• 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 8: A Horse of Wealth and Taste

CHAPTER EIGHT: A Horse of Wealth and Taste

"Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name."

"I don't get it. Don't these ponies hate you?"

Pink-E bobbed overhead as I slipped from the lukewarm muck of one bathtub into the nice, hot, clean water of its neighbor, leaving the day's blood and mud behind me. In one corner of the relatively spacious bathroom were piled my filthy clothes and saddlebags, looking more like a radroach nest than anything else --- and if I left them there too long, they would be. The Atomic Bronco's "Imperial Suite" was only marginally better than the rest of its flophouse rooms.

I relaxed and closed my eyes, letting the heat soak into my hide for a moment, before answering the little robot. "They're mad because I abused their hospitality on the drink deal, Pink-E. But nopony likes a poor sport, either. It'd be bad business for them to hold a grudge against somepony just because they got lucky and won big. Besides, they're at least getting some of their money back on this room and bath."

"But aren't you worried about being robbed again? I mean, I can keep a Hypno-Eye on the door but -" My lazy hoofwave brushed her concerns aside.

"This room's probably the most secure place in the whole Moohave for me right now. Nopony'll blame the Bronco for my getting mugged outside, but if it happened inside --- well, they'd all think the owners were in on it."

Pink-E rotated slightly and rolled her eyes up, the way a real pony with an actual body might cock her head to ponder something. "Sooooo - " The rest of her words dissolved into "blblblblblblbl" as I ducked below the surface to soak my head and mane.

Ahhhh...

Oh yeah, this definitely beat out the cold-shower-from-a-rusty-bucket that usually passed for wasteland hygiene! Honestly, the only reason I'd shelled out the extra caps for the Imperial Suite, to start with, was the "Double Bubble" bath service that went with it. It started with a long warm-water soak in the first of two side-by-side tubs, good for breaking off the grime anypony tends to accrue just walking and sweating over miles of dusty desert landscape --- the sort of bath you can buy at almost any trading post in the wasteland.

What made it special was the second tub, for which the Bronco's kitchen stoves heated up purified water while you got most of your gunk off in the first. They even threw in a halfway-decent bar of soap. I surfaced with a splash, grabbed the little white lozenge of aloe-scented bliss off its dish, and began scrubbing furiously.

An hour later, the soap was gone and I was happily sprawled in what was left of the suds as the water started to go cold. On top of it, I was pretty sure that the bottom of the tub had developed its own sedimentary layer despite my pre-soak --- I didn't even want to think about what the other tub would look like once it was drained! They could probably stick a couple of dead bloatsprites in it and pass it off to tourists as an Authentic Moohave Wetland Preserve.

It had been a long day of waking up hungover in a dumpster, followed by a lot of hunting, running, shooting and getting maimed. That sort of thing tends to take it out of a buck. If it weren't for the fact that the tub wasn't getting any warmer (and the distinct possibility of drowning), I'd have just gone to sleep right there. Instead, I managed to slide over the side of the tub, squirm in slug-like fashion across the floor, and drag myself up onto the mattress of my overpriced bed before oblivion seized me.

>>> oOo <<<

Adrift in amber. Soothing velvety warmth, so deep and golden that light itself seemed to liquefy and drift along with me. Another drowning dream.

Except that I could breathe just fine. In... out. Lungs full of liquid heat, like being back in the womb. Throat and sinuses burning with pure, cleansing fire on each inhalation. A familiar taste rolled along my tongue...

Whiskey. I was drowning in sweet, golden whiskey. With a tinge of honey?

And no Pink-E to bug me about it! ...is this heaven?

I concentrated on the taste, letting my eyelids droop to half-mast. So sharp, so sweet, so relaxing...

...too relaxing. Something was wrong. Something was always wrong.

I craned my neck in all directions, trying to find the threat I knew had to be out there, but saw nothing in the amber depths. Which made the feeling worse; what could be out there, coiled and waiting amidst the drifts of thick, hazy film? The hackles of my mane started to prickle, sweat trickling up individual hairs and into the whiskey, intermingling fear and alcohol. Motes of sweat-fed salt began to swirl around me, a miniature snowstorm further obscuring my vision.

Horsepaddling now, turning in place, trying to see behind me. Nothing there --- there! What was that?! A shadow darted. Didn't it? The swirling salt eddies accelerated in time with my desperate attempts to see in every direction at once. More shadows. Quick, irregular movements.

I tried to think. Salt stung my eyes, whiskey was on my tongue, in my breath, in my blood... focus? What's focus? Focus, hocus, pocus, locus, okie, dokie, Loki! Movement! Where?!

More and more shadows began to take form, zipping back and forth across my vision, coalescing, advancing... I started paddling backwards. My only chance now was to escape the notice of whatever monsters were home to this honey-flavored hell. But the salt from my sweat left a telling trail, like white snowflakes, glistening and floating in ever-widening whorls. It let anything and everything know there was a frightened, unarmed, unarmored, could-be-eaten-in-one-bite little pony right here...

My tail bumped into something with a soft tump. I whirled, saw the thick glass barrier, the giant black label on its other side, the light shining through its reversed white lettering:

PARADE

~~~

made with Genuine Paradore Honey

~~~

imported by Red Carriage Bottling, Ltd., Boneyard, NCR

Up, down, left, right, the expanse of impenetrable glass swept away in all directions, outlining the humongous bottle imprisoning me. Suddenly my point of view shifted outside to look in on the horrified little pony still trapped behind, pounding uselessly on, the glass. Thousands of shadows shifted behind him, ink blots from a doctor's test, resolving into one and then dozens and then hundreds of paradores. Buzzing, surging, grinning, rapidly filling the bottle, while he flailed and screamed until no hope or whiskey remained...

<<< oOo >>>

My eyes slowly creaked open on their own accord. GODSDAMNIT. I didn't used to have fucked-up dreams like this --- hell, this time I wasn't even drunk! How unfair is that?!

Pink-E hovered overhead, her ever-present smile every bit as annoying as I remembered it. It expanded to a grin as her visual receptors verified that I was, in fact, not as dead as my body was convinced I should be.

"Morning, Cherry! Time to get up and at 'em!"

At WHO? My brain rustily engaged first gear, then ground its way into second. Oh, right...

* * * * *

First order of business was picking up Tag-End at the Kingdom Theatre, where to my surprise he still was. With his slave collar having been used to keep Bitter Tart in line for the party-crash last night at the Embassy, he could have slipped out and away anytime. The King looked at least as disgusted with Tag for not taking the chance, as with me for coming back to collect him.

Or maybe it was because, having hastily washed my shirt and saddlebags in last night's bathwater, I was dripping all over his nice polished floor.

"Told 'im I wasn't gonna keep 'im here. That he could go whenever he wanted, if he wanted. But he just sets there, like a dog'r somethin', waitin' fer ya." He briefly, needlessly, ran a steel comb through his forelock, as though to demonstrate that his hair was a more important subject of concern. "G'wan. Take 'im an' get gone."

Tag opened his mouth to say something, prompting The King to turn his glare back on him. "Little less conversation, a little more action." I tossed the lime-green buck his collar, waiting while he clicked it into place without another word.

Pacer was waiting for me on the way out, hoof presented for payment of yesterday's services rendered and a grin plastered across his muzzle. It faded into a grimace as I reminded him, point by point, just who'd had what working relationship with whom and when. We started arguing back and forth, until The King stepped in and cut Pacer's exorbitant price in half just to get rid of us.

For that kind of money, I'd never been happier to be kicked out of anywhere!

* * * * *

Five minutes later, our little group approached the barbed-wire and steel gates of the Strip's sole checkpoint into the Strip, its complement of big blue box-like guards industriously checking over the only other pony trying to get in.

