• Published 10th Oct 2011
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Fallout Equestria: New Pegas - Calbeck


Courier Six didn't survive the head shot...so Mr. Horse hired a bounty hunter to finish the job.

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Chapter 11: Red Derp Redemption

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Red Derp Redemption

"The magic's in the music, and the music's in me..."

I decided to hazard a peek through the giant hole in the front of the police station, said hole having been created just moments before by an enraged (and equally giant) black alicorn. With bat wings.

Yeah, that's nothing like anything they're gonna believe back in the Hub...

Just as I reached the hole, my hoof clinked against something in the dust that had once been the second-best-dressed Diamond Dog I'd ever seen. Even with a magical firefight blazing away outside, I stopped long enough to shove his few surviving possessions into my saddlebag: penny-whistle, jail key, and an ornate-looking sidearm similar to the rifle I'd picked up back at Slimm Pass. If "picked up" could substitute for "gotten smacked in the face with", that is.

Huh. Guess I have a matching set now. Whee.

Pink-E seemed content to hang back as I leaned just far enough through the gap to peer outside.

Brilliant-green bolts of magic, like horizontal rain from Tartarus, sleeted across the street from the tiny guns of dozens of identical toy ponies. In perfect formation-square from sidewalk to sidewalk, they hammered the alicorn --- "God", he'd called himself --- with that rapid-fire barrage. Tiny and inaccurate though they were, those same bolts had just disintegrated "Dog" through sheer volume of fire. The combined racket from all those pew pew pews was almost an assault in itself!

To God, it was no more than throwing a bucket of water on a lakepony. The magical destruction peppering his gloss-black hide and mane did nothing but make him glow briefly at each point of impact, while those shots which missed carved bowl-shaped divots from anything else they struck.

Nor was he content to stand there like a target-practice dummy. It had taken a bit to reorient that massive bulk of his after having broken down part of the station's wall, but now the stallion rounded on the little robots, snorting and blowing like a wild thing. One, two, three great strides, and then he leaped towards the packed ranks of Build-Me-Up Buttercups as they uselessly tracked their shots upwards. Their point-blank blasting made God glisten with coruscating emerald energy, for just an instant.

Then he came back down.

Once, as a colt, I'd fed a few old egg timers into a wood chipper just to see what would happen. Some years after that, Dad and I delivered equipment to a vineyard in Coltifornia's Nipper Valley, where we had to wait on a bunch of talky brahmin to finish crushing grapes in a vat before concluding our business there.

What God did effectively combined those two disparate, and otherwise-entirely-unrelated, events.

His initial impact sent shreds of silvery molded plastic exploding in all directions, splashes of dark fluid erupting from newly-minted metal corpses. He reared up only to bring those huge silver hooves back down, the asphalt shuddering noticeably with each impact, crushing Buttercups like grapes.

God tread out the wine of his wrath, the robots' futile fire slowly tapering off. At length, the night remained lit only by the few surviving streetlamps and the alicorn's flaming vermillion aura. Shards of plastic, reminiscent of gnawed bones, were everywhere; warped aluminum lined each hoof-crater pockmarking the street, reflecting God's light like shallow pools of blood.

Then, still snorting hellfire and dripping with machine oil, the giant beast turned his glare on ME. Me, standing there like an idiot, still trying to process what I'd just witnessed. I tried forcing a smile so wide it hurt; apparently I didn't use those particular muscles very often.

"Um... you said 'friend'... right?"

His look didn't soften or falter. "My Redeemer is dead. YOU brought them HERE..."

The alicorn took one, very deliberate, step in my direction.

I took many, not-altogether-coordinated, steps in roughly the opposite direction.

Pink-E gave a puzzled expression as I barreled past, hooves clattering on the wood flooring. "Where ya going?"

I didn't even slow down to look over my shoulder: "Anywhere but here!"

There was a smashing noise, a yelp from Pink-E, a snuffling sound, and then that same high-pitched scream I'd heard just a minute before.

Ooooh, that can't be good...

The hallway past the jail cell dead-ended more quickly than I would have liked. To the left was a stairwell leading down, while a door on the right opened onto a janitorial closet. It held an empty bucket that I would probably fit into nicely, once God got finished dancing on my face. I skidded into the turn, gave a little hop, twisted in midair and took a stride along the wall before gravity began to reassert itself.

Just in time, too: God slammed into the wall I'd just vacated. Had I stopped, he'd have pancaked me.

Mind you, falling down a stairwell wasn't all that much better. But at least when I hit the concrete floor below, it was only my mass and inertia causing the damage. I managed to stick the landing on three of four hooves, or I'm sure I would have snapped something. As it was, I still ended up in a sprawling skid down the lower hallway, making a good four lengths or so before I could get my hoofing and start beating fetlocks again.

From behind came the sound of a steam locomotive chuffing smoke from a very angry stack.

"COME BACK HERE!"

Oh, sure! Mind if I take the long way around the planet? My lungs and brain both decided not to waste air on verbalizing that.

Fitfully lit by the flickering of overhead strip-tubes, the hall was lined with discarded and broken office equipment. There were boxes, desks, filing cabinets, stacks of ancient paperwork bound up in rotting string... none of which I bothered with trying to kick into God's path. His own mass made that completely superfluous; while I galloped down the rough corridor between all that junk, he just plowed a path of ruin right on through. A shattered telephone rebounded from that wave of annihilation, forcing me to duck as it flew past my head.

The further in, the darker it got, with more and more of the strip-tubes having gone completely dead. Hello, darkness, my old friend! I've come to hide in you again! Unfortunately, the stored-up junk began to clear as several doors to either side hove up out of the deepening gloom. God had been slowed somewhat by his snowplow act, but if I kept running down the now-uncluttered corridor, I was as good as dead.

Only enough time to try one of the four doors, but four-to-one odds aren't terrible in Pegas. I gave the first door on the left a try: yay! Unlocked! I darted inside, ignoring the blare of static from the busted-up radio in the corner, and quickly scanned the room for my only chance at survival, a side door out...

...wait. When had my "Fun Suit" gotten tighter than usual? I looked down, hoping I hadn't gotten caught up on some unseen garbage, before I noticed my chest had gotten deeper and wider than I remembered. Then I finally noticed the hissing, almost drowned out by the radio's atonal screeching: the collar's talisman had started pumping hydrogen again!

Oh, fuck! The radio! I like to think I'm a smart pony. So why didn't I remember DeLoup's warning about radio interference blocking the collar from receiving the Zoomers' deadpony signal?! Oh, sure, maybe I was a little distracted just now, but still...!

