• 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 14: The Good, the Bad, and the Derpy

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The Good, the Bad, and the Derpy

“When that rope starts to pull tight, you can feel a Windigo bite your ass.”

Domino chortled as he led the way into the main hall, throat-gaps flapping like the world’s most disturbing set of gills. His grin was so wide, I could see blackened gums. It occurred to me then that if Domino had been here since B-Day, but the Casino Royale had never been hit with balefire bombs... then how did he become a ghoul in the first place?

From what little I knew on the subject, ghouls had been normal ponies once, but exposure to the necromantic radiation of balefire had transformed them into ever-rotting, never-dying shades of the past. Some said that ghoulification happened all at once, like if you were right there when the bombs hit, or were unlucky enough to stumble into an old bombardment zone where high levels of radiation continued to linger. Others opined that you could become a ghoul over time by gradual exposure.

If it didn’t kill you first, of course.

I had to wonder if the same was possible for this Pink Cloud stuff. It too was necromantic, yet it was clear the Ghosts lived and maybe even thrived in the stuff. But Domino wasn’t anything like them... was he?

“Heh, heh, heh... good old Uptown Eclair.” The too-smooth ghoul stopped for a moment to sweep an unchipped hoof about. “Lookit this place he built. All that money, all that power, what did it get him? The best mausoleum in Equestria, with me trotting around inside as easy as you please.”

I couldn’t very well fault his assessment. The cavernous atrium, sprawling beneath a frescoed ceiling three stories high, presented a tomb-like atmosphere of silent ostentation. I could easily imagine the Kingdom of Canterlot having once had similar places in which to inter their deceased royals --- all but the last of them, of course. Tombs and graveyards had largely gone out of style since then, being that while one death might have been worth reflecting upon, millions meant too many corpses to fuss over like this.

Our hoof-steps across the carpet-on-parquet flooring, identical to that in the foyer, produced a lag between step and echo which faintly suggested ghosts trailing in our wake. To distract myself from that creepy train of thought, I busied myself with looking up at the frescoes overhead.

There, in romanticized relief, still-brilliant colors told the history of ponykind’s exploration and settlement of the great southwestern deserts collectively known as the San Palomino.

Courageous bucks wore denim work overalls and straw hats, faithful fillies in pretty gingham dresses at their sides, all smiling and looking towards a brighter future in the untamed West. Along the south side, long strings of canvas-topped Connemara wagons crossed the Moohave, while others braved the Ponave to the north. Each encountered adversities ranging from savage buffalo herds to dangerous monsters to thirst and disease as they went, the hardy pioneers triumphing over each through determination and yadda-yadda-yadda, boooooooor-ing! I wondered how many of them had ever thought of their routes in terms of “bullets-per-mile”.

Did they even have guns in those days? Squinting closely, I spotted an instance of ponies behind barricades throwing pies at an opposing line of charging buffalo. Part of me hoped the genes carrying that peculiar brand of stupidity had been annihilated shortly thereafter.

All in all, it was an appropriate enough epitaph for a bygone era, its freshly-remembered spirit seeming to mingle with the conjured ghosts of our hoof-falls. Beyond the oppressive sense of lost history, there was nothing else at all for a visitor to see.

...which didn’t really make much sense.

If the bombs fell the day before this place held its grand opening, wouldn’t there have been something here for the expected guests? Maybe the rotten remnants of a planned banquet, or a concert orchestra’s abandoned instruments, or... well, something!

The closest we came to that was at the midway point, when we passed a bandstand shaped to look like a giant white seashell upon a shallow dais. In the center, a single music stand had been set up, accommodating a performer who had never played for an audience which had never arrived.

Sadly, the only respite from the melancholy was Domino’s continual gloating over a dead guy.

“He was a buck used to getting what he wanted, no bones about it. Grew up rich, made friends easy, got to be a pretty big society name. Nopony told him no, not if they wanted to peddle influence in his circles. With so many high-rollers dying to make him happy, he barely had to ask for anything. The dumb sonovabitch...”

Though his mocking tones went unabated, a glance in his direction revealed a tightly-drawn scowl of jealousy. If you could really consider this place a tomb, he was busy making sure the spirits of the dead --- or, at least, one particular spirit --- knew he was stamping on the grave.

“All these years later, I still can’t believe it. He goes to the Grand Galloping Gala this one time, right? Sees some blonde pegasus floozy with messed-up vision issues and bubbles on her butt. He doesn’t know a damned thing about the mare, but bam, he’s head over hocks at first sight. Totally infatuated.”

He snorted disgustedly, sending up a long plume of gray cigarette smoke. “But does he go over and say ‘hi’? Oh, nooooo, that’s ‘crass’. Bucks like you and me, we’d just break the ice and be done with it, but not Uptown Eclair." Domino stopped briefly to press a hoof to his chest and flutter his eyelashes, dragging the words out into a singsong sneer. "He was a Canterlot pony.”

The ghoul took another puff on the cancer-stick before resuming his swaggering saunter. “Uptight Asshole, more like,” he said. "He has to make with the whole ritual courtship protocol, see? So he waits a couple of hours and then sends some flunkie to ‘inquire after the lady’. But she was already done and gone.”

He chuckled at the memory. “None of his high-rolling friends knew anything about her --- why would they? A total nopony, hanging with some doctor who nopony knew either, him all chestnut hide and drab-brown mane that’d never seen the inside of a salon. I dunno how they even got tickets.”

The hall seemed to get longer the more Domino carried on about Eclair. I kept looking behind me, a twitchy feeling in my hooves, but he was too mired in the past to notice. Still, God seemed not the least bit perturbed as he brought up the rear, and my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle showed no bars on the compass except our own green. Pink-E, for her part, still looked singed, warped, and uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

I wanted to ask her how she was holding up, but Domino’s monologue continued apace and I was loathe to interrupt. Maybe if he rambled on long enough, he’d actually say something useful.

“For anypony daring enough to play off his ego, Eclair was a sucker’s sucker. Even if nopony knew who Little Miss Bubble-Flanks was, they all acted like they knew something because he was interested. Vague tidbits, rumors, speculation, a real gossip mill. Hah! By the time I got myself invited to one of his soirees, Eclair was half-convinced she was the Queen of Sheepa!”

Now that smooth, insouciant smile returned. “Me? I already knew who she was. Stupid bitch dropped a piano through the roof at a gig I was working the year before." He waved a dismissive hoof. “Just a delivery grunt, the kind other pegasi usta call hoi polloi. The kind none of Eclair’s fashionable pals could stoop low enough to notice.”

“So when conversation turned to the ‘Mare of Mystery’, I acted all shocked at her description. Might as well have been trolling a lure through a trout pond, they way they all came nibbling for morsels. And Uptown Eclair was the biggest fish of all.”

For a while there, it almost seemed like the hall might never end, that the rest of my existence would be reduced to enduring Domino’s self-absorbed babble until my eardrums fell out. As it was, between listening to him brag and looking up at the frescoes now and again, I nearly walked into the far wall.

In front of us, and to either side of the hall, were big double-doorways framed by beveled panes of thick, frosted glass, each tall rectangle admitting a soft glow of white light from beyond. At the apex of each was mounted a big brass plaque, the one before us reading “Casino” in broad curlique lettering. Southwards I could make out “Administration”, while going north led to “Elevators”.

My EFS still showed a complete lack of danger. My twitching hooves said differently. Domino looked up at the Casino doors, then turned towards me.

"All right, here's the deal. The Royale's bank vault also doubled as Eclair's personal, miniature Stable. Told me so himself, said he had it all set up so he could live the rest of his natural life down there in perfect comfort, if he had to. And he knew how to be comfortable, that's for sure... the lousy prick."

I stared at him. "You waited this long to tell us we're trying to break into a Stable?!" Something inside me marveled at the sheer stupidity of the idea. "What, did you smuggle in a few tons of plastic explosive up your plot? Or were you planning to lick your way through the blast door?"

He gave me a flat look, then reached into his tuxedo and pulled out two red lozenges of plastic marked with the casino logo. From each dangled a long brass key.

"Got wax in yer ears? I just said that Stable also doubles as the casino vault! Means the flesh-and-blood security types had to be able to get into it, didn't they? I haven't exactly been sitting on my flank all this time, watching the Pink roll by. What I went through to get these, I wouldn't wish on anypony... not even Eclair."

I bobbed my head in a brief apology. "Sorry. You were saying...?"

He blew out of the side of his mouth in annoyance, making a little show out of setting my outburst aside. "I was saying, we head down there and round up everything worth taking. Security won't bug us as long as we have these keys, so however many trips it takes, we drag it all upstairs to my penthouse and stuff our bags full."

I did my best to copy that look he'd just given me. "You haven't been waiting two centuries just for one saddlebag of loot. And that horde of death outside the front door isn't likely to be conveniently gone when we get back, either. You plan on God and me wiping out the whole Ghost Herd on the way out?"

That low chuffing of mirth sounded from his neck once more. "Fuck no, buddy. We are gonna leave here in style." He put the keys back into his jacket. When his hoof came back out, it held a card of blue plastic, embossed and rimmed with what had to be platinum.

"V.I.P. privileges include the airship garage built into the roof. My jumped-up old jalopy's right where I parked it --- next to Eclair's yacht.” He swept that hoof around again, taking in the spotlessly-maintained surroundings. “Whaddya wanna bet that both are in the same condition as the day the bombs fell?"

Naturally enough, our route to the vault below went through “Administration”, which door opened directly onto a large and tastefully-appointed office with a single receptionist’s desk. Behind it, an orange bar of light flickering up and down her body, sat a smiling brown unicorn mare in a smart business suit with reading glasses perched halfway down her nose. Green, too-bright eyes looked up at us as though we had interrupted something involving paperwork on her desk, though there wasn’t any at all.

She produced a professional smile and a singsong voice. “Chief Biscuit, Captain Slew, how pleasant to see you this afternoon. Please attend to your personal zipmail at your earliest convenience, as there are two thousand, six hundred, and forty-seven messages awaiting resolution.”

There was a brief pause as she looked towards God and Pink-E. “I see you are escorting the guest of a Very Important Pony, and are in possession of the robotic property of another such guest. At this time, neither the V.I.P. nor the owner of the robot are detected as being on casino grounds. As a reminder, Security Protocol B-5 is now in effect, pending resolution, via your respective terminals. Your offices are now unlocked.”

Behind her and to either side, two unmarked metal doors shimmered into existence --- more accurately, the holograms disguising them shimmered out of existence --- with the distinct clicking noises of deadbolts being pulled. Her horn lighting up to grasp a nonexistent pen, the hologrammatic pony’s eyes dropped back to her nonexistent paperwork, whereupon she proceeded with the most industriously pointless pantomime I had ever seen.

Domino and I looked at each other. I shrugged. “After you.”

* * * * *

What turned out to be the office of “Captain S. Slew” ended up being pretty cramped with the four of us (especially God) packed in there. Nonetheless, we agreed a little discomfort was better than taking a risk on splitting up, even briefly. Fortunately the only things inside were a terminal, the desk it sat atop, and a locker to one side.

It also turned out that the key Domino held identified him as Slew. Popping the Captain’s locker open revealed a shotglass, a half-empty bottle of Wild Pegasus whiskey, and a set of white-on-dark-blue riot barding, minus helmet. Domino stuffed the bottle into his jacket, but turned up his nose at the barding.

“Ain’t gonna catch me gadding about in copper-plate. Looks like it’d be more your style, kid.”

It was, too. Slew must’ve been a little on the small side, because it only took a few adjustments to fit the pieces into place. Out of habit, I checked my PipBuck for the assessed value and protective rating, then gave a low whistle at both. If I’d been doing nothing here but scavving, this outfit would’ve set me up for a few months of high living all by itself!

It wasn’t terribly comfortable, though; I found myself fidgeting with fastenings and nibbling where plates of bulletproof ceramic bulged beneath kevlar weave. It took a little time to get used to the way it shifted my center of gravity. On the plus side it had integrated tactical webbing, a set of small saddlebags, and holsters for both pistol and longarm.

The ghoul looked me up and down, then chuckled. “Like I said. Not that it’ll do ya any good, if this place decides to open up on us.” While I continued to fiddle with the armor, he impatiently slogged through “his” share of the accumulated messages the receptionist had mentioned. Apparently, leaving those unanswered blocked him from doing anything else on the system.

The first couple of pages were actually somewhat interesting, dating to the day before all Tartarus broke loose in Equestria. All routine stuff, no indications of any problems, with one exception: threats made by a worker who refused to enter the sewers wearing hazmat gear. He’d gotten violent, in the end, and was thrown into a detention cell somewhere in the main complex. Probably the same one I’d originally found God in, or one just like it.