The well-dressed unicorn seemed greatly offended at having his worth put into question, irritatedly lashing his purple tail back and forth. "I say! Do I look like some manner of street urchin? Why, this suit alone cost more than you're demanding I prove!"

The 'bot overseeing the process was unmoved. "REQUIREMENT FOR ENTRY EQUALS A CASH VALUE OF FIVE THOUSAND BOTTLE CAPS. PERSONAL PROPERTY DOES NOT COUNT TOWARDS THIS AMOUNT. PLEASE CO-OPERATE FULLY WITH -"

"I heard you the first fifty times!" shouted the unicorn. "And I've told you fifty times, I left my cash in my hotel room just a few blocks past this very gate! If you simply let me go get it -"

"YOU ARE NOW BLOCKING TRAFFIC. REMOVE YOURSELF FROM THE LINE."

"What?!" The unicorn turned to glare at us. "To make way for this ruffian? Why, that slave of his isn't even worth -"

The robot shifted forward on its big single wheel, placed its claw-hands against the unicorn's snappily-attired chest, and shoved, sending the surprised fop stumbling backwards. "FURTHER IMPEDIMENT OF TRAFFIC WILL RESULT IN THE USE OF DEADLY FORCE. HAVE A NICE DAY."

I stepped forward, opened my saddlebags, and let the 'bot's sensors scan the bundle of neatly-stacked bottlecaps I'd recovered from Captain Gallant's body last night. All five thousand, six hundred and forty-seven that were left from my original fortune, which I tried very hard not to think about.

The unicorn, still brushing off his expensive suit, goggled as the robots opened the gate and stood aside.

"GOOD DAY SIR. WELCOME TO THE NEW PEGAS STRIP. ENJOY YOUR STAY."

As we started through the gate, he leapt forward and grabbed my shoulder. "Please, sir! I'm in Room Eighty-Seven at the Velvet Stocking --- I implore you, if you'd be so kind as to bring my satchel to me, I'll happily grant you half of the funds therein! I simply cannot miss tonight's banquet!"

I stared at his restraining hoof until, sheepishly, he withdrew it. "And how'm I supposed to get into your room? Ask nicely?" He hastily pressed a golden key, set with a small ruby, into my saddlebag.

"Of course, of course, silly of me! Now run along!" Even half-begging, he couldn't avoid being condescending. I supposed that maybe it was just his upbringing, which was probably the most charitable thought I'd had about anypony in a good month or so. He stepped back and waved. "And do gallop back soonest!"

Once through the gate, the fop gazing worriedly after my departing flank, I let a smile steal across my face and a bounce slip into my step. Pink-E positively beamed. "Gee, Cherry, it's nice to see you finally starting to help other ponies out!"

I couldn't help but laugh. "Are you kidding?! We just got a satchel full of that buck's money AND a free room at the poshest joint on the whole Strip! Did you really think I was just going to go fetch the thing for half that and NO room? I can not believe my luck this week!"

Pink-E's face shifted directly from "pleased" to "crestfallen", signifying that I'd successfully popped her precious little bubble... but for some reason, I didn't feel so good about getting the barb in. Something about her expression, the way the light seemed to drain away --- and why am I feeling sorry for a robot? I turned away, distracting myself with my first good look at the Strip itself.

It was just one street, stretching away into the distance, but it was the most glorious street in the world.

No cracks marred the shimmering black asphalt, no wrecked vehicles loomed along its length. Every fifty yards, there was a trash receptacle, as well as an alert police 'bot ready to remove anypony who publically acted like trash. Its adjoining blocks were a checkerboard pattern of theme-park fiefdoms, each casino packed with bright neon and flashing lights to match its individual style, surrounded by tasteful kiosk-courtesans and street-performance jesters.

All except one --- Lucky Chance, the veritable original sin of New Pegas.

It literally towered over the strip, casting its shadow long and far, a sharp white spire whose tip neatly speared a red disk rotating half-a-hundred lengths above, just as it had for the hundreds of years since it was built. All around its grounds were neatly kept, but nopony lingered near to enjoy the walkways or gardens, and no shouting vendors disturbed its solemn serenity. A huge marquee, just outside the main doors, touted a science symposium hosted by some egghead whose name had dropped so many letters that it read "Doc... Who". Who, indeed, would remember anything about him now?

They say poisonous insects and whores alike pretty themselves up to attract their prey. But at least New Pegas left it up to you to pick your poison, and to choose how you got fucked. Yep... definitely my kinda town... I took my first step past the famous "Welcome" sign.

Before I could take another, we were surrounded by a swarm of police 'bots, each monitor screen bearing the face of a mirthless guard-pony. Even Pink-E seemed stunned:

"Um... this is a surprise party... right...?"

* * * * *

Word was, nopony had ever been inside the Lucky Chance Casino in the centuries since the bombs fell.

"Well, howdy again, friend! Haven't seen you since Goodsprings!"

I was pretty sure VIC-20 didn't count. Its permanently-smarmy cowpony face could probably be installed as a program on any of Horse's pet 'bots, but this one still had the trail dust on its wheel hubs and bullet dings in its chassis which told of a long-haul journey. Not only did that pretty well narrow down which specific 'bot this was, but it also lent a little authenticity to its friendly western-frontier façade... sort of.

Its guard-faced buddies, on the other hoof, had bodily herded the lot of us to the casino's front entryway, waited just long enough for its doors to slide open, and thrown us in. It all happened so fast that only about a half-dozen passersby had to pick their jaws off the ground before the doors slammed shut once more.

Now here we were, Tag and I still getting back on our hooves while Pink-E spun in place oohing and ahhing at the casino's silent, dusty splendor. Ignoring the decor for the moment, I gave her a dirty look and then turned my attention to VIC.

"So. What's this all about, 'bot?"

It flipped one arm up, gesturing to the bank of elevators set into the huge red column dominating the center of the floor. "Boss wants t'seeya, amigo. Sez he's sorry an' all 'bout the rawhide treatment, but the buck's powerful antsy about gettin' business done with ya."

"Yeah?" I arched an eyebrow, more on the likelihood that Horse --- or whoever he really was --- was watching through a camera. The 'bot wouldn't care if I stood there and made silly faces all day. "Well, we were on his business outside when he had us dragged in. Does he want his chip back or not?"

The 'bot shrugged, still playing the cowpony role to the hilt. "Ain't my business what his business is, friend. But I'll mindja t'get a move-on, pronto. Time's a-wastin'!"

Having had my fill of faux frontier friendliness, I gestured for Tag and Pink-E to follow in the direction we'd been pointed.

It must've been one hell of a place in its time, and it still was. Everything was well-maintained --- no peeling wallpaper, no cracks in the walls. Even the carpet seemed like it had been replaced sometime in the last thirty years or so. Still, nopony but us had walked here in at least that long, if the trail left by our hoofprints in the dust was any indication.

Echoing through the emptiness from the casino's public-address system came a groaning, mournful dirge --- which, after a few moments, became recognizable as an extremely slow play of what would normally have been a rather bouncy tune. The great edifice's power reactors must finally have been running dry, which might also have explained the exceptionally dim lighting throughout. So while we stood there in the gloom waiting for the elevator to arrive, the melody ground interminably along:

A horse is a horse, of course of course...

And no-one can talk to a horse, of course...

That is, of course, unless the horse...

Is the famous Mister Ed...

*ding* The doors slid open to admit us.

I didn't feel at all nervous as we piled into an elevator with an unknown maintenance history that would take us up dozens of floors, possibly suffer a critical structural failure, and plummet right back down, not a bit! Nevermind that Mr. Edwin R. Horse might just cut the power off and suffocate us in here for petty spite on the pony who'd failed to get his "sentimental" poker chip...

