Fallout Equestria: New Pegas

by Calbeck

First published

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

Mr. Horse's pet courier has been murdered and his property stolen. And while the price on the killers' heads is good enough to get any bounty hunter's attention, it's the bonus for returning a silly little poker chip that draws Dead-Shot in.

A pony could retire on that kind of jackpot...

Chapter 1:...Like a Hole in the Head

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>RUN FOALOUT.EXE

>> LOADING... LOADING... LOADING...
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Derp Money”
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Honest Hooves”
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Celestine Blues”
>> ACTIVE DLC: “Sunshine Road”

>>> MODIFICATIONS DETECTED: Alternate_Start.esp, Puce_Goose_Modpack.esp, Mister_Horse_MNS.esp

>>> REMINDER: ROBRONCO, INC., makes no guarantee nor accepts any liability regarding experiences which may occur due to modifications of equipment or software from their factory settings. Such modifications may cause systemic shifts which are beyond ROBRONCO's initiation or control; all risks involved in their installation or use are strictly those of the end user. Your ROBRONCO Reclining TemporoKinesis Memory Pod's Smiling Service Warranty(tm) provides no coverage for damage or circumstances arising from such modifications.

>>> ACCEPT? (y/n)
Y
>>> INITIAL BUILD (Database Preset: DEAD-SHOT)
Level 1 Earth Pony Stallion (+1 Strength/Endurance, Free Tag: Repair, Restricted Perk Tree)

Strength 4
Perception 7
Endurance 8
Charisma 3
Intelligence 6
Agility 6
Luck 8

Tags: Guns, (Repair), Sneak, Unarmed
Traits: Trigger Discipline, Kamikaze

>>> ACCEPT? (y/n)
Y
>>> LOCKDOWN ACTIVATED
>>> SAFETY PROTOCOLS DEACTIVATED
>>> SENSORIUM ACTIVATED

>>> STAND BY... STAND BY... STAND BY...

* * * * *

CHAPTER ONE: ...Like a Hole in the Head

"Your mileage may vary."

I was always pretty small, especially for an Earth Pony.

But I could take a beating, and often did in my early days, largely because I was relatively tiny. It soured me on people, for the most part: ponies, griffons, buffalo, mules, ghouls and anything else that promised to be a hassle. That being essentially anypony in the Great Western Wasteland.

It also made me pretty mean. Whenever my dad and I arrived in a new town with our caravan, the local bullies would start picking fights. I developed a habit of automatically looking for weak points on anypony I met, just in case. And when I inevitably lashed out at a given tormentor, my focus was on disabling them first and then causing the maximum amount of pain possible before I went down or was pulled off. My name would get around, and I’d be left alone... until the next new town and the next set of stupid bullies.

My dad didn’t much mind when I started in with guns early --- the rifle didn’t cost a mercenary’s fee, and as the years went by I made it pay for itself many times over. I hated that our constant moving around resulted in a never-ending routine of bully-culling, which I took out on raiders (with the rifle) and Dad (with my ever-sharpening vocabulary).

I wanted him dead. Especially after a particularly nasty argument, when he said I was adopted from junkies who’d initially wanted to sell me to him as meat --- for just enough bottle caps to swing a couple hits of Scorpio. I don’t remember what enraged me most: that he wasn’t my real father, that my real parents were such shitheads, or that I’d been worth nothing more to them on the bargaining block than some Luna-damned tribal snort.

Or rather, I’d thought I wanted him dead. That was our last argument. We couldn’t have another because, not long after I stomped out of the camp in a rage, one of the better-armed groups of local raiders hit. I came back from three hours of galloping through canyons and dry washes, with only my rifle and ammo for company, to find Dad riddled with small-caliber holes. What was left of our meager worldly wealth burned in sullen little piles on blood-soaked dirt.

I’d also thought I’d been angry before. So I was wrong twice that night... big-time. And I was immediate in exacting my revenge... big-time. It took little effort to follow the tracks of the bullies, less to spot their weak points, and none at all to turn every single one of them into cranially-impacted corpses before I even had to reload. I wasted not a single motion and missed not a single shot. And when it was over...

...the tears I expected to flood forth never came. I just methodically looted their corpses for anything I could sell, left the rest for the desert bugs, and walked into town the next morning wearing Dad’s bloody shot-to-hell barding. That’s when someone noticed my “cutie mark” had appeared: a stylized pony skull with a bullet streaking through it. “Cute”, my rosy pink flank --- as far as I was concerned, it’s a butt tattoo in poor taste. It’s also why folks started calling me “Dead-Shot”... my birth name? That’s in the past, and none of your damn business besides.

That didn’t stop Stiff Lip Security from offering me a job from the moment they laid eyes on me. I still think their slogan was stupid (“A Working Stiff Means You Get No Lip”), but it was work. And it meant I didn’t have to listen to another damn brahmin complaining about the load, or remember the pleasantries and jokes Dad would have spewed off to make it happy. Plus: I got paid to kill people who deserved killing... in somepony’s book.

I used to think that was all I needed to care about.

* * * * *

I stared at the dour brown pony behind the counter of Slimm’s Pony Express Office. “That’s... one helluva lotta caps.” He folded his forelegs over one another and snorted, dialing his expression from “bored” all the way up to “laconic”.

“Yep. Ya want the job or not, kid?” He slowly tapped a hoof against the signature line on the contract. “Reason I’m askin’ is you and your dad’ve done the Express a square before. This time it’s kinda personal... so I wouldn’t mind chippin’ in a bit if it helps make up your mind. Might also be a quick way to get known around these parts.” I read it over again:

Professional needed for corrective action. Property belonging to Mr. Edwin R. Horse has been purloined by parties unknown. The discovery and termination of these persons will obtain the payment of 500 caps, while the return of the aforementioned property (consisting of one [1] metal Poker Chip) will obtain a bonus of 5000 caps due to deeply sentimental considerations.

“Five thousand caps. For a poker chip. What, is his mom’s soul stuck in there?” The oldster, who went by the unlikely nom de plume of Nash Rambler, just shrugged and looked at me with eyes the same color as his washed-out hide.

“Not my business. But I got sixty caps right here, right now, what’d like some payback for the courier that originally took this run. I liked that colt. Told ‘im he shouldn’t’ve tried headin’ for New Pegas by way’ve Goodsprings --- too many damn badponies and nasty critters up that way. But folks around there might’ve seen who got ‘im.”

Loads of money, a bit of it up front, with a good payoff even if I never laid eyes on this overpriced chip, and an easy starting lead thrown in. I signed, pocketed the caps, and headed out for a couple hours’ light hiking along a cracked highway to the peaceful little agricultural community of Goodsprings.

I should have known better... I should have Luna-damned-well known better...

* * * * *

It was no secret, at least not to anypony in earshot of a radio over the last couple weeks, that the New Coltifornia Republic’s pet railway project had gone sour. They’d shipped a few hundred prisoners out to clear the old lines of rusted-out stock and lay new rail, which took a lot of blasting to do --- so of course at the first opportunity, the prisoners rushed the dynamite stores and took control of the NCR’s fancy new prison. Gangs of escaped convicts were galloping roughshod all over the area, so when I spotted what looked like a camp of them up ahead at the turnoff to Goodsprings, I thought I was being smart by cutting through some rocky foothills to avoid them.

I wasn’t just wrong. I was irritatingly wrong.

The first clue I had that the day was going to be annoying was a punk colt running up with panic in his eyes, begging me to save his fillyfriend. Supposedly she was trapped by a pack of geckos further up in the hills. Normally I wouldn’t give a crap about that, but gecko skins were worth a fair piece and the meat was good eating... and don’t look at me like that. Travel around the wastes long enough and you’ll find yourself licking the inside of a rusty tin can at some point. Only those with the wealth to keep themselves in fresh greens manage to stay vegetarians.

So I went up into the rocks, low and slow, with my (t)rusty old hunting rifle clenched between my teeth. No hurry at all... the kid’s filly was probably dead already, and it’s not like he was paying me anyways. I saw my first gecko, a green little bastard sniffing around a roc flower. Somepony supposedly named the thing after the healing powers of an ancient legendary bird, but the poet in me knew better than to interrupt when I was squinting to line up my rifle's well-tuned set of iron sights.

...oh, you didn’t notice? Yeah, I’m an earth pony. Unicorns have it easy when it comes to gunplay; pop a telekinesis spell and you can sling around a gun like you had tentacles or something. Earth ponies have to make do with what Celestia gave us --- good strong teeth to grip with and tongues strong enough to pull triggers all the livelong day. But aside from battle saddles, nopony had yet invented a gun you could hold in your mouth upright.

It wasn’t like you could just saw off most of the stock and carve the rest to fit your mouth, either. Somepony tried that, and found that they couldn’t see the back sights at that point because their nose was in the way. Elevating the sights or mounting an offset scope would give you parallax issues out the ass, and raising the barrel itself made trigger assemblies a nightmare to rework properly, since it had to extend to where your tongue could reach. And all of this made recoil a complete bitch and a half. Totally useless, and so extensive a set of modifications that you might as well just make your own battle saddle or turret helmet anyways.

I couldn’t afford a battle saddle, and I hated turret helmets because they look stupid and provide no protection from the sun. So I did my gunnery the old-fashioned way: squinting down the sights with my left eye. Wait for a good sight picture, squeeze, and POP goes the gecko. Like any good hunter, I didn’t take the time to stop and skin it just then. I quickly tied its tail to my saddlebag and kept moving.

They got thicker as I crept along, pockets of two and three scrabbling around in the weeds that hugged the rock formations. I would set up at range behind a cluster of boulders, slowly raise up to sight in on the closest, and POP. Duck down. Peek out. POP. POP. Six, seven, eight... I still hadn’t seen any sign of the missing filly. But I was making good progress in a short time, so I didn’t care.

I reached the end of the little box canyon I’d been wending through before an hour had passed, a dozen dead geckos weighing me down and... were those snaptraps? Big rusty iron teeth, stretched open with a pressure plate in the middle, three of them arranged on the side of an upwards-sloping rock. They could take a pony’s leg off if he wasn’t careful, but I was exactly that... a few simple sticks cadged from the brush plus some prodding cleared the way up.

SNAP. SNAP. SNAP.

Somepony’d made a little camp here atop a bluff. Pretty cozy too, all things considered: a mattress only starting to lose the fight with mold, a stump chair with a side table, even an old fridge they’d managed to ponyhandle up the slope. A quick look over the side of the bluff told what had happened to the camper himself, now just a pile of bones wearing a few scraps of armor. I mentally noted the location in hopes I could scout back around and...

...crackle went the weeds near the bottom of the rock slope. “Thanks for clearing out all those geckos. Now I -”

He might as well have been a Coltifornia train on a schedule. I didn’t care what the colt with the nonexistent fillyfriend wanted to say as I turned and sighted his head in at nearly point-blank range. Startled that I hadn’t let him finish his monologue, he almost dropped the dinky little pistol --- one problem of trying to talk with your mouth full.

POP.

* * * * *

After that bit of unpleasantness, I thought I’d get in a bit of bathtime at Goodsprings’ renowned clean-water sources --- the raison d’etre for its name. But small gecko packs had staked each of them out with frustrating tenacity. I was so weighed down with their little bodies, by the time I stopped shooting their little noggins, that I just figured to hell with it, refilled my water bottles, and sweatily lumbered the rest of the way into town.

Goodsprings had at least three things going for it: a genuine doctor, a decent saloon, and a general store with a good selection. Not being the kind of stallion with any real skill in skinning or butchering meat, I sold the buck behind the counter the entire mess of geckos on the cheap. I didn’t even need the meat right now, given the relative bounty of canned and boxed goods I’d found in the blufftop fridge. Too bad the barding I’d recovered from the bodies of the camper and the colt wasn’t good for much other than patching up my own old kit... but their battered sidearms still fetched a fair number of caps.

With moneypouch a-jingle I headed into the Prospector Saloon, looking for info from the locals and something to loosen the trail dust caking the back of my throat. But as it turned out, somepony was already there doing the former.

“--- Listen up, you stupid old nag. We know you’re hiding Rango around somewhere. You can turn ‘im over nice and quiet, or I can come back with my friends and rip this town apart until we find ‘im. Your call.”

The speaker was a wiry-looking roan stallion wearing black barding marked “NCRCF” --- ah, yes. This’d be one of the “Mite-y Gang”, so-called because they still had large stores of the dynamite they’d seized and used it profligately. I’m sure somepony, somewhere, thought it was an awe-inspiring moniker.

The middle-aged mare he was speaking to scowled at him, said a few sharp words, and he left with one of those standard parting snarks that’s never really worth remembering. I don’t even recall if he slammed the door, not that I would have cared if he had. The mare, a pastel green with dark blond mane and a cash-register cutie mark, gave me a look just a notch more polite than she’d been giving the outlaw. “What’ll it be, Mister...?”

“Shot. Whiskey.”

She cocked her head at me. “That’s your name, or your order?”

I scowled back. “Both. First part name, last part order.” She frowned, which actually softened her look, and trotted briskly behind the bar to tip the proper bottle into a clean(!) shotglass.

“Just being sociable, Mr. Shot. Don’t hurt nopony to be friendly now and again.” I forced a more pleasant mien and a lighter tone for the sake of not offending her overmuch.

“Sometimes it does, Miss...?” That brought her up to the level of a smile.

“True Delight, but everyone calls me Trudy. Welcome to Goodsprings.”

I nodded. “It’s a nice town you folks have here, Miss Trudy. But I have to admit I’m here on business, following up on a murdered Pony Express courier...” Now her scowl returned, though it clearly wasn’t meant for me.

“Horrible business. Personally I thought he was just here to pick up the weekly parcels from the box out in front of Chip’s store, but that night he was dug out of a shallow grave up on Cemetery Hill. Funny thing, how it was that weird robot that helped him, but Doc Hitchup wasn’t able to save the poor fellow. He’s been broken up about that ever since... very proud of his work, you know.”

“A robot dug him up?” My brahminshit detector was up and waving a red flag in the form of my arching left eyebrow. Robots didn’t go out of their way to help anyone unless they were programmed to. But True Delight nodded firmly.

“That thing rolled into town about ten years ago or so, all smiley cowpoke face and idle banter, but aside from wandering here and there it’s done nothing useful. Until that night. I just don’t buy its happy-go-lucky act.” I found myself nodding agreement, but I still made the mental note that the ‘bot was essentially a witness. If it was programmed to be garrulous, all the better.

I downed my shot, swallowed hard on the burn, and tipped my broad-brim hat politely enough to Miss Trudy as I took my leave.

* * * * *

The robot identified itself as VIC-20. Something about that sounded familiar, but I just shrugged at the stylized image of a cowpony grinning stupidly at me from its big-screen-TV face. I didn’t get much useful information from it that I didn’t already have, either. It hadn’t seen the courier’s killers, it knew nothing about what the courier had been carrying, and other than being “pleased as pie” to see me, just pointed me to the same Doc Hitchup that I’d been planning to visit next anyways. I told the ‘bot to get out of my way and moved along... but something about the exchange didn’t sit well with me.

Everyone knew these particular type of ‘bots --- one fat wheel, two long arms with gripper claws, dark blue chassis and all --- were normally only found on the Pegas Strip, under the direct (although remote) control of the Strip’s biggest power-player, Mr. Horse. No one had ever met the stud in person, but his Victory-class Integrated Computrons were positively ubiquitous... on the Strip. Not way out here in the sticks, most of the way to the New Coltifornia border.

A robot like this, out here, acting in any fashion other than malfunctioning, smacked of deliberate action. And this particular ‘bot had gone straight after Mr. Horse’s courier.

I couldn’t see any reason it would do that, except to try and retrieve that expensive little trinket. It sure didn’t have the guns or armor, let alone the smarts, to take down a whole gang by itself. So I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that saving the courier’s life had been way, way down on the bottom of its assigned “to-do” list.

As I trotted up the little hillock where sat the surprisingly well-maintained ranch house which also served as Doctor Hitchup’s office --- complete with the unnecessary pomp of a proudly-waving Neighvada State flag --- I put those thoughts behind me. I needed to see a doctor about a pony.

* * * * *

Old Doc Hitchup was interesting for a number of reasons. The first was that he was starkers bald up top. He had a greyed-out tail, but not a scrap of mane, which was a little bit disconcerting. This was only accentuated by the long unicorn horn sticking out of his forehead.

“Y’know, son, you can stop starin’ anytime now.” I hadn’t realized I had been, but managed to keep a straight face.

“Sorry about that. I’m here about that courier you worked on.” His dark bay expression went darker for a moment, and then drew down into a sad sort of semi-introspection.

“Couldn’t save ‘im. Thought I could --- I’m real proud of my precision with scalpel and sutures.” His rump rash testified to that much: a golden medical cross with a surgeon’s mask draped across its center. “But the bullet shattered and pieces went all over... even if I’d gotten all the bits out, he’d’ve been vegetative.” I nodded along as though I cared; I needed more.

“Did you get a look at whoever shot him?” He shook his wrinkled head.

“Nope. But word around town is that it was a pack of Cossacks down from Red Rock Canyon, with a city type in a checkered suit in charge. They tried to stiff Trudy on her service, she gave ‘em an earful over it, and they smashed up her radio as payback on their way outta town. For some reason, they moved on south towards Slimm... if you’d been here a few days ago, you’d probably’ve passed them on the road, if you came from that way.”

Nice. If I’d known the right questions to ask Miss Trudy, I could’ve been back on the road to payday that much quicker. But I stifled my impatience and bobbed my head in polite farewell, if for no other reason than you never piss off a doctor if you can help it. Someday you might be under that pony’s knife. “Okay, well, thanks for your time ---”

Doc stopped me with an outstretched hoof. “Wait a moment there, son.” His horn glowed with a soft beige aura, pulling a battered saddle bag off of a nearby shelf. “This was what that courier was carryin’. If you’re after the fellas what killed ‘im, might’s well be you as anypony what takes his gear. You can pass it on to his next of kin, should ya run across ‘em...”

I’m positive I blinked, assuming my jaw didn’t actually drop as well. This was --- well, really unusual generosity, from anypony. Even though the missing poker chip turned out not to be in the hodgepodge of junk and equipment, at least he’d've made some caps selling the mess off at the general store --- oh. It was then I saw the PipBuck, as he levitated it out of his own saddle bag. If he was a former Stable dweller, then he’d likely be one of those sappy types who --- wait, why wasn’t HE wearing it?

“This might also help in your travels. Celestia knows I don’t need it anymore... and maybe if it helps you track these bastards down, it might make up a bit for my losin’ that poor colt.” I found myself stifling a snicker at the sheer - OW! He’d taken out a set of tools and clamped the thing onto my left foreleg, and it had pricked me. A series of tiny needles, unseen, buried themselves in my leg as the device booted up.

I gave the old pony a dirty look and growled, “I didn’t say I wanted this thing before you plugged it into me -” He waved away my concern with a diffident hoof. “You’ll hardly notice it by the end of the day. But by then, you’ll find it absolutely indispensable as well. Let me show you how it actually works...”

* * * * *

Wow. Just... wow.

There seemed no end to the amazing things this "PipBuck" could do. I'd once seen one of those legendary "all-in-one hoofpicks", you know, the kind that also has folded into it a little knife and spoon? Embedded compass and such? Oh, this thing beat that little trinket all hollow.

From what I understood of what Doc Hitchup told me, its needle-pricks linked the gadget up with my body's nervous system, an extensive array of spells providing everything from targeting assistance to inventory management, triggered by thought impulses. It even gave price estimates for anything you picked up --- something about a "global spirit gestalt" the spell tapped into, in order to get a baseline relative to what people in general actually cared to buy and then adjusting downward to the lowest common denominator, or some such malarkey. I admit I began to fuzz out while the Doc was trying to explain how all these functions worked. What was important was that they did... and how!

So I found myself wandering around Goodsprings, testing my "gently pre-owned" PipBuck. Red compass blip? There goes a wandering scorpion, off in the blue distance. Touch a button, up comes a detailed little map in glowing green hues. As I neared a local tribute to fallen heroes and heroines of the War, its medical-cross-on-star motif sending long shadows eastward, a little icon popped up marking it as "Yank Zeeb Memorial"... which made no sense to me at all. Centuries of windblown sand had made its explanatory plaque virtually illegible, though the leeward side still showed many actual names in stark basalt relief as though they'd been carved there yesterday.

Interesting, but not important. I circled back towards town and up the road to the cemetery; inspecting the murder site was definitely on my agenda (which now actually appeared on its own list, under "Quests"... huh). Another red dot skittered across my "Eyes-Forward Sparkle", as Doc called it. Looking up, I spotted another scorpion, one of the smaller types with the nastier poison. Hey, no time like the present to try out S.A.T.S. --- the PipBuck's Spell-Assisted Targeting System.

Hm. I was pretty sure that I could one-shot that critter on my own from this range, even though I hadn't taken any time to familiarize myself with the dead courier's hard-weathered 10mm pistol. But I went ahead and loaded up a shot in the program, let go, and... felt the spell actually take control of my neck, head and tongue. Before I could blink, PAM went the pistol, its spring-loaded slide releasing the expended shell and rebounding forward to automatically chamber the next round.

Miss. The shot spacked off the hard road dirt, doing nothing other than alerting the arachnid to my presence. It immediately turned, clacking its claws angrily, and charged with its poisonous barb held high enough to sting me in the chest --- if I let it. I brought S.A.T.S. up again and... oh, I hadn't noticed you could queue up multiple attacks. To different body parts, too! And it gave estimated percentage odds to hit each spot on top of all that.

Just to see what would happen, I placed three shots into the program, one each for the left and right set of legs plus the tail, and cut it loose. This time I relaxed, letting the spell do its work, and two of the bullets struck home, crippling the bug's legs to either side.

Now it struggled to reach me, wriggling forward on its belly and claws, hatefully stabbing at the air in a paroxysm of desperate violence. I stepped to one side and off-hoofedly shot the little bastard in what passed for its head, trotting past on my way up the hill.

On first blush, I couldn't see the appeal. It took me five rounds to kill one bug. That just wasn't efficient. But I'd noticed that time seemed to slow down to a near-stop while I was in S.A.T.S.... that could be a definite tactical benefit, especially in a confused firefight.

All in all, this little ankle-pricker made me happier than I'd been in a long time.

* * * * *

Several gold-tipped cigarette butts were littered around the open grave atop the hill, where the courier had been briefly buried and then dug out. Huh... some stud thought he was pretty swank, to smoke these things. I mean, tobacco products were all over the Wasteland --- they were probably the cheapest and most-accessible narcotic around, with packs and cartons and even crates of the things turning up from time to time. The fact that one of the major pre-War cigarette producers in Equestria had been located near New Pegas might have had something to do with that.

But few drug-users of any kind really cared enough to indulge their habits with any kind of style. This guy, most likely the one in the checkered suit Doc'd mentioned, obviously thought of himself as a high-roller. They were unique enough that I carefully gathered and stuffed the bunch of them into a saddlebag pocket; their look and smell might help identify my marks in some way.

I looked around the hilltop itself, a chopped-off prominence with a water tower perched atop. Standing in its late-afternoon shade made it easier to get a good long view, and now I could see why the courier's bid for New Pegas had failed... immediately north was a festival of giant radscorpions, also known as "armored poison-delivery vehicles". I wouldn't've given the colt two bits for his survival in there with his light barding and ten-mil sidearm. Slightly further east the way was blocked by the sheer walls of a quarry pit, marked prominently with hastily-scrawled warnings about Diamond Dog infestations.

But to the west, sandwiched between the quarry and a series of rock walls, wandered a sunken road that would have worked perfectly for skirting the murder zones --- except that now it was littered with a string of widely-spaced bodies infested with paradore colonies. They looked fresh enough that I was willing to bet anything the killers had come down that road in a running battle with what looked like Friends.

"Friends" were bad enough --- a close-knit bunch of fun-loving folks who lived to inject, snort, inhale or swallow anything they could get a buzz off of. Their parties were orgies of excess and violence, each Friend trying to earn points with the others by being more extreme and crazier.

But paradores were some of the scariest damn things in the Wasteland. With cute little round bodies and cute little smiling mouths that were capable of opening half-again as wide as they themselves were, to take impossibly large bites of anypony they got close to, they also had speed and poison going for them. Worst, though, was that their poison only worked as an anesthetic. Once having downed a pony, they would stab an egg injector into the poor bastard's belly, then start building a nest around the immobile body. Eventually the baby paradores would eat the still-conscious victim from the inside out, as their first meal.

If there was a worse way to die, nopony'd ever mentioned it to me.

And everypony already knew that Imperial Highway 15 had been cut off by the Diamond Dog infestation spilling out of the quarry. So the killers hadn't had any choice, really: having effectively cut off their own avenue of approach, they had to go "around the horn" to the south, following the I-15 down to the Nipton Highway and then back up to New Pegas via the I-95. And that was assuming the ponies who'd killed Mr. Horse's personal courier, to swipe his personal property, were going to stick around a city he more or less personally owned. Odds were good they'd be running for the NCR border, less likely the Herd --- someone used to the high life wasn't likely interested in their social network.

Meanwhile, the sun was already going down behind the western ranges. Time to find someplace to crash for the night.

* * * * *

What I found was a tiny Hippocampus Energy station with a little baby dragon and a huge .357 Magnum leveled at my face. I took it back; being a complete and trusting idiot might just possibly be a worse way to die. Assuming I didn't kick it in the next few seconds, I was going to have words in the morning with Miss Trudy regarding her recommendation in lodgings.

"If yer gonna shoot, might's well get it over with," I drawled lazily. It might've been a front I was putting on, but if I looked relaxed and non-hostile --- yep, the dragon relaxed in turn, his flaring red head ridges settling back down and the flush in his orange scales subsiding as he holstered the oversized hogleg.

"Sorry about that, mister. I've got some bad ponies after me, and it's been making me twitchy. If you're not with them, you're welcome to a piece of floor for the night." He went back to what he'd been doing before I unlocked the door with Miss Trudy's key and walked in; cooking up some gecko stew. I could smell horseradish, sage, maybe even a carrot thrown in, and my belly rumbled to remind me I'd had nothing but a shot of whiskey all day.

"My apologies for barging in like this... I was of the understanding this place was abandoned." I tossed my key onto the little gas station's counter with a practiced eye, letting him see I hadn't picked the lock. He took an identical key from one of the pouches on his belt, then put it back.

"Stew's about ready, if you like trail-lizard. And before you make a joke about cannibalism, don't." He chuckled at his own presumed wit. "They call me Rango. I'm a drover with Red-Carriage Caravans."

His offer of food to a hungry pony, no caps attached, let me know why he wasn't one of their merchants. But you never look a gift dragon in the mouth --- for obvious reasons, the old saying went. I nodded thanks and took a bowl of steaming gumbo. "Much appreciated."

We spent the next while trading stories of the road, bits of news, the usual. And then, presumably because I was a former caravaneer (a detail I'd let slip somewhere along the way), he told me his sob story about how his group had been hit hard by a bunch of Mite-ys. Apparently the fact that he had actually defended himself, and had the temerity to survive the experience to boot, had offended the gang's tender sensibilities and instilled in them a desire for payback, preferably of an excessive nature.

I chewed and swallowed and nodded and made appropriate noises at the appropriate points, until he finally came out and asked for my help in taking on the bandits when they came for him. I dutifully licked my bowl clean, swallowed the last morsel, and asked:

"What's in it for me?"

In retrospect, I probably should have asked for seconds first.

* * * * *

"HEY MISS TRUDY! WE'ALL'S COME TO PAR-LAY!"

Rango'd said the roan who led this specific batch of Mite-ys was named Cob. Any number of jokes concerning corn came to mind, none of which I dwelt much upon as the gang moseyed --- actually moseyed --- up the road into town.

Squinting, I could make out that half of them didn't have longarms, or even sidearms. Just old baseball bats held together with duct tape, and tire irons rusty enough that their wielders were probably rotted up with tetanus by now. A few, including Cob, had NCRCF armor stolen from dead prison guards and the majority of the actual guns.

That's not to say they didn't use some sort of tactical sense. At a whinny from Cob, the unarmored close-in fighters let out a whoop and charged the few locals who'd gathered near the saloon. As they scattered with cries of fear, their assailants broke up and pursued in all directions. Cob and his gunslingers started picking out targets and opening fire from range.

Rango'd also said he had no way out of town if he couldn't get past the gangers.

I'll give him credit: he tried. When it became obvious that no one in Goodsprings seemed much interested in doing anything but hiding or running, and most of the Mite-ys were busy chasing after their entertainment, the little dragon cracked open the door of his fuel-station hideaway and tried to slip out of town. I don't know if he was too dumb or proud to throw a dirty blanket over his bright orange scales, but he never made it to cover --- a Stampede-fueled buck with a sledgehammer broke off from chasing a local filly to run him down instead.

Four thundering shots from a three-fifty-seven magnum revolver would've taken down most ponies, but a body on Stampede doesn't feel a hell of a lot of pain. Even as he bled and staggered on a crippled leg, the blood-red buck locked fury-reddened eyes on Rango and slammed the big iron hammer down.

The cracking noise heralded a shattered collarbone; Rango went over with a groan. The hammer fell again, pulping one of the little dragon's tiny arms, this time bringing his scream out. Somehow he found the strength to roll over, shove the revolver into the buck's chest, and pull the trigger once more. Powder flash burned a wide ring around the deep, fresh wound.

It barely seemed to slow the buck down. Third time was the charm; Rango's head stove in like an old rubber ball with half its air gone. Lost in rage, the pony began smashing the dragon's body with a strange work-like rhythm, as though he were back hammering spikes on the railroad gang. Cob, watching from down the street, screamed triumphantly and yelled something about burning the whole town to ashes.

That was his first major tactical mistake: giving Goodsprings a damned good reason to fight back.

Every window facing the street, mostly being those of the general store and saloon, sprouted one or more rifles apiece. In the ensuing fusillade several Mite-ys found themselves dancing the final rites, while the rest skittered for cover in the culvert bordering the ruined houses and vacant lots on the opposite side of the street. As soon as they had some cover, they began lighting and throwing sticks of dynamite at the wood-planked buildings opposite.

I'd never seen a duck, but I'd heard rows of them were easy to shoot. From my perch laying atop Doc's roof I had perfect line-of-sight straight down on the length of the culvert. Cob's second big mistake had been not checking his flanks.

POP. POP. No S.A.T.S., not for this. Rango shouldn't've been out here. He should've stayed in the old station and waited for a better opportunity, like I had. Pick your time. Bide and breathe.

POP. POP. Now they noticed me, after four of their nearest bucks had sprouted new holes. Two of those had been their only actual rifles. So as their buddies scrambled to pick up the weapons themselves, all the Mite-ys had to throw at me was a few pistol rounds. No one was close enough for dynamite, though a couple tried and fell well short.

That was when a spray of fully-automatic nine-millimeter fire began lighting into the remnants of the bandit line from behind. VIC-20, smiling-cowpoke pony face replaced with a grim "them's fightin' words" look, stood there chewing through Mite-y after Mite-y with the machinelike efficiency of his kind.

I lined up on Cob's screaming, panicking face. It had all gone to hell on him. He was pinned down, he didn't know what to do, the townspeople should have been the ones panicking and running. His third and last mistake was not remembering to start running, himself. A smile creased my muzzle as I pulled the trigger on my rifle magazine's last round.

Cob's head exploded in a satisfying spray of red and grey.

When the rest of the Mite-ys ran, six remained alive. The only two that made it out of the line of fire from Miss Trudy's saloon, didn't make it out of VIC's. By that time, I'd already climbed back down the ladder from the roof and begun looting bodies in earnest, starting with Rango's. It wasn't like he had family (that I knew of) anyway. And he did have a spiffy set of Caravan gambling cards.

* * * * *

"How COULD yoooouu?!" Miss Trudy was yelling at me, in front of most of the town's survivors, as I stood there trying to talk business with Chip. He, a white unicorn stallion with a rather lanky build and a drab-brown mane, looked like he would rather be doing business someplace else far away... in Coltifornia's cutthroat "Hub", perhaps.

"How could I what?" I responded in perfectly reasonable tones. I'd seen lynch mobs. This wasn't one --- yet. But if it came down to being one, I was already identifying those who needed to be taken down first. S.A.T.S. might come in handy after all...

"How could you SIT THERE and just LET them start killing everypony?!" she screamed at me, even louder, as though to make up for my own lack of volume and emotion. "Good ponies died today because of you!" I blinked, keeping my expression as bland as possible.

"I seem to recall that none of you lifted a hoof to save an outsider named Rango. Not until Cob threatened all of you locals did you open up on him. So a good dragon died today because you wanted an outsider to bleed first."

Miss Trudy --- True Delight --- looked like I'd shot her right there on the spot.

What I'd said might have been unkind, brutal, but none the less accurate for that. The good ponies of Goodsprings hadn't wanted a fight, had wanted Rango to be a problem that would just go away and die somewhere else. They didn't care at all.

Neither did I. I nodded to Chip, closing our deal, swept the pile of caps off the counter and into my saddlebags, and pushed my way through the sullen mob. My step was light as I started down the shattered and newly-bloodied asphalt back towards Slimm; I'd sold Chip everything I didn't need to catch up to that city-colt with. I'd also had him repair my firearms and old barding as best as could be managed, and I had a mission that even my PipBuck understood:

"Benny and the Jet-Heads: track down the Courier's killers".

Huh. So the thing knew the city-colt's name. Somehow. And it flubbed grammar by capitalizing "courier" for no apparent reason. But it did point me in a southerly direction, confirming my suspicions as I cantered past the springs and headed down the beckoning stretch of I-15 towards Slimm.

Still, one thing bugged me as I pulled down the goggles of my storm-chaser hat and broke into a measured gallop... when I'd passed VIC-20 not a minute ago, the robot was all smiles and waves once again, directed at me.

Only at me. It hadn't opened fire on the Mite-ys until I'd been attacked. But it had been standing there the whole time, entirely unnoticed, having supposedly never attacked another soul in the Goodsprings area for good or bad in the decade and more it had been there.

If this was Celestia's way of looking over my shoulder, I silently prayed, would she please piss off.


Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Friend of Nightmare Moon -- your vision at night and in low-light conditions is improved.

Skill Note: Sneak (50)


INSPIRATION

KKatman's "Fallout: Equestria"


Somber's "Project Horizons"


Miracle of Sound’s “Wasteland Soul”


And these Amazingly Fabulous bits of Artliness.

Chapter 2: Slimm Pickings

View Online

CHAPTER TWO: Slimm Pickings

"I hired you people t'try to get a little track laid, not jump around like a buncha Appaloosian faggots!"

The curious connections between Mr. Horse, VIC-20, and the Courier (was I capitalizing the job title of a pony I'd never met, now?) were interesting, but you couldn't just let your mind wander when traveling across the Great Western Wasteland --- what some ponies called "riding the Moohave". Successful caravaneers develop the habit of keeping alert for anything out of the ordinary while on the move. Those that don't become dead caravaneers.

Yet the thing that caught my eye while retracing my hoofprints back to Slimm, even as my measured gallop of a gait made the miles drawl past, was what was missing: the little gang outposts I'd seen the Mite-ys maintaining on my way up to Goodsprings. Though I didn't detour to take a closer look, it was evident even at a distance that each site's hastily-established shacks had been entirely abandoned. I craned my neck around to better scan the horizon as I hit a downward bend in the road.

Where did they -

What sounded like a fast-moving insect zipped past my right ear. Crap! For all my supposed habits of staying aware, I'd been looking at and thinking about what was to my left and rear instead of what I was galloping straight into. I hadn't even noticed when a small red blip appeared in my right-peripheral field of vision, the entire reason for having the PipBuck's "Eyes-Forward-Sparkle" spell active in the first place.

Luck was with me on three counts: one, the first shot hadn't ventilated my face before I even knew to duck. Two, the ganger's levitating rustbucket of a varmint rifle had jammed. And three, I was almost upon the half-finished wall of sandbags when that one shot got my attention. Instead of trying to stop and draw a weapon, which would likely end with my plowing into the barrier, I bunched my haunches and leapt right over the short wall at the riflepony.

Only in mid-leap did I notice Varmint Rifle had two earth-pony buddies who'd been taking a bit of a siesta in the limited shade provided by their low wall, both of whom blinked up at me in surprise as I sailed overhead. I realized belatedly that I'd committed myself to win this fracas or die trying.

Then again, I may have mentioned already that I'm not exactly a slouch when it comes to a brawl. I wasn't big, but speed and inertia were on my side, my forehooves punching into Varmint's unarmored chest with the satisfyingly distinct sound of cracking ribs. The puke-green unicorn and I went over in a tumble of kicking and flailing legs, but I managed to get a mouthful of his throat latch and locked my jaws down hard. He screamed like a filly who'd been knifed.

Shotgun Pony was the first to regain his hooves, fumbling his sawed-off weapon from its chest holster. Varmint screamed again as I managed to get my hooves beneath me, pivoting backwards to drag his body across the line of fire: "No! NO!"

Twin buckshot blasts took the unicorn in the side, dozens of lead pellets smashing through flesh and shattering bone on their way to perforating heart and lungs. Shotgun's mouth dropped open in momentary shock, his empty weapon clattering to the pavement.

I let Varmint slump to the ground, spinning about to kick both hindhooves in the direction of the big black colt, who seemed to have had a harder time waking up. An empty bottle of tequila, lying on the ground where he'd been resting, might have had something to do with that. Another sharp crack rewarded my efforts, sending him back to slumberland with a noticeable contusion across the side of his skull.

With luck like this, I should be on the Strip with a pair of dice in my hot little hooves!

By this time Shotgun had recovered enough to get his weapon back and try hurriedly shoving fresh shells into its chamber. At this range, he couldn't miss... then again, neither could I. And I didn't have to reload. I only had to draw the Courier's old ten-millimeter semi-auto from its leather shoulder-holster and, since I cared more for speed and survival right now than saving a few caps on ammo, to call up the PipBuck's Spell-Assisted Targeting System.

Time froze. Shotgun's golden-brown face, chest and forelegs, even his sawed-off shotty, all outlined themselves in numbered green borders, the same way as I'd seen with the scorpion in Goodsprings. I could see the fear in his eyes; good. It wasn't just that it would make him more prone to mistakes when it came to the finer details of manipulating complex machinery --- like a shotgun --- but this pissant little shit was in my way. I targeted two shots to the foreleg that was desperately trying to ram the reloads home, and a third to his noggin.

Release. PAM PAM PAM, went the pistol, a trio of ejected shells arcing up and behind me. Shotgun's foreleg shuddered under dual point-blank impacts that whirled him about, coincidentally causing my head shot to go wide. The shotgun skittered several yards down the highway, well out of reach. He stared after it for a long moment, reflexively clasping his wounded leg while straining short, sharp breaths through brown-stained teeth. After a moment, he clenched his eyes shut to await the final shot.

It was about a minute before he realized that he wasn't dead. I was busily looting the respectively dead and unconscious bodies of Varmint and Pistol, whose feckless hairstyles and vulgar cutie marks interested me far less than what was in their battered saddlebags. Some clean water, pain pills of the famed Med-X variety, a healing potion, scraps of food and junk and trinkets, and of course their guns and ammo. It really wasn't much.

Shotgun was trying to crawl away, behind the sandbags and into the roadside bushes, when I firmly planted a hoof on his wounded shoulder. He cried out, so I withdrew the hoof and kicked him in the belly just hard enough to hurt. It had the desired effect of getting his attention --- though I wasn't sure the blubbering which ensued was an improvement.

"Mister, I dunno, we didn't mean nothin', don't kill me, I'll go away, just please..."

I kicked him harder, before the sobbing audible at the back of his throat started up in earnest, and bent down to rifle his pouches while keeping the ten-mil trained on his head. When I had taken what few caps, ammo, and chems he had that were worth the trouble, I stood back up and holstered the pistol.

"All I care about, is that your moron friend there shot at me. If you hadn't pulled your piece out, stayed the hell outta my business, I'd've left you alone. He might even be alive, if he'd been smart enough to stay down once I stove in his ribcage. With any luck, your other idiot pal's gonna get off easy with a concussion." I turned and started walking down the road towards Slimm, casually saddlebagging his shotgun along the way.

"In all honesty, you bucks aren't worth my bullets. Tell your friends they better keep it that way."

I managed to put a good quarter-mile between us before I let my legs do the shaking they were so insistent upon.

* * * * *

It wasn't long after my run-in with the Mite-ys' attempt at setting up a roadblock that I found out where the rest of them had gone.

Slimm.

One of the few things I'd picked up in Goodsprings was a decent if battered set of binoculars, which I was able to make good use of from a low ridge overlooking the little tourist-trap town. Small groups of escaped convicts roamed the streets, smashing their way into what few houses and businesses there were, stealing anything they could get their hooves on. I didn't see many civilians aside from a few dead in the streets, but if the dozen or so Mite-ys surrounding the Derpy & Dinky Casino were any indication, they were mostly holed up in there. I didn't think it was because they wanted to see any of the relics on display at the Pony Express Museum ("See the Mailmare Mania of Yesteryear, Today!").

It was a siege --- and not one I had any interest in involving myself with, regardless of the insistent "quest" marker on my PipBuck's little green map. The proposition was made all the nastier by several snipers who'd perched along the half-collapsed tracks of an ancient roller-coaster, which had once been the premiere attraction of Slimm's only other entertainment venue: Pinkie's Dance Hall. Somehow its slow-turning sign, a dancing pink filly in red fishnet stockings and bustle, looked even more garish with the morning light washing out its dim neon glare.

Scanning further south, I could make out that the New Coltifornia outpost on the western side of I-15 hadn't been attacked. For that matter, it looked like the NCR troops and Mite-ys were more or less content to just keep an eye on one another, not even trading the occasional pot-shot. I stowed the binoculars and made my way down the ridge.

* * * * *

Lieutenant Hays struck me as a curiosity: a pony with so little on the ball, being nonetheless able to earn a commission in the New Coltifornia military. Perhaps I'd missed my calling...

"Let me get this straight. You're here to contain the gang that's currently in total control of the town you're immediately adjacent to. You need more support to roust them out, but you don't have a functional radio to call for that support, and it would take you sending one pony for a few hours to the border outpost to get some backup --- but you want me to do it for you." Hays nodded as though the concept of sarcasm had never been invented.

"Correct. Our situation here is too tenuous to risk losing any more troops, even for a few hours, so - "

I brushed off his response with a hoofwave. "If your situation's that bad, you should've pulled out by now."

Now he scowled. "My orders aren't for civilians to interpret. If you aren't going to help, then I've got better things to be doing."

I fought to prevent my eyes from rolling towards the ceiling of Hays' dingy little command tent. "All I want to know is, did you see anypony in a checkered suit with a few rough-looking bodyguards pass through here a few days ago? That's the only reason I'm bothering you in the first place."

He shook his head and went back to poring over the paperwork he'd been going through when I was shown inside. "The Mite-ys only moved into Slimm yesterday, which is the only reason my troops and I are here at all. Whatever problem you may have with this suit and his friends, it isn't a Coltifornia issue, or mine. Now get out."

I waited until I was back outside to let loose a primal snort of frustration.

Two days, and the trail was already starting to go cold. The PipBuck still pointed to the besieged casino; it made sense that Benny and his goons might actually be there, too. A New Pegas high-roller, having one last gambling spree before leaving Neighvada? It was almost cliche. If they were holed up in there, then getting the lieutenant his support would be the best way to eliminate the Mite-ys surrounding the place so I could finish up this job.

Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that the PipBuck was malfunctioning, or that I was misinterpreting its marker somehow. Benny's group might already be across the Coltifornia border, if they hadn't stopped for anything but catching a few winks. In that case, it was highly likely that somepony in the NCR's border outpost would've noticed Benny's unusual choice in attire. Confirming or refuting that he'd left Neighvada was my next logical step.

Looking back across the highway towards Slimm told me what I already knew; that if Benny was still stuck in the Derpy & Dinky, the Mite-ys would keep him penned up for at least the few hours I'd be going out of my way. I stepped back into the tent, holding up a forehoof to stave off Hays' immediate glare.

"You've convinced me of my civic duty, Lieutenant. I'll go get the colts you need --- to finish both your job and mine."

* * * * *

The run south to the NCR's border station was more of an easy trot, and a rather picturesque one at that. Immediately south of Slimm was Ivannapony Dry Lake, home to occasional clumps of honey mesquite trees, barrel cacti, and oversized bugs like dragon ants and scorpions, but the view went on unimpeded for miles into the hazy blue distance.

Never seen a dragon ant? The bastards get as big as a pony sometimes, and most of them breathe fire. I skirted around the few bandits hanging out around the old "Neighvada Highway Patrol Station" --- really, just a pre-War Pony Joe's with a bunch of police-marked skywagons parked out front --- but I ended up having to clear a good half-dozen dragon ants out of the underpass a ways further south of that. Of course, the second you shoot one of the little bastards, all their buddies nearby try to swarm you.

It turned into a bit of a running battle before I was done, but it was less of a risk than going across the bug-infested Ivannapony, or even worse, through the abandoned Hippocampus Energy station adjacent to the underpass. That place had several of the aforementioned "armored poison-delivery vehicle" variety of giant radscorpion, wandering around its rusty old skywagon rechargers in search of smaller critters to eat, or perhaps just enjoying the shade of its half-collapsed overhang.

Besides, dragon ants are a good source of protein, and their carapaces sometimes have a thin coating of the jelly they make in their mounds. Tastes foul, but it's one hell of a rejuvenator and sells pretty well on the open market. If I hadn't been in a hurry, I'd've stopped to do some chopping and scraping.

Since I was, I put on a bit of extra speed, weaving through a dense pack of wrecked and abandoned wagons as the highway turned onto a long uphill grade. At the crest, a sign bearing the image of a two-headed Ursa Minor read, "NCR Ranger Outpost - Moohave".

Puffing and lathered with sweat, I finally passed beyond the guards at the chain-link fence and wended my way through the packed crowds of caravaneers awaiting clearance to continue their travels. It didn't matter which direction they were going: every caravan into and out of Neighvada got the twice-over for security, and usually a once-over for graft. The paperwork and hassle were another reminder of why I'd made such a permanent shift in occupations.

Still and all, the place looked more cramped for some reason than it reasonably should have been. For me, that was both a good and a bad thing --- good, because it meant more folks who might've seen Benny. Bad, because when I managed to squirm into the station's combination trading post and bar, it was crammed full of ponies just as road-filthy as I was, with a single slow-turning fan uselessly stirring the stifled atmosphere. My hopes of getting something to cool off with were effectively smashed.

By the time I finally made it to the bar and got the attention of the beleaguered-looking mare behind it, I was in no mood for anything that didn't contain alcohol.

"Whiskey!" For a second, in the chaos of drinking and talking and mumbling and shouting ponies, it sounded like my voice had an echo. The bartender clunked a full bottle of watery-looking hooch on the counter, I tossed a hoofful of caps over to pay for it, and blinked as a roughly equal amount simultaneously clinked into contact with mine. A hoof swept the commingled pile into the bartender's pouch, immediately after which she made herself busy with another customer at the opposite end of the bar.

Before I could yell something after her, another hoof grabbed my bottle and tipped a shotglass' worth out of it. I rounded on the thief with a snarl.