Not only was there not another way out of the room, but the aforementioned distraction had already arrived in the doorway. Instinctively, I tried backing up into a corner, only to find that the ballooning suit was already pushing my legs apart. I could only waddle slowly backwards, in what I'm sure was a comical fashion.

God sure thought so; his eyes slowly shifted from anger, to bemusement, to a certain devilish glee --- the latter made all the more so by those blood-red eyes, bat-wings and glowing horn. Instead of smashing his way in, he blinked on through in the same way he'd cleared the cell bars upstairs. Slowly he approached, head lowered and wickedly-sharp horn gleaming a dusky crimson.

Was he... grinning? Ooooh, THAT can't be good, either!

"I have seen this before. Watched. Always funny to watch. Perhaps Redeemer's spirit will find it funny as well."

The suit's outer envelope brushed and then pushed against the walls, pressing me forward as it ran out of room behind. Below, my hooves skidded, slipped, and finally left the floor as blue rubber expanded beneath under ever-increasing pressure. I flailed, trying to find purchase, even tried to get the suit-ball rolling away, anything to avoid God's magical noggin-needle pricking it. Of course, that might only buy me a few more seconds before the suit burst and ignited the gas within anyways --- but any time NOT spent on fire is a good time, in my book!

The radio crackled with static. The suit was pulling at my head, hooves and tail as it inflated, stretching me into that helpless spread-eagle position again. God's grin got wider, his horn-tip got closer, and I closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to watch myself burn in the reflection of his hateful glare.

The next sound I heard wasn't the resounding BANG I was expecting.

God was snuffling at my face, warm snorts of breath ruffling the forelocks of my mane. The unwelcome familiarity lasted for just a moment, then began traveling back along the rounded horizon of my suit until he was almost sniffing up my tail.

Oh Celestia above, he's not...

Suddenly a pink blob of synthetic mane completely cut off my field of vision. "Hi, God! I'm Pink-E! We haven't really been introduced, but look what I've got in my eye!"

I couldn't see, but I could hear just fine as God turned and then stopped dead in his tracks.

"Now, isn't it just so much fun to watch that swirly pattern go round and round?"

God's response seemed unsure. "Yyyess...?"

Pink-E squeed. "Yay! So, I need you to do me an itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy favor..."

I coughed, still squirming against the restraining suit, which was getting pretty damn big and very damn tight about now. Because it couldn't expand in a rearward direction, it instead pushed my face into the 'bot's faux-cotton-candy mane. "Pink-E..."

"Just a moment, I'll be right with you! So, anyway, see that broken old radio over there? I'd really appreciate it if you could go be all stompy on it for just a moment... 'kay?"

Clop. Clop. Clop. Clop. Pause. STOMP.

With a final blast of electrical violence, the radio went dead. A moment later my suit made that loud sucking noise again, deflating almost instantly and dropping me to the floor. In a moment, I was back up and tensing to bolt for the door, eyeing God warily, looking to see which way he might go to try and block...

...he was just sitting there, on his rump, looking at me with his head cocked to one side.

Pink-E spun around with a wide grin. "It's okay, Cherry, he won't hurt you! My Mesm-O-Tron worked just great, and this time without undue cerebral expulsion! I fixed it, so he's completely under my control!"

Not as far as God was concerned. "That is incorrect."

The floating pink pony-head giggled at his denial. "Don't be silly. I told you to stomp that radio, and you did it!"

God nodded amiably enough, with no sign of the rage that had consumed him a scant twenty seconds ago. "True. But I had already determined to do so. I have seen ponies wearing such things before, stumbling into boxes making noise, like this. Always ends with pony on fire, unless noise ends first."

The alicorn knelt on the floor. Bowed his head. Bowed to me.

"My atonement is brass and clean. It cleaves a puzzle, opening a solution I cannot find for myself."

As he stood back up, the walking damnation engine returned my incredulous stare with a level gaze.

"And it is in your bag. You are therefore my Redeemer. I do not wish to lose another in a single night."

*****

Pink-E was bobbing up and down excitedly as we walked along shadowy streets towards the casino clinic, trying to tell me all about wavelengths and frequencies and triangulation and a load of related mathematics for what she called "electronic counter-measures". I'd stopped listening past the point where she said she could tell the radio's static-blasting was blocking the deadpony signal, hoping she would get the picture. Finally, I testily interrupted:

"Look, what I want to know is how you even knew which signal my collar was picking up in the first place. Seems like it'd be stupid to design the thing to just re-broadcast what it picks up."

"Nopie-dopie!" The bot seemed to brighten. Literally: its sapphire eyes grew more luminescent at my sudden re-involvement in the conversation. "Don't forget, I was built and programmed by Pinkie Pie and the Ministry of Morale! I know ALL the standard suppression frequencies, so when I picked up a broadcast source in a band that covered one or more of those frequencies I just put apple and orange together and BAMMO!"

She stopped and thought about that for a moment, eyes rolling up and to the side as though losing herself in thought.

I bet that wasn't terribly difficult for the pony she was based on, either...

"Well, okay, kind of the opposite of 'bammo', because your suit didn't explode, which by the way wouldn't happen except the failsafe module's been removed, and that's really silly of someone to do because what kind of pony would want to go around popping balloons? Except Pokey Pierce, of course, but that turned out to be his special talent, so nopony complained when he went around busting 'em at Apple Bloom's cuteceñeara, and he was lucky enough to die just before the bombs dropped, so it couldn't be him anyway..."

Aaaand back to tuning all of this random horseshit out. There's better things to concentrate on.

Like, for instance, how we kept running into dead-ends and increasingly-thick drifts of pinkish fog. The first time we encountered the latter, God trotted out in front and physically blocked me from approaching it, shaking his head. "Bad."

Oooookay, that pretty much clinches it. That's got to be the "Pink Cloud" they talk about. Suppose it was too much to hope it was just a trick of the light, or something.

If anypony knew any reason to stay the hell away from the Casino Royale, this stuff was it. Every Nightmare Night, the freaks on Pirate Friends Radio loved to play recordings of radio-chatter from the few salvage teams who'd run into the Cloud over the years. It was so bad, colts and fillies would dare each other to sit alone in an unlit ruin for the whole night's broadcast with the radio cranked up.

So to avoid those wisps of flesh-melting nasty, we kept to the more open streets and out of the service alleys where the stuff seemed to gather more readily.

Which made it even more frustrating that those "open streets" kept coming up with dead-end after dead-end. According to my still-mostly-blacked-out PipBuck map, the clinic wasn't terribly far off, but the whole area seemed to be cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac of boarded-up or burned-out townhouses. In case it hadn't been made obvious by the mini-malls, the dead garden plots, or the wending design to the streets, a couple of brass plaques actually pointed out that this area was supposed to have been long-term housing for management types, high-rollers and the idle rich.

