• 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 3: Dance Hall Daze

CHAPTER THREE: Dance Hall Daze

"That was the worst performance we've ever seen."

As Rambler had affirmed, it hadn't been all that hard to scramble up one of the broken sections of coaster track nearest to the ground, and that section did indeed eventually lead to the coaster's old passenger platform. I hadn't even had to waste rounds on the other snipers, after downing the first two, before reaching it.

Weather-faded posters of a fishnet-clad pony smilingly demonstrated the need for safety belts, admonished expectant mothers (as well as those ponies under the influence of a variety of listed intoxicants) that they might have more fun on the Dance Hall's ground floor, and declared no liability for injuries to ponies who did not keep their hooves inside the coaster cars at all times. I caught myself wondering why anypony would bother whizzing around on a rickety wooden framework in a vehicle they had no control over, just to end up where they started a minute later.

Then I growled at myself for being distracted when there was a lock to pick. I'd already broken two bobby pins, though once I managed to focus myself again the lock clicked open readily enough. Something about that pink pony just annoyed the hell out of me.

Nopony met me inside the door, or showed themselves as I crept quietly along the dimly-lit hallway beyond, keeping an eye on the red bars appearing in my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle. It made sense that Deputy Deagle would be up here somewhere, since if he managed to break free he'd either have to jump two floors onto solid concrete or fight his way to the front doors. Going out onto the coaster would have exposed him to sniper fire, and every other exit had either been piled up with dumpsters or boarded over by previous generations of squatters and owners.

Though the original interior design had been well-lit and done up in bright cheerful colors with a distinctly archaic "western" motif, only perhaps one in five lights still functioned in some fashion, and the walls were now covered in crude graffiti and smashed picture frames. Formerly-plush carpet had been reduced to frayed coatings of discolored fuzz where ponies who couldn't be bothered to use a bucket had unloaded their various bodily exhumations. There was nothing here that somepony hadn't wantonly defaced in the decades between historical hellfire and modern damnation.

What mattered right now was that Pinkie's was an entertainment venue. No two places had identical floorplans, but they did share common concepts --- like traffic flow. The flow my immediate vicinity had been designed for had revolved around hundreds of roller-coaster enthusiasts boarding and debarking from the platform I'd just left. Thus the hall leading to that doorway was exceptionally wide and long, with alcoves for water fountains and restrooms, in order to serve the needs of ponies standing on line for the ride.

It didn't hurt that the smashed-in model back at the Mailmare Museum had revealed a goodly portion of the actual floorplan... well, that part which hadn't been completely buried under an unlikely collection of exceptionally heavy delivery items.

I crept along the left-side wall in as much shadow as the intermittent flickery light would allow for, keeping a close mouth on my rifle and one eye on the red bars in my EFS. As I moved along, I used some fancy mathematics --- really, just guesstimating at some triangulation --- to determine that there were a lot of them piled into one area and perhaps a half-dozen actually roaming around. The further down the hall I went, the more apparent it became that the large group wasn't even on this floor. Worse, neither was there a green or amber bar to indicate somepony who meant me no harm.

That meant one of two things: either Deputy Deagle's indicator was masked by the mob of reds, or he'd been convinced to join the Mite-ys. I stopped for a moment to rub my forehead with a hoof; I couldn't damned well interview every Mite-y I ran across to see if they were Deagle. Or maybe the EFS was on the blink and it just wasn't picking up non-hostiles with so many red bars on display.

This hallway dead-ended amidst some collapsed walls further down, but it intersected another hall first, and as I peeked around the corner with one eye my first Mite-y came into view.

It was a lone earth pony, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, and his weapon --- a fire axe swathed in duct tape--- leaned against the wall while he took his swig. I grinned the smile of a devil around my silenced rifle, sighting in on a particular part of Whiskey's exposed anatomy...

* * * * *

Whiskey and I occupied a room that hadn't been cleaned since balefire.

The glossy-black buck sat there, still clutching himself, hissing through his teeth and cursing under his breath. They were the only sounds I'd allowed him, and that much only because I'd've had to kill him to stop that much. Getting shot in the groin wasn't something you "toughed out". He'd have started screaming once the shock wore off, if I hadn't shoved a healing potion down his throat, but it was still working through the damage done.

"You fucker. You fuck. You fuckin' fucker of a fuckwad..."

Ah, now he was getting coherent. Good. I brought the rifle up, sighted between his eyes so Whiskey got a good look right down the barrel, and said nothing. Something flinty burned, way back in those hazel corneas.

"A deal, huh. I'd be dead already if you didn't want a deal. Well yeah, I can be a smart pony when I gotta. Whaddya want from me? And if you say my ass, you better shoot me first." I kept my voice low and slow, my tongue close to the trigger.

"Where's the town deputy? I've got business with him."