"You'd better be planning on paying for that little snort of booze, you little - " I think I'd intended to say something else, but it took a moment to realize what I was looking at. There on a dilapidated barstool, likely salvaged from the Pony Joe's I'd passed on the way here, sat a gray-coated molly with a bright red fringe of close-cropped mane. It wasn't the red mane that caught me up short (though that was unusual enough on a mule), nor the worn leather jacket and flannel shirt which, along with straw hat and holstered repeater rifle, made up her wardrobe.

It was the look in her jaded green eyes, as she glared right back at me. "Ya snooze, ya lose... and it's my booze, seein' as how I paid for it." She tossed the shot back and grimaced. Not the grimace of somepony who's never had whiskey before, but of somepony who knows they've just been sold a pig in a poke.

"Not that you're missin' anything here, mister. Go on, have a shot of this horse piss if ya want, Luna knows I'm not gonna finish the bottle off." Belying the words, she poured herself another shot before scooting the bottle my way. I gave the molly a sidelong look, shrugged, and decided it wasn't worth getting into a gunfight over. Five seconds later, I found myself trying not to spit the stuff out and nodding in agreement.

"If that isn't actual piss, it's water out of somepony's rusty-ass tap --- no offense." Her only reaction was to pour another shot, this time for each of us. At some point when I was still working up the nerve to swallow my second, she'd already polished off her fourth.

"None taken. It's prolly because everypony's trapped here like me, an' there ain't enough booze to go around so they're cuttin' it t'make it last longer. But they're short on clean water, too, so..."

We commiserated for a while about the sorry state of liquor supplies in the Moohave Wasteland, the weather, the troubles and travails of caravan life --- it was actually refreshing to meet somepony who wasn't trying to scam you somehow, who knew what a ration of brahminshit was before they were told to eat it. She was patriotic about the NCR without blindly buying into its hype as "the future of Equestria's children", she didn't hold it against me for dropping out of the trading business, and Celestia but she could hold her whiskey --- watered down or not --- judging by the two empty bottles already sitting next to her.

In exchange for listening to the story of how her entire business had literally gone up in smoke thanks to raiders carrying around some high-tech firepower (which sounded to me like Steel Rangers, and I said so), I managed to get in a few questions about Mr. Checkered Suit. She hadn't seen him, but pointed me in the direction of some of the other traders hanging around the station who I might ask. Finally I tipped my hat and took to my hooves, leaving the rest of the bottle in her care.

"Thanks for taking time to gab with me, ma'am, but I've got to be running along." She gave a jackass grin and returned the gesture.

"I ain't nopony's 'madam'. Call me Whiskey Rose."

* * * * *

As I galloped back towards Slimm, I noted the position of the sun and cursed myself for spending more time flapping my lips than I should have. Not that I hadn't accomplished anything; from having worked through the network of caravaneers which started with Rose, I was definitely sure that Benny hadn't crossed the border.

Still, I could have been back on the trail and doing my job hours ago. At a minimum, such a lapse was unprofessional of me. At worst, it meant letting the gap between myself and my prey widen, if he wasn't where the PipBuck marker suggested.

It hadn't been hard to convince the bucks in charge of the outpost to send out troops to relieve the siege at Slimm, especially when I let Ranger Jacks know that I'd already cleared the Ivannapony underpass of dragon ants. Apparently that'd been the main reason the outpost was so crammed with caravans, waiting for somepony to get around to clearing the road. Which didn't make any sense at all to me, as the Imperial 15 still had big problems with the siege of Slimm, the Mite-ys having taken over their prison north of that, and the Diamond Dog infestation north of Goodsprings. The dragon ants were the least of the problems involved with going up that road! Trade with New Pegas currently relied on going east through Nipton, ignoring that underpass altogether.

Yet despite Major Knight's promise of reinforcements, it was going to take him the rest of the day to organize a large force, and he had no interest in doing a night march. He wasn't going to move on the Mite-ys until morning.

I'd already wasted enough time doing my "civic duty". I trotted into Lieutenant Hays' tent just after sundown, letting him know what was up, before doing what I should have done in the first place --- heading into town to follow up the PipBuck's lead on my own.

* * * * *

If there was one thing that going to the Outpost had done for me (besides allowing for a nice, relaxing conversation with an interesting molly), it was in providing the opportunity to improve my ordnance. As much as I loved my (t)rusty old rifle, in its standard configuration it had never really been intended for anything more demanding than picking off lesser forms of vermin --- whether insect or pony in nature. The only reason I still had it was because it was cheap, and I was still relatively poor. It didn't help that, at the prices being gouged by the NCR's trading post, I couldn't even afford a beat-up version of Rose's rather archaic repeater rifle.

Fortunately, they'd also had a wide variety of upgrade kits in stock. One prolonged haggling session later, my "varmint rifle" sported a silencer, magazine extension, and scope, though the purchase still virtually annihalated the contents of my cap pouch even after adding most of what I'd taken off the Mite-y bucks into the bargain.

Now, as I knelt and carefully mouthed the rifle's grip, I gazed through its scope at the nearest of the Mite-ys patrolling the streets of Slimm.

They really weren't very good at this game. From the distant sound of their arguments with one another, I could tell that they considered guard duty to be punishment and took it about as seriously as staring at wall cracks. They shiftlessly wandered around sucking on bottles of cheap beer with their weapons holstered, or snuck off into corners for a quick snort of Scorpio and babbled about the pretty colors brought on by the hallucinogen.

Breathe out. Squeeze.

pyewt

Walk alone, die alone. He took it right in the skull, one more dead body mingling with the already-decaying corpses of murdered locals. Here on the largely unlit streets, he wouldn't be noticed unless and until somepony tripped over him.

This was why I felt some of my best work as a bounty hunter was done at night --- get in, get the job done, and get out when everypony tended to be less aware, if not just plain sleeping. Over the years I'd gradually learned the tricks of seeing almost as well at night as during the day, like silhouette recognition and light discipline... I kept low as I moved further up the street, staying within the shadows cast by ruined buildings that stood against the cloud-dimmed moonlight.

Checking around a doorway, seeing nopony, no tripwires, no telltale arming lights that might warn of a landmine. Across the deserted room and up the stairwell, touching each step only with the edges of unshod hooves, minimizing the sound of my tread, the shoes themselves individually wrapped in thick cloth and stowed in my saddlebags.

At the top of the stairs the building's upward rise ended in a nonexistent roof. Jagged brick walls threw convoluted shades of darkness this way and that, but the only other pony up here who might have seen didn't care for anything except what might be beyond his sniper's vantage point. Because he was looking out instead of in, it became my vantage point.

pyewt

I moved to the window, peered out, spent a minute seeing who was moving where, and picked targets.

pyewt pyewt... pyewt...

Now there were three dead Mite-ys lying in view of Slimm's one major cross-street, where each of the casino, dance hall and Pony Express office held corners. Rusted-out barrels filled with burning trash provided the main source of illumination, accompanied by the glaring red-and-pink neon of Pinkie's rotating sign and the stark white flashing of the casino's external lighting, but for the time being it seemed that nopony else had taken notice.

More importantly, the gap I'd just created between patrols gave me the chance to dart down the stairs, scurry across the street, and slip through the curiously unlocked and unbarred double doors of the Derpy & Dinky Casino (Home of the Historically-Authentic Museum of the Pony Express). I closed the door quietly behind me, turned around, and...

It's amazing what interesting effects the sound of cocking guns can have on the bowels, especially when there are a lot of the aforementioned guns and they are all very clearly pointed at you.

* * * * *

"Whoa whoa whoa, there, folks --- I c'n vouch for this feller."

I hadn't known Nash Rambler all that well, personally --- more a friend of my father than mine --- but I'd never been quite so happy to see him as he stepped out from the crowd of heavily-armed locals. The looseness in my gut firmed back up in direct proportion to the speed with which the various rifles, pistols, clubs and other implements of destruction were put away by their grumbling owners. Nash walked forward with a look on his face that declared his firm belief in my presumed idiocy, stopped, and pointed with one hoof to the mess directly behind me.

"Welcome t'Hell, young'in. Plannin' on cleanin' up after yerself, there?" I glowered at him, suppressing with difficulty the desire to grind my teeth.

DON'T punch the buck who co-signed your contract... don't do it...

I managed a deep breath and moment of relaxation instead. "Y'know, there's a reason they call it 'scaring the shit out of somepony'. I'll deal with it --- and also with anypony giving me grief about it." Rambler snorted.

"Sure, kid. In any case, I'd ask why ya came back here so soon, but I think we both know the reason. Get that taken care of first, then come see me over at that slot machine yonder," he nodded in the appropriate direction, "and I'll tell ya what ya need to know." I didn't bother to nod back as I headed towards the nearest door marked 'Janitorial'.

I didn't make it three lengths before somepony sitting at a table with a few friends (and not a few empty beers) made a poorly-timed remark about my intestinal fortitude. Even unshod, my hoof shoving sideways simultaneously taught the buck one lesson about tact and another about maintaining one's balance, toppling him from his chair with a squawk of surprise. To my good fortune, his buddies laughed at him instead of bristling in his defense. Though his glass-eyed glare followed me, he had at least the common sense to recall that drunks --- without backup, at any rate --- make for poor odds in combat. By the time I trotted back past his table with a bucket of soapy water and mop clenched in my mouth, he'd managed to regain interest in the bottle he'd been nursing beforehoof.

It was the work of a few very long and embarrassing minutes during which I avoided meeting the looks tossed my way, while everypony else studiously avoided repeating the drunkard's mistake. By the time I finally put the cleaning supplies back and headed for Rambler's spot by the slots, he'd managed to work up a wry smile that, for him, was probably the equivalent of busting a gut. That was as far as he let mirth take him before the dour old look returned.

"If yer on the tail of that courier-killer, nopony's in this casino that wasn't in town when ya left. So I figure yer after somepony what came through here, or ya wouldn't've even stopped by. Am I right?"

"Dead right." I lifted my PipBuck so he could get a better look, prompting a short whistle of appreciation.

"Haven't seen one of those in more'n a decade. If it actually works, I'd say ya got yer 'bonus' early. Lemme guess, it toldja that the killers came to Slimm, huh?"

"Only bonus I'm looking for is measured in caps... gadgets like this won't feed the radhog." I brought up the device's map screen and gestured to the marker outlining the casino. "But yeah, it did, so - " Rambler nonchalantly leaned forward and double-tapped the 'Data' button next to the screen, which instantly switched first to the entry on 'Benny and the Jet-Heads', and then to a text description that was a bit more informative:

"Find out who in Slimm has seen Benny and his Cossack bodyguards."

Rambler chuckled. "Yep. Been more'n a decade, but I still remember that doctor fella showin' it off when he was askin' directions to Goodsprings. Poor cuss acted like if it wasn't on that little map there, a place might as well not exist."

I blinked. Then I scowled at the PipBuck and its traitorous failure to give me critical information which I'd never thought to ask it for. Then I felt my facial and throat muscles knotting up against the sound trying to claw its way out of my larynx.

"...nnnnnnngggghhhhffffffffFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF..."

So this wasn't even a pointer to Benny, only to somepony who'd seen him, and what, was I supposed to ask the entire goddess-damned town about it? Maybe I should get their names and occupations down on a little notepad while I was at it, set up a right proper fucking census or maybe -

"So, yeah, I seen them Cossack fellers. Buck in a checkered suit with 'em. That was this 'Benny'?"

The anger rushed out of me in a long gusty sigh, deflating my mood like an airship losing gas. Well, it was an improvement over bodily detonation, I suppose. "Yeah. By 'was', I take it you mean they're not still around?"

"Nope. They came into Slimm right behind the gangsters, not long before we all holed up in here. After the Mite-ys murdered Sheriff McBay and his wife in their sleep, Deputy Deagle got it into his head to try his hoof at bein' all snoopy. Got himself caught while listenin' in on a conversation between the Mite-y bosses and yer 'Benny' fella, and it wasn't long after that him and his Cossacks left town. Deagle might'a heard somethin' useful... which'd be about the only useful thing that yellow-tailed dude-rancher ever did, what I heard of."

As though in Deagle's defense, the PipBuck gave a slight beep and a message in muted green light flashed before my eyes:

"QUEST UPDATE: Find out from Deputy Deagle which way Benny went."

Punching the map back up revealed that the marker had moved across the street to Pinkie's Dance Hall. I stood there staring at it, trying to remember what Doc Hitchup'd said about how the hell it knew this stuff.

"Huh," Rambler muttered, peering at the little blip on the screen. "That'll be a right pain. Mite-ys made Pinkie's their headquarters after we corralled ourselves in here. Well, guess we'll be needin' both a new sheriff and a new deputy." I flicked the Pip-Buck's map off and rubbed my chin in thought for a moment.

"Don't suppose anypony's up for forming a rescue party...?" The old buck snorted a harsh laugh.

"Are you kiddin' me, kid? Look around. Everypony here's so scared out of their wits that they're ready to blast anypony what comes through those doors. If they had any sense, they'd be rippin' up some of these slot machines and card tables for barricades, but as it is, they're not gonna poke their heads outside for one of those snipers to pop without a lawpony to rally behind. No, they're gonna sit tight right here, until them Mite-ys realize all they need is to start chuckin' dynamite in and finish us off."

Great. Juuuuust great. A town of cowards in need of a badge to hide behind before it could grow a spine of its own. My gaze swept across the casino's main room, full of ponies getting drunk, or huddling in small muttering groups, or trying to comfort their crying brats, or meandering aimlessly past the figure of a Robronco Protectron in a cowpoke hat just standing there...

...wait, what?

I couldn't stop myself from giving dour old Nash Rambler a sly look. "Any law'll do, will it...?"

* * * * *

"Welcome, podner, to the Derpy and Dinky Casino, home of the Historically-Authentic Museum of the Pony Express! Let me give you the five-bit tour, absolutely free of charge, courtesy of your kind hosts here at the Derpy and Dinky!"

The Protectron line had been Robronco's all-in-one security and protocol model, ponderous but dependable. I looked the robot up one side and down the other, noting the pony-like conformation of its metallic withers, forelegs, and flanks. Besides its glued-on hat, it sported a faded paint job in the casino's grey-on-white colors, as well as enough synthetic nylon hair-plugs to almost outnumber those which had fallen out over the centuries. Its "cutie mark" seemed to resemble a pair of pony heads, tucked against one another and looking at the viewer, though the years had worn away all but the barest of outlines.

Yet for all of its obvious age, it seemed to be in top internal condition. Somepony had clearly been keeping up with at least its basic maintenance. I was reaching out to flip up its blue-resin faceplate and try my hoof at reconfiguring its mission-parameter settings, when it turned and started walking away with an automated "follow-me" tail-flick that managed to smack me right in the cheek.

"Speechless at such an offer, eh, friend? Well, I'm Slimm Two-None, your happy guide for today's tour! Prepare to be doubly amazed at the rich historical legacy of the first mailmares to service the Moohave Desert region!"

Luna blast me! I should have said something to hold the thing's electronic attention for at least another few moments... instead, I scrambled to catch up, only to collide with its rump a few paces later. What the hell - ?

The robot's head turned and flashed a soft blue light, indicating a short podium displaying a small bronze model of a pegasus pony pulling an archaic delivery cart. As best I could tell, the main two reasons it had never been stolen were that it was essentially useless and had been bolted to the floor. It was so beneath notice, no one had ever seen fit to even vandalize the little monument to a long-dead (and undoubtedly boring) civil servant.

"This here is an absolutely accurate rendition of the very first mailmare to deliver the post to Slimm, which itself raised the first post office for the Moohave region KZZZT POST-REBOOT ERROR: TIME AND DATE ENTRIES MISSING years ago!" I started for a moment at the sudden shift in pitch from 'jovial tour guide' to 'soulless machine' and back again, though of course the soulless machine took no notice whatsoever of its slip.

It was pretty obvious that I was going to have to endure the entire tour, unless I wanted to risk crashing the robot's operating system by interrupting its just-as-obvious primary function. Hoping this new delay wouldn't last too long, I gave the model and then the robot equally annoyed glances, then did a double-take... the little bronze pegasus actually was quite well-detailed, to the point you could see the bubbles that made up her flank-brand. But her eyes? I stifled a laugh before remembering the robot didn't care, and then cut loose with an honest-to-Celestia guffaw. Somepony'd gotten away with robbing the casino's owners, unless they'd intentionally paid good money to have those eyes pointed in completely opposite directions!

"We hasten to point out that she is only known hereabouts by the loving and respectful nickname of 'Derpy Hooves', since she was so diligent in her duties that she always left with the outgoing mail immediately after dropping her load, and never left her real name on the record! Rumors of lawsuits concerning the use of her real name or likeness without her permission are utterly without basis."

I had my own notions for the nickname's origin, but as nopony nearby was going to care one way or the other, much less the robot, I kept them to myself.

A few more paces, and Two-None turned to gesture towards a little diorama where a wooden scale model of Pinkie's Dance Hall sat perfectly preserved in a thick glass case beneath a dim red lamp. I was more impressed by the fact that the case's preservation spell hadn't failed after more than two centuries of continuous operation. A full quarter of the model's roof had been staved in by a huge load of pianos, anvils and hay bales which had clearly fallen from a red wagon directly above. Both the wagon and its harnessed owner, who looked terribly embarrassed, hung from thin wires to present the cheap illusion that they were hovering.

"There are also no records to confirm that her first load was dropped directly through the roof of the, ahem - establishment - across the street from our fair casino. But we here at the Derpy and Dinky assure you that such slanderous rumors regarding our beloved historical heroines only serve to demonstrate why your time is better served enjoying our excellent selection of games and diversions!"

I followed my mechanical tour guide, feeling a little better despite my desire to be back on Benny's trail. He couldn't go north along the blocked-off Imperial 15, and he hadn't gone west to New Coltifornia --- so he'd either gone south around the mountains towards the Coltorado River and the fringes of Herd territory, or cut directly east across Slimm Pass into No-Pony and then north along the I-95 to New Pegas. There was nowhere else to run but the unforgiving desert wastes.

"To my left you can see a painstakingly-recreated full-size replica of Derpy Hooves' very own delivery cart! Powered by genuine Robronco SuperSpark batteries (rechargeable for a full millennium of regular use when given proper routine maintenance by certified Robronco technicians), her little red wagon is probably still flying today --- so the next time you think of getting your little red wagon fixed, think Robronco SuperSparks!"

I was still betting that a buck smart enough to rip off Mr. Horse wasn't stupid enough to go back to the city he ruled with a robot police force, but if I guessed wrong I was only going to fall further behind in my pursuit. A few minutes lost here shouldn't be that much of an issue...

...I looked up from my musings to realize that the robot's tour had moved out of the main hall and into a large side wing of the casino. A wing entirely devoted to mailmares and the history of Equestrian postal delivery, of which we'd only progressed through a tenth so far. Slimm Two-None continued to expound upon the purported relevance of a collection of non-functional vehicles, every one of which would have needed a pegasus to pull them even if they were operational. Not even somepony from the so-called 'Grand Pegasus Enclave' could possibly have found this interesting!

A few moments, spent pounding my face against the faux-marble surface of the nearest vehicular display dais, helped immensely with centering myself and surely contributed to the continued longevity of a stupid, stupid, stupid tourist-trap robot.

"Although regular mail and parcel deliveries were eventually collectivized under the Equestrian Postal Service, it was through the efforts of Derpy Hooves that the gallant mailmares of her day collaborated to create its fore-runner --- the vaunted Pony Express. Throughout the frontiers of Equestria, relay stations were established to ensure fresh spark batteries, water and hay would be available to these doughty delivery-pioneers. Those stations in turn eventually became the basis for our modern Imperial Highway systems, along which you can today find more extensive and luxurious services provided by the smiling attendants of such companies as Hippocampus Energy and Solstice Solar!"

Okay, now I was gnashing my teeth.

"And of course, the Pony Express continues to thrive even today as a private parcel-delivery corporation whose local offices are right across the street. Stop in and receive a one-time five-percent discount on any single delivery, just for mentioning that Derpy and Dinky sent you!"

While technically that might actually be of some small value to somepony, it was based on the assumption that Nash Rambler gave enough of a damn to honor the promises of pre-War tourbots. Come to think of it, he probably would. Did this thing have ANYTHING to say that wasn't wrapped up in an advertisement?!

Two-None stopped again, this time at a full-size statue of a little unicorn filly sitting on her haunches with a vapid smile carved into her slate-gray face.

"But how could we tell the tale of the Pony Express without mentioning the other darling of our tour, Dinky? You probably already know how that plucky little filly earned her cutie mark right here in Slimm, and how she'd already endeared herself to Slimm's residents through her playful antics and happy nature. But did you know that it was her attempt to fly alongside her famous mom which inspired the founding of Rep'corn Aerospace? If you ask nicely at the front desk, somepony will be happy to provide a map showing where you can find the legendary launch, ejection, and impact sites, for just a token fee..."

No. No it didn't. My right eye began to twitch.

At long last (easily a full hour by the Pip-Buck's built-in clock), Slimm Two-None completed its circuit and came to a halt back where it began in the main casino room. My brain was so dulled by the experience that I smacked face-first into the robot's metal rump. As I shook my head to clear it of stars and fuzz, it began to repeat:

"Welcome, podner, to the Derpy and Dinky Casino..."

I leapt for the faceplate. "No! NOT AGAIN!" My fumbling hooves managed to lift the cover and punch the override before Two-None's programming switched modes from 'Greeting' back to 'Tour'.

"Let meeee giiiiiiii - " was all it managed, to my eternal relief. "Awaiting protocol affirmation."

I grunted, mouthing a screwdriver from my saddlebag and poking with it under the faceplate until I found the detent button. A gentle press, and the left-side casing of Two-None's skull popped open, revealing its internal workings. Gears, servos, power conduits, all embedded with tiny gems whose magical runeworkings ensured mutual mechanical and electronic cooperation. They also made it relatively easy to re-route power from one programming block to another. I didn't want to think about what kind of a nightmare the schematics for something like this would look like, if it ran purely on the physical laws of nature!

Flipping one cranial core this way, and another one that, achieved the seating I wanted --- one which would force the cerebral power supply directly into that part of Two-None's program block marked "Security". It was the work of moments to snap the skull casing back into its slots, press the master reset button, and flip the robot's faceplate back down. The rest would have to wait on...

"REBOOT COMPLETE. DIAGNOSTIC LOG FILED. SECURITY MODE: ACTIVE. Good day, sir or madam. Security Line 'Integral Millennium', Model Two-point-Zero, reporting all systems online and functional."

A grin stretched across my muzzle. "Nice to hear, 'podner'. Turns out we need a little law in this town..."

* * * * *

The good ponies of Slimm hadn't reacted with what I would have called overwhelming enthusiasm to Two-None's change in behavior, but Rambler'd been right: all they really needed was an authority figure of some kind to get behind.

Literally. When the casino's internal lights were doused and its doors opened, it was only just wide enough for the robot to ponderously but dependably make its way into the open street. To what little credit they deserved, the townsfolk didn't immediately slam the doors closed again, but instead watched through the gap to see what would happen.

What happened was that after about a minute, a 'patrol' of three carousing Mite-ys staggered down the street and into range of Two-None's engagement sensors. The robot turned, shining strangely in the flickering firelight from the trash barrels about the intersection, and almost seemed to nod its equinelike head towards the hoodlums before speaking.

"Stop right there, criminal scum!" For a moment, they actually did. A beer bottle dropped, smashing on the pavement; somepony cursed the loss of alcohol.

I slipped out the door and into the shadows as two of the three Mite-ys, still a quarter-block away, drew pistols and opened fire on Two-None. The third, a unicorn, began lighting and flinging sticks of dynamite, each one briefly glowing with snot-green magic as it was telekinetically hurled. Two-None's security-red eyebeams blazed magical streams of sizzling energy back, not terribly accurately, but much more so than the Mite-ys were managing.

As it turned out, drunken unicorns don't tend to throw very accurately either. Dumbass Dynamite managed to detonate his first two sticks harmlessly in the plant-less concrete planters fringing the exterior of Pinkie's Dance Hall. The third smacked one of the pistolponies right in the backside of his noggin, causing him to stop and turn with a yell at Dumbass --- only to notice the sputtering stick now resting on his withers. He tried to spin away -

BOOM went the dynamite, drowning out the sound of a pony being blasted in half by explosive force as gibbets of red flesh spattered in all directions. The look on Dumbass' face was so hilarious that I only managed to half-stifle a belly laugh before getting my concentration back on edging around the firefight.

It was close to midnight, but the few snipers up on what was left of Pinkie's old roller coaster were wakeful enough. Their single-shot rifles began adding lead to the fracas, impacts smacking the asphalt around Two-None. Occasionally one would manage a hit, but so did Two-None, burning down the second pistolero with unrelenting incarnadine fire before turning on Dumbass.

Meanwhile, every Mite-y within earshot came running towards the sound of explosions and gunfire, while the general citizenry of Slimm came boiling out of the casino in a furious mob-herd at the sight of Two-None's so-far-successful foray. At the sight of charging ponies, Dumbass tried something that would've been smart thirty seconds ago --- running like hell. But Two-None had already ranged him in and took the fleeing Mite-y in the right hindleg, shearing it cleanly away in a burst of ruby light. He hit the pavement screaming, which I'd have said was mercifully cut short by two axe-wielding Earth ponies that caught up to him thereafter, if I'd thought he deserved any mercy to start with.

Now the battle developed into a pair of what a tactically-minded pony might have called 'meeting engagements'; small groups of Mite-ys colliding here and there with similarly-sized groups of townsponies. Each end of the street became consumed with the staccato of gunfire, explosions from thrown (and sometimes re-thrown) dynamite, and clatterings of both sharp and blunt objects against lightly-barded or unprotected flesh. Meanwhile, up above, the Mite-y snipers fired almost randomly into the swirling chaos.

Which meant that they weren't paying any attention to anypony who might've somehow snuck across the street and clambered up onto the coaster's tracks.

pyewt

My rifle's scope focus was excellent and I had no problems seeing well even at this hour of night, but my estimate for bullet spread at this range was off; the round whicked wide of my intended target. I worked my tongue against the bolt lever, ejecting the spent cartridge and ramming another home. Sniper One looked around wildly, his position and those of his buddies still marked via the red bars provided by my Pip-Buck's Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell.

He had no such blessings. Had the moon been in a better position, or had I been standing instead of laying down on the coaster's half-rotten planks, or he had thought to keep one eye closed in order to keep it acclimated to the darkness while firing into the better-lit area battle zone below, he might have been able to spot me. He was still trying, instead of shouting a warning to his pals, when my second bullet took him in the neck.

His --- her --- gurgling scream was what alerted the others. A few moments later, clutching both forehooves to her throat in a panicked attempt to somehow breathe through an airway full of blood, she pitched over the railing and hit the ground with a headfirst crunch. By that time, two of the three other snipers were filling my general vicinity with whizzing bits of lead, and I was trying to minimize the number of splinters gouging my shins while scooting backwards along the aging wooden track.

They kept plinking at the spot where I'd been for a minute, but eventually turned their attentions back to the bigger battle on the ground. Either they thought they'd nailed me, or that I'd been driven off --- it was clear that they couldn't see a thing at this distance. I shifted further backwards, until I reached a curve in the track with a slight rise obscuring me from direct view of at least one of the snipers, then took my time lining up on another. The side of his head centered itself in the scope's reticle, a crisp dark shade of cool green against the backlighting of a moon-filled sky.

Breathe and bide...

pyewt


Footnote: Level Up.

Skill Note: Guns (50)

Author's Note:
I hereby dedicate this chapter to legendary cowboy actor Slim Pickens, who would probably punch me dead in the face if he were alive to read this.

Chapter 3: Dance Hall Daze

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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 piñata.

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)

Chapter 4: Pink-Eye, Exposition, and Terrible Creatures from the Stars

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CHAPTER FOUR: Pink-Eye, Exposition, and Terrible Creatures from the Stars

"Know Enough to be Afraid." --- motto, Lunar Polygnostic University

Pink-E bounced along through the early morning air, as though its robot-head were still connected to a robot-body (and apparently one with spring-loaded hooves), humming a sprightly little tune.

I ground my teeth and kept my pistol holstered. Not only was the damn thing done up in bright pink and bobbing around the wastes like the world's most obvious target lure, but it was noisy, too. The best I'd been able to do was order it to keep a bit of distance between us, so that when it got shot up by the first bunch of raiders to get the drop on us, I wouldn't be too close to the kill-zone.

"Would you PLEASE shut the fuck up?!" I hissed, for what had to be the seventh time on our brief sojourn. It had bobbed there, humming away while I relayed the news about Deputy Deagle to the townsfolk, and kept at it while I traded the dead Mite-ys' gear to old Nash Rambler for caps and repairs. It had actually scolded me for trying to hang onto a few doses of Buck and Stampede --- gah! The little robot seemed determined to hold me to the promise I'd made to the Pinkie Pie animatronic it'd formerly been part of, which was another reason to part ways as soon as possible.

The only reason I hadn't blasted it to pieces myself, out of sheer self-preservation, was --- well, I was curious. Stupid of me, I know. But, for maybe the first time since Dad died, I wanted answers. Answers locked up in that little 'bot's noggin, answers I hadn't yet been able to coax it into giving up ("That would ruin the surprise!").

Who was Pinkie Pie, beyond being one of these "Ministry Mares" I'd never heard of, and some kind of great-great-grand-aunt? What was all this business about a "tree" of events so accurate that she could predict I'd stumble into that panel, in that old dance hall, hundreds of years after she died, let alone map out our conversation beforehoof? What was all this about my supposedly being "destined for greatness", the kind of sales pitch I'd have expected from a two-cap roadside mystic?

And how did Mr. Horse, the pony whose contract I was currently working and easily one of the most powerful players in the whole of the Great Western Wasteland, figure into Pinkie's pre-ordained shenanigans? Lack of information could get you killed just as easily as being followed around by a pink floating/bouncing/humming pony head.

As we walked along towards Slimm Pass, my mind worked at fitting all of this into my existing worldview.

Pinkie's Dance Hall had once been a family vacation resort benefiting, like the rest of Slimm and New Pegas itself, from regular traffic along the Imperial Fifteen between Equestria and the strategically-valuable goldfields of Coltifornia. The boomtowns there had just been picking up steam when the War went balefire, but those small and scattered settlements hadn't been nearly as tempting a target as Canterlot and the great cities of the eastern seaboard. While the rest of what once had been a mighty nation was still struggling to rise beyond the level of city-states, surrounded by tribal savagery and hunter/gatherer communes, the surviving Coltifornians had unified to form a new and distinct nation all their own.

The same was largely true of New Pegas. Early in the war, it had been convenient and sensible to have Equestria's industry centralized far from zebra lands, but with zebra development of balefire megaspells there was a sudden hurry to spread things out.

The sleepy little town of Las Pegasus, fed by the nearby Coltorado River but otherwise separated by hundreds of miles of trackless desert from the nearest zebra outposts, was championed by legendary industrial tycoon Edwin Robert Horse to become Equestria's model for industrial relocation. Hoofer Dam was built to harness the mighty Coltorado for drinking and farming, and then for power. McMaren Skyport expanded to meet the needs of thousands of pegasi with their wagonloads and passenger coaches, the only easy way in and out of town until rail lines and the "Long 15" finally linked the rest of Equestria to Coltifornia by way of "New" Pegasus. Tens of thousands of ponies made their living in the newly-booming industrial sector, and hundreds of thousands more came to provide those workers with goods and services.

At some point, Horse successfully lobbied to have the last two letters removed from the name, which everypony who counted agreed just seemed... right. "New Pegas" had arrived. Besides, it eliminated the problem of Eastern tourists confusing it with the coastal city of Los Pegasus. Not that there was a big problem with that these days: after being hit with so many missile strikes in the last hours of the War, everyone just called it "the Boneyard".

The bustle of building a new city atop a small town, naturally, also produced a need for entertainment. Mr. Horse didn't much care what went on in "his" town, so long as industry thrived, and despite its rapid growth New Pegas was too small and far away to incur imperial attention unless something went terribly awry. So first came the dancers and singers and artists, and then the whiskey and drugs, and then the bordellos, the saddle-tease joints... and the casinos.

The casinos. Horse's "Lucky Chance" was the first, serving as a small skyport in its own right until McMaren was built. Its revolving top floor had been designed to let flyers approach from whichever direction avoided the worst crosswinds, while the central column was almost entirely taken up with a huge freight elevator which, at the ground floor, opened into a correspondingly huge warehouse. The rest of the surface complex, surrounded by lush garden walks interspersed with hedges, columns and statuary, was dedicated to the casino itself, which turned out to be surprisingly popular with pegasi. Or perhaps not; species that thrive on risky acrobatic stunts for fun might also be expected to gamble in other ways.

The flyaway success of the Lucky Chance inspired a variety of similar efforts, some nothing more than a box with slot machines inside and others sporting themes and layouts every bit as elaborate as those employed by Horse. Before the bombs fell, the city had become a legend of style and sin, where you could get rich overnight or more likely lose a fortune just as fast... and enjoy the hell out of the process, no matter how the dice rolled.

Still, folks figure the reason so few bombs hit the area --- maybe half a dozen --- was because the zebras didn't much know or care about it. What balefire didn't destroy, however, the panicking general public did. Most of the ruins throughout the Moohave were created by burn-outs, vandalism, and simple neglect, multiplied by the passage of many years. It was as though the loss of Celestia and Luna was enough for everypony to just give up on civilization and start rioting, even though the princesses hadn't done a thing to build or run New Pegas to begin with.

So, now I knew that Pinkie had been a real pony, a blood ancestor of mine, and in charge of the Ministry of Morale. Which had, I guess, been about throwing parties during the War to make ponies happier? I suppose that made some sort of sense; by all indications left to history, it had been a huge conflagration with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, dying on both sides even before anypony pushed The Button.

Didn't think I cared much for history, did you? Sure, it can be boring at times, but there's a goddess-awful lot of it lying around, and a lot of it can and will kill the willfully ignorant. Being aware of the original function of your surrounding terrain can keep you alive for the price of reading a book --- and when you're done with a few pages, there's no better kindling for your evening cookfire.

Thinking about food reminded my stomach I hadn't stuck around to get anything substantial to eat before leaving Slimm, eliciting a rumble as we crossed a set of old railroad tracks just shy of the pass which shared its name. Distracted from my train of thought, I looked up and opened my mouth to tell Pink-E we were going to stop for lunch before heading up... only to notice that it'd already decided to go zooming ahead and was already halfway up the winding trail.

I facehoofed.

Well, maybe the 'bot was about to do me the favor of absorbing a few shots from whomever might be waiting up there for us, if anypony. Slimm Pass was a narrow defile between two large rock formations, not quite wide enough in various places for a caravan brahmin to make it through, but it made a decent short-cut for anypony wanting to get from Slimm to No-Pony in a hurry. If there were raiders up there looking for the odd wanderer to prey upon, it wouldn't be the first time. I drew the ten-mil and followed in Pink-E's wake.

When no shots immediately rang out from above, a feeling of encouragement began seeping into my bones. My Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell wasn't picking up any red bars, either... wait. Immediately next to Pink-E's green bar, where the bouncing ponyless head had darted behind some boulders, was a light yellow one that I'd almost missed against the beige background of the hill itself. I could hear Pink-E saying something in rapid-fire tones as I rounded the boulders, pistol grip tight in my mouth.

Then a clanking sound, of the ten-mil hitting the ground, let me know my jaw had dropped.

"Yes, mistress," said the Diamond Dog as he stood there, staggering slightly. "I am, of course, naturally at your disposal."

It wasn't so much that there was a Diamond Dog here, or that he spoke. Everypony knew about Diamond Dogs --- big canine louts who ran around in ratty old cast-off rags passing for clothing, always in search of precious stones, and usually encountered in small tribes of a few "alphas" riding herd over a bunch of groveling goons. Mostly, folks in the Moohave thought of them as a Coltifornia problem.

That was until a couple of unusually big tribes moved in, seized the quarry north of Goodsprings, and spread out to start attacking caravans along the Imperial Fifteen. Nopony knew why, especially since the quarry wasn't known for its gem deposits. All attempts to talk things over with the Dogs had ended in violence. Twice, the NCR had moved in with troops only for the Dogs to burrow underground, and then reappear as soon as the army had moved on. It would take posting a permanent guard to keep the I-15 open, but with so many other irons in the Moohave fire, that was just another problem the NCR had decided to "deal with later".

So now here was the virtual antithesis of a Diamond Dog, speaking with erudite tones and snappily dressed in khaki hunting jacket, white scarf, pith helmet, monocle and... something down around his ankles. To one side a peculiar-looking rifle leaned against one of the boulders he'd been hiding behind, and to another... oh, whoof. I belatedly waved a hoof at the pong wafting off the pile of fresh dung.

Pink-E beamed proudly. "I caught 'im! Can I keep 'im, huh huh? I'm gonna name him Mister Pips!"

I circled a bit upwind and peered dubiously at the befuddled Dog. "Why's he even acting like that?" Pink-E gave a great suffering-sounding sigh.

"Well DUH, I mesmerized him! I told you last night I could do that, remember? My left eye's a Mesmetron Mark Three, for non-lethal subjugation and interrogation in fun swirly-green patterns! Good thing I caught him with his pants down!"

Oh. So that's what those were down there. Pants. I'd read about them, somewhere, but never understood why anypony --- or anyone else --- would actually wear them. The few Diamond Dogs I'd seen before certainly hadn't worn any. Maybe it was a fashion thing. "So what's he doing here by himself? Dogs almost never run alone."

"Mister Pips" looked straight at me with unfocusing, obedient eyes. "I, sir, am standing watch on this Pass in accordance with my orders from Master Duke, in conjunction with the honouring of our treaty obligations. The bulk of Her Majesty's forces remain on-station below, as standard operating procedures require." Had I just heard an "oh" sound in "honoring"? That was weird...

A sudden hissing noise from the mouth of the Pass made me whirl about, but nothing appeared there in the dim shadows. By the time I turned back, the Dog had clenched clawlike hands about his head and was groaning, his yellow EFS bar flickering with reddish tints.

"What... where am I..." His eyes lit with sudden realization. "Oh no, no..."

"He's coming out of it," Pink-E explained unnecessarily. "That's okay, I'll just mezz him again!" Before I could say or do anything, the little 'bot had hovered over to stare right in the Dog's face, strange coils of green light swirling through the short space between their eyes. His hands redoubled their grip, claws gouging flesh in twitching contractions. The flickery EFS bar went solid red.

"I said NO," he snarled, "I shan't submit! Damn your heathen robot lack of a soul, nooooo-OOOH!"

Mister Pips' head exploded with a disgustingly wet POP, blood and gore flying in all directions. I managed to dodge most of the messy spray by rolling out to my left, barely pulling up short of a landing in the still-steaming pile of dog crap. With a wince and an effort at breathing through my mouth for a moment, I edged away and turned to check on Pink-E.

I hadn't imagined a robot could look shocked, any more than I'd thought it could look sad or wistful or happy. Stringy bits of grey, peppered with crimson, drooped across Pink-E's wide-eyed face like party decorations of the damned, slowly sliding off and dropping to the ground one by one. An instant later, she was bouncing around in mid-air, screaming while shaking away the remaining chunks.

"BRAINS! BRAINS ON MY FACE! AAAAAAAHHHHHHH!"

I was still checking my own hide and mane for macabre bits of our former prisoner, when the entire Pass collapsed.

The entire Pass. At one go, without a moment's warning, both facing hillsides simply toppled into the gap between. Dust and dirt exploded from its mouth with the force of a raging dust-storm, so quickly that if I hadn't been facing away I'd probably have been blinded before I could cover my eyes. As it was, I found myself tumbling rump-for-hocks back down the trail in the middle of a dirtslide that didn't end until I was practically back to the railroad tracks. In a daze, I looked up.

Slimm Pass had been completely eradicated, as neatly as any demolition team could have done for. Or perhaps, just as neatly as a pack of Diamond Dogs avenging their mate.

"FfffffffffffffffffffFFFFFFFFFFFF..."

I was still working on getting the rest of the word out, when Mister Pips' weirdly-overbuilt rifle finished bouncing its way down the wrecked hillside and smacked me butt-stock-first right in the face. Momentarily at a loss for even that one word, I stared at the thing for a moment, took a deep breath, carefully stowed it in my saddlebag... and then started on a blue streak of profanity that lasted most of the way to Nipton.

* * * * *

All right. No more of this fucking around. Losing the Pass meant I had to follow the rail line south until it met the old east-west Nipton Highway through the craggy hills; only then could I double back northward. Meanwhile, Benny and his little retinue already had at least two days' lead on me. No way in hell I was going to catch them short of Big Rock City now, and that meant I was going to have to put on some speed.

Railroad ties flew past beneath my galloping hooves, shoes sparking against the roadbed, lungs and legs slowly starting in with their inevitable protests. I HATED running flat-out like this, hated the Dogs that'd forced my detour, hated Pink-E's stupid backfiring hypno-ray, and hated that she wouldn't stop fucking apologizing.

"I said I was sorry! It was horrible! That never happened to test subjects --- well, okay, it did, that once, but further clinical testing proved it was - "

Nothing the little pink 'bot-head had to say, with its annoyingly floofy pink mane and whiny electronic voicebox, made me want to listen. I didn't even want to take the breath or concentration to yell at it again. All I had was needed to keep my lungs pumping, to avoid stumbling over a tie, and to keep checking for EFS blips. I wasn't about to blindly run into another roadblock again!

Then again, the long run south did give me time to think about that Diamond Dog with the fine clothes and cultured accent and custom rifle. And didn't I want to have a good long look at THAT when I had the chance!

But he didn't fit. Not at all. Diamond Dogs were tribals. This one'd said something about an alliance, and about royalty, but he couldn't mean ponies. Coltifornia was a republic, priding itself on eschewing titles of nobility altogether. New Pegas was run by Mr. Horse and the former gangs he'd rebuilt into semi-respectable "families". The only other major power in the area was the Herd, which had modeled itself entirely on ancient zebra culture. "Master Duke" would be a name in line with their practice of slavery, but with mares relegated to entirely subservient roles nopony in the Herd would use a moniker like "Her Majesty" for anyone --- not even if Celestia returned from the grave.

Now here I'd thought I was being smart, keeping my EFS up this time while I galloped along. It hadn't occurred to me that some critters might not even show up on it. So when Pink-E's non-stop apologizing ended with a "yipe!", it was only then I realized the funny shimmerings in the air ahead weren't the heat mirage I'd taken them for.

My dad had once said, in regards to wildlife indigenous to the Great Western Wasteland: "Whatever isn't poisonous or eats the dead, hides from the sun." For the most part, Rattle-tails did all three. A nasty combination of canine and snake, their venomous fangs and inherent ability to turn almost completely invisible made them one of the most successful predators in the wastes. Fortunately, they generally wouldn't bother you unless you got too close, as they preferred scavenging over hunting.

Unfortunately, I was already too close. WAY too close!

I plowed straight into the pack of about half a dozen, all of which instantly shifted into the visible spectrum and went hostile-red in my EFS. From a nearby hole in the ground came a howl.

Oh, crap, they're defending their den...! It was all I could do to keep on my hooves and keep moving, bowling over the first and caroming off another in those first few moments of mutual surprise. Then I was galloping hell for leather down the railway, the entire pack baying at my tail.

Gee, and here I'd thought I was getting a little tired already! Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Well, my pursuers would soon realize I was no longer a threat to their den and give up the chase before it wore off. Pink-E sure didn't have any trouble keeping up, though occasionally she would "eep!" and bounce high into the air to dodge an attempted leap-and-snap.

A mile later, my adrenaline was wearing off and my pursuers apparently didn't give a radroach's ass (do they even technically have one?) about how close I was to the den. They'd straggled out a bit, but odds were still really good that if I turned to take a shot, I wouldn't get more than one or two before the pack piled on. All I could do was keep on running and hope that at some point most of them would go after Pink-E instead.

Three things happened at about the same time: we cleared the final shallow rise before the rail line descended down towards Nipton, the small herd of armed-and-armored ponies which appeared on the other side of the rise produced a leader in a feathered hat shouting "Halt! You there - ", and then our pack slammed into theirs.

By the time I found my way out of the resulting dustcloud, the herd and pack were industriously murdering one another. The ponies were outnumbered, but good fighters, constantly blocking attacks with a variety of melee weapons until an opening would present itself, and then smashing in a single sharp counterattack before going defensive again. The Rattle-tails snapped and bayed and snarled.

Somehow Pink-E'd come through that fracas unscathed as well. The two of us looked at one another, shrugged --- how does a decapitated robot head do that, anyways? --- and headed down the tracks into Nipton.

Even from this far out, I could see smoke and smell the distant aroma of roasting meat. Mmmm... somepony had a full-on barbeque going! Which reminded my rumbling belly just how empty it was, again...

* * * * *

As I left the rails and approached the main street leading west into town, my stomach forgot it was hungry and decided it would do better as a clutch of knots.

Nipton had been burned to the ground. Every single home and shop was now a pile of charred beams perched atop slabs of soot-blackened concrete, slathered in blankets of ash. Occasionally, an errant breeze would flare stubborn embers into bright orange life, seeking new fuel to restart the conflagration and then returning to sullen obscurity when none presented itself.

That barbeque smell? That'd been ponies. Ponies whose bodies had been jumbled into huge piles here and there around the town, soaked in tar, and then torched. I didn't look closely enough to tell whether or not they'd been alive or dead when they'd been lit up, because I was too busy staring at the only upright constructions left in town.

Crucifixes, one long row for each side of the street. Each one held a still form, nailed to the rough planks through their hooves and posed in an upright spread-eagle style utterly unnatural to equine physiology. Those that hadn't died of trauma or blood loss had expired after days in the sun without shade or water.

The Herd. They'd left markings of their passage everywhere, stenciled on the sidewalks and on bits of paper hanging from the crosses below their victims: a stylized zebra Centurion's helmet. They wanted everypony to know they'd done this. Murdered everypony and left their bodies to rot in the sun -

"...water... for Luna's sake... please..."

Not quite everypony. I could barely make out the shuddering whisper, drawing me despite my best instincts towards the two most easterly crosses --- which also seemed to be the newest, if not by much. I looked up into the pleading eyes of the pony I'd only ever thought of as "Shotgun". I turned to look across the street, and sure enough, there was "Pistol", a headwrap bandage sagging beneath his limp mane.

"Please..." came the whispering cry once more. I snorted with disgust.

"I recognize you. Same pony as tried to kill me a couple days ago." His eyes lit with a strange mix: fear, hope... maybe a touch of madness.

"Mister, please, mister, I didn't..."

"Yes, yes you did. You hooked up with the Mite-ys, killed a bunch of cops, broke outta prison and started acting like you all had a right to set up on the freeway and shoot at passersby, didn'cha?"

He tried shaking his head with what little energy he had left. "Nossir, please, you gotta believe me, I know how it looked... but if we didn't go along, me an' Pen over there... they were gonna kill us... us an' everyone who didn't... go along oh Luna please water..." His voice, cracking dry throughout, seemed almost to dissolve into dust on the last word. I could swear he'd be crying if his tear ducts had anything left to them. I shook my head right back at him.

"Coulda gotten away, turned yourself in, done your time."