Early guests had been arriving once the outer villas opened, a month before the formal opening Gala was planned. But after that, the Gala itself kept getting put off week after week. Captain Slew’s side notes suggested building frustration, as much due to disruptions in his schedule as any complaints from impatient customers. There was only one report dating to Balefire Day:

CRSEC2.378: ***EVAC EVAC EVAC***

The place is a madhouse.

I guess I’ve lost it, too, since after I finish this last shot, I’m heading back out there. To die.

I’ve got no illusions. Automated lockdown is in full effect. Our keys are useless to shut it down. I can still hear the perimeter batteries, firing on civilians trying to go over the wall because the front gates won’t open. The service portages are locked down tight, too. For fuck’s sake, even the fumigation talismans are blowing full-force in the sewers, so we can’t get out through the drainage pipes. The workers were right about those Celestia-damned suits, I lost Herald’s entire squad down there. They couldn’t even get to the manual shutoff.

Like any of it really matters anymore. I could see bombs falling around New Pegas. Something was shooting green shit back at them, but there were so many streaks in the sky, so many explosions... I couldn’t watch for long. I didn’t want to watch to begin with. Mandolin... it’s trite to say I hope you read this someday, and that I love you, but...

Fuck this. I’m leaving the armor, and the rest of this bottle. They’ll only slow me down.

Slew out. Celestia help us all.

After that, it was all automated system reports. Breakdowns, repairs, security breaches, energy expenditures and so on --- and it could only be deleted one page at a time. Domino hammered away at the keyboard peck by peck, griping about cramps and “carpal tunnel”, whatever that was.

After about an hour of this, God flopped down onto the floor from sheer boredom, and I draped myself over his barrel for lack of anywhere better to go. He pretty much took up the entire room at that point, unless I developed an ability to hover in mid-air like Pink-E.

Now that I thought on it, she’d been utterly silent since leaving the foyer. Once, I’d’ve thanked Celestia for the reprieve from her chattering, but now I kind of missed the background noise. And she still looked pretty messed up from her various dips in the Pink outside. I was just about to ask her how she was doing, when Domino sat back on his haunches and cracked his hocks with a satisfied “Hah!”

The main security menu finally came up:

SELECT ACTION:

* Personnel Files [2 ACTIVE, 47 AWOL, 10 KIA]

* Vault Elevator [ACTIVE, READY]

* Armory [OPEN, ***DEPLETED, PLEASE FILE RESUPPLY FORM 15-A2***]

*Emergency Lockdown [ACTIVE, ***MALFUNCTION - OVERRIDE DISABLED***]

I never heard a keyboard click so triumphantly as when Domino, grinning wide, hit the “elevator” option.

And then the floor fell out from under us.

* * * * *

I suppose you could say we were lucky...

We’d only dropped a couple of floors, the plummet so brief we’d barely had time to react before we hit. God suffered nothing worse than having the wind knocked out, and that mainly because I was still lying on his barrel when we fell. Pink-E’s hover servos were easily able to handle the drop, though she squawked with surprise when the ceiling slapped her down.

That’s where our luck ran out.

Domino hit pretty hard, landing with a whuff, and suddenly the room was full of Pink Cloud.

Earlier, I’d dismissed the idea that Pink-E had screamed out on the patio. Who would program a robot to produce a noise like that? Like the high, ululating wail tearing out a piece of my soul right now?

I didn’t have much time to wonder about my dead Great-Aunt’s programming skills or motives; in the next moment, pink death was washing over me. I clamped down on my eyes, lungs, and the pain. Squalling about it was not really an option until I got clear!

Somewhere ahead, a deadbolt clicked open. I sprang towards the sound, hit metal and fumbled around in a blind half-panic until I hit the switch. The instant the door slid aside, I stumbled and coughed my way free of the cotton-candy fumes, shouting hoarsely for the others to follow.

As I looked back there came a weird sucking noise, and the Cloud --- still in process of billowing out from the doorway --- un-billowed its way right back in.

Pink-E sputtered and sparked her way out of the room-slash-elevator, trailing a faint grey ozone reek. Her hair seemed ready to fall out and the highlights on her cheeks were almost black with scorching. God trotted after, utterly unharmed; why should a little Pink bother him? He literally ate Ghosts for breakfast. I pointed a questioning look at him, but he silently shook his head just as Domino exited behind him.

The ghoul didn’t look like the fall or Cloud had hurt him at all. If anything, he looked healthier. His ratty tux might have been a bit worse off, but there was a fresh sheen to his hide. Even the gaps in his throat seemed like they were scabbing over. And he seemed... embarrassed?

He pushed past to start leading the way again, mumbling something that might’ve been, “ ‘Scuse me.”

I stared after him. “That was you.” Hurrah for Captain ObviousPie!

He kept right on going. “Should be down a couple corridors, then a left...” It took a dozen lengths of security-grey corridor for him to notice that none of us were following. When he looked around, eyes that had been flinty chips of malachite began to burn an angry pink.

Glaring those fiery daggers, he stalked back towards us. “Don’t any of you fucking-well look at me like that. What, you thought I was the same as those rot-faced tourist types? Is that it?”

Spitting frustration and tiny wisps of pink, Domino advanced, prompting God to shift his protective bulk and block the angry ghoul. Stymied by the immovable wall, he backed up a few paces, snarled, and stomped a hoof.

“Okay then, go ahead! Take a good, hard, fucking LOOK AT ME! I’ve spent centuries here, zipping in and out of that pink shit! Figured if I just kept my exposure low, kept stocked up on healing potions, I’d be okay. Hell, after a decade or so, I actually thought I was getting used to the burn.”

He shook his head, his eyes trailing tracks of neon fire. “The Pink was getting used to ME. My skin sucked it up like a sponge, laminating my stupid ass layer by layer. My lungs’re packed with it. I might as well be a caramel apple with a cotton-fucking-candy center!”

That baleful gaze turned to settle on God and Pink-E. “I’ve waited two hundred years for this chance, with nothing but Ghosts and the odd tourist for entertainment. Two hundred years, you bastards! Nopony --- not you, not Eclair, not an alicorn, not even the Ministry of fucking Morale, is gonna keep me outta that vault. Even if I AM a goddess-damned abomination of Equestrian science. Got it?

Pink-E stared back at him listlessly. God just shrugged and briefly ruffled his bat-wings. Me, I kept my big mouth shut.

See? I can learn!

Domino snorted, spun away, and started back down the corridor, tail snapping at the air. “And to top it off, this is the last of my good tuxedoes!

* * * * *

With the rest of us clamming up so as not to offend the death-cloud-spewing abomination of Equestrian science, Domino took to gabbing about his old relationships again. If I'd been reluctant to interrupt him before, I sure as Tartarus is empty wasn't going to push him now!

"So I gave Eclair his fantasy gal's nickname, 'Derpy', told him she and I'd been an item some years back, that I'd put in a good word for him next time I saw her. Never did, of course. Just had a bar bimbo who owed me some favors fake a letter anytime he pressed for a meet-up. Built a lovely little tale about an aspiring torch singer working the circuit, beautiful singing voice and all, enough to string Eclair's imagination along."

He walked along without much enthusiasm, most of the swagger gone now. Being found out for what he'd been turned into seemed to have sapped a lot of his natural sociability away, but he kept his patter going gamely enough. "That was my meal ticket for more than a year, nothing but swanky hotels, room service and top-end gigs at the best places."

His eyes, having returned to their normal dead-green, seemed to flicker with a stronger semblance of life as he recalled the good times. "Ah, yeah, my star was on the rise, baby. Got to flaunt my pipes for the masses and the hot-to-trot alike, had fillies stalking me for autographs, posed with royalty for pictures. Those were the days, all right."

The life flickered out, like a candle, as we rounded a corner . "About a month before everything went to hell, Eclair finally called my bluff. Said he'd cut off the gravy train if I couldn't provide anything concrete on his floozy."

A friend would say something supportive, or at least indicative of continued interest, at this point. What I actually said was: "Don't tell me you didn't see that coming?"

Domino snorted and rolled his eyes at me. At least now they weren't glowing... "Nothing lasts forever, kid. I didn't expect it to, either; I spent my time casing the joint and working up a plan to swipe Eclair's gold. His little Gala for the Royale would've been the perfect distraction, but he kept putting it off until I could guarantee his 'Derpy' would show."

The corridor ended at a door, which opened onto a catwalk stretching across a wide maintenance bay. On the other side, it joined with a second, perpendicular catwalk giving access to three doors and a stairwell down to the floor. Below us, six widely-spaced reactors thrummed as smoothly as the day they were built, providing free and abundant power to a self-contained city where nopony lived. Such a waste...

God stepped forward to test the catwalk and, finding it took his weight easily, led the way across. Meanwhile, Domino continued his grousing.

"Eclair's ultimatum meant I had to give him a carrot. So me and my bimbo set up a fake talent-show audition in Ponyville, got the bubble-head's voice on holotape, and had one of the engineers rig the fountain out by the main gate to use it once the Gala started. Told Eclair that it meant his floozy'd accepted the invite, figuring I'd be halfway to Neighpon with the gold before he got tired of waiting for her."

He snorted again, the exhalation laced with derision. "She had one of the most butch voices I've ever heard on a mare, like she was trying to pass for a colt or something. Fifteen takes to get one half-assed, feminine-sounding read of her rambling about snacks! It was either give up at that point, or start tearing my mane out."

Starting from the stairwell to our left, the three doors were marked "Break Room", "Admin" and "Security Access". Domino's mention of snacks had started my stomach rumbling; when had I last eaten? I trotted over to the break-room door and pressed a hoof to its keyplate.

The door slid open with a nearly-silent hydraulic hiss. "C'mon, let's see what's to be had in -"

My throat locked up on the words.

In front of me stood a wall-to-wall rank of bright yellow hazmat suits. Behind them, another rank, and another... the break room was completely packed with orderly rows of Ghosts.

With not a single bar, green or red, obscuring my view.

To my immense fortune, all of them were facing a video screen on the far wall, where a cheery pair of sales-ponies were extolling the virtues of something called Flux. The commercial had been repeating itself for so long the screen had burned in, turning their images to barely-discernible blobs of color, but I recognized those voices...

My curiosity said I should leave the door open so I could hear what those con-manes had to say about this Flux stuff, but only for a moment. After that, the rest of my brain beat the unholy snot out of my curiosity, stuffed it into a bag, and threw it into a fire, thereupon arriving at the consensus that I should shut the fucking door already!

My hoof reached in that direction... but Domino's was already there, sliding the door shut as quietly as it had opened. As soon as it sealed, he silently gestured at the "Security Access" door, which opened at a press of Captain Slew's key to reveal yet another long, grey hallway.

We were a good thirty lengths along before the ghoul started in.

"What part of 'I will guide you there' did you not get?"

My mane prickled with annoyance. "Oh, so you knew there were Ghosts inside the casino? Ghosts that don't show up on my PipBuck? Just how many of those things are there in here?!"

There was a moment of audible tooth-grinding before he got control of himself. With exaggerated patience, he shook his head and favored me with the kind of smile folks give a retarded child. "I have no goddess-damned idea, you moron. This is the first time I've been inside; a valet parked my jalopy when I arrived. Maybe there's an underground access tunnel, and they come in here to grab a little mindless entertainment from the boob-tube. How the fuck should I know? And do I look like a Stable-Tec technician to you?"

He shoved a tannery-smelling hoof in my face, the sharp-stinging stench bringing me up short. "Here's what I do know: the way to Eclair's Stable. Everything else is a time-wasting distraction and a needless risk, compared to what we're gonna haul outta there, so don't go fucking well wandering off again!"

I grumbled assent, dropped back a few paces behind God so the ghoul couldn't hear, and muttered under my breath:

"Beedee beedee bee, beedee beedee..."

So what if it was childish? I was being treated like a child, and I was still hungry. I supposed I could have called a halt and noshed on something from my saddlebags, but at this point I wasn't about to give the smug bastard the satisfaction of seeing weakness on my part. I could hold my stomach rumblings for a while yet.

Fortunately, the hallway finally opened onto a small room. One big door, a half-scale version of the giant "toothed gear" style so beloved of Stable-Tec, dominated the far wall with its silver-embossed "CR" logo. To either side stood a pedestal, closer inspection of which revealed imprints exactly the size and shape of our keycards.