Luna's bitch-tits, did rich folk just NOT need fast access to medical services back then? Did they react to, say, a broken leg or severed artery by putting on their monocles and top hats and leisurely strolling a couple miles around the neighborhood to wherever the hell this place IS?!

The time-sensitive nature of my mission only added to the frustration. My inner scavenger wanted desperately to start breaking in doors and seeing what was in all those little shops and homes, but I knew if I started, I wouldn't stop until I'd gone over every square inch and stuffed my bags to bursting. And if the Zoomers' "Mother Matrix" died while I was futzing around... still, this was literally the chance of a lifetime. Here I was, deep inside the Casino Royale, with the wealth of centuries past within easy reach!

Especially since it didn't look like many others had gotten this far. Some few doors already hung open off the hinges, a couple of windows were smashed open, and there were occasional bits of old graffiti. But no bodies, no skeletons, no litter in the streets...

My wandering gaze lit upon the form of a pony half a block further along, industriously stabbing at the gutter with a long stick. He would stab, lift, and stuff whatever he'd just picked up into a large canvas bag slung over his shoulder, then move a few steps further down the street and do it again.

If not for my night-sensitive vision, I wouldn't even have noticed, until I'd stumbled into him in the darkness. As it was, not many details were evident from behind, except that he was wearing some kind of faded yellow barding under the sack and what looked like a round helmet over the head. Likely a hazmat suit --- smart, really, what with all that pink fog drifting around.

As I moved forward a few steps to get a better look, God hissed at me from behind. Looking over my shoulder revealed that he'd stepped back into the deeper shadows and was hugging a nearby wall, clearly trying not to be seen --- like a boulder tries not to be noticed by staying close to a hillside.

Not that he looked at all scared. The impression was more of a predator, stalking prey. I backed up and sidled closer, the better to whisper, "What's eating you?" He gave the slightest of chuckles.

"Nothing." Then he nodded his head, just as slightly, in Hazmat's direction. "I plan to eat that."

Welcome to Creepytown, population us!

A feeling of deep disgust swept through my gut: was I "redeemer" to a cannibal? What would happen if the scavenger pony up ahead couldn't whistle a tune? What should I do if -

My internal dilemma was rendered moot as God crouched down, bunched up, and then leaped high into the air. His bat-wings snapped out, then curled inward, serving less to keep him aloft than to more perfectly direct and accelerate his downward plunge.

Hazmat whipped around at the noise of the alicorn's leathery folds catching the wind...

Oh gods!

I only caught a glimpse before God slammed into the thing, but that was plenty long enough for what was behind the faceplate of its bubble-helmet to etch itself into my brainpan.

It didn't have a face.

There was only the ghostly image of a pony's skull, hellish orange light blazing from the eye-sockets, and then it was mercifully obscured by a black mass of ripping, tearing, chewing alicorn. For all the struggle involved, God might as well have been opening a Fancy Buck snack cake and gobbling it down. The yellow "wrapper" only made the comparison more apt than it really should have been.

By the time I could get my legs working again, edging my way out of the shadows, he was already licking the last bits of pink something-or-other from his lips with an air of distinct satisfaction. Those lambent red eyes turned my way, taking on a curious aspect.

"I have not allowed prey to threaten my Redeemer. Yet I see and smell fear. Why?"

I shook out my mane in an effort to throw off my lingering unease. "I dunno, maybe because I'm surrounded by monsters?" I made a mental note to leave God off of any specific verbal inclusions to that category. "What the hell WAS that thing, anyway?"

God shrugged his expansive shoulders. "I have never heard them speak, so have no name for them. They are many, they move through the opened and closed places, they come from below where the pink suffocates all."

"Aaaand you eat them," I pointed out needlessly.

He looked genuinely puzzled as his hooves balled up and tossed the mangled hazmat suit into a nearby trash receptacle. "Live pony, dead pony, structurally are no different. Dead pony carries no soul. Why should I be concerned?"

Well, at least he cleans up after himself... I self-consciously scratched the back of my mane with a hoof, unsure where exactly I was going with this. Was it cannibalism to eat a ghoul gone feral? Could --- whatever that thing was --- even qualify as a ghoul? And more importantly:

"Just do me a favor and try to open up the next few more carefully. I could use one of those suits myself, even if I have to patch it up."

"No."

No?! I scowled, opened my mouth --- and then shut it again. Dog had tried to push him, like I'd been about to, and lost. God's subservience worked by its own set of rules, with clear limits, at least to his own mind.

What was the mind of an alicorn like, to start with?

Mostly, folks thought of alicorns as historical figures, pseudo-deific Princesses who'd at least nominally ruled Equestria's various provinces from a continent's worth of distance to the east. Far away, long ago, and nothing much to rate versus the modern pony's list of daily survival concerns.

Then there was word of this new breed cropping up in the ruins of the eastern seaboard. Not long ago, but still far away, and therefore only slightly more interesting. That changed a couple years back, when a trio of them showed up outside one of the NCR's forward outposts. All females, one purple and two green, demanding the NCR send out its unicorn contingent "for the glory of unity".

Nopony'd bothered to ask what that meant; our bucks-in-boots answered with all the firepower they had. In the end, it cost a couple of balefire eggs and the loss of the outpost's main barracks to finish the job.

Now, here was one of their males. Far as I knew, nopony else'd seen or even heard of a male alicorn, not even from the surviving historical records, though in retrospect it was kind of obvious they'd have at least some. It's not like alicorns were expected to bud off from a giant tree or grow out of some factory vat's chemical sludge...

...none of which really told me anything about how far one of them could reasonably be pushed.

So, diplomacy and tact it is. Can't hurt, being polite to the giant hellbeast that could probably swallow you in one bite.

"All right," I agreed with a nod. "Sounds like you have a reason why not to. Mind telling me what it is?"

God pointed to the trash can with his horn, my gaze following.

The steel receptacle was in the process of melting into bubbling pink sludge.

"Death magic," he said matter-of-factly. "Very specific scent."

"Right," I said, cringing inwardly at the thought of what would have happened if I'd slipped into that suit...

The glowing ooze began meandering its way towards the gutter where the thing's saddlebags had fallen off the suit mid-flight. Thinking quickly, I dashed over and pulled the bags away into the street --- whatever had destroyed the suit and its occupant hadn't done anything to the bags. Easy loot!