Whiskey grinned wide. "Hell, buck, I'll give you a demon-blessed escort. Can't say my friends'll be big on your visitation, but that ain't for me to say..."

I clicked the hammer back, slowly. Didn't want to slip doing it. It had the desired effect; he swallowed visibly.

"Fuck, buck, just a joke. He's in the ground-floor kitchen. You still got my buddies on this floor, three of 'em, plus five downstairs, then everypony else's in the big hall downstairs partying. Fuckers kicked my ass up here for putting moves on the boss' filly, fuck 'em all for all I care. Stupid robot show anyways."

I smiled around the rifle grip. "Thanks."

pyewt

* * * * *

The top floor hadn't been hard. Like Whiskey said, there were only a few other Mite-ys and all of them were social rejects quietly mourning their temporary exile in one way or another. I was a bit quieter, though.

The flight down was when the trouble really started, with another Mite-y walking through the lower-landing door just as I arrived. Rotten timing on my part, plus it took three rounds to down him, yelling the whole time. Past his collapsing body I saw his backup galloping hard down the hallway, so I fled upstairs, barely making it off the upper landing when a pair of nine-millimeter rounds grazed my retreating hindquarters.

I'd emptied the rifle's magazine, cursing myself for forgetting to reload when I had the chance, and the last thing I wanted was to add more gunfire noise to the battle by resorting to the ten-mil. The odds were already two-to-one and could become twice as bad in no time if Whiskey's info was still good. I darted into the nearest room, still occupied by the cooling body of the half-toothless mare who'd lived there just a minute ago, and activated my PipBuck's inventory system.

The damn thing could even dress you in a hurry, for Luna's sake!

When I made my selection and let it go, the Clothier spell pulled the horseshoe set from my saddlebags, removed and stored their silencing rags, lifted my entire body just enough to slide the shoes under, and dropped me into them perfectly. I was almost ready to buck.

They already were. The first slid into the doorway with a practiced skid, stopping herself with a hoof against the jamb, and giggled, taking a moment to limber up with the baseball bat slung over her shoulder. She was easily twice my height, with a left foreleg covered in dozens of needle-marks, one of which was exceptionally fresh. The air stank of Stampede.

In another time and place, she might even have been gorgeous --- a silvery-gray with tousled orange forelocks and a tail down to the floor. Only the hellish drug-fueled glow in her dark blue eyes, and the pockmarked foreleg, ruined the view. Well, that, and the pre-War baseball uniform she had on, theoretically white at some point but now sporting a collection of red splotches. Some of which were very fresh.

Her friend slid in behind, a catcher's mask over his royal-blue face, beneath which showed the edges of a knowing smile. He smacked the power-puncher he wore on one hoof into the catcher's mitt he wore on the other.

"Batter up."

She started sashaying towards me, gripping the bat high on its choke, sidling a bit to my left... oooh, she was planning to enjoy this, taking her time to set up that first swing, knowing that if I tried to dash past her Catcher was waiting to power-punch me right back into the room.

I'd have been in much worse trouble if she'd been more about business than pleasure. The delay gave me the chance to bring up the PipBuck's inventory sorter again. Buck, Dash, healing potion, go. The device's needle-array flushed the intoxicants directly into my bloodstream; I felt an immediate surge of strength and pent-up speed ripple through my body.

Batter saw the change-up start, stepped in, and swung for the bleachers. I saw the bat's length coming for my head as though in slow-motion, ducked under it, and kept going. I squirmed right under the big mare's belly, saw Catcher get ready for me to try and run for home... but I was just fine right here at second base.

Being small, I wasn't all that strong, but even a foal could punch your teeth out if you fed it Buck. I braced all four hooves and shoved straight up into Batter's cream-colored belly, my head seated in her crotch. As she lifted off the floor with an indignant squawk I arched my neck, neatly flipping the amazon onto her face. Her tail and rump lashed angrily at the air as the rest of her body started to overcome inertia and return earthwards.

Now, the great thing about Dash? It's named for Rainbow Dash, the legendary super-speedster. You'd never win a mare-a-thon with the stuff, but anypony trying to beat you in a sprint would have to be on the same stuff to have a chance. So I still had the initiative when I gave Batter's momentarily-exposed belly a double-kick of Buck-fueled awesome that sent her flying, upside-down and backwards, into the bathroom. She smashed into the lavatory, pulverizing the rotted linoleum and particle board.

They say a wise pony once said, "Don't get cocky, kid." I'd never met that pony. I turned on Catcher, thinking Batter was down for the count and not wanting to get hit from behind while trying to finish her off. My first indicator that I'd been exactly and precisely wrong in that assessment was the burst of stars in my vision, and the feeling that my spinal column had decided to shut down for summer vacation. Only my leather barding, its reinforcement padding having been replaced back in Goodsprings, prevented my entry into a new and undoubtedly short career as a paraplegic.