The doors closed quietly behind.

Go right to the source, and ask the horse...

He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse...

He's always on a steady course...

Talk to Mister Ed...

With a soft whir, as opposed to the horrific grinding of neglected machinery I'd expected, the car smoothly accelerated upward, the funereal song now playing from a little speaker hidden somewhere behind the velvety red paneling.

People yakkity-yak a streak...

And waste your time of day...

But Mister Ed will never speak...

Unless he has something to say...

For all I knew, we were going to meet the real Horse, still alive as a ghoul whose brain was slowly deteriorating over the centuries. It would certainly explain how he'd been able to put his robot army together: he'd built it to start with. Wielding that kind of hammer must have made it easy to forge his little oasis of civilization between the lands held by the NCR and Herd... and what the hell was Pink-E humming now?!

"The girl, named Pink-a-mena, goes walkin'..." I did my best to ignore her and try to make sense of the slow-dragging elevator music. Why was Horse playing this for us? Frankly, it sounded kind of stupid.

A horse is a horse, of course of course...

The elevator stopped and slid open just as smoothly as it had started, revealing four more of the humorless guard 'bots. "THIS WAY, SIRS." Herded again. Well, whatever was going on here, it didn't seem like the prelude to an execution --- unless Horse liked things personal and up-front. I supposed I had to respect him for at least that much.

And this one will talk 'til his voice is hoarse...

I sure hoped so. I had a lot of questions whirling through my brain as our little group was hustled along a curving corridor, down a short flight of stairs, and up to a huge monitor screen easily a pony-length across. It had so many controls and instrument panels attached that it probably took a three-week training course to figure it out. Pretty impressive, though. So were the eight other guard 'bots boxing us in to either side, with the first four blocking off any retreat. I could hardly see any of the rest of Horse's opulent room past the wall of blue metal.

You never heard of a talking horse...?

Now that was dumb enough to make me snort in irritation. Who never heard of a talking horse? HELLO! Maybe the original songwriter had been trying for irony or... something.

Then listen to this...!

The monitor flickered to life right on cue, providing the surprisingly sharp and colorful image of a well-groomed yellow earth pony, looking darned good for his age. The music cut out as quick and sharp as if it had been excised by a scalpel.

"I am Mister Ed. Edwin Robert Horse, Chief Executive Officer of Robronco Robotics and Industrial Services, Incorporated, to be precise."

His black mane, cut short and styled back with a part to one side, glistened with just enough hair creme to maintain its form and sparkle without ostentation. A pencil-thin mustache graced (as such mustaches rarely did on anypony) his upper lip, which curled beneath dark brown eyes to create a playful yet --- dangerous --- smile. Perhaps the "madness" option wasn't entirely unlikely.

The image waved a nonchalant hoof. "No need to introduce yourself. You are, of course, Mister Dead Shot, formerly of Vagabond Van Lines, a small but reliable service which various of my associates have, in the past, made use of when your father was still alive. My belated condolences, by the way, on your loss."

I kept my mouth closed, waiting with a raised eyebrow and exaggerated patience. His concern over my father's death was much less interesting than hearing that he only knew me by my preferred nickname. That would look much better on a letter of recommendation, if I could cadge one out of him...

"Directly to business, then. I like that." Horse's image smiled, and then disappeared, to be instantly replaced by a detailed map of most of the Moohave Wasteland with New Pegas smack in the middle.

"This, Mister Shot, is my domain. You may have noticed in your extensive travels, however, that my domain is being encroached upon by a variety of rogue elements --- chiefly, but far from only, the New Coltifornia Republic and the so-called Herd." I nodded, not without some sense of relief. As long as he was monologuing about something other than his chip... and then, of course, he started talking about exactly that.

"While you may not realize the why of it, your failure to retrieve a single poker chip has made my position rather more difficult to maintain. Nor did the news of your little massacre in Big Rock City, however effective it may have been in demonstrating your simplistic brutality, bring me any solace in that regard. May I trust that, at a minimum, you determined the identity of the thief employing the Cossacks, prior to their liquidation?"

It was probably not the brightest idea I've ever had to snark off at the most powerful buck in three hundred miles, but...

"All you wanted was his name? Luna's balls, I knew that a day or so after I took your contract." That got his image back up on the screen, with one slim eyebrow arching upward and his smile dissolved away, but I was on a roll. "Got a working description the day after that. And the only reason his head isn't on the floor in front of me is because the entire Slimm Pass was blown to hell right in front of me by a bunch of Diamond Dogs - "

He cut me off, sharply. "I'm not interested in hearing your barbaric yawping, Mister Shot, or about whom you wish to blame for your failures. As you clearly don't have the chip or know where it is, I simply want to know WHO took it. I can pay you for the primary portion of your contract on that basis, although of course no bonuses shall be forthcoming."

A sudden cold shiver down my mane prompted me to steal a look at Tag, who was fidgeting like crazy. Something was wrong. Something was always wrong, but that shiver --- this was bigger than normal. What was it? None of the guard 'bots seemed to have moved. Horse's face on the big screen grew loomingly impatient. "Mister Shot, time is of the essence here. I would like to re-acquire my chip, you would like to get paid; what is the delay?"

Out of habit by this point, I checked to see what new disaster Pink-E was -

Gone. She was gone. I blinked in surprise, a move not unnoticed. "Is there a problem, Mister Shot?"

Now I felt a lot more nervous, as I turned back to address my electronic (g?)host. Maaaybe it would be a bad idea to mention the hyperactive floating robot head I was responsible for, possibly wreaking havoc somewhere in the very sanctum sanctorum of the most powerful pony in the wasteland?

"No... no, sorry, just..." I gave Tag a side-kick to the barrel, raising a surprised squawk as he stumbled sideways and barely avoided collision with a guard 'bot. "...stop fidgeting, Tag, you're distracting me!"

Horse actually seemed to buy it, though that did nothing to improve his mood. "The name, Mister Shot...?"

"Benny!" I blurted. "Black hair, brown eyes, white hide, checkered leisure suit - "

The computerized apparition actually went visibly pale for a moment. Then again, given what I'd seen with Pink-E's emotion-laden, pony-like programming... "Benny. Of course it would be Benny. I - well. It seems I may owe you something of an apology, Mister Shot."

There was a long pause while the visage of Edwin R. Horse visibly mused over my information. "I don't like this, but the factors have not substantially changed. The board requires rearranging, but forcing Benny's hand just now would risk - " He stopped, narrowing his eyes, and gave me a shrewd look.

"Allow me to --- incentivize this matter for you. As promised, I shall pay you the reward allotted for the termination of Benny and his hoodlums, but as the final thief you remain contracted to terminate still has my poker chip, I do not consider the matter concluded. Retrieve the chip Benny stole from me, Mister Shot, and I shall pay you double the bonus fee, whether or not Benny meets the end he deserves. I can always have my robots take care of that particular errand myself, should circumstances later warrant."

Ten thousand caps? My greedy little pony danced through piles of bottlecaps, laughing and singing like an idiot. Five thousand in my pouches, ten thousand for finishing the job, and at least another five waiting in the gate-fop's satchel at the Velvet Stocking? I could live like a brahmin baron on that kind of dosh!

So I answered like an idiot: "Sure. I'll get right on that."

Horse waggled a hoof at me from his monitor. "Ah-ah-ah, Mister Shot. Not just yet. Benny can wait for now. He has esconced himself within the casino I granted him charge of, wallowing in --- whatever ponies of his ilk tend to wallow in. I take it you've heard of the Trots?" I nodded. Who in the wasteland hadn't?