Practically ripping off the corroded latches, I pulled the flaps away, revealing... trash and body parts.

My brain did not want to compute that. Part said "dig in! there's got to be something under that, that -" and the other part said "yeah, that skull, that foreleg, that hoof... dig under THAT, right?". Cigarette boxes, tissue paper, rags, bits of old clothing. Plus bits and pieces of ponies and buffalo and griffons and... and that smell of rotting decay...

I turned my head and spewed. Dropping the bags, I staggered away from that carrion stench, my gut clenching on and expelling acidic bile with every step. By the time I made it far enough to avoid catching another whiff of the graveyard-in-a-sack, my barrel was sore from spasming and my throat felt raw.

God just watched, dispassionately, doing nothing but swishing his tail occasionally. I glared at him and spat a last bit of vileness at the ground, disgusted with myself for my sudden bout of weakness and ashamed I'd lost in in front of an audience.

"So long as you're finally in the mood to answer a few questions," I snarked, "how about you tell me what the fuck that thing was, and what the fuck it was doing before you decided to get peckish on it?"

He shrugged again, then shook his mane out as though shooing a fly. "I have no idea why any of the prey here does as they do. It does not concern me."

Peering back through the gloom, even from a distance, confirmed a sudden suspicion: the saddlebags carried the words C.R. Sanitation Dept., just below a now-unrecognizable emblem. I thought back to how it used the stick, its stabbing at junk in the gutter. A ghost, going through the motions of what it did when it was alive. So we just killed an undead janitor? Lovely. Which brought up another question, so I gave God the stink-eye in asking it:

"Just exactly how do you eat a ghost made of death magic, in the first place?"

His eyes brightened for a moment as he smacked his lips. "Tastes like strawberry pudding."

REALLY.

"Ooh! OOH! Over here!"

The too-familiar, too-loud squealing pitch came from a doorway back down the last cul-de-sac. There hovered Pink-E, grinning and blinking her eyes on and off to catch our attention. So that's where she got off to. I THOUGHT it was too quiet.

"C'mon! You gotta see this!" The little 'bot zipped back into the dark townhouse, the boarded-up lower window of which took on a warm yellowish glow a moment later. God and I exchanged glances, then trotted over, the big guy standing back while I peered dubiously within.

Not even ancient Pegasopolans had lived this spartanly!

A single overhead lamp illuminated the room's couch-and-coffee-table arrangement, set in front of a wall-mounted display screen with a single thin crack down the middle. Thick but dusty shag carpet ran from wall to wall. The whole place was a collection of opposing white and black with blocky angles... very minimalist. To one side of the couch sat a squat red machine with a coin-slot and dispensing tray, the only bright spot of color in the room.

Besides Pink-E, of course.

"Isn't this incredible? Just look!"

I did, again, just to make sure I'd missed nothing. I hadn't. Even God, peeking in overhead, looked nonplussed.

"Pink-E, this place doesn't even have a bedroom or kitchen. There's nothing here."

She stopped and turned, looking surprised. "Ooooh, right! I forget you can't see in infrared frequencies. Hang on..." The little 'bot spun towards the busted monitor, extended the gem-studded probe I'd seen her use back in Nipton, and jacked into a small port just below the screen.

The monitor practically exploded with sparks, static and hissing noise, before settling into a flickering semblance of functionality:

<<< >>>

RENTALS

LOUNGE - COMPLIMENTARY WITH ANY STAY

BEDROOM - Two days & One Night (50 Bits) / One Week (300 Bits)

DINING - Optional Surcharge per Day (20 Bits)

SERVICES

CASINO ACCOUNT (Payouts/Payments/Reservations)

SHOPPING (Deliveries Gratis, Tips Not Included)

COMMUNICATIONS (Telephone/ZipMail) - ACTIVE, PENDING

MEDICAL ACCESS (Emergency Only) - COMPLIMENTARY WITH ANY STAY

* for further assistance, please speak to a Concierge or Service Hostess.
<<< >>>

That next-to-last line made my teeth grind together of their own volition for a moment. "Medical... oh, for fuck's sake! THAT'S how you get to the stupid clinic?!"

Pink-E beamed. "Yep! Isn't modern technology fantastic?"

I looked at her incredulously. "My ASS it is! It's not like I went off expecting to make any big purchases from the Zoomers, is it?!" I threw my hooves into the air, my voice rising as frustration had its way. "Don't tell me! I'm going to have to break into that bank back down by the police station, aren't I? Blast through a few dozen weapons turrets, huh? Smash up a battalion of sentry 'bots?! Personally kick in the vault door?! Well I guess I'll have to, since all my cash is back at the - "

*ping*

"Your access has been renewed. Thank you for your patronage!"

I blinked at the voice sounding from the monitor, then facehoofed. "Of course you hacked it, didn't you."

The floating pink robot head looked surprised. "Geez, no! I mean, I could, if I had the right activation codes for those subroutines, but I don't, so I just let it know I've got fifty bits in my bucket." She withdrew her probe from the monitor and hovered across to the red machine --- which was now displaying a flashing blue indicator. Pink-E settled her neck-stump over its coin slot, made the kind of face a pony will when doing their "business", and...

...yyyeeeah. That's just not right.

For the brief eternity that my great-great-grand-aunt's neck-hole spat out a literal "money shot", God and I found other things in the nondescript room to look at. When it was over, the stand's light was green and --- was Pink-E's rubber face somehow pinker than usual? I couldn't really tell in the dimness of the ancient overhead lamp.

She just gave me a flat look and, with uncharacteristic seriousness, said, "Let us never speak of this again."

I shook my head for a moment, trying to dislodge the lingering image. "Not that I'm complaining --- much --- but why did you even think to bring the money along?"

She rolled her eyes, blowing a wisp of pink mane out of the left one. "Duh, Casino Royale? I knew where you were before I left the Lucky Chance! So I stored up all the bits you had lying around 'cause I knew this place wouldn't accept those silly bottlecaps or New Coltifornia money for anything. It really wasn't much, but you can check it out by telling the monitor to show you the accounts."

I looked up at the big screen and, a bit self-consciously, cleared my throat. "Casino accounts, please."

Immediately, the image flashed to a spreadsheet of credits and expenses. I'd been charged fifty bits out of a hundred and thirty-seven, payment taking place at precisely 12:25am, meaning that my first day started now. Well, at least I was getting my money's worth.

"Okay, let's cut to the chase... Medical - "

"WAIT!" shouted Pink-E.

I winced, pinning my ears back against the noise, and turned to glare at her. "For the love of Pete, WHAT?!"