I went over with a thud and a groan that welled up from some inner core of being I never knew I'd had and didn't want to remember having in the future. Batter stood over me, covered in plaster dust like some kind of evil clown --- come to think of it, were there any that weren't? --- and snorted hard, twice, before the bat came down again and again and again.

There's a birthday game colts and fillies play in some parts of Coltifornia, picked up from mules, who call themselves burros in those parts. You fill a paper pony full of candy, lift it on a rope so that it hangs in the air, and then the birthday foal gets to beat it with a stick until the candy comes out.

Viva piƱata.

There were four reasons I didn't die in those few minutes:

One: Batter still wanted to enjoy herself. One or two whacks to my unprotected head would've done the job, but she wanted me to suffer for that embarrassing flip. Instead of a clean kill, she tried turning my torso into pony jam.

Two: Stampede, Dash and Buck all last the same amount of time --- for ponies of the same size. The bigger you are, the more it takes to keep you fueled. When Batter's Stampede ran out, my Buck and Dash were still going. So was my healing potion, for that matter --- I didn't heal up much between each new bruise, but it kept me going.

Three: coming down is a stone-cold bitch, no matter what you take. Batter was having too much fun pounding the fuck out of me through my reinforced leather barding, so much so that when the 'Pede wore off she actually staggered and fell over.

Four: Catcher was too stunned, as I got up despite my battering and literally stomped Batter to death, to do more than gawp. When I turned to face him, blowing hard and covered with her gore, he tucked tail and disappeared around the corner in a blue-rumped blaze of cowardice. If he'd stuck around another five seconds, he'd have seen me stagger to what was once a mattress and collapse onto it.

* * * * *

With each step back down the stairs, my brain said, You should have just shot the fuckers. Ow. You should have just shot the fuckers. Ow. You should have just shot the fuckers. Ow.

Then again, I wasn't sure I could have done any better with bullets, not in such close quarters. My barding was now officially just as beaten to shit as it had been when I'd arrived in Goodsprings, and the rest of me looked about as bad even after the healing potion had done its job.

Slowly and more carefully this time, I made my way through the second floor hallways with silenced rifle at the ready. But a bit more triangulation with EFS made me realize none of its red bars were up here anymore. My bet was that during the fifteen minutes of fun-games-recuperation I'd just been through, everypony else had decided to join the party downstairs.

One final stairwell, and I started getting that feeling in my bowels again. Nopony saw me coming down, which was good. There were only a couple of red bars near the front doors, the work of a few minutes slipping through the shadows of the poorly-lit concourse, and a few silenced five-point-fifty-six rounds thereafter. Everypony else was clearly having a high old time in the Party Hall at the concourse's opposite end.

I knew it was a Party Hall because every few yards was an ancient sign with a dancing Pinkie in a different pose, extolling a variety of shows for an equally diverse variety of clienteles. Birthday parties, going-away parties, community craft parties, executive-staff seminar parties...

It took a couple of precious minutes, but I finally found the servants' corridor to the back of the kitchen. Still no bar indicating a non-hostile Deagle. So many red bars that I couldn't tell if some might be in the kitchen instead of the Party Hall. Well... at this point, the way out the front doors were clear. If he wasn't amenable to reason or threats, or things otherwise went sour, running was a definite option.

Stealth, however, had nearly reached the end of its uses. Away went the rifle, out came the hardy solidity of the ten-millimeter pistol. I slowly twisted the doorknob lever, edged it open, and thrust myself inside, sliding towards the opposite wall with my pistol cocked and ready...

...and right into Deputy "Dude" Deagle's pulverized corpse, if the dented badge was a clue.

Batter had scored before I even got into the game.

* * * * *

"Hey! Hey! Does this thing work? Yeah, okay. Look, it's spinnin'. Back the fuck off, it's mine, I offed the little bitch, I get to say it.

"So yeah! Deputy Dumb-Fuck Deagle is dead. There's a poem in that, like I give a shit. Only reason we didn't blow his head off when we caught 'im is 'cause Benny didn't wanna watch. Citified pussy thinks everythin's about 'style', or some shit. Said he couldn't shoot this one courier fucker up in Goodsprings unless he did it to his face. If the Cossacks weren't backin' 'im up, I'd say he couldn'ta done it even then.

"But Benny ain't here no more. Bosses didn't want his deal, either. We got Slimm, we got the NCR's fuckin' prison and dynamite bunkers, we even got fuckin' Stable Nineteen. Fuck all y'all."

Well... shit. I sat back on my haunches in the back of the deserted kitchen, and blew out a long sigh. Deagle's blood, unnoticed in my sudden funk, began to pool around my flanks.