"Give him a little time to relax, to let down his guard, before beginning inquiries into the chip. In the meantime..." Here he paused, putting his hooves together under his chin in what struck me as a peculiar fashion. "I should like you to add another contract or two to your portfolio, regarding matters which require a stallion of your, shall we say, tenacity. After all, many other ponies would have simply given up chasing Benny the moment he entered the Strip."

I gave my best attempt at a businesslike look. "Please, do go on. I find myself... enthralled."

He chuckled, closing his eyes for a moment. "Very well. I'd like to assess the possibility of extending our mutual relationship into the long term. You will receive top value for your services, appropriate bonuses for performance above and beyond reasonable expectation, and I'll even grant you the use of the Lucky Chance's 'Celestial' suite for the duration of your employment. Or... we can terminate our relationship here, and you can be on your way."

I thought about that for a minute. Actually, more like a second. The little pony in my brain had coated all those bottlecaps in a fetlock-deep layer of pink cake frosting and was trying to swim around in it. "Sounds good."

"As you may recall, I mentioned certain minor factions around the Moohave which I consider to be troublesome to my personal objectives. I would like you to act as my agent in assessing their true intents and capabilities."

My ears flicked back, though I didn't really find the offer offensive. Maybe there was a fly in the room. "You want me to be your spy?"

Another chuckle, this time combining the hoof-wave. Maybe there was a program at work here? Horse sure looked healthy for a ghoul... "No no, Mister Shot. 'Spying' is much too strong a word... and 'observer' would be too light. 'Envoy' would more suit your intended role. Sound out these factions and, if they turn out to be amenable, offer them an alliance on my behalf. When the NCR and Herd finally decide to start shoving one another, everypony else will be caught in the middle --- either as cannon fodder, or latent threats to be destroyed along the way. Allied, we shall find our situation far more resilient than if we each stand alone."

I rubbed my chin. "And... what if they prove not to be amenable?"

That imposing frown returned. "Then I'm afraid that would constitute a 'loose end', Mister Shot. You seem like the sort of pony who excels at dealing with... loose ends."

The screen flickered twice, flashing the large Moohave map and then zooming in to the northeast before resolving into a highly-detailed overhead view of hangars, barracks, runways, control tower...

"Nellie Base. The Zoomers, then?" I felt a frown of my own coming on.

"I employ couriers for simple fetch-me-this errands, my good pony. Do we have a deal, or do we not?"

That took some thought. Nopony in their right mind went near Nellie Air Force Base, and with good reason: every pegasus in the Moohave was clustered up behind its fences and had a habit of strafing anypony who presented themselves. If you trotted a little too close, you found yourself on a gunnery range as the Moving Target of the Day. Not being a talkative bunch, the Zoomers wouldn't even have a name except for the 'zoom' they made during attack runs.

But I did consider myself a pretty darned sneaky pony. The approach to the old base was so full of blast craters that, during a moonless or cloudy night... hm. Plus I was pretty sure that if I walked now, that ten-thousand-cap carrot was going to be yanked away. I could spend a decade hunting down bounties and never get that far ahead. It might be longer if I gave Horse a reason to hold a grudge. If I wanted to retire earlier rather than much, much later...

I Iooked up at the screen. "Mister Ed --- if I can call you that --- I believe we have a deal."

* * * * *

Whoa.

I just stood there, blinking in disbelief for a good ten minutes after leaving the elevator, while Tag-End ran around the floor squealing like a filly with a rolling series of orgasms.

"Eeeeee! Omigoshomigoshomigoshomigoshlookit this! It's got its own water purifier that makes ICE! And this game room! Lookit all these old video games --- Pac-Mare, Discordians, P*Bert, wow! --- they even WORK! Is that a dishwasher?! Omigoshomigoshomigosh...!"

The 'Celestial Suite' wasn't just a couple of rooms on a particular floor. It WAS the floor.

From the outside, anypony could see that the Lucky Chance was built as a tall spire that narrowed in the middle before flaring back out again as you got closer to the rotating disk near the very top. Set just below the disk mounting, this floor was the biggest the hotel had to offer and practically re-defined the word "spacious". It was one huge open area, bounded by curving windows that canted outwards at alarming angles. A few strategically-positioned support beams here and there, gussied up as planters for a variety of healthy, well-maintained ferns, were the only things belying the notion that the hotel above balanced solely on the elevator housing we'd just exited.

Here the dim lighting didn't matter: with nothing to stand in its way, warm daylight flooded the entire floor. Tag was already playing with the window cover controls, automated bulkheads rising from the floor to block off individual sections and then dropping away again. "This is AWESOME!"

A familiar humming broke me out of my stupor in a way that Tag's enthusiasm couldn't. I slowly turned, fixing Pink-E with a stare while she carefully nosed the air-duct cover back into place. "I love that trick! It never fails!"

"What are you doing?!" I hissed. "This is the last buck in the world we want pissed off at us, and you just go running --- floating --- whatever! Around?!"

She tossed her head with a smile that I'm sure would have been winning to somepony else. "I've been spying! It's kind of what Pinkie built her whole Ministry on, that and parties, but parties are SO much more fun! There's candy and cake and croquet and kumquats, well not usually kumquats really but - "

"PINK-E!"

There was that innocent eyelash-batting again. "Yes, Cherry?"

And just as before, it only annoyed me further. "Knock that off. I want to know where you went and why."

Her eyes de-focused, the pupils contracting to dots as the rest of her face went slack. A series of beeps sounded, followed by one word: "CLASSIFIED." Well... that was new. A moment later, she was right back to her hyperactive self. " - but who likes kumquats anyway? That's just a great word, I love to use it! Just like 'picklebarrel'! Picklebarrel-kumquat, picklebarrel-kumquat...!"

I sighed, shook my head, and decided it would be less a waste of my time to do a round of our new digs, see what was what. Tag had already discovered how to use the joystick and buttons on one of the gaming cabinets, and was industriously forcing a tiny animated pony with a giant rubber spring for a torso to jump off a surreal mountain of colored blocks to its cursing death. Every time it did, he laughed like a colt and did it again.

Well, at least it keeps him out of trouble...

It didn't take long to do the rest of the survey: it was one huge floor with no walls.

That didn't mean there weren't divisions, after a sort. The floor's layout was wedge-like, each wedge serving a different purpose and delineated by different carpet patterns, the furnishings low-slung and designed to look organic to the floor itself. The bed, for example, was a single large mattress bordered with teak, sunk into its wedge like a jewel in a setting. Fresh linen and a comforter completed the vision of pre-War modernism.

The kitchen's sink, water-purifier, dishwasher and oven were all nestled into the side of the elevator housing, with a low-set table and fluffy red pillows nearby where you could eat like civilized folk. One side of the tabletop was hinged to flip open, revealing plates, bowls, glasses, and a decadent range of silverware.

Just how many kinds of salad fork do you need, when you can just eat right out of the bowl anyways?

The final wedge took up almost half the floor for entertainment and leisure. Here the elevator housing held a deep-set monitor screen with command panel and keypad, between which and the kitchen appliances rested a well-stocked liquor cabinet. A huge sprawling white couch, surrounded by pillows, faced the monitor as though several ponies might sit there watching it for hours on end. Beyond that was another low-slung table identical to that in the kitchen, but this one held a variety of simple boardgames and similar diversions. One box stuck out in particular, the artwork on the front showing a pretty pink filly shouting "Cloud-Seven!" while her opponent, a blue colt, held his hooves to his head in feigned shock and yelled back "You rained on my Cumulus!".

I couldn't see the appeal.

Just before getting back around to the elevator door, a smaller door in the housing wall revealed both toilet and shower as well as emergency stairwell access. And that concluded the tour.