Now I got the pleading look. "Don'cha wanna see what's in the mailbox? It's probably full of secrets and history and tragedy!"

This time the flat look was mine. "I don't care about that. I'm here to get a stupid machine for a bunch of stupid pegasi so they'll take a stupid message from Mister Stupid Fucking Horse. And so I won't go to my grave looking like a melted pencil eraser. As opposed to getting caught up in the drama or details of some pony who died before my dad was born."

"But what if it's about Mister Stupid F - um, Mister Horse? It could be!" Those pleading eyes just wouldn't let up.

Now God chimed in. "I, also, do not care. Why do you argue with your property?"

Pink-E whirled on him with an expression that made even the god-alicorn take a step back. "I am NOT Cherry's property! I am his COMPANION!" With a snort, she turned and faced away. I'd've sworn she was sitting on her rump with forelegs folded across one another, if it weren't for the fact she had neither to work with.

God looked at me askance. I frowned, shrugged, and nodded.

Now HE looked away, sat down, and folded his forelegs over each other! And snorted!

I stared back and forth at the two of them. "Seriously?!" Neither responded. I blew out a sigh.

"All fucking right," I growled, "let's get this moronitude over with. Computer, gimme communications."

Pink-E squee'd, her attitude flipping a perfect one-eighty, and zipped back across the room to hover at my shoulder, eagerly looking up at the screen. God still sat where he was, visibly fuming. I shrugged to myself as the data came up:

<<< >>>

TELEPHONE - 2 messages (Mr. Uptown Eclair, Mr. Domino Mask)

ZIPMAIL - 1 message (FW: Ms. Derpy Hooves - file attachment)

<<< >>>

My disbelief must have been evident even to Pink-E. "Um... you have to open something and read it before you get a look like that, Cherry..."

I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. "Miss 'Derpy Hooves'? Really? The goofball mailmare from the casino in Slimm? That was her real name?"

Pink-E stopped and audibly whirred for a moment before responding: "Oh, nononono! 'Derpy' was a nickname Dashie gave Ditzy back when she accidentally destroyed most of Ponyville's town hall with her butt. Actually, I think she might have been called that beforehoof, on account of her vision problems."

Now I caught myself staring at the pink 'bot-head. "Come again...?"

"Oh, none of that's important right now!" she said, bobbling impatiently in mid-air. "Let's see the mail!"

I had to admit at this point that my own curiosity was piqued. Here I'd thought "Derpy the Mailmare" was just an old legend... I cued the mail, not sure what to expect.

Hey, Uppie-Baby!

Dean here, swingin' in on the grapevine from my last Buckingham gig! Thought I'd slum around your new joint, see how she creaks, grab a little of this fantastic desert-west sunshine you and Horse glommed up for yourselves! Heh heh!

Plus I picked up a little tid-bit for ya while I was out there. Too bad you missed this year's Three-Gee, it was a BLAST, baby! That "Pinkie" gal outdoes herself every year. But it ain't HER I had a friend snap for ya, Uppie... just dig them gams, willya! She sends her regrets, still tied up trying to nail down that singing contract I told you about before, but she SWEARS she'll be here for your own G!

So hey, if you wanna dish or deal, I'll be up in the 'house with bells on.

- Dean [SHOW ATTACHED FILE? Y/N]

"Yeah, sure." Being around Pink-E this last few days had gotten me pretty blasé about "helpful" machines. More normally, they just tried to blow you up for being an intruder of some sort. Alternately, they inconvenienced you by falling apart when you tried to use tech that'd been sitting around for centuries without a tune-up.

And then there were the machines that did THIS to you.

I couldn't tell if the attached graphic file was supposed to be some kind of joke or a serious attempt to sell a product. Not to mention something about it was just... off. I stood there staring at it long enough, trying to figure it out, that the system timed out. "Two telephone messages. First call."

"Uppie! Dean here! Ain't heard from ya since I blew in, what's eatin' ya? I KNOW you've reserved this room all 'incognito' and such. Honest, yer not very good at the sneaky-game. Check yer zipmail and get back to me." *click*

The computer's monotone semblance of pleasantry continued apace: "Second call."

"Miss Hooves, thank you for graciously accepting my invitation at last. I'm sure somepony of your natural brilliance can readily see through this room's facade of simplicity, so let me assure you that I have sought to provide every reasonable comfort and consideration.

Room service has, of course, been placed at your beck and call on my own account; think nothing of indulging in whatever fashion you might wish. I am at your complete disposal and, if you would consider the offer, quite available to discuss your career options either here at the Royale or elsewhere in Equestria... perhaps over a fine wine and a daffodil duchesse?

Ring me at your convenience and please... do enjoy your stay."


As the monitor flicked back to the main menu, I paused and gave Pink-E a look. "You happy now?"

She bobbed her pink curls. "Oh, yes, thank you! I just love seeing new information."

God was still facing the opposite corner in full-blown pouting mode. Now it was my turn to snort irritably. "Y'know, I do not know what to make of you. You were about to murder me, then decided I'm your 'Redeemer' just because I have the key to a cell --- a cell you can zap into and out of anytime you like. You soak up blaster-fire like a solar panel does sunshine. You freaking well eat death magic. And you get into a snit because I have a robot sidekick?"

He turned his head just far enough to glare at me with one of those big red eyes.

"Machines have no souls. This one says, 'do this', and you do. What should I think of that?"

I blinked. "You're angry because I let her pester me into doing something I didn't want to?"

God harrumphed, nodding firmly. "It is not the proper order, that the living should obey the dead."

My hoof found its way up to scratch the back of my mane. "I'm not sure I'd exactly call Pink-E 'dead'..."

"Oh?" With one fluid motion, the bat-winged alicorn surged up, fixing that blood-eyed look directly on me. "Machines can have souls?"

I could already tell that I did not like where this was going. "We are not going to have this discussion now."

"Oh yes! Yes we are!" said he, moving closer with a flash of fang. "Look at me, Redeemer. You are smaller than other ponies I have seen, but I? I am much larger. My body hungers incessantly; I must feed it."

He began pacing back and forth, a slice of night against the stark white walls, tail lashing back and forth as he built up a head of emotional steam. I stole a look towards the exit and started calculating my chances if I had to run. The odds weren't real great.

"I was born far from here, starving and insensate and battered by a thousand minds not my own. I knew nothing except that I must eat, and so I did. One of the minds perished. The rest cast me out."

God was snarling now, remembering and dwelling on a traumatic past that I'd had nothing to do with, but which was probably going to get me killed anyway. That's the Wasteland for you in a nutshell. Fortunately, he had a literally captive audience, and seemed more interested in playing out his dialogue first.