All that, just to find a dead body that couldn't tell me a damn thing about where Benny'd gone. That plus a recorded gloat-fest worth not a godsdamn -

*klik*

"Wish I could figger out how to record over this 'testing testing testing' bit. Hate waiting like... oh, that's the green light? Okay, ahem. Deputy Deagle Goldentail here... yeah, that sounds pretty good.

"Anyways, I'm watching that city colt right now, the one in the checkered outfit. Him and his big-gang buddies're talking to the Mite-ys about some kinda deal. Say they're gonna head back up to New Pegas after this, by way of Nipton and then Big Rock City, in case they wanna reconsider, so I guess the Mite-ys said no. Talk about your long way back around. I'm gonna stay hunkered in these bushes here 'til they leave and then - oh crap, they're coming this way!"

*klik*

I sat there with the holotape in my hooves, staring at it, literally unable to believe my luck. If Deagle hadn't been so incapable, if I hadn't been so disgusted with the situation that I just sat down instead of trashing the recorder in frustration, this one crucial clue would have slipped past me. The time I'd thought wasted had actually paid off.

If I got out of here now --- and nopony now stood between me and the exit --- I could leave this town to its own issues, make the hop-skip-and-jump across the Slimm Pass to Nopony, and just keep my eyes peeled for a black-and-white-checkered payoff to trot my way.

I leaped to my hooves, promptly slipped on a still-congealing puddle of Deagle's blood, flailed about for purchase in a way I'm sure would have been comedy gold if anypony had been watching, and fell backwards into a bank of switches with a yelp. I was still tender in that spot.

Instantly the doors leading out to the Party Hall, as well as the one to the servants' corridor, blew outwards. A smattering of yells sounded from the raucous celebration already ongoing as the flying debris hit somepony out there. Slats in the kitchen ceiling above each doorway opened up, from which blast doors slammed down to cut off my escape in either direction.

I was trapped!

So, apparently, were the Mite-ys. There were a few more yells I could barely hear, then definitely some cursing, and finally hammering and clanking noises. I was almost too busy frantically looking over the door which blocked my way back to the corridor to notice, when a panel in the other, bigger blast door slid open to reveal... a window.

Wait, what?

My curiosity got the better of me. Why would you put a blast door in and then add a --- oh, the bulletproof kind, thick as hell and multilayered to boot. Still, why would you need or want to look out of a kitchen into...

...into that.

* * * * *

Mite-ys yelled, Mite-ys screamed, Mite-ys bludgeoned the blast doors with sledgehammers and axes. After a few minutes of that, some of them remembered there were a lot of Mite-ys in that room, which meant they also had a lot of dynamite. Some ponies started rounding up sticks and fuse line, while others began checking the walls to find the best point for setting the charges.

They may not have had a heckuva lot on the ball in general, but they'd been the blasting teams for the NCR's railroad-reclamation project. Mite-ys knew how to blow large holes through inanimate objects... given some time and no distractions.

That's when the room lights went down, prompting another round of screaming, and the stage lights went up. So did the once-lush-and-now-threadbare curtains, revealing an old-style dressing screen marked in fleur-de-lis matched to an overstuffed sofa chair and baroque moodlamps. Crimson wallpaper marked in fading silhouettes of overinflated balloons on strings dominated the scene, out into which cantered a happy-go-lucky cowpoke pony in a smart little suit and a tall ten-gallon hat.

He creaked audibly as he ran, even from behind the blast doors. Everypony in the Party Hall turned to stare, their explosive endeavors momentarily forgotten.

Stupid robot show anyways, Whiskey had said.

The Mite-ys had been using this hall for entertainment. I looked back at the bank of switches I'd bumped into, the one prominently marked 'Master Party Control Panel'. I'd flipped, entirely by accident, the levers for "Bachelor Party", 'Five Minute Delay', and 'Emergency Protocols'. My destiny was now in the hooves of a Luna-fuck-me-with-a-barber-pole animatronic show. Meanwhile, the happy-cowpoke robot was speaking to the nervous crowd.

"And now, folks! That gal y'all been waitin' for! The Ponyville Prom-Queen herself! Let's hear it for: PINKIUS von PINK!" Tossing its hat into the air and catching it in its mouth for an introductory wave, the announcer pony galloped off the stage to the right just as a familiar pink one entered slowly from the left.

'Pinkius von Pink' was the pony from all the posters, from the neon sign outside, but instead of those ridiculous fishnet stockings she was now garbed primly in a businesspony's outfit.

TOO primly. The polka-dotted bowtie and purple bowler hat, combined with a lipstick too red even for the likes of her, made the attire an unnatural mockery, which she played upon with burlesque flair as she swung her hips in behind her and addressed the crowd.

"Thank you, fillies and gentlecolts. And now, I would like to favor you, with my world-famous rendition of 'I'm Tired'. The song that closed Hoofington!"