Back along the far windows, though --- that's where the real entertainment was. A little safety rail reminded oneself that, unless one was a pegasus, one would be a dumb sonovabitch to try leaning against the glass even if it WAS an inch thick and set firmly into steel and concrete brackets. Beyond that glass...

...beyond that glass, the sun illuminated all of New Pegas in a shroud of breathtaking glory.

Straight down, flowing away beneath my hooves towards the south, was the Strip and all its casinos, looking like somepony had brought back every cheesy Hearth's Warming Eve tree decoration from two hundred years ago and smashed them up to make a river of flash and glitter. At the river's headwaters just to the north sat sprawling grey-brown Freemane, with the Atomic Bronco's neon clashing at a distance against the Kingdom Theatre's bright white bulbs.

On the west bank of that river sat McMaren Airfield, an NCR passenger dirigible slowly drifting in to moor up at its tall static-discharge antenna. To the east, shacks and shanties of drifters and the truly destitute scattered like leaves along the cracked-asphalt flow of the old Imperial 93. I could barely make out the shadows of the little trading post where the 93 met the 95 and, off to its left, the cratered landscape which marked the borders of Zoomer territory.

For as long as I worked with Mr. Horse, this place and its glorious view were all mine. Maybe I'd have to give it up, someday, but for right then and the foreseeable future...

I'm finally home.

As it would later turn out, having a foreseeable future kind of sucks.

* * * * *

When you've lived all your life traveling the wastelands, you may see a lot of strange things and meet stranger people, but you never really feel under-dressed. Under-prepared, under-armed, under-fed, sure --- but nopony really cared much about whether you wore your stormchaser just so, or whether the color of your leathers clashed with your tribal rite-of-passage tattoos.

From the moment I walked into the Velvet Stocking, renowned even in the NCR as the Silver Slipper Society's self-proclaimed "last bastion of high culture", I felt like the rancid-burrito fart somepony'd left floating around a flower bouquet.

I might've had a bath last night and (more or less) washed my kit this morning, but for all the difference that made I could just as easily have spit on my hoof. Not only did I feel like scum, but everypony walking past gave me the briefest look saying so, each glance communicating an encyclopedia's worth of disdain. I could only imagine what the reaction might have been, had I brought along a pink rubber-skinned bot with a penchant for overly-loud cheeriness, or perhaps a surly teenage gangbanger wearing explosives on his neck.

All right, I decided firmly, narrowing my focus to the concierge's desk on the opposite side of the lobby, let's get this shit over and done with.

Not that I cared overmuch, but I had to admit the lobby was gorgeous. With a floor alternating between white marble and black basalt, light-grey walls absorbing the glare from the crowd's finery, and alabaster carvings depicting --- whatever the hell modern art was trying to depict --- it was a refined setting for refined ponies to look and act refined within. Mares in colorful satin gowns and stallions in sharp tuxedos gracefully glided through careful social rotations, each couple and coterie talking in bright, animated patterns that spoke of everything unimportant, without committing to anything of value.

If I'd cared about the historical impact the newest spring fashions were having on the redaction of haute couture au moderne or similar nonsense, I might have felt something other than mutual disgust.

All that money, all that power, and what do they do with it? Spend it all impressing each other with how much money and power they have to blow on frivolous crap. I may just have been a wee bit jealous --- would I behave any differently in their horseshoes? Probably not. But, I assured myself (and not at all smugly), at least I would have to earn it first.

My hooves clopped loudly across the slick marble flooring, their noise surrounded by an island of silent, non-directed disapproval. With each step, another pony managed to avoid me without looking like they'd meant to. Why, to do so would be to give offense, and to do that, you'd first have to consider a pony to be worth offending! Fortunately the only thing I really cared about was getting that satchel of caps --- and whatever else might be loose about the gate-fop's room.

I wasn't here to impress, or be impressed.

As I bellied up to his desk, the cyan-maned concierge turned his head the bare minimum necessary to make eye contact, nose firmly upturned to make his own point about who was supposed to impress whom. His alabaster mask, with its whorls of silver inlay and bordering filigree, could have qualified as an objet d'art in its own right.

"A-hrm... yaz. May I --- direct you somewhere...?" He didn't have to add perhaps a distant bog? for me to hear it.

"Yeah. Room Eighty-Seven."

His half-closed-with-disinterest eyelid never wavered. "I'm afraid access to our guests' quarters is strictly relegated to - " I tossed the fop's golden key onto the desk with a clink.

"Guests and their authorized acquaintances, presumably." It might have been impolitic of me to grin while his muzzle puckered like he'd bitten a fresh brahmin turd, but it was pretty damn satisfying.

* * * * *

The seventh room on the eighth floor of the most expensive casino in New Pegas was actually something of a letdown, after the Celestial Suite. Oh, it was clean and well-kept and luxuriously-appointed, sure. It even had intact paintings on the walls, though nothing pre-War of course. Everything was polished and shiny. All in all, it was... nice.

It might have been unfair to compare an average room at the Stocking to the best the Chance had to offer, but I wasn't exactly an impartial critic, either. What I was, at the moment, was a damned thief taking advantage of the desperation of a rich buck.

The promised satchel was lying right there on the bed. Flipping it open and doing a very quick count produced an inner squee from my little greedpony: there had to be at LEAST ten thousand caps' worth of NCR bills! Even accounting for local exchange rates!

MINE!

It was the work of a moment to stuff the satchel into a saddlebag and start for the door. With a room like the Celestial to crash at, there was no reason to stick around the Stocking any longer than I had to.

Mmm... but, so long as I was here, what harm in seeing what else the buck'd brought to Pegas? I muzzled up on my screwdriver and had the room's wardrobe open two bobby pins later. Oooooh, we've got a patron of the arts, here! A variety of rococco statuettes occupied the lower shelf, bright and gaudy ponies in innocently cavorting poses, with eyes and cutie marks outlined in dozens of tiny diamonds...

Wa-ha-ha-hah!

* * * * *

Giddy as a filly on her first hit of Dash, I left the elevators behind and trotted happily across the lobby toward the doors and my new life as a Very Important Pony. Like they say, money makes the buck --- not that any of these society-minglers knew me to be any different yet. They kept up their delicate dance of denied existence, smiling and nodding to one another knowingly. I'll be needing a nice suit, to start, maybe a professional grooming, and in no time I'll be snobbing most of these bastards right back at their own game...

Being lost in idle daydreams never seemed to work out well for me. Just as I reached the entrance a pair of tuxedoed unicorns arrived, gabbing at one another and not bothering to look where they were going. Granted, I hadn't been either, but with all the avoidance behavior, I'd gotten somewhat used to everypony else getting out of my way.

WHAM!

All three of us ended up in a pile of squawking indignation --- "Oof!" "Here now!" "I say!" --- at which collision a number of the less-politic socialites began chuckling and tittering. I was just about to try barging my way past when I recognized Gate Fop. Unfortunately, in the same instant, he also recognized me. Both of his hooves grabbed my left foreleg and began pumping it up and down vigorously.

"Ah, my good pony, I'm ever so glad I was able to catch up with you! By the by, I don't believe I've introduced myself! Good Fortune, of the Del Arroyo Fortunes, and this gentlecolt with me is Fair Weather, an excellent friend of mine in long standing!" The other stallion, pale blue with white mane, nodded politely enough. "By a stroke of great luck, Fair stumbled upon me waiting at the gate for you and vouchsafed my entry! Isn't that grand?" I nodded at him, trying to edge around and make for the doors. All I needed was to get back to the Chance before he got to his rooms...

"And here you are, dear fellow, returning at last with my satchel, no doubt! Never fear, I'm a buck of my word! I promised you half the contents for your little errand and though I've no longer need of it, I won't hear of giving you one bit less..." He stepped forward, flipped open my right-side saddlebag, looked inside, and his joyful exuberance died on the spot.