Neither Domino nor I had to say anything. We just exchanged looks, nodded at one another, and simultaneously plugged our purloined identification into place. A sharp hissing of long-dormant hydraulics filled the room, until with a pop-phsssssht the door broke its hermetic seal and began drawing inwards. It retreated a full length, then slowly, quietly, rolled aside.

Wow.

Instead of the functional-yet-spare greyness of a Stable-Tec dormitory, Eclair had opted for digs that made even the Lucky Chances' Celestial Suite look a bit grungy by comparison. Here sprawled a palatial lounge, everything within so perfectly fitted that it gave the impression of being carved from a single piece of ivory. From lush shag-pile carpet to furnishings, everything bore a different shade of white or grey, while what would be brasswork anywhere else here consisted of gloriously polished silver and gold. Tasteful little gemstone arrays, serving as functional control surfaces for this gadget or that, accentuated the whole with patterns of red, green and blue.

One wall was dominated by a large, black, rectangular screen, surrounded by smaller monitors showing different angles of the casino's perimeter. Facing it, and taking up the center of the room, lay an eggshell-white couch-and-pillow arrangement strewn casually about a matching half-moon coffee table. I supposed the big screen performed the same functions as the one in our luxury suite half a mile away; communications, service menu, and entertainment.

Bet Eclair's got a holotape of every movie put out by Applewood in here, somewhere...

For those peckish-pony moments, a dinette took up one corner, composed of a carved marble block surrounded by several sturdy chairs of silver-inlaid ash. From the block's center rose a dome, identical to the one that had fed us the night before, with no sign of cupboards or oven --- not even a disposal. Only a small refrigerator suggested what Eclair had planned to do with any leftovers.

To the rear, a wide spiral staircase led up and down to other floors. Before it stood a table of lustrous white-oak on carved marble pilings, bearing what looked to be a brand-new data terminal. On its screen, the lettering at this distance indistinct, was taped a note. Next to the terminal sat a small silver case with yellow butterflies on its side.

Scanning back and forth across all of this, I could feel the bit-signs light up in my eyes. If Eclair'd blown this much just on ostentation, what was his real treasure like?

Domino trotted on in while I stood there gawping, a distinct bounce to his step. Right. On to business... I shook the visions from my head and went inside, God following behind as usual.

"I think I'll stay out here for a bit, if you don't mind." There was no mistaking the nervous tinge as Pink-E finally broke her silence.

We stopped and turned, to see the burnt, sagging mockery of a pony head hovering in the doorway. That head was all I had left of my family --- a strange birthright I'd never expected or, in all honesty, wanted. But she was still mine. And I'd been neglecting her horribly.

Something equally horrible twinged in my chest.

All my life, I'd dealt with the wasteland's harsh realities by refusing to care. Taking on the career of a bounty-hunting loner meant I could avoid letting anypony get too close, always fearful of the sudden yet inevitable betrayal buried in the depths of every soul I'd never cared to meet. Every decision I made had been aimed at shutting out the rest of the world, in pursuit of my own survival and comfort.

Now, despite that careful life of isolation, I had somepony to care about. Pink-E had grown on me. And seeing her like this suddenly drove home the reality: I could lose her, lose the last connection to my heritage, lose the last --- person --- who gave a damn about me. The guilt was a distinct shock, so unexpected and unfamiliar that I caught myself gasping only after the fact.

God's eyes, full of the usual disdain for anything the robot could say, silently drifted in my direction as Domino's smile turned into an open sneer.

"Oh, shucky-darn," the abomination snarked, a tone of gleeful malice creeping in. "It's been so long since the Ministry Mares stared over everypony's shoulders, I'd forgotten what it was like having some pink Ponyville cunt pulling all the strings."

With a dismissive flick of his tail, he made a bee-line for the terminal and started reading the taped note aloud.

"To my dear friend Domino Mask... ha ha! Now that's rich!" He cleared his throat and then, in a mockingly high-pitched voice, continued. "If you are reading this, dear friend, then I am thankful my little Stable has provided somepony with some measure of safety from the apocalypse now upon us. Whether or not I, or my beloved Derpy Hooves, have accompanied you here, the comfort I have provided herein shall see us through to the day that the surface is habitable once more."

Domino gave a deprecating snort. "Quite the optimist, our 'dear' Uptown Eclair was... ahem! 'Upon that day, we shall emerge into a world whose economy values not the extinct Equestrian Bit, but certainly the lasting worth of golden wealth... that which I still possess being sequestered below.' Well, wasn't that nice of him!"

With a bark of half-mad laughter, the ghoul turned and charged straight down the staircase.

That nervous tic I'd experienced outside Nellie Air Force Base suddenly returned with a vengeance: ear-flop, eye-flutter, knee-twitch. It was just a second or two, but I found myself staggering to stay upright, blinking my eyelids like mad to get them back in line, and forcibly pinning my ears back with the power of sheer annoyance.

Godsdammit! Am I sick or something? It's just a good thing we're not in a gunfight or something...

When the fit finally passed, I found myself facing Pink-E, still hovering there in the doorway. I shook my head again and neighed at her. "C'mon in... it seems safe enough."

Her eyes were wide, panicky. "Nonononono, no! Cherry, come out of there! Don't you know what those twitches mean?!"

God gave me a reproachful look. "Do you still take orders from one without a soul, Redeemer?"

Pink-E turned on him, but remained firmly outside. "It's not an order, it's advice! Good advice! And if you know what's good for you, you'll get out of there too!" I rolled my eyes at both of them and trotted over to the terminal as they began to argue.

A quick look inside the nearby butterfly case revealed my ticket out of here: the Auto-Doc control module I'd been shanghaied to retrieve in the first place. At this point, stowing the case in my saddlebag was almost a let-down. No explosions? No sudden deluge of Ghosts charging in? No maniacal voice on a record-loop, telling me I'd just sprung their ancient and diabolical trap?

As long as I was there, I decided to flip the note up and see if there was anything interesting beneath:

FROM: Mr. Uptown Eclair

TO: Ms. 'Derpy Hooves' [ENCRYPTED]

An entire terminal rigged up, just for one more note? That seemed fishier than Celestia's nethers.

Hm. Eclair had had a crush on this "Derpy" girl --- I didn't miss the quote-marks, there. So he'd found out her real name? If Eclair knew "Derpy" was a fake, he had to have done his own research... but he still called Domino a 'friend'...

A shout came from below. "Oh, come ON! I didn't wait this long just to be stopped by a password jumble!"

Hastily, I brought up the second zipmail. If I could possibly crack the encryption known only to a long-dead mare...

ROBRONCO INC. (TM) TERMLINK PROTOCOL

ENTER PASSWORD NOW... 1 ATTEMPT LEFT



0xF4F0 MUFFIN..^[&()

0xF4FC @#%$]MUFFI

0xF508 N%&>#^"MUF

0xF514 FIN...MUFFIN

0xF520 [(%%^]]MUFF

0xF52C IN^%$^@#%[*

0xF538 ]{#!}MUFFIN\

0xF544 \?[MUFFIN]...

0xF550 ;?&"<$!+$}>>

0xF55C <;}MUFFIN*&

0xF568 %@^^!/\,[..]\*!

0xF574 #&!{}?/*++MU

0xF580 FFIN*&%%{]].

0xF58C ]{#!}MUFFIN?

0xF598 "%;<[;^._,&@

0xF5A4 (MUFFIN)_{?

0xF5B0 *$%&*{}!@$!

0xF5BC @#%$MUFFI

0xF5C8 N%!>MUFFIN

Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me.

A hoofwave in God's direction brought the demon-alicorn over at an easy amble. "Yes, Redeemer?" Behind him, Pink-E looked like she was going to say something else before biting her lower lip.

I pointed at the word. "Type that in, while I take cover behind the couch." If the terminal had been trapped to explode and kill 'Derpy' in a fit of spurned-lover's rage, God could take it a lot easier than I could!

As I dropped into a protective posture, Pink-E hissed at me. "I know that twitchy-combo you just had! A door's going to open! Or shut! Probably shut! You need to get everypony out of there, now!"

I shook my head. "I don't think we want to see what happens If I try to pull Domino away from that vault, without something better than a nervous tic and a couple quote-marks on a terminal. We need to find out what Eclair was planning, show Domino, get out of this place, find somepony who's good with robot repairs, get you fixed up..."

Her eyes grew wide. "We don't have time for super-sleuthing! Any second now -"

God cleared his throat, signifying a lack of imminent explosion. I hustled back over, nodding my thanks to him. "Sorry about that. Wasn't sure if it was safe."

He stepped aside, shrugging in his usual off-hoofed way. "Do not concern yourself overmuch with my well-being, Redeemer. If I am not prepared to sacrifice, the chains of sin cannot be lifted."

That's what I'd figured. Peering at the screen, I read:

To my Beloved, Innocent Ditzy Doo,

May I tender my most heartfelt apologies. It seems we have both been victimized by lies and fraud.

Many years ago, at Canterlot's Grand Galloping Gala, I espied you from afar and was immediately struck by your --- shall we say exotic? --- eyes. I feared you might think me rude or presumptive to introduce myself so early in the evening; by the time I sent you and your companion an invitation to attend late supper, both were gone.

I sought you for decades afterward, if for nothing else than to reconcile the lasting visions in my head against the reality of your person. Because I allowed myself to believe you a member of high society, I instead pursued a ghost. Such folly led me to the acquaintance of one Domino Mask, an entertainer claiming to know you on a personal level. He fed upon the lies already told me by my closest friends, played upon my innermost desire to find you, shamelessly baited me with hope, in exchange for my ever-so-grateful largesse.

Have you already seen the nightclub which Domino helped me design? I meant it to springboard your nonexistent career, as the torch-singer he convinced me you were. I could not very well build you an entire recording company --- even my means had hard limits which, I found, I could not surpass. But at the least, the Royale might attract the high-society brand of gambler who might chance investing in an upcoming young starlet. I dreamed that, while you plied your stagecraft, I could watch and listen and quietly adore from the back rows, building towards a proper courtship befitting a proper gentleman and his prospective lady.

So, yes, in hopes that I might impress with an expression of devotion, I built the Casino Royale for you.

At the fountain, tonight, I heard your voice for the first time. I only wish I could hear your laughter right now...

But no. Though I failed to find you, my searches stumbled into webs of intrigue far darker than mere obsession. The puppet-spiders see me as just another wealthy fool, like the others attending their garden-party fundraisers, with no less a fool than Prince Blueblood in their vanguard. When it comes to my misplaced affections, they may be right.

Yet this fool is no idiot, to be gulled into supporting Blueblood's 'Project Redoubt'. So many of the rich and powerful in one convenient place --- what use will they be when their money, their industries, their lovely chateaux, all burn alike beneath suns of balefire? Hostages, at best. More likely, inconvenient luggage to be discarded when it shall suit.

Such fates are neither for you nor I, my wayward lady.

I give you, instead, this bastion against the climax to these past decades of unrelentingly brutal warfare. You are not who I believed you were, but my attention was never caught by your presumed position or fortune. You are a tousled yellow mane across golden eyes, eyes wandering in a way that I hoped might see into the spirit of a lonely stallion.

I... could go on at great length, but there is no time. Tonight, they tell me, I must go to Blueblood's manor for evacuation. Somehow, they know the end approaches, but they tell nopony else. I am sure they only told me because they now demand this little Stable of mine for 'unanticipated overflow'. I can only believe they discovered its existence from Domino, as I have taken great pains to keep it secret from everypony else. I told them it was not ready, that I would be joining them instead, and so I shall. No need for their 'preparatory teams' to come and seize an unfinished hulk.

And if they do, they'll meet the trap I've laid for Domino, that heartless, cruel, bastard...

Ha. Still a fool, I. I don't even know if the courier I've sent has reached Ponyville, or if you can make it here in time, or if you'll ever read this. But if you did and could and have, all that remains of my once-vaunted wealth is in the refrigerator to your right. Upstairs, you will find a comfortable bedroom and state-of-the-art medical clinic. Follow the instructions on it, using the module in the case to your left, to activate its Auto-Doc whenever you may have need of it.

Do not go into the vault below. That 'reward' was reserved for the possibility that Mr. Mask made it in here without you... may Celestia forgive me if, somehow, you both arrived together.


Your Secret, Sorrowful Admirer,

Uptown Eclair

I felt my eyes widen, opened my mouth. A yell of triumph filtered up from the stairwell first.

"YEAH! Damn right, the word was 'uncouth'! Oh, baby, look at all that gold... come to papa! Wait... what? WHAT?! It's... no, no! This shit is plastic! Where's the fucking gold?!"

Whipping around, I saw the Stable door slowly and quietly rolling closed. "IT'S A TRAP! The door's closing!"