Despite their predicament, some of the Mite-ys actually began cheering the show on, others sitting down to relax with the drinks they'd been chugging beforehoof. Blast doors or not, it was just a show, and they acted like they'd never seen this one. When some tried yelling about getting the blasting taken care of first, they were shouted down and not a few beer bottles got thrown their way. Suddenly nopony was in a big hurry to leave.

"But right before I do, I would like to slip into something a little more... comfortable. With your kind permission...?"

The Party Hall exploded with a ragged chorus of "PERMISSION GRANTED!".

Pinkius von Pink gave a little bow from the neck. "You're too kind." She walked behind the screen, a slightly melancholy melody began to play from somewhere, and much too quickly for a real pony to actually have changed that many clothes, she reappeared... and I facehoofed.

It was the exact outfit from the sign. Feathers, lace, fishnet stockings, bustle --- everything a lusty cowpoke from the oldest days of Appleloosa might have gone for, a complete dance-hall-floozy caricature. The Mite-ys ate it up, hooting and hollering appreciatively. At a robot in lipstick, strutting and gesturing melodramatically across the stage.

[APPROPRIATE MUSIC:] I'm Tired!

Here I stand, the goddess of Desire

Set colts on fire... I have this power.

Morning, noon and night, it's drink and dancing

Some quick romancing... and then a shower.

Here it stood on its hindlegs, affecting a too-severe look of reproach with forehooves on hips:

Stage door johnnies always surround me,

They always hound me, with one request...

Who can satisfy their lustful habits? I'm not a rabbit! I need some rest...

To which line a little bot-bunny responded, dutifully hopping across the stage until Pinkius gave it a boot offstage, prompting gales of laughter. I wasn't quite sure if it was ironic that this audience wouldn't have thought twice about doing the same thing to a real rabbit, so long as they got to shoot and cook it afterwards. Feigning sloth as only a robot --- well, really shouldn't be able to do --- Pinkius flopped backwards into the sofa chair and moaned out her tune.

I'm tired...

Sick and tired of love...

I've had my fill of love...

From below and above!

She rose to begin the stage-strut anew, albeit in a slightly lower key, as though annoyed with the crowd's scattered tittering over the previous line. What a bunch of little colts...

Tired, tired of being admired,

Tired of love uninspired...!

Let's face it, I'm tired!

The tempo picked up slightly, the key a half-octave, the strut not at all. Mouths were openly drooling onto the floor. I began to worry --- this was a lot weirder than it really should be, even given the circumstances. I shouldn't even be able to see this, except somepony had provided a window! If not for this very purpose, of watching this reaction to this show, then why?

I've been with thousands of colts

And all of them dolts!

They sing the same tune.

Now Pinkius became quite a bit more animated, gesticulating at the audience, then to herself, and finally the ceiling...

They start with choccies and jellies

Then jump on your belly

And bust your balloon!

Half of the ceiling panels slid open, forming an overhead checkerboard pattern. From each open panel, a little bouquet of three bright balloons, one yellow and two blue, floated downwards. The stage lighting, suddenly shifting, speared the dimness to pick these out for the benefit of this audience, criminals and murderers all. Each of whom, to a pony, followed upward with their eyes.

Just in time to watch each bouquet drop the grenades tied beneath.

* * * * *

I picked myself up off the floor and shook myself out, checking for damage. Aside from a slight ringing in my ears which was already beginning to fade out, I hadn't seemed to pick up any new bruises despite having just been thrown into a wall by a concussion wave. I'd be dead now if not for the Party Hall's blast door...

...which, of its own accord, slid open.

Ooookaaay, getting a little creepy here. Especially since, whether by malfunction or design, the way back remained a silent and impregnable barrier. It made a certain amount of sense that the kitchen's blast doors were probably intended to protect anypony within from the destruction without, but why would you want the cooks and waiters to exit their safe refuge through a room that had just turned into a killing zone? Had this room doubled as a security redoubt? If so, why wasn't there at least an override terminal for one or both of the doors? Why the window?

It didn't make any sense...

And then a clapping rhythm started up, followed by the start of a bouncy little tune: the mechanical dance troupe was launching into another song. What, had somepony planned to kill off the Hall's own service staff? Was that why the door had opened only in that direction? Who the hell designed this crazy death-trap of a family entertainment venue!?

I hit the floor again, pressing close against the interior wall and squeezing my eyes shut, hoping against hope that I might survive whatever new destruction was about to be unleashed in my direction and hating myself for helplessly cowering there...

...wait.

The verses began to register. My eyes widened, a creeping shiver working itself up and down my mane.

This is your singing birthday-gram, we think you're really swell!

You have our greatest sympathy, your life's a living hell!