Now he laughed, or tried. It came more as a hissing of valves than anything else, face contorting into a grimace. "My time... was up last week, mister... me an' Pen's both. We're just... *kaff*... petty thieves. Three days short... before the fuckers broke out... and messed us all up. I'm sorry I shot at ya -"

Pink-E chimed in. "I've got a water-coolant reservoir port right here, Cherry, I can -"

I cut her off with a hoofwave. "No you won't."

The little 'bot looked aghast. "But he'll -"

"I said no. We've got his word, and only his word, that he isn't a murderer or rapist or worse." Shotgun's eyes goggled madly; he tried to work up the spit necessary to say something in his defense and failed. I kept on. "What I do know is that he's an escaped convict that took a shot at me. I owe him not a damned thing --- and neither do you."

Somehow, Shotgun discovered a way to rasp out a few more words, a sound like sand shifting across the asphalt. "Ya... won't know... what... happened here... if I die..." He coughed hard, thick blood beginning to drool from the side of his mouth. He'd bitten the inside of his cheek for the necessary lubrication.

The spectacle didn't move any part of my spirit that one might have considered charitable. Charity, after all, had no place in the Wasteland. Shotgun's widening eyes showed well enough that he could read that fact in mine. It was like looking into a window upon which someone had painted a soul, and then shattered it with a hammer. He collapsed into himself, slumping upon the cross.

"Then... at least finish it... 'm begging you..."

I turned my back on Shotgun, Pistol, the whole town, and started walking.

"Toldja before. You ain't worth my bullets."


The sun was still high, I had a good chance of making No-Pony and the old motel there by dark, and there was nothing here to keep me. As soon as the last of the lingering smoke of Nipton was out of my lungs, I could get back up to a good galloping gait once more...

Slowly, pace by pace, Shotgun's blood-flecked screams faded into the distance.

* * * * *

"You know what'd be great to take our minds off all of this for a bit? A MOVIE!" Pink-E bounced excitedly up and down in mid-air, in that unnerving I-might-as-well-have-a-body-you-can't-see way.

For my own part, I'd been getting more and more frustrated as we circled south from Nipton looking for another way through or around the hills. The eastward highway hairpinned its way through well enough, but red bars appearing on my EFS showed that somepony had set up an ambush using the higher terrain. There had to be some way of getting up there to hit them from the side or behind... I wasn't just going to trot nicely into a crossfire.

But it was starting to look like whatever path they'd used to take the high ground, it didn't start from this side of the hills. Yet another goddess-damned delay! I gave the 'bot a dirty look and kept walking, my eyes peeled for --- I turned back in a classic double-take to see Pink-E positively beaming, framed by the vista of an ancient drive-in movie theater. To one side, a dilapidated ruin had once been a hut housing the facility's projector and refreshment stand. To the other, several rusted-out wagons littered its parking area, in the middle of which sat a pile of curiously gleaming wreckage.

It was this last which had caught my attention. Very little in the Great Western Wastes was shiny-new, even in the NCR where the factories mostly just refurbished pre-War stuff as best they could. But this thing looked as though it could have been poured from a casting just last week.

Whatever it was, it wasn't producing a hostility indicator on my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle, was made of shiny metal, and seemed to be twitching a panel of some kind. Tech? NEW tech, and functioning at some level to boot? Forget chasing idiots around the Moohave, this was a real jackpot!

As my hooves changed course to home in on this newfound treasure, I mentally sorted through the wide variety of entities who'd pay top cap for something like this. Not that I didn't check for tripwires, mines, and the potential likelihood of the sun suddenly exploding... this was literally too good to be true. Somepony had to have found this before me. There had to be a catch somewhere.

Ever-exuberant and bent on destroying whatever frame of thought I had at any given moment, Pink-E bounced along beside, squealing with glee. "Oooh, oh! Can we watch Terrible Creatures from the Stars? That was a GREAT movie, even without popcorn it'll be great! Or The Return of Tambelon? Can we can we huh please?"

The closer I got to the wreck, the more cautious I became. There appeared to be no booby-traps, but I carefully scuffed at the dirt as I went, just in case some sort of triggering device might be concealed beneath. I triple-checked EFS, as well as making several old-fashioned three-sixty-degree scans with both binoculars and the naked eye. There was no one and nothing in any direction, but this theater and its road leading back north to Nipton. Where screaming Shotgun and comatose Pistol had hopefully had the decency to die on their own conveniences by now.

I found myself momentarily distracted by the question of why I should even care about that, then quashed the thought effortlessly by turning my attention at last to the impact site itself.

It was definitely that, if nothing else: a wide, shallow crater bearing scorch marks here and there, half-full of much older scrap metal, suggesting that whatever had fallen from above had smacked into one of the derelict wagons. It looked for all the world like one of the innumerable artillery impacts peppering the area around Nellie Base, up northeast of New Pegas.

Except, of course, for the object of my immediate desire. This close up, it was clearly too big for any one pony to move, and my heart sank somewhat. If I couldn't secure it myself, the best I'd be able to do was collect a finder's fee, if somepony else hadn't already done that in the last day or so --- it clearly hadn't been here for much longer than that. Sadly, nothing looked like I could easily remove it to take with me, either as proof of the find or as insurance against getting the fee. I didn't want to risk breaking anything by trying to crack it open with main force, so I began to circle around in search of an access panel.

It was about the size of a pony, cylindrical, with several protuberances appearing to be mostly sensor arrays, small rocket nozzles (its means of flight, I mentally wagered with the greedy little pony grinning and rubbing its hooves together in my head), and two large solar panels. It was one of these that had caught my eye with its twitching motions, as though it were trying, but unable, to track the sun.

One side of the contraption bore a large colorful symbol, a rolling sunburst, dominated by a stern white alicorn wearing a crown... thingy. Her flowing mane, out-flung wings and extensive horn all swept out from the center of the ring comprising the "sun", upon which appeared the words Te Equus Habeo Vitae. I had no idea what that meant, but below the symbol itself was one more word in a language I did understand: GENEROSITY.

I kicked aside some of the older wreckage and waved a hoof at what looked like it might be a camera sensor. Hopefully it had an audio receptor... "Generosity? Is that your name? ...hello?"

The gigglefit erupting from behind me confirmed that I looked like an idiot. "Gee, Cherry, it's just a satellite! It's not going to say anything back!" My ears pinned against my skull as I turned to glare.

"If you knew what the fu- what the hell it was, why didn't you say so?" Did I just cut off one of my more beloved swear words to avoid getting a "language" lecture?

"SURPRISE!"

...of course. Why didn't I think of that, especially given that I supposedly am a smart pony? A surprise. One of these days, I was sure, Pink-E was going to withhold information once too often and get me killed --- unless of course I managed to pry what I wanted out of it first, and then put an armor-piercing slug through its grinning servos. The thought brought a smile to my face despite my mood.

Naturally, Pink-E took it the wrong way. "See? You just need to have a little fun! You're so gloomy-doomy all the time, a movie should cheer you right up!"

Dragging the lopsided joke out, I looked towards the projector hut, which had long ago been scavenged of anything useful. "Sorry, 'bot, but I don't think we're gonna be watching anything here..." It was then I noticed that she wasn't heading for the ruined hut, but the satellite instead. "Pink-E..."

"This model's got a holocam on it for projecting illusions from space to ground!"

I let a dangerous tone creep into my voice. "Pink-E..."

"They fooled a lot of zebras with these things, they sure did! So anyway, I'll just upload Terrible Creatures, you'll love it! It'd be better at night, but -"

My tone blasted into a frustrated shout. "PINK-E!" The bouncy little 'bot stopped just short of the satellite, a jointed mechanical arm having sprouted from a tiny side port, its gem-like data terminus hovering just before a matching jack seated flush with the wreck's hull. She batted her eyelashes and smiled teasingly.

"...yes, Cherry?" Another joke. Of course.

I fought to avoid facehoofing. She'd only enjoy that response... I settled for what I hoped was a stern glare. "Don't fool around with that. Anything you upload'll destroy data already in there, data I hope to get paid good caps for. We can watch your movie somewhere else, some other time."

Her pink snout and blue eyes scrunched up in a pout. "Money isn't everything, y'know."

I sighed, noted the satellite's location was already showing up on my Pip-Buck under the otherwise unassuming label of "Moohave Drive-In Theater", and started moving towards the hills once more. From here, I could see what looked like a wide and relatively easy way around the south end of the would-be ambush I'd been trying to avoid, and we still needed to make up for lost time. A lot of it.

"Ain't it? You get money, you can buy food. Healing potions, bandages, bullets, stuff that'll keep you alive. Get some extra, you can afford a few nice things that make living a little more bearable, like a good stiff belt of scotch." I made a point of giving Pink-E, who'd hurried to catch up and was now bobbing along beside, an extra-vicious glare, which she seemed to take no more notice of than the passing breeze. My eyes frustratedly rolled of their own accord, but I had my teeth in this particular bit and wasn't done yet.

"Enough money, you can buy yourself a little sanctuary --- fort up some abandoned shack with sandbags and a few furnishings from a trader, call it home 'til you can afford better. Maybe eventually buy your way into a fortress city like New Pegas. Robots like you ain't programmed to think about it, but most of us living in this wasteland just want to get to the point where we don't have to spend every third waking moment looking over our shoulders for a bullet out of nowhere."

Strangely enough, Pink-E seemed to actually go sober for a minute, pondering that. And then she was right back to her bouncy-annoying-and-overly-loud self, grinning proudly over her new-found comprehension.

"I get it! Everypony is murdering everypony else so they don't have to worry about anypony murdering them!"

Or maybe she was just mocking me. I growled and shut my mouth. There's no reasoning with some ponies...



Footnote: Level Up.

Chapter 5: No-Pony Knows the Trouble I'll See

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CHAPTER FIVE: No-Pony Knows the Trouble I'll See

"Magic is as magic does... s'jes' funny thet way."

If you've never felt what it is to be utterly and completely bone-tired, try galloping and cantering and skulking and trudging your way across a few dozen miles of hostile wasteland in a single long day. It didn't help when Pink-E spontaneously discovered how to pull in and broadcast (at maximum volume, naturally) radio signals. With her long-range sensor suite feeding automatic updates to my Pip-Buck, I usually spotted ambushes as much as a mile away, but her one-pony block-party also let every damn thing for at least twice that distance know we were coming in the first place.

By the time the flickering lights of my destination hove into view, I was barely able to keep my hooves moving towards the hope of warm shelter, having battled through a good half-dozen or so firefights with gang-banger scum, local wildlife, and the odd wandering idiot with a death-wish messiah complex.

I was also ready to find and kill beloved radio personality "Mr. New Pegas", purely in the interest of self-defense.

My weariness was somewhat compounded by the double set of blood-soaked saddlebags I'd draped atop my own, stuffed to bursting with firearms, ammo and the odd valuables seized from the aforementioned gang-bangers and idiot. A true scavver would've spent hours checking their bodies for anything worth a few caps and then stripping down their guns and armor for the choicer parts, but I remained ever-mindful of the need to narrow Benny's lead on me. So it was nearly ten in the evening (according to the ever-useful Pip-Buck) when I slogged my bedraggled ass up the Imperial 95 and into the little town of No-Pony.

The joke went: "we call it No-Pony 'cause nopony really lives here!"

That was a double-barb, actually. The town existed mainly as a rest stop for caravans servicing the several other settlements south and east of New Pegas proper, so its population was small and mostly transient. But it was also home to a local loon who went by the moniker of "No-Pony". Whenever asked about his past, he'd just shrug and say "I'm nopony special" --- and then tell you about the lice on his underbelly and their plans to start up a racetrack sponsored by insurance-selling geckos, all of it a zebra plot to put the casinos on Mr. Horse's Pegas Strip out of business through unfair competition. Or something equally insane. At least he gave the place some local color.

But the main reason I was lugging around these otherwise useless, beat-to-hell weapons and assorted trinkets of dubious worth was No-Pony's biggest claim to fame: Doofy Draco, an ancient tourist attraction slowly mouldering away under the desert's blistering sunshine and battering windstorms, and now rising up before me as a stark silhouette against the star-lit sky. With one arm raised in a too-cheerful salute to the I-95's much-reduced postwar traffic, and a smarmy grin literally plastered across its cheeks, the gargantuan eyesore also housed a "scenic" lookout and gift-shop-turned-trading-post in its thirty-foot-tall dragon body.

I was going to be damned if I didn't at least try to rake in a few caps for the trouble I'd been through today.

Still, first things first: I wasn't about to stand around and haggle with a shopkeep while I was half-comatose. Doofy Draco and its internal workings were one part of a larger relic of the old world --- a "motel", where highway travelers in vehicles of both the pulled and motorized variety could find a soft bed and secure walls against the chills of the night for a reasonable fee.

I considered myself fortunate to be gouged a mere hundred caps for the use of a suspiciously-lumpy mattress in a drafty room, and not have to battle a radroach colony for it. Piling up the overpacked saddlebags made for a reasonably comfortable sort of nest, despite the coppery scent of still-drying blood spatters, into which I promptly collapsed. All that really mattered to me was that it was warm, didn't hurt, and quickly swept me away into a world of psychological resolution to the day's indignities...

>>>oOo<<<

Trapped.

I was suffocating, my hooves floating slowly across the ground as though I were underwater. All around, swirling snowflakes blocked my view of the horizon. I fought through the sludgy atmosphere, wordlessly screaming with lungs that seemed never to have known the blessings of oxygen. Could you drown, if you'd never breathed air to begin with?

Kicking at the hard-packed ground did little but push me half a length into the --- air? Water? --- after which I languidly floated back down, until I could finally scrabble with my hooves for purchase again.

So this was what it was like to die. Perhaps I'd shifted in my sleep so that a poorly-perched saddlebag had fallen over my face, or a midnight thief had decided to smother me before helping himself to my goods.

Like HELL!

Not only was I not going to let myself die today, I was fucking-well-not going to die just because some skeevy bastard was after my own hard-won loot! If I couldn't get my head above --- whatever this was, and I couldn't dig through the ground, then I was damned well going to bash my way through the blizzard itself, putting one hoof in front of the other, my brain screaming out its red death-song, one hoof ahead, and one more, and then one more -

I stopped suddenly with a muffled BONK.

"Bonk"? The snowfall suddenly parted and fell away, as though striking against... striking against a glass -

<<< oOo >>>

It's a cliche to hear about somepony waking up by "sitting bolt upright". That's unnatural. Our spines really don't work that way.

Didn't stop mine from doing so, just for a moment, before I collapsed painfully back onto the saddlebag-nest in a slather of rank, cold sweat. I couldn't remember the last time my heart had thundered away like it was now, my breath coming as hard and fast as that of any newborn foal fresh from the watery womb.

Scalding sunlight speared through gaps in the boarded-up window, forcing me to shield my eyes with a sudden hiss of pain. Which was of course when Pink-E bounced in from the bathroom with a sweet, syrupy, happy-go-lucky song-of-the-dawn on her robot lips. I couldn't hear the lyrics, though, over the din of battle between the parts of my brain that still wanted the information locked in the bot's memory cores, and those that wanted to take Batter's old piece of sports equipment and invent the game of Pinkieball on the spot.

Luna save me from Morning People.

* * * * *

A tiny bell thunked, more than dinged, as I shoved my way through the door to the Doofy Draco Gift Shoppe and Resupply Emporium (Skinflint Oatflanks, Prop.). The memories of my first time here, when I'd asked after Mr. Oatflanks, brought out a tired chuckle that helped to chase off the last cobwebs of my nightmare. I wondered if they still showed newcomers the resting place of his skeleton, out by the highway where he'd been lynched for trying to hoard army supplies right after the bombs fell.

A real skinflint, right to the end.

I didn't recognize the nondescript gentlecolt behind the service counter, a middle-aged unicorn of beige hide and dusty black mane. I couldn't even tell what his rump rash, only a few shades lighter than the flank it rode upon, was supposed to be. Not that it was any big concern of mine, as I was much more interested in his expression when I dumped the contents of my saddlebags on the broad oak countertop. I noted with satisfaction the height to which his brows rose as a dozen or so pistols, shotguns and rifles of varying types tumbled into view, along with several cans of ammo in calibers for which I had no use.

And that was just the first set of bags. From the second I poured a collection of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, both medicinal and recreational. It'd taken some arguing, but Pink-E had to admit I'd only promised not to use the stuff myself. No way was I was going to leave behind a gold-mine built on somepony else's choice in addictions!

From my own bags, I produced an array of small valuables on the same premise: I might have no use for these bits and baubles, but I knew somepony else would. A small pile of pre-War bits, a few books in legible condition on esoteric subjects like Breast-Feeding and the Modern Businessmare and How to Train Your Dragon (Toothless Edition), some powertools in need of fresh spark batteries, and...

...I froze, my hoof resting on the last item.

A snowglobe.

I couldn't recall that I'd ever seen or even heard of one, yet I didn't need the Pip-Buck's inventory to tell me what it was. A half-globe of duraglass, set atop a solid resin base, filled with water and tiny white particles. You could shake it up, and the little flecks would drift around the miniature diorama mounted within. This one had a tiny little stylized version of a pony, like those in the old Stable-Tec posters, posing with an overly-merry grin in front of a saloon that looked very much like the one in Goodsprings.

Where the hell had I gotten this? I couldn't remember ever picking it up. Tipping it over revealed an inscription etched into the resin: "Bottoms up, pardner!"

A sudden, inexplicable sensation flushed up from where my hoof touched the snowglobe, warmth shooting up my foreleg to wash through the rest of my... soul, I suppose. It swept in, bone-deep, strong and pure, with a tinge of whiskey I swear I could taste in my marrow.

[BONUS PERK - Hay Tripper: The effects of addictive Chems last 33% longer.]

The brief moment of spiritual alcoholism ended with a similarly brief flash of light streaked with soft amber rays, while both the shopkeeper and Pink-E stared at me like they'd seen a zombie pony. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, it was matched by the unbidden mental image of a nattily-dressed pony with a monocle, haggling politely over a top hat while trying to hold its lower jaw in place.

I couldn't help myself; I busted out laughing. Pink-E joined in a moment later, regardless of having no possible idea what I was even laughing about, while the unicorn just stared until we finally got ourselves under control.

"Oooooookay...you wanna do some business today, mister?"

For some reason I just didn't care right then, not about anything I should have been focused on. Not the caps, not the loot, not even Benny. I just felt really, really good, like a three-day bender on the Strip without the hangover.

"Go ahead," I offered through a happy smirk, slipping the snowglobe back into my saddlebags, "make me an offer on the lot. I'm feeling generous today."

I really should've included the damned thing in the deal too.

* * * * *

We weren't even out of what passed for No-Pony's city limits when Pink-E started complaining about not having had the chance to stick her head (well, essentially, all of her) into a giant plaster dragon mouth. I sighed and gave her a sideways glare.

"We're not tourists, we don't need the benefit of the view from up there, and on top of it, it's the town's sniper nest. Don't ever be a bother to anypony who can put a three-oh-eight round through the back of your noggin, especially not when he's got a clear line of fire for a good thousand yards."

Pink-E just rolled her eyes. "Boooooo-ring! You never want to do anything fun, Cherry!"

"Stop calling me that, 'bot," I growled. "My name's Dead-Shot."

"That's a nickname, not your real name, silly! You're Cherry!"

" 'Cherry Pie' ain't a name, it's a snack food!" Now I was getting riled. It didn't help when Pink-E started bouncing around me, chanting my real, very stupid name in singsong tones.

Thirty seconds later, she and I were a whirling ball of --- well, half fury, that being my half. Hers was all gleeful rambunctiousness, like she hadn't noticed I was actively trying to pummel her speaker grille to scrap with my bare hooves. Forty seconds later, the ball was a threesome, having somehow included the person of an old coot who'd been passing by.

When it all wound down, I had my teeth around the old guy's ankle, my rump was all up in Pink-E's grille, she'd managed to entangle herself in my tail, and the cooter was sitting on my withers while smacking my saddlebags with a rat-flail.

Never heard of a rat-flail? It's simple: tie a rat, by its tail, to a stick. Hold stick in mouth. Flail vigorously. It's okay, I never heard of one either, before I met No-Pony.

* * * * *

Looking through the door of No-Pony's shack, where he'd insisted on "making up for the impropriety" of piling in on our ruckus, was a bit like looking into a junkyard where the garbage had decided to create its own representative form of government. Not only did he seem to be the type that never threw anything away, but No-Pony also managed to find a use for whatever he probably should have tossed out. No matter how completely useless the use.

Dusty old bottles of Sparkle-Cola and Sunrise Sarsaparilla sat on the floor in rows meant to trip up intruders... or was it as guidance past other booby-traps? What use did the bowling ball, precariously perched on several creatively-positioned pins, serve (for that matter, what are the little holes in those balls for, anyway)? Was the model flying machine hanging from the ceiling a decoration, or were its tiny wing-mounted rocket launchers functional weapons? Everywhere you looked, something distracted the wandering eye, promising slight gains in personal wealth at the likely cost of substantial personal injury.

No-Pony freely (and happily) admitted that he could never remember what he'd meant to do when he first set a given bunch of items up. And since he couldn't remember, he just avoided them all, performing an intricate dance that probably would have netted him a spot on a ballet team --- provided the last Equestrian Ballet Company performance hadn't ended with a standing mob panic and balefire pyrotechnics over two hundred years ago. Following in his hoofsteps was an adventure in itself.

Thankfully, the dance of potentially-ridiculous death ended only a few yards into the mess when No-Pony sat down at a rickety card table covered with... cards.

Huh. Well, at least that much made sense. The cooter gestured me to sit down, but I shook my head.

"Thanks, but before I make myself comfortable, I'd like to know what this's all about."

Now that he wasn't smiting me with dead animals, or walking away in a flurry of invitational gestures, or pirouetting through the Imperial Landfill Obstacle Course From Hell, I finally got a good look at the pony that lent the town his name, or maybe vice-versa. No-Pony was the sort that, if someone were to tell you that he spoke "Genuine Frontier Gibberish", you knew exactly what he looked like already.

Squinty blue eyes, missing nothing and everything in equal measure, were set into a face composed of so many crags and crevasses that there wasn't much else of a face to compare them to for reference. I'd seen rotten dried-out apples with smoother complexions. His mane was a greasy grey bush forming something of a halo about the back and top of his head, with a tail that might've been identical except that he sat on it from time to time. The rest of him was a darker grey, but what really stood out was his big red question-mark tail-tattoo.

Not even the natural laws of magic knew what to make of this pony, who shrugged diffidently at my reluctance to be comfortable in his house of traps and began to collect and shuffle the cards laying on the table. In moments he'd expertly assembled a functioning deck and thrown out a hand for a game of Caravan. I narrowed my eyes.

"You invited me in for the privilege of gambling with you? Sorry old fella, but I've gotta -"

"Siddown, sonny-buck, and get what's comin' to ya. Played with the trolls yet? No? Didn't think ya had th' sand fer that anyways." Those might've been fighting words given a different tone --- and maybe a little more comprehensibility --- but the cooter delivered them with a quiet aplomb that could have just as easily been used to request another salt lick from an ornery bartender.

Well... okay. Why not.

I took my own deck out, the cards I'd gotten off of Rango's cold, dead reptile body. My hooves deftly shuffled the colorful rectangles against the table, offering No-Pony the cut. He just looked at me funny until I shrugged and did it myself, then dealt up my own hand.

We took turns tossing the starter cards for each "caravan" onto the marks notched and named on the table for that purpose: Hub, Boneyard, New Braynan, Phoenix, Manehattan, Hoofington. Each pairing represented caravans in competition for the trade in that area, not that it really affected the styles or methods of play at all. It was really just a game of numbers where...

...I did a double-take, finally noticing No-Pony's cards didn't actually HAVE any numbers.

He was dealing tarot! I glared at him. "What kinda damnfool business -"

He cut off my snarl with a hoofwave of the no-nonsense variety; a distinctly uncharacteristic gesture in his case. "Pipe down while I read this mess. Good dragon died so ya could get these, did he? Not a good death, either, I see. Not that any've 'em are, so th' geckos say. Keep tryin' ta sell me life insurance. What good's life insurance, if it only pays off when ye're dead?" Then he proceeded to toss an extra card onto each of my three "caravans".

Angrily, I kicked back the chair and got to my hooves, figuring his game for a huckster's fortune-telling scam. He didn't seem to notice, working hard to look the part of concerned seer with his beetled, furrowed brows. At this point I didn't even give a damn about getting my cards back; it wasn't as though I were a big Caravan player to start with.

As I turned away, two things drew my immediate attention: one, Pink-E looked distinctly freaked out. Her eyes were huge, with pupils dilated to pinpricks, and she was visibly shivering. Two, all the garbage in the shack had somehow rearranged itself when I wasn't looking. Not only were all the traps completely reconfigured, but now they looked a lot more lethal... and they also completely blocked any view of the door. I felt sweat prickle my scalp.

"Might's well siddown, young'un. Fates don't like it when ya walk out on 'em."

His blue eyes were open, honest, and maybe a little pitying. Trying not to let the shaking that had started up in my legs seem too obvious, I carefully retook my seat and examined the state of play.

Like I said, Caravan's about competing for cargo contracts between towns. The idea was that you played cards from your deck to outbid your opponent for each of three separate contracts (Hub-to-Boneyard, New Braynan-to-Phoenix, and Hoofington-to-Manehattan), without spending too much or too little. A contract value less than twenty-one wouldn't cinch the deal; more than twenty-six meant you were saddled with a job that couldn't make a profit.

No-Pony's towns were the Hub, New Braynan and Hoofington, while mine were their opposites --- the Boneyard, Phoenix and Manehattan. Matching that order, he'd thrown the Emperor, Tower, Star, Foal, Wheel of Fortune, and... Hanged Pony. Of course. Not suggestive at all...

I looked up at the cooter. "Stakes...?"

There was that hoofwave again. "Pshaw, stakes're already in. This's about fate, ya durn foal! Now draw!"

I was halfway to my gun when I realized he meant "draw from your deck". Sheepishly, I pulled seven cards off the top of my deck and bent to examine what I'd just dealt myself.

It was a pile of shit. A couple of sixes, a three, two aces, a jack and a king. I'd never bothered to flip through the deck, much less bother to optimize it for any particular strategy of play... like I said, I wasn't big on Caravan anyways. So Rango's deck was just a mess of all the cards he'd owned at the time, and my hoof sure showed it.

On the plus side, I'd been putting up actual cards as my starters while No-Pony'd laid down nothing of value. He didn't seem to notice, or care, that I effectively had a three-card headstart on him. He pulled seven more cards from his tarot deck, then laid down the King of Swords beneath Hoofington's Star. Opposite, on Manehattan, I played my own King of Hearts to match.

Down came a second King (of Wands) on Hoofington, doubling the first King's value to twenty. Any small card would now win that route for No-Pony, but I was in no rush. The game couldn't end until all three routes had winning bids, so I still had some time to work with. I drew my replacement card, the Queen of Hearts, and laid down my seven (of Diamonds) on Phoenix. No-Pony flipped a six over on the two Kings of Hoofington, locking in that route... or he would have, if I hadn't had that Jack. With a "screw-you" smile, I tossed it down on Hoofington, removing it and both Kings from play.

No-Pony just chuckled. As he swept the cards aside, I could swear I saw the faces of each transmogrify. I caught brief glimpses of three unicorns: a grinning mare with red-and-black mane, a dapper-looking ghoul exhaling a stream of pink smoke, and a white stallion who looked like he was suffering from every disease known to ponykind. "One-eyed jacks'll take th' piss, every time..."

Oooooookay...

Play advanced haphazardly; No-Pony would drive towards victory on one route or another, I'd pull a lucky draw to head him off, or not, and I'd counterattack when I could by building up my own caravans. One thing that irritated me was that his tarot deck had Pages and Knights, but no Jacks, so as face-cards without special rules attached they were all worth ten points each. No-Pony just shrugged. "Means I can't remove any of yer cards like ya did mine, an' they can't double up on each other like Kings. Them's jus' th' rules, friend."

Anytime I threw a Jack --- and I had a lot of them, as it turned out --- they, and the cards they removed, would resolve themselves into faces I'd never met. My Jacks always came across as a little heroic somehow, even when that seemed ridiculous. A little pink filly in an environmental suit, for example, or a toaster-repairpony with a Pip-Buck symbol on her flank.

Really? A Pip-Buck? What was that even supposed to mean? That she was good at sorting inventory?

Still, they each had a look on their face and a pose which suggested they were meant for greater things --- you know, like those junky pre-War propaganda posters you run into here and there across the wastelands. The important thing was that they were doing a good job of knocking down No-Pony's villainous-looking Kings and Knights and Pages: a severe-looking pegasus in bug-like power armor here, a mechanical abomination there, sometimes even whole groups, like raiders, crammed into the small white rectangles.

It was like some kind of massive war. Bit by bit I built up haphazard arrays with the junk cards I pulled, but if not for the Jacks, this mess would have been over and done with long ago. It wasn't like there was really anything of value to be had in the end, but at this point just kicking No-Pony's raggedy old ass for wasting my time like this would be immensely satisfying. Pink-E was (blessedly) silent and still, watching each play with the rapt attention of a scavenger kid waiting for her parents to toss their dinner scraps her way.

After what seemed to be hours of hoof-chewing tension, No-Pony gave a sage nod. "That's it then," he said, stretching out in his chair with a crackling of bones that sounded like the distant pop-pop-pop of an assault rifle, "Done an' done."

I blinked, looking at the table. My Foal was narrowly victorious over No-Pony's Emperor, his Tower had defeated my Wheel by a similar margin, and we'd deadlocked at twenty-six points apiece over the Manehattan-Hoofington route. All I needed was to pull one more Jack to yank one of his cards from there and it would be a clean win. But No-Pony was pointing to my deck, which had run out. I snorted.

"You and I both know that's a load of brahmin-shit. When a Caravan player runs the deck, they just shuffle and keep playing!"

No-Pony barked a laugh. "Can't re-shuffle th' universe, young buck! But heck, you've been a pretty good sport about it, so I s'pose ya deserve a consolation prize." He bent over to one side, grabbed a ratty-looking old toy, and threw it at me. I caught it entirely by reflex, then found myself staring at what I'd caught: a lifeless, completely grey rag-doll wearing a set of suspenders a few shades darker.

"That's a genu-wine Smartypants cutie-doll, fella! Lost th' quill-pen an' notepad years ago, but she'll do well enough fer ya I s'pose. With a game like that one, you'll need all th' help ya can get."

My stare shifted to No-Pony, who'd gotten up and started walking to the door. The shackful of junk had once again re-arranged itself to reveal a single broad aisle to the door, without so much as a creak or clink, sometime during our game. I didn't need an invitation to hastily get up and follow on the cooter's fetlocks, nor did Pink-E, who actually jostled with me getting out the door.

He seemed a little younger in the early morning sun, as he stopped a moment to yawn and stretch out a bit --- wait, early morning? I checked the Pip-Buck's clock: we'd left the motel room exactly six minutes ago. Enough time to walk here, get in a fight, go inside the shack and come back out. And that was it. In disbelief, I looked back up into No-Pony's grin.

"There's more in th' heavens an' dirtside than dreamt of in yer filly-o-sophies, bucky --- now, ya want th' straight scoop or not?" I nodded dumbly, and he lit straight into his spiel like a professor of economics holding forth on the value of a gold standard for post-apocalyptic societies.

"Th' Moohave Desert's smack in th' middle of an X formed by th' Boneyard, th' Hub, New Braynan an' Phoenix. So th' Wheel, Foal, Tower an' Emperor all overlap here, a close match either way. It ain't a sure thing that'cha actually win or lose either one, but I does guar-an-tee it'll be a rough patch, no matter which-way.

"Th' Tower's chaos an' ruin, matched against th' Wheel of Fortune --- that's yer luck seein' ya through bad times, straight up. Way th' game ran, with all those Jacks? I'd say ya got a good run of that stuff, so use it anytime ya can. Trust fate t'seeya through, young'un."

My eyes rolled skyward, almost of their own accord. "Fate, fate, fate, my fat flank - ow!"

He'd kicked me in the shin. "I ain't done yet, foal! Which, by th' way, that's you --- th' Foal card, against th' Emperor. Ya got three guesses who that is, since there's only three folks what could be an emperor 'round these parts."

That'd be the Herd's Caesar, NCR's President Thimble... and, of course, Mr. Edwin Robert Horse, my employer.

"Star? That's hope, discovery, Foal's enlightenment --- but not yours, fer that route. That's where most've yer Jacks came in when we were goin' at it... they're th' Foals, that's their journey ta make, around Manehattan an' Hoofington way out east. But what happens t'them is still gonna end up contributin' ta yer own path... after a fashion."

He seemed to have finally wound down, taking out a corncob pipe and proceeding to stuff it with something I was pretty sure was plant-based and definitely sure wasn't tobacco. While he struck a match and puffed it to life, I mentally rolled the bits of craziness around. I didn't exactly need to right now, since escaping the shack, but given the surreality of the whole episode...

"So what about the Hanged Pony over Manehattan?"

Shaking his head slowly, No-Pony turned away. As he disappeared back into the insanity of his shack, he muttered, "That's all of us, young'un... that's all of us."

Pink-E and I just looked at each other for a moment, shrugged (her lack of a body not seeming to matter at the time), and started down the road towards Big Rock City. As the town of No-Pony faded away behind us, so did the sound of No-Pony's yelling:

"Naw, I dun want no motto-sickle insurance! What th' heck is a motto-sickle, anyways?!"

* * * * *

Anypony who says "the trip to Insert Destination Here was uneventful" is a liar.

Even if you never run into a single bandit, and even should you keep to what's left of the old roads, there's still the native fauna trying to take a bite out of your flank from time to time. To a lesser extent, so does the flora. The smarter caravaneers, mindful that ammo costs caps, tend to judge the best and worst routes by "bullets-per-mile"; I've never heard of a run that had a BPM of zero.

But by any standard, the trip up to Big Rock City was about as uneventful as a body could hope for. With the Imperial 15 effectively blockaded by the Diamond Dogs, I-95 became the only good road up to Pegas, so armed caravans making their way up and down the highway effectively plowed aside anything not capable of stopping them altogether. So far, none of the local gangs had tried anything more than picking off the occasional straggler.

So with a nice clear road before me and a full night of sleep behind, I adopted a relaxed, long-legged gait to chew away the miles. Pink-E, bobbing and humming happily alongside, managed to find a radio station that wasn't half-static and didn't have "Mr. New Pegas" running his overly-perky morning-DJ routine. Traveling music was a novelty to me --- most radios were heavy, clunky pre-War boxes that tended to shift around and break if they fell any significant distance.

Like, say, off the back of my dad's old caravan wagon.

As some newfoal calling himself "Radio Mike" introduced the next song, a sad-but-strangely-jaunty piece, I began to wonder about Whiskey Rose and how she was holding up back at the border post. That mule gal'd sure make some caravaneer a decent partner someday... smart, capable, quick on the draw... and at least the memory of our meeting gave me a little something to think about while the day, and the horizon, advanced.

Troubles by the numbers,

Heartaches by the score...

* * * * *

One thing about Big Rock City: it sure wasn't boring.

Nope. It was one big combination of quarry-working miners and bivouacked NCR troops, all crammed into a sprawling tent-city in addition to the remnants of what had once been the original city itself. When the Herd had swarmed Hoofer Dam, a major pre-War hydroelectric and irrigation project, the NCR couldn't stop them from crossing over and seizing most of Big Rock's old buildings. Vicious house-to-house fighting reduced the place almost entirely to ruins before the zebra-wanna-bes were finally shoved back across the river.

Both before and after the fight, the town's quarries had been the major source of new stone and gems for the repair and renovation of the dam itself, so the workers simply moved from crappy, leaky, run-down apartments to crappy, leaky, drafty tents. As you moved through the disorganized mess of miners, their tents eventually gave way to the more orderly chaos of the army's support area: supply dumps, medical pavillions, mess halls and officers' quarters clustered around the few real buildings still standing (which naturally included its one remaining saloon). Beyond that, it was all
soldiers until you hit the Dam itself.

Threading my way through the miners' camp, I tried to figure out why Benny and his Cossack goons had planned to come here in the first place.

It sure wasn't for the purpose of crossing the Dam into Herd territory. They could have gone cross-country from Nipton to any of several black-market trading ferries across the Coltorado --- the NCR and Herd might be at war with one another, but that didn't stop entreprenurial bucks from making illicit caps in both directions. Anypony wanting to keep a low profile would have slipped quietly across downriver, instead of having to announce themselves by begging the NCR for permission to cross at the Dam.

It made even less sense for the Cossacks to still be accompanying Benny this far. The NCR habitually shot any gangbangers on sight, and no Cossack ever hid their colors for any reason... not unless he wanted to be brutally murdered by the rest for being a coward. Cossacks got by as much on their reputation for sheer machismo as by their numbers; they didn't much mind thinning out the latter, if it meant preserving the former.

So whatever business my marks had, it was here on the miners' side of Big Rock City --- somewhere.

Not many ponies outside of the big NCR farms out west had ever really seen a "haystack", since usually the hay would be eaten or stolen before there was enough of it to stack up. But the idea of finding a needle in one seemed like it might be easier than finding anypony in the camp's packed-together maelstrom.

You couldn't see over any of the tents, or any further than a few rows deep, before your line of sight would be blocked. Nopony seemed to know or care where anything was unless it involved people or services they needed. Paths were cramped with ponies pushing and shoving to get where they wanted to go, scavengers set up one-pony salesrooms on tattered blankets in every open spot, camp followers and hustlers wandered around shouting where to go for anything from laundering to liquor to "legwarming"... now there was a euphemism I hadn't heard before. Well, at least the experience had been educational, so far.

With no real rhyme or reason to the camp's layout, my only real option was to make discreet inquiries to the sort of folks who might know...

"Candy and cookies and cake, oh my!" Pink-E yelled, plowing into a food vendor's stall.

"You gonna eat that?!" Aaaaand another one, two seconds later. Both stall owners, the moment their shock wore off, started brandishing shotguns and yelling for payment or death. Pink-E stopped, beamed, went "Okie-dokie-loki!", and licked the cream from a box of Fancy Buck snack cakes off her face with a single broad tongue-swipe.

Then she looked at me expectantly. As did the stall owners. As did the gaping barrels of their sawed-off smokewagons.

...right. Discreet inquiries, I noted mentally, as I paid out enough in caps to wipe out everything I'd made from my sales in No-Pony. Yes. Discretion would be good.

Having concluded the transactions, I grabbed Pink-E between my forehooves and dragged her down to earth, giving my best growling glare. In retrospect, I can't say why I thought this display of emotion might affect the programming of a machine in any way. I had simply gotten into the bad habit of treating a floating pony-head-robot like a real person, which was probably also why it didn't faze me that it was eating organic material instead of, say, spark batteries.

"Pink-E, I'm trying to keep a low profile here!"

I received a look of uncomprehending innocence for my trouble. "You ARE?"

"Yes! You're gonna blow my cover!"

That look shifted to nigh-cherubic levels. "I AM?"

"You are! And if you keep this up, we're gonna get..."

...I stopped and looked around. Aside from a few stares from passersby, who clearly thought my argument with a disembodied robot head was either a bad street performance or a sign of insanity, nopony seemed to care. I had no idea why I'd expected to find myself confronted with some sort of angry mob. For her part, Pink-E seemed to be disappointed that none such had materialized.

I shook my head free of surrealistic cobweb, tossing Pink-E aside to resume my search for the Cossacks. At least now she seemed somewhat subdued, hanging back slightly and humming to herself while I asked around about ponies in gang livery and checkered suits.

Fortunately, colorful types like the Cossacks made that easy. It was early afternoon when I found an ad-hoc tavern, cobbled together from several battered old pavilions, where four burly earth ponies sat around an old picnic bench busily drinking and laughing and occasionally punching or kicking one another.

When I say they were "colorful", I don't mean in terms of personality.

Each wore a longcoat of brilliant crimson, embroidered with wildly varying threadwork of green, gold, blue and silver. The intricate patterns could supposedly tell you anything about them, from tragedies of childhood to personal victories in battle. Broad yellow sashes tied across their barrel chests carried marks denoting their loyalties, clan affiliations, and lots of other information which for the most part I really didn't care about.

But what let you know that they were not ponies to be messed about with, were the HATS.

Nopony else in the wasteland, neither the Moohave nor anywhere else, would be caught dead wearing the sort of hats Cossack warriors favored. Literally. No qualified sniper could possible fail to notice the towering red stovepipes, with their squared-off tops and golden galloping-pony insignia. Broad black brims kept the sun out of the wearer's eyes, as well as lending the thing the air of a train's brahmin-catcher. In fact, looking right at a Cossack, you sort of got the impression that a steam engine was bearing down on you.

Perhaps that had been the idea from the beginning, because that was definitely the feeling my gut developed when one of the carousers elbowed his friend and suddenly all four of them turned to stare at me. The burliest buck of the lot, sporting a glossy-black beard and handlebar mustache to match his hide, grinned like he'd just spotted an unguarded sack of caps.

"Hoy! Can ve help you vit somet'ing, coltchik?" His friends laughed as though he were doing stand-up comedy at the Trots. I let a smile curl across my lip until the mirth died down.

"Why, as a matter of fact," I drawled out in a bit of dramatic license, "you can. Me and my friends're looking for a gentlecolt by name of Benny --- checkered outfit, New Pegas type. Traveling with a set of Cossacks, word is..."

By this time, they'd all risen from their benches and drawn down, grins and stares turning to frowns and glares. But Cossacks weren't known for wasting ammo at the drop of a mane, either... a fact I'd been counting on. Beard-O kept talking while the rest made quick scans of the area, obviously looking for my nonexistent "friends".

"Col'chik, you ask dangerous kvestions. Dangerous enough, mebbe, that you either very schmot guy mit lotsa backup, or chust really schtupid ballsy type. Keep talkink, mebbe ve find out vich, hah?"

Time to drop names.

"One of my friends is a Mr. E. R. Horse. His business is with Benny, which makes it my business. Were you interested in making it yours...?" The glares subsided into grumbles as the four sat back down and made an effort to regain interest in their drinks, Beard-O still scowling.

"Fine, vhatever. Benny drag us all over hell, ve keep his sorry city-soft flank in vun piece, ve all come here for divvying up. Undt zhen he bolts for Pegas de second ve ain't vatchin' him." He turned his head and spat. "You catch up mit Benny, you tell him turncoats ain't velcome in Kazhakh territory. Undt dot's a nize beeg territory, you betcha."

A dismissive hoof waved at me as he turned back to his own drink. "Ve done mit Horse, den."

Maybe if they hadn't already been drinking for a while, they might not've leapt to the assumption that Horse's concerns were solely with Benny. But the stud didn't just want his souvenir back, or Benny's head alone --- he wanted payback in full for the theft of his property. And he was paying good caps for dead ponies.

This situation didn't call for finesse. It called for point-blank murder. And after a few days of on-and-off fiddling with the Pip-Buck, I felt confident enough to give its Spell-Assisted-Targeting System another whirl. Mentally triggering the command slid me neatly between two unmoving instants in time, allowing a leisurely assessment of how I might most efficiently manage the job. Four shots to queue up, four hatted Cossack heads: no fancy mathematics here.

I almost felt sorry for the poor bastards; the first indication they could have had of my hostility was when I let go of S.A.T.S. and it began to move me through the paces. A flick of the neck, a firm nip, and my mouth was wrapped around the courier's old hard-worn ten-millimeter pistol, bringing it up on line with my first target: Beard-O. I'll never know if he noticed the look of surprise on his friend across the table. What I do know is that the hollowpoint round blew clear through the back of his skull, out his left eyeball, and into the chest of the pony opposite, knocking him over like a bowling pin.

PAM

Everypony around the tavern began reacting to the sound of the first shot, though to me they were barely more than flies trapped in amber. I was already unloading my second round into the stud who'd caught the blow-through from the first, finishing him off before he hit the ground.

PAM

My body simultaneously shifted right and spun left, forming an axis in perfect sync with the ten-mil's smoking barrel and the side of the third Cossack's noggin. Blood sprayed in an arc across the table.

PAM

The fourth, a lanky grey colt barely out of his foal teeth, might've been considered a fast draw... but against magical augmentation, he had no real chance. His oversized pistol never cleared the holster.

PAM

Just like that, it was over. Or at least, it was once I flashed my bounty marker at the tavern-keep, whose shotgun was out and propped on the counter in my direction moments after S.A.T.S. had run its course. It was the work of a minute to check the bodies for valuables and take the yellow sashes fluttering in the breeze as confirmation for the job done. On my way out, I tossed a shiny pre-War bit to the scowling proprietor.

"Sorry about the mess."

To the west, the high-rising casinos of New Pegas beckoned, none more clearly than the legendary Lucky Chance itself. With any luck, I'd catch "city-soft" Benny still on the road and give him the Cossacks' message --- as well as that of my employer. Ratcheting up to a full gallop as soon as I cleared the edge of the tent-city, I gave Pink-E a grin.

"Y'know what, 'bot? I think I feel like a little travelin' music. Let's have it."

I wasn't disappointed in her choice, either, though I wondered why I'd never heard anything like the hard-charging beat of this particular tune before:

When I get high, I get high on speed

Top fuel funny car's a drug for me

My heart, my heart!

Kickstart my heart!


Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Pinkie Sense (2)(of 5) -- from time to time, strange things seem to happen around you. Each level of this perk escalates the weirdness.

Aligned Perk: Twitchy Tail -- at the second level of Pinkie Sense, you start to have physical reactions to dangerous or unusual phenomena about to happen in your immediate vicinity, or to persons closely affiliated to you. While the meanings of these reactions are not immediately evident, they are consistent from event to event. The more unusual the event, the more severe the physical reactions, to the point where they can slow, immobilize, or even cripple you.

Aligned Companion Perk Radio a-Go-Go -- if Pink-E is a companion and you have Pinkie Sense, her symbiotic affinity with you increases. She is now able to pick up and broadcast strangely-appropriate radio signals from beyond the mythical "Fourth Wall", strictly for entertainment purposes.

Chapter 6: "Why Don't You Do Right?"

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CHAPTER SIX: "Why Don't You Do Right?"

"Like some other bucks dooooo..."

The highway from Big Rock to New Pegas was the single most-traveled road in the entire Moohave Wasteland, what with all the military traffic staging to Hoofer Dam from the NCR's central base at McMaren Airfield. At least twice a week a huge airship would disgorge another load of troops or supplies, take aboard any casualties and mail bound for parts west, and then putter away, while the newfoals marched off to their assigned duty stations throughout the Moohave --- most of which required starting out along that one road.

Add to this Big Rock's quarry workers heading the other way every weekend to blow their pay on a stab at high living, as well as the trade caravans piling in and out of New Pegas on a regular basis, and most predators of both the sapient and critter variety got smart enough to seek easier prey elsewhere. Plus, the road's strategic value meant the NCR routinely put some effort into filling in the bigger potholes.

So just a few hours of breezing along at the hard gallop brought us to the end of the traffic queue wending its way through New Pegas' eastern gate . We continued to breeze right through said traffic, ignoring the yells of "hey!", "dammit!" and "piss on ya!".

There's polite, and then there's five thousand bottlecaps worth of polite.

As we barreled through the gate and into the New Pegas suburb of "Freemane", me blowing flecks of overheated lather and Pink-E lip-miming the trumpet solo of a popular jazz number she'd found on the usual channels, my eyes were already peeled and scanning for welchers in checkered suits.