"...all that remains of my once-vaunted wealth is in the refrigerator..."

I dashed across, threw it open, and stuffed the single paper-wrapped packet resting within into my barding's built-in saddlebags. Kind of a light haul, for the remaining worldly assets of one of Equestria's richest pre-War ponies --- not that I had any time to wonder about it. The door was already more than a quarter of the way shut.

God casually teleported out in a flash of red, reappearing a moment later with a matching flash in the outer foyer. He turned to watch as I galloped towards freedom, Pink-E biting her lip next to him, the door rolling ponderously along its track... when I was still halfway across the lounge, I could tell I wasn't going to make it.

Not without a little extra speed! I triggered S.A.T.S., found the entry for "Turbo", and hit fourth gear. Even with the siren song of adrenaline blasting through my system, I had to leap to avoid clipping my legs on the round, gear-shaped doorjamb.

Moments later, Domino slammed into the door with a curse. He yelled through the hoof-width left to him, "You can't get out of here without me! Here!" He shoved his security keycard through the narrowing slit, one baleful green eye glaring at me as I grabbed it in my hooves. "Don't you fucking leave me!"

The giant gear slotted into place with a loud click and began sliding back into its seating, pushing us inexorably out towards the foyer until it locked with an hydraulic hiss of finality. As if on cue, a small section of wall slid back to reveal an intercom, which crackled to life with a weary-sounding voice.

It wasn't Domino's.

"I suppose it was just another example of my fading luck, to learn the truth only the night before Equestria dies." Though slightly scratchy, the pre-recorded tenor conveyed a sense of ingrained culture... it could only be Uptown Eclair himself. An echo of the same speech faintly drifted in from down the corridor, likely being piped through every speaker the casino had.

Not a good sign, that... I tossed Domino's security keycard to God, pointed to the far console, and dashed to its opposite twin, fumbling through my packs for the matching card I'd stuffed in there minutes before.

"Yet learn it I did, my dear Domino Mask. Before I finally arrived to take over the Royale, I spent weeks traveling throughout the Neighvada Province to see how my competition operates. Simply good business sense, after all."

By the time I got my teeth on the embossed plastic rectangle, God was already set, a levitation field of bright red holding his card just above the recess. I nodded, and we slid our cards into place...

Eclair chuckled darkly, the sound of a buck resigning himself to the gallows. "Oh my, yes. I visited with Edwin Horse in his Lucky Chance. Was wined and dined, most sumptuously, at the Velvet Stocking. I took in a bout at the Double Down, slummed it up a bit with the Atomic Bronco. Yet the most interesting casino was not even in New Pegas."

There was a harsh beep, accompanied by a red light flashing on each console: the keys weren't working. Why should they? It hardly made sense for Eclair to have set up such an elaborate trap, if anyone Domino might have been working with could get him out of it that easily...

The dead buck's hint of dire mirth deepened, gathering steam. "You've never been to the quaint little town once known as 'Slim Pickings', have you? An old mining operation from the earliest days of the Neighvada Territory, a way-station from Equestria to Coltifornia even before Las Pegasus was founded. What pony of your inclinations would ever set hoof in a tourist-trap like Slimm? No, I'm quite positive you have never set eyes on the 'Derpy and Dinky Casino and Mailmare Museum'."

There was such a twist on that last sentence, I caught myself wondering why I was still there listening instead of running for my life. Not that the dead guy cared what I thought. While my mind scrambled for a way to get Domino out, Eclair took a sharp right turn into affected foppishness.

"Dear boy, you never mentioned Ms. Hooves' history as a postal pioneer! Nor does the Museum make mention of her musical background, where she --- how did you put it? 'Rose up from the decadent lounges of star-studded Applewood by the sheer beauty of her voice'? Lovely holo-sculpture, by the way. At least you gave me the small gift of hearing that voice before I die."

Eclair's feigned attitude began to slip away. "Her name, however? Once with the bit in my teeth, it didn't take long to discover. Her name, my good Domino Mask, is Ditzy Doo. 'Derpy' is naught but a sobriquet, referencing an affliction known in the medical profession as strabismus. Despite this handicap, Ms. Doo has always been a hard-working delivery mare, achieving sufficient success in her chosen field to launch her own business. For that alone, I would respect her --- as you know, my own fortune similarly came by raw neckscruff and my own peculiar way of seeing the world."

And now the darkness returned, redoubled. "For her, I would have given all that I have and am. But YOU opened my vault, Domino Mask. So now that I am dead, please kindly join me, in what poets once regarded as the last supper of night."

A soft click signified the end of Uptown Eclair's last will and testament, clearing the intercom for Domino's screaming and pounding, already in progress. I shot Pink-E a look. "Please tell me you've picked something up along the way you can hack this system with...?"

She sadly shook back and forth in the negative.

Thirty seconds later, the most amazing run of profanity I've ever heard was capped off with this simple, heartfelt entreaty:

"GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!"

Not like we hadn't been trying. "The badges're locked out! If you've got a better idea..."

Even without the intercom, the grinding of Domino's teeth could almost have been audible from behind the Stable door. "Get that Luna-fucked Morale robot of yours to open this thing! Or, how about this, have the fucking alicorn teleport in here and carry me out!"

I tried to keep my voice level and reasonable. "Pink-E hasn't been able to hack these systems so far, and you already know God can't 'port through solids -"

Domino's voice, already pitching high, began edging into panic territory. "Then what fucking good are you people?!"

Exasperation began to throb at my temples. "Just calm down for a minute. You've got one of those food dispenser things, a place to sleep, even an entertainment console. You'll be fine until we can figure out how to override -"

A loud, sharp buzz blared from the loudspeaker down the hall.

"WARNING. Reactors One, Three and Five now set to one hundred and seventy-five percent capacity. WARNING. Mana levels will exceed critical storage thresholds in twenty-four minutes, forty-seven seconds. WARNING. Reactors Two, Four and Six now set to one hundred and thirty percent capacity. WARNING. Mana levels will exceed..."

Well, so much for that. Time to get running! said the rational part of my brain.

The newly-irrational part, the part that didn't want to abandon somepony to their self-inflicted fate, kept racing in search of a solution while I stood there like an idiot. How about that "Wallbuster" thing on my PipBuck menu? I had no idea what the hell it was or how it worked (I was still trying to figure out "Turbo"), but it had effectively worked a lot like God's teleportation power back at the Royale's front door. Maybe, if the trick didn't have God's limitations, I could 'port back inside. But even if so, would I be able to get back out again, with or without Domino?

The ghoul's festering paranoia finally snapped my paralysis. "You cunt-thrashing globule of coagulated afterbirth."

I'd previously thought I'd heard Domino when he was angry. But that hissing fury, ratcheting its way through the intercom now, was like nothing I'd heard from any living creature. "I just tried the terminal. I looked under the note. Did you think I wouldn't look under there, you little pink fuck-wad?"

He took the time to scan through the love-note? Okay, what did... oh. Right.

If it could have, the hate smashing through that speaker would've made a thin red paste of me. "The treasure was in the fridge, the open fridge, the fridge that wasn't open when I went downstairs, huh? All of you are out there, with that dead fucker's treasure, and I'm in here, huh? That was your big play? You think maybe you're safe from me now, or something?! HANH?! DO YOU?!"

Even the irrational side of my brain had its limits for lost causes. With twenty-some-odd minutes to a rainbow holocaust, we turned and ran for it. Behind us, Domino's blasts of incoherent rage started melting the intercom to slag. With all that going on, why did the word "champagne" suddenly, belatedly, come to mind?

By the time we were far enough away to pick out the casino's repetitive comments about overloads and safety margins, we were nearly back to the reactor room itself. Nearing the ominous-sounding HUMMMMMMM of overworked turbines, distant blobs of yellow quickly resolved into a clear message: break time for the Ghosties was over. Almost a half-dozen were milling about on the catwalks as though looking for something to do.

God didn't need to be told. The big, black, bat-winged, goddess-damned bastard accelerated to attack speed, trampling four yellow-clad abominations with his charge. Bubble helmets burst like eggs, spilling pink sludge and mist across the catwalks, the fifth and last Ghost simply knocked over the railing. I ducked and dodged through the deadly mess, my little hooves syncopating with God's thundering cloppers to beat an impromptu rhythm on the steel gratings.

Reaching the far end I slewed about, hoping that those few had been the only ones about as Pink-E buzzed past. If we could get down to the reactors, we might be able to - a look downwards crushed that unfinished thought.

I knew there was a reason I don't hope for anything anymore...

Even if there'd been a way to override the self-destructs in the next twenty minutes, the floor below was packed with an innumerable mass of yellow suits and pink-filled bubble helmets. More came crowding in by the second, from where I couldn't see, but it was likely Domino's earlier guess about service passageways had been right.

Most appeared to be trying to work the reactors, going through the motions of pulling levers and twisting wheels, though none of it looked to have any effect whatsoever. It was just what they remembered doing in their past lives... what little of them remained to remember with. Meanwhile, those without anything better to do were meandering up the stairwells under the increasing pressure of bodies behind and below them. It only took a few seconds of assessment to realize that short of a tactical balefire warhead (which would have been a really bad idea anyways) we'd never clear a path to the reactors.

This time, we didn't stop running until the elevators.

For once, luck was with us. Captain Slew's ride up might have been shot, but Chief Biscuit's still worked, and so did his ID. After a short wait, during which I kept looking over my shoulder in expectation that a wave of yellow would swarm us under at any second, the door opened up and we dove inside.

...where we found virtually the same locker, desk and terminal arrangement Slew'd had, as well as the same massive backload of zipmails. The same ones that had taken Domino over an hour to wade through before. In addition, there was a large bin stenciled with the word "Restraints".

Why didn't places like this ever put in emergency stairs?!

Probe extended, Pink-E dove straight at the terminal, squealing "GOT IT!"

I stared past her at the screen, where she was already beyond the initial termlink code and flashing dizzily through page after page of data. First a few, then dozens, then hundreds... "If you could do this before, why didn't you?"

The little 'bot-head didn't even look at me. "Domino's a big fat grumpy-pants. I didn't feel like helping him." Her eyes flicked back and forth at surreal speeds, as though she were actually reading each screen in the nanoseconds before each was consigned to electronic oblivion. There wasn't likely anything worthwhile anyways, from what I remembered Slew's system having.

God gave a disgusted snort, but said nothing. I guessed that he, like me, was disinclined to complain about not being immolated in magical radiation thanks to ancient bureaucratic inertia. I checked the locker and desk drawers, but Chief Biscuit proved to have been depressingly thorough in his evacuation plans. Not so much as a dirty shotglass to lick. Just a shady-looking fedora hanging on the locker's inside hook... well, come to think of it, I did need a replacement for my poor old stormchaser.

It was in surprisingly decent condition for a pre-War piece of clothing, especially since it appeared to have seen regular use to start with. Dark brown like aged underbrush, its wide brim promising good shade from the desert sun, the hat fit my noggin as snugly as if it was always meant to rest there.

Sure. That'll do.

Finally I turned to the restraint bin, which opened to Biscuit's card readily enough. Inside was exactly what was printed on the tin: a dozen vacuum-packed Fun Suits, just like mine, each plastic packet bulging with an attached collar. There didn't seem to be any release controls, though, suggesting they worked off a universal device that was likely on Biscuit's rotting corpse --- wherever that might be. Domino hadn't mentioned.

Underneath all the Suits lay several sets of rusty leg chains, the keys for which were likewise missing, though the cuffs were still open. The beginnings of an idea flitted through my head, accompanied by an inexplicable shiver. Without really thinking about it, I stuffed it all into my barding's saddlebags, rationalizing that even if I found no use for the stuff it would fetch a nice mess of caps when I got back to New Pegas.

At least searching and looting the place gave me something to do, while Pink-E worked and God silently fidgeted.

I imagined the black alicorn wasn't taking being trapped in a small room, with nowhere to teleport while six giant bombs ticked away below, very well. I'd seen him absorb a barrage of magical energy without a scratch, but it seemed unlikely he'd survive if the reactor capacitors breached all at once. So here he was, reliant for his life on the soulless robot he philosophically despised. Perhaps he was wondering what would happen if he died without expunging his sins... would he face an angry Luna in a never-ending afterlife of torment, like street-corner preachers sometimes liked to threaten their drunken congregations with?

Fortunately, we had less than a minute to brood on it before the elevator started moving. Then we were piling back out of Biscuit's office, into the main administration room, God first. Hell, it was all I could do to get out of his way!