My other saddlebag held his satchel. This side held his statuettes.

"...ah. I see you decided to bring everything else of value from my room as well."

Fair Weather said nothing, fixing me with a stare which said much more.

The words were out of my mouth before they crossed through my brain: "I didn't put those in my bag!"

Fortune snapped out of his momentary shock, rounding on me with an accusing hoof outstretched and a glow starting to form along his horn: "THIEF!"

That line NEVER works...

I bolted into the crowd, weaving my way through and tossing the heavy statuettes behind to lighten my load as I went. Fortune galloped after, screaming in horror and diving to catch each bit of artwork in turn before they could shatter to powder on the marble floor. In short order he was juggling two of them in his hooves, and another with his horn's telekinetic powers, while Fair Weather stood back looking amused.

And now, with Fortune and his Fair Weather friend suitably distracted, I can get out of - ACK!

Casino security was one step ahead of me. The front doors slammed shut and five gilt-masked ponies, two of them unicorns, advanced with stylish white batons at the ready. I skidded to a halt as the crowd scattered.

Oooookay, not getting out that way... Looking back behind me, Good Fortune had caught the last statue with his tail, and was somehow managing to balance all four at once while glaring indignantly at me from under his burden.

"This crime against fabulosity cannot go unpunished! GET HIM!"

"Get him"? Really? Yes, really. The five guards began spreading out into flanking positions. I could hear shouting, and the clattering of hooves on marble, as reinforcements began to arrive from the casino's adjoining ground-floor wings. I took the only way out I could: right back past Fortune and Fair. The former spun in place as I fled past, protectively hugging his plaster ponies; the latter didn't so much as lift a hoof to stop me, for which I was inordinately thankful.

Once past, though, I realized there was no way I'd make it to any other ground-floor exit before they, too, could be blocked off. If I tried the elevators, odds were good I wouldn't even make it up to the second floor before security could shut off the power, trapping me inside.

Stairs it is! A flip of the handle and a good hard kick, and I was flying --- Luna's flying felch-fests, it only went DOWN! --- the stairwell. The sign I passed on the way down the first flight read "KITCHEN - MAINTENANCE - SERVANTS". Just my luck to pick a service entry by mistake!

I barely rounded the landing before I heard that clattering of hooves starting down behind. I'd managed to get my usual holdout gear past the Stocking's door-ponies, but I didn't have any illusions about being able to standoff their entire security force. At best, I'd run out of ammo for the ten-mil before they ran out of bodies. Not to mention the fact that Horse probably wouldn't appreciate my having a shootout with one of the New Pegas organizations that nominally pled fealty to him. Come to think of it, I hadn't exactly killed anypony yet --- I could just surrender...

...and ten thousand bottlecaps says they'll have to catch me first!

The bottom of the stairs opened directly into a room filled with sinks, clothing lockers, and a small horde of ponies washing up. I poured on the speed straight down the middle, aiming for the single open doorway, yelling the only thing I could think of to stir things up:

"FIRE! Everypony out!"

Oh, that got them moving, all right! Shouts and scuffling broke out in my wake as black-tuxedoed security came galloping down the stairs, right into the white-aproned kitchen staff just starting to make their way up. I'm sure that if I'd had the time to stand there and watch, I would have made some sort of comment about zebras. Instead (not being entirely a moron), I tore down the far hallway at speed, taking the first turnoff corridor I could find and then the next before I began to slow down and look where I was going.

This whole level seemed to be something of a labyrinth, mingling all the service needs for the casino and its hotel functions. That would force the Silver Slippers to spread out and take their time going over everything with a fine-toothed currycomb --- but that was time they had. I didn't. They knew the passages. I didn't. They...

...well, they'd also left an open air-conditioning duct, with several filthy rags and towels hanging out.

If I hadn't seen Pink-E coming out of one, it would never have occurred to me that going into one might be anything other than a really bad idea. It took me about ten seconds of squirming my little butt down that duct, said butt blocking most of the light and plunging my progress forward into blindness, before the rest of my brain came to the consensus that this really WAS a really bad idea.

It was just as I held up, and was considering backing the hell out of there, that the shouting and running noises went from faint and distant to a lot louder and closer than I was comfortable with. Moving slowly and carefully to minimize any noise, I crawled deeper into the ducts while my night-sensitive eyes acclimated to the darkness. I took the next left and then a right, hoping that nopony on the casino staff was as small and stupid as I was. Getting shot in the ass was never a happy occasion.

* * * * *

"Fire, huh? When we catch that little pink bitch, I'm gonna skin and cook 'im alive! That'll show 'im 'fire'!"

A pair of unicorn fillies in kitchen uniforms, sharpy-sharp kitchen knives hovering before them, trotted down the hallway below. Not for the first time in the last hour or so, I held my breath and thanked Celestia most ponies didn't have a habit of randomly glancing up.

"Pipe down, Puffycake. First we gotta find him."

"You keep calling me that, I'm gonna find a pipe and shove it right up..." The voices trailed away down the hall.

There had to be some way around these Luna-bucking patrols. The longer their search went on, the more security they dragged in from upstairs. I'd already given up on trying to hang around the washing-room vent waiting for a break; they were definitely not stupid enough to leave that exit unguarded.

One thing was starting to nag at the back of my brain, though. Even down here, away from the general public, nopony ever took off or even fiddled with their masks. They didn't even seem to be bothered by them --- no tugging, scratching, adjusting, nothing. The fancy face-covers were the very hallmark of the Silver Slipper Society, but you'd figure that behind closed doors, at least, they'd let their forelocks down. The implication that they never did was kinda creepy.

I mean, did they crap and fuck with the things still on? Bleah!

* * * * *

Thirty minutes later, I had my answer. While his filly laid passed out on a pile of flour sacks in a storage area, an empty bottle of pilfered wine curled up under one foreleg, he entered the stall directly below me whistling a happy "I-just-had-seeeeex-and-it-felt-so-gooood" song. Both still had their godsdamned masks on.

I was merciful enough to let him flush before I crashed in on his head. Or maybe I could just be honest and admit I wanted the extra noise to help cover the ensuing kerfuffle. Which efforts almost came to nothing, when I removed his mask...

* * * * *

Wearing a face of blood-red rubies and ivory cloisonne with a slightly-soiled tuxedo, the tails of which only barely covered my saddlebags, did not in my opinion make for a very convincing disguise.

My luck, however, seemed to hold out. Anytime I heard voices or hoofsteps, I busied myself with looking like I was industriously inspecting something in the other direction. Even those Slippers who got a direct look at me simply glanced away, as though peering too closely might be considered rude.

Unfortunately, my luck did not extend to magically producing a way out. I tried pushing the boundaries of the labyrinth, but every corridor either dead-ended or wheeled back around to join up with another. Those doors which didn't lead to storage and maintenance closets, led instead to arrays of furnaces and boilers surrounded by more storage and maintenance closets. There were no convenient garbage disposal chutes to outside dumpsters --- the furnaces burned it all. Nor were there any unattended dumb-waiter shafts big enough to squeeze into, even for a pony of my size.

I was going to have to brazen it out and try for the stairway back up. With the patrols around the edges where I'd been roaming getting thicker by the minute, I figured it was probably better to try cutting back through the middle of the maze. So I lifted my chin, straightened my back, adjusted my mask, and walked right through the first set of doors.

Into a blazing abbotoir.