Yay for talky crazies!

"I wandered, hungered, hunted, and hated myself when they screamed for mercy. My mind, though parted from unity, still carried memories of how they screamed for mercy, or pity, or hate's sake, when they went into the vats, when they entered unity with the rest. What I had done to them, it was... sinful. When they cast me out, they locked that sin within me."

The pacing and lashing began to slow. Oh, good. He's going introspective and depressed. That'll make him a bit slower if I have to break for it.

"With many passings of the moon, I learned my way in the world. Learned to eat that which carries no soul, so that I would collect no more sin. That which I have already collected calls out for atonement, but --- but I must be redeemed by another, because..."

God came to a halt, head and tail drooping down towards the floor, booming voice reduced to a husky whisper. "Because I was improperly... built."

...okay, whatnow?

And just like that the most dangerous monster I'd ever seen, in all my years of roaming the wastes, slumped down into a pile of glossy-black self-loathing and began to cry.

Pink-E made an "awwww" sound and started to drift towards God. I immediately tackled the little 'bot; her blue eyes went wide with surprise. "Oof! Cherry, what are you -"

"Just shut up, for once, okay?" I pointed a hoof at the snuffling, weeping alicorn. "The giant cannibal pony is having an existential crisis, and as far as he's concerned you don't even have a soul! Do you really think he wants your sympathy right now?"

Pink-E blinked innocently up at me. "You mean you think I have a soul...?"

I groaned and let her up, mainly because I needed my hoof free to cover my face. "Let's just say, for right now, that I don't know and I don't care. Good enough?"

Her beaming smile stretched those rubber cheeks dangerously wide. "Okie dokie loki!"

I rolled my eyes, sighed to myself, and walked across the room. This is what I get for letting myself get sidetracked in the first place. Might as well go with the blunt approach...

"So. Whaddya mean, 'built'?"

God lifted his head slightly, snorking hard for a moment to clear the snot running from his nose. "I was meant to be a solution," he whined. "The alicorns of the Unity are all mares." Ah, I heard a capitalization in there. So this was a group of some kind.

He seemed to get a better handle on himself as he went on, slowly quashing the whining tone in favor of his more usual bombast. "Without males, they cannot breed, can only maintain numbers by taking others into them. This earned many enemies, which made it --- difficult --- to convince others of Unity's benefits."

I nodded as though I cared. I'd seen drunks like this before. The only way to get it out of his system, so we could get a move on, was to let him tell his whole godsdamned sob-story. At least we weren't under fire or anything. "Go on."

He wiped at his nose with an unshorn fetlock. Ew. "After many, many years of experiments, the Goddess of the Unity created what she said was the greatest, most powerful attempt at a male counterpart --- a God to be her consort. My first memory was that initial moment of wonder, of triumph, of pride. But then, even before I allowed my hunger to best me, there was a wave of disgust, and then shame, and then anger. The Goddess' design had failed, somehow, I... I..." He covered his face and mumbled something.

I leaned in slightly. "Sorry, didn't catch that."

God rose to his haunches, flared his wings, turned his forehooves upwards in supplication, and bawled:

"I AM STERILE!"

The force of his scream blew my mane back and sent me flying, ass-for-teakettle, into the far corner. By the time I picked myself up and shook myself out, he was in worse shape than before, a sobbing, heaving pile of emotional wreckage draped across the couch. Hell, I could hardly SEE the couch beneath his sorry bulk; it had a matching color scheme.

What a drama queen! My disgust was difficult to contain, but for the sake of survival I managed it. The last thing I needed was for the alicorn's self-absorbing sorrow to swap out for self-righteous rage.

"Well, okay," I said in my best approximation of sympathy. "You just sit there and let it all out. I'll be back after checking out the clinic and we can talk again if you want. Okay?" I thought I saw his horn bob up and down in what might've been a nod.

Good enough!

I turned my attention back to the monitor and got down to business. "Computer, medical access."

With a soft hiss, a large round section of wall pushed out into the room. Following behind came a slightly-smaller yellow cylinder marked with pink butterflies, the side of which opened with a similar hiss of exchanged air pressure. Inside was a cushioned table with molded depressions suitable for a pony resting on his belly. Grooves along the side ended at the floor level in faux-boots. The whole thing looked like it could be used either to ride, or strap an unconscious pony into.

Either way, it was pretty obvious this was why I couldn't find the clinic from the outside; you rode a pneumatic tube right from your room to the doctor's office. If it was only meant to be accessible from these townhouses, it probably didn't even have a door to the outside at all!

I straddled the table and settled onto my belly, hooves clicking into the "boots" as Pink-E wedged herself in behind. The tube's door came down, its interior lights came up, and with a whoosh my stomach gave me a perfect reason to be thankful that I'd already thrown up everything I had available earlier in the evening.

So THIS is what a 'roller-coaster' --- urgh! --- was like? Still not --- ulp! --- seeing the attraction...!

* * * * *

One minute and far too many dry-heaves later, the tube opened up to let in an oppressively wet and musty atmosphere. As soon as its "boots" let go my hooves, I slipped off the couch --- and into the inch-deep muck coating the floor of what had once been an antiseptic emergency ward.

Now, its walls were covered in mold and fungus, rivulets of water dripping from cracks in unseen piping. The whole place was dim, not because there was no power to the lights, but because of the layers of scum covering their panels. In addition the air was both humid and borderline anoxic, making it really hard to breathe.

A quick check of the transit cylinder revealed an emergency breathing mask and oxygen tank, the latter of which I stuffed into my saddlebag while I clamped the former over my muzzle. Shortly, I was getting a smooth flow of life-giving gas and not worrying so much about how fast I could cram myself back into the pukey-tube.

Meanwhile, Pink-E popped out of the tube and hovered, swiveling about, while my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle began picking up the data relayed from her readings.

"Wheeee! That was fun! Can we do it again?"

I wasn't looking forward to it, but odds were high that I wouldn't have a choice. "If we live to do it? Sure."

Fortunately, the bars which showed up were a solid neutral amber without even a hint of red. That was good, because there were so many bars that it was hard to tell one from another. All I needed to worry about now was how many varieties of mushroom were going to try growing in the frog of my hoof before I could get the hell out of here.

Well, that, and finding the stupid Auto-Doc, so I could radio in my "mission accomplished" and get the hell out of Dodge Junction. The watery slurry beneath my hooves sloshed as I moved into the room.