The brown faux-unicorn was waiting for us, having dispensed with its paperwork pantomime to take an unmistakeable battle-stance in front of the exit. Its roving light-bar, constantly updating a disapproving frown that stared over pointless glasses, was now shifting from neutral orange towards a worrisome shade of red.

"Protocol Forty-Seven-Point-Three-Alpha. Chief of Security Sea Biscuit, Captain Seaddle Slew, you are relieved of duty for breach of vault security during a lock-down. Should you attempt to leave this room before authorities arrive to effect arrest, you will be considered trespassers..."

God wasn't having any. "We are leaving," he growled, flaring his demonic wings and trotting towards the double doors.

The apparition flashed bright red from hoof to horn, took aim, and immediately began blasting the alicorn with bolts of sizzling orange light. Each impacted with perfect precision, center-mass, but it didn't even muss that gloss-black coat --- the magical energy simply flowed and dissipated across his barrel, soaked up like warm sunshine.

I'd made the mistake of not galloping immediately after God to keep him between the holo-corn and me. As soon as it figured out God wasn't taking any damage, it switched fire to me. Instantly, a blinding orange glare reminded me what Domino and Seaddle Slew had said about armor protection:

The barding! It does nothing!

Pain exploded under both breastplate and the rubber suit beneath, my hide scalded by searing heat. For a good approximation of the agony, try punching a hole in a steam transfer pipe and standing in front of it. Fucking OW!

It's a damn good thing I could multi-task, being that I could scream while still diving for cover behind the receptionist's desk. Correction: the desk wasn't going to provide any cover at all. Orange bolts blasted past on either side as though it weren't there. Trying not to let the stench of my own burning flesh lock up my throat, I fumbled in my barding's saddlebags in the vain hope that Chief Biscuit might've left a healing potion or two behind.

At least it bought me a few seconds of concealment... hey, what's this?

"This" was a bulbous, glittery gem, set in a circular mounting attached to the desk's underside. It pulsed from moment to moment with a beautiful vermillion light, trapped within smooth crystal perfection.

I smashed it with a hoof.

Sure enough, the barrage of bolts stopped instantly. The repeating countdown did not.

"WARNING. Reactors One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six now set to two hundred and fifteen percent capacity. Maximum mana generation levels achieved. WARNING. Mana levels will exceed critical storage thresholds in twenty-one minutes, twelve seconds."

Pink-E bobbed over the desk and looked down at me expectantly --- at least, I thought that's what she meant to express. Her half-slagged face wasn't making it easy to tell. "C'mon, Mister Pokey Slowpoke!"

I scowled back through a haze of pain, still rummaging through the bags and not coming up with anything but Fun Suits, chains, and Eclair's package. "Gimme a second for my chest to stop frying..." Even muttering the words hurt.

Pink-E rolled her eyes, turned about, dropped a hatch, and phoonted out a healing potion. I was so surprised, the vial bobbled around in my hooves for precious seconds before I got a grip on it and popped the lid. The bitter purple liquid made my burning sensation fade away, but knowing that Pink-E had been holding out her --- um --- holdout capability on me, that was annoying.

"This whole time, you've been able to carry cargo like that?!"

She spun back around, beaming through the ruination of her facial features. "Surprise!" From somewhere sounded a party-horn, a loud pop!, and suddenly there was an explosion of multicolored confetti with streamers. I tried, and failed, to avoid thinking of it as a robot fart, a chuckle forcing its way out of my still-tender chest.

Shaking my head, I hurried to rejoin God, who was impatiently scraping a hoof across the parquet. His gaze flicked towards the atrium and back with uncharacteristic nervousness.

He'd essentially ditched me in the vault when the door started closing. If I hadn't been able to put on that burst of speed, I'd still be stuck in there with an angry Domino... now that was a chilling thought! When it came right down to it, the alicorn needed to live long enough to earn his spiritual freedom. Anything, including his Redeemer, might be considered expendable to that end --- he could always find a new one, couldn't he? How many had he gone through before me and the Diamond Dog, I wondered?

Those disturbingly red slit-eyes focused directly on me. "We have little time to make our escape, Redeemer. The front doors are..."

I cut him off with a slash of my hoof. "...they're not going to open for us, God. Domino's VIP pass is back in the vault with him. And as built as you are, I don't see you smashing through those thick damned behemoths anytime soon." Cracking the door to the atrium open, I could see a half-dozen security holoponies roaming its length, their glowing emitters embedded along the ceiling murals. That nascent idea in my head continued to burble along.

Looking at God, I jerked my head towards the atrium. "I've got an idea, but we need to cross that hall one way or the other. Can you take out those glowing bits on the ceiling? That's what powers the holo -"

The words were still leaving my mouth when God moved, bursting out the door and flapping his way airborne with a furious energy. While crystal emitters shattered above, and falling shards tinkled to the floor below, I mused out loud on my plan.

"We can't get through the front door, and we MIGHT find a service exit somewhere in the casino proper, but there's no guarantee of that. But if we can get up to the garage, and open sky..."

Pink-E bobbed over, smiling even wider than before. I worried, for a moment, that she might crack her cheeks.

"I can help with that! Mister Biscuit had the codes for garage maintenance! They were zipmailed to him from another account the day before... well, you know."

It made sense. Domino'd never been inside the Royale proper, but he'd found the keycards for Biscuit and Slew, so both of them must have made it out to the main complex. I'd also say it raised questions as to why Biscuit would need the codes, but that was obvious: he'd been one of Domino's inside bucks. Maybe Slew, too, since both their cards were needed to get into the vault. If Biscuit'd had warning of the coming attacks, either from Eclair or the plotters he'd mentioned, he wouldn't've needed any codes --- he could have just resigned and left without any fuss at all.

God stuck his head inside, nodding to me. "The way is clear, Redeemer. Let us hasten."

As soon as I started hustling towards him, his head disappeared again, and I heard another smash... wait, wasn't it already supposed to be clear out there?

Sort of. The furthest emitters were ruined, blackened pits --- but the closer ones were sparking with renewed vigor, and the closest looked like they were actually growing back into a functioning unit. My hooves were smarter than my brain, refusing to stop and let me gawk. A half-stumble was all it would allow before I was accelerating for the elevators, while God flew above and behind to re-smash an emitter that looked close to projecting holographic death again.

"That's just not fucking fair!" I whined, a little louder than intended.

Pink-E flitted easily at my side, still managing to keep up a semblance of her original chipper self. "Nopey-dope! That's just nanosprites!"

I stared at her as I ran. "What?"

"Nanosprites! I told you about those, the super-teeny machines that make and repair things? So teeny you can't even see, but this place is flooded with millions of 'em! It's been making my sensors all loopy trying to track them all, ever since we got in!"

Which explained why there wasn't any mess, everything looked pristine, and hostiles didn't show on my Eyes-Forward Sparkle. The red bars were blotted out by hordes of harmless amber ones... and here I'd thought that long amber "bar" meant it was on the blink!... wait, how many of the damn things have I inhaled by now?!

Pink-E buzzed along, peering up at God as he obliterated another should-already-be-dead emitter. "I don't think I like that alicorn..."

I laughed, thankful for being distracted from mental images of super-teeny machines floating around in my lungs. "His name's God, you know."

The little pink robot humphed, her antennae bobbing. "His name's Rudy McRudeypants, as far as I'm concerned."

Stairs might have been passé for the security types, but no casino was going to strand its customers on different floors in event of a fire. There were four stairwells here, one pair flanking each bank of elevators. I knew better than to hope that the easy way up or down would be working during a lockdown, or to hit a button and wait while those emitters were busily regenerating themselves behind me. I threw open the first door I came to and began galloping up the stairs, Pink-E right on my fetlocks.

By the time God caught up, we were already to the next landing and a door marked "Storage". We didn't bother stopping, though God shouldered past to take point (not gonna argue with that!). The next floor was for "Maintenance" (no thank you!), and on the fourth... the stairwell ended (wat).

Okay now, what the unholy fuck? This place had to be ten stories high! Why would its emergency stairs just stop less than halfway up?!

The door, in plain stenciling, read "Holodeck". I didn't need to guess what awaited on the other side.

Celestia prang my rectum with a brass tuba...

Pink-E floated up to a little grate in the wall, her probe already extending to wedge its little gem into the first screw. "The 'sprites aren't very thick up here, so I mapped the way to the roof. I can get there through the ducts, but with only baaaaarely enough space for a pony's head..." The probe whirred, spinning the screw out and going on to the next, the next, and the next, that fast.

I cleared my throat. "A head like yours?"

She did her bobbing-nod. "I should have an exit open by the time you get there." My PipBuck pinged with the sound of incoming data as the grating cover clanged to the floor. "Seeya!" And with that, the little pink 'bot zipped into the darkness.

With a resigned shrug, I brought up the PipBuck's mapping functions and took a good look.

Now everything became a bit clearer. The first three floors of the Royale were dominated by the vaulted ceilings of the main hall and gaming areas. Sandwiched into that were demi-floors for Storage and Maintenance. The Holodeck was two whole floors to itself with twin rows of supporting columns down the middle, a bank of elevators at each end, and nothing else. Anypony coming from (or going to) the penthouses or airships would have to pass through it.

Eclair's high-roller showcase for hologram tech, pretty much guaranteed to be packed with emitters. Lovely.

The luxury of stairs also ended at the Holodeck level. The only way to the upper levels was by elevator --- first the "penthouses", technically a misnomer as four more floors' worth of Royale sat atop them. Domino's suite was marked in bright green; how Pink-E'd known that one was his completely escaped me for the moment. The next floor, Security, was blank except for a small dashed-in section around the elevators marked "Checkpoint". The lack of data suggested shielding from prying scans like, say, Pink-E's. Finally, the "Transport Deck" had a roof that could open to the sky... assuming I was reading the map right, and that the ancient machinery it outlined still worked.

Why not? Something big, bulky, and possibly explosive had to work for me at some point, right?

First, though, we had to cross a giant room full of murderous photons.

God might have worked as a protective wall, but only on one side. Every other direction would be open, with the only other possible cover being support pillars. Plus, God was tall while I was short, so shots passing between his legs might hit me anyways. This was going to take something special.

I flipped through my PipBuck's menus again. That "Turbo" thing would get me across the gallery faster, but could I outrun highly-accurate light beams? Not likely any better, or longer, than I'd outrun a sonic rainboom. Nix that! Right under it, though, was "Wallbuster" again, with a bar-marker next to it indicating it had recharged.

A reusable teleport spell? Great! I wasn't about to turn down cheater-unicorn magic if I had the choice!

Smiling, for once, I looked up at God.

* * * * *

The elevator doors finally closed with a ding, cutting off the holoponies' line-of-sight to us. As the car started moving upward, I blinked my eyes furiously, willing my sight to return and my heart to stop hammering in its ribcage. My legs didn't really want to stop clinging to the sides of God's parked rump, either --- it was the only thing that'd kept me from burning to ash.

The plan had been: I open the door, God runs across the room, he hits the call button for the elevator, I teleport over and hide behind him once he gets in.

It was the first and last parts which nearly got me killed.

Instead of ten, twenty, or even a hundred hologuards, the entire room flashed to life with layer on layer of glaring red figures the moment God stepped in. They were wall to wall, floor to ceiling, their transparent forms packed in so tightly that they began to overlap one another, with the first rank being right there at point-blank range.

I didn't need the advice of my twitching tail to skitter backwards down the stairs! An instant later brought an incredible fusillade of concentrated light, thousands of beams all targeted on God, outlining his bulk with a perfect sheet of blindingly-orange energy. Apparently, they wouldn't target me unless I set hoof inside, but the dozens of stray shots hissing just overhead would just as easily have vaporized my little pink carcass.

Once God was gone (and the barrage with him), I peeked around the open door, but his black hide was already lost amid the crimson mass of light-ponies. Though they had no real substance with which to block his way, it was possible to track my ally's progress by the sheer volume of fire being laid on him. A distant, blazing shadow, the alicorn looked like a phoenix rising from the dead.

When he shouted his readiness, I almost couldn't hear it over the cacophony of sizzling air, but that really didn't matter; the PipBuck's map showed where I needed to go. I hit "Wallbuster", snapping back into existence inside the elevator itself. It turned out I'd jumped the gun a bit, actually. The doors opened to reveal God, and that reminds me: did you ever try staring right into the sun during an eclipse?

>>>oOo<<<

My dad's voice was more playfully mocking than serious. "Now, son, don't touch that cactus!"

Of course I wasn't going to fucking touch it, it was covered in needles!