So many years have come and gone, we waited for this date,

Because we think you have the chance for doing something great!

Burning curiosity seized my brain. Crawling on my belly to the edge of the doorway, I peeked into the Party Hall and was met by one image I expected and one I didn't. The one I did, was of a room scattered with the sort of charnel mess you'd expect to see if a squad of Steel Rangers had surrounded a camp of bandits and then cut loose with rapid-fire grenade launchers. Torn and dismembered bodies, blood spattered everywhere, random scatterings of blast-amputated limbs and personal belongings.

What I didn't expect --- who could have? --- was the cheerful array of a dozen animatronic performers all looking at, and singing to, me. Not to the room in general. Just me, gawping at them from the kitchen doorway.

We're sorry that there is no cake, we kept some presents, though!

Come out and join the party, 'cause you've got nowhere to go!

We're not about to hurt you, seeing you will be enough!

And since this is your party, we'll refrain from getting rough!

So please come out and say hello, we won't blow you away!

'Cause Pinkie wants to talk to you on this, your special day!

In perfectly choreographed unison, they all cheered and applauded and smiled, none more so than "Pinkie" herself --- itself. After a few moments the chorus line all stepped back into the shadows of the stage, leaving the single bright-pink robopony standing there in feathers, frilled dress, and fishnets. She --- it --- cocked its head at me with a slight whirring noise.

"C'mon out, Cherry! Honest, nopony's going to hurt you!"

Cherry. The damn thing knew my name... That gave me confidence, strangely enough. If somepony'd gone to the trouble of figuring out I was coming here and setting this whole thing up just to talk to me via hijacking these old 'bots --- well, it might be peculiar as all hell, sure, but at least it meant negotiations were on the table. Gift dragons, mouths, and so on. I slowly stood back up and stepped fully into the Party Hall, keeping my head up high and away from my weapons.

The kitchen door slammed shut. I reflexively spun about, only to notice belatedly that the main doors hadn't even re-opened. Now I was trapped in a much larger coffin --- assuming that my gracious host, whoever they were, decided to terminate our interview in hostile fashion. I hoped that anypony willing to go to this much effort had less sanguinary thoughts in mind.

The robopony, or whomever was controlling it, took no apparent notice of my discomfort. Its voicebox giggled annoyingly and then the thing leaped straight up into the air, flung its forehooves out in a mechanized mockery of joy it certainly wasn't capable of feeling, and shouted,

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"

Wait, what?

Bright lights and explosions flashed all around. If I hadn't already vacated my bowels at the Derpy & Dinky, I'd've done so on the spot. As it was, I was too stunned to move as streamers and confetti in brilliant primary colors fluttered down all around me. The ponybot was bouncing around me in a circle, cheering like a complete idiot over and over again. It was just way too much to deal with.

"It's not my damned birthday!" I yelled, rearing my head back. "I don't even know when that is! You sure as hell don't, and even if you did, why the fuck should you care about it any more than I do?!"

The pink automaton stopped, spun to face me, and oooooooohed disapprovingly. "Such language! Well, if you don't know when your birthday is, any day is fine, right?" Its head twisted almost entirely upside down and, from that weird angle, gave me an expectant look which threw me for a bit of a loop.

"Ummm... I guess that makes some kind of sense... to somepony..."

She somehow managed to beam, despite having a rubber face covering muscles of metal and plastic. "See? Just listen to your Auntie Pinkie and you'll do just fine." I snorted disgustedly.

"If you knew my parents, let alone were related to them, you wouldn't be bragging about it, whoever the hell you are. Enough of these games, all right? You obviously have some sort of business with me, so let's get down to it."

It rolled its sapphire-blue eyes --- probably actually inset with real sapphire, which made me wonder briefly how much they might be worth to a trader --- exaggeratedly. "Well, I'm not really your Auntie Pinkie, I guess. I'm more like your Great-Great-Auntie Pinkie, on your mother's side, which is really kind of sad because she didn't have a nice life, and neither did her mother, and even my own sister Inkie ended kind of badly... but it still all ended up with you, so maybe it wasn't so bad for everypony after all!"

Now I was getting angry, despite the bad tactical situation, but bringing my rotten lousy family into this and trying to claim kinship? Whoever was behind this whole setup had miscalculated, badly.

"Not so bad, huh. Sold for a pack of nose-dust, not so bad? Why don't you come out from wherever you're hiding and say that to my face." It wasn't a question, so much as an invitation. But the robot just sighed, visibly drooping.

"I suppose I shouldn't have hoped you might relax a bit. There aren't many places on the Tree where you do, so... I guess I have to show you what's really going on first."

A hole in the ceiling opened up, something dropping down out of it and startling me before I realized it was a mirror. Without even thinking, I looked to see myself, with the Pinkie-bot standing behind and gazing into my reflected eyes.