Immediately to the left and right of the tube's exit point were, respectively, a terminal and the framework of what had to be an Auto-Doc. I'd never actually seen one, but it made sense that if an unconscious patient arrived needing critical treatment, you'd want to have the top gear right on hoof. Slime-coated boxes to either side yielded to my scraping and prodding easily enough, popping open to reveal --- nothing. They'd been looted long ago.

Well, crap. I suppose it made sense; anypony who'd been in the townhouses, when things went to Tartarus, could have gotten in here and used or taken whatever hadn't been locked down. Not to mention the folks who'd actually worked here and had proper access to everything. My inner greedpony went all sad-faced.

Speaking of taking away stuff that'd been bolted down, what was I going to do with this Auto-Doc? It was way too big to cram into the medical tube, at least not without disassembling it. I spent a few minutes examining the thing before determining that my basic "toolset" of hammer, adjustable wrench and screwdriver weren't going to cut it --- not if I needed to take the whole damn thing.

Pink-E suddenly gave with a couple of low-pitched beeps and turned to look at me. "Incoming transmission from the Zoomers. Wanna hear what they've got to say?"

"I was wondering why I hadn't heard from them..." I mused aloud.

She tilted her head and took on a more casual tone. "Oh, that's because I've been suppressing the signal anytime you've been talking to anyone. You know, privacy and all that."

I chuckled, despite myself. So she could be useful from time to time... "Thanks, Pink-E. Put 'em on."

My collar radio spat a sudden burst of static, and then: "Dead-Shot! Respond!... I swear, I'm going to start mashing this button here in a minute... DEAD-SHOT...!" Commander Bitchy sounded ready to spit fire.

My ears flicked back in annoyance. "Keep your saddle cinched, I'm right here. Whaddya need?"

"About damn time! We show you as being right on top of the clinic. Are you in?"

"Yeah, and the place is a cesspool. Got an Auto-Doc right here, but it's huge, underground, and you didn't give me a toolbox to take it apart. So now what?"

Bitchy gave a long-suffering sigh. "We've got our own Auto-Docs on base, you moron. All we need is the control module. You'll see that as a green square with the model number, just below the diagnostic screen."

Ignoring the jibe, I looked and sure enough, there was the panel --- reading "Mk VI".

Luna's crusty twat!

Relaying that info set Bitchy off into a series of even more colorful phrases, several of which I wished I had notepaper and a pencil to jot down for future reference. After a minute she calmed down enough to get back on message. "Alright, alright, fine... you'll just have to look around for an actual Mark Seven. If a Six would do it, we wouldn't have needed you in the first place. Get on it. Air Wolf out."

Bitch, bitch, bitch...

On the wall opposite the tube-access was a wire-reinforced receptionist's window and a doorway deeper into the clinic, while to either side corridors curved away in what I assumed was probably a circular ring leading to more triage rooms like this one. Probably four, all told, if the rate of curvature remained constant, with a few rooms deeper in for administration and such.

Normally I'd have just done a sweep of the whole place, but my looting inclinations were already dampened by the logical likelihood that the place had already been picked over. The rest of me was dampened, uncomfortably so, just by standing there. The Zoomers had said they'd tracked a Mark Seven here by discovering records, so it stood to reason that the terminal right here would have that information... and if it hadn't been a waterlogged, fungus-coated mess, it might have. Flicking the power button would probably just get me electrocuted.

Administration it is, then. Pink-E followed close behind, hovering quietly, as I pulled the Courier's old hard-weathered ten-millimeter pistol from its holster and approached the door.

Thankfully, it didn't seem to have a lock. But before just barging on through, I figured it was a good idea to scrape a little of the gunk off the window and take a peek inside.

Turned out that was a very good idea.

The window opened onto an expansive room with several desks, a coffee station, numerous filing and storage cabinets, and an extra sickbay with another Auto-Doc. Plus a horde of crawling, slurping, burbling things covering every visible surface other than the window itself. Beside being fungoids, they had no uniformity whatsoever. Some were as big as my head, others so tiny I was glad to be wearing a respirator. Most looked like pictures I'd seen in books of microscopic amoebas, but others had a fern-like appearance or even flitted around on complicated gossamer wingspans.

And half of them were busily engaged in hunting, killing, and eating each other, while the other half was just as busy reproducing a new generation of abominations. It was a self-replicating massacre.

For the time being, they all remained amber on my EFS, but I'd bet my last NCR sawbuck that every single one would go carnivore on my equine flank the instant I stepped through that door. It was time to weigh my options.

On one hoof, that Auto-Doc in there was almost certainly the Mark Seven. On the second hoof, the sheer number of little bastards also in there meant trying to battle my way through with the pistol would likely amount to suicide. On the third, I had a couple of old frag grenades (never leave a trading post without 'em!), but tossing one inside would risk damaging the Auto-Doc. On the fourth...

I turned and gave Pink-E a smile. "...do me a favor?"

* * * * *

Gasping for air and sick to my stomach all over again, I tumbled out of the medical tube and onto the dusty white carpets of Miss Derpy Hooves' townhouse-away-from-home. Pink-E popped out right behind, grinning with such obvious glee that I would have punched her, if I could have gotten to my hooves without foundering just then.

"That was amazing, Cherry! Just brilliant! Wow! If I hadn't seen it with my own receptors, I'd've never believed it!"

And if I didn't know the damned robot was incapable of sarcasm, I'd have another reason to shoot her...

God was sitting up on the couch on his haunches, working through the last of his sniffles and now blinking at the two of us. "Redeemer...? Are you well?"

Pink-E zipped right up to him, bouncing around like a filly on an Apple Bombs high. "Is he 'well'? He's GREAT! You should've seen how he distracted all those mushroom monsters down there so they all went after him instead of me so I could look for the thingy from the Auto-Doc but it wasn't there, so while Cherry ran round and round and round the clinic, and more and more and more mushroom monsters took off after him, I was able to download all the non-secure clinic files, and then he -"

God stuffed a hoof into Pink-E's muzzle, giving me an expectant look as my blue face slowly shifted back to its normal pink. Still breathing hard, I reached into my saddlebag, pulled out the long-expended airtank, and tossed it away. He nodded, settling down to wait patiently for me to catch my breath.

When I'd finally done so, and gotten the energy back to sit up, and plucked a couple of the larger grenade fragments out of my flank armor besides, I glared at Pink-E. "You were supposed to go in there quietly and get the damn module --- not try to make 'first contact with an unknown species'!"

The little pink 'bot was taken aback. "All I did was ask where the module went! It's not my fault they didn't know!"

