stands and piled up on top of each other to make some kind of shanty residences. Laundry hung off ropes strung between them, and foals chased each other around the narrow metal sheets bridging some of the higher shacks. The field had been converted into a town square, with more shacks all facing some hovel in the middle. The far edges of the field were ploughed, and some sad-looking crops stuck out of the ground. Ponies milled about with big hats on, and more ponies slumped in the shade of awnings with crude fans blowing. I saw an awful lot of Stable jumpsuits, and the more I looked, the more I saw old Stable fittings - enough that I already had some questions I wanted to ask. I hurried into town to get some shade.
The central building was an open-plan seating area with a bar near the middle. The sandpaper-faced cowboys swinging on their chairs gave me a brief glance, and returned to smoking. A filly jumped on the table after spotting my wings and squealed, "Look mama, it's a pegasoosus! Pegeesoo. Pegoose. Pegajesus. Papajegus!" Her mother, saggy-faced and covered in dirt-stains, grabbed her off the table and carried her off with their breakfast in a hurry. The kid waved after me. "Bye, Mrs. Peggysauce!"
I slided towards the bar and occupied a stool. I tapped my glasses forward, looking at the raisin of a bartender. What was it about this place that made all these ponies so rough-looking? "Water and repairs. Preferably in that order." I did my best to neutralise my accent.
"Caps?" she grunted.
"Oh yeah, those things." After an awkwardly long root in my bags, I found that Winchester had not robbed me. He'd rearranged everything, but it was still all there. I spilled out a dozen or so.
She squinted at them. "How much water are you lookin' for? You couldn't dunk a mouse in twelve caps' worth."
"Are you telling me that in all of the Stable-Tec merchandise you've got lying around, you don't have a water talisman?"
"Course we do. And that has to serve the whole town plus crops, in this sun. So you gotta make it worth our while sappin' our supply. Thirty caps."
I grumbled and dumped out the dough. "This fucking desert."
She smirked as she slid the caps into a drawer and turned to a keg behind the bar. "Ain't that the truth." She returned with a scuffed plastic bottle with the top cut off. Even their glasses were improvised. I started chugging right away. It was warm, and there was something metallic in the taste, but I didn't care that much. "Go around the back, out the corner, and the repair shop is the one with the big shutter. Look for the space cat. Y'can't miss it."
"Space wh-... okay, sure." I know I was already a long way from home, but something was particularly weird with ponies from San Cimarron. This place was screwing with me as much as I tried to screw with it.
The alley she directed me to was partly shaded by netting and tarps bridging the two buildings either side. A sign hung out of one of the shacks, with a flickering spotlight on it: Satellite Sam. Oh. Space cat. Right. Even if the sign was originally inside the stadium - which was doubtful unless this diner chain was seriously aggressively franchised - why it was being used for a repair shop remained beyond me. I plodded up to the open shutter behind it, with the flickering neon 'open' sign hanging from the gutter above, nearly washed out by the sunlight. The smell of engine grease and ozone bowled me over. My daylight-adjusted eyes took time to find things in the dim of the shack.
"Need something?" The voice made me jump. I thought it was a radio talking to me. All I could see from the direction was a circle of yellow light with horizontal grating that might have been the tuning dial, and the voice was this smooth tenor, in a neutral, broadcast Equestrian accent, filtered through the tinny quality of a small radio speaker.
Naturally, all I could do at this point was forget how to talk. "Bwah?"
"Did you come in here looking for something, or are you just going to rearrange all my tin cans?"
The light moved, accompanied by the thudding clang of solid metal on concrete. When I realised what I was looking at, I lifted my novelty glasses out of the way and squinted. "Whoa."
"Yeah, get the staring out of your system. New in town, eh?" The light was an eye in a metal face, on a metal pony body. The other eye was a camera lens and some loose wiring sticking out of a recess that had a matching eye at one point. Pistons filled in for muscles on skeletal legs, a bent antenna stuck out behind him, boxes with electrical hazard warnings and vacuum tubes stuck out of a metal plate chest, corrugated rubber tubes shielded his neck and a few joints, and an unmoving snout had vents along the chin. Where a mouth should have been, there was a hatch, which didn't move when he talked. The cherry on top was a U-235 trucker hat, with a hole in it, and an antenna poking through the hole.
At some point in my vacant staring, he lifted a leg and waved it in front of my face. "Yoohoo? Ground control to Major Horse? I'm actually on the job here."
I shook myself back to earth and replaced my glasses. "Right! Yeah. Uhm..." I scratched the back of my head trying to think of reasons to waste this toaster's time. The tug of a bit of duct tape on my mane gave me one. "Just a quick thing! My computer thing here."
I lifted a leg to show off the franken-wristwatch. He looked down, and one of his eyes made a whirr. "That is the shittiest Pipbuck I have ever seen."
I snorted. "I know, right? The strap on it kinda... never was, but the duct tape is annoying. Think you can whack a proper belt on to it?"
"I might have one lying around." He turned over to one of the junk-covered tables. He swept a Steel Ranger helmet off of a toolbox to look inside it.
"You're losing your head," I chortled.
"I've got spares. The better question is, have you got caps?"
"Lemme see if I have anything left over after the right mugging that was getting a bloody glass of water in this pit."
He chuckled. "Heh. Meatbag problems. Don't let the sheriff hear you talking like that."
"Yeah, he's a barrel of laughs, inn't he?" I turfed out twenty-five caps. He looked over his shoulder and shrugged.