My sapphire-blue eyes, so closely matched that hers could have been modeled on mine. My rosy-pink hide, several shades redder than her bubble-gum hues. Our manes were the least similar, hers a puffy mass like wrinkled old posters I'd occasionally seen around the wasteland advertising "cotton candy", while mine fell straight down in a wavy waterfall of golden-brown. Dad had called it 'Cherry pie crust'.

Why were my eyes tearing up all of a sudden? Why did I have to think about that memory, right now? I stared back at myself with the eyes of a stranger.

"What - " I started.

"- is wrong with me?" she finished. I snapped around, transferring my stare to her. She grinned wide and giggled. "Go ahead, say anything. It's on the Tree."

"Explosi-" I began.

"-ve decompression is a rotten way to go!" she interrupted, her grin if anything getting even wider. Scarily so. "See? Can I explain it now? Please please please?" The robot bounced in place with a disturbingly endearing expression. My haunches, still bloody with Deagle juice, found the floor of their own volition.

She bounced in place once more and cheered, apparently for my submission to this insanity. "Yay! Okay, it's like this, see? I've always had these little twitches, and shakes, and shivers, that predicted things were going to happen! Nopony could ever figure out why, least of all me, but I called it my Pinkie Sense! As I got older, found some friends, and started having fun wacky adventures with them, it got stronger until there was the whole war and then they made me a Ministry Mare and I threw parties to make everypony happy all over Equestria and then there was this ONE party where a friend of Rarity's sister Sweetie Belle --- you won't have met them --- introduced me to this special imported kind of peppermint stuff the zebras make!"

Half-breathless (could a robot BE breathless?), she stopped in her tracks for a moment and rubbed her chin with a hoof. "Well, made. I dunno if they still do." Then she fixed me with a disturbingly eye-bulging stare. "Which reminds me, Cherry. Promise me right now that you'll NEVER use anything addictive from here forward, never ever FOREVER."

"Um... okay?" If anything, I was more confused than ever. None of this made any sense, not at all, and on top of it I was getting the weirdest feeling that I was talking to the robot instead of whomever was in control. I was losing control of my own grip on reality instead... the filly stomped a hoof.

"Not just 'okie dokie lokie'! That won't do! This calls for a Pinkie Swear!" She sat on her rump opposite to me and began making a series of gestures in time with a rhyming cadence.

"Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!" She pointed to me. "Now you do it!"

I felt like a complete idiot. Well, maybe I'd get out of this fix by giving somepony in a room full of camera monitors a laugh? The motions were unfamiliar and I fumbled through them until Pinkie actually reached across and guided my hooves, surprisingly gently. "Cross my heart... hope to fly... stick a cupcake... in my eye - OW!"

The robot eeped and withdrew her hoof. "Um, sorry about that. That happened to Twilight once too, but she did it without my help. Anyway, that's good enough." She got back to her hooves, while I still had trouble finding mine.

"So anyways," she began again, relaunching the madness, "I'd always been really really aware of things without even trying and had this weird Pinkie Sense thing going on, but WOW SISTER! did that minty stuff really open things up! I could see --- everypony. And what they'd been doing, and what they were going to do, and why, and at first it really scared the heck out of me, until Prince Goldenblood told me I needed to harness that power for the good of all Equestria! So I did!... or, at least, I thought I did. And that's why I don't want you doing the same kind of thing, because in the end I just made everything that much worse instead of stopping the things I should have."

Could mechanical eyes implore? "I looked for the bad ponies and zebras and mules and griffons and everything, but I couldn't stop myself from becoming a bad pony. The more I used, the more of the Tree I saw and the more I tried to prune the branches, but - "

I couldn't stop myself. "Tree? Branches? I don't get it --- or what any of that has to do with me." She shook her head firmly.

"You need to listen right now, this is really really important. It's --- it's maybe the last time I'll have my head together enough to do something like this. You see, everypony --- which isn't inclusive enough, but nevermind that --- everypony moves through time, and everypony makes decisions. Not only that, but everypony WILL make decisions. When you start looking ahead from where you are at any point in reality, you see that these decisions form branches. Like a tree.

"If I focus on any one pony, I can see where those branches go and trace them forward in time as well as back. I can see every decision they have made, and might make, but I can't tell which ones they actually will. So right now, for me, it's closing in on the end of the Zebra War and I have to stop myself from thinking about what's going to happen from day to day, or I'll just make everything worse than it already has to be. This Dance Hall was going to be the local hub for my Ministry of Morale, as close as I could get it to Las Pegasus without getting that Mr. Horse guy all in a snit, but there isn't going to be time now to finish it, so I'm re-purposing this animatronic show for you."