I continued to stare at the ancient saguaro, so huge you could probably see New Pegas from its top. Ever since Dad wheedled a passing wasteland "medical practitioner" into giving my first vaccinations, I'd hated anything with a needle-y look to it. But now that he'd made a point of teasing me about it, I imagined myself taking a back flip right onto the damned thing. What would he say then, huh?

But I wasn't stupid. I was a six-year-old colt, and in all the time of wandering with my dad and his wagon from town to town, I'd learned a lot about not being stupid. Don't get off the wagon. Don't let the ammo get wet. Don't eat that, that, or that. Don't lick the beepy-round-orange thing. Dad might act goofy sometimes, but he knew how to stay alive, and I always took his advice to heart. Staying alive was good.

Being bored out of my tiny skull, though, was not.

Pa-Rump was a boring little seed-town, in the middle of a boring stretch of Wasteland, with the most boring small-town festival I'd ever seen... "Luna's Day". Everyone, even a couple of visiting buffalo with their calves, were busily making boxes out of scrap paper and then punching tiny holes in them with cactus needles. That seemed to be their major industry, cleaning and sharpening cactus needles for sewing and medical use elsewhere.

Who names a town after their dad's backside, anyways? Was he the first local to sit on a cactus, or something?

There was a terrible papier-mâché sculpture outside the town gate, a black mess supposedly representing Luna which stood tall above an otherwise identical white mess meant to be Celestia. Once inside, you couldn't miss the huge black star-spangled banners strung everywhere with white letters proclaiming "Luna Victoria!" and "The Night Comes!" and "Welcome Princess Lu" (that one had been planned rather badly).

It made the monstrously-tall saguaro in the middle of the town square seem that much more interesting. If this thing fell over, it'd squash half the town flat, and wouldn't that be something to see?

Dad just laughed at my misplaced fascination, then went back to bellowing about his "Spectacular Special on Luna-Day Spectacles" to passing townsfolk. He was doing a brisk trade, too. Every few minutes he sold another pair of pre-War eyewear, which the night before we'd smoked over a campfire until they were completely fucking useless. But they sold... which just annoyed me further by demonstrating how stupid everypony (and buffalo) here seemed to be.

I did my best to ignore them all, focusing my attention exclusively on the saguaro. Taller than any tree, wide as four barrels lashed together, ridges and spines and right-angled arms rising up into the darkening sky.

Wait. Darkening? It's barely noon! Lowering my gaze to street level, I saw the massive shadow of the cactus slowly disappearing into the sudden arrival of a far, far larger shadow... a cloud? No, it was much too big, smothering every shadow everywhere as the whole world seemed to descend into an unnatural twilight. What could possibly be so huge as to cast a shadow that big?!

My spine wanted to curl up with fear, my heart thundered panic in my chest, my shaking legs wanted to run to whatever safety I might find somewhere else. Anywhere but here! But my brain took over, forcing my eyes back up to the cloudless sky. I had to see this new threat and assess it properly before I...

Part of the sun was missing.

A black wedge had appeared, like an immense ghost was taking a bite from the world's largest cookie. As I watched, transfixed with horror, the wedge slid inexorably from right to left, growing to encompass and obliterate the very source of light and life for all ponykind.

My eyes hurt. Hurt really bad. But I couldn't look away! If I looked away, I wouldn't be able to see it when the ghost came after me! I squinted against the glare, tears pouring down my face.

I didn't even dare to raise a hoof to shield myself. I didn't see the other ponies and buffalo holding up their pin-pricked boxes, or staring upward through smoked glasses. I imagined the ooohs and ahhhs were the terrified murmurings of people who, like me, expected to die in short order. When the destruction was complete, nothing was left but a flaming necklace cast about a circle of darkness. The crowd behind me erupted into psychotic cheers:

"PRAISE LUNA! LUNA FTAGHN!"

"ALL HAIL THE TRUE PRINCESS OF THE NIGHT!"

"LUNA FTAGHN! PRAISE LUNA!"

In years to come, I would find I'd become extra-sensitive to light, better able to see in the dark --- "a friend of Nightmare Moon", folks would say (when they thought I couldn't hear). But in those moments before the sun began to eke its way back from annihalation, I could not blink my scorched eyes. In my terrified state, I couldn't move at all.

And against that blazing corona, I thought I could see the shadow of an approaching alicorn...

<<<oOo>>>

God's mass blocked my immediate incineration, but that's all it did. Hundreds of brilliant-orange bolts flashed past the borders of his shadow, a hellish reminder of colt-hood trauma. The collective glare was just as excruciating as I remembered, forcing me to cover my face and fight back another scream while tears flooded across my face again.

The alicorn pressed in close, protectively planting his butt on the elevator floor, to which I instantly latched myself as the only shelter in that incandescent storm. At some point the demon-pony must have hit the "up" button, because only a brief eternity later the doors slid closed on that blinding brilliance.

By the time they opened again, I still had multicolored dots swirling in my view, but at least the pain had faded to tolerable levels. Either that, or I was learning to deal with it better. The big alicorn looked back over his shoulder at me with concern.

"Are you well enough to move, Redeemer? Time does not halt for our inconveniences..."

I waved a hoof at him, using the other to keep wiping at my waterworks. "Fine, I... I'm fine. Bet Domino's VIP card would have let us through there without a hitch, huh?"

"You can't get out of here without me!" If not for that Wallbanger thing, he'd've been right... when and how did I pick up magical teleportation powers, anyways? Did every PipBuck have that socked away somewhere? Or had I finally sucked up enough random radiation to mutate, and its matrix had detected and activated it? It was almost enough to make me wonder why Stable ponies hadn't taken over the world by now.

Because Stable ponies are stupid, that's why, ran the proverb. Okay, fine, that's not really important... but why won't these damn tears stop?! Something in my chest felt heavy, even leaden, like I was carrying a giant bullet around inside. I hadn't really given a shit about my childhood, or my dad, for a long time --- so why did a little flashback hurt so bad, all of a sudden?

God shrugged those wide shoulders of his. "We are through, nonetheless. If you are not ready..."

I took a deep breath and blinked back hard, refusing to give him an excuse to bolt on me. "I'm as ready as you are." Propping the elevator door open, I poked my head outside to take a look around at the elevator lobby. Done up in the same white-on-blue motif as the ground floor, the spacious room also contained several tasteful marble benches, tall terracotta pots full of dirt and grey remnants of rotted plants.

Whatever these "nanosprites" Pink-E had mentioned might do for inanimate objects, they did nothing to keep living things intact. It also seemed like there weren't quite so many of them up here, as everything looked just a little bit ragged, the tiniest bit off-color. But the important thing was: no holoponies waiting to kill me!

Long corridors led off in three directions, small signs showing the way to given sets of room numbers. Taking a bearing on the PipBuck, I noticed Domino's suite was (of course) at the completely-opposite end of the floor. But if I didn't retrieve my saddlebags --- and the Autodoc module with them --- this whole trip would have been for nothing.

Suddenly, God's horned head was sweeping beneath my legs, tossing me onto his back, and in a flash we were AT the completely-opposite end of the floor. He carefully dropped me back down where the hallway ended in a T-intersection, giving an apologetic nod. "Forgive, Redeemer, but we are trying to make haste." Again, not complaining!

Right in front of us was the Greywing Suite... with its door already wide open. Now that was a surprise: had the ghoul somehow escaped the vault and beat us to his room? He'd had the key from before the bombs fell, so who else could have opened the door? Room service?

Then I noticed: every doorway, down all three corridors as far as I could see, was open. Putting the mystery away for the moment, I hurried inside... only to have the mystery immediately solved.

From a gorgeously decadent chandelier of silver and crystal drooped a noose made from knotted blankets. There was no sign of the pony who'd fashioned it; over the years, the nanosprites which were programmed to clean up every mess had undoubtedly torn down and cleared that one away too. But they'd seen to preserving the blankets, and the suicide note with the pin-holes through it, because those had always been on the casino's inventory, right?

Damn me damn me damn me I am the last,

Kill me kill me kill me I killed them all,

Not all but those who stood against,

Who tried for my life and money

Tried and died, as did I.

Damn them damn them damn them who can last?

Machine won't feed won't feed, not free, got fee

MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY WHERE?

Food is money, no food left but hunger

I take I take, no more and now I starve.

No more to take, I take my life, good-bye.

Well, that was completely awful. At least the Wasteland hadn't lost a poet.

But yeah, this made it kind of obvious what'd happened. When the Royale went into lockdown, only the VIPs might have gotten through the Holodeck. Above us was Security, probably also a deathtrap. Out a window, the defense turrets would have shot at anyone trying to fly away, so it was either drop to ground level... or stay here, in comfort, for as long as you had money. I remembered Domino buying us all dinner from the machine in Ditzy Doo's room.

When the money ran out, starvation would rear its ugly head. Desperation would set in, doors would be smashed open, 'sprites would repair them... and God snorted impatiently. Why did I always feel compelled to read everything I ever ran across? It did nopony any good to know any of this, and we were on a tight schedule.

The saddlebags were resting neatly side-by-side by the bed. Galloping over, I started rifling through Domino's, before remembering I had a better and faster way of doing this: fire up that PipBuck inventory spell!

Time froze once again. Now I could afford to be picky... no thanks on the ratty old clothes, most of which looked like the ghoul had been cannibalizing them to keep his last tuxedo intact. Heh... cannibal ghoul. Funny. He had no barding, there were a bunch of vials full of nasty whatnot, and his only weapon was that impressive 5.56mm pistol which the sorting spell dubbed "That Gun".

Did it pick that name up from me? Did Domino call it that? I supposed it was irrelevant now. Besides the gun and its ammo, I yoinked a beat-up old journal with some photos sticking out of it, purely for the sake of future bathroom reading.

The moment I came out of the spell, everything rearranged itself in a flash of soft amber magic (not unlike the color I'd set on the PipBuck screen), my bags strapping themselves back on just forward of my barding's croup. I was still turning towards God when his head slid between my forelegs, cupped my belly, and flipped me onto his back again. The mental image of turning into a pony-pancake zipped through my noggin just as a flash of red took us back to the elevators.

This time God unceremoniously dumped me inside, leaped in, and nosed the up button. "I doubt much time remains, Redeemer..." His nervousness was understandable; as soon as we left the ground floor, the countdown had gone silent. I supposed Eclair hadn't wanted to worry any of the high-society types he might have killed in passing with his anti-Domino trap. Checking the PipBuck, I found the countdown had been picked up and was running under "Quests"... go figure.

"We've got a bit more than fifteen minutes, God..." I nestled myself as close to the right side of the car as I could.

*Ding* went the elevator, opening its doors as it ground to a halt.

ZAP! FZZT! PEW! went the holoponies waiting in the Security anteroom. That's when God lost it.

"ENOUGH!"

The oversized alicorn reared up, speared the roof of the elevator car with his horn, and ripped it open like a hatchet through tinfoil. With magical beams of light peppering his flanks to zero effect, he worked his head up into the gap, widened it a bit, and spread his wings.

Well, half-spread them. There just wasn't room... not that it mattered. Clutching me to his barrel, he shot straight up with a floomph of displaced air, and a split-second later we hit the top of the shaft.

The split-second after that, we were through the top of the shaft, concrete dust and shards were flying in all directions, and we were in Hell. But I thought you had to go down to get there!

The garage, three stories high if it was a length, was filled with flaming airship wreckage. Its segmented brass roof showed no signs of opening any time soon, the huge gears and engines tasked for that job having been disabled with surgical, magical malice. As if that wasn't bad enough, gouts of fire spewed from a dozen splintered pipes, jacking up the heat moment by moment. Angry red-orange flames hungrily devoured anything flammable, licked at anything that was not, and roared its elemental hatred into the air.

We'd erupted into a gas-fired brick oven, to which God had just unwittingly introduced a new source of fuel.

The inferno sucked the oxygen out of the elevator shaft like a filly with a Rad-Away juice box, blasting us both towards the ceiling on a column of frigid air. God, surprised, let go a squawk reminiscent of a gelded griffon --- which was almost as shocking as how he lost his grip on me during the ascent.

For a few heart-stopping seconds, the alicorn bobbled me from hoof to hoof like a juggler's ball. He even short-kicked me once just to keep me airborne for another try, and BOY was I glad to be wearing armor just then! The whole time, my brain screamed Don't drop me, don't drop me, don't fucking drop me! Augh! When he finally managed to clutch me to his chest again we were both breathing heavily, his pupils having contracted to pinpricks.

"Th-thanks," I managed to get out.

"I do not wish to die as a result of my own clumsiness, Redeemer." Was it the atmosphere in here, or had the pitch of his voice risen half an octave? Maybe it was our proximity to the hot brass roof, its arched surface dancing with reflections of the flames below.