Our somewhat dramatic entrance collected only a few turned heads and raised eyebrows, before everypony went right back to whatever they were doing.

Like most other wasteland slums, Freemane was populated with the sort of people who really didn't care much about anything unless it was trying to kill them, or they thought they could make a few caps off of it. The difference was that here, there were a lot more of them, all packed together into pre-War office and tenement buildings that hadn't yet had the decency to collapse under their own weight and age. Freemane provided and served the cheap labor which New Pegas needed, but didn't want messing up the aesthetics by actually living there.

Access in and out of the actual Strip was controlled by a single heavily-fortified gate swarming with armed robots, which you weren't allowed to pass unless you either were an employee going to or from work, or had some serious cash to spend. Freemane's denizens obtained few benefits from Horse's benign overlordship beyond employment (which for the Moohave in general was a pretty good step up), but since Horse's 'bots only intervened when predatory gangs tried moving in on a permanent basis, the place proved the ancient adage: freedom's just another word for "nothing left to lose". Total freedom from government meant nopony had to do the dirty jobs of cleaning anything up or keeping order, so nopony did. Poverty, drug abuse, and a thriving black market were the common themes in a town whose inhabitants were too hooked on their weekly pay chits (or plain stubbornness) to pack up and leave.

It still beat what passed for a standard of living most elsewhere.

I finally slowed up enough to let my lungs catch up with the rest of me, which also helped me better deal with Freemane's incredible pong of rotting garbage, rotting buildings and rotting people. Ponies and mules alike walked the streets looking for work, or lounged on corners and in doorways looking for an easy score. Some, with half their teeth gone and breath foul enough to set a ghoul's hoof waving in disgust, staggered around pestering passersby to help with their starving children and medical expenses. None of the money they cadged ever seemed to make it beyond the saddlebags of the nearest dope peddler, though.

As if to punctuate the stench and sense of hopeless decay, a filth-caked griffin suddenly stuck most of her upper body out of a second-story window overhead and loudly expended the contents of her stomach straight down. The stream of chunky gray-green forced me to skip aside to avoid being spattered in one moment; in the next, I skidded up short to avoid a stampeding mob of blue-collar workers on their way either to the punchclock or the punchbowl.

Somewhere along the way, Pink-E had dropped the musical accompaniment to hover quietly along in my wake, a small mercy I didn't fail to briefly thank Celestia for.

Before long, we began encountering the next best thing to the pony I was looking for: street vendors hawking their trash and services. My first choice, a slatternly old mare who wouldn't shut up about the tricks she was sure she could do me, finally let me slip Benny's name and style in apparel in edgewise, then pointed out the direction he'd gone for the bargain price of twenty caps --- and just a few minutes ago, too.

He really was heading back to the Pegas Strip, whose absolute lord and master had a bounty out on his head! I couldn't believe either that I was that lucky or he was that stupid. There had to be some kind of angle, some elaborate play in the works. Maybe he'd dropped off or hidden Horse's poker chip somewhere as insurance, which would be a smart move, given that Horse was willing to pay five grand for its return. Benny and his Cossack goons put together were only worth five hundred, a pittance by comparison.

And I intended to earn every cap. I'd bust all four of Benny's knees with brass hoof-knuckles to find out where the chip was, if I had to. Having gotten most of my wind back, I put hoof to pavement and broke to gallop, dodging everypony and everything in my way. Pink-E zipped along above, high enough to avoid it all.

Whipping around two mules pulling a dilapidated cart, I spotted a glimpse of black-on-white, the back of a slick, well-coiffed mane perched atop a fine nice suit jacket. A jacket which, as I rapidly closed, resolved into a lovely black-and-white checkerboard pattern. Just as lovely as the clinking of five thousand caps in my saddlebags. The bastard was mine!

This, apparently, was too much for Pink-E's sense of excitement; she let out a high squeal of nervous glee that made me wince reflexively in mid-stride.

Benny looked over his shoulder at the bright pink pony head floating above --- and then at me, bearing down on him at speed. His casual, honey-brown eyes suddenly grew very round and tiny.

And he bolted.

GODS-DAMNIT!

Less than fifty yards separated us when he started running. We were down to ten by the time he got up to speed. He had the fear of a prey animal lending him adrenaline, I had the hunger of a bottlecap-fed predator tapping my inner reserves.

He broke right, down an alley; I stayed with him. He bounced off a garbage bin and over a wall; I followed. He threw garbage in my path; I dodged, leapt, smashed through.

The hairs of his tail were almost in snapping distance when a chicken ran in front of Benny. He jumped it easily.

I would have too, if it hadn't been for the pack of three little fillies chasing the chicken. Them, I slammed into at full bore.

My forelegs were clipped out from under as neatly as if I'd hit a tripwire, sending me into a flying, flailing, wailing half-somersault. The impromptu acrobatics ended with my rump in the air, and my chin scraping asphalt, until I hit the hulk of a rusted-out airwagon. I barely had time to pick myself up and shake the stars out of my vision, before Benny made it to the Strip checkpoint. He flashed something at the 'bots and started inside, but not before taking a moment to look back over his shoulder and flick his glossy black tail in a teasing motion.

"Sorry, kid. For you, it just wasn't in the cards."

And then he and Horse's five-thousand-bottlecap poker chip were gone.

"Oooooh," clucked Pink-E, bobbing innocently overhead. "Too bad. B-GAWK!"

* * * * *

The Atomic Bronco could have defined the word "seedy" for any dictionary, even one written by a schoolfilly or perhaps a chicken.

The proprietors of the combination casino-and-flophouse put only enough caps into its maintenance to keep the slot machines running, the booze and drugs flowing, and the walls from falling in. The latter looked like they might have been painted over, in a fit of misplaced optimism, when the place was first opened fifty years ago. Now, it was just another place for locals foalish enough to gamble what little they had, as well as the low-rent tourists too poor to get into the Pegas Strip proper.

Like me.

Then again, I wasn't here for the decor, the blackjack tables, or the slots. I was here to get completely shitfaced on whatever I still had left to spend or barter with, then go find a new contract on somepony that somepony else needed dead. With any luck --- and I wasn't counting on it --- I could at least turn in my markers on the dead Cossacks and make a few hundred caps for the kills.

But I'd missed the big score, the five thousand for getting that godsdamned poker chip from Benny. That would've been enough for me to fort up somewhere relatively safe, stockpile some food and ammo, maybe even live out the rest of my life in what passed for a peaceful (if frugal) existence in the Moohave. So close... I'd been so close... best not to think about it. Best to get something in between my brain and remembering what I didn't want to think about. I signaled the bartender, a mule in a cheap suit and red tie with what looked like a permanent scowl.

He signaled back, in no uncertain or polite gestures, that he already had his hooves full with a group of five of the aforementioned cheap tourists, who nonetheless almost certainly had more money to spend than I did. As I waited my turn, I began stewing over all the people and events that had delayed me time and again, that had given Benny those critical few seconds to escape my hooves.

Fucking Mite-ys and their grandiose shoot-'em-up takeover plans. Fucking Deputy Deagle, getting himself caught spying on Benny so I had to go find his dead-and-battered carcass. Fucking dead relatives and their lame-ass tourist traps, gassing me and sticking me with a loudmouth of a fucking robot head. Fucking Diamond Dogs, blowing the pass, forcing me to go all the way the hell around Nipton --- hell, fuck that one Mite-y hanging on the cross, and fuck me for bothering to talk to him! Even that one conversation blew time I knew I couldn't afford to waste!

The stew in my skull-cauldron was quickly boiling over. Fucking gangs and their fucking ambushes, why couldn't they have slowed up Benny half as badly as they did me?! At least the Cossacks were straight-up with their info. If I hadn't been so fucking greedy, I might've remembered my contract requires me to nail ALL of the thieves to get that five hundred caps, which INCLUDES Benny, so without Benny dead I might not even get... aw FUCK...

By the time the bartender clopped his way down the bar to me, I was ready to chew glass.

"Ya want somethin', it's caps up front. We ain't a charity -" I dug into my saddlebag, took out a small pouch of about a hundred caps and slammed it down with a chink.

"Do yourself a favor. Shut the fuck up, gimme the best bottle of hooch you've got on that wall behind you, and if you don't smart-ass me again, you can keeping the fucking change. Got it?" He bit back what was probably an habitual snark, pulled a fifth of tequila in a silver label down from the wall, and scooted it across to me with a shotglass. A clean one, even. Guess he wanted that tip.

He even managed a polite tone. "That's Tres Generaciones, last of our pre-War stuff. Enjoy your stay at the Atomic Bronco, sir." I shrugged as he pocketed the pouch and left me the hell alone, which was what I really wanted anyways.

Of course, I wasn't actually going to get that, was I?

Pink-E's face took on a warning frown. "Cherry... you promised..."

I grabbed the cork in my teeth and popped it out, then poured a shot. Time enough, later, to lose all sense of classiness and just swig from the bottle. For now, I needed the bracing sense of civilization that only a clean and measured shot of hard booze could give. "Fuck you, 'bot, and fuck your Pinkie-Pie-Swear brahmin-crap. Right now, I need this like you wouldn't believe."

The robot head of Pinkie Pie floated across the bar, dipped her muzzle, and knocked over my drink.

I... in that moment, there were simply no words. There was nothing except a deep-red rage rooting me to the spot like a statue, my very mane feeling like it might explode into balefire at any moment. The part of my brain which first recovered some level of cognizance reminded me that, if I lost it now, it wouldn't end with Pink-E. Casino security would be all over me, with the aim of making an example out of anypony that dared to disturb their other paying customers. Especially if I did what I really wanted to, and stuffed my hold-out pistol into the pink pony-head's mouth before pulling the trigger...

But I just had to kill her! NOW! Somehow! It needed to happen!

While I stood there in full-body seizure, making inarticulate noises, Pink-E calmly nosed the cork back into the bottle and stowed it in my saddlebags. After all, it was still an item of value for potential resale, which my Pip-Buck immediately assessed as being worth fifty caps. Now I wanted to kill the bartender, too.

Perhaps it was because I wanted so many ponies dead, but couldn't put my hooves on them right just then, that I suddenly deflated. Slumping forward and flopping my head onto the bar in surrender, I moaned, "I give up. I just give the fuck up. Somepony shoot me. What else do I have to live for at this point? My contract is blown, most of my caps are blown, the entire last week has been a total waste, and now I can't even get a Luna-damned drink in peace."

Pink-E made a disapproving face at me. "You're looking at this all wrong. You need money, to get into the Strip, to find that guy you're after, and get that thingy you want from him, right?"

I turned my eyes, not bothering with the rest of my head, to stare at her. "Yeah. FIVE THOUSAND CAPS. I'm sure I can find that kind of cash lying around just anywhere, huh 'bot? If I even had that kinda money, I wouldn't've taken this job in the first place!"

She snorted and rolled her eyes dramatically. "It's like that crazy old pony said, Cherry! You just have to trust to fate!"

I snorted back, harder. "Fate's a load of horseapples. We all make our own way in the world, and Luna takes the hindmost."

Now Pink-E looked thoroughly offended.

"Hmph! That's just an old mare's tale, Princess Luna never gobbled anypony's hindmost! How would she even do that when most ponies were almost as big as she was, anyways?! I mean, duuuh! Besides that, she was one of the nicest ponies your great-great-grandaunt ever met!"

My stare intensified for a moment until I remembered that talking about my dead relations chumming around with a hindmost-gobbling goddess was standard Pink-E insanity. For another moment I wondered if a robot really could be insane, if robots didn't have minds to be sane to start with. "Whatever. Point is, I don't gamble. That's a sucker's road."

Pink-E began bouncing up and down excitedly in a complete reversal of attitude. "Well, you did pretty well in No-Pony, didn't you? I was watching the whoooooole time! That guy was a master at Caravan, and you almost beat him!" She nodded rapidly, encouraging me to agree with her.

Not happening. "Pfeh. 'Almost' only works with horseshoes, grenades, and balefire bombs. The only reason I even came close was because I kept drawing all those jacks. Pure dumb random luck..." I stopped and facehoofed, realizing too late what my mouth had just trotted itself into.

Sure enough, Pink-E cocked her head slightly and her blue eyes went sly. "Pure luck, huh...? I'll bet you a whole day of silence that you can win that five thousand caps right here, in just three big-bet spins. Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye."

I stopped short of reminding her that she didn't have a body to house a heart in, that she flew around as her standard means of mobility, and that if I had a cupcake, I'd eat it instead of wasting it on obscuring her optics. Was it really worth three maximum-bet slot spins, at two hundred caps each, for a single day of Pink-E not nagging me? Not squealing in my ear? Not blasting her radio all over town? A whole day of peace and quiet, plus my getting to be smug about proving to a stupid robot that it was just plain wrong?

A week ago I'd have laughed at the idea of wasting my money on something so pointless. Now...?

"Oh, it. Is. ON."

* * * * *

If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I picked out a machine at random, planted my haunches on the rickety short stool in front of it (wondering what weird tradition demanded the stool be there in the first place), plunked a pair of one-hundred-cap casino chips into the slot, rubbed my hooves together for luck, and yanked the lever like I was cocking the bolt on the world's biggest hunting rifle. The wheels spun through their hypnotic, routine-inducing pattern...

whizzzzzzz-clunk A cherry. I supposed that was appropriate for me, but it was hardly promising. I may not have been a gambler, but I knew as well as anypony that the one-cherry payoff was the way casinos kept you playing for the long haul. Frequent little rewards, but not too frequent, as you fed chip after chip into the machine...

whizzzzzzz-clunk Another cherry. Huh. That was uncommon, but not overly so, a somewhat bigger payoff than a single. It just meant I wouldn't be out quite as many caps for the promised silent day...

whizzzzzzz-clunk Another cherry. Wait, all three?

DINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDING!

Dozens of chips rattled down the chute into the reward box in a measured series of clink-clink-clinks.

I won?

A big blond-on-white draft pony with a natty grey suit and a bedraggled cigarette hanging from his lip trotted up, pounding out applause on the floorboards with every step. "Winner, winner, winner, we gots a big winner here! Everyone's a winner when they play at the Atomic Bronco, folks!" His rump rash was hidden under flank-pouches carrying the casino symbol and colors, a black pony in rodeo gear bucking a red Diamond Dog off its back. From one pouch, a deft nip pulled forth a voucher, which he presented to me with all the flourish of somepony trying to let nearby patrons know that they should keep blowing their cash here if they wanted a chance at similar respect.

"There you are, sir, one free ticket to our fabulous theatre venue, tonight showing the classically-comedic talents of Madame LeFlour and Sir Lints-A-Lot! Courtesy of the Atomic Bronco, our thanks to you for your patronage today!"

I won!

My hoof reached out numbly to take the proffered slip of paper, an aged and stained thing that obviously had been the object of hundreds of similar presentations. "Er...thanks." The floor boss had already turned and walked away, trailing a cloud of nicotine, his job having been finished the second he let go of the ticket.

I blinked, then counted up my winnings while Pink-E beamed like a wasteland mother proud of her foal's first kill. It couldn't have been that easy, I thought... and I was right. A check of the payout chart plastered to the side of the machine showed that three cherries was actually the smallest jackpot you could win, short of the single- and double-cherry payouts. Still, that was ten times my bet... two thousand caps!

A huge grin crept across my face to replace the knock-me-over-with-a-tin-can look. Even if I completely busted on the other two spins, this was enough right here to make the entire trip profitable by a fair margin! The greedy little pony in my head was turning cartwheels and backflips, tempting me to join in.

I WON!

"Gee, Cherry," came Pink-E's syrupy i-told-you-so, "that's not bad for your first spin!"

Oooooh, I was so going to enjoy my Day of Silent Robot-Head. I wasn't even in the mood to argue; so what? It's called 'Beginner's Luck' for a reason. I plunked in two more hundred-cap chips and pulled the handle again.

Whizzzzzzz-clunk, cherry, whizzzzzzz-clunk, bell, whizzzzzzz-clunk, orange. DINGDING!, out clinked the two-for-one payoff for a single cherry. Nothing to sneeze at, but my smile stayed in place.

Peace and quiet, here I come! In went my two chips. This time, I grabbed the handle of the one-armed bandit with both hooves and an air of authority before yanking it back.

whizzzzzzz-clunk Orange. Hah! That was that. Three oranges were the top jackpot, a hundred-to-one payoff. The best I was going to do was another cherry or two. Dead-Shot rules, Pink-E drools!

whizzzzzzz-clunk Another orange. Now that was the standard sucker-bait: promise a big payoff on the second wheel, get the player dreaming about a third-wheel match so that they blow all their previous winnings chasing that particular myth. There was no way in Discord's Hell or Celestia's Heaven that...

whizzzzzzz-clunk Another orange.

Everything seemed to happen at once. Pink-E started cheering and bouncing around like crazy, the machine's dinging went mad, chips started pouring out of the slot and wouldn't stop, lights began flashing all over the place, and everypony turned to stare with their jaws hanging open. The floor boss, who'd just gotten comfy against a doorjamb, at first looked annoyed that he was actually being called upon to do his routine again, and then more annoyed that it was me instead of another player he was having to do it for, and finally shocked that somepony had actually hit The Big One. He jolted into a trot towards me.

"WINNAH WINNAH WINNAH, BIG WINNAH HERE! Nopony wins like everypony wins at the Atomic Bronco, yessir, you bet! Looks like we have our Player of the Day, don't we folks?" Several of the casino's security types began carefully moving into the periphery, making me a little nervous. "Now back up, folks, back up, give the stud some room, big day, big winner!" I hadn't noticed anypony getting any closer, aside from the floor boss and his troops...

The big draft grinned hugely, presented another voucher --- this one almost perfectly pristine --- and hoofed it over to me. "There you are, sir, yet another big reward for your victorious display at the Atomic Bronco! All drinks for you and your friends, this night only, are on the house."

NOW there was a sudden swarm of gamblers leaving their machines and trying to converge on me, which the security types held off with some effort. The floor boss just turned his smile on them: "Easy, easy, everypony! Give the stud his space! Enough time to make some friends at the bar!" That seemed to be cue enough for most of them, at least those who didn't want to keep watching the show. The room began to empty as everypony began piling up at the bar, yelling their orders and pointing their hooves at me.

Unbidden, something in my head went: Dear Princess Celestia, today I discovered something new about friendship...

Then the big draft was posing with me, a foreleg wrapped across my shoulders, while somepony with a camera appeared out of nowhere to snap a quick picture for the casino's inevitable "wall of winners". As soon as the bulb popped, a whisper sounded in my ear. "Get'cher chips off the floor, cash out, and don't come back in here. You're good for your drinks and entertainment, but you're done taking our money."

Pink-E harrumphed as the floor boss and casino security melted away, somehow taking the rest of the crowd with them, while I hastily grabbed up the slot-spilled wealth.

"Well, that's just rude of them! How do they expect ponies to come back if they don't like when they win?"

I shrugged and started for the cashier's booth with my saddlebags a-clinking. "They only want folks to win big enough, often enough to tempt others to keep losing, Pink-E. They hope that even the big winners will have been long-time players who spent more money previously than they won in the end. Somepony like me, walking in here and winning huge like this? They want the publicity they can milk out of it to draw other players in, but in the end it's still a business and losing money isn't how they make a profit."

The stonefaced cashier took my chips, gave me my winnings in a big leather valise that I stuffed into one of my saddlebags, and nodded a good-bye. Leaning slightly to one side under the weight of my newfound fortune, I walked into the bar lounge towards the exit with Pink-E in tow...

* * * * *

...and didn't make it out of the casino until well after midnight.

How could I have left any earlier? Should I have left all my new friends to drink alone? I was suddenly the toast of Freemane, the source of free booze for any pony, mule, griffin, or even buffalo whom I was willing to point a hoof at and call "friend". Ponies would have a few drinks, then go run and get their friends, and my "authority hoof" would get a workout, smiles and grins beaming all around while the looks on the bartenders and casino staff got stonier and stonier. It was diplomatically pointed out that as soon as I left the casino, the deal was off, which was repeated somewhat less and less diplomatically as the evening wore on.

I responded to the pressure by digging in my hooves and staying put. Ban me, will they? Then try to welch out on the free booze for all my friends? Fuck 'em!

By the time the sun set, it was a full-blown block party with radios propped in tenement windows blasting whatever anypony could get reception for, and happy drunkards cheering and dancing and swaying in the streets (except for when they were puking in the alleys). I couldn't leave the casino, but they could, and they had to, as the place itself was completely packed. Some of the partiers gambled while they were there, but it was obvious that the Atomic Bronco was hemorrhaging cash at a prodigious rate.

And, well, I started drinking too. What else was I going to do in a casino where I couldn't gamble?

At first, Pink-E tried knocking over my drink again, which worked exactly once. The mule bartender's eyes lit up like he'd just been given a cattle prod and carte blanche, and he wasted no time in warning me that if I couldn't keep my robot under control I'd be ejected. The party would be over.

The crowd practically ponypiled on Pink-E at that point, with two big beefy buffaloes volunteering to take turns sitting on her. That was enough to get a promise out of her not to spill anything else, which she was not happy with. Which made me that much happier, of course.

With her interference out of the way, I ordered my first whiskey double and motioned to keep 'em coming. I'd come in with getting shitfaced on my itinerary, after all. Tonight I was surrounded by friends, the booze was free, and I had the perfect opportunity to mark that box off my checklist. So why not?

I almost had that first shot down the hatch before Pink-E completely lost her cheese.

oooOOOooo

"I had heard about conniption fits," said the exotic zebra comedian, during the one time my dad had taken me to a real New Pegas show, "but I had never seen one. My wife's eyes receded into their sockets, to be replaced with pits of hell-fire. The skin, on her face, pulled so far back that I was able to trace the lines of her skull. Her voice reached a pitch reserved only for the demon-foals of the Ninth Abyss, and in that voice, she pointed at me and said: 'WHERE. IS. MY. CHOCOLATE CAKE?!' "

oooOOOooo

That's what went through my head as the basic idea of a conniption fit. The reality of a Pink-E scorned was worse.

Blue eyes became brands of orange flame. Pink rubbery skin drew so taut over her cheeks and muzzle that rivets and armatures beneath drew into sharp relief. She actually vented steam through not only her ears and nostrils, but also the top of her head where no pony would ever properly have a hole for anything to escape. Her mane flared straight up to form a mohawk from Hell, coruscating with electric-blue arcs that writhed and snapped. And she screamed, in proper demon-foal pitch:

"NOPONY BREAKS A PINK-E PROMISE!"

She was promptly buried under both of the buffalo, five ponies, and a griffin.

If anything, the screeching got louder, despite being muffled by layers of bodies, but I didn't give a damn. So long as she wasn't exploding anyone's head with her stupid hypno-eye routine, and it kept her out of my way, I was happy enough to sit there and grin at the futile fracas.

Pink-E's yelling and struggling soon became lost amid the clapping and back-patting and cheering from all my other new friends, so at last I got to have my drink... and another one, and then another... ooh, what's a Horsey Wallbanger? Let me try that! I drank and grinned and yelled and danced and I could do no wrong with the lovely, beautiful citizens of glorious Freemane...

Late in the evening there was a brief argument with management, where it was suggested very strongly that I depart, to which I protested that I hadn't seen my free theatre show yet. Faster than you could say "let's get outta Creepytown", the little side-theatre room was crammed with an audience easily four times its normal capacity, to the point that it's hard to imagine anypony else who could have wedged in there.

Pink-E sure couldn't. Each time she tried, she was grabbed and ejected forcibly by the crowd. At some point, somepony called her a "party-pooper", after which she puttered off somewhere to fume and sulk while the show went on.

And what to say about the show...? It was hilarious! I can't remember much of it except that it was funny... things were already a bit blurry by that time. Okay, a LOT blurry. Which might have helped explain why it was funny that a pony-sized bag of flour and an equally giant wad of lint were throwing pies and one-liners at one another across a stage. Pink-E probably would have loved it, if she could have just loosened up enough to be a little more sociable. At least, that's what I thought at the time...

Everyone laughed, everyone drank, everyone threw coins and chips and occasionally bottles when things got a little too out of hand, and when the show was over, and Madame LaFlour took a bow alongside Sirs Lints-A-Lot, the crowd cheered and piled out of the theatre and I went right along with them.

Right along with the tide of partiers, flowing out of the theatre under the more or less gentle guidance of casino security, right out the door which slammed behind me.

Oh. The OTHER door. To the alley outside...

Whoops.

Fortunately, nopony seemed to hold it much against me. There was a lot more back-clapping and a last cheer, some raucous shouts at one another as we parted ways (and some less-salutory phrases at the doors of the Atomic Bronco, which had locked down), and then everypony just sort of meandered off down the streets.

Leaving me to stagger on along, alone, happily singing every stupid song that came to mind, higher than a pegasus on rocket fuel and feeling better than I could remember ever feeling before. After a few minutes I noticed the familiar hum of a levitation talisman and looked behind me to find Pink-E floating along. Her silent, sullen look accused me of every crime the world had ever suffered.

Well, fuck her, if she couldn't be happy for me. I was rich now!

Fuck Mr. Horse's contract too, I had more than four times what he would've paid me for his stupid little poker chip! Twenty-two thousand bottlecaps in my bag, hundreds of wonderful friends who loved me, and as soon as I found a place to crash for the night...

Suddenly the night crashed in on me, from out of the dark alley I only just noticed I was passing. WHACK, went an old police-issue baton against my head.

Oooh, stars! The stars at night, are big and bright...

WHACK WHACK WHACK

Way deep down iiiiiin my brainpan...!

>>>oOo<<<

Dark, cold, underwater. Not drowning this time, exactly, mainly because it seemed that I didn't really have to breathe at all. It was just that I really really wanted to. But since I wasn't drowning, I relaxed as best I could and drifted, legs hanging loose on my body, letting the water carry me where it would.

All around swirled flakes of simulated snow, some of which would alight on my withers and rump as I floated bonelessly along and alone, inches above the brown plastic ground.

Alone.

Where were my friends? I couldn't see anything beyond the little circle of light I drifted within, spotlighting my course from somewhere far above, blinding me to whatever might lie ahead. Only muffled noises reached my ears through the thick weight of surrounding liquid, making no sense to me at all, just a jumble of broken consonants and vowels slurred through wavelengths carved in graphite.

This time, it didn't terrify me that I was in a giant snowglobe. Somehow I knew, and I also knew I deserved this. Wanted this. Wanted to be left to unyielding isolation, but still protected by the glass bubble surrounding. The glass held in the water, keeping me cold and uncomfortable, but wasn't that the price for what I wanted? I couldn't have the bubble if I didn't have the water. What else would go inside a snowglobe?

The snowflakes kept piling up, their slight weight pushing me slowly downwards. My hooves touched the plastic vacu-formed pebble-patterns that made mockery of the earth from which my ancestors drew their vaunted strength. I didn't care enough to support myself, letting the snow push me to my knees and then my belly, where I drew my legs up beneath me and settled into a mounting hillock of white. The flakes came pouring down, slow but sure, coating my body and the ground in a thick cold blanket that stirred only by the sluggish currents of all-engulfing water.

I laid down my head upon a drift of white falsehoods and let myself be buried alive...

<<< oOo >>>

Oh gods. Oh gods.

For long minutes, I thought I'd simply shifted into a new nightmare where the only parts of my body I could feel were the eyes and brain, both of which were lit from end to end with white-hot branding irons.

Luna drill my ass, it hurts! AUGH!

The evil, hateful, horrible sun was trying to burn my eyes from their sockets; attempting even the slightest squint made me hiss and wince like a stabbed bloatsprite. Cursing Celestia's name with a tongue that wouldn't obey, I tried shielding my face, but found the rest of my body to be in a state of insurrection as well. Hell, I could barely feel my extremities, let alone move them!

A shrill, disapproving voice hammered on my eardrums from above. "Well, I hope you're happy!"

Oh gods and goddesses of faith and mercy, murder me now. Driven by the need to put something between myself and that noise, I somehow managed to drag my forehooves up to cover my face. The shade soothed my eyes a little... just enough that I began to notice the headache that had been pounding behind my sinuses all along.

Pink-E had me completely at her mercy, and, being a robot, she didn't have any. "You broke a Pink-E promise! You got drunk! Alcohol is addictive, and you promised you'd never use anything addictive ever again! And that's why those ponies were able to beat you up and steal your money, and there aren't any other big casinos outside the Strip and now you won't get to see Mister Horse and everypony is going to die all over again and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!"

I wailed something inarticulate and tried to roll over in hopes of digging my way to some sort of safety, away from crazy robots and their pain-inducing volume. The results were less than stellar, ending with my head in a musty old wooden crate full of grungy oil cans and a stinging pain in my rump, but I was heartened slightly in that both were distinct improvements over my previous state.

The respite from sunlight afforded by the crate, plus the muffling effect all those oilcans had on Pink-E's voice, gave me a better chance to assess the situation. Peering carefully outside my dubious shelter revealed the inside of the dumpster I apparently had spent the night in, half-full of everything that even a town full of impoverished bums didn't want. I'd probably caught three new diseases in the last eight hours, judging by the smell alone.

My headache had two sources: internal, from my brain exacting its vengeance for the abuse heaped upon it last night, and external, from a series of lumps on the back of my head. They seemed to throb in time with each other, producing bursts of pain in metronome-like stereo.

That sharp pain in my flank wasn't going away, either. I reached down a hoof to smack away what I thought must have been a radroach, only to feel the fluttering of paper.

What the hell...?

My hoof came back smeared with blood, obviously drawn by the steel tack somepony had used to fasten a note to my butt: "Thanx 4 a grate nite, was fun, thanx for caps 2 ~ schmuck!"

I'd been rolled by a bunch of illiterates who thought swapping numbers for words made them witty. My aches and pains began to slowly subside into the background of a rising, simmering rage. Twenty-two thousand caps... twenty-two thousand caps! A fortune I hadn't had to kill anypony for (not that there was anything wrong with that), had gotten by honest means, and which I wouldn't have lost except I'd wanted to be nice to other ponies! Well, that, and if I were honest with myself, because I'd also wanted to give the casino a little payback for being winner-banning jerks.

Now that I knew what all was wrong with me, I slowly heaved myself towards the lip of the dumpster, a movement which my internal workings immediately decided was a red-line manuever. Okay, so I hadn't discovered everything that was wrong --- something awful blasted up my throat so fast that I couldn't open my mouth in time. Instead, acidic bile blew out my nostrils in long burning streams.

Oh GODS!

My next few minutes were spent as a miserable pile of coughing, puking, hacking, gasping equine refuse. How could I have gotten this drunk?! How could anypony?! My gut clenched up hard, puking up gallon after gallon of the alcohol poisoning it hadn't yet been able to filter through, almost as fast as I could inhale what passed for air in the vicinity. The dumpster began to get dangerously sloshy as I ran out of niches to deposit my latest exhumations. Finally I ran out of liquids to hurl, which didn't stop my stomach from trying to produce more with dry-heave after dry-heave. Every time I thought it was over, I'd breathe a sigh, catch a whiff of myself, and start in all over again.

When at last I was able to drag myself from the dumpster and fall bonelessly to the blessed asphalt paving the alleyway, I had absolutely no will to live. I was a pony-shaped slug, smeared with the slime of my own barfing and only needing a nice coating of salt to finish the job.

No... wait. I couldn't. I couldn't just lay here.

Twenty-two thousand bottlecaps in a leather valise.

It wasn't the promise of a better life that moved me. It was the need to end someone else's.

I lifted one hoof, braced it against the ground. Shoved. Got a hindleg under me, pushed up, caught myself on the other leg, stood up... and stumbled left until I hit the wall of the nearest building. Slightly less slug-like than I felt, I slid along the wall until I reached the corner... I was missing something, here. What was it? I looked over my shoulder.

Pink-E.

She hovered there, silently crying. She'd been crying for some time, by the look of it. Huge drops of water welled up in those blue eyes to slide down the tear-shiny rubber of her face before plopping quietly upon the ground. How long had I been in that can, spewing my guts, while she wept? The little 'bot sniffled and scrunched up her muzzle.

"Cherry...? What are we going to do? How can we fix this...?"

I was done wondering how the hell anyone had programmed a robot to have such complex emotions. I wasn't even in condition to think on that level at the moment, in any case. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and concentrate on working my tongue.

"Not we, Pink-E. Me. I'm going after them."

She blinked with surprise. "How? I mean, I couldn't follow them, I had to stay here and make sure you were okay, so all I have is the telemetry I tracked before the ground clutter got too thick and I don't know -"

I managed to lift a hoof and still stay balanced long enough to weakly wave her down. "If that's not already on my PipBuck, get it there. Don't have a lotta time to debate this, right now..." She looked ready to argue until I shot her my best try at a glare, though my heart wasn't in it. I hacked up a last chunk of something I should never have put in my body in the first place, found a little more strength somewhere inside, and pushed off the corner to stand more or less solid on my own four hooves.

"There's one sort of pony you never want to cross and leave alive, Pink-E --- a professional bounty hunter. I took a contract. And..."

I blew out in a long sigh, snuffing the last of my resistance to this madness.

"I made a promise. I did. I broke it. So I'll fix it." I told her where to wait and watch for me, checked my PipBuck, and headed back towards the Atomic Bronco. They'd taken my guns when I trotted in yesterday, and I was going to need those back...


Footnote: Level Up.

Skill Note: Survival (25)

Chapter 7: Viva, New Pegas

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CHAPTER SEVEN: Viva, New Pegas

"Hail to the King, baby."

It wasn't that I felt particularly dashing or altruistic in heading out alone. It wasn't even that I felt this was something I had to do myself, though it kind of was.

It was just that finding the future geldings who stole my bottlecaps called for a little subtlety, which Pink-E was pretty much the antithesis of. If I'd been acting like the clever pony I'm supposed to be, I'd have had her stay outside Freemane while I searched for Benny to begin with. Instead, I'd gotten sloppy in my haste to make the collar, and gone running around with what amounted to a giant pink bobble-head strapped to my tail.

That was unprofessional of me. Which was not the way a bounty hunter earns his pay.

According to the tracking telemetry downloaded to my PipBuck, the sons-of-bitches had run a couple of blocks into the old warehouse district, paused for a while just inside one of the buildings, and then split off in three directions. Since there'd originally been four muggers according to Pink-E's data, I had a good idea of what I'd find at the warehouse itself...

The hangover was still roaring along when I reached the streetside loading dock of a wreckage pile that didn't look like it could house a rat, let alone a quartet of conspirators. Which was, of course, what made it perfect for just that purpose. I ducked under a large sign, propped up too-casually against a ruined wall with weathered letters too far gone to read. Sure enough, there was a scrabble-hole behind, barely large enough for a pony to squirm through.

I did just that, the ten-mil held in my mouth, praying I wouldn't have to actually fire the damned thing. My head was already trying to hammer itself apart, and I didn't need the recoil and loud noise helping it.

Once out of the sunlight, my eyes quickly adjusted to the much more comforting gloom. Somepony had hollowed out the rubble, shoring it up with chunks of concrete and rusty rebar, a cozy enough hideaway that had clearly seen a wide variety of tenants and visitors over the years if the litter and graffiti was anything to go by. Enough sunlight filtered through patches of debris to dimly illuminate the room in a patchwork fashion, revealing the form of a pony laying against the far wall in a wide pool of congealing blood, his breathing fast and shallow.

"Wh-who's there...?"

He was in a bad way. First they'd pounded him down, his red hide still showing numerous purple baton-shaped bruises from that go-around, and then stabbed him repeatedly once he was defenseless. He'd been lying in his own blood long enough that it was impossible to tell what color his mane had started out as.

"A friend. Or, at least, I was last night." I could see the whites of his eyes go wider.

"I'm... I'm sorry..." The apology trailed off in the face of the obvious: he was sorry he hadn't gotten away with it. Sorry his friends had turned on him. Sorry he wasn't getting high or drunk or laid in the swankiest spots on the Strip right now, at my expense.

"I know. Now tell me where the others went. "

He seemed to deflate. "I'm gonna die, aren't I?" As though to punctuate the observation, he coughed.

It was a bit of work to keep my voice even and deliver the lie convincingly. "Depends. I just want my money back. Good info's worth a little assistance."

He swallowed so hard I could hear it. "They... we hit ya to pay off debts. Tag-End owes a guy called Espresso on the west side, deals heavy weapons under the table at his place. Ess-Mart, can't miss it, right there on the main drag.

"Jerky Buck got caught running an insurance shakedown in Lords turf. He'll be meeting up with their coolio this afternoon about a block from here at Fourth and Mane... heh. Good luck on that one. Dunno where ya'd find Jerky before the meet, and Lords don't share." The buck coughed again, harder, spitting up blood. When he got his breath back, he gave me his best imploring look. "If ya got a healing potion or something, now's the time..."

I kept the ten-mil trained on him and hoofed a vial out of my saddlebags, shoving it across the floor in his direction. When he moved for it, I made a show of re-aiming the pistol. "You know the drill. Payment before delivery."

His brown eyes went to the vial and he licked his lips, one hoof pressed to a wad of dirty shirt he was using to try and stanch the worst of his wounds. He wasn't doing very well at it. "Word of honor, right...?" I nodded.

"...okay. The last buck ya want is a bastard named Riposte Gallant. New Coltifornia hotshot, likes to pretend he's high-life, wants in with the Silver Slipper Society. Buying his way in tonight... the whack on you was his idea. Fucker's the one put all these holes in me, swiped my share to pay his way, while the other guys just laughed... fuckin' laughed..."

I motioned to the vial, holstered the ten-mil, and pulled the combat knife right next to it as he fumbled across the floor for his salvation.

It took a while longer than I'd hoped to give it to him.

* * * * *

Ess-Mart was one of those weird anomalies where some buck had got it into his head that the War never really happened --- or at least wanted to act that way. Maybe the schtick was to play on somepony's nostalgia for a life they'd never lived, a safer time when all the violence and death happened on a conveniently faraway battlefield. To my view, letting your guard down in favor of a fantasy world was a bad idea all around.

But I had to hoof it to them: the place was clean. Espresso had picked out the least-damaged storefront on the block, patched up most of the cracks, whitewashed the outside and scrubbed the scum off the windows. A bright red-on-white sign over the double doors proclaimed, "Ess-Mart - for Especially Smart Shoppers!".

The place even had a bell that dinged, more than thunked, when I walked in.

"Hello, sir, and welcome to Ess-Mart, where especially smart shoppers always find the best prices!" The combination security staff and door greeter was a tall, thin unicorn buck with the most --- intense --- smile I'd ever seen. Even Pink-E would have been impressed with that expanse of flawless white enamel, set off by a light grey coat and slicked-back black mane.

Not even shit-eaters had a grin that high and wide.

Which he maintained perfectly as he kept the biggest, nastiest-looking shotgun I'd ever seen trained on me, gleaming with the sort of polish only possible through maintenance borne of true love. A large red nametag on his crisp white work-shirt read "ASH - Housewares".

"All weapons into the collection bin, sir, for your safety and our security. Ess-Mart apologizes in advance for any inconvenience, concerns, or mental anguish our policy may cause." The firmness of that unyielding smile told me just how apologetic Ash ever felt towards anyone, let alone me. I nodded my assent, unloading my obvious kit into the indicated bin and tossing in most of what I had in my saddlebags as well, leaving those open for his inspection. After a quick look-over and a nod, Ash gestured me past his checkpoint.

"Thank you for your cooperation, sir. Enjoy your time here at Ess-Mart!" I made it a point to remember how to mimic the musical tones rolling off his tongue... not that I felt particularly insulted, but quality sarcasm is a learned skill. Besides, he'd missed the slip-pouch I'd mounted on the backside of my left saddlebag. Sneaky beat sarcastic any day.

Ess-Mart might have been nice-looking on the outside, but inside it was sparkling. No lie: the linoleum checkerboard-pattern floor carried not a single visible scuff and shone with layers of fresh wax. The walls and ceiling were spotlessly pristine. Orderly aisles stocked with a wide variety of goods, ranging from practical firearms to mostly-useless home appliances, were marked out with hanging signs that helpfully directed the shopper to their goals. Along the left wall was a long counter with several registers, behind which stood a racked array of two-hundred-year-old snack foods and a dark tan unicorn with a creamy-white mane, big paunch and even bigger smile. Bold red embroidery spelled out his name across an immaculately clean apron : Espresso.

It was like somepony had ripped a chunk of pre-War Equestria out of time and space to plunk it down in this sewer pit of a town. Even the prices seemed to be reasonable, if a bit steeper than the norm... just enough to run off the bit-pinchers, I supposed. Which, at the moment, seemed to be everypony given the lack of other customers. Ash kept his smile, and one eye, on me as I sauntered over to the counter.

Espresso took the initiative. "Good morning, sir! How can I serve you?"

"Phased plasma rifle in the forty-centimac range."

His face went stony. "Just what you see, pal."

I adjusted mine to match. "I see you're out of Tag-Ends."

Espresso snorted and glanced behind me. "Never in stock. Last shipment went out this morning, as soon as we opened."

That was my first cue, though I kept my expression straight. There'd been nopony else in the store, and the bell at the door hadn't sounded. "Figured as much. Not that I expect you'll care, but my caps paid the freight on that shipment. Just let me know where I can find it, and I'll make sure accounts're properly settled." I shuffled slightly to my right, keeping Ash in my peripheral vision as the lanky unicorn began to move in what he apparently thought was a casual fashion.

"Ah, well," huffed the pudgy Espresso, "I'm afraid that as much of a punk as Tag-End may be..." His horn began glowing a soft white.

As a rule? Once it's apparent they're trying to pull a fast one, never let anypony finish their monologue. I snapped my head left and mouthed the ten-mil pistol from its hold-out pouch, managing to bring it back around just in time to see Espresso's assault carbine levitating up from behind the counter.

What he'd intended to be his last words to me trailed off: "...he's still... family. Well, crap. Back off, Ash. Looks like you missed a spot when he came in."

My eyes glanced left. As fast as I'd been, the door-pony had covered the distance in a moment, his shotgun now close enough to tap my left temple with a cold-barreled nudge. Odds were good that he'd've been able to put me down before my brain could have told my tongue to trigger down on Espresso. But Ash backed up, smile gone and a world of grim satisfaction in his face. The shotgun's yawning twin barrels dropped back with him.

"Just as well. I hate cleanin' brains off this floor."

My eyes went back to his boss. "That's a bad wrinkle, family owing family so much that they have to jump somepony to pay it off." Espresso lowered his carbine back behind the counter, and I reciprocated by turning my pistol away. Not that I let it slip from my jaws for even a moment, just in case things went south again...

"Yeah, it is. Thought putting the colt on notice for all the loans I've made him would get his flank in gear to start being productive, but..." He turned his head and shouted at the back. "TAG! GET OUT HERE!"

There was a smash, some scrabbling noises, a yelp, and then a lime-green unicorn buck came stumbling up with Ash right behind, helpfully tapping his head with the shotgun's butt-stock now and then to keep him moving in the right direction.

Tag-End was barely older than a colt, dressed just like Espresso had described him: a punk. Everything about his clothing (shiny leather), choice of accoutrements (dozens of studs and buttons), and weaponry (inscribed brass hoof-knucks hanging from a ring) shouted how rebellious and street-wise he wanted to look. He'd probably paid somepony good caps to create his individualism for him. Hell, he didn't even have a cutie-mark yet.

He turned to snarl at Ash's last tap, putting his best face on it. "Fuck you, Ash, you wanna kill me? You fuckin' do it, you pussy!" There was all the bravado in him of a pony who knew he was addressing an underling.

Ash just smiled that wide, tall smile, curving one lip just enough to make it a sneer. "Listen, cupcake, I'd love to drill you a new set of buckshot dentures, but we're a little busy at the moment. Let me get you a rain check on that... unless you'd like to try running again?" Tag-End visibly quailed, turned to Espresso, and saw the proprietor's cold stare. The punk with the tough-guy image suddenly looked ready to wet himself.

Espresso coughed into one hoof. "When your pop dumped you here, I told you outright that you cover your debts and pay your own way. You've paid what you owe me, but this gent says now that you owe him. That true?"

The punk's sneer reasserted itself. "This fucker? I don't owe him shit. Ain't even never seen him before."

I grinned. Nothing better than an opponent already on the ropes when your tussle starts. "There's a friend of yours in a warehouse hidey-hole that might say different, colt. Red coat, lots of holes, axe to grind?" Tag-End couldn't know I'd finished the job he and his other buddies had started, but without any sympathetic faces to lean on, he didn't have the brass to brazen it out.

He turned to plead with his foster father. "C'mon, 'Spresso, just waste this bitch! You -"

Espresso's assault rifle came floating back up over the counter --- pointed at Tag-End. "I what, Tag? Tell me again what you think I should be doing here."

It was rare that I ever got to see a pony actually blanch, so I took a moment to savor the punk's response. He even sputtered a little before his brain re-engaged --- priceless. Simply priceless! "O-okay! Yeah! I got what I owed you from this guy... I couldn't think of anything else! But that's ALL, Espresso! I only took that much, the others got the rest! Jerky and that prick, Rip! They've got it!"

Espresso and I exchanged glances. In my eyes, he read that Tag hadn't said much of anything I didn't already know. In his, I saw the balancing of books. He turned and nodded to Ash.

With a grin that outshone any he'd had on display before, the unicorn levitated something heavy, round and shiny out of a saddlebag and effortlessly snapped it around Tag's neck. The slave collar whined briefly, energizing its "deadswitch". If anypony but the collar's owner tried to take it off now...

With a mocking bow, Ash floated the collar's talisman key over to me. I stared as its tiny gem gave a little flash of green, binding its power to my will.

"...what?"

As Tag-End stood there in shock, and Ash practically danced with glee, Espresso completed the expression trifecta by being absolutely deadpan.

"I've done my familial duty trying to cover your ass, nephew. As a Mocha, you're owed that much by blood, but that's all you were owed." He sighed out and shifted that dead-eyed look to me. "His property and his life are just about enough to cover what he paid me, which is what I was going to take if he hadn't. So those are yours now. I don't care if you sell, kill or fuck the little bastard until his legs bow out. But nopony's going to say Espresso Mocha ever tried to cover up for a deadbeat, not even when they're family."

Tag-End discovered the only possible way to make the moment more uncomfortable and awkward: he dropped to the floor and started bawling. He probably would have worked himself into a nice little drama act, if Ash hadn't started kicking him in the belly until the colt subsided into a snifflefit. The memory of my doing the same to Shotgun surfaced in the back of my brain, poking what little conscience I could admit to having, but Ash finished administering his beating before the conflict in my mind even started. I'd never seen a sneer like the one he turned on Tag-End now:

"Oooooh, how I have dreamed of this day. Always pushing, always fucking around and fucking with me when you thought nopony was looking. I kept this place spotless just to spite you! And now you get to go live the life you thought everypony should be living under your hooves." He jerked his head around with a mad grin. "Hey boss, can I rent that camera over there for just a minute?"

Espresso's expression didn't budge. "No." He turned back to me. "Now, sir, my apologies, but Ess-Mart will be closing early today in order to take stock. Thank you for your patronage, our Customer Service Representative of the Month will see you to the door."