"Take a seat, this should be quick." I pulled a stool out from under a table straining with the weight of half a suit of Enclave power armour on it. I pulled the battery cable out of the computer unit and tugged on the duct tape strap until it came off. With the caps stashed, he turned back to me. "Hey, birdie."
I frowned and looked at him. "What?"
"Surprise!" Mid-word, his mouth hatch opened, and a grabbing arm shot out. In an impressive display of composure, I screamed and toppled the stool, grabbing the table behind me to steady myself. This sent the computer flying, which he caught in his stupid go-go-gadget mouth arm. "Hahaa. Every time." The fact that his voice had nothing to do with his mouth really bugged me when it was super-obvious like this.
"Fucking shit fuck, I'm paying you, don't do that!"
"C'mon, I'm just playing around."
"Yeah, yeah." I huffed, blew my fringe out of my face and pouted. He set to work.
"You got a name?"
"I asked if you have a name. Are you always this articulate?"
I had to laugh. "I'm being wound up by an overgrown jackhammer. I'm Atom Smasher, who the hell are you?"
"You couldn't guess? It's right outside the door."
"No it's n-" I went cross-eyed. It couldn't be. "Satellite... Sam?"
"Satellite F. Sam is my full name."
I gawped. "Really? Fucking really? You took the name from the stupid diner mascot?"
"There's a story there, but it'll take longer than the ten minutes it'll take me weld a buckle to this casing."
I pulled up a second stool and lay across them. "Indulge me. I don't have anywhere to be."
"But I have better things to do than share my life story with strangers."
"Blehhhh. You're no fun."
"Scaring the crap out of you was pretty fun."
"Fucking bite me," I chuckled.
Minutes passed quietly. I reoriented myself to a proper sitting position, which was quite an effort from the lazy sprawl I had been in. I tried to lift the arm of the armour next to me and wave it around like a puppet, but it was too heavy. "Hey Sam."
"Have you considered DJing? You've got a good voice for it."
Sam took to the tone immediately. Whoever wrote his voice synthesiser was a genius. "You're listening to K-I-S-C, Isotope City's very own Kiss FM. Last time I tried that, I poked the poor girl's eye out, and she didn't take kindly to the suggestion that we looked like a pair now. Coming up we've got the top 40, consisting of!" He paused, then turned to me. "You gonna find me a record collection?"
I swivelled in my stool from cackling. "Okay, okay. Fair point." He resumed working. It looked pretty finished. "So how's a cherrypicker like you end up in a stadium like this?"
"You're gonna end up calling me everything in the kitchen and garage before you're out the door, aren't you?" I just chuckled. "Maybe later. Your rental of my time up. Here's your shitty Pipbuck." He stomped over - since he probably wasn't able to do anything but stomp - and dropped the unit in my lap. I started fastening it on. The new strap was clearly half a seatbelt, but it did the trick.
"Ah, c'mon. It's not every day you meet someone like you." The cringe of what I'd just said hit me right after it came out of my mouth.
He ushered me off the stool by pushing it out from under me and proceeded straight to nudging me towards the door. I nearly dropped the thing before it was secure. "I'm sure one of these days you're bound to meet that lucky robot, honey." As soon as I was stumbling into the street, the shutters started rolling down. "What's that thing all the cowboys say... mm! Happy trails!" The bang and rattle of the shutters closing echoed around the street. The neon sign switched from 'open' to 'closed for siesta'.
"It's fucking half ten, you daft rustbucket!" No answer. I silently wondered if you could be racist to a robot.
I huffed, plugged the power cable back into the unit, and ran the thing through its boot sequence. There had to be another way through without playing all my cards. To busy myself, I kicked some junk in the street as I paced. A resonant thunk caught my attention when a can hit something. By now I was convinced they must have dragged a whole fucking diner in here, because I’d just bounced a can off another one of Satellite Sam’s (the space cat, not the robot) Special Delivery Stations. The paint had been almost totally scrubbed off this one (with just half the mascot and his shit-eating grin visible in the corner), and there were aggressive scuffs and scorch marks all over it. By the looks of it, Sam was having trouble getting to his own mail.
I kicked the thing. Solid as ever. What the shit did they make these things from, and why did a diner chain need military grade protection for their kids’ meal toys? I poked around in the diner-related junk next to it. Sure enough, one of the crappy plastic tokens was sticking out of some loose stitching in the seat of a tall chair. Some kid probably hid it there to come back to and never did. Mine now, fucker.
In went the token, bang and whirr went the machine, and out popped a plastic box with the stupid moggy on it. Inside was a plastic bag - hooray for unnecessary double-wrapping - containing some box thing and a label. The label read ASTRO-COMMS UNIT, with instructions below: ‘stick it in your tape receiver to get out-of-this-world transmissions!’ Woah there, Sam. Getting a little technical for the little ones. On closer inspection, the ‘astro-comms unit’ appeared to be a radio built for a data tape slot, with a big unwieldy antenna on top that was bound to flail around while running. Isn’t that just the most convenient thing.
I whacked it in, powered it up, and scrolled through the frequencies. The sound I was getting was absolutely shit - frankly I was surprised there were any speakers in this thing at all - but it was functional. The strongest signal was music, probably Rainbow’s record changer. Vocal harmonies, snappy beat, strumming guitars… oh, what was their name. That one surf rock band with like twelve number ones with the same title.
Never mind. Time to hit the town.