Looking down, I saw several holoponies striding purposefully through the maelstrom, busily torching anything not already on fire. Too busy to notice us... at least for now. They'd done such a thorough job on the ships already, I couldn't tell which one had been the jalopy and which the luxury yacht. Both had been reduced to roaring piles of matchsticks, liberally covered with the flaming shreds of gasbag canvas. It figures Eclair would have the 'airship escape' angle covered too! Son of a BITCH!

Not that we would have had much chance to escape with one, absent Domino, but that hadn't been my plan to begin with. What we needed to do now was find Pink-E and...

"HI!"

God, still flustered, squeaked and nearly dropped me again. One flurry of bat-wings later, we were both glaring at Pink-E, who was smiling at us from a gap in the wall. Just below the gap, a series of rungs had been embedded in the brickwork, leading all the way down to the ruined elevator shaft and what had once been a maintenance hatch. Its metal door, deformed by the imprint of an alicorn's cheekbone, now hung limply from one hinge.

"Well, what're you sillies waiting for?! C'mon already!" The little pink 'bot zipped out of sight, revealing a patch of blue sky beyond, which was cue enough for God. Before I could even open my mouth, there was another red flash, and then he was setting me down on a wide catwalk with a thick brass railing in the blessedly cool, blessedly open air.

Pink-E tapped on a security panel, closing the access hatch just as a surge of flames roared up behind us, then turned around and smiled again through scorched and blackened rubber lips. "Isn't it great up here?" I glanced at the numbers ticking down on my PipBuck, then shook my head and removed my saddlebags, letting them slide to the catwalk before I started digging things out.

"No time to gawk, old girl. We've gotta move. You're a Morale robot, right?"

She seemed ready to retort at being called "old", but stopped and nodded. "Uh-huh..."

Out came the mess of leg manacles, which I quickly threaded through the straps of my bags. "So you've got access to Ministry radio codes, like when you blew up my Fun Suit so we could cross the Pink --- right?"

Her eyes opened so wide, I thought she might rip her half-vulcanized eyelids. "Uh-huh..."

I laid the Fun Suits from Biscuit's box out on the catwalk, hurriedly working at getting my riot barding off and into the bags in their place. "So then you can control the inflation on these too...?"

She nodded rapidly and gave a squee. "Right! Oooh, I just knew you could think outside the box!"

In the middle of unwrapping the Suits, stretching the rubber section out, and snapping the manacles closed around the neck of each Suit just below the collar, I stopped and blinked, looking from the pink robot-head to the hatchway and back again.

"Considering what we just left behind, I'm happy we're not thinking inside the chimney." I shook myself out, stretched out a bit, and knelt down to secure the bags again. "All right, I'm going to grab this strap here with my teeth. When I whip my tail back and forth, you blow up all the Suits, including mine, then tow me out of here..."

God cleared his throat. "...once you're up above where the turrets will stop shooting at you, Redeemer?"

I shook my head. "That's where you come in. You fly along, just below us, and block any incoming fire. Then all three of us - "

Now it was God's turn to shake his head. "I have already been thoroughly saturated, Redeemer. The barrage would quickly overwhelm my remaining capacity. I could purge myself, but have never done so when so much power was involved. I imagine the immediate effect would be much like a large bomb."

I could feel myself deflating. "Seriously? You pick NOW to mention this?!"

He shrugged and turned away, taking in our rooftop surroundings. "You never asked." As much as it hurt at the time, I could not possibly have facehoofed hard enough.

Pink-E just looked puzzled. "Why can't you just hop on Mister McRudeypants and fly away, Cherry?"

God turned back to give her a flat look. "I believe I have already mentioned that it was difficult enough carrying the ghoul across the Cloud. I would not be able to safely fly my Redeemer a sufficient distance to ensure his safety." He looked over the edge of the railing. "Nor would I be able to teleport far enough, from here, to avoid his immolation by turret weaponry before my power was ready to use again."

The big black alicorn ruffled his wings with a snort. "I am afraid that I must ask you to return my Key, Redeemer. I cannot save you, but I must save myself... or die with my sins uncleansed."

Pink-E sighed and rolled her eyes. "Oooooor you could try doing something with this..."

A *ping* sounded from my PipBuck, which was just now counting down past the ten-minute mark. The maps had just updated, this time with the complete details for the Security level five floors below. "What's this?"

She did that bodiless-robot-head-shrug thing again. "Mapped it out while I was zooming through the vents. No big."

I peered at the layout dubiously. There was a room marked "Armory", another labeled "Central Control", and a big block in the middle... "Auxiliary Reactor Alpha".

When I looked back up, God was advancing with horn down and wings spread, a look of murder in his eyes.

My smile brought him up short.

* * * * *

A minute later, we were just about ready.

God had already lifted off and was circling around just below rooftop level, every air-defense battery within range taking pot-shots at him. He would round a corner, the turrets covering that angle would start tracking him, shots would be taken whenever they had a line-of-sight that didn't include the building, and then he would dart around the next corner before the shots arrived.

Every now and again, one lucky bolt out of dozens would hit or graze him anyway. He began glowing a sullen red, the color of barely-contained magic trying to escape his body's grip. Each hit drove his luminescence higher, in the most dangerous game of Tag I'd ever seen. But it got the Royale's guns following a predicable pattern.

And the timing, here, had to be perfect. While God flew laps, Pink-E beamed directives to the lashed-together Fun Suits. Their gas talismans began to blow them full of hydrogen at a careful, measured pace. When the multicolored bouquet began to lift my saddlebags, I worked myself in between the chains, my forelegs on the bag to weigh it down again. Soon enough it started lifting me too, until I was barely able to keep one hind hoof in contact with the catwalk.

"NOW!"

God's aura blazed up to create a bright vermillion streak as he flew past one more time, furling his wings and dropping from sight. The turrets, trying to correct for his sudden downward spiral, dropped their barrels.

That was Pink-E's cue to set all of the Suit collars on full-blast, including my own. Instantly, I was lifted up and squished from all sides, the skin-tight rubber ballooning out with a deafening HISS of injected gas, while from above I could hear the squeaking and stretching of magically-reinforced latex expanding to contain more hydrogen than they were really meant to. But my little pony-bot knew their limits; they held firm, and she made sure that my own didn't inflate so large as to rupture itself against the constraining network of chains. She snagged a pack-strap with a short cable, towing for all her servos were worth as we shot into the sky.

Less than five seconds had elapsed. The guns would already be elevating again, tracking us, still well within their range and arc of fire. I couldn't move my neck to look down, could barely even turn my head given the rubber swelling against my cheeks. All I could see was Pink-E's backside.

So I missed it when God smashed into the side of the Royale.

Central Control.

I missed seeing him plow through granite, concrete, reinforcing steel columns, and reactor shielding.

Reactor.

But it was impossible to miss the result of his purge.

"Large bomb."

That... was actually kind of a huge understatement. There was a rainbow-hued pulse of light from below, so intense that it reflected back from every other building in the casino complex. The same light, flashing through my suit from below, washed the rest of my visible spectrum out to a soft blue.

A moment later, dual blasts of sound and force arrived, only slightly muffled and buffered by my rubber-sheathed ball of hydrogen. My PipBuck started clicking like crazy, but at the moment I was much too happy that the balloon hadn't burst to worry about my mane falling out three days from now! As we rocketed upwards on the pressure wave, my stomach having departed without leaving a forwarding address, Pink-E's continued pulling pitched the bouquet on its side.

Now I had no choice but to look straight down.

Right at the brass-work rooftop, coming straight up!

Panic packed my throat for a moment, until I realized it was slowing down. Stopping. Falling away, half-turning onto its side. And smashing into the rest of the Royale, sending clouds of ruin billowing out in a halo that quickly mingled with the Pink Cloud Sea surrounding it. It was almost like watching a bloodshot grey eye dilating, an image which became more apparent the higher we rose above the casino's destruction.

God was gone. I was sure that I could have spotted him, if he'd made it out somehow. But there was nothing, no flapping black shadow against the clouds, no glow of red, nothing at all. Just gone.

He'd stopped and stared at me when I suggested the sacrifice play. Then... he'd smiled. A huge, wide grin full of incisors. I'd thought the cannibal alicorn was going to kill me right there. But it made an insane sense to him: I was his Redeemer, the whole point of which was to purge him of sins. Murder, cannibalism, failing to be the genetic savior of his kind. His Goddess could never forgive him the one. He couldn't forgive himself the others.

But I could. Maybe, I mused as the balloons finally righted themselves, he just wanted permission to die.

My stomach finally caught up as our ascent slowed and leveled off at last. I didn't really want to think about how high up we were. Pink-E kept tugging us higher and further away from the ruins at her best speed, but it probably wasn't high and far enough yet. If one small reactor had leveled the casino, what would six big ones do?

I squeezed my eyes shut and waited.

And waited... and waited...

And... with my eyes still scrunched tight, I asked the question: "What happened to the earth-shattering kaboom?"

"Oh, the countdown for that was up two minutes ago! No boom."

I blinked and stared at her. "WHAT?!"

Still looking like an burnt apple that'd fallen down a well fifty years ago, she stopped towing long enough to turn and smile at me. "It's all over. No boom! Nothing down there's even peeping an energy reading! So yay us! We win, right?"

A matching smile crept upon me, killing my natural desire to worry about something bad not happening. We might've lost God and Domino, and Pink-E might look like Tartarus warmed over, but we'd finally made it out! Now we could just float lazily back to town, I could suck down a crate of Rad-Away, I could get Pink-E fixed up, we could deliver the stupid Autodoc module to the stupid Zoomers, Horse would have his stupid alliance, and this whole mess would be -

Whoosh!

BANG!

Zoooooooooooooom!

Fuck my ass, straight to the moon!

One of the balloons had exploded in an orange fireball, a black-clad pegasus streaking away from the point of impact. In its wake, contrails of gray-on-white flowed from mane and tail. I thought the rest of balloons would catch fire and explode in turn, but their magical reinforcements held. Then anger began to set in.

That's Bitchy! What the fuck is her problem?!

While my brain was still coming to terms with this sudden but probably inevitable betrayal, Pink-E was taking evasive maneuvers. Well, whatever maneuvers you can really pull off as a little robot-head tugging a bunch of giant balloons. I wouldn't have given her odds against a crippled manticore.

"Nopony, but nopony, is going to pop my CHERRY!" she squealed indignantly.

Then again, I might be convinced to take 50:1...

Commander DeLoup had already circled around and was coming back. Her first attack had been at speed, but now she slowed in order to make a tighter turn. I wasn't sure why she hadn't just hit us with a sonic rainboom to begin with, but right now I needed mobility more than answers.

"Pink-E, deflate my suit!"

"You bet!" The Fun Suit vented its contents with a disgusting BRAaaaaAAaaaAAAAP, leaving me clutching the nearest chains and perching on the saddlebags below. Then I dove into the PipBuck inventory spell once more.

That Gun would do quite nicely. Last thing I needed was Mouthkicker going wide on the recoil and taking out one of my own balloons! Shit, with my luck, it'd knock me right off my makeshift gondola for a nice long plummet. The spell kept everything else in my upside-down bags while it plucked the pistol, stuck it in my mouth, and re-latched everything securely.

The pegabitch didn't quite come straight in, adjusting for Pink-E's minor changes in direction with a somewhat leisurely banking approach. Not quite trusting S.A.T.S. to keep my hoofing, I sighted in along the heavy pistol's barrel and tongued off a double-tap. She instantly rolled away, avoiding the rounds easily, but missed her target in the process.

Then she shot straight up and out of view. I got a good look as she passed; no guns, no barding, no packs --- but completely shod in arc-sparking powerhooves. Which explained how she'd breached the collar's protections on that one balloon, as well as why its gas had ignited. Which was a bigger danger now, literally, because Pink-E was overinflating the remaining balloons to make up for losing the one. Thinner rubber and more gas would make Bitchy's job that much easier.

Which meant she might not have to expose herself to my fire in order to kill me. She could just attack from above to bust each balloon with a well-timed strike, though she'd have to do a fast pass each time to avoid the resulting fireball. Since she could choose a different angle of departure each time, and I wouldn't see her until she struck, my odds of getting off an accurate shot would be limited --- maybe even with S.A.T.S. on.

Well, shit. I spat That Gun into my pack's side holster, leaned out into the wind, and yelled:

"Hey, before I die, I wanna know: is it true pegasi suck the wet farts out of dead radhogs?"