To Ash, the only "customer service representative" the place likely had, this was as good an excuse for a parade as any. He snapped to attention, saluted, barked out a "Yes, SIR!", and took up a cheery whistling tune on the way back to the store's lockbox. He returned every single item to me, one at a time, with perfect military precision and that unstoppable grin. When all was back in its place, he opened and held the door with all the respect an NCR embassy guard might dole out to President Thimble. I was thoroughly impressed at his ability to be sarcastic without even opening his mouth.

"Remember to shop smart --- shop Ess-Mart!" Then the door slammed shut, a "CLOSED" sign was flipped up in the window, and I was left out in the streets of Freemane with my sniffling, whimpering unicorn slave.

What... has just happened?

* * * * *

The sniveling began the minute after we'd left Ess-Mart and hadn't let up since.

"...c'mon, buck, just lemme go, I'll pay you back, I swear I'm good for it -" It was at this point, nearly back to the warehouse, that I rounded on Tag-End and pointed a hoof at the ruins.

"If you don't knock off the pity party, I'm going to drag you in there and leave you with your friend. You forget that I've seen what you're good for." I gave him a kick in the shin as a form of punctuation and turned away, pulling my beaten old stormchaser hat down another notch.

Well, at least his whining dropped away to another round of sobbing and sniffling. Not that I expected he'd come to grips with his new situation anytime soon, but I was still on the hunt and I didn't need another noisy attention-getter tagging along in Pink-E's absence.

A quick sideline down an alley, blow the collar, and this is done with. Easy-peasy.

So why didn't I? We passed one likely alley after another, a few with mayhem already underway. It wasn't like anyone in Freemane would care. It wasn't like I cared, especially not about this punk-ass thief whose lack of a work ethic had gotten him into the slave trade from the wrong direction.

After a bit of introspection, I decided it was because he represented a big investment of my stolen caps. Killing him would just be a write-off without benefits; I needed to find a slave dealer and pawn him off. Kind of obviously, Espresso wouldn't buy him back, and I wasn't entirely sure that he was actually a slave trader himself. He just as obviously knew where to find one, but until he was open for business again, it was no use going back to ask...

No. No, that rationale wouldn't seat in my brain, no matter how I worked it over. I'd never dealt in slaves. Dad had hated the slave trade to his core, though after his death I ended up tolerating its existence for the sake of chasing down the occasional slave bounty. It put food in the saddlebag, after all. But it had never sat well with me.

I looked back at the lime-green unicorn following me, his head hung so low that his muzzle occasionally scraped the street, looking as though he bore the weight of the world. There was no swagger, bravado or lustre left in him --- not on the road to a fate he no longer had a choice in. At his core, he was a useless coward who'd never have had the courage to strike out on his own unless somepony kicked him in the balls to get him moving.

So I guess, in the end, I did the only thing I really could do.

* * * * *

"Ha ha ha! Oh, this is too rich! Hey everypony, come get a load of this shit!" The minute we rolled into Lords territory, that being Freemane's main drag and most of the streets crossing same, the catcalls and jeers began. Not for me, oh no... I actually got some "atta-bucks" and even a few stomps of approval.

They trotted alongside and behind, dressed to the nines in glossy black leather jackets over white shirts and wearing their manes in identical dyed-black pompadours, every bit of their scorn reserved for Tag-End as we moved down the street.

"Always knew you'd end up on somepony's chain, Tag-Ass!" yelled somepony in the back, prompting a round of laughter.

"Here comes a new mule!" shouted another.

"HEY!" brayed a protest.

"Er, no offense meant, Hefty... wait, put that down, be cool!" Aaaaaand one brawl, right on cue.

We kept on walking, collecting more Lords and locals that didn't have anything better to do on a late Freemane afternoon. Before long, Tag's sobbing had dissolved into helpless tears of anger and shame, pouring down his cheeks to sizzle on the hot asphalt. But he said, and did, nothing else to draw attention to himself, aside from existing.

So, he does still have some pride... and he can be taught, too...

As far as I could tell --- and that much, from various of the crowd's shouts and insults --- the whole reason for this little road-show was that Tag had tried to weasel his way into the Lords at one point. Not only did he not make the cut, but he'd tried to undermine several of the more popular members of the gang in order to make himself look better. They'd never forgotten that, nor had any of their admirers, of which there were many in Freemane.

After all, the Lords were just cool. They kept what little order there was in the suburb, as long as you paid respects to "The King", and they didn't go out of their way to mess with anypony. If ever there was a gang that could make a claim to having collectively good karma, the Lords were it.

When we finally arrived at Fourth and Mane, there was a good-sized pack still behind us, though the locals had lost interest after a few blocks and the Lords were starting to tire of their sport. The only reason Tag hadn't already been lynched was probably because they liked him better as a slave than dead... so far.

But my concern, at the moment, was not for Tag's welfare. It was for the wrinkled-looking unicorn ghoul with the stringy white mane and --- was that a set of bacon strips he had for a rump-rash? --- talking animatedly with one of the Lords' lieutenants. The "coolio" looked up at the approach of our rather noisy mob, cutting off the conversation with a grin.

"My, oh my, oh my, if it isn't little ol' Tag-End, wearin' a nice fancy leash. I always knew ---"

Here, the slickster paused to put on some shades.

"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog." As if on cue, every Lord within earshot yelled:

"Eee-yyeaaaaAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

I blinked for a couple of seconds, the joke (at least, I think it was a joke) flying so far over my head I would've needed my binoculars to see it. Well, whatever. I gave the ghoulicorn a look.

"You're the buck they call 'Jerky', I take it?"

Perhaps it had been the late afternoon sun heading for the skyline behind me, or maybe he hadn't gotten a good look when his baton had been doing a number on my noggin last night, but a furtive glance at Tag-End and his new style in technomagical necklaces brought recognition to his face. In short order, it was replaced by a cunning leer.

"Yeah, I am." He turned his withered face back to the coolio. "Tag there's the reason I can't pay you in full, Pacer."

Pacer arched an eyebrow. "Really."

Tag-End seemed ready to blurt something out, before I shushed him with a side-kick to the hindleg. It was Jerky's ball, and I needed to see where he would run with it.

"Soon as we met to divvy up, him and Riposte killed Red and chased me off, takin' all the caps for themselves. I'll bet Tag's uncle took his caps and then sold him off... serves the little bitch right to end up as a newfoal's trick pony, dunnit?"

I gave Tag a pre-emptive shush and stepped forward a pace. "It was all secrets and lies with you four, wasn't it, Jerky? The first of you I found was a red pony full of stab wounds --- and covered with big baton-shaped bruises to boot. So how about we head over to where he's starting to rot, and you can measure the size of your whacky-stick against his hide?"

Ghouls might not be able to flush real well, but they sure can look angry when they need to. "How about fuck you and the scirocco you blew in on? Red was a friend of mine, motherfucker." Now he stared at Tag. "And friends don't fuck over friends."

When I looked back, Tag's head was hanging down again, but his eyes were staring fire back at Jerky. Still, he managed to keep his silence. I nodded and turned back to the coolio.

"At least one friend fucked over another here. What's important is that you aren't getting what you're owed. And I'm not getting my money back from this little fuck," I added with a hoofwave at Tag, "because he wasn't worth a third, let alone half, of what I got mugged for. Look at him. Would you pay eleven large?"

Pacer's eyes widened and his ears perked up. "Yeah, I thought I recognized you from that lollapalooza at the Bronco last night. Word was you broke 'em outta more than twenty grand..." His gaze shifted to Jerky, who realized where this mathematical train was heading and tried to derail it.

"Brahminshit! We don't even know Tag hoofed it all over to his uncle anyways... he could've hidden the rest anywhere!"

I took out the slave-collar trigger. "Think I wouldn't've gotten it out of him by now if he had? You were right, his uncle did sell him to me, but if he'd squirreled that much away beforehoof, he could've just bought his way out of the mess he's in right now. With that collar on, he's got no reason not to offer it to me to let him go." Leaving Tag behind, I began to advance on the ghoulicorn, who took a step back.

"Now, I think you're just holding out on Pacer, there. Or maybe this Riposte Gallant cut you out of the deal, like you and him cut out Red. Maybe we should all go pay him a visit. Hm?"

For the second time today, a pony I was after bolted for it. But in this case, the collar wasn't mine.

"TAG! YOU'RE IT!"

Tag-End hadn't been hanging his head in shame. He'd been readying himself, like a racer in the starting blocks, for the inevitable chase scene. Now he blew out of those imaginary blocks, custom brass hoof-knucks cutting divots in the street, in hot pursuit of the pony I'd set him upon.

I don't know where the song came from. Maybe it was something Pink-E'd been playing on the run in from Big Rock. It just seemed --- I don't know. Appropriate. The words came naturally, even in front of Pacer and the crowd of Lords:

Twenty years of crawlin'

Was bottled up inside him...

The ghoulicorn wasn't in what you'd call top physical condition. Then again, ghouls are irradiated abominations of necromancy, whether from being doused in it by the balefire bombs that fell centuries ago, or from the various pockets where evil still lingered from the past sins of the old world. Tag-End, by comparison, was a young buck still coming into his prime. The fire in his eyes could still transfer speed to his hooves, and did.

He wasn't holdin' nothin' back,

He let 'em have it all...

Jerky tried levitating a dumpster into Tag's path, but his dark brown aura was ripped apart by an opposing bright green glow. Tag took over, shoving the empty bin in the opposite direction, forcing Jerky to dodge.

When Tommy left the barroom,

Not a Gatlin boy was standin'...

That was enough to let Tag close the gap, as Jerky hadn't had much of a lead to begin with. He leaped, snarling something feral, the ghoul fumbling at the last moment for his police baton. Tag took his mark straight to the pavement, the impact sending Jerky's weapon skittering away across the street. The ghoul cried out for mercy...

He said, "This one's for Becky,"

As he watched the last one fall.

Tag was a slave now. Slaves couldn't afford mercy. Not when they'd been ordered, on pain of explosive death, not to show any. And especially not when they'd been given one last chance at redemption, right in front of just about everypony who hated them.

Redemption's an important ideal to me. One of the few I have, really. If you don't give a pony the chance to redeem themselves, whatever you do as payback isn't justice. It's just vengeance. I killed Red because I saw in him only sorrow for himself and what he'd lost, not for anypony else he'd wronged, not even the one who could have saved him. I didn't owe him anything at that point but the consequences for assaulting me. With Shotgun, I left him on the crucifix because he'd joined up with raiders and done nothing I knew of to deserve anypony's help.

Tag, on the other hoof, owed me money which I'd never see if I just killed him or sold him off, so I made him my apprentice instead. He'd learn a real trade, I'd have a little extra fire support, and I'd kill him in a heartbeat if he ever made me regret the choice. But he still owed a debt to his old friend, Red... a debt for helping Jerky and Riposte murder him.

And I heard 'im say,

'I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you've done

I walk away from trouble, when I can.

Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek

And Papa, I sure hope you understand...

Sometimes you gotta fight, when you're a man.'

One body-lacerating smash at a time, Tag paid Jerky his due.

Ev'ryone considered him

The Coward of the County...

As the song on my lips died away, so did the half-pulped ghoulicorn, with one final, shuddering wheeze. Pacer gave with a surprisingly approving look, considering that my slave had just killed off a buck who owed him money.

"Not bad, not bad... your choice of musical accompaniment's off, but hey, looks like you got Tag-Ass to finally grow a pair. That's gotta count for somethin'. Nice to see Jerky got what was comin' to him, too. But I'd sure like to see the rest of those caps he owed for pulling his little insurance-scam stunt on my turf."

He turned to face me directly, lowered his shades, and smiled.

"So howzabout this: you just rented yourself a whole lotta Lords for the night, and you pay us outta what we-all drag off this 'Gallant' sucker."

Looking around at the dozens of grinning Lords, I realized that it might have been more financially advantageous to have had Tag-End --- as a newly-indentured apprentice bounty hunter --- leave his first mark alive.

* * * * *

At first, I was worried that Pacer and his bunch would be following me around like a small army, completely negating the entire point for leaving Pink-E behind. It was already bad enough that I'd let myself get saddled with Tag-End, who even after his "attitude adjustment" cut a flashy figure with his customized street look. His profile wasn't reduced any further by the fact that his hooves were now stained with red gore up to the fetlocks.

Fortunately, the Lords weren't stupid. They ruled Freemane by knowing its back-alleys and its denizens, by knowing everypony anypony should know. I'd been planning to find out where and when Riposte Gallant was going to meet with the Silver Slippers by carefully asking around, testing the waters and making the right bribes to the right ponies --- but the Lords took care of that in spades. They scattered like radroaches into the town's cracks and crevices, ferreting out leads one by one without my having to lift a hoof.

Handy help to have... if damned expensive.

Pacer made a point of noting the obvious: that sticking my own muzzle into things, especially with Tag along, would just raise the risk of tipping off Riposte without adding appreciably to the search effort. He also wasn't planning to just stand there in the street while waiting for word to come back.

I had to admit I'd never seen a nicer gang hideout.

As with everything else about the Lords, style came first, from the roccoco style of the old theatre they'd taken over to its refurbished sign composed of sequential flashing red-white-and-blue bulbs: "Kingdom of Canterlot Musical Revue". Not a lick of graffiti marred the building anywhere, not even on the well-preserved poster marquees outside (which anywhere else in the Moohave would at least have those little inked-on mustaches nopony seemed to be able to resist adding). Almost all of those were variations on a single particular pop-artist of the pre-War era "singing and swinging his way into the hearts of Equestria", usually with a big backup song-and-dance ensemble and always referred to as "The King".

I'd also never met a more polite gang leader, even when he was looking askance at my personal property.

"Can't say Ah cotton t'slavereh, Mister Shot. We call it Free-mane fer a reason." He wasn't that big of a stallion, but boy-howdy, could he project. Just sitting at his front-and-center theatre table, doing nothing but relaxing, he dominated the room effortlessly. The gloss-black pompadour that everypony else in the Lords tried so hard to mimic was completely natural on him. Instead of leather jacket and linen shirt, he wore a leisure suit of cool-blue suede embroided with black-and-silver musical notes, right down to the hoof-covers on his horseshoes. Even his expression remained cool and aloof, yet he had no problem getting across his clear displeasure at Tag's situation.

It wasn't like I was all that happy about it, either. "Well, Mister King, you'd have to talk to his uncle at Ess-Mart about that. He's the one who ordered the collar, had it put on, and stuck me with the controller instead of paying the cash this kid stole from me in the first place. Me, I'm letting him work it off and then he can go his own way."

That look of his didn't change a bit. "I'm bettin' there's no setcha thing in yer vocabulary as 'compassion'?"

"Oh, I've got compassion, Mister King. For ponies that don't beat me to the ground and steal twenty-two thousand caps out of my saddlebags. In place of that, I've got enough honor not to just blow his head off, and enough sense of right to let him earn back what he owes." Neither he nor I budged until Pacer made a show of coughing into one hoof. He thumped his chest a few times to boot.

"Damn this lung infection! Anyways, you tell us what to do and we'll do it... want us to break contract, we can do that. Want us to follow through on it? We can do that too. You're the King."

There weren't enough lemons in the NCR to make a face like the King's just then. "No, I s'pose we can't break our word've honor. That's what it's all about, y'know, all that sets us above bein' jus' another buncha wasteland thugs." He stood up to face me, his dark green eyes boring into mine. "But'chu do raht by that colt, an' let 'im go when he's paid up square. Savvy?"

"Like I said." I knew better than to openly take umbrage at having my own honor called into question. The King didn't know me from any other roamer. From his point of view, I could just as easily be lying through my teeth. It cost me nothing to bear in mind a little respect for his concerns.

That seemed to at least nominally satisfy him. "Then alla you go ahead, take a seat, enjoy th' show. Pacer, go ahead an' take a load off, yerself. Get that chest looked at, whydon'cha." The soft-spoken suggestion might as well have been an order barked out by a drill sergeant, the way Pacer trotted out of there. I nodded to Tag and we each took up one of the low-slung stools near the table while a bunch of Lords spilled out onto the polished wooden stage to do their thing.

We gonna throw a party for the Overmare!

We gonna get drunk until we just don't care!

We got the Stable door wired up, ready to blow!

An' when it goes off we're gonna go, buck, go!

Now let's rock! Ev'rypony, let's rock!

Ev'rypony in the Resident Block!

Is dancin' to the Stable Nine Rock!

If I never see another production of "Stable Studs" again, I'll die a happy pony.

* * * * *

It wasn't really a problem for the Lords to find out who exactly Riposte Gallant was, or where he would be meeting with the Silver Slipper Society. In fact, he'd been bragging about his "inevitable and immediate induction" to his workmates, his drinking buddies, and just about anypony in earshot, for most of the day. The real problems were where he worked, and where the meeting was going down.

Lowering my binoculars with a hissed curse, I scuttled backwards from the upper-story window on my belly until I was positive that sitting up wouldn't put me in some watchful sniper's line of sight.

The sonovabitch wasn't just a "New Coltifornia hotshot".

Situated in a cul-de-sac just outside the Strip, the NCR's New Pegas embassy normally didn't get a lot of attention. Today, however, that cul-de-sac had been completely taken over to create extra space for a large open-air gathering. Ribbons, bunting, and balloons in New Coltifornia colors festooned portable fences and armed checkpoints, beyond which several hors d'oeuvre tables were arrayed around hordes of well-dressed minglers. Beyond that was yet another checkpoint into the embassy grounds proper, where the real hobnob was already well underway.

And why all the commotion? Because, according to the huge white-on-blue banner hung across the entry to this little hoe-down, Captain Celestia-Blow-Me Gallant was to be honored at a ceremony dedicated to his entry into the Silver Slipper Society, an event expected to signal more cordial relations between the secretive casino magnates and the NCR.

Intellectually, I understood just how big of a political coup this could be for New Coltifornia: they hoped to tease one of the powerful Casino Families, upon which so much of New Pegas power rested, out from under the iron hoof of their patron saint Mr. Horse. Internally, I felt my guts corroding at the notion that Gallant might actually prove to be untouchable, simply because of the number of warm bodies doting upon him with the pride and merriment he didn't fucking-well deserve.

Oh, but it got better than that! An event program filched by an embassy worker sympathetic to the Lords revealed the very capstone to this high-society affair: Gallant would be hoofing over "token proof of personal well-being" --- my caps --- to the Slippers' bigwigs. Even Ambassador Cropper was expected to be in attendance. The only way security could be tighter would be if President Thimble himself showed up to crash the party.

Hmm... now, who do I know that's good for crashing parties...?

* * * * *

This was a horrible idea. I'd said so. It wasn't even my idea. How did I get roped into this?

The steel-gray unicorn with the dappled back, spiraled horn half again as long as his head, and suede blonde mane cropped to the exact edge of military tolerances turned and executed a courteous half-bow towards our meal ticket. I swear that he managed it without even creasing his perfectly-tailored khaki officer's uniform. The clashing silver sabers forming his cutie mark practically flashed in the light, as did the fancy fencing rapier at his side.

"My dear lady, allow me to say I am delighted to see you once again. Wherever were you afflicted with such a frightful injury?"

I could have told Captain Cock-Biter where, but that would have required dropping my "roadie" disguise and leaving the gang of workers setting up the orchestra pit to do it. Besides, our dear lady knew what would happen if she didn't deliver the con-job convincingly enough.

Her hoof went to the wrappings about her throat. "Oh, this little thing?" squeaked the lithe young lily-white mare, all polite innocence wrapped in a perfectly winning smile and baby-blue eyes, framed by the droop of a seafoam-streaked mane. "Why, just yesterday I did the most foalish thing I've ever done! Mountain climbing, darling. A terrible fall, but the doctors say my neck and shoulder should be right as rubies within the month... if I refrain from over-straining myself, of course."

A lovely little lie, from the just-as-lovely Miss Butter Tart, starlet of New Coltifornia's newly-burgeoning film industry. The truth hidden beneath her bandages and brace was of the steely and explosive sort, on "loan" from Tag-End while he stayed back at the theater as a strangely-honored guest of the Lords (who just yesterday had hated his guts). It seemed that starlets aren't above being wooed by other charming entertainers, especially those with "delightfully rustic" accents, into a few harmless minutes of chatting over a sociable drink or two in a cozy local setting.

Extra sedatives were, of course, provided free of charge. As was the wake-up, and a bit of the usual screaming. Hence the shoulder padding covering several otherwise telling bruises.

The good captain gave Miss Tart's bandages a critical eye. "Mountain climbing? Near New Pegas? Why, the only hill around here worth the name is Mount Morgan, more of a ski resort... unless you were speaking of the more treacherous inclines of Black Mountain...?"

Butter Tart's laugh sounded forced, even from across the way. "Yes, yes of course! Silly me, I allowed myself to be coaxed by The King's siren song of adventure --- wasn't it simply ludicrous of you to bring me along on your little escapade, darling?" She didn't need to add the hindleg kick to The King's back hoof, though he didn't show any indication of noticing.

"Yes, ma'am, it surely was, you betcha."

I fought not to facehoof. This was his plan, not mine, and he, the well-known leader of a local street gang entirely outside of NCR authority, hadn't even bothered wearing a disguise to a party at the NCR embassy. There was no way...

Captain Bust-My-Balls gave The King a long sidelong look with pale green eyes whose lids hung just short of half-mast, then broke into a winning smile. "But here I am holding you both up, when the lady is clearly not at her best. Please, please, show yourselves around --- but may I first thank you again, Miss Tart, for using your connections to provide a replacement orchestra and crew. It would have been a shame to have to cancel this evening's entertainment." He bent low and slid a forehoof behind her foreleg, lifting it to gracefully plant a respectful kiss as a true gentlecolt might. She blushed, as a true lady might be expected to do in response, and then the two actors parted.

I was willing to bet she was blushing more over the memory of seeing her personal orchestra and their handful of bodyguards hustled into the theater by the Lords at gunpoint, than at any wanton display of courtly manners.

Meanwhile, various of those same Lords now pulled and tugged at their ill-fitting orchestra tuxedos while trying to look like they knew what they were doing. Most of them had absolutely no experience with the instruments they were ostensibly warming up and tuning, a scene made more ridiculous by the fact that, to a buck, they had refused to get rid of their signature pompadours. A number of admirers had amassed about the edges of the pit, convinced the musicians were a comedy troupe performing an avante-garde opening act for the real orchestra. Several pre-War bits sailed through the air from time to time, along with the sound of polite applause and laughter.

The whole mess reminded me of everything I hated about people.

Everypony had their fake faces, false words, forced smiles and faux mannerisms, all designed to fool their fellow pony into thinking they would make a good friend or ally... or, at least, to allay suspicions of enmity, which were probably justified to begin with. This was especially true of the Silver Slipper Society, each and every one of whom stood out in their ultramodern fashions, decorative masks of crystal and filigree, and utterly impeccable grace. Not one step was taken without consideration for the audiovisual impact it would have upon any potential viewers; not one word was uttered without consideration and measured tones. They looked and acted like creatures invented by the brilliance only possible beneath a mad sculptor's chisel.

Secrets and lies. If all of these ponies actually knew what the others were thinking at any given moment, this place would be a war-zone. At least if it were, they'd just kill each other and be done with it. A nice, cathartic baptism of fire and blood...

Mental images of merry little equine bonfires (far too personalized to have any similarity to those I'd seen in Nipton, I assured myself) helped me get through the evening. And that was with me avoiding everypony else by skulking around backstage, occasionally watching Captain Thunder-Bollocks from the cover of curtains through my dismounted sniper scope. I might not have had a chance of smuggling in the whole rifle, but that didn't mean parts of it couldn't be useful!

My quarry spent most of his time in brief conversations with as many Very Important Ponies as he could manage without seeming rude. A few comments, a joke, some laughter, and he'd use the break to trot right over to the next gaggle of overdressed goofballs and chat them up. Clearly, he believed he was a pony everypony should know... and from the responses he got, most of the gala crowd was in agreement.

This was a buck whose star was on the rise, from whose saddle everypony wanted their stirrups hanging.

The sun went down as the embassy's courtyard lights went up, their positions strategically illuminating every sequin and medal in attendance. Up on stage behind the orchestra pit, notable after notable took the podium to give short speeches in honor of the Buck of the Hour --- each one followed immediately by rather longer speeches about whatever pet projects or issues they could jam in sideways. It was as though they believed their points and beliefs could only be accepted by others through constant repetition, the act of talking at ponies instead of to them.

Politicking. Politicking never changes...

When it seemed like the crowd could finally take no more, somepony graciously suggested that it was time to hear from Captain Enter-Vile-Reference-Here before folks began retiring for the evening. The mild joke unleashed a torrent of relieved laughter, not the least of which came from all of us backstage. It seemed no one had thought to reserve so much as a port-a-potty bucket for the working stiffs...

The "orchestra" streamed out into their seats for Phase Two of the grand plan, probably trying like me not to think of streams, waterfalls, rainstorms, oceans... dammit. I found a moment to make use of a cast-off milk bottle while everypony was still settling in. Meanwhile, they were all readying the instruments they couldn't even play for "The Big Number", whatever the hell The King had in mind for that. I reminded myself to haggle Pacer for a lower price tag on mercenaries who didn't bother letting their supposed employer know what shenanigans they were about.

To either side of the podium, the brass section arranged itself with trumpets, cornets and trombones, while the woodwinds and percussionists sat in the orchestra pit arrayed around the front of the stage. For all intents and purposes, the podium was surrounded by tux-clad Lords, with The King and Miss Tart standing just off to the side, and me still behind the curtain with the other "roadies" --- in theory, our reserve muscle.

It occurred to me that, just perhaps, I'd been talked into taking a position that kept me conveniently on the sidelines.

Too late now. To the cheers of the posh, Captain Riposte leapt nimbly to the stage, landing with a horn-swept flourish despite his formal attire. His display of panache having spiked the applause to new heights, he strolled to the podium, donned a pair of dark glasses, and quickly brought silence across the assembly with a single raised hoof.

At which point, every flood-lamp in sight focused directly on the stage and orchestra pit, blinding everypony caught in their glare but him. Even behind the curtains, enough raw actinic light got through that I reflexively raised a hoof to protect my night-sensitive eyes, biting back a curse.

"GO GO GO!"

NCR troopers poured in through the back of the stage, charging past us "roadies" like we weren't even there, shoving the barrels of rifles and pistols into the Lords and yelling at them to get down. From every surrounding rooftop sprang the night-combat targeting beams of numerous snipers' rifles, focusing in on the Lords still struggling to recover their wits down in the orchestra pit. Only once the situation was completely under his control did Gallant signal for the lights to return to their original positions, pocketing his protective eyewear with a smile.

We'd surrounded Gallant, and then he'd surrounded us. Cool as a lake-pony, he adopted the same casual stroll towards the opposite side of the stage where Miss Tart stood, looking dumbstruck. She was leaning against The King for support; he had a foreleg around her good shoulder, looking more concerned for her immediate well-being than his own.

Gallant gave with a deep, happy laugh that might as well have been off a script. "Fillies and gentlecolts! This has got to be the evening's kicker. I present to you none other than 'The King' and what looks like most of his band of gangsters, the so-called Lords of Freemane!" He waited a moment for the expected boos and hisses before motioning for quiet once more.

Butter Tart looked up and grimaced. "You're Special Service, aren't you, Riposte? You need to know -" Simultaneously, The King kicked her shin and Gallant turned up his nose at the filly's protests.

"There is nothing an obvious traitor can tell me that I do not already know, Miss Tart. Yes, you are now in the hooves of the S.S... my hooves, to be exact." Stepping down from the stage, secure in the presence of the several rifles trained on his two captives, Gallant took the time to gloat, milking the moment for all he could get.

"Seriously, 'The King'? Waylaying the hired help and wearing their uniforms? That old chestnut? When none of you can even hold a double-bass right, or wear formal attire correctly? And with those arrogant punk hairstyles?" Now he seemed to laugh genuinely, taking a few moments to get it out of his system while The King just watched with dispassionate aloofness. He finished up his act by rounding on Butter Tart with an accusing hoof, she having no better defense at the moment than to glare right back.

"And you. You waltz in here with him at your fetlocks, expecting me to believe you injured yourself climbing up a mountain which our intelligence shows is covered with Diamond Dog tribals? You don't carry half the injuries our armored troops have sustained just trying to get close to that damned hillock!" His mane tossed with theatrical contempt. "What did you think you were going to do, walk in here and just kill everyone, like the herd of madponies you are?"

Ignoring the rifles aimed at him, The King leapt behind Gallant and up onto the stage before turning back to face him, Tart, the rifles and the enthralled crowd.

"Aw naw, buck. Like we said... we're th' entertainment. A-ONE! A-TWO! A-one-two-three!"

Another problem with monologuing just to showboat: it gives your presumably-defeated opponent time to get their act together. And the Lords had one hell of an act to put on.

They didn't pull cleverly-hidden grenades out of lead-lined pockets designed to defeat magical detection. They didn't produce several heavy weapons which they'd smuggled in as disassembled parts and then reassembled during furtive moments backstage. They didn't produce a platoon of unicorn mage-prodigies which they'd been secretly training for decades in expectation of the opportunity for just such an occasion.

Nope. From a number of instrument cases which they'd quietly paid no attention to until now, about a quarter of the Lords pulled forth harmonicas, guitars, tambourines and bongo drums. Those which already had trumpets and trombones from their "orchestra days" just grinned and puckered up as the soldiers covering them stared.

In their eyes, I could see the collective: Wait, what...? When The King opened up his throat to belt out his signature ballad, their confusion was nowhere more clearly displayed than in the eyes of Guard-Captain Derp-in-the-Headlights Gallant.

[SPECIAL MUSICAL INSERT!]: A Strangely Appropriate Tune

The King kicked off by leaping to his hind hooves, shaking his pelvis in a gyrating motion. In seconds, he'd dropped a full dozen of the more matronly mares in the audience with fits of sheer apoplexy.

Old World city, gonna set my soul,
Gonna set my soul on fire!
Got a whole lotta bottlecaps a-ready t' burn,
So get those stakes up higher!

The Lords leaped into action, ripping off their tuxedos to reveal their usual leather jackets beneath and forming ad-hoc chorus lines. Their swaying hips and smoldering looks, both on stage and in the pit, started a round of spontaneous squeals from the less-decorous fillies who'd been dragged along to this previously-boring-as-hell shindig. All right! Somepony brought the real party!

Gallant shook his head with an audible wogga-wogga-wogga, fighting to absorb the concept of a hugely-successful-bust-turned-impromptu-rock-and-roll-concert. Meanwhile, The King turned his own soulful gaze on his nearest insta-fans, teasingly puckering his lips as he crooned:

There's a thousand willin' fillies, a-waitin' out there,
They're all livin' for that savoir-faire,
An' I'm a fallen savior, with love t' spare!
So viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!

All three fillies fainted dead away, clutching their chests with another round of squeals and causing their theoretical escorts and paramours no small amount of immediate concern for their sanity.

Now I might wish that there were more
Than twenny-four hours in th' day!
A little bit of cash, an' I'll pop some Dash,
I won't sleep a minute of it away!

Recovering his military bearing at last, Gallant grabbed one of the troopers and pointed at The King. "Shoot him! Shoot, you idiot!" The soldier just stared at him. "At an unarmed civilian?! For what, sir? Trespassing?"

Oh, there's Black-Jack an' Poker,
An' th' Roulette wheel
A fortune won or lost on ev'ry deal,
So make sure your back is covered
With a length of steel!
Viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!

By now, the more libertine of attendees were tapping hooves and bobbing heads in time to the wild combination of rhythm and melody, some of them even trying to dance to it in the middle of the packed crowd with mixed success.

Viva, New Pegas, with your
Neon flashin'
An' yer one-armed bandits crashin'

Gallant's face, looking across the assembly, carried the horrified look of a fame-hungry buck whose spotlight was being suddenly and thoroughly hijacked.

All those hopes, down th' drain!

I'll give him this, though: he was sure capable of turning that look into one that could scare small foals in two seconds flat.

Viva, New Pegas, bring the day into night-time
An' Celestia to my bed-time
If she shows up a-once...
You'll never go home again!

"Blasphemy!" shouted an old general, the fruit-salad of decorations on his uniform jiggling with fury beneath a huge white broom of mustache.

His wife, resplendent in black evening gown with a tastefully minimal number of well-placed diamonds, let him have it in the rump with a bump from the hip, nearly knocking the war hero over. "Get with the times, you old gray mare!" With that said, she dragged the poor bastard out into the growing maelstrom of dancing ponies.

I might be on the run,
But I'll have me some fun,
'Cause my liberty is in its prime!

If I wind-up broke-up, well I'll
Always remember that I
Had me a hell of a time!

With the officers joining in, why shouldn't the troops? At least, that seemed to be what was going through their heads. the Lords weren't fighting, weren't resisting arrest, weren't doing anything except what they'd been announced as --- the replacement entertainment for the evening. The tension in the air simply popped like a soap bubble, everypony joining in with the festivities.

I wouldn't really have been able to tell what happened next if I hadn't picked up some rudimentary ability to read lips in my years of stalking raider bounties. Gallant tried dragging the general off the dance floor, shouting at him to get the troops under control and arrest the Lords for --- for something! Anything! The general barked right back that if the Guard-Captain were smart, he'd play along like the whole thing had been staged and otherwise keep his big mouth shut, to which most of those immediately in the vicinity laughed.

Shamed, embarrassed and angry, Guard-Captain Riposte Gallant stormed off what had become the dance floor.

Well, I'm gonna give it ev'rything I've got,
Lady Luna please, let the dice stay hot,
Let me shoot a seven, with ev'ry shot!

Shame, embarrassment and anger are dangerous emotions in a soldier, especially one with a rather high opinion of himself; Gallant's green eyes blazed with the promise of revenge. He set course straight for Butter Tart, who stood by the stage gazing up at The King. Her rapturous smile was mirrored by the half-dozen other fillies crowding in for a chance to get closer to their new musical idol.

For their own part, The King and every Lord on stage were locked in the throes of the final thundering chorus:

Ah, viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!
Vivaaa!
Vivaaaaa!
NEW PEGAAAAAAAAS!

The crowd, with a number of notable exceptions, exploded into wild cheering, throwing hats into the air and coins at the stage, yelling for more. Those notable exceptions, composed almost wholly of the entire Silver Slipper entourage, collectively lifted their noses into the air with a "hmph!" and departed, displaying all the grace and disdain of a sous-chef discovering a line of scum in a proffered saucepan.

So much for the hoped-for-alliance. Not that many of the NCR folks seemed to care; most of them, deep down, came from working-class roots. Farmers, miners, veteran soldiers, the sorts who understood the value of a good-old hoe-down... even if they might otherwise have pretensions to snootier lifestyles, someday.

I briefly lost sight of Riposte as the crowd surged forward to swarm the Lords, and their King, with requests and adoration. But I didn't lose sight of Butter Tart as she slowly got shoved back by the sheer press of ponies jostling her injured shoulder. Her, I watched, waiting in the wings...

From the back of the crowd a steel-grey glow emerged, wrapped tightly around the hilt of a rapier whose point flicked out to nestle beneath the bandaged neck of the hunted prey. With a start, Miss Tart backed up, trying to get away from the razor-sharp edge which nicked her throat, pursuing her pace-by-pace retreat with effortless ease. Riposte, drifting out of the crowd in a maddened dance all his own, followed in its wake.

And the harmless little Earth-pony roadie followed, at a distance, in his.

* * * * *

Barely a block away, Riposte decided, was far enough to serve. This far from the lit-up embassy grounds, yet not so close to the garish neon flaring out from the Strip itself, might perhaps provide a sufficiency of darkness for the deed. Which he might have been right about, if my profession hadn't long ago taught me how to be a sneaky little bastard. While I kept my silhouette to the shadows, he reversed the sword in his magical grip to bash at Butter with the hilt, driving her into the alley between a pair of office buildings. Their tenants, long gone for the night, were presumably expected to find her body in the morning.

If he had a lick of sense operating in his skull, Riposte probably had some idea for pinning the murder on the Lords, too. In his horseshoes, I sure would. But he was still taking his frustration out on Butter's face with his hooves when I sidled around the corner, my lips warm upon the grip of my favorite hold-out pistol. The courier's ten-mil was definitely a cut above its brethren, solid and unyielding and steady and easier to hide than you'd think to look at it.

Unfortunately, it was also a bit too shiny, and the alley a bit too well-lit.

Riposte surprised me; I'd thought him more of a grasping fop than a real soldier. He leaped backwards from Butter, magically thrusting his rapier down the alley at me, simultaneously throwing off my aim and forcing me to dodge aside.

I slipped into S.A.T.S. --- the odds displayed weren't good, nothing better than thirty-percent odds of a hit and that only for center-mass shots. I piled on as many as I could, four rounds, and let go. Three zipped harmlessly past him, leaving only one to strike home with the distinct spang of metal on metal.

Chestplate cuirass! Damn!

Something flashed in the periphery of my vision as I came out of the slow-motion trance, and then the vision in my right eye disappeared. In the next instant, I was clutching at my face, screaming like a --- like a --- there's nothing to compare it to. My throat simply opened and released a howl of primal anguish which I had no power to stop. The pistol fell from my nerveless, gaping mouth, my traitorous tongue too busy vocalizing the essence of sheared nerve endings to keep its grip on the trigger.

My eye. He slashed open my EYE.

One small problem of being a careful, intelligent and methodical bounty hunter: because I avoided putting myself into wildly dangerous situations, I didn't get shot very often. I didn't let my opponents, whom I usually outranged by as much as a quarter-mile, get close enough to stab or pummel me. And while I'd gotten somewhat used to blunt trauma from a long childhood of hoof-fights with bullies --- I'd never had the pleasure of being slashed open with a knife. And I'd never been wounded in such a horrible way as this.

Ever stub the inside of your hoof on a sharp rock? Okay. Imagine that the rock is a nail and that it just drove up the middle of your hoof. Now imagine your hoof is actually your fucking eyeball. I think that maybe gets it across.

In the barest instant after being initiated into a realm of such pain that the simple four-letter word didn't really begin to express it, I knew I was going into shock. I also knew I could do nothing about it. When the next moment finally ticked over, I realized I was going to die, right here, helplessly paralyzed by the reality of my very first crippling stab wound. Part of me screamed that I was a coward for not fighting back, regardless of debilitating injury, that I was a weakling for not plowing through the hurt, that I deserved this for being stupid enough not to try for the long shot instead of getting close enough to be stabbed in the first place.

I slumped as strength fled my legs, collapsing to my belly, still expelling that one long scream like --- projectile-vomiting agony! That was it! Heh... how could I laugh, even just inside, as that cruel blade-tip lined up with my remaining eye? As I looked up its length into the triumphant grin of a sonovabitch named Riposte Gallant, feeling bisected ruin grinding through my right eye-socket as what was left there habitually tried to track what the left eye was focusing on... a sudden wash of blinding tears, brought on by the motion, flooded the raw red meat with saline solution.

My throat locked up, unable to bring forth the sound my lungs wanted to force through it. A vast roaring noise filled my eardrums. Why couldn't he finish it? End it! One quick thrust to the brain, COME ON! I couldn't stand it anymore! My left hoof flailed madly, seeking the lost pistol; if Riposte wouldn't put me out of my misery, I'd do it myself! I...

...I felt the ground shudder with the thump of a pony's body landing next to me.

A moment later, a bottle was shoved into my still-gaping mouth. Someone's hoof clamped over my muzzle, forcing me to drink its contents out of sheer reflex. Sweet... it was sweet, and wholesome, and tasted --- purple?

"Ahh, shaddap, ya godsdamned pansy. All that screamin', I had to flip a coin. Potion, buckshot? Potion, buckshot? Consider this your favor for the day." I felt the prick of a needle against the right side of my face, saw the expended vial of Hydra cast aside to my left. "This too. Don't think I'm goin' all sentimental on ya, either. This barn door don't swing that way."

My vision slowly returned, the pain fading away until I found myself sucking an empty bottle and looking up...

...at Ash. Of Housewares. He was still wearing the nametag.

He was also floating that gargantuan shotgun of his, its double-barrel still smoking. I realized that I was partly covered with Gallant bits, fought not to retch as I hastily pushed the bottle away.

"Ee-yep," drawled Ash, taking a moment to inspect the firearm, "she's a beaut, all right. Ironshod Firearms' IF-88 Ironpony, made in good-ol' Hoofington. Ten-gauge, double-action twin-barrel autoloader, walnut stock, cobalt-blued steel assembly, ten-round internal magazine with an external port that's expandable to a full twenty. Ess-Mart's top of the line --- or it would be, if any damned son of a bitch but me ever found another one like it."

The light grey unicorn, his black mane shook out and wide grin gleaming, stood up and reached back to toss me Tag's disconnected slave collar. Its key followed shortly thereafter, with a clink.

"Need more firepower'n that, you shoulda brought your own damned army-of-darkness to do all the fightin' for ya. Speakin' of which, I've got some business back on the other side of town. But I thought I'd drop in, save your sorry ass and the dollface, and leave you with some parting words of wisdom for the next time some primitive screw-head stabs you in the face." He bent down close, close enough to whisper in my ear.

"Run."

I'd just been whipsawed between the trauma of losing an important and sensitive body part for the first time, having it regenerate back to being as good as new in a matter of seconds, and having no choice but to be thankful to the most naturally-sarcastic prick I'd ever met. And I wasn't quite sure if I'd just been threatened by that selfsame savior into the bargain.

What could I do, other than lay there on my belly in a growing puddle of the NCR's finest, watching him trot off into the night with a brutalized and unconscious starlet slung over his shoulder like a sack of beans? Watching the mists of midnight slowly close around his shadow like seeking tendrils from another plane of existence? Watching that incredible, amazing shotgun (I want it! I need it!) levitate upwards in a final parting salute, hearing his words drift back across millennia and light-years...

..."hail to the King, baby."

And in the cold silence that followed, even this far from the embassy, I could hear The King shouting to his still-raving audience, as though calling to a pony he probably never even met:

"Thank ya! Thankyaverramush."




Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Commando -- While using a rifle or similar weapon, your accuracy in S.A.T.S. is increased by 25%. In addition, you can channel your innate desire to charge headlong into battle into a controlled burst of speed (Turbo +4, useable once per day), and your Poison Resistance drops to 10% anytime you are within three yards of a rusty tin can.

Skill Note: Barter (25)

Chapter 8: A Horse of Wealth and Taste

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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.

Chapter 9: Boom-and-Zoom

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CHAPTER NINE: Boom-and-Zoom

"Junior Speedsters are our lives! Sky-bound soars and daring dives...!"

Zoom! Pink-E blew past as I exited the elevator. "Come back here! I'm responsible for you!"

Zoom! Three seconds later, a blur resembling Tag-End went by. "Y'want bucked inna face? Try grabbin' my hooch again!"

Zoom! Aaaand there went Pink-E. "Look me in the eye and say that!"

Zoom! And Tag. "Aw, hell naw! M'not fallin' for that one after las' time!"

In the few hours I'd been away, the Lucky Chance's Celestial Suite had become Bedlam.

There was no free-standing furniture that hadn't been knocked over. Puddles of exotic liquor, decorated liberally with broken glass, were everywhere. The kitchen's toaster oozed something black and smoking which had probably never been bread-related to start with. Ferns and soil from half of the pillar-planters were scattered all over the carpets. Through this mess galloped Tag-End, a bottle of something bile-green held telekinetically aloft as he charged past a third time, Pink-E still hot on his fetlocks. From the look of it, the chase had been going on long enough to start wearing a circular track in the carpet.

This situation clearly called for just a teensy bit of tact and diplomacy.

Given the day I'd had so far? My head reared back:

"What in the wide, wide, world of Equestria is a-goin' on here?!"

Both up them pulled up short, Tag staggering to a halt with some effort while Pink-E's hover servos made the highly unlikely noise of rubber screeching against pavement. She peered at me dubiously.

"Equestria isn't a world, it's a country! That'd be like, I dunno, calling the planet Germaney or Fancee - "

I cut the little 'bot off before she could get started. "Like I give a shit what the planet's called! What do - "

Now Tag cut ME off, giving Pink-E a bleary-eyed gaze. "I tho' it was Equestria, too. Whassit called if s'not Equestria?"

I glared at him. "That's not important - "

Pink-E happily indulged Tag's sudden attack of drunken curiosity. "Earth!"

Which, naturally, made him even more confused. "Whaddya mean, like... dirt?"

"Yeah! Because it's mostly dirt! Like in this one pageant they used to have, where -"

A few moments of rummaging around in my saddlebags produced the collar's control key, which I held up in my teeth while giving Tag-End a look promising raw murder. Pink-E yammered on for a few moments until she realized that the unicorn had, appropriately, shut the fuck up. I spat the control back into the bag and rubbed my face, grimacing. Yup. That's definitely a migraine coming on.

"Okay now... I only came back to grab my kit and head back out to see about the Zoomers, and here you two've been ripping the place apart. If it takes me until morning to get back, should I be expecting, oh, something on the order of spray-painted graffiti and torn-up corpses? Because this is about as close to a raider's playground as I even want to think about living in!"

Tag managed to look abashed. Pink-E didn't have to try very hard; she was already quite experienced in configuring her programming to look miserable when I was around.

"I'm sorry, Cherry..." squeaked the little 'bot. My headache spiked.

"And stop calling me Cherry! I hate that name, always have! My name is Dead-Shot! Because I'm a damned good sniper --- not a snack food!" Her starting in with the Weepy Face wasn't helping my headache one bit, either. "And stop looking at me like that. It's..." I squeezed my eyes closed in a vain effort to dull the throbbing pain behind my sinuses. "It's just been a long day already."

Pink-E obediently ceased and desisted from venting her robot tear ducts, switching to a look of what I supposed was meant to be motherly concern. "Do you want to talk about it?"

I shook my head. "No time. It's a fair trot out to Zoomer-land as it is, and I can't take either of you along."

Tag shrugged, a motion which caused the still-inebriated unicorn to stagger in place for a moment. "No... ssskin off my nose. Plenny t' do right here." Levitating the bottle to his lips, he took a unhealthy swig of whatever the hell that green stuff was. Pink-E gave him the stink-eye and opened her mouth.

"Don't even start with him, 'bot. He didn't make you any promises, did he?" Her muzzle went contrite.

Tag's, conversely, adopted a smirk. "Thass right, you ain't the bossa me..."

A moment later I had the collar key back out of my bags and was flipping it up to Pink-E, who caught it deftly in her mouth. "Now she is." The lime-green buck's expression drooped. "Don't give me that look, either. This is your mess. Clean it up before I get back or I'll be looking for a new apprentice --- and you'll be finding a new owner, somewhere a lot less cushy."

Tag's look of sudden comprehension couldn't have been improved unless you installed a light-bulb over his head. You could almost hear the alcohol-sodden gears clicking into place: Shitting where I sleep is a bad thing!

My mood and migraine both lifted a bit. "I don't mind if you hit the bottle now and again, Tag. But keep it easy. If this stuff runs out, I won't be buying any more --- you will, out of what you earn while working with me. Otherwise, just keep this place straightened out, and we won't have any problems."

The unicorn looked around despondently at all the smashed bottles and sopping puddles slowly soaking into the carpet. The only way he was going to enjoy that alcohol now was if he got down on his knees and started sucking. "Ssssure thing, boss."

Pink-E beamed, Tag's key poking from the side of her mouth. " 'M rshpns'ble!"

* * * * *

It never seemed to fail: anytime I started feeling better about the world and its inhabitants, somepony did something to piss me off. Or in this case, to piss on me.