There went my third double-take of the night. "Mr. Horse? Not the - "

"Oh yeah, Mr. Horse! You'll find all that out from him, but I need to tell you about other stuff right now while I still can. So anyways, I looked down my sister Inkie's decision tree and found one where she had a filly, and that filly had a filly, and that filly had you, and then you came here --- which was a REALLY straight part of the Tree that really stood out from everything else nearby! And then I set things up so when you bumped into the Party Panel it would all be set to protect you, take care of all these bad ponies, and have this robot talk to you with every possible response on your part of the Tree accounted for! And that's been a lot of work, believe me! Whew!"

I rubbed my chin thoughtfully, giving the robot a long look, before replying. "And you did all this... why?"

Apparently, a robot can even look authentically wistful if its programmer is willing to take the necessary trouble. "Because you're the only family left to me, Cherry. I can't see much beyond your part of the Tree. It's just too... big. Too much happening, or that could happen. I'm not even really sure you'll ever hear or see this. But it's something I have to do.

"I couldn't save the Cakes, who practically adopted me. I couldn't save or even warn my own parents, or my sisters Inkie and Blinkie. I was so wrapped up in parties and adventures and more parties and spying on other ponies that I never had time for any of them or the old rock farm where I grew up."

I was not about to interrupt to ask how or why somepony would farm rocks, so Pinkie's recorded confession continued unabated.

"They all died, or will die, and it's so unfair that I can see it all but I can't do anything about it. Twilight --- my best friend Twilight --- she won't see me again until I stop taking those Party Mint-als, but I can't because I still need to be able to see what's out there, to do what I still can for everypony, save the few I can. I'm going to lose myself. I'm going to die alone. I don't want to see that, but right now I can't help it. It won't be long now before I slip back into the funk I've been living in for the last few years, and then I won't come out of it until just before the end of it all.

"But I wanted to have one final party, even just for a little bit, even if I can't really be there, with the one pony in my family who might be able to make things a little better again. I want to give you a birthday gift, Cherry. A very special gift that only your Auntie Pinkie Pie can give."

The robot stood and backed away to the stage, a single spotlight resting upon the frilly pink pony whose soul seemed to try and stretch across the years towards me in her gaze.

"I'm so, so sorry for helping to make the world you have to live in. But for today, at least, let me wish you a happy birthday," and here, her face lit up with a distinct glow of playful glee, "I'm sure you'll agree it's been a gasser!"

To my front, right rear, and left rear, three floor tiles dropped slightly and then slid beneath their neighbor, revealing holes that began to sputter with hissing noises. Before I thought to move, each hole disgorged a balloon which quickly swelled outward under the mounting pressure of whatever was being pumped into them --- I was positive it couldn't be good. In just a few seconds they were already too high to leap, and too wide to shove my way between without risk of bursting one.

My mind raced. There had to be some way out of here! Waiting for whatever doom had been planned for me by a centuries-gone lunatic of a Ministry Mare wasn't the way I wanted to leave this plane of existence! Maybe the colors represented a puzzle; the balloon to my front was yellow, while the two forming the base of the triangle-shaped trap were blue. If it was a puzzle then it was a timed one, the hissing gas blowing each one bigger and more translucent, filling them with swirling... dust? That was definitely not good!

The shiny rubber spheres pressed inward on all sides, each growing sheer with internal stress and easily twice my height now. Was it a color-wheel problem? Blue and yellow make green, don't they? The yellow one had to be the key somehow! Maybe if I -

BANG

All three detonated simultaneously. I slumped sideways to the floor, overcome less by the sudden sharp concussion than by the sudden release of pent-up knockout gas. Tiny motes of pink dust floated down, swirling to settle thickly on my coat as though attracted to it, swaddling my motionless form as I drifted into warm, soothing darkness.

* * * * *

Waking up hurt... in a strangely good way. Like my body was reminding me that being alive was substantially preferable to the converse option. It felt as though each cell had somehow been replaced with an brand-new version, or at least had the bumps and dings hammered out of the chassis. And I could still feel the fading whacks from each tiny hammer. Ow ow ow yay.

A slow and careful glance around showed the room to be absolutely clean, not a spot of blood anywhere to be seen. The floor tiles were back in their customary places, the stage doors were closed and its curtains drawn. If not for the neatly-stacked piles of armor, weapons and personal belongings sitting by the wide-open main doors, I might have thought I'd hallucinated the whole surreal battle and the lunacy of its aftermath.

Realizing that I hadn't was much harder to take. I sat up -

bonk

Pinkie's hovering robot head, jostled by the collision, drifted a bit forward and then spun about to face me with a smile.

"Hi! I'm Pink-E! And you must be Cherry! Pinkie Pie told me a lot about you...!"



Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Pinkie Sense (1)(of 5) -- from time to time, strange things seem to happen around you. Each level of this perk escalates the weirdness.

Skill Note: Unarmed (50)