There followed a rather pregnant pause. Suddenly, the bouquet rustled and an angry teal face glared down from between two red balloon-suits. Snugly enough, I noticed, that if I went for That Gun and took a potshot, a miss would definitely pop one. She might be angry, but she wasn't entirely stupid.

"You are a disgusting lump of excrement, even for an earthworm," she snarled. "Where did you even hear - "

"I also heard," I said in my driest tone, "that Zoomer mares have breeding issues because you're too busy clopping with Mother Matrix. That not true either?"

"Of course it isn't!" She seemed genuinely aghast. "That's... you don't even..."

I examined a hoof, feigning nonchalance. "Well, she is kind of athletic, at least in the pod. Dumb-looking dye-job on the mane, but I'd still have to give four stars. Would tap again."

Wow. Who knew teal could shift to indigo so fast? From annoyed, to flustered, to screaming mad in ten seconds flat. "You?! And... her?! She... GAH! That race-traitor! Both of you deserve what's coming!" She blasted back into the air, bursting the suit she'd been standing on with a quadruple discharge of electricity. The explosion set my ears ringing and singed the side of my face before I could duck. As if an afterthought, the separated collar bonked me on the head before falling away.

Well, that could have gone worse... ow...

I rubbed my poor abused noggin, squinting worriedly up at the bouquet, but the red's neighbors had weathered its demise with only a few slightly-melty blemishes. I wouldn't want to risk another, though --- and I noticed that Pink-E wasn't blowing the remaining suits any bigger, even though we were starting to slowly lose altitude. Instead, she was putting everything she had into towing, helped along somewhat by the prevailing wind current. A look down showed us passing above the mouth of the Coltorado, where it emptied into Lake Cider.

No time for enjoying the view, though. Bitchy-Bitch had pulled a tight loop and was coming right at me with eyes full of firey hate. At the next-to-last moment she flattened out, flared her wings, and brought all four powerhooves up with the clear intention of plowing straight through my chest.

Perfect.

At the very last moment I leaned sideways, thrust laterally with my hindlegs, and pulled on the manacle chains I'd been hanging from. She pranged right into them belly-first, stopping her cold with a painful-sounding "Whoomph!" --- right after which, all four power hooves discharged at once.

I'd never been in the middle of a cloud during a lightning storm before. Four separate lightning bolts arced across eight lengths of chain, each of which terminated with rubber at one end and canvas at the other. Smack in the middle, two ponies in direct contact with the conductive surfaces. SCIENCE!

Maybe I was starting to get used to pain in my everyday life. I sure can't imagine having taken that kind of charge a couple of weeks before, and getting up anytime soon! But by the time I could feel my lips again, Commander Bitchy was still draped across my saddlebags, moaning and trying to get a hoof under her. That was made a little more difficult by the fact that I was draped over her, a tactical advantage I took in both hooves. Literally; when she tried shaking her head clear, she found it in a leg-lock I'd picked up in my childhood brawling days.

The teal pegasus tried, and failed, to bite me, then attempted to get her hindlegs up to try for a buck. I slid slightly to one side and back-kicked the inside of her knee. She screamed, flailing madly in my grip as her leg buckled.

"Killing you will be a favor to the entire Wasteland!"

I think I may've mentioned I'm a bit small for an earth pony. Endurance, I've got, but not reach or main strength. The enraged pegasus militia commander also had two extra limbs. Tilting her wings this way and that, she managed to wobble onto her back, rolling me under. I still had the headlock, but now she started bucking the air, slamming herself back down onto my stomach. If I lost my grip now...

"Hi! I'm Pink-E! What's your name?!" I could hear the sound of her hypnotic green eye activating.

"FUCK!" DeLoup tried to twist out, using her forelegs to cover her face. It was a stone-cold pain in the tail to hang on, but at least my little 'bot had bought me a chance with her gambit. I hooked my hindlegs around a pair of chains: one still hooked to a balloon, and the other a spare I hadn't had an extra suit for. A couple of kicks, even with Bitchy squirming around, and I was able to whup whup WHOA!

Her wings flapped feathers in my face as Bitchy rolled off the saddlebag and took me with her... or as far as my body, leg, and chain would let her. She laughed, driving backward, pulling one of my forelegs from around her neck.

"Gravity's a real mother, isn't it you little pink shit?! I bet you'll make a pretty smear in about, oh, thirty seconds!"

I grunted at her, kicking the loose chain from hindleg to foreleg. "Did I mention I picked up a few pointers while I was down there --- from a cannibal?" I wrapped my teeth around her right thigh and CHOMPED.

Most folks underestimate just how nasty an earth pony bite can be. All us equines are herbivores by preference to start, even if we've picked up the omnivore habit out of necessity. But even setting that aside, earth ponies haven't got unicorn levitation or pegasus "wing-fingers" to get a job done. We have mouth, teeth, and tongue.

And even without incisors, we know how to use 'em.

The scream came at a pitch I might have credited to a high-class opera singer.

It wasn't that I was hoping to tear her apart with my bare teeth, though. I just wanted her distracted for long enough to get the manacle cuff around her leg. Clink! That done, I let her go and swung back up onto the gondola.

She stared at her chained ankle, then narrowed her eyes at me as she hovered to massage the bitten appendage. "You're wasting my time, worm. I could bust every last suit, work the chains loose, and just fly away from this mess, you know."

"Sure you could," I growled, taking a moment to spit her blood off to one side. "If you could avoid my tangling you up in the process. I'll drag you right out of the sky with me."

She cocked her head at me. "Negotiations, then. Fine. Give me the Autodoc module, cut me loose, and we'll go our separate ways. And if you make sure the Zoomers never hear from you again, I won't have to kill you." Her eyes lit with a cunning gleam --- she'd never been very good at concealing her motives.

"Don't think so," I said, pointing a hoof towards the now-distant dust clouds still roiling up from the Royale. "The whole point of this little vacation was that I give you bunch the module --- but here you are, trying to kill me for it. And your Mother Matrix dies if the Zoomers don't get it. Which would put you in charge."

Her mouth curled in a tight smile. "Not entirely stupid, for a mudpony. Yes. I'll lead the Zoomers out of here, back to our Enclave sisters. We'll all be welcomed as heroes, Loopy 'Air Wolf' DeLoup will be remembered as the pony that brought Rainbow Dash's head to Neighvarro on a pike... and we'll be no part of Horse's machinations."

"And Doctor Feel-Good? He's gonna be your new Prince or whatever?" I needed to play this up, get my breath back. Letting her talk a little longer wasn't going to hurt anypony... not me, anyways.

"Doctor Fly Right would have been literally branded as a traitor long ago, had he been born and raised in the Grand Pegasus Enclave. I couldn't stop him from tagging along when we got the ping showing your suit had left the Royale, but he thinks I just flew on ahead to retrieve you." Now it was her turn to study a hoof. "Leaving an egghead like him in the clouds was no problem. Killing him off, after I destroy the module, won't be either."

I shrugged, turning slightly towards the bags. "I really don't give a flying fuck about pegasus politics." Keeping my eyes on her, I leaned down towards the holstered Gun. "But I never break contract."

She flipped in midair, flapped twice, and came straight on. Good. I'd been counting on her not to wait.

With a short leap, I piled right into her, earth pony density winning out in the ensuing collision. The knockback put us both in the gondola once more, I managed to get her back in the headlock while she was still stunned, and this time she wasn't going to be going anywhere. "Pink-E! Deflate one suit!"

"But we won't have enough lift - " she protested.

"NOW, GODSDAMMIT!"

One burst of artificial flatulence later, a collar dropped from above. I managed to grab it with one hoof, keeping the other foreleg snug around her throat, and flipped it over.

"Turnabout's a bigger mother than gravity, Bitchy-Bitch."

Her eyes went wide. She opened her mouth to say something, but I'll never know what it was, because dragging the rubber suit over her head made for a great muffler. She panicked, bucked, smacked me with her wings, but that collar still made a very satisfying snick when I locked it into place.

"Blow her, Pink-E."

DeLoup tried to paw at the collar, but I pinned her forelegs to her sides with everything I had. While she struggled, hydrogen rushed from the collar's talisman to inflate the rubber suit encasing her head. Bigger... bigger... she squirmed, kicked, and probably would have yelled if she could've opened her mouth. Without a pony's body inside, the lining was pressing inward, suffocating as it swelled. I just needed that to go on for a little longer...

One interesting thing about pegasi? That density difference I mentioned wasn't a joke.

When I felt her start to lift, I let go all at once, watching her limbs and tail flail uselessly as she was hauled upward by the neck. Helpfully, I tugged on each chain in turn, shifting the balloons in the bouquet so the newcomer could take her rightful place in the center. The whole time, its unwilling cargo kicked and strained for all she was worth, moored by the ankle to her fate.

Of course, now that her hooves were free, DeLoup was desperately trying to work them under and around the collar. I figured I had maybe a minute, before she realized the kind of choice I'd just given her. I used two loose chains to lash the rest together, then knelt on the saddlebags. Two straps, normally cinched under a pony's belly, tied them to the bouquet.

I looked up at Pink-E for what might be the last time.

"When I say the word, I want all the gas talismans set to maximum. Then grab these bags and get the Autodoc module to Horse. If I don't make it, the rest is for Tag. Tell him to earn it, and if he doesn't, kill him."

My great-great-grand-aunt's legacy stared back at me. "What are you - ?"

I yanked the straps loose, turning as I fell away. The last thing I wanted to see was Lake Cider coming on.

Above, the bouquet shot into the sky, a teal form feebly beating at her collar with one useless shock after another. DeLoup knew what she had to do. She was just coming to terms with how she wanted to die.

Pink-E screamed something incoherent, dropping down to pursue me. Probably to try and tow me to safety. I knew she wouldn't have the power. Yelling back, I shoved the bags at her.

"THE WORD!"

My suit blew up once more and began overinflating immediately, which slowed my descent somewhat. Not nearly fast enough, naturally. We earth ponies are kind of dense, after all.

My butt was apparently the densest part of all, being that the suit rotated until I was looking straight up. DeLoup's bouquet was already a set of colorful pinpricks against the blue sky, but I could see little sparking arcs now and again. She'd made her decision. One... two... a sudden blossom of flame, followed instantly by nine more. The single pinprick remaining fell like a stone --- that is, if you ever saw a stone burning like a Roaman candle.

The suit kept blowing bigger, stretching me out like a torturer's rack. I slowed a little more, enough so that Bitchy fell past me, maybe a hundred lengths off. She was still screaming, covered in melted, burning rubber in a variety of colors. I might have smiled, I'm not sure.

I couldn't see Pink-E anymore. I'd lost track of her, right after seeing her tow-line make its catch. By now she was on her way to Horse. There was no real way out of this, old girl. But I never break a contract. Be good, Tag...

The suit's blue skin started going sheer, then transparent. Breathing got difficult, the rising pressure around my chest and belly making it hard to inhale. My legs, neck and tail were all at their limit; I could feel and hear vertebrae start to pop. My field of vision rapidly narrowed to a tightening tunnel of shiny, rubbery blue.

Then my muzzle was clamped shut. My eyes were blinded. My nostrils filled with the scent of latex, then with the real thing. I couldn't breathe at all. I couldn't move.

I exploded.


Footnote: Level Up.

Author's Note:

I REALLY have to apologize for the extreme delay in this chapter. Especially considering that I blogged here about my need to be speeding up my contributions, stepping up my game... after which, I'm on what amounts to hiatus for more than FOUR MONTHS?! Geez...

I could probably blame the holidays, being sick, having a job that got insanely difficult due to bad management, losing that job and getting another (in fact, I'm typing this during a break in training), the winding up of a years-long lawsuit and the fallout from that.

But the reality is, I've still had plenty of time I COULD have been writing Chapter 14. Indeed, most of the chapter was written up months ago. I just could not seem to get the last one-third of it done. In fact, I even went on to write parts of Chapter *15* instead! So at least that'll be coming your way a bit faster.

In all honesty, I'm just way too easy to distract. When I sit down and start doing something, I keep at it, but when my attention switches elsewhere, I'm fully absorbed in whatever *that* is. I do not have the habit down of sitting down at my computer and cranking out X number of words per day --- which I really should develop, especially now that I intend to make writing something of a side career. That's hardly going to work when it takes me a full year to crank out a single novel-length tale.

I thank those of you who have been patient with me for so long. I really should have done this months ago, but I've finally polished up what I have so far and am therefore releasing it as Part 1 of Chapter 14... it's about as long as one of my normal chapters, anyways, at this point. When Part 2 is out and there's been enough time for folks to have read both, I'll combine them.

I hope I am able to avoid disappointing you again in the future.