The Zoomers were doing thunderstorm practice.

Most folks considered Zoomer storms the one decent thing pegasi ever did for anypony in the Moohave Wasteland. Every month or so, a mess of 'em would fly up and start shuffling clouds around, seeding and packing them into full-fledged thunderstorms before letting them drift off their little reservation. Otherwise, the desert would have been a lot drier and less hospitable than it was even now.

That knowledge didn't make wading through a downpour any happier of an occasion. Water hammered down from the sky in near-solid sheets, turning the Imperial 93 slick where it was still asphalt and muddy where the NCR had patched it up with dirt. Behind me, the fortified junction of the I-93 and I-95 had already faded into the rain, along with its little trading post. Not even the shot of whiskey I'd taken at its pole-and-tarpaulin excuse for a bar (strictly for medicinal purposes, I silently promised the little Pink-E in my head) had done much to warm me up.

It was cold, it was almost dark even before the storm rolled in, and rain was soaking through the brim of my stormchaser hat. I was also reminded, by the cold dripping across my withers, that I'd once again forgotten to patch the holes in my threadworn poncho. Or, you know, actually just buy a new one on the way out of town. With more than fifteen thousand caps to my name, it wasn't like I couldn't afford nice things anymore.

Well, nothing for it now. I was already coming up on the first craters pockmarking what was left of the Imperial 93. Not that the NCR had ever maintained much of it north of "Firebase 188", since they had no interest in sending troops in that direction --- yet. If anything was true about the NCR, it's that if they saw something of value, they went after it sooner or later. If the Herd hadn't presented a far larger threat, Nellie AFB would probably have been overrun by Republican commandos by now.

A look to the sky showed nothing. It's hard to see anything with water slamming into your face, but even if that hadn't been true, the cloud cover completely blocked out the moon and stars. A pegasus could be flying six lengths overhead, and I wouldn't see a thing even with my uncanny night vision.

What worried me was that I had no idea how well the pegasi could see in these conditions.

Nellie AFB was an old-world military complex, one of the farthest outposts of the original Equestrian armed forces, and from anything anypony could tell, it had completely escaped the destruction of Booms-Day. Horse's top-down images (from a pegasus on the inside?) had confirmed that much, if nothing else. Two centuries later, nopony even knew if Nellie's pegasi were somehow affiliated with the so-called "Grand Enclave". Traders from the ruins of Manehattan and Hoofington often spoke of the Enclave as a major power, but as far as anypony this far west was concerned, they weren't much more than rumor material.

The Zoomers were definitely not a rumor, and I was in no mood to take chances on whether or not they had scavenged any infrared or low-light gear --- or even just had a pony or two on the perimeter who counted themselves friends of Nightmare Moon.

Slithering into the first substantial crater, I made my way carefully along the inside rim to maximize what concealment the shallow, muddy pit could offer. Its puddles were brackish, frigid and filthy, but did a great job covering my pink hide with harder-to-discern earth tones that nearly matched my mane and tail. When I'd gone the crater's length, I belly-crawled to the next closest of its kin.

One of my ears twitched, wrapping around to slap me in the eye. I growled with annoyance and pushed it back into place, only to have my knees start shaking. I glared at the offending appendages, blinking hard against a fresh eye-twitch.

Okay, okay, I get it. I'm nervous. Here I am, trying to sneak through no-pony's-land at night in terrible weather. I have every right to be nervous. But this is the worst time and place to let myself go to pieces!

Fortunately, that seemed to be the end of it. Before long I was nowhere near the road, slinking from crater to crater, angling towards the base's perimeter chain-link fence and ignoring the persistent twitch developing in the base of my tail. My fervent hope was that anypony watching for intruders would have their eyes on the road and front gate. No sane pegasus would be trying to fly through this drench-party, that's for sure...

A sharp whistling noise was my first reminder that pegasi were not known for being terribly rational.

S.A.T.S.! Now! The world stopped cold.

I could see individual raindrops hanging in the air --- and, as I looked up, my heart damn near joined the rest of the universe in stillness. A goggled face glared down, framed by outstretched wings and forehooves. The rest was clad in a solid-black bodysuit, blending almost perfectly against the storm-choked sky, the only spots of color being silver lightning-bolts sewn to its cuffs. The beginning of a rainboom ring was already forming in the pegasus' wake --- and he was still moving, albeit slowly.

Still too fast for my taste! I had zero chance of getting out of the rainboom's blast radius, but the pegasus had made one small mistake by coming in from almost directly above. He'd been expecting to take me completely by surprise, or that I would try to run for it, or maybe he was just a little too green for his own good. Whichever it was didn't really matter at the moment... I needed to get directly beneath him!

Inventory, inventory --- I still had those chems I'd promised I was going to sell instead of use, what were they? If it was a choice of a crying Pink-E or a dead Cherry (Dead-Shot!), the decision was a no-brainer, but what did I... ah! Scrolling through the list showed some Buck (nope), Stampede (nope), did I have any Dash? Nope! ...wait.

What was "Turbo"? Was that even a chem...? *click*

Suddenly every nerve in my body sang out a need... a need for speed.

Mud under my hooves? No problem. Rain slashing my face? No problem. Goggle-eyed pegasus bringing multicolored death from the sky? No problem! I shot out of the crater like I had rockets strapped to my flanks, reaching the eye of the rainboom just as the pegasus broke away at a perfect right angle back into the storm.

Every color of the spectrum blasted outward with blinding vibrance, shattering the ground below my hooves into a fine spray of mud trailing after its circular wake. Behind that thick brown wave, I galloped like mad, stretching my legs over ground stripped level and dry by the expanding ring of rainbow destruction. Even the rain was smashed back, by the sheer vehemence of destruction, into a brief-lived bubble which I sailed right on through.

In those long, glorious seconds, I could outrace the wind. Every muscle sang with joy, glad to be called upon for the test, reaching towards breaking-strain; my mane and tail flapped behind like personal battle flags, my nostrils snorted hot breath. A strange sensation descended, of ghostly ancestors from down the ages matching my strides in a great communal outswelling of pure motion --- a sudden epiphany that, somehow, this was everything a pony was meant to be.

Then that brief burst of turbo-speed departed, leaving me stumbling headlong for a bare second before a second rainboom's blast front smacked me dead in the ass. Two pegasi had bracketed me; I'd charged into the eye of the 'boom to my front. It had just taken a bit for the one in back to catch up, and when it did, the ground lit up and blew away from me.

* * * * *

The filly's voice came as a tiny, distant whisper. "Is he dead?"

Her friend's reply was only slightly less so. Sounded like a colt. "I don't think so. Breathing doesn't count as 'dead', does it?"

"Well, maybe he's mostly dead?"

Survival instinct demanded that I at least open my eyes to assess the tactical situation. The rest of me demanded to know what my instinct planned to do with that information, given the widespread damage reports arriving at my brainstem every other nanosecond. There was, however, a general consensus between the two parties that my PipBuck should shut the hell up with its reminders that I'd suffered crippling injuries in a variety of places. WE KNOW!

"You kids back away from that dirt-pounder! Now!" Definitely an adult. Female, probably armed, and most definitely not happy to see me.

"Awww!" Deprived of their curio of the moment, the two audibly scampered away. A hoof prodded me in the side, creating a sharp lancing pain, which at least reassured me that particular rib was merely broken instead of shattered. Even if I'd thought playing dead might have been a good idea --- and I didn't --- my body's decision to release an anguished groan would have betrayed me.

"Good. You're alive and in pain. Mother Matrix would be disappointed if you were dead, and I'd be disappointed if you weren't suffering for what you've done."

Ignoring Bitchy-Bitch for the moment, I brought up S.A.T.S. and went to work on myself. It was too bad that I had no real remedy at the moment for my broken bones, but I'd be damned if I wasn't at least going to load up on some Med-X to dull the pain. Two syringes fed my PipBuck's internal needles, bleeding sweet relief through my bloodstream. Queuing a pair of healing potions up after that started me on the road back to where I'd been prior to discovering the wonders of involuntary flight.

Another prod, this one more a kick, but all I did was grunt with annoyance now. The Med-X had done an admirable job of silencing the new howls echoing through my nervous system. "Fuck off, Mom. I wanna sleep in."

The following punt drove the air from my lungs and rolled me onto my side. Robbed of the ability to grunt now, I settled for glaring up at a teal pegasus wearing --- oh. The black uniform and its lightning-bolts were unmistakably those of my airborne assailant. Her night-vision goggles were slid up onto her forehead, under-lighting a forelock with dim shades of green set against the imposed greys of moonlight.

Moonlight? The storm had already moved along to the south, clearing the sky for Lady Luna to cross overhead with her stellar consorts. The poetry inherent to the vision might have had more impact on my brain, if it hadn't been starving for air at the moment. I gasped hard, producing a giggle from my tormentor --- with a vicious edge to it.

"Not so tough as all that, are you? You're just lucky you landed on the foal pads."

Foal whatnow? My neck being one of the few unbroken things left in my body, I hazarded a look around. I'd landed smack on top of a pile of old mattresses, one of many spread across a wide section of tarmac in rather specific-looking patterns. Two lengths in any given direction and I'd be a pony pancake. Lucky for sure...

Three other pegasi came running up out of the darkness, one dressed in doctor's whites, the other two wearing battle saddles with an assortment of implements of destruction --- all pointed at me, naturally. Something struck me as really peculiar about the scene, but I couldn't put my hoof on it at the moment.

"This'll hurt for just a moment. Hang in there," muttered the doc, shoving a syringe into my flank.

Soothing heaviness fell over me like a blanket. "Oooh, thanks --- that's even better than the Med-X..."

There was a pause. "...Med-X? Who here gave him Med-X?" A muttering of denials filtered through the cottony sensations filling my ears. "Well he can't bloody well dose himself with his legs bent like that --- oh, crap. He's got a PipBuck?!" My vision went dark. Something was wrong. But then, something was always wrong... "Get over here! Grab this! Now stand back --- CLEAR!"

THUMP

* * * * *

"...picked 'im up and chucked 'im like a foal's feedin' dish!" Laughter.

"That's enough out of you lot. Don't you all have patrols to fly?" Grumbling, a shuffling of hooves, door slamming.

I could barely feel anything, inside or out. My eyes blinked open, but everything remained dark. "Whuth'ell'joodoo't'mee..." And apparently my tongue was half-dead, to boot.

"Dammit, what are you doing awake? Close your eyes, you'll burn them out staring into the lamps."

"Can'see'thng..." I struggled to move my head, or anything, but came up against firm restraints. I'd've started panicking, but that seemed like more trouble than it was worth at the moment. My thoughts squirmed through a muzzy backfield of internal noise.

"Of course you can't see." A moist towel was laid over my eyes. "Mixing Cloudpack and a double-dose of Med-X could have killed you outright. Instead, you've gotten off light with heart palpitations followed by a mild stroke, which would still have killed you if I hadn't been there to stabilize your would-be corpse."

More shuffling, this time from a single set of hooves. Clinks and plinks, doctor's tools being dropped into bowls and onto trays. I held my tongue, since it wasn't behaving anyway.

"Pulse: normal... heart rate: acceptable... ganglion response: nominal conductivity... I'll have you know this is no matter of pure-hearted charity, by the by. Were it up to me, I'd have had you thrown right back over the perimeter fence. But orders are orders..."

A needle pricked my right foreleg. I hissed sharply, more out of surprise than at the slight infliction of pain.

"Ah, good, the return of nerve synchronization. You should be just fine by the time you wake up." A sigh from the darkness. "If only I could say the same for everypony else..."

* * * * *

Waking up to shouting is rarely a good thing. Especially when there's a lot of it.

"Back up! Back up! Make a hole!" Ah, Bitchy-Bitch again.

"You back up! No dirt-pounders in the sanctuary!" Dozens of voices took up the chant. "NO! DIRT! POUNDERS! IN THE SANC-TU-ARY! NO! DIRT! POUNDERS! IN THE SANC-TU-ARY!"

"Orders of Mother Matrix! Back the hell up!"

"Rule Thirty-Four stands! He cheated!"

Now came the sound of several battle saddles being cocked and locked. "Enough! That's for Mother Matrix to say, not you!"

As the shouting and chanting died down into grumbling and vague threats, somepony rolled me forward. I was still strapped into the gurney, but the towel over my eyes had been replaced with a too-tight blindfold that was working a number on my returning migraine. Crawling around in puddles at night during a thunderstorm had done my head no favors, nor had being blasted however far the rainboom had "chucked" me. On the plus side, feeling had returned to my extremities, and it didn't feel like anything was still broken. Whatever Cloudpack was, it sure worked!

A door opened, and I was hustled through as some ponies made a sudden attempt to surge forward. Scuffling and renewed shouting broke out, then was cut off by the slamming door. A click, a sigh, and my gurney started moving again.

I might've been curious as all hell, but I wasn't going to say so. Wherever we were going, we'd get there soon enough, and whoever was wheeling me along, it wasn't likely that they were empowered to negotiate my release. All I could do was relax, listen, and wait.

The gurney's creaky wheels rolled along a very smooth floor, echoing their racket from distant walls. I was no expert at gauging distance by sound, but I was pretty sure this was one of the Zoomers' airfield hangars. We eventually slowed to a halt, orderlies to either side adjusting the gurney. Three sharp jerks later I found myself lifted up, rotated into a half-upright position, and slid sidewise into --- something that made me feel just a little bit claustrophobic.

Coffin-style claustrophobic, in fact.

"Is he stable? Please say 'no'... I'd hate to waste this on a wastelander," grumbled Bitchy-Bitch.

Doctor Feel-Good was all business: "Healthy as a buffalo. For what that's worth. Now let's check his PipBuck..." I could feel somepony's hoof picking at the device's buttons but, still being strapped down, I couldn't do much about it.

Except bitch, that is. "Whaddya think you're doing with that?"

"I'm making sure you haven't 'accidentally' dosed yourself with something again before putting you under. Last thing anypony needs, including you, is a lot of flailing around while you're inside." He didn't even pause in his button-pecking.

I could try stalling, too. Weren't mad doctors supposed to take moments like these to explain whatever they had in mind to their curious victim? "Inside? Inside what? What are you plotting at here, doctor?"

"Shush. It''ll be over before you know it."

Or complaining! There was always complaining! "Could you at least take off this blindfold? It's too tight! It's chafing my temples; why do I have to wear it if I'm going inside something?" I threw in a little creative wiggling, which was all I could manage against my restraints anyways.

The master of passive-aggressive warfare, I was not. "You're fine." He clicked one more button, and a newly-familiar sensation flooded into my system from the PipBuck on my foreleg. "Bon voyage...!"

Something softly clicked into place over my head...

>>> oOo <<<

Everything was white and blue. Relentlessly so.

But then, that was probably to be expected of an environment completely made up of cloud-stuff hanging in an endless sky.

The giant stadium was laid out as an oval surrounded by high-stacked seating for an audience that could have numbered in the thousands, if there'd been any audience at all. Decorative pillars and arches, a bit reminiscent of the Velvet Stocking's interior, lent a feeling of style and grandeur to the place --- like big things were meant to happen here. Colorful pennants flapped from tall colonnades, providing the only sound other than the wind whistling by. All in all, it was pretty damned impressive...

And then I made the mistake of looking down.

Vertigo nearly pitched me over the edge into azure infinity for several very long moments, until I finally managed to coax my shaking legs into a hasty retreat. Immediately after which harrowing experience with near-death, I was treated to the most annoying laugh I'd heard since Pink-E.

"BWAAA-hahahahahaha! Oh, you should see your face right now!" I flushed with heat, spinning about to angrily confront...

...possibly the goofiest-looking pegasus my drug-addled brain could come up with at the moment.

For a start, she was a bright cyan, of the shade only seen at the very top of the welkin on the hottest, clearest days of summer. Her eyes were a stunningly unlikely shade of violet, bordering on amethyst, with thick lashes crinkled up in laughter, and her mane --- was dyed up like a goddamn rainbow. At the moment, I wanted to rip that stupid mane off and feed it to her.

Laugh at me? I wrath at you! I didn't know where I'd heard that, but the advice seemed sound enough...

The arrogant pegasus grinned down from her seat on a cloud-throne set atop a raised dais of clouds, itself perched on an island of --- okay, yes, everything here was made of clouds, all right already --- in the middle of the coliseum's so-called floor. "So you think you're tough? So you think you've got what it takes?"

I glared back up at her. "How about -"

In an instant, she'd shot down off the dais to hover with her muzzle damn-near pressed into mine. "Well, listen up, buck, because this mission's vital to the security of Equestria, and you've been drafted!"

Reflexively in part, and partly because I really wanted to anyway, I swung on her --- and connected with air, stumbling off-balance into the bargain. She was already "marching" away from me in mid-air on her hind legs, forelegs behind her back and similarly-prismatic-tail held high like she was addressing troops. Odds were, she hadn't even noticed my horrible failure of an assault.

"It will be dangerous! It will be deadly! It will test you to your absolute limits! But I know you have it in you..."

Monologuing with her back to me? GOOD. A brief charge to build up speed, a flying tackle --- and I hit open air again, shortly before my face hit the first steps up the all-too-solid dais. Pain and stars exploded inside my migraine-afflicted skull. AUGH! I thought clouds were supposed to be SOFT! I barely managed to get back on my hooves and wave the stars away by the time she sat back down on her throne to face me again.

"...because only the finest master ninja could possibly have snuck past my loyal legions onto Nellie Air Force Base!" She leaned forward and grinned expansively, those amethyst eyes glittering with excitement. "Now tell me all about how you did it!"

I looked down at the clouds I was standing on as though I could see the ground through them, far far below. "First, why don't you tell me why a non-pegasus isn't plummeting to whatever doom this place has in store for ponies that aren't supposed to be able to fly?"

She flipped her mane and snorted, like she was talking to an idiot. "You're not falling through, because nopony programmed the pod for anything but a pegasus. Computers don't know that you're not just a pegasus who was somehow born without wings. Guess you're not one of those egg-head types --- which is fine, 'cause obviously you're sneaky. And we need sneaky, not smart. Just... don't do anything really stupid, like step off into the wild blue yonder, okay?"

I'd figured as much. Nellie's pegasi had strapped me into one of those virtual-reality pods, of the kind the NCR was rumored to use for training its most elite troops. I'd always kind of thought the idea was a load of brahminshit --- magical orbs were used to capture the memories various ponies had of a given environment, then placed in an array from which a computer would develop a consensus view. A senses-deadening pod was then built around the array, with a reclining couch for the viewer to rest in while a magical headband fed the computer's data directly into their brain.

Using such pods, soldiers could be taught tactics and strategy "the hard way" --- by giving them experience on a battlefield which wouldn't actually kill them. While I had to admit all of that sounded really cool, what sounded even better was my own memory of a standing NCR bounty for recovery of VR pods, intact or otherwise. A grin crept across my face.

As with Pink-E, Whoever-This-Cunt-Was thought I was grinning at something she'd said.

"Awww, yeah, I see that smile! Thinking about doing it anyway, huh? You've got guts, I'll say that. And maybe guts is enough. That and being sneaky, of course! So, like I said --- tell me how you got here." Now her chin was propped up on a forehoof whose elbow was resting on an arm of the throne, a bored tyrant looking for amusement from a would-be jester.

Not today. "Two of your night flyers came at me with tactical rainbooms. I made it into the eye of one, but not the other. I'm told it kicked my ass clean over your perimeter fence, far enough that I landed on a bunch of old mattresses. Stuck the landing with nothing more than a lot of broken bones and a shitload of pain, so I doped myself up to kill it, and then your doctor shoved a needle in my flank that damn near polished me off. That's the story."

The mare produced an expression that fell neatly onto the border between Surprise and Letdown. "Well... I guess... that's kind of awesome..." She looked around, as though hoping another candidate for her "vital mission" would materialize from thin air.

When none did after a minute or so, she hung her head and gave a low sigh. "Okay, okay, if you're all I get to work with, fine." Suddenly, she perked up and smiled. "Then again, it's not like I haven't had competitions turn out weird before... maybe you'll turn out to be a turtle! Heh... a ninja turtle. That'd be all kinds of awesome right there."

I peered dubiously at the overly-colorful mare. "A what?"

"Turtle. You know, short li'l guys, stubby legs, thick protective shells, cute little beady eyes..."

"I think you mean tortoises."

"Whatever..." She rolled her eyes and sighed again, more heartfelt this time. "I miss Tank."

I cocked my head to the side. "I take it that's a 'who', as opposed to a 'what'?"

She nodded; red, orange and yellow forelocks bounced in sympathy. "Yeah. He was a feisty li'l guy. Never quit, even when I ordered him to. He stuck it out to the end. Kinda like an earth pony, I guess, who doesn't give up after he gets blasted a good quarter-mile or so. That's how far it is from the fence-line to the nearest foal pads. So I'm declaring you the new Tank."

I rolled my eyes. "Name's Dead-Shot."

A grin. "Sure thing... Tank."

My eyes narrowed. "And you'd be Mother Matrix?"

She shrugged and settled back on her throne, making a show of wing-preening. "That's what they call me."

"Did your parents seriously stick you with that name, or did you just make it up all by yourself?"

"It's more of a title ---" She did an impressive double-take, snapping her head back around to re-focus on me. "Wait. You don't know my real name?"

"Should I?"

She leaned forward. "You don't know who I am?"

I took a step back, suddenly self-conscious about the potential tactical error of offending what might well be some wanna-be goddess with delusions of grandeur, or maybe an artificial intelligence bent on proving it was a real pony, in a virtual universe that it probably had direct control over. "Ah... this is where you tell me you're a pony everypony should know, right?"

The pegasus leapt straight up out of her throne into the air with a wild cheer. "Woo-hoo! Finally, somepony who doesn't know who I am! YyyyyyyyyyYYYYES! This. Is. AWESOME!"

The stands suddenly populated with throngs of cheering, happy, healthy pegasi, the tops of the colonnades exploded with fireworks that seemed to threaten their pennants with incineration; patriotic music blared from hidden speakers all around. And then for the next thirty seconds, I was treated to the most amazing acrobatic airshow I'd ever seen. Well, actually, the only airshow I'd ever seen, but still...!

She was wild energy, tethered by pure ebullience and joy, bound up only by wings with which to cut the sky. All of this might have been a simulation, a computer's networked dream, but she? She was not. Speed, gravity, inertia, acceleration, shearing planes of force intersecting and opposed to one another --- these were the paints she applied to the canvas of her virtual world. I can tell you she looped into a barrel-roll, pulled out of it with a snap turn followed by a wingover, and then swooped to shoot straight past me with what she loudly proclaimed to be "The Buccaneer Blaze" --- but that would be like describing a desert sunset to a blind foal.

When the actinic explosion of the "Blaze" finally stopped dancing in my eyes, the cyan-blue pegasus with the unlikely mane stood so close that I could feel her post-exertion breathing.

"So yeah. I'm 'Mother Matrix'. And when you get back, the code phrase is 'Bet Big'. Seeya around, Tank."

I blinked again, this time with shock, as she leaned in and playfully kissed me on the nose.

<<< oOo >>>

"Aaaaand he's out. Pop the top." A soft hiss of escaping air; apparently these things were airtight? The blindfold came off, and I found myself blinking hard with my real eyes against the floodlamps lighting the inside of a hangar.

So I guessed right, for once...

Doctor Feel-Good leaned in, shone a smaller light directly and briefly into each of my eyes, and prompted a round of cursing from me which he entirely ignored. "Dilation's a little off, but it looks like the dosage was spot-on otherwise. He's lucid."

"Good." Bitchy-Bitch didn't sound like she meant it one little bit. "You two, stand by." Then her face replaced Feel-Good's, those goggles still underlighting a mane which --- oh, hey, it was actually gray-on-white. It hadn't just been a trick of the moonlight. "Code phrase. What did she tell you?"

A snarky response would have felt very nice right now. The expression on her face, though, made it seem like she was actually hoping for one. Not the time for fun and mind-games... "She said to bet big. Whatever the hell that means."

Bitchy facehoofed. I couldn't see, but could actually hear, both of her guards doing the same.

Feel-Good stopped whatever he was doing with the pod out of my sight and rushed back to stare at me. "You're positive that was it?"

Bitchy wasn't having any of it. "He didn't stutter, Doctor. But I'm pretty sure I misheard him." He shifted that glare back down to me. "Or maybe HE misheard HER. I'm SURE she told him the phrase was 'CASH OUT'. Wasn't it, you little earthworm?"

The good Doctor actually shoved her back from me. "Shut up and get out of here! And take your goon squad with you! You know the rules!"

"We can't risk the Mother on this wad of Flim-Flam Flux! Look at him! It has to have been a glitch in the system!"

A warning growl was Bitchy's reward for that line. "IF that is true, then the Mother's matrix is further gone than we can afford. Unless you have another Rule Thirty-Four candidate in mind...?"

"There's no reason we can't just storm the casino and take what we need - "

"You mean, aside from Rules One, Two, Three, Fifteen and Forty-Seven? We've had this debate before!"

I cleared my throat.

Both pegasi instantly turned on me and shouted, in perfect chorus: "WHAT?!"

"The restraints are kinky and all, but lying here like this is killing my ass. Plus I'm starving. Can we fight this out over breakfast or something, like civilized raiders?"

* * * * *

The nearest mess-hall, it turned out, was directly attached to the hangar itself, which served mainly as shelter for two dozen pods identical to the one I'd been crammed into. A sign over the back of the doorway read, in faded black lettering: Avionics / Tactical Assessment Bay - Epsilon Clearance Required.

Before Bitchy's guards had a chance to shoo out the kitchen staff and cover up the few windows (obscuring what looked like a really beautiful post-storm rainbow in the sky beyond), I was already into what was left of the morning buffet, slapping spatula-loads of scrambled eggs and wheat toast as high as I could onto a clean plate. Bitchy and Feel-Good actually got into line behind me, patiently waiting their turn until I'd taken what I wanted, but "hunger" won out over "opportunity to screw with these guys".

A minute later we were all seated around a small round table, me swallowing only slightly faster than I could shovel it in and the others pecking dispassionately at the few scraps they'd taken for themselves.

"So," said Bitchy, pushing her plate aside and folding her forelegs atop the table. "She said to 'Bet Big'."

"Mm-hmph!" I managed around a mouthful of the best eggs I'd had in months. The cooks apparently used pepper sauce in their mix, giving the otherwise bland fare a nice sharp -

"Well, have fun with that. I hear the Casino Royale is particularly deadly this time of year."

- kick in the balls. I spewed what was in my mouth all over Feel-Good, who was still nibbling at some toast. Bitchy looked satisfied with my reaction, reaching across the table to tip my lower jaw shut with an evil grin, while the doctor scrubbed egg off his face with an air of disgust.

"Thaaaat's right, hot shot --- your webelos just went from frying-pan to fire. How d'ya like them apples?"

Feel-Good brushed the last bits of mess off his lab coat. "No need to taunt the help, Commander. I believe, while we're at it, introductions are finally in order." He gestured to Bitchy. "This here is Base Commander Loop DeLoup - "

"That's Air Wolf," growled Bitchy, "and you goddess-damned-well know it."

"I do not introduce ponies by their battle monikers, Commander," came the prim retort. "As for myself, I am Doctor Fly Right, Chief Medical Officer for Nellie Air Force Base. We serve Mother Matrix on behalf of her flock. And you are...?"

I worked for a moment at swallowing the last bits of egg still in my mouth before answering. "Dead-Shot. Bounty hunter and, at the moment, a messenger to you people."

"Pfft," snorted DeLoup. "Scavvers like you try to hit our fenceline at least three times a month, looking to sneak in and get out with whatever pre-War gear you can steal. You'll have to come up with a better story than that if you want to try yanking our wings."

I shook my head, tapped a sequence of buttons on my PipBuck, and let Mr. Horse's recorded voice speak his piece.

"Good day to you, residents of Nellie Air Force Base, and salutations. I would have spoken with you sooner, but you never pick up the phone, nor do you accept mail delivery. Forgive the small effort at humor; my name is Edwin Robert Horse, and I essentially own New Pegas. I would like to keep it that way."

Both DeLoup and Fly Right stared, eyes wide as dinner plates with surprise, as the recording went on.

"I have no designs on you or yours, but as you likely know, others do. The NCR considers your airbase a military asset to be seized when they can, and the Herd considers you a latent threat to be eliminated when conveniences allow. I therefore proffer an alliance of mutual defense, if not actual cooperation, presenting a stronger combined deterrence to any moves against the independence of either party. If this be amenable to your group, simply inform my messenger and release him with any instructions you may wish to include for further communications. We can work out the details at your convenience and leisure, but remember --- while I am a patient stallion, neither President Thimble nor the Herd's so-called 'Caesar' can be counted upon to wait forever."

The recording clicked over, starting to repeat itself, before I could kill it. Then I gave the two my best deadpan look. "Well?" They looked at each other, looked at me, and then at each other again.

Fly Right finally broke the silence. "Um... this has actually been a matter of some recent debate, actually..."

DeLoup smacked the table. "It has not been a matter of debate; Rule Six explicitly forbids taking sides in any external conflicts!"

The doctor facehoofed. "Self-defense is not a matter of taking sides - "

"It is if it means an alliance! Nellie flies alone, and if necessary, dies alone!"

"The Rules are meant to protect us, not lead us into blind suicide!"

"And you think Horse and his robot popguns won't throw us against one side or the other as cannon fodder?"

"This is not the time to argue, Commander! Mother Matrix has already made a decision about..." Fly Right stopped to look at me. "...the messenger..."

DeLoup sighed. "Fine. I suppose that'll settle the argument one way or the other."

I was getting a really creepy vibe here. "Maybe you two should fill me in on exactly what's going on."

Fly Right leaned in and folded his forelegs over, gazing intently at me. "The situation is this: when the world went balefire, Nellie AFB survived intact --- but with most of its systems blown. From what we've been able to tell through our own research over the centuries, it was deliberate sabotage, triggered by remote access from a linked network. When the 'Grand Pegasus Enclave' seceded from Equestria and ordered the recall of all 'loyal' pegasi, the military personnel here took what they could easily transport and left the crippled base behind --- but most of the civilians had grown up in and around New Pegas and refused to leave with them."

I nodded along, which seemed to satisfy him.

"The mare we call 'Mother Matrix' arrived shortly after that, gravely wounded. She slipped into one of the VR pods and activated its emergency stasis function, hoping to get well enough to eventually leave on her own. But the pods don't actually heal anything --- so she's been stuck in stasis like that, on the edge of death, for centuries. When the first few pegasi scavvers ventured onto the base and found her in there..."

DeLoup chipped in. "We couldn't just leave her. We all migrated to Nellie, formed a citizens' militia, and swore to protect her until we could find some way to get her out of there. She set up the Rules which keep us safe from outsiders, in turn." Her face went hard. "And since we can't move her pod without turning it off, we're not about to put her in danger for your damned alliance."

I rolled my eyes. "Then why didn't you just SAY 'no'? I'll go tell Horse the deal is off."

Fly Right shook his head emphatically. "We can't say 'no', or 'yes' for that matter. That's Mother Matrix's sphere of authority under Rule Ten. But her health is deteriorating. If you want any kind of deal, we have to save her life first --- and no regular Auto-Doc will do. We've already tried that, which is what triggered the deterioration in the first place." He gave DeLoup, who looked away and whistled for a moment, a dirty look.

Was that my migraine coming back already? I rubbed my face. "Soooo... let's see if I have this straight. You need a special Auto-Doc, from no less a place than the Casino Royale, so your 'Mother Matrix' doesn't drop dead in her pod, so she can agree or not agree to this alliance. You want me to volunteer for a suicide mission, just for a 'maybe'?"

The good doctor sighed, stood up from the table, and walked back towards the buffet, despite not having even finished what he'd taken. I was about to get back to work on my own now-cold stack of scrambled yellow heaven, but Commander Bitchy wasn't about to allow that without a good haranguing first.

"Maybe you didn't understand when Mother Matrix mentioned, as she does to anypony who qualifies as a Rule Thirty Four candidate, that you were drafted into her service. We're not asking you to do anything. You don't have a goddess-damned choice in the matter!"

I swallowed and glowered back. "Fuck your Mother, and fuck you. You can drop me off at the Royale, and then I can turn right the hell around and leave. That's my choice, if you really wanna push things, and you can bet your flank Horse won't be happy about - "

An injector into my shoulder, from behind. Of course. Why would the good doctor be going for any more food? I'd just fallen like a lead balloon for one of the cheapest distractions in the book. Which was also the way to describe how I hit the floor a moment after.

As the world faded out to black for the fourth time in one day --- frankly, I was getting kind of tired of it --- I felt something snick into place around my neck. Bitchy's voice was low, vicious, and altogether too satisfied-sounding.

"For once in your miserable little existence, earthworm, you're going to buck up and obey somepony's orders. My orders. And if not?... boom."



Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Mysterious Stranger - Somepony's decided you need a little help every now and again, usually with a head-shot to whomever you're having trouble with at the moment. Who is this mysterious bell-ringer? Who? What is his purpose? What? How can he even DO that to a Behemoth? How? *WHACK* Ow! Hush, and Cloppin shall tell you...

Skill Note: Speech (25)

Chapter 10: Derp Money

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CHAPTER TEN: Derp Money

"I just don't know what went wrong!"

My ears heard, before my eyes saw.

"Welcome to muffins. I mean, the casino. I mean, muffins are great with butter, especially if you're eating them at a casino! While gambling. Oh... do I have to begin again? Okay! Welcome to muffins."

Slowly my vision advanced from black, to fuzzy greys, to a more solid grey surrounded by browns and blacks, as the message repeated. Sensation returned in the form of something cold and hard under my chin and hooves, contrasted with an almost-suffocating warmth everywhere else. I took a deep breath to center myself --- and was suddenly reminded of an unaccustomed tightness around my neck.

With the chill of that realization, I was as completely awake as if I'd been doused with a bucket of water. A chuckling sounded below my right ear, drowning out the more distant talk of casino muffins.

"Awake at last, are we, earthworm?" DeLoup was too busy gloating to let me answer. "Good. We took advantage of your little nap to get you fully outfitted and positioned for your mission, whether or not you choose to accept it. Your saddlebags are to your left, the casino is to your front, and you're not getting back over the gates to your rear until you have an Auto-Doc Mark Seven for us to pick up along with you."

I stood up on the cold hard pavement, still a little groggy, and tried to shake the cobwebs out of my head with a soft squeak.

...squeak?

The speaker on my collar emitted a sharp laugh. "By now I'm sure you've noticed your new 'choice' of apparel? That's the Fun Suit Mark Two, another fine Aegis Security product for the Ministry of Morale. The Suits replaced their initial line of explosive collars, when those turned out not to be as effective as desired for restraining prisoners and malcontents. It seems that interrogating someone who's lost their head can be somewhat difficult."

Looking down revealed a shiny light-blue surface curving away from the collar, a one-piece rubber skin stretching to cover my barrel, belly, rump and legs. Only my head, tail, hooves and PipBuck escaped the overly-snug get-up. Every motion pulled against the thing one way or another, drawing it taut and resulting in that quiet squeaking noise.

I snorted my disgust. "Not only is this a lot kinkier than I had you pegasi figured for - ", which statement prompted a harrumph from the speaker, " - but do you really expect me to sneak around the Casino Royale in this stupid thing?"

"No, my little earthworm - " came DeLoup's sneering reply, "I expect you to obey orders."

Suddenly, a loud hissing erupted from just below the collar.

An air talisman?! What the -

In the moment it took to form the thought, the hidden gemstone's enchantment blew enough gas between the suit's double layers to transform it into a blue globe, made imperfect only by the indentations occupied by my hooves, head and tail. These six anchor-points neatly stretched me spread-eagle within the imprisoning ball, its expansion so rapid that it rebounded from the unyielding tarmac into the air.

For those few seconds, I was too surprised to react --- then as the ball fell back to earth, only to bounce me helplessly back up with an audible boing, embarrassment flushed my muzzle a darker pink than usual.

If anypony saw me like this, I'd either die of shame or have to kill the witnesses!

Commander Bitchy, on the other hoof, was having a high old time. "Every time you decide to give me some lip instead of listen, you're going to find yourself bobbling around like that, hoping nothing comes along to kill you before I get tired of laughing. The Pink Cloud? It'll melt your face off while you're stuck there trying not to breathe it in. The so-called 'Ghost Herd'? They'll cut you apart without a word, like they do to anypony they catch. I'm sure you've heard the stories."

I had, but I was having trouble focusing on the details while bouncing around in a giant rubber ball. Especially since, having an offset center of gravity in the form of yours truly, it had a propensity for sudden spins and turns. I fought to keep what little breakfast I'd had down in my stomach, where it belonged. So this is 'motion sickness', huh? I want a refund...!

"But hey, if we're really lucky," my tormentor added with an audible smirk, "the holo-guards will zap you, and I'll get to hear you scream while the hydrogen in that suit burns you alive."

Just as I rebounded off a nearby wall, there was a sudden loud sucking noise. The suit instantly returned to its skin-tight norm, sending me flailing until I hit the pavement with a smack that nearly knocked my wind away. I found myself wishing Bitchy was watching me on a camera, so I could glare at it. Instead, I took my time getting back on my hooves, collecting what little dignity I might still lay claim to before continuing the conversation.

"Hydrogen? What idiot would design one of these things to use hydrogen?!"

Bitchy's sniff of indifference was needlessly theatrical. Which, thinking about it, made the gesture kind of pointless, but it would probably have been a bad idea just then to needle her about it. "Apparently, Ministry Mare Pinkie Pie said something about balloons not really being balloons without helium, which also made prisoners lighter and easier to manage when their suits were inflated. Those were the Mark Ones."

Sarcasm began slipping back into her voice as she warmed to the subject. "Somepony afterward got the bright idea that hydrogen, being much lighter than helium, would make the job even easier. Hence the Mark Two. Which, in all honesty, made flapping your fat earth-pony butt over to the casino courtyard a lot less work for us. Isn't progress a wonderful thing?"

Doctor Fly Right, to my relief, stepped into the conversation. "That's quite enough, Commander, you've had your fun. Now let's get on with saving Mother, shall we?"

Finally having the opportunity to take a good look, I swept my gaze around the courtyard. It was fairly simple on first glance: a circular roundabout with a central fountain, age-rotted villas lining streets leading away in three directions, and a massive pair of tall, ornate steel gates rusting away behind me.

No way in Luna's Hell am I getting over those without an airlift or grappling hook...

The glazed terracotta fountain, a wide squat stack of three progressively-larger bowls spilling water down to a shallow pool, was surrounded by weirdly-flickering spotlights. These focused on a point just above the waterspout, creating the illusion of a grey pegasus mare slowly flapping her wings to hover in place. Her ditzy, unfocused speech kept repeating over and over from speakers set around the courtyard, strangely appropriate to the misaligned yellow eyes and fizzy-themed flank that nature had afflicted her with.

Where've I seen that bubble-head before?

There came a tapping from my collar speaker. "Ahem. Let's get on with it, Mister Pie...?"

I grimaced at Fly Right's impatience, not caring that he couldn't see it over the radio. "Just getting a feel for the lay of the land, Doc. I understand you pegasi probably wouldn't get that --- hell, do you even know where I'm supposed to be going?"

A frustrated snort sounded from the other end. "All the time in the world to gawk, but none to look at your PipBuck?"

Oh. Right. This thing on my leg had that "mapping-and-questing" function Nash Rambler'd shown me back in Slimm and --- whoa, Nellie! Look at all that junk! Apparently, I'd finished up four "quests" and most of the listed "objectives" for each one over the course of the last few days. They were all greyed out on the PipBuck's little display, but three more were shining brightly green:

Derp Money: Retrieve an Auto-Doc Mk VII from Doctor Stable's Clinic. Pretty straightforward...

Terrible Creatures from the Stars: Watch a movie with Pink-E. Yeah, that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. But it did remind me to drop by an NCR outpost soonish and report on that satellite Pink-E'd wanted to play her stupid movie on. Assuming somepony else hadn't already reported it (and assuming I got out of here alive to start with), that might help smooth over any rankled withers from the recent brouhaha at the Embassy. Though with Riposte dead, nopony might even know about my involvement --- feh, enough ruminating on maybes!

Benedict Barn-old: Find out what Benny's really up to. Another back-burner job list. And what was that about a barn? I hadn't seen anything in or around New Pegas that even looked like a barn from my Celestial perch yesterday...

Under each listing were several related objectives, making me wonder again how the hell this thing knew all this stuff before I even knew to ask it. Of the three active quests, "Derp Money" was set as the "primary", directing my attention to a little square on the small-scale map of the --- wait.

Except for where I was standing, there wasn't any map at all! The highlighting square was positioned in the middle of a black, empty space --- so this PipBuck knows I need to go there, but doesn't know what's there, so it shouldn't even know I need to go...ow! Damn migraine! Something bright and sickly-green flashed before my eyes, making me blink with surprise.

"As you can see," Fly Right's voice continued, disrupting any thoughts I might have entertained about piercing headaches and their effects on optical nerves, "we've pre-loaded the coordinates for the casino's clinic, although we couldn't get your Pipbuck to accept the map data. Apparently you've got an older model that doesn't like color graphics." Oh. Well, that explained that.

"One last note: we're transmitting through a relay placed atop the tallest building we could reach without triggering the casino's defenses --- which isn't very far in. There's a lot of radio interference from various sources we've never been able to pin down. So, we won't be able to maintain consistent voice transmission, but the signal for the collar's punitive functions doesn't require such fine-tuning."

The good doctor's voice dropped half an octave, to where he apparently thought it sounded menacing. "Stray too far from your objective, or try and remove the collar, and it will lose the relay's 'deadpony switch' signal. Without it, your suit will automatically start inflating, albeit slower than what you've just experienced, so you'll have a few moments to correct your error. If you DO get yourself well and truly stuck, you'll have about thirty seconds before that suit explodes --- shorting out your collar right in the middle of a high-pressure cloud of hydrogen. Now get moving!"

Sheesh, what a sore-head... But I picked up my saddlebags, slung them across my back, and got moving nonetheless. Standing there wasn't going to get the job done, and not getting the job done wasn't going to get me out of here. And with the collar's radio no longer crackling in my ear, the only other voice in the area became impossible to ignore:

"Oh... do I have to begin again? Okay! Welcome to muffins."

And who knew? Perhaps I'd run across something that'd give me a new quest. Something like Detonate the Ditz: blow up the stupid fountain and its smarmy hologram would be a nice reward for my troubles...

* * * * *

Anything in the Moohave with ears and the ability to understand speech knew about the Casino Royale: a towering edifice, located on a bluff overlooking the Coltorado, about ten miles upriver from Lake Cider. Scenic, luxurious, fitted with all the most modern pre-War security systems, it had been slated for a Gala Opening --- for the day after the missiles flew. Its gates had never opened to the public, and no one knew if anypony inside at the time had ever come out.

The place wasn't hard to find. Although surrounded by a thick forest of conifers, you couldn't miss that ten-story building jutting up from its sprawling entourage of guest villas and supporting service centers. Hundreds of ponies, if not thousands, could have lived relatively comfortable lives within its security-gated confines.

Nor was it hard to get in. The driveway outside the front gate was known to be littered with everything from ladders to box-steps to homemade trampolines, all left behind by bands of would-be looters and plucky adventurers. Once or twice, enough wall-scaling junk had accumulated that somepony or another dragged it into town and bragged how they'd "struck it rich at the Royale".

Not that nopony'd ever done well for themselves scavenging the grounds. The courtyard I'd woken up in was known to be safe, as were a few areas discovered more by error than trial over the centuries. Those had all been thoroughly looted long ago, though tales of recovered tech and luxury goods had kept up interest for decades afterwards. No surprise there: the Royale'd been set up by an ultra-wealthy financier to be a showcase for the fanciest cutting-edge gadgetry of the day.

It had also been meant to serve as his personal little kingdom-away-from-Canterlot. Rumors of lost golden wealth, surrounded by every decadence a pony's heart could yearn for and protected by guardians of light, still drew the occasional sucker into trying for what had become known as "the Derp Money".

Because you'd have to be a complete herp-a-derp, to believe that you alone were the special snowflake capable of getting in and out where none of the hundreds who'd tried before had managed it. Beyond a certain point, no one --- unicorn, griffin, earth-pony, mule or buffalo, whether single or in teams, no one --- ever made it back. Only the screams of the dying, begging for rescue over the occasional radio transmission, told of the ways they'd lost their lives. There'd also been some colorful displays from hidden batteries of magic-fed weapons, the few times someone had tried flapping their way into or out of the casino's innards.

These days, only fools and the ignorant tried their hoof at cracking the Casino Royale.

Well... "fools", the "ignorant", and now the "shanghaied-by-pegasi", I guess.

For all those stories of riches to be had, I couldn't see it. Literally. I picked my way along the casino's outermost ring, a litter-strewn street whose bordering villas weren't bearing up terribly well under the weight of two centuries. Each time I found one that didn't look quite ready to collapse on my head, I peeked inside for a quick look around.

A pattern quickly emerged: the closer to the courtyard, the more likely a given place had been picked clean of anything not requiring heavy machinery to haul away. Frustrated greed had then coaxed scavengers to push the boundaries of the "safe zone" further along, testing their luck against whatever hidden dangers might lie in wait.

Graffiti dappled the walls here and there, some of it faded and flaked enough to belong to the original residents, but most being substantially fresher and saltier in tone.

WE CAN'T GET OUT was painted, in wide white letters, on a rooftop whose red tiles had weathered the years better than those of most of its neighbors.

The classically-dismissive line of like I give a shit appeared in marker ink here and there, often in response to somepony else's unanswered plea. Assuming the jokers had tried their own luck further inside the Royale's compound, I was pretty sure they'd given a shit or two before they died.

I snorted at fuck the NCR and fuck YOU, spray-painted with the stenciling of a dead Desert Ranger next to it. Stuck in this deathtrap, somepony had to spend their precious time blathering about grudges that nopony --- rather, no thing --- in the Royale gave a damn about? Really?

Rust-red smears formed the single word HELP along one wall. No other sign of the author was anywhere to be seen.

If you can read this, gather in 24b and help make a stand was my personal favorite. At least that pony'd had a plan, instead of just wailing about how unfair life was or waiting for somepony else to bail them out. As I made my way from house to house down the street, I worked on developing a plan of my own.

Bitchy and Fly Right could probably tell that I was moving, but not which way I was actually going, since they hadn't been bugging me since I started walking. I wasn't planning on blindly charging into the casino's uncharted depths, either, being as that I wasn't suicidal. The odds might be against finding anything worthwhile in the abandoned guest-homes, but it didn't hurt to exhaust the safe options before dipping my hooves into deeper waters.

It wasn't long after the courtyard disappeared from view, obscured by gently-curving rows of rotting stucco walls and dilapidated tile roofs, that both the litter and indications of exploration began to taper off. No political commentary or witty remarks marred the walls here, where the oppressive silence of an empty street began to lean in on the mind, and where one's thoughts began to turn more towards just how far away the relative safety of the courtyard now was.

It was also where I found the first body.

I initially mistook the charred mass for another pile of garbage, heaped by the stairs leading up to a larger villa whose door seemed invitingly untried. The illusion was helped along by swaths of clinging trash, empty cigarette packs and Fancy Buck wrappers obscuring features until I got close enough for reality to assert itself.