"Of course they didn't know!" I exploded, throwing my hooves in the air and gesticulating wildly as though the sheer kinetic motion would get my point through to her tiny silicon brain. "They're MUSHROOMS!" Groaning, I flopped onto my side with a sinking feeling of complete defeat in my guts. "So this whole thing was a fucking changeling hunt... no Mark Seven, no loot, no deal with the Zoomers and probably no more job with Horse... and that's assuming I can even get out of this place."

Pink-E brightened up. "Oh, I know where the Mark Seven Auto-Doc module is! There was a message on Doctor Stable's personal terminal about it!" She turned, plugged her little probe into the screen again, and made several beeping noises.

<<< >>>

ZIPMAIL - 2 messages (Mr. Uptown Eclair - file attachment, Mr. Slag Bolt)

<<< >>>

My frustration with Pink-E slowly simmered down to an even boil as she brought each letter up in turn:


Dr. Oontz Stable:

Be advised that Ms. Derpy Hooves will be arriving some time this week. It is expected that she will inquire after the Mark Seven Auto-Doc, regarding its advanced functions in the area of optical practice. At that time, and that time only, conduct the removal of the Auto-Doc's module as previously directed and forward the attached file to her in-house zipmail directory.

Though it should go without saying, I trust to your highest professional confidences in this regard.

- Uptown Eclair [SHOW ATTACHED FILE? Y/N]


Pink-E practically cheered: "Of course!"


My Dear Ms. Hooves,

Kindly pardon the forwardness of an up-to-now somewhat-secret admirer.

Ever since catching a glimpse of your exotic, entrancing golden eyes at the Grand Galloping Gala some years ago, I have found myself undeniably fascinated with you. Discreet inquiries, however, came up empty - you lived a mysterious, unknowable life, which I found unfathomable. I pride myself upon knowing anypony that anypony should know, and yet... I could discover nothing about yourself, making you all the more intriguing to me. Nopony at any of my garden parties, or in my social circles, or even at the Canterlot Jockeying Club, recalled seeing anypony by your unique description.

After much fruitless endeavor in this regard, our mutual acquaintance Domino Mask informed me that he knew you on both a personal and professional level. It is through his good graces and knowledge of the entertainment industry that, truly, I know anything of you at all - your talents as a "torch singer", for example, or your legal entanglements with that Slimm-based hub of scurrilous slander calling itself a "museum". Hummepfeh!

So I beg your forgiveness for my bald-faced manipulations at this late date. The time, it seems to me, is short for us all, while you of all persons remain foremost in my mind. I know you came here at Mr. Mask's insistence, with intent to make use of the new Automated Doctor Mk. VII. As the least of its abilities, it most certainly can correct the misfortune of your visual issues, something which Mr. Mask informs me is your chiefmost concern.

In point of fact, I had the Mk. VII designed and built at the "Big M/T" (as with many of the facilities and functions of the Casino Royale) expressly to make survival of what is to come a greater likelihood. For you, even if not for anypony else.

Yet with the clock so fleeting, I could not make this gift without also presenting the remainder of my tokens of affection. You will find these, as well as the "Auto-Doc", in my personal sanctuary beneath the Royale itself. Any of my casino staff will be able to direct you there: the access code is "champagne".

Please hurry. I shan't allow the "Gala Royale" to start without you.


- Your Ardent Admirer, Uptown Eclair


I could feel the urge to kill --- somepony, anypony! --- rising again. Hit the casino proper? The casino, with its legendary killer-holograms spitting pure magic to kill anypony that came close? Before I could do all that much mulling over the subject, the third message popped up:


Report 97-A (Corporate, Medical): Construction Forepony Slag Bolt. The fumigation talismans are working like a charm. We're conducting a final spray in the sewers to polish off the last of the roach colonies down there, after which we'll be doing a double-rinse this time before sending anypony down.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: that pink stuff may do wonders killing bugs, but whoever said its residue has "minimal effects on the equipment and workforce" is a lying snotrag. It takes days for it to seep out of whatever it's soaked into, especially concrete, and that after only a few minutes' exposure. I'll allow no more workers into treated areas without the new hazmat suits, as the old ones do jack-diddly against the pink. Doc Stable can tell you what happened to THOSE guys; I get the willies just thinking about it.

That said, we've got good and bad news: plenty of the new suits just arrived today, but they've got fitting issues. We haven't been able to get the guys and gals who've gone in, back out! The programming suite keeps insisting the wearers are 'endangered' and won't unseal, and the damn things only re-seal if you try to cut 'em open. So far, nopony's been hurt, and we're getting a tech crew in from M/T stat, but tonight's the Big Event. We ain't got time for this crap.

Bottom line: there's enough crew in the suits to do the job, but I'm putting them all in for double-overtime. On your bill. Next time, don't send us untested equipment.


Well, wasn't that special. Get special suits to survive "the pink", then get killed by the suits... somehow. Who'd use necromancy to make a protective suit, anyways? I was probably missing some details, but it seemed that I'd managed to solve the Mystery of the Ghost Herd.

Yay. That and twenty bottlecaps would get me a cup of coffee at any "Pony Joe's" in the NCR.

I sat down, reached up, took off my hat, and rubbed my forehead. "Lemme see if I've got this straight. Auto-Doc module's below the casino. Can't get out of here alive without it. Probably can't get IN there alive to start with. Okay... this's going to take some figuring out."

"From the look of you, that means we could all be here a few days. No offense."

As one our collective heads snapped around, finding the owner of that gravel-paved voice leaning casually against the doorframe, lighting up a cigarette. I'd never seen a slicker-looking ghoul in my life --- in fact, if he hadn't exhaled the smoke through the holes in his neck, I'd've hardly noticed at first that he was one.

His mane was combed back into a puffed-up ducktail of shimmering golden blonde. The shade of his coat, an early-evening sky blue, did a good job at hiding the few missing patches of skin that went with any ghoul's territory. The rattiest thing about him was the purple-pinstriped tuxedo, an old silk affair haphazardly patched up with what looked like surgical sutures. Probably his own work, as I didn't think there were many tailors about, and he didn't strike me as the sort who got out much.

A smile smoothly curved across his muzzle, failing to quite match the emotions couched in a set of dead-green eyes.

"I'll save ya the trouble, kid. The name's Domino Mask. Yeah, you've prolly heard of me. And the two of us? Seems like it's time to do a little... horse-trading, so to speak."



Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Pinkie Sense (3)(of 5) -- from time to time, strange things seem to happen around you. Each level of this perk escalates the weirdness.

Aligned Perk: Border Jumper -- the federales will never catch you! That's mainly because you've developed a strange knack for slipping between cracks in the universe. Maybe all that balefire had a bigger effect on the fabric of reality than anypony thought...

Skill Note: Lockpick (50)