Carcasses hung everywhere, hooves shanked through by cruel hooks that stretched the bodies wide open above grease-slick drains. Each one was attended by a Silver Slipper with a flamethrower, lovingly puffing tongues of flame across the searing corpses and, most incongruously of all, still dressed to the nines despite their gruesome task. Only those brief, horrific blasts provided any light at all beyond the single small bulb hanging from the ceiling; shadows crawled and rippled across the room in response to every brilliant-orange flare.

Don't throw up, oh dear Celestia please cork my belly shut and don't let me throw up...

Several of them noticed my entrance and looked in my direction expectantly. Suddenly remembering what Good Fortune had mentioned at the Strip gate, I fought to produce a smile and raised one hoof in what I desperately hoped was a condescending manner.

"Good show, pip pip, all! Just a walk-through before tonight's banquet!" It was a lot hotter under my collar than a few flamethrowers in an enclosed space could reasonably account for.

One hoof in front, then the next, keep walking, don't look any of them in the eye, it's not far to the opposite door...

"I say, that one looks a little dry. Just a bit. Careful there, that's a good buck...er, filly! My apologies, madam."

Aaaaaand through the door...

"Carry on, all! Carry on!"

I let the door close behind and inhaled deeply for a sigh of relief. Thank you Celestia, thank you thankyouthank -

"WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, YOU MOUTH-BREATHING LITTLE SCRAP OF SHIT?!"

He was big. He was blue. He stood on two legs, had a dual set of head-luggage that would give any unicorn in the world instant horn-envy, and wore a jacket so white and severe that at first I mistook him for a mad scientist. When he just barely missed nailing my face with a thrown bag of cutlery, I realized he was a far more dangerous creature indeed: a gourmet chef de cuisine. The bag smashed into the wall instead, scattering pristine tableware in all directions.

"Do I look like I have time to waste on you?! Do I look like I'm sitting around on my ass?! NO! Because Chef Ramsey does not FUCK AROUND, unlike you cretinous little bastards crawling around in the aura of my personal grandeur! Does this soufflé look ready to you?"

The sudden shift from screaming shit-fit to reasonable tones put me off-guard. "Um, well, I -"

" 'UM, WELL' FUCKING RIGHT IT ISN'T! And then you come stomping and yelling in here like you own the place, AND MY SOUFFLÉ FALLS RIGHT THE FUCK DOWN! How about I replace it on tonight's Grand Banquet menu with Shank de la Your FUCKING ASS?!"

Now I was side-stepping and backpedaling as fast as I could, trying to edge around for the double-doors, but the giant minotaur --- a Luna-snap-my-nads MINOTAUR --- lunged forward and grabbed me by the lapels. A twist and yank of one great hairy fist and I found myself dangling in mid-air, gasping for breath and flailing with all four hooves for some kind of purchase against that immensely powerful grip. He pulled me in close to his glaring, snarling bull-face, turned my head until his lips brushed my ear, and whispered:

"Get your stupid ass, into the wine room, where you belong, and do your job. And if you do not pick the perfect wine to go with my steak à cheval, if you do anything to fuck up tonight's premiere of my culinary glory, I will show you my very personal method of making horse d'oeurves. Savvy?"

I nodded dumbly. What the hell else was I going to do, shoot him? I didn't want this guy any angrier at me than he already was! Apparently satisfied with my subservience, Chef Ramsey tossed me through the nearest swinging door towards my new job.

* * * * *

Well, FUCK THAT NOISE.

I was not about to waste a single minute trying to fake my way through a selection of wines, for several reasons, not the least of which was that I knew nothing about wine beyond the general idea that white went with white meat and red with red... what on Celestia's blasted earth were you supposed to serve with steak à cheval --- my brain couldn't stop from translating that as "horse steak".

All the talk of killing and eating ponies might have just been hot air, but what I'd seen hanging in the roasting room and when I pulled the mask from Mr. Porn Star --- I couldn't get that out of my head. It made far too much sense, in the most disturbing way possible.

Cannibal ghouls. The Silver Slipper Society were all cannibal ghouls.

The mask had been enchanted to project the illusion of a healthy, normal pony. Without it, he looked worse than Jerky Buck had, multiple layers of skin and hide having rotted so deep you could see bone. With his mask on, a check in a mirror showed that I looked almost exactly like he had --- except for the eyes. Perhaps that explained why they never wanted to look me in the eyes; they were afraid they would see a reflection of themselves.

There was only one other door out, with a lock on it, but time and a few more bobby pins brought forth a satisfying click. Even if I ended up back in the maintenance tunnels, at least I'd made some... progress...

...it was an empty closet, or would have been if not for the young earth-pony filly with the ropes around her legs and a gag in her mouth. Flowing locks of amber almost managed to hide the huge pools of liquid fire that were her eyes, opals set against soft, incarnadine features. I was suddenly reminded, in that fashion peculiar to the male of the species, that I could not remember the last time I had gotten laid.

Down, boy... I said DOWN! Luna's cratered twat, this was NOT the time!

Her pleading eyes turned quizzical... looked down... looked back up... and rolled to the side as her eyebrows arched upward. My shame was now complete and all-encompassing. After a few more moments, it turned to anger.

Here I am, ready to rescue this stupid bitch, and she has the gall to roll her eyes at me? Fine! I turned to leave.

She whimpered. And Celestia damn me, she whimpered adorably.

I lifted my mask for a moment to rub my face with a hoof. I simply could not do this. I could not leave a pony this hot to be cut up, roasted, sprinkled with garlic and fed to a bunch of half-feral ghouls. I grabbed my old combat knife from its hiding spot under an inside flap of my saddlebags, made short work of her bonds, and only then noticed that she was staring at me.

Really staring. "You're... not one of them, are you?" she whispered.

Oh right, the mask... I still had it flipped up. The enchantment wasn't active. "What I am, is the pony who's gonna get you out of here, ma'am."

This hot-pink, golden-maned bombshell, actually batted her eyelashes at me. "I would be..." She paused, rising up on her long smooth legs and just so happening to rub up against my chest in the process, "...very thankful for that, handsome."

It took a bit of effort to concentrate on pulling my mask back --- DOWN!

We skulked back out of the wine room as soon as Chef Ramsey turned his attention back to recreating his soufflé, me high on the tips of my hooves and waving at her to follow my lead until we slipped through the big double doors into the preparation area. Though it held several goats acting as sous-chefs, all were busy at their stations, the frenzy of activity hinting at their desire to avoid replacing me --- us --- as options for gustatory experimentation. It took no real effort at all to hustle the filly on through, straight out the only other doors available, and into -

Well, fuck. I just could not catch a break today.

What had been a babble of idle chit-chat and the casual atmosphere of nibbling at appetizers died away completely as every enameled face at the very long table turned to look at us. There were easily thirty Slippers here, every one of them a cannibal-ghoul madpony behind their oh-so-civilized masks, the head of the table being taken up by two of the prettiest, most fashionable, and biggest liars of them all, undoubtedly the ringleaders. Secrets and lies...

"It's all secrets and lies!" I belted out, gesturing accusingly at all and sundry. "You've been exposed for what you really are! If you know what's good for you, you'll start running before Mister Horse's 'bots get here!"

Truth was, I hadn't even thought about trying to call anypony until just now. Maybe my PipBuck could broadcast a radio signal just like it picked signals up, but I hadn't the foggiest as to how I would go about doing that. But the Slippers couldn't know that I hadn't gotten a message out somehow, could they? Just a little luck was all I needed now. Let them scatter like radroaches, and once we were out of here I could drag my newfound marefriend up to the Lucky Chance for a night of impressive city-views with all the booze she could drink and all the amazing sex I could get afterwards...

The matronly mare who seemed to be in charge, in whose direction my hoof still shouted j'accuse!, stood up to stare down her muzzle at me. "What are you talking about, Salvatore?"