The gender wasn't clear, but the short, stubby horn protruding from its blackened, hairless skull was unmistakable. The rest of the corpse was impossible to examine more closely, being almost uniformly coated with a hardened orange sludge which terminated at the neck in...

...a broken collar, otherwise identical to the one binding my own throat.

The Zoomers had been at their little reclamation game for some time.

Not so long, fortunately, that somepony else had wandered through and looted the poor bastard's saddlebags. Those had ended up on the far side of the stairs, upside-down beneath several large scraps of orange rubber. The rest of the Mark Two suit had likely been scattered across the street by its explosion and eventually blown away by the wind --- the corpse was perhaps a few months old, by the dessicated look of it.

On a hunch, I took out my combat knife and poked at the scraps. They sliced up easily enough, so I tried the same with the orange shell still clinging to the body --- no dice. I had to stab repeatedly even to make a slight cut, which didn't go all the way through before it sealed right back up again. I'd figured as much; it would be too easy to just cut the rubber suit away if the collar it was attached to wasn't enchanted to repair such damage. It would take something extreme, like a laser cutter or industrial drill, or, well, the suit over-inflating until it exploded, to overcome the spell's limits.

And in every one of those scenarios, or anything similar I could think of, the pony wearing the suit would be horribly maimed at the very least. Nooo, thank you.

Dumping out the dead unicorn's bags and sorting through the resulting pile of junk yielded a pack of bobby pins, an Ironshod Firearms Model 44 Angel Bunny submachinegun with several magazines of assorted specialty ammunition, and some sort of small round electronic device which my PipBuck immediately labeled a "StealthBuck". Beyond that, there was a mass of rotted food, some books that had become fouled by the rot, and a few bottles of nasty-looking water.

"What's the holdup?" Bitchy's voice snapped from the collar.

Just as I thought... "Found a body. One of your earlier recruits, looks like."

The pegasus commandant let a telling note of anticipation slip into her voice, as though she already had a hoof hovering over a button. "You heard the doctor. We're on a tight schedule..."

"Can't bring you back your miracle machine if I don't survive, can I?"

Now she sounded a little irritated. "Is that supposed to excuse your lollygagging?"

"Taking a minute or two to maximize my chances for survival, means improving your chance for getting that Autodoc. I'm no use to you dead."

A dismissive snort. "You're hardly the first - "

"I can see that. But if you are on as tight a schedule as can't tolerate a little circumspection, then you've got no time to find a replacement. Do you?"

A pause, then Fly Right was on the horn. I could almost hear Bitchy simmering away in the background static. "No, Mister Pie, we don't. But it's also in your best interest to watch the clock. If Mother Matrix doesn't make it because you were off sightseeing..."

"Don't think I'm not keeping that in mind, Doc. Mind if I get back to it now?"

An audible huff, followed by a click, was the only answer I needed.

* * * * *

Nothing but wind and the odd wisp of fog wafting across the street, pinkish in the fading sunlight, inhabited the outer arc of guest housing.

It struck me as strange, for a minute, that night was coming on so fast. Then I remembered how many times I'd been rendered unconscious today. So did my belly, which reminded me with a few harsh growls that I hadn't had anything but a few mouthfuls of interrupted breakfast in most of the last forty-eight hours. My fault for thinking I'd be able to sneak my way into Nellie Air Force Base and get back to the Celestial Suite in time for dinner.

Stupid, stupid, stupid...

Well, at least my rummaging around the old villas hadn't been for nothing. A couple of first-aid lockboxes had given up their bandages and potions, I'd found a couple of minor ammunition caches, and most importantly of all, there'd been untouched cupboards in the far villas that'd been practically loaded with packaged and preserved pre-War noshables!

As the last of the day shimmered through twilight into moonlit dusk, I holed up in one of the apartments closest to the courtyard and proceeded to gorge myself on boxes of Sugar Apple Bombs and Fancy Buck cakes, with several lukewarm bottles of Sunrise Sarsaparilla to wash it all down. Reflexively, I bagged the bottlecaps: saving is earning, after all. Having loaded up my digestive system with sugar and carbohydrates, I made a final check of my gear by PipBucklight, and out the door I finally went.

The hologram-pegasus still hovered in the mists thrown up by the fountain, casting a muted grey light across the courtyard as she repeatedly recited her idiotic lines.

"...do I have to begin again? Okay...!"

Beyond the babbling waters (and image), past the skyline of long-abandoned housing, the Royale's exaggerated art-deco ziggurat rose up against the moonlight. Its face, lit with ambient orange from hundreds of ancient light fixtures glowing across the complex, suggested a soft, dim moodiness contrasting with the white squares of its checkerboard window-patterns.

Not that I was terribly surprised, given the various tales that spoke of the Royale still having a reactor or two going. But there's knowing something as a distant, dispassionate set of facts, and then there's seeing it firsthoof, rearing up like an image out of the Feudal Ages of Unicornia.

All it needs is a moat, some lightning, and maybe a few inbred royals hanging around.

I'd done all I could in the way of preliminary scavenging and getting my belly full. Being honest with myself, I could also admit that a lot of that had been rationalized stalling: this place was a well-known deathtrap. But it was either get my flank in gear, or sit on it until I met the same disturbing fate as my predecessor.

The mental image of some other pony finding my dried-out carcass, wrapped in an impermeable rubber burial shroud, finally got to be too much. Steeling myself against the inevitable, I stood and faced the flickering lamps that lit the last of the three ways out of the courtyard.

"If I'm gonna die," I growled to nopony in particular, "it's gonna be with my horseshoes on."

"THAT'S THE SPIRIT!"

If I'd actually been wearing any horseshoes at the time, I'd've jumped out of them right then and there! As it was, I somehow managed to land facing that voice...

Pink-E cocked her head to one side and grinned wide, those big blue-on-white electronic eyes shining luminously in a bright pink face. Amid the courtyard's grey-lit evening gloom, the effect was like somepony lighting off a firework that wouldn't die out.

"Hi, Cherry! Miss me?"

"Wha - hahn...?!" My traitor mouth, instead of the full sentences I was sure were forming in the back of my brain somewhere, decided to make those noises instead. Pink-E hardly noticed.

"You didn't come home by morning, so as soon as I could, I zoomed right over to where your PipBuck signal said you were! And boy was that a crazy trip, wowie-zowie!" Without letting up for a moment, the pink robot-head spun about to take in the view. "The Casino Royale, huh? Boy, you sure are brave! My records show this place had enough firepower and internal defenses when it was built to fight off an entire combined-arms Zebra legion!"

She began to bounce up and down excitedly. "Ooh, ooh! Did you find a super-secret codeword to shut down the hologram police? What about the pressure-detection grid? I'll bet you've got this heist planned to the Nth degree, don'cha Cherry?!"

If I hadn't known better, I'd've thought that was sarcasm. I gave her my best This-Is-Me-Not-Kidding look, hoping it might get through to whatever passed for a mind in the little 'bot's noggin. "I have what amounts to a bomb collar on my neck, and the pegasi who put it there want an Autodoc from the clinic. That's all."

Pink-E blinked and stared at my chest as though noticing my overly-tight garb for the first time.

"Oooooh, a Fun Suit! I thought you looked kinda blue, but at first I thought it was just because you're depressed all the time." She stopped, swiveled to one side, and grinned widely, waiting for me to laugh.

I turned and started walking down the darkened street towards the casino proper.

"Hey! Wait up!" Although I didn't, Pink-E had no problem pulling up next to me with her needlessly-bouncy gait.

Why does she even do that? It's gotta play hell with her servos... That was the first thought which occurred to me. The second made me arch an eyebrow at the bodiless robot head:

"So, if you're here... where's Tag-End?"

"Back at the Lucky Chance, of course! It took me a whole day flying to make it here. It would've taken poor Tag most of a week, even if he galloped non-stop! It's okay, though. He promised to behave himself while I was gone!" She didn't even bat an eye.

I stopped, turned, and fixed her with a stare. "You left the unicorn slave with entitlement issues alone. With the key to his collar. And with the run of top-shelf accommodations, that I'm probably responsible for if anything gets damaged. Like the last time I left you two alone up there?"

She bobbed her head agreeably. "Yep! That's about the size of it!"

Shaking my head, I sighed and brought up my PipBuck's Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell. Concentrating on dangers looming in the shadows ahead at least meant a respite from trying to deal with Pink-E Logic. Then again, if she was going to get here in timely fashion, it meant either leaving Tag's key behind or letting his collar detonate once they got too far apart. I supposed that whatever priority matrix Pink-E's programming might have, it probably concerned my well-being first, followed by keeping my property intact, and somewhere along the line after that must have been a routine for blowing up my property just to hold onto a thereafter-useless key.

If I was honest with myself --- and I had to admit I didn't really want to be, as it made it more difficult to be angry or annoyed with her --- she was just trying to help.

The ubiquitous run-down villas quickly gave way to what had once been kitschy little curio shops and sidewalk cafes. Here, too, the looting of centuries showed its mark, though nopony had evidently cared much for the scattered "Genuine Native Buffalo" trinkets most of the shops had specialized in. The buffalo tribals I'd met in my travels would have been insulted at being associated with the dust-catchers, faux tent rugs, polished rocks and "noble savage" carvings still lining the shelves. Some especially graphic graffiti and a bit of extra-gratuitous property damage suggested that at least one such tribal had weighed in on the subject.

At the tail end of of all this tourist-trap entrepreneurialism stood two little toy stores on opposite sides of the street, displaying competing advertisements:

"Foals with SMARTY-PANTS do 67% More Homework!"

"Real Engineers Say BUTTERCUP's Their Buddy!"

"Today's Teaching Begins with SMARTY-PANTS DELUXE!"

"BUILD-ME-UP BUTTERCUP is for Tomorrow's Technologists!"

On closer examination, I pulled up short. Unlike the common vandalism characterizing the rest of the district, these two stores looked like a miniature war zone.

The one selling "Buttercup" toys looked like it had had the worst of it, its street-facing picture window completely blasted in and its walls pockmarked by numerous bullet holes and scorch marks. It looked like somepony --- a lot of someponies --- had lined up and used the storefront as a casual shooting gallery.

If that'd been the case, they weren't very good, because none of the toys in the window seemed to have taken any hits. All of them were the same: robotic-looking equinoid things, with a look of cheap plastic and a couple of cartoonishly useless clip-on tools. A shot-up neon sign still hung by one hinge over the door, proclaiming the establishment's name to be "Starlight Dreams".

Across the thoroughfare, the competition had hardly been damaged... by comparison, at least. The display window of "Magical Treasures" had been similarly smashed, but from a distance its unique polka-dot paint job seemed to be almost wholly unmarred. A few "Smarty-Pants" dolls could be seen hanging forlornly from sales stands, drab-looking bags of stuffing with paper pads and pencils crammed into pocketed overalls.

There was a wrongness about all this that I could practically smell. I'd seen a lot of random vandalism in my time, but who in their right minds would expend so much ammunition for no better reason than not hitting a bunch of harmless-looking toys?

I did a quick check for threats on the EFS, finding nothing. Pink-E perked her mechanical ears in my direction.

"What's up, Cherry?"

"It feels like we're walking into an ambush. And I said to stop calling me that."

The little 'bot-head swiveled, making a show of looking in all directions. "Nope! No hostiles detected! Not even horse tiles!"

I looked up from my PipBuck, feeling my left eye start to twitch. "At least stop making up nonsensical names for things..."

My plea was answered with an uncharacteristically serious gaze. "Oh, I didn't make that one up myself. Anyways, let's see what's got you so spooked!" With that, Pink-E buzzed straight ahead, looking back and forth between the two stores.

Had it not meant pitching face-first into the tarmac, I would have double-facehoofed. As it was, I almost hurt myself with the single-digit version of the gesture. "Pink-E, get the HELL back over ---"

Two ponies flashed into existence, flanking either side of the "Buttercup" display. I reflexively backed up several paces, my eyes growing wide. I can't be so unlucky as to run into holo-guards this soon!

As it turned out, I wasn't. Both were off-white unicorns, dressed in casual shirts of vertical red-and-white stripes and wearing straw boaters --- attire of the type that'd get a pony shot in most areas of the wasteland, just for being too chipper. One had a big red mustache, the other not, and both immediately launched into a pre-programmed pattern of sales patter.

"My dear Flim," said the mustachioed image, "it seems we have visitors to our fine filial franchise!"

"We do indeed, Brother Flam!" replied his near-twin. "Could it be that they've come to see the most amazing new toy line available to Equestrians anywhere?"

"I can't see why else they'd be gracing us with their presence! Now you, miss," Faux-Flam exclaimed with a tip of his photonic hat to Pink-E, "I see by your contraption-like configuration that you are a robot, presumably in honorable servitude to this gentlecolt over here, is that correct?"

Pink-E giggled, nodded, and, I swear, actually seemed to blush slightly. "I am!"

Both of the holo-ponies turned their attention directly to me with wide, earnest smiles. I groaned and rolled my eyes. Okay, maybe THESE guys were the reason for all the shooting, whether due to spooking or annoyance...

"Sir!" said Faux-Flim, stepping into the street and towards me with that unwavering smile gleaming in the night. "You're clearly a buck of action, a pony who takes no guff, so I won't give you the usual spiel. You don't have a special somepony or little one waiting at home to give one of these precious, useful, educational Build-Me-Up Buttercup toys, now do you?"

I double-checked my EFS. Still no bars in my vision, except for Pink-E's friendly green. Not even amber... Oh, GREAT. Holoponies don't show up on this thing at all!

The sales pitch didn't stop as Faux-Flam joined in, trotting a quick circle around me as I stood there. "Of course you don't! You're a busy one, out to make some good honest money from good, honest work! Now, what if I were to offer you a ground-level investment opportunity in something that every little colt and filly will be dying to get their hooves on this upcoming -"

A sudden staticky glitch caused Faux-Flam to nearly fade out, briefly becoming a mere outline of a pony filled with grey noise and flashing alphanumeric sequences casting horrific shadows. The instantaneous contrast to the otherwise silent casino grounds succeeded in creeping me right the hell out; I began to back away down the street. Just as suddenly, Faux-Flam was back as though nothing had happened.

"- Hearth's Warming Eve!"

"Absolutely, sir!" Faux-Flim chimed in. "For a mere five thousand bits, you could have your very own Build-Me-Up Buttercup franchise just like this one (choice of location and market fluctuations may incur extra charges), with fully HALF of the profits remaining in your soon-to-be-bulging saddlebags! Why, there's no easier way to get incredibly rich, obscenely quick!"

The two looked at one another, grinned precisely on cue, and... launched into an actual song-and-dance number, pirouetting on their hindlegs and waving their straw boaters in the air.

"Yes, it's an opportunity! In this very community!"

"He's Flim!"

"He's Flam!"

"We're the world-famous Flim-Flam Brothers...!"

That, I figured, was enough of my time wasted. This whole setup was obviously harmless, which the lack of dead bodies should have clued me into, and I had an Autodoc to retrieve. I started walking, waving at Pink-E to join me. "C'mon, let's get moving."

Pink-E didn't turn towards me. She was backing away from the window. "Cherry..."

"I said stop calling me that -" In mid-reprimand, my attention was caught by what was following Pink-E out of the window.

The Buttercups were on the move, hopping out of the window by ones and twos and then tens, forming an arc that crossed the entirety of the street and blocking our way through. Their little plastic eyes glowed red, their little silvery legs bowing out and then back in, as they chanted a low, electronic chorus:

"Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup..."

Red is never a good color.

A hoof made entirely of off-white light, with no weight to speak of, draped itself across my shoulder.

"So, what'll it be, friend?" asked Faux-Flam, nonexistent mustache a-quiver. "Yea or neigh to the opportunity of a lifetime?"

"You don't want to pass this one up, believe you me!" Faux-Flim chipped in with an affirming hoof-swing.

The battalion of expectant little robots just kept chanting, "Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup, Buttercup..." They raised their right hooves, in perfect synch, as though in salute. Each wielded a clip-on tool resembling a little drill, the tips of which began glowing a bright green. And suddenly, my EFS lit up with a forest of amber lights.

Oh, THANK YOU very fucking much! The realization struck me: nopony would paint a store in black polka-dots.

"Ahhh... I left my money in my hotel suite. I can just go get it, and we can work out some sort of -"

Both Faux-Brothers flickered with static this time, a purely electronic voice buzzing from each: "REJECTION SUBROUTINE 1A: HOME-SECURITY DEMONSTRATION AND RE-PITCH."

I didn't need to be told what was going to happen next. It was going to be the same thing as had happened to previous passers-by.

All of those amber bars went red, just as I turned and bolted for the vandalized curio store with Pink-E hot on my fetlocks. Green flashes of magical death crackled through the air, two of them grazing my barding with pencil-thin streaks of black before I leapt through the window's jagged-glass border to safety.

Momentary safety. The store was just a big single room of smashed-up display cases with a long counter at the back, the colorful beads it had once sold to tourists now scattered across the floor, while a few remaining rugs hung and rotted on the walls. Outside, the clacking on pavement of hundreds of tiny metallic hooves let me know me that the "security demonstration" included a pursuit mode.

After two centuries without maintenance, why was it that the crazy-shooty part of a robot's programming was never the bit that went offline?!

With no time to ponder the perversity of the inanimate, I ran to the back wall to scrabble at one rug and then another. The third swept aside, revealing the service door I'd been counting on --- no front-door deliveries for businesses at a high-end place like the Royale, no matter how cheesy the trinkets! Fortunately the lock was a simple twist-bolt, which opened readily enough after a little jiggling against the rust of ages.

Unfortunately, I discovered as Pink-E and I dodged out the back, the first salvo of little green power-blasts erupting from behind us, there was no way to re-lock the door without the key. Cursing, I left it and charged up the alley, exiting onto another street just around the corner from the store with the deadly sales-pitch. I turned right and kept running, looking for someplace we could hide from our pursuers. Besides, the navigational arrow on my PipBuck pointed in this general direction anyways.

We were out of the commercial district and into a more utilitarian one, passing the column-fronted facade of the "First Equestrian Royal Bank" to one side and a "Visitor's Center" to the other. The doors to both had been smashed in; if we tried hiding there and weren't fortunate enough to find a way to barricade the openings, we'd just get trapped. Galloping on down the block, I was thankful for the small mercy of Pink-E's uncustomary silence as we finally found an intact set of double doors and ducked inside.

My brain hadn't quite registered the shield symbols, both over and upon the doors, as I closed and bolted them behind us. Nor had it properly assessed the two amber bars which appeared in my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle upon our entry. As long as it wasn't red, I didn't really care at the moment!

Only after I'd locked us inside did I notice that just past the dusty desks and file cabinets one might find in any pre-War police station, there was a single big jail cell dominating the room. Just outside the cell, half-turning to stare at us, stood a Diamond Dog in exceptionally fancy clothing --- burgundy velvet smoking jacket over white shirt, beige trousers and a yellow ascot, all impeccably tailored. I was sharply reminded of the last Diamond Dog I'd seen, also unusually well-dressed, before his brains had splattered all over creation and Slimm Pass had come tumbling down.

In his right claw was a tin penny-whistle, the kind you sometimes saw caravaneers carving and bending out of old cans as giveaways for the children of their regular customers. In his left was the key to the jail cell, already turning in its associated lock.

My brain finally caught up to what my eyes were seeing IN the cell as the lock clicked open.

It would have been easy to describe it as simply "the biggest, darkest, most dangerous-looking pony I've ever seen", which would have been a distinct injustice. It was MASSIVE, nearly filling the cell with its --- HIS --- muscular bulk. He wouldn't have fit in there at all, if he hadn't been lying down and curled up with his head on the floor. The coat, mane and tail were all of a glossy black, overgrown fetlocks nearly hiding silver-colored hooves. A long, spiral horn of matching silver jutted upward from a broad, thoughtful brow.

I'd have thought he was a unicorn, albeit an oversized freak of nature, if it hadn't been for the huge set of bat-wings growing out of his shoulders.

The alicorn turned subdued red eyes on me, ruffled out his mane within that confined space, and asked: "Food or friend?"

Pink-E, taking this monster completely in stride, piped up with, "Friend? I love making new friends! We're definitely friends, you betcha!"

He didn't so much as blink. "I hear only noises from machine." His gaze locked on me. "What about this one?"

"He's food," barked the Dog, backing away from the opened cell door. "Kill him and let us be on our way!"

"You carry atonement and voice," admonished the alicorn, "but you do not speak for whole world." There was a momentary flare of red along his horn, expanding into a flash which enveloped his imprisoned body... and suddenly he wasn't imprisoned anymore, having teleported straight through the bars of the cage. The gargantuan beast heaved itself up onto its hooves and walked slowly towards me, baring sharp white fangs; even though he was crouching slightly, his mane brushed the ceiling. "Food or friend?"

Having finally decided to join the party at this late date, my mind went into overdrive. Saying or doing the wrong thing right now, I was positive, would get me killed. I had to think!

Atonement... he means the cell key? Then that means... Seized by inspiration, I frantically brought up my PipBuck, scanned the command list, and punched a button. A brief burst of static blared out, and then...

...Ev'rypony in the Resident Block!

Is dancin' to the Stable Nine Rock!

Inwardly, I groaned. Of all the tunes that Radio New Pegas could've chosen out of the King's repertoire, why that one?!

The huge alicorn bent down, sniffed at my PipBuck, and then fixed me with an expectant look.

Oh, he doesn't really want me to...

Pink-E's voice took on a worried tinge. "Cherry? I think he wants you to..."

I closed my eyes, breathed in deep, and started belting it out.

"Reactor Boss plays the tenor saxophone,

Pony Joe's blowin' on the slide trombone.

The PipBuck Technician goes crash, boom, bang,

The whole rhythm section is the Maintenance Gang!

Let's rock! Ev'rypony, let's rock!

Ev'rypony in the Resident Block!

Is dancin' to th -!"

A massive hoof pressed on my muzzle. "Friend, then." My eyes opened onto a kindly smile --- which was something of a trick to pull off, what with the protruding fangs, incarnadine irises, and sheer mass behind it. I carefully reached for the radio button and silenced the overly-bouncy melody. Pink-E, meanwhile, kept on happily bouncing around both me and the giant, bat-winged, sharp-toothed monster.

"Yay! A new friend, after all!" She finished up with an excited squee, drawing a glare from the Dog. That glare was quickly redirected back to the alicorn, redoubled.

"Do you not obey orders? I told you to kill them and be done with it!"

The aforementioned monster gave his theoretical master a disapproving look. "I will not feed on him, for same reason I will not feed on you. He has soul."

I think I may have goggled at that. I know my voice sounded like I had. "Seriously? Because I can sing...?"

He snorted. "One with soul is not food. For making music, one must have soul."

Given that I was not acting the part of a mutant alicorn's snack at the moment, I declined to argue the point further. The Dog, on the other hoof, didn't quite want to let it go.

"I have come to liberate you, at great personal price and peril, because the needs of my people demand it," he growled. "Have you already chosen to violate your redemption?"

The great beast lifted, and then smashed, a single huge hoof into the floor with a resounding CRUNCH, his face twisting into a dark grimace. Stepping closer to the Dog --- and leaving a hoofmark the size of my head behind him --- he intoned, "I have collected sins, Redeemer. I will not collect more."

Ooookay, there's a lot more going on here than I either know or probably want to...

I coughed into one hoof. "Ahem. Name's Ch --- I mean, Dead-Shot. Bounty hunter by trade. This's my robot, Pink-E. You two are...?"

The hanging invitation was answered with a low, polite bow of the alicorn's neck, his mane draping like black silk across the floor. "I am God."

Now I knew what it felt like to be completely nonplussed. How do you respond to something like that?

The Dog stepped around God and executed a prim half-bow from the waist. "You may call me 'Dog'."

Pink-E said it before I could. "But...you are a Dog."

He smiled thinly. "Then the appellation is both accurate and sufficient, would you not agree?"

I gave Dog a dead-eyed look. "I don't know about that. With the exception of one other Diamond Dog, I've never seen or heard of any of you folks wearing anything other than cast-off rags or rawhide. You're being pretty damn secretive for someone dressed to the nines in a place like this."

Dog returned my gaze without batting an eye. "A fashion critique, from this month's model for deviant leisure-wear? How droll."

He rubbed his hands together and nodded as though that had settled the issue. "I believe we are done here. I would like to say it has been a pleasure to meet a bounty-hunting pony who wears four-fifths of a 'gimp suit', and who is accompanied by the most eye-searing excuse for a land-mobile fishing lure it has ever been my discomfort to witness, but I consider myself a canine of honesty. Come along, 'God'... we have work." With that, he stalked off towards the exit, the giant alicorn following with the disturbingly meek look of a repentant child expecting to be punished.

Something in that look made me lift a hoof in warning. "Um, I wouldn't go out there just yet, if I were you..."

Dog waved it off. "We are in quite the hurry, sir." He opened the door, turned around, lifted a single claw, said "I bid you -"

- and disappeared amid a barrage of tiny green power-bolts, his silhouette wavering for an instant before collapsing into a cloud of fine grey powder with a piff.

There was a long moment where God simply stared at the pile of settling ash, his jaw nearly on the floor --- and then the behemoth charged, roaring with deafening volume, through a door half his girth and three-quarters his height. In the next moment, I caught myself staring at the God-sized hole and cloud of debris resulting from that impact. The moment after that a scream of pure, bestial rage sounded from outside as God tore into the miniature robot army that had finally caught up with us, the purple twilight beyond the hole lighting up with the Buttercups' magical green fury.

Pink-E turned, giving me a quizzical look. "Gee, Cherry... d'ya think he's angry?"



Footnote: Level Up.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Shoutout to Baldumborat, my eternal inspiration for all things Derpy. I just couldn't type those first lines without thinking about how it would sound in her voice...!

Chapter 11: Red Derp Redemption

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: Red Derp Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he came back down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ooooh, that can't be good...

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

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

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

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

"COME BACK HERE!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Celestia above, he's not...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Creepytown, population us!

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

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

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

Oh gods!

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

It didn't have a face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REALLY.

"Ooh! OOH! Over here!"

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

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

Not even ancient Pegasopolans had lived this spartanly!

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

Besides Pink-E, of course.

"Isn't this incredible? Just look!"

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

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

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

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

<<< >>>

RENTALS

LOUNGE - COMPLIMENTARY WITH ANY STAY

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

DINING - Optional Surcharge per Day (20 Bits)

SERVICES

CASINO ACCOUNT (Payouts/Payments/Reservations)

SHOPPING (Deliveries Gratis, Tips Not Included)

COMMUNICATIONS (Telephone/ZipMail) - ACTIVE, PENDING

MEDICAL ACCESS (Emergency Only) - COMPLIMENTARY WITH ANY STAY

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

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

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

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

*ping*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"WAIT!" shouted Pink-E.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< >>>

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

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

<<< >>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Uppie-Baby!

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

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

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

- Dean [SHOW ATTACHED FILE? Y/N]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yay for talky crazies!

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

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

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

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

...okay, whatnow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So. Whaddya mean, 'built'?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I AM STERILE!"

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

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

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

Good enough!

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luna's crusty twat!

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

Bitch, bitch, bitch...

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

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

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

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

Turned out that was a very good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<< >>>

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

<<< >>>

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


Dr. Oontz Stable:

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

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

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


Pink-E practically cheered: "Of course!"


My Dear Ms. Hooves,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


- Your Ardent Admirer, Uptown Eclair


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Footnote: Level Up.

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

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

Skill Note: Lockpick (50)

Chapter 12: For a Hoof-Full of Derps

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CHAPTER TWELVE: For a Hoof-Full of Derps

I don't think it's nice, you laughin'.

The interloper took another drag on his cigarette. Another exhalation sent smoke puffing from between gaps in the decayed muscles of his neck.

After about a minute of the three of us just staring at him, his too-easy smile began to look a little forced.

"Eh, kid... this's the part where you act all surprised to see a genuine pre-War celebrity. Y'know, go a little nuts, maybe ask for my autograph, that whole bit...?"

I gave him a flat look from under the brim of my mushroom-smeared stormchaser. "Never heard of you."

His expression went from "smugly expectant" to "shot by best friend" in zero-point-one second flat. I'd've sworn I could hear the crack of his jaw breaking the sound barrier on its way to the floor. Then again, as a ghoul, various of his body parts might well make similar noises on a regular basis.

"You've never heard of Domino Mask?! Original founding member of the 'Hat Pack'? The headliner, five years running, Kaiser's Castle?"

Somehow, his cigarette managed to stay in his mouth, but its ember was rapidly being eclipsed by the fire boiling those dead-green eyes down to little chips of malachite. The ghoul stepped forward, angrily pressing his face into mine, reeking of a cologne my brain immediately dubbed "Tanning Solution #5".

"Unless New Pegas burned to the ground --- and I think I'd've noticed, even from here --- there's no way in Celestia's heaven or Luna's hell you haven't seen my posters plastered from one end of town to the other. I paid good goddess-damned money to make sure of that!"

I pressed right back, harnessing my building annoyance to shove the pinstripe-clad ghoul halfway out the door. "That'd assume I gave a buck about anypony's two-century-old posters, mister. Books and magazines have practical value, but promotional crap for dead acts? Doesn't."

Head-to-head, we were now shoving in equal measure back and forth across the townhouse's threshold, my poor abused hat getting squished in the middle. Domino growled, "Do I look dead to you, you ignorant fucking tourist?"

God cleared his throat, calm and collected and bass-toned once more, like he hadn't just had the world's shortest mental breakdown. "Let us confirm or deny that. Food or friend?"

Oooh, I've seen THIS number before! I backed away, watching as God stood up and approached Domino with a broad smile that sported both fangs, and looked forward to seeing this slick-talking ghoul try to worm his way out of -

Dust-whirls, on the plain

Making patterns, as we trot down Lover's Lane

Seems that each new step is somehow, preordained

I've not traveled this way... before...

"Worm", nothing. He just loosened up and slid right into the number, like it was the most natural thing to croon bluesy baritone for a cannibal demon-alicorn.

Those clouds up in the sky

Go on forever, but we know, by-and-by

They'll fade out like the sunshine of our lives

Love seemed that way, before...

Slowly he traversed the room, swaying in rhythm , leaving pungent grey contrails of cigarette smoke in his wake. Every now and again he'd pause for a sweeping gesture or gentle nod to punctuate his song, then resume that practiced stride, as though he were performing for a crowd of thousands.

Now that I've found you, no doubt's left in my heart

I've blown the changelings all away

It comes clearly as we each play our own part

Balefire won't burn away

Our coming, dawning day...

I stole a glance at my erstwhile "companions".

Pink-E was slowly bobbing and turning, following the singer's moves with polite interest. But God? He was completely enraptured by the honey in that voice. The demon-alicorn had flopped onto his belly and propped his head on his hooves, ears perked forward while those ruby-red irises threatened to transmogrify into little heart shapes.

Ew, gay... ooooor maybe he just really really REALLY appreciated music. I shivered for a moment, hoping God's allegiances weren't overly prone to swapping. I hadn't a prayer of matching this guy's pipes!

New Pegas, in the night

Like love of Cadence for Armor, Shining... bright!

And maybe with a little passing luck

We might have again, what we've had... before...!

Yet, slowly...

Like dust-whirls and high clouds

History just fades... away... because

It can never be exactly like...

Befooooooorrrreee...!

By the time the last notes trailed off into the night air, I wasn't just feeling a bit nervous. I was feeling good and ready to kick myself. Here I'd gone and given this buck a ration of shit for claiming to be exactly what he was, and the fact that he was actually damn good made it worse. Every stomp of giddy applause God doled out was like a hammer nailing what little conscience I had to the floor.

Okay, so I AM an ignorant tourist. But Celestia fuck a buck! How did he know...?!

Domino noticed my discomfort and turned a professional screw-you-sir smile my way.

"I've been around here long enough to see at least three other tourists try to enlist this guy's services since he showed up. From a respectable distance, of course. Having seen how he goes after the Ghost Herd like a hog in slops, I was considering paying his little 'Casa de Hobo' a visit myself. Looks like you beat me to it."

He stopped, rolled his eyes, and made a show of rubbing his chin. "Which reminds me," he drawled out, "I still gotta deal for ya. Interested?"

Unbidden, Pink-E bounced her way into the conversation. "What kinda deal?"

That prompted the raise of an entirely-too-intact-for-a-ghoul eyebrow. "Kid --- if this 'bot don't answer to you, personally, ya mind if I just shoot it? 'Mom's the word', ya might say."

I bodily shoved Pink-E back with both forehooves. "Let's just say it's a very personal relationship, and I'd take it really badly if you managed to damage any of h --- its --- memory cores."

If Domino noticed the brief slip, he didn't let on. The well-groomed ghoul just shrugged. "Your funeral, kid. Speaking of which, you're planning on heading into the main casino soonish, ain't'cha?"

I put my best blankface on, but before I said a word he annoyedly waved me off.

"Don't even try to feed me any brahminshit. From here on in, there ain't nothing but Ghosts, the Pink, and the casino. And I've been watching... you've made a zippy little bee-line past a dozen prime spots any real looter would be drooling over. Not to mention that anypony going after this guy," he added, poking a hoof in God's direction, "has made it pretty obvious that he was just there to get them through the Ghosts."

He gave the alicorn a polite nod. "No offense, big fella."

God returned the gesture with a graciously regal air. "None taken."

I snorted disgustedly and rolled my eyes. "Okay, fine, yes. Not that this was the plan anyways. I'm -"

"After the Auto-Doc Seven," Domino casually interrupted, making a show of inspecting his hoof for chipping. "Same as the other tourists who've been bouncing around the place in those goofy rubber 'Fun Suits'." He stole another glance at Pink-E, who just smiled at him. He shivered. "Ah, again, no offense meant."

"None taken!" squeaked the floating head of Great-Great-Grand-Aunt Pinkie Pie.

Sometimes I needed to focus on such details to remind myself that, at some point, my life had turned into one long slide down a rabbit hole. My dream of amassing enough wealth to hunker down somewhere safe and private, while the rest of the world went off and fucked itself without involving me in the process anymore, seemed to get more remote with each passing day.

I fixed Domino with a sidewise look. "So you're gonna tell me you know where it is, right?"

He preened, striking a pose with a hoof in his jacket pocket. "Of course."

My look didn't waver. "And there's a catch to getting your help recovering it, right?"

Neither did his pose. "Naturally."

"So...?"

He took a last long drag on his cigarette, dropped it, and crushed the butt into the carpet. Smoke seeped out from his neck and jacket, wrapping around his head in a toxic wreath before he spoke again.

"You can have the Auto-Doc. But you'll never get through the Pink without somepony who's hung around this place long enough to figure its drifts, its patterns. Somepony who knows where and when it puffs up from below, how to avoid the thick parts, and where it gets thin enough to dodge through before your hide turns to slime."

He brought up those dead-green eyes, staring into mine.

I don't care what God thinks. There's nothing behind those windows.

"You and your new friend, meanwhile, are what I need to get through the Ghost Herd and into the casino myself. All the way to Eclair's little Stable. Even then, I guarantee you'll still need me to get it open. So you get what you want, and I get what I've been hanging around here to grab for two centuries."

My head finally got around to clicking that piece into place. "You're after the Derp Money."

A half-crazy grin threatened to split the creaking flesh of Domino's muzzle; he visibly fought the impulse down before continuing. Despite his well-preserved appearance, the old crooner still bore the leathery skin of any ghoul... he'd just taken obvious pains to not let himself fall apart under the weight of years. But that didn't say anything about the condition of his brainmeats.

Domino's voice slipped down half an octave, smoothly exchanging the brush with insanity for caustic, tightly-controlled mockery. "Yeah. Eclair's fabled golden treasure. Smug bastard spent weeks bragging about how he was going to win the heart of that stupid pega-floozy with a personal palace of riches. Riches that'll make it worth living the rest of whatever eternity I've got left to me. Riches I'm fuckin' owed."

He pranced a quick circle around me, creaking slightly with each step. "And from how the radio tells it, New Pegas is still in the market for quality talent. Place might be a little run-down by now, but money and fame never change, baby." The ghoul paused to pull a fresh pack of cigarettes from a pocket, draw one out, and fire it up with an old burnished-silver lighter. "It'll be just like..."

He raised his head and swept up a hoof, a snippet of his showpony refrain returning:

"...Befooooooooorrreee...!"

A sudden growl from my belly decided me that since I'd gotten a floor show, now was probably a good time for dinner too. It was already well after midnight, I hadn't had anything since sundown, and the odds were high that there'd be little chance for a break once we left Ms. Hooves' old digs.

Normally I might've decided to push on. Pink-E didn't need anything, God'd just eaten, and Domino didn't look hungry... not for food, anyways. But screw them. Being chased around the medical clinic and damn near dying of asphyxiation in the process had taken a lot out of me. I started rummaging through my packs, putting together the fixings for a light meal: some canned pre-War meat ("Cram THIS in your face!" demanded the label blurb), half a loaf of old trail-bread, a Sparkle-Cola...

I looked up, suddenly conscious of the fact that nopony was saying or doing anything.

Domino was staring at me like I was an idiot. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and tapped ashes onto the floor. "Kid... you've got a paid-up suite at the Casino Royale, and you're going sack-lunch?" The ghoul reached into the pocket of his jacket, produced a small pile of golden coins, dumped them into the little red machine, and turned to select Dining from the room's screen menu. "I swear, this is the first and last time I take pity on a tourist."

Everything in the room moved at once. The couch and coffee-table flipped over (so did my heart!), while other parts of the floor opened up and disgorged new furniture. But before my wasteland-honed preservation instincts had a chance to reach full panic mode, it was already over and the entire room seemed to have changed.

Where the couch had been was now a low round table, laid with white linen and surrounded by plush blue pillows in silver frames. Clean white plates, matching bowls, silverware, and glasses for wine and water sat atop blue mats of woven straw. From the center of the table rose a metal dome with a little green light on top.

Domino took a seat on one of the pillows, cleared his throat, and spoke towards the dome. "Lemme get a summer Vivaldi to start, with a baked and julienned red onion for the appetizer. Ranch on the side." The ghoul nodded towards me and God. "C'mon, siddown and order up. It's paid for."

Not without a bit of trepidation I settled onto a pillow, half-expecting the thing to be an ancient mess of mildew and bugs. Instead, it turned out to be surprisingly soft and comfortable. I felt my eyebrows go up.

It was brand-new! Nothing in the wasteland is brand-new!

God followed my lead, neatly crushing his pillow and its frame almost flat. His muzzle twisted into a frown and he pinned his ears back. "I do not see the benefit in this. Where is the food?"

Domino just laughed. "Ya gotta order something, big guy. Just tell the dome there what you want."

God leaned in, looking a little self-conscious, and eyed just about everywhere but the dome. "Meat."

The light on top switched to red and there was a brief buzz. Domino face-hoofed --- very lightly, I noticed, almost as if he was miming the reaction. "Little more specific?"

While the ghoul and demon had a brief back-and-forth about getting a meal from machinery, I shot Pink-E a sour look. "You knew about this, didn't you?"

She bobbed her head in the affirmative, smiling like she'd just taught a pet radroach how to fetch. "Yepper-pepper! My files indicate that no fewer than thirteen attempts by Ministry of Morale agents to acquire nanosprite technology from the Casino Royale failed right here in this very room!" She rotated slightly, in that cocking my head without a body attached way she had, and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. "Then again, my files might be cross-referencing the Marzipan Incident."

I'd caught about half that. "Wait, there's supposed to be something here actually worth stealing?" I looked around, but didn't see anything that particularly stood out. She couldn't mean the monitor, and, as nifty as it might be, I couldn't see how or why a pony would steal a furniture-replacement system.

Pink-E giggled. "Oh, you bet! But you can't see nanosprites --- they're teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, eensy-weensy -"

That old familiar feeling of wanting to shoot annoying robots began to slide back up on me. "I get it..."

"- little machines that kind of look like bloatsprites, before bloatsprites got all tainted and bloated, when they used to be called parasprites, and they'd eat all your food but then Twilight Sparkle, who later became a Ministry Mare but that's a whole other story, hit 'em with a spell and they stopped eating food and started eating everything else, so when the War broke out Robronco started studying how to adapt parasprite magic to industrial manufacturing, 'cause see, the idea was that you could feed a mechanical version of a parasprite just about anything and then it could spit that out as something else, like turning scrap metal into bullets, but then there was this horrible accident, and a city almost got eaten, and then..."

If she had been a living pony, or even a ghoul, Pink-E would have had to pause for at least one deep breath at some point. Since that wasn't going to happen, I tried ignoring her so I could order that promised meal.

"Let me get a -"

*BZZZZZZT!* Red light.

"How about -"

*BZZZZZZT!* Red light... and this time, my ears caught the faint sound of feedback. Pink-E's blathering was screwing up my order! Just about ready to turn and yell at the little 'bot, I suddenly noticed that Domino was glancing in her direction --- and trying to look like he was still fully engaged in explaining a "menu" to God.

What was she going on about that he thought was so important...? I cocked an ear back, trying to refocus on her unfocused rambling.

"...so then the Ministry of Morale found out that the Casino Royale bought a license to continue Robronco's development of 'nano' technology, which just means really small anyways, through [INFORMATION REDACTED] at... huh?"

The little pink robot stopped and blinked with what I could swear was genuine surprise. "Through [INFORMATION REDACTED]... no, wait, um, [CLASSIFIED]..." Her rubbery expression shifted to a very convincing version of annoyance. For some reason, the idea that she could be annoyed by herself made me feel a little better inside.

"That's not right... I've got clearance! Pinkie Pie installed my clearance, honest-buffalo she did! Let me try... [FILES LOCKED BY ORDER OF THE OFFICE OF INTER-MINISTRY AFFAIRS, DIRECTOR E. R. HORSE PRESIDING]... what?!"

That brief sense of schadenfreude began to slip away, replaced by a growing sense of wrongness. "Pink-E..."

Domino wasn't pretending not to watch anymore. Now, he looked like he was staring at a balefire bomb ticking off a two-minute countdown. "O.I.A.? Your 'bot's carrying around classified info from the fucking O.I.A.?"

Pink-E started wobbling in mid-air, her eyes corkscrewing in their sockets. "This isn't right! Plotting data references against timetable Alpha Gamma Six, cross-referencing against 'Big M/T': [TERMINAL ACCESS DENIED]." I could smell smoke as her voice rose to a pitched squeal. "Oooooh! This is so frustrating! Let me IN THERE! I KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE!"

"PINK-E!"

Suddenly everypony was staring at me, upright on my hind legs with my forelegs and face raised to the ceiling. I could hear my shout beginning to echo faintly back from the streets beyond the doorway. Aside from that, everything and everypony had gone dead quiet --- even Pink-E.

Her eyes blinked, once, accompanied by an unusual whir-and-click. "Command-line authority recognized. Resuming normal subroutines. So anyways, yeah, the Ministry of Morale wanted to find some schematics to help figure out how they finally got the whole ‘nanosprite’ thing working." She bit her lower lip for a moment, as though worried that saying even this much would set off something in her programming again.

God, looking completely nonplussed, leaned forward and cleared his throat to say something. Domino, Pink-E and I turned to give the crimson-eyed alicorn a collectively expectant look... what could he, the god-pony with the technology issues, be thinking about all of this? About a machine, like Pink-E, that could be surprised by unknown quirks in its own programming? About the implications in making something new, just by feeding another machine something old? Or about ponies long dead, whose ancient machinations yet lingered like a plague upon the living?

“Roast brahmin. Rare. Twenty kilograms. Now.”

The dome in the middle of the table went ding, slid open on one side, and instantly spat out an overloaded platter of steaming red meat. Except for the sounds God made, supper went quietly after that.

* * * * *

The alicorn and the ex-lounge singer seemed to get along like kernels on the same cob as we made our way out of the posh district. The one would toss off occasional verses of song for his newfound audience, while the other answered questions about his origin and abilities in return. God didn't appear to mind the polite interrogation, but I can't say it didn't bother me that the ghoul was having such an easy time pumping him for information. I resolved to keep a close watch on the key that God had decided made me his "Redeemer".

"You can eat magic?!" Domino's gait and attitude were practiced-smooth, but the tone gave away his incredulity.

God placidly clopped along to one side, rumbling his response. "All alicorns can absorb magical radiation, even subsist upon it to an extent. A spell is a magical construction, much as bread is a construction of grain. Though I knew them scantly before my expulsion from Unity, I doubt it is different for my former sister siblings."

Domino took a moment to absorb that before following it up: "So, a big buck like you must really need a lot of fuel to get by, huh? I've seen ya out hunting. Watched ya tear up and chow down an entire Ghost pack, once."

God shook out his mane indifferently. "That which I do not immediately use is stored for emergencies, or for what you would call 'lean times'. And while magic may sustain, it does not... satisfy."

I eyed the alicorn sidelong at that sudden shift towards a darker tone, but said nothing. Normally I'd've also had a major issue about all the gabbing and casual attitude --- this was the Casino Royale, and I would have preferred to keep as low a profile as possible.

But Domino didn't seem a bit worried. Being as that he was as close to 'friendly and knowledgeable local guide' as Celestia could have provided, I figured that if he wasn't concerned, I shouldn't be. Didn't mean I didn't keep my eyes and ears open, regardless...

And a good thing, too. I heard the faint crackling of radio static, just before crossing beneath a terracotta arch leading into a four-way intersection. Stopping to look up, I spotted an old public-address speaker hanging by a pair of twisted wires, which sparked where their protective sheaths had been worn through by decades of rubbing against one another.

The minor and remote threat of potential electrocution wasn't the problem, though. The problem was the radio box the PA speaker's wires led to; whoever had designed this place had apparently decided not to bother with ground-wire connections. What were the odds that this was one of those "radio interference zones" I'd been warned about?

Any odds, I figured, were too high to risk the embarrassment of having my nominal allies watch me blow up like a party balloon. Again. Pulling my gussied-up old varmint rifle from its pack holster, I could feel my ears burning pinker than normal from the memory of having that happen in front of God. I sure didn't need any hassling from smart-mouthed ghouls thrown into the mix!

One nearly-silent pyewt produced a louder squawk from the radio as it went dead.

Glancing to either side as we passed through the intersection, I could see the streets curved away until line-of-sight was blocked by villas and offices and shops that all looked the same: un-looted. Domino caught my attention with a cough, followed by a grim headshake and forward-pointing hoof. My greedy little inner pony grumbled as we moved along.

The air slowly came to resemble a tinted veil, casting everything in bubblegum hues and leaving a sickly-sweet taste on the tongue. Wisps like cotton candy would drift past at fetlock level, Domino hopping idly over them as they passed. God and I followed suit, and even Pink-E gave a pointless little bounce each time, despite already floating half-a-length above it all.

Every now and again, one of us would hear another burst of static from somewhere, and we'd hold up until I could find and pop the squawker. At first, the delays annoyed Domino --- until God whispered something in his ear. The next time I caught his smirking look, I felt my ears start burning until I flicked them beneath my stormchaser.

The streets here were a bit narrower, but the buildings had gotten taller by an extra story. Still following the same terracotta-and-tile motif from the outlying villas back near the main gate, the idea had probably been to foster the atmosphere of an old-time-Mexicolt fiesta town. It even had place- and street-names mostly in bastardized Asspañol, such as the "Rio del Loco" we followed now.