Salvatore? Who's... oh, right. I tore the mask away, eliciting gasps from all around the room as my dark-pink and perfectly normal body replaced that of the ghoul they thought they knew. The mare was unfazed. Not so much, the two masked unicorn stallions flanking her, who seemed literally speechless with their jaws on the table. Don't I know them from somewhere...?

"Very well then --- young sir --- just what exactly are you talking about?" That lofty gaze had turned cold, counterpointed by the glare of every other Slipper in the room. So they wanted to play dumb? Fine! I drew myself up, puffed my chest out, and let my voice drop half an octave --- all the best flair I'd ever been able to pick up from reading dramatic fiction. Let them scoff at this...

"I've seen the pits you've been roasting ponies in, seen their corpses split open! I've met your 'Chef Ramsey', and been threatened with being made into fancy snacks, while he bragged on about the steak à cheval he's providing for your main course tonight! I've seen you for the cannibal ghouls you really are, and I've rescued the very filly you were going to devour! You're all nothing but MONSTERS!"

The sudden clattering of a lot of silver platters, hitting the floor all at once directly behind me, made me nearly leap out of my skin. Aside from that, the room had grown deadly silent. I stole a look over my shoulder.

There was Chef Ramsey, curled up into a giant blue-and-white ball of fetal-position misery, bawling his eyes out, the four sous-chefs patting and trying to console the minotaur who just minutes ago had been scaring the living crap out of me. All around were shattered plates and spilled trays full of fragrant, roasted food. If I hadn't known better, the smell would have driven my taste buds into my brainpan.

Or, at least... I'd thought that I'd known better...

"Young SIR. I don't know who you are, but THAT person by your side is Ranseur, a well-known thief. She was captured just an hour ago, when she attempted the theft of Chef Ramsey's secret recipe for this 'steak à cheval' which seems to have you in such a tizzy. We had been holding her to turn over to the police once our banquet --- which I dare say, you have quite ruined at this juncture --- was concluded."

While everypony's attention was on me, the tall pink filly of my dreams --- Ranseur --- began sidling towards the door. I snarled at the matron's obvious attempt to cover all this up with a few easy words.

"Brahminshit! I saw those bodies back there -"

"Had you looked more closely, you might have noticed those are actual brahmin. None of which had the power of speech during their lifetimes." More easy talk. But the mare brought off the act with conviction.

"I know enough fancy-talk to know that 'steak à cheval' means 'horse steak'!"

She sniffed. "Such ignorance. It literally means 'steak in the style of a horse'. More to the point, in the current context, it means 'steak for a horse'."

I blinked, getting the distinct impression that we were talking past, rather than to, one other. "So... it's horse steak made for cannibal ghoul ponies. That's what I said."

Now she seemed genuinely angry, stamping a hoof on the table and shaking her head. "No, no, NO! It's a vegetarian dish, you lout! That's the entire point!"

Ramsey's bawling suddenly escalated into full-fledged wailing. He rose to his knees and began tearing his perfect white ensemble away, piece by piece. "I don't deserve to be called a chef! I've failed! So close, my life's work! So close...!" Lost in his dwindling world of culinary angst, the big blue minotaur's flailing sent the goats still trying to calm him flying off the walls and, in one instance, right across the table.

The matron, and her immediate companions, ducked as the goat bounced once and then sailed over their heads, landing somewhere beyond with a mighty crash. When they stood back up, she removed her own mask with a flourish. Yes! She'd finally snapped and revealed herself! ...Ew.

"The one thing you are accurate about, sir, is that the Silver Slipper Society is indeed formed primarily of what barbarians like yourself deign to call 'ghouls'. It has allowed us, heretofore, to function without the biases and horrors inflicted upon our fellows. And it is we, who were once renowned as the masters and mistresses of glorious Canterlot, that still remember what it means to bear oneself with class and dignity."

"And cannibalism. Seriously, a vegetarian meat dish? Who were you expecting to buy that one?" Really, who would?

"Cannibalism?! You --- you come into our midst, levy such heinous charges, and presume we would stoop to being so incredibly gauche as to consume another pony's flesh? How DARE you, sir!"

Right up to that point, I'd thought that the Slippers were just trying to play off getting caught in the act. I'd thought that Ranseur was an innocent victim who was at least smart enough to make tracks while I was making a distraction. I'd thought that my "baring it all" speech and the threat of Horse's intervention might let me bluff my way out of here.

Then I turned and saw the sheer hate in Ramsey's red eyes, pinpricked and ablaze with fury.

That wasn't the look of anypony --- or even a monster --- who thought he'd been caught in the act. It was the look of a person who was completely pissed off and believed they had every right to be.

I had insulted a chef de cuisine by calling his meat dish a meat dish.

Which meant... it wasn't...

"Oh. Shit." With nowhere else to go, I began backing up.

Did anyone ever mention to you that pink is a shade of red? That the darker a pink is, the closer to actual red it is? And that when you move something red-colored around in an angry bull's field of vision, he does something predictable?

Well, no one'd ever told me any of that.

A quarter-ton of angry blue beef-cake, shrouded in tattered white like the burial linens draping a ghost, came straight on, focused by two glowing red dots which could have burned me to ash with a few minor cybernetic augmentations. No power cores necessary!

Nothing but sheer reflexes saved my life; without even thinking, I dodged to the right, expecting to catch one of those giant bull-horns in the side of my gut. Instead he kept straight on, plowing right into the table and knocking it, and everypony sitting at it, clean over.

While Ramsey was busy tearing the table apart to get his horns free again --- sweet Celestia, what were those things made of, tungsten steel?! --- my brain finally caught up with events. Ranseur had already bolted out the door, and nopony needed to tell me to make tracks while someone else was making a distraction, either!

The main atrium was nearly empty, except for that lovely filly with her gorgeous mane and tail flouncing in the air as she made for the doors. After all, virtually everypony who could be spared was still running around down below looking for me. Well, at least I got to save the damsel in distress, right?

"That's her! Get that damn thief!" The only two guards who'd been left to hold the fort promptly chased after Ranseur. They didn't have a chance --- she was nimble and quick, literally running circles and figure-eights around them while they uselessly flailed their pretty batons in her general direction. She giggled and flirted and ducked away and I wanted nothing more right then but to tie her back up and...

...and forget it. All my pretension to righteous indignation might have been a ruse to start with --- but I thought I'd been so right to start with.

The angry unicorns from the kitchen? Exactly that, just venting over having to chase some jerk around.

The roasting spits? Thinking back on it, those hanging bodies had been far too large to be ponies. The shadows and glare thrown up by the flames had played tricks on my mind, helped along by the unicorns' commentary.

Ramsey's cannibalistic-sounding threats? Just a lot of angry blustering from a guy used to haranguing his subordinates.

Then I went and freed a thief, because I thought they were going to eat her, and because I wanted to fuck her brains out before anypony got a chance to snack on them.

And the pièce de résistance: having a shouting match with the top ponies in the Silver Slipper Society. So much for ever making it as a high-society snob in my own right... I'd be lucky if I didn't get my ass chewed by Horse over ruffling the wrong feathers. I'd even been stupid enough to drop his name in a bluff that had completely backfired.

I walked right through the front doors and out of the Velvet Stocking, leaving it behind with a heartfelt snort of disgust --- at the Silver Slippers, at Ranseur, at myself, and probably at everypony else in the world while I was at it.

Heading back up the Strip towards the Lucky Chance, I reflected on the one bit of good fortune I'd been able to hold onto all day --- Good Fortune's satchel, still there in my saddlebag, a nice solid lump of mostly NCR greenbacks. The smile slowly began to return to my face.

Who knows? If things work out tonight, I might even get a chance to spend it all tomorrow...



Footnote: Level Up.