Absent any party-goers or decorations --- or, for that matter, much to indicate that living ponies had set hoof here before us --- the "River of Crazy" was nothing more or less than silently claustrophobic. There wasn't even any graffiti, though a few patches of brown paint suggested there had been at one point.

Domino caught my wandering gaze. "Ghost Herd cleans up everything out here, same as when they were alive. Don't ask where they get the paint from."

I smirked at him, despite the tense atmosphere. "Yeah? How about that plasma-blasted toy store back there?"

He chuckled, then stopped and held up a hoof. Several lengths ahead, a sewer grate suddenly ejected a pony-sized puff of pink, which the ghoul watched carefully as it drifted away into an adjoining alleyway. Once the danger had passed, he picked up the pace and the conversation as though nothing had happened.

"Sure. You could set your watch, or in your case, that PipBuck, by it. You don't see more than one of them try it at a time, though, 'cause the further they go from the center, the more they disperse. Dunno why, so don't ask that either."

The ghoul gave me a serious look with those dead-greens. "What I do know is that they'll stand there and do their thing while ignoring anything thrown at 'em. Eventually they get disintegrated like anything else," and here he gave a significant nod towards God, "but even then, I've seen the ash itself fucking-well regenerate. Only thing that ever puts one down permanently seems to be a solid headshot. Or, well..." Another nod at the alicorn.

This time God was looking right back at him. "I am that which I am." He shrugged those broad shoulders, as if the short sentence had explained everything.

But it was something the ancient show-pony had said that really didn't sit well with me. I gave him a dubious look. "So what you're saying is that, over multiple centuries, the Ghost Herd's been getting its numbers zapped one by one, like bugs in a high-power lamp. Just how damned many of 'em are there?"

Domino suddenly waved a follow-me hoof and bolted a good dozen lengths. We followed suit --- just in time for another alleyway to disgorge a roof-high avalanche of pink fumes behind us. A few seconds slower on our part, and... I didn't want to think about that just now. My brain, on the other hoof, decided to replay some of the choicer recordings from Pirate Friends Radio, sending an involuntary shudder up the length of my spine.

The stuccoed porticos, little blue-tiled fountains and random drifts of pink death impressed upon me the sense of being blocked in, a feeling which only got stronger with every few lengths we moved deeper into the Royale.

It was God who, breaking the awkward silence, finally provided an answer to my question. Or rather, opened up a few new questions: "No matter how many are consumed, always more come from below. It is a worthwhile relationship."

It was Pink-E who, in her inappropriately-upbeat way, made the new questions moot: "Hey! Listen! A bunch of mean old meanie-pants are coming this way!"

Red bars flickered into existence ahead, my PipBuck updating its Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell with Pink-E's telemetry. From further down the street, whorls of pink mist began to gather, accompanied by muffled clopping noises. Behind us, the wall of Cloud had slowly begun dissipating towards something we might be able to duck through... eventually. The timing was way too convenient to be a coincidence.

Galloping to the nearest villa on our left, I tried the door. Naturally, it was locked. I fumbled with my screwdriver and bobby pins for a moment before Domino bodily shoved me out of the way.

"Step aside, kid," the old ghoul muttered, producing a set of professional pre-War lockpicks from his tuxedo jacket, "Let a pro handle this. You just keep 'em off my flank, willya?"

That, I could do. "God, start in on 'em as soon as you can. Pink-E, get up there on the roof and out of the way --- we'll meet you up there once that door's open. As for me..." I still had my good old varmint rifle slung around my neck. Dropping to a crouch, I braced it more for stability than against any recoil, and sighted through its night scope.

Indistinct shadows appeared against the lighter backdrop of mist. Good enough for government work...

I carefully aimed for center-mass, then elevated slightly to get a good sight picture on the sphere-like blob that could only be the thing's head. Holding my breath, I gave a gentle squeeze of the tongue and pyewt went the silenced rifle.

Thwap! came the sound of a solid hit. I grinned with satisfaction, worked the rifle's bolt to eject the spent round and load another, and then my scalp tried to crawl off my head at the scream --- not of pain, but fury --- that warbled back down the street.

Ohhhhh... horseapples.

A horde of yellow-clad figures came charging out of the pre-dawn gloom. Their bubble helmets held nothing but the pink glow of equally transparent skull-faces, their voices joining into a single scream like a hideous choir. One of those helmets, and the face behind it, was already re-sealing the little hole my beloved varmint rifle had punched.

God threw me a curious look over his shoulder: "You appear to have angered them, Redeemer..."

The only reason the rest of us didn't die right there was because the black, bat-winged alicorn presented the Ghosts with an irresistable target, plowing headlong into their first wave like some dark avenger of the night.

But that wouldn't last. More red bars were appearing on my EFS, though they seemed further off. Domino was still working on that door and my rifle was useless here. I stuffed it back into its pack-holster, mouthed the ten-millimeter pistol that had once belonged to another of Mr. Horse's poor damned errand-bucks, and triggered the PipBuck's Spell-Assisted Targeting function.

The world halted in freeze-frame. God was simultaneously rearing up to kick a Ghost at his front, while turning his head to bite at another which had leaped and was trying to grab his neck with its forelegs. I decided that one needed to die first, in large part because if I missed it I'd also likely miss God. I preferred to minimize the odds of making yet another hell-beast angry at me.

I queued four shots, all targeted to its head, groaned at the low projected odds for a hit, then let fly.

The heavy pistol bucked against my jaws, once, twice, thrice... what's the term for four times? "Quice"? It didn't matter. Only one shot struck home, the other three gouging holes in the stucco wall beyond. Still, that one hit was clean: the creature's ghostly head exploded, coating the inside of its helmet with dark pink viscera like a giant gum bubble had popped. The stricken Ghost tumbled to the asphalt like a rag doll and lay still, venting a jet of pink gas from the hole.

Knowing SATS would need some time to recharge, I lined up the pistol's iron-sights on a second Ghost trying to get around God's flank. Now this was my normal bread-and-butter style --- PAM PAM PAM went the gun, and the Ghost's helmet shattered under the triple-strike lead barrage. So did its head.

But this time, the pent-up pink within exploded from its now-helmet-less neck. I scrabbled backwards as the poison spread out into the street, nearly bumping into Domino. I hoped the rising worry in my voice wasn't too obvious: "How's that coming along, old-timer?!"

On the ground next to him were two small bits of a broken bobby pin, and he was wiggling a third free with his picks. "Some moron tried forcing it," he growled. "I gotta get this crap outta there first, and bugging me about it ain't helping!"

God had already eviscerated two of his assailants, but while he was engaged with trying to consume one, the other resealed its suit and rejoined its brethren. While he ate the one, like a bilge-pump sucking sludge, the others were able to get a few solid strikes in, though the big alicorn seemed almost to take them in stride. For now.

"The others are almost here!" Pink-E shouted down at us. I counted another five bars incoming, in addition to the three --- crunch, munch, slurp, make that two --- still on God. There was no time left to let this play out.

I thrust a hoof at the door Domino was working on. "God! Make a hole! Domino, MOVE!"

The ghoul's self-preservation instincts were definitely firing on all chambers. As the big alicorn turned and charged for the door, he scrambled to one side, pulling out a sizable revolver from his jacket and turning to unload it on one of the pursuing Ghosts. I took the other.

By the time God hit the door, we were already spreading a hail of lead into his wake. Both Ghosts went down, their helmets exploding with a wash of pink that joined the rest in surging towards us. An instant later the air filled with splinters and powdered stucco, our cue to turn and gallop through the alicorn's breach.

As though making up for the jammed lock, fortune presented us with a flight of stairs just a few paces within. The ground floor otherwise was just a clumped-up ruin of rotted furniture and pre-War bric-a-brac. God was stomping his way up the stairwell, all flanks and fetlocks; we followed after as the cotton-candy Cloud began pressing through the smashed doorway behind us.

The alicorn pulled a hard right turn at the top, kicked in the door, and squeezed his way through with a grunt. We wasted no time in joining him, but before I could slam the door shut and start looking for something to barricade it with, Domino stopped me. "Hang on," muttered the ghoul, "I got this." He took a moment to reload his gun.

I'd heard the sharp report from that pistol down below, but there hadn't exactly been much time for thoughtful analysis. Now as he cracked open the cylinder, removing the spent shells and replacing them with fresh ones, I could see that I was in the presence of a true legend. An Ironshod Firearms IF-69, known by aficionados of bullet-fu simply as "That Gun".

The reason for its fame was equally simple: some lunatic at Ironshod had chambered a pistol to use assault-rifle rounds. That's it. A pistol which fired .223 cartridges, including associated types of specialty ammo from tracer to armor-piercing, so long as you had the teeth and the stones to keep it on target.

It seemed that, for all his advanced years and ghoulification, Domino still did on both counts. He stuck That Gun, and his head, back out into the stairwell and started firing without another word. His head kicked back with each shot, but the buck held his ground until the cylinder went dry.

I took his place with the ten-mil while he reloaded again... but I needn't have bothered. There was a pile of yellow-clad corpses on the stairs and floor below, rapidly becoming obscured by the fog billowing out from their shattered helmets and drifting back down towards the ground floor. Not one red bar remained in my EFS.

"Well," I muttered, "No going downstairs for a while."

"That a complaint?" Domino retorted with a grin full of bullets as he worked the Gun's cylinder, spitting fresh rounds into it one by one.

I bit back the pointless snark which came to mind and turned to take a look around, then found myself side-stepping to get out of God's way as the alicorn shoved his way back into the stairwell. The chomping and slurping noises which ensued made asking him why a moot point.

The upstairs room had three attributes which stood out: a single large bed, a rusty old desk with a functional if weathered terminal sitting on it, and half of its walls missing. Like a giant balcony, it opened up onto the rooftop of the neighboring villas, revealing a network of common-access courtyards and service alleys hidden away from public view. To the east stood the Casino itself, dispassionately waiting for new guests as it always had, the faintest hints of dawn beginning to compete with the dusky orange ambience that surrounded and lit its tombstone silhouette.

That wasn't nearly bright enough to get the view I wanted, so I pulled my rifle back out and put its scope to good use once more. Scanning across the tile-roofed horizon, I could see that Domino hadn't been kidding around. The closer to the casino proper, the thicker the Pink Cloud and Ghost Herd got, like sediment murking up a glass of bad well-water.

Even Pink-E seemed at a loss. "That's a lot of bad ponies, Cherry..." A sharp guffaw snapped my head around.

"Bwa-hahahah! CHERRY?! Your name's Cherry?" A wheezing parody of laughter burst from the gaps in Domino's throat for a moment before he opened up his muzzle to let it out, clutching That Gun to his belly with both hooves. If he'd tried to hold it in his mouth, he'd've shot everypony in the room with the way his jaw and tongue were going.

It's amazing how little it can take for every hateful moment of your colthood to come rushing back at you. Every new place my Dad would take us on his trading rounds, I'd try to keep my name from getting out. Because once it did --- and it always did --- I'd hear the same words, in the same tone. Then there would be a fight. Every time our rounds brought us back to that place, there would be a new round of teasing, from new bullies, and a new string of scores to settle.

And now the cycle was beginning all over again. I felt my blue eyes narrow down to "burn-your-soul" mode, my nose snorting twin blasts of hot anger in the ghoul's direction.

Not that I'd lost it, not yet. That was just me giving fair warning. It was understandable that someone might find the name funny. It was funny. So I let them know just how funny I thought it was, to give them a fair chance to back off and apologize. If they kept on going, or thought the warning itself was funny, then they had no excuse. And I had what the Zebras called casus belli --- a cause for war.

Look at me, I said in the strongest non-verbal terms short of conflict. Notice that I'm about to get violent.

Domino showed no signs of reining it in. He just pointed a hoof at me and then, wiping his eyes with the fetlock, fell over backwards with redoubled laughter. The world began to turn a familiar shade of red and my jaw grew tight.

Somewhere just outside my narrowing field of vision, God squeezed his bulk back through the doorway. In a more lucid moment, I might have wondered how the big stallion had managed to turn himself around within the narrow space of the stairwell. Or why he didn't just teleport back. His booming voice, against the heat thumping through my ears, seemed to come from a long way off. "...Redeemer?"

I took one step towards the ghoul, another, and then a black wall was suddenly in the way. Which was to say, God's barrel chest. Just beyond the impermeable barrier of horseflesh, the hilarity continued apace. Words carved their way up from my throat. "Get outta my way, God..."

"Redeemer, no. You need him..."

I moved left, so did God. Back to the right, and there he was again. Not even a double-fakeout worked, though from the sound of things, Domino must have thought the sight of a little pink pony trying to get at him around a giant black alicorn was even funnier than my name.

Now I was rising up to pound God's chest with my forehooves, snarling and yelling something so incoherent I didn't even understand it. But what I meant was: Get out of my way! I'll fucking kill anypony in my way! MOVE!

He just stood there and took it all. It wasn't that I was doing him no damage, either. It was hard to tell except up this close, but his gloss-black hide was marred with hoof-shaped bruises and even a few indentations from his fight with the Ghosts. He might even have had something broken... and I was doing my best to make it worse. All I cared about at that moment was exacting justified retribution from the laughing ghoul, and this Goddess-damned alicorn was denying me that right! I slammed my hooves into him, as hard as I could, again and again, cutting his hide, drawing his blood, and when I glared up at him, and saw his sad red eyes, I tried wiping that face away...

...Domino was on my back, his forelegs wrapped around me in a headlock, pulling me off of God.

"Kid...! KID! Snap out of it! HEY!"

What? How did he get around behind me?! I snarled and turned my head to snap at him, squirming to get loose, but he already had the advantage and pressed it. My face hit the wooden floor, my hooves scrabbling painfully to either side in a vain attempt to get them back under me.

"Whaddya think you're doing, you idiot?! You could've killed him! Look, damn you!"

Unable to do much else at the moment, I looked.

God's face and chest were a mass of distorted, bloody bruises. He lay slumped before me in a silent black pile, nostrils clogged with dark streams, blowing red bubbles whenever he exhaled. I realized that somehow I was wearing my brass horseshoes, newly-slick with his blood. I didn't even remember how or when I put them on.

Those sad incarnadine eyes lingered on me, for just a moment, from above cheeks lacerated by the punches I'd thrown. Then they dropped to the floor, and he bowed his horned head. Blood dribbled down, creating dual puddles below.

"Thank you, Redeemer. My penance remains yours to afflict, my redemption yours to determine. Thank you."

I stared back down at my red-soaked hooves, at the weighty metal glinting beneath the gore, as Domino slowly let go of me and backed away. He's not stupid. He's probably got That Gun on me right now. I would, in his place.

They were right. They were both right --- we needed God to get us through the Ghost Herd, Domino to get us through the Pink Cloud. God was right to stop me. And hadn't I admitted, even to myself, that my name was funny? All I wanted was a little respect... and I had been ready to kill those who'd thrown in their lot with me, whatever their reasons for doing so, to get it.

Would I have? No. I'd sometimes gotten respect by beating bullies in fights, but I'd always been pulled off them by others, usually adults or the other colts and fillies watching, before it came to a death. What reason would anypony have to respect me, just for killing somepony else in a fit of raw anger? They'd either fear or hate, but never respect. That was the way of it.

I squinted hard against a flood of heat from behind my eyes, unwilling to let it go, to let anypony else see this moment of weakness.

"Hey... look. I'm... I'm sorry I laughed at your name."

I didn't move. If I did, I'd've looked at him through a wash of tears, and I wasn't about to do that. Anything but that.

Awkward, motionless silence dominated the room, broken only by God's quiet breathing and an even quieter beeping from Pink-E. She had busied herself with the old terminal and seemed to be paying no attention to anything else, another in the day's few and small mercies. Domino finally spoke up again.

"Didn't know it was that big a deal to ya." I felt his hoof on my shoulder, and now I looked up at him, my waterworks more or less under control. He forced a smile, but his tone sounded genuine enough. "A buck's name is really all he's got in the end, right? I guess I should know that better than most."

I slowly stood up, nodded silently, not trusting my voice to behave. Then I made the mistake of trying to take a deep breath through my nose, kicking off a snifflefit and a few rounds of my repeatedly trying to wipe it away with a hoof. Domino at least had the good grace to look away and pretend it never happened. God, for his part, was still looking at the floor.

There was really only one thing to do after all of that. The least I could and should do... I walked slowly over to God, pulled a healing potion out of my saddlebags, popped the cork, and upended it over the alicorn's bowed head. He gasped and recoiled, pulling away with eyes gone wide, scooting backwards until he bumped into the wall.

"Redeemer! No...! I... I must suffer the consequences of my actions!" He tried shaking the wetness out of his mane, but the cuts and bruises on his face were already fading back into the realm of normalcy.

I shook my head and pointed to the floor. "You just suffered the consequences of MY actions. Now I'M repenting. Get back down here... or do I have to chase you around with this bottle?"

He shook his head back at me. "You do not understand. My sins are too many, too great, to repent of by myself. That is the purpose of the key. It grants another the right to dole out my penance. How can I achieve a final balance if you are... what is the word...?" The big black alicorn sat there on his rump, suddenly lost in thought with a hoof to his chin.

Pink-E chimed in. "You mean nice?"

God nodded at her. "Yes. 'Nice'. As the penitent, I cannot set my own penance. For there to be penance, I must be penalized for my crimes through the judgments and acts of others."

Now those big red eyes pleaded with me. "Redeemer, if you are 'nice' to me, how can I gain absolution?"

A demonpony with fangs and bat-wings, pleading with me to punish him. How is this my life?

This was probably the best of all possible times for a distraction, and for once Pink-E's timing on that score was perfect. I turned, trying my best imitation of her grin and lilting, squeaky voice. "So... what did you find in the computer?"

She gave me a critical look, peering intently with one sapphire eye and then the other, then seemed to shrug. "Meh... I've seen better. But the files are open right over there, if you want to see for yourself!"

I most certainly did. Anything other than continuing discussions about either a personal hissy-fit or self-imposed flagellation, thank you please! Quickly trotting over to the terminal, I scanned through the documents Pink-E'd been able to salvage from its memory. Three remained, and I read through each in turn:


PRIVATE - PRIVATE - PRIVATE
Unauthorized employees reading this, or other executive materials, are subject to immediate termination.

My Dear Rapid,

I have said before, and shall say again, that your concerns are the unfounded foalishness of mere superstition. There is no such thing as "necromancy", not even amongst Zebras.

It is irrefutable that the shamans of Roam have mastered the arts of rune-craft and talisman development, but our own adoption of these arcane sciences - and that is precisely what they are - has gone without incident, to date. I see no reason to refrain from development of related channels, especially if it can help our war effort in the region of targeted pesticides.

Think of the benefits to be had! Croplands planted with a few properly-engraved talismans, completely immune to infestations! Industrial sites, free from bugs gumming up the works and distracting workers from their tasks! And those are just the little toe-claw on the proverbial Ursa Major!

My department will not be held back any further by your complaints or your baseless, primitive fears. You may think you're a lucky Zebra to be working here, but I have it on excellent authority that these days of government-enforced tolerance are coming to an end.

It may behoove you to seek employment elsewhere before things develop further. Consider this a warning from a mare who was once counted amongst the best of your friends.


Sincerely,

Wind Walker
Regional Manager (Neighvada)
Development Branch
Eclair Entertainments, Ltd.


Wow. What a bitch. Even if only to a zebra.


PRIVATE - PRIVATE - PRIVATE
Unauthorized employees reading this, or other executive materials, are subject to immediate termination.

Ms. Walker,

I was pleased to make your personal acquaintance at supper last week. As you requested of me then, I have investigated the idea of supportive funding for your talisman-based pesticide development with my superiors.

I believe I told you I would be surprised if they agreed... but they did! There were two catches, however. You will be required to forward copies of all current technical information on your project, in furtherance of a related issue which was already under consideration further up the chain. It seems that your goals happened to be serendipitously in line with what was already sought.

The other catch? Well, as I understand it, you were already considering termination of a Zebra by the name of Rapid River. Simply give him the files for transport, and my superiors will ensure that he is gainfully employed in highly-strategic matters sure to benefit all ponykind.

- Mr. C. D.


Uh-huh. "Gainfully employed." That didn't sound even slightly ominous, considering the previous note.


***CLASSIFIED/RED OM#$% #ERG@Y%Gfgvft4T@#%G
***RED OMEGA CLASSIFICATION LIFTED*** ***ZERO INFORMATION REDACTED***

REMOTE ACCESS GRANTED. Good morning, Minister Pie.

Collation Entry: "Project Pink"
Primary Site: "Big M/T", Section B-17
Subsection: BioChemical Warfare

TEST SUBJECT: Zebra, "Rapid River"
LEGAL STATUS: Insurgent (Convicted - Espionage)
SPECIAL: 5758742

TIME ON TEST: 15 days, 12 hours, 52 minutes, 17 seconds
RESULT: Total molecular dissolution.

*INITIAL NOTES*
(DR. J. BLUE): I consider this test an abject failure. Subject's expiration did not occur until well over a week past initial exposure. Although ultimately the condition incurred was incurable and resulted in dissolution, meeting two of three primary objectives, the debilitation objective was not met for more than forty-eight hours. It can be expected that, after initial battlefield introduction, Zebra forces struck with Agent Pink will choose to launch suicide waves before they are rendered combat-incapable. This will severely limit Pink's strategic and tactical utility.

(DR. Q. OCHO): A simple concern, readily addressed by quark acceleration of the active particle chains. Induction of fire elements through these chains will speed up the dissolution process, theoretically producing a meltdown similar to that seen in the final state of the current subject, within minutes instead of weeks. However, I must point out that this approach is likely to render the desired infection vector improbable, as the chains will not have time to complete the adherence process...


There was more along those lines, but my eyes were starting to feel like bleeding from the technical jargon. I skimmed ahead until I found something more legible:


*ADDENDUM*
(DR. TRUEBLOOD [VISITING]): This final process is acceptable. It's just too bad you idiots couldn't have thought to provide your initial subject with a PROPER escort to your vaunted 'M/T' complex. Your bungling forced the expenditure of a special forces unit getting him and his papers back. I'm still unconvinced that he didn't manage to sneak an extra set of copies to Caesar's goons.

So you want my stamp of approval for full militarization of this colossal cock-up? Fine. You still require a 'mass-bombardment' test phase. It just so happens that I know of the perfect site, well away from anywhere that anypony cares about, operated by somepony that NOpony should care about. Specifically, the employer of the same stupid cunt that let the zebra "move to his new job" on his own. It seems that they have a sewer roach problem...


I turned my head to look outside, out across the quarter-mile of alleys and twisting streets between us and the Casino Royale. The sun was just beginning to poke above the treeline-horizon beyond, casting its first rays across the murky fog permeating those streets and alleys. All that murky pink fog.

Celestia's sweaty ballsack.

For all that I liked to think I prized knowledge, sometimes I hated learning new things.



Footnote: Level Up.

Skill Note: Science (25)

Chapter 13: For a Few Derps More

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN: For a Few Derps More

If you're going to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.

Domino stepped up alongside me, casting a casual gaze across the same pink-filled alleys and streets I was doing my best not to grimace at. The immediate reality laid out before me was made worse by the discovery of how it came to be there in the first place.

Bug spray. It's an overpowered-death-magic bug spray, repurposed to kill zebras. It works just fine on us ponies too. On everything that lives. It even worked on our Princesses.

Everypony, down to the village idiots of the most backwater burgs in Coltifornia, knew what had ultimately destroyed Equestria. It wasn't a lack of coal, or a war, or even the hellish rain of balefire bombs.

It was losing the Princesses.

Celestia and Luna were loved and respected by all --- at least publically, if not in some folks' honest hearts. While our ruling deities lived, directing the paths of sun and moon for the benefit of all and stepping in to settle our occasional squabbles even-hoofedly, rebellion and feuding had been undesirable things.

So the zebras bombarded Canterlot. They forced our Sun and Moon to put all their powers into maintaining the city's defensive shield. Then, from within the city itself, they triggered a massive Pink Cloud release. When the shield-bubble filled up, the Princesses and nobles and people inside all just... melted away.

And so did the heart of Equestria.

All because we wanted a better way to protect crops. And then somepony decided it would be even better for killing zebras. And then the zebras got their hooves on it, too.

The end of everything began right here.

The pegasi were first out of the gate, citing the dual loss of Cloudsdale and Canterlot as justification to leave the ancient Triple-Crown Accord. They founded their "Grand Pegasus Enclave", sewed up the skies over most of the continent --- probably would have done it everywhere, if they'd had the horsepower to pull it off --- and declared any pegasus who didn't retreat with them a race-traitor. I briefly wondered what the Zoomers thought of that.

For most of everypony else, surviving Balefire Day didn't mean surviving the Wasteland it left behind.

Even with so many dead, there wasn't enough left to go around. It didn't help that the Enclave's perpetual cloud cover blocked out sunlight and over-watered the land, making it hard for even the best earth-pony farmers to till the soil productively. Here in the Desert Southwest it was the reverse: without dedicated pegasus weather teams to bring rain (not counting the occasional random "assists" from Nellie AFB), our high plains yielded little. We'd've starved out a long time ago, if not for the crops from central Coltifornia's few untainted river valleys.

Scavenging made up the difference for a while, but as pickings grew scarce, fighting began over what remained. Even before that, many had turned to raiding as an easier way to get by than hard, honest labor. What was left of Equestria --- if anything of it really could be said to have made it past B-Day --- broke into hundreds of armed camps, squabbling over the bones left behind.

Who can laugh, in a world of desolation? Who can be generous, when sharing means suffering? Who can be kind, when it invites attack? Who can be honest, when survival demands deception? Who can you be loyal to, when everypony is a cynical, greedy, paranoid liar?

And come to think of it, didn't that last bit describe ME just about perfectly?

I'd taken a dragon's hospitality for the night, then the playing cards off his warm corpse in the morning. I'd left a petty thief nailed to a crucifix, without so much as a drop of water or a mercy bullet. I'd promised to help a buck, just to get the key to his room and rob him blind. I'd gotten so angry at Pink-E's incessant artificial cheeriness, that I said and did things just to twist her programming into a miserable knot.

So much for generosity, kindness, honesty, even laughter. And loyalty? A bounty hunter's loyalty began and ended with a sack of bottle-caps. I felt a smothering blanket of depression settling onto my shoulders.

Celestia help me. I'm just another part of the fucking problem.

Domino bobbed his head, satisfied with his idle survey. "Yeah, that's about what I figured. Time to take the high road, kid."

My self-deprecating reverie popped like a soap bubble, leaving me blinking at the ghoul. "What?"

He turned a smirk born of the ages on me. "The 'high road'. You think I've stayed this good-looking, this long, by hiking around in that crap when I didn't have to?" He pointed a hoof across the rooftops, porticoes and archways, their tops for the most part standing above the Cloud's cresting undulations. "The only drawback's that it wasn't meant as a road. Lotsa scrabbling, climbing, jumping and backtracking to get where ya need to be... or it would be, if I hadn't been doing all that for longer than I really care to think about."

It was like seeing one of those trick paintings, you know, where somepony shows you a black vase but it turns out to be two white Earth ponies looking at one another? Maybe it was because most of the sleep I'd gotten in the last week had been drug-induced, but now that it was pointed out to me...

Uugghh... if only I had some Mint-als right now to help pick myself up. And if only it wouldn't set off a load of whining from the robot-skull of my great-whatever-grand-aunt if I did.

I turned back to see Pink-E and God waiting expectantly. Domino was already, carefully, stepping out of the ruined upstairs bedroom and onto the glazed-clay tiles of the adjoining roof. "Don't slip," he cautioned needlessly. "If the Ghosts hear you hit the ground, they'll come running. And if they don't getcha first, you'll still only have maybe a minute to get outta the Pink."

With that on our collective minds, we moved out on the last leg of this little odyssey.

* * * * *

Well, Domino and I moved out with it on our minds. Pink-E bobbed along on her levitation field, as usual, while God spread out those huge bat wings of his and flapped idly behind us just a pace or so above the tiles. Any higher, and the casino's defensive batteries would probably start picking him up and taking potshots.

It was kind of unnerving how quiet he was, even this close. By all rights, displacing that much air should be sending resounding booms to echo through the streets instead of his fwuf-fwuf-fwuf. Then I remembered:

Freaky alicorn magic. Right.

At least the Asspanic architectural style meant the roof slopes weren't bad, though we still moved slowly and carefully enough to avoid taking chances. Remembering to take my bloodied brass shoes off and stow them away also helped; I stole a look at God as I did so, to see how he was bearing up after my assault. The healing potion had fixed up his face right enough, but the wounds on his chest were slower to heal. Most likely, he was doing that himself, working off some of the magic he'd recently consumed in the form of disintegration bolts and Ghost-pudding.

Thinking about his dietary habits still made me shiver. Despite considering myself a discerning omnivore, I pretty much drew the line at things like sucking the souls of the undead through a juice-box straw. I took a moment to pat the top of my beaten-up old stormchaser hat, sighing with relief at feeling the lump of metal tucked into its interior sweatband. Last thing I wanted was to lose that, and with it God's loyalties.

The second-to-last thing I wanted was Domino behind me instead of ahead. I was pretty sure he'd tried to rifle my kit when pulling me off of God, from the way my stuff had been subtly shifted around without anything actually missing. There was one obvious reason for him to do that... if he had God's jail key, he wouldn't need the idiot tourist or his Ministry-of-Morale 'bot tagging along to cramp his style.

Sure enough, from time to time the ghoul would stop and point something out down below, waving at me to move a little ahead so I could "see better". I would just smile and say that we should keep moving if there wasn't any immediate danger, and that I put my trust in his expertise. He never seemed to take those compliments with better than a sickly smile.

The Ghosts left us alone, so long as we passed their ever-more-numerous clusters slowly and quietly. Once or twice, an inadvertent noise like a sneeze or cracking roof tile drew grunts and inquisitive howls, but they never seemed to look up. Eventually they would move along, and then we would do likewise.

On several occasions, the gaps between "road" segments were too far for me or Domino to leap. Pink-E could just hover across, and God could fly of course, even teleport. Domino explained that he'd always managed before by heading downstairs, crossing the street, and darting back up again, using routes he'd painstakingly cleared of debris over the decades. Why go to all that trouble, though, when God could just ferry us across? I saw no reason to expose ourselves to the Cloud any more than we had to.

But the big alicorn's head shook when I asked if he could take us both at once to speed things along. "My teleportation skills are good only for a few lengths, Redeemer, and I have never used them in conjunction with another being. Neither have I carried another in flight --- one of you might ride aback, but both at once would incur great risk."

Well, it was still faster and safer than running through necromantic bug spray, which was getting ever-thicker the closer we got to our goal. With Domino guiding us and God hopping us over the rough bits, our only real problem was the damned P.A. system.

And the deeper we went, the more literal that seemed to get.

The pops and squawks of the speakers we'd encountered so far slowly came to be replaced by never-ending static, hissing and growling like it had a mind of its own. The moment you heard its first faint whispers, you started developing a headache. The closer you got, the worse the pain, until you realized your nose was bleeding. That was also usually the point where my collar would begin to hiss, whereupon I'd start backing the hell up before I blew up.

I was never happier to have a silenced weapon. If I'd had to take those broadcasters out with the usual bang bang bang, we'd've been swarmed with Ghosts every time. As it was, I sometimes had to wait until one or two wandered away from a speaker, just in case the impact might get their attention.

"Try not to stumble into those close-up, kid," the ghoul said as I popped one at range. "The Pink's soaked into 'em for so long, even the static they put out's necromantic. And no -"

"- you don't know, so I shouldn't ask, got it," I finished for him, another smile on my muzzle to take the sharp off.

"Yeah," he half-muttered, taking a look down the street to make sure I'd hit what I was aiming for, ignoring the lack of static telling him I had. "I've seen a griffin gal try going after one with a sledgehammer. Halfway to it, her eyes started bleeding. She missed, then kept bumping off the walls trying to get outta there. They might say there's no good way to die? Well, that's one've the real bad ones."

* * * * *

Then there's the times you just wish you were dead.

It began with me asking: "How the hell are we going to get past that mess?"

Despite having worked our way up, down, around and across easily a mile's worth of the labyrinthine rooftop route, we'd finally hit a dead end barely halfway to our objective.

Centuries of magical-pesticide saturation had taken its toll on the stucco-and-gypsum-board construction. It had grown increasingly rickety as concentrations of Cloud got thicker, to the point where the last couple of office buildings had rumbled and swayed threateningly when Domino and I jumped from one to the other. A broken stub of archway jutted out halfway across the street, beyond which...

Beyond which was a roiling expanse of pink, lapping against the unyielding monstrosity that was the Casino Royale proper. Built of seamlessly-fitted granite and marble blocks, rising up to tower against the sky, it gave off the inescapable impression of a great tombstone marking the death of an entire civilization.

What buildings had once stood between hither and yon had since fallen beneath the mists, barely visible save for the tips of the tallest ruins. Not even a zebra-circus acrobat could hopscotch across that, and even if she could, it was unlikely that any of the protrusions would hold much weight.

The Pink burbled and hissed with a regular rhythm, setting my teeth on edge.

Domino pointed to our left. "Somewhere down that way, if you're feeling particularly suicidal, are the ponyholes down to the talismans. I spent a year or so triangulating the Cloud's flow, mostly just out of sheer boredom." His hoof swept further left, into a wide arc that took in most of the complex. "From there, the stuff filters through the whole sewer system until it gushes into the Coltorado. Can't've managed to poison Lake Cider yet, or everypony'd be dead and you wouldn't be here. But hey, if you wanna be a big-damn hero? You might even make it down there and shut this crap off before you're slimed."

I shot him a grin. "What? And take God's key with me? You wouldn't mind holding onto it 'til I get back, wouldja?"

For the barest of instants his eyes flashed, and then he caught himself with a not-altogether-forced laugh. "Can't blame a buck for hoping, mister." Then his eyes grew serious. "Just remember, though --- you'll still need me to guide you out, same as I'm getting you in. Don't even think about double-crossing me."

A toss of my head and a dirty look indicated the expanse of Pink between us and the Royale. "Before I double-cross you, I'm pretty sure we've gotta single-cross that."

Pots and kettles... and did he just call me 'mister'? I must be moving up in the world.

Idle banter and one-ups weren't going to solve this problem, though. We were still about an eighth of a mile from where a broad half-moon of marble stairs spilled down from the courtyard patio into the Cloud. Just past that I could glimpse the doors themselves, big and solid and logo-stamped like a letter with unbroken sealing wax. Down below roamed the shadows of Ghosts, moving slowly through the corrosive currents.

A mountainous island awash in pink seafoam, the Royale awaited our decision with monolithic patience.

A sudden thought struck me upside the brain. "Even if we get across, how do we know the doors'll open?"

Domino smirked. "I said I was 'getting' you in. There's probably other ways, somewhere around the place, but I had the penthouse reserved before everything went to Tartarus. Never even got to activate my key... so as far as the casino knows, I'm still paid up with V.I.P. come-and-go privileges."

The smirk shifted into a mocking bow. "And you guys? My valued guests. Just have the big guy fly me over, and I'll get the red carpet rolling."

Oh, like FUN you will. I lifted a hoof to my muzzle and pondered the factors.

We needed the ghoul in first, to get those doors open as quickly as possible, and he at least theoretically still needed us to get him back out past the Ghost Herd. But who knew what really lay inside the Casino itself? He might. For all I knew, he could pull out a passkey, laugh maniacally, activate an army of robots hidden away centuries ago expressly for the purpose of taking over what was left of Equestria, and lord it over everypony like a colt with a toy snowglobe.

Sure, that sounded kind of stupid once I'd had a moment to reflect on it. But in the end, I still didn't know jack from molly about the two-hundred-and-whatever-year-old schemer, much less what he was capable of.

Pink-E, for all that I'd been thinking of her in terms of being a live pony, was an unliving machine. The Cloud's necromantic effects wouldn't likely do much to her, and she should be able to stay above the Ghosts' notice, but her servos weren't powerful enough to carry much more than a set of saddlebags.

And God couldn't teleport that far, or carry more than one of us at a time. If he was still fwuffing his way back to me after dropping Domino off, the ghoul might duck inside and slam the door behind. Maybe Pink-E should go over with him --- and do what, her Mesm-O-Tron thing? Would it even work on a ghoul, and if it did, what was the risk of our doorpony's head spontaneously exploding? There were so many ways this could go pear-shaped on a moment's notice.

"Somehow," I muttered to myself, "we need a way for all of us to get over there at once..."

Pink-E giggled. "Oh, I think I know a way!"

Before I even looked up at her, I knew I was going to regret asking. "You do, huh...?"

Her smile spread from one rubber cheek to the other. "It's really no stretch of the imagination! Don't you always do your best work under pressure? If you just think inside the ball, you'll expand your horizons...!"

I was still working through the pun barrage when an unwanted hissing started up from below my chin.

Luna's coagulated afterbirth, NO!

* * * * *

Squirming and flailing to no effect against the constraints of my godsdamned suit, I wanted nothing more just then but to travel five minutes back in time --- just five fucking minutes! --- so I could warn myself to shoot Pink-E before she did this to me!

How could I have been so stupid?! Built by the Ministry of Morale, programmed by its Ministry Mare, dropping hints all the time about having classified information in her memory blocks... of COURSE she'd have the fucking control codes for the MoM's "Fun Suits"!

Deep down I still thought of Pink-E as a robot, and robots shouldn't be able to make their own decisions. Even so, I should have noticed that she would often do things that seemed random, but were usually meant to benefit me --- from the robot's point of view. Now, she'd figured out a way to get all of us across, and it did have a certain elegant mathematical model to it... the appreciation of which I verbalized as:

"When I get out of this thing, YOU'RE ALL FUCKING DEAD!"

It came out somewhat muffled, given that everything in our collective inventory which could be wrapped protectively around my head, hooves and tail had been. Every other part of me was already covered by the suit itself, which had been inflated to the point that it bulged out around my extremities. At least my stormchaser was still on underneath all the bandages, its ratty old goggles slid down over my eyes for whatever protection that might still be worth.

Great. I'm a rubber-ball mummy. I bet somepony somewhere would pay good caps to see this if they perched me on an Asstec sarcophagus, maybe threw in a stupid ghost story to boot...

Pink-E giggled, Domino barked a laugh, and God called out, "REDEEMER! PREPARE YOURSELF!"

The three of them lifted me up, balancing the oversized spheroid and its unwilling occupant atop the ruined half-archway. Faced with the threat of unbalancing, looking down into the depths of imminent dissolution, I ceased my pointless struggles. It'd become tougher to do, anyways, what with the pit of my stomach having suddenly decided to go on vacation. I wished that I could join it. Maybe on some sunny southern Coltifornia beach, sharing a cold beer together -

God bucked the big blue balloon-suit, and my ass with it, into next week.

Aw, shit...

For two-point-seven seconds, I prayed to every angelic being I could think of that my slightly-upward trajectory might cross the entire hundred lengths, depositing me neatly and safely on that distant patio of white marble. Once the inevitable drop began I closed my eyes tight, tugged my head as far back into the suit as I could, and silently cursed everypony I'd ever known, starting with Pink-E.

Even through the wrappings, I felt the Cloud caress my scrunched-up face, tickle my hooves, and tease at my tail as the balloon-suit and I plunged into its depths. It wasn't the least bit comforting.

*BWOM*

In the space of half a length and one instant, I came to a complete stop, the shock of impact spreading throughout the ball's horizontal axis. The sphere distorted, yanking my neck, dock and ankles apart for that same instant before rebounding up and forwards. I wanted to be thankful that the suit hadn't simply burst on impact, but I felt a cold dread instead as my wrappings loosened just slightly. A renewed set of prayers, this time for the duct tape holding it all in place...

My upward progress began to slow, and then something slammed into the suit below my rump --- Pink-E, doing her job of keeping the momentum going. With her ability to track the suit's collar, as well as any threats and potential terrain problems invisible to the rest of us under all that Cloud, she was acting as both booster and guidance system.

And here comes GOD!

*BOMF*

The big black alicorn had his own job. Flapping his way across the swirls of candy-colored necromancy, with Domino and my saddlebags draped over his back, he applied some raw horsepower whenever my ball bounced back into the clear. Pink-E'd called it "dribbling", saying she'd gotten the idea from an ancient game about trotting around with a globe or some other inane drivel. And was God whistling while he did it?

With the Cloud almost three lengths deep, the casino's defenses likely to trigger above five, and the suit itself being a bit less than one-and-a-half wide when pumped this big, the math was clear-cut. Pink-E calculated that after God's kick-off, it would take ten bounces to get me to the patio... assuming nothing went wrong. In theory, it could be done in three, if all caution was thrown to the wind, and I didn't mind a high likelihood of rebounding off the Casino and back into the Pink...

Steady and careful it was, then.

My first trip down had been in utter blackness, being as that I'd had my eyed squeezed tightly shut. This time I couldn't help myself: if death was coming at me, I wanted to see it in time to scream first.

It wasn't the worst idea, and it wasn't the best. I nearly hit a pair of Ghosts walking along below, who startled and reared with surprise.

*BWOM*

I bounced over their heads and away, hoping they would forget what they just saw... and then the screaming began. No, not mine! I was saving that for later, when holding my breath might be less important than cursing the planet.

A vaguely sprawling shadow ahead resolved into a giant pile of rubble, and then Pink-E was shoving me up and to the left, sending the suit over a gap and into clean air once more. I chanced a quick gasp, regretting it as the slightest taste of Cloud settled on my tongue, then spat into the wrappings. It was nothing so bad as what we'd been through earlier, but I wanted as little of this stuff in me as possible...

*BOMF*

Back down, and now it seemed that we were over a wide, clear space. The screaming of the damned got louder. This time I didn't land anywhere near the Ghosts, but I could see them around the periphery, trotting around and clearly agitated.

*BWOM*

The bounce, the rebound, the wrappings were definitely a little looser. Cold sweat prickled in the roots of my mane as I was bumped up to meet God's hooves once more. I thought about trying to shout a warning, though not about the Ghosts... I was sure they could all hear the noise better than I could, at the moment.

But if the duct tape came loose --- well, it didn't really matter anyway. I could figure the odds of reversing course in my head, and they weren't better than just muddling through. Fourth bounce, coming up...

*BOMF*

A half-dozen yellow suits with bubble helmets were already converging on where they apparently expected I'd land, much quicker on the uptake than we'd been hoping. Domino had better be able to get those doors open the second we get there! Pink-E bumped me to the right.

*BWOM*

I struck just short of a long planter full of slime-encrusted dirt, missing the unwelcoming committee entirely, bouncing away once more as they charged after. A bump from below... and then shortly after, another? Pink-E was extending the bounce for some reason.

The sudden secondary impact popped the tape free from my tail-wrap. I almost let that reserve scream loose as the previous teasing instantly shifted to the sensation of hungry clawing, strands of death-magic plucking at the longer strands of hair trailing behind. Fortunately the suit itself acted as a Cloud-plow of sorts, pushing it briefly aside as I sailed through, but not well enough that it couldn't still grab a nibble.

I mentally revised my list of things I never wanted to happen, moving "Necromancy Eating My Dock" to the top. I could hear Domino shouting something as I reached the apex of this longer arc, but I couldn't quite catch it...

*BOMF* Five. Halfway now...

My goggles were fogging over with Cloud residue. The suit seemed to be holding up well enough, but I couldn't tell how the wraps were doing. I also couldn't tell what the Ghosts were doing. Whatever it was, Pink-E gave me two course corrections on the way down...

*BWOM*

...and another pair of boosts going back up. I was definitely going faster, and that was not according to plan. Domino's yelling was louder now, but higher-pitched and rather panicky-sounding. If not for these damned wraps --- which, I reflected, kept my face and other bits from melting off, that being kind of more important than hearing whatever the ghoul had to contribute at the moment.

*BOMF* Faster yet. Now God was accelerating me.

So, are we into 'oh fuck' territory yet?

Other than that, I had no time to think about anything before the next impact.

*BWOM*

It knocked my breath out. It popped every shred of failing duct tape free. It shocked my wrappings loose and they fell away. It was all I could do just to keep my mouth and eyes closed as Pink Cloud covered me.

And then somepony was smearing pepper juice into an open wound covering every exposed surface of my body, burrowing deep into hide and flesh. Oh wait, that was just the start of my body melting down into sludge. I found that my lungs still had enough air left for me to scream, all the way back up to open sky.

My upward momentum slowed. I started back down. No God-smack this time? No Pink-E boost or nudge? Had the Ghosts gotten them somehow?

I couldn't take the suspense of passively waiting for my doom. My eyes snapped open behind the rotting goggles, just in time to watch the marble-faced tiles of the Royale's front patio arcing towards me, three bounces too early.

Too fast, too fast, oh fffff -

A sudden bump from behind, I heard Pink-E... scream? and I was spinning backward. The whole of the Royale filled my pink-tinted vision as it spun past. And then I bounced.

The ball's deformation threatened to quarter me then and there. My ass smacked tile right through the rubber, my head felt like it was about to be ripped off my spinal column, and then I was airborne again, with a huge pink puff of Cloud residue and the remnants of my long-abused hat trailing behind. Then I bumped into, and off of, the solidity of the Royale itself.

Oh hey! We made it! said one of the little versions of me that staggered around my head as I spun backwards, out of control. Sure, said one the of the less-concussed-looking ones, And since we hit too hard, we're all gonna bounce back into the Cloud and die now.

Y'know, sometimes there's such a thing as being a little too frank with oneself.

"Hey! HEY, DON'T...!" Then a loud curse. That was Domino.

Fwuf-fwuf-fwuf-THOOMP! That wasn't. Both spin and backwards motion stopped. A moment later, big red eyes and sharp white fangs were smiling upside-down at me. Wait, no, that was a frown. "Are you well, Redeemer? I heard you shout."

"Fuck HIM, you dropped ME!" shouted Domino from somewhere below. "Nevermind, I'm on the door! Get him down here before those dead fuckers crash the party!"

Where was Pink-E? God had clamped onto the still-inflated Fun Suit with all four legs and was trying to set me down as gently as he could. I felt pressure beneath my belly as we touched down... and then more pressure from above. A lot more pressure. "Um... God?"

An irritated snort sounded from above. "I am... stuck." A fwuf-fwuf, and we both lifted slightly into the air before he set back down. "Damnation! I did not have difficulty gripping this ball, why can I not let go of it?"

The collective wails of the luminescent undead drew closer. The only plus-side right now was that my face and hooves were no longer in the process of melting off. That last big impact had knocked all the Pink off --- and also my hat with its attached goggles. I was going to miss that old thing; we'd been through so much together...

Domino sounded less than amused. "Stop playin' around and help me with these doors, dammit!"

Help HIM with the doors? Fuck! And why wasn't Pinkie just deflating the suit by now?!

Sweat rolled down my cheek. "Try rocking to get your hind hooves on the ground, then walk backwards!"

"Ah, yes, of course, that should work..." The balloon shifted forward, back, I heard a pair of solid clops, and then God walked the Fun Suit off of his belly until he held its still-spherical form --- and me --- steady in his forehooves. "Thank you, Redeemer. But now we must get you inside, once the doors are open. Perhaps if I rolled you to your objective..."

"That isn't funny!" At first, I thought it was Domino again --- the ghoul's voice had been pitching anxiously upward on his last couple of comments. Then the suit made its giant sucking sound, I landed on the cool, sweet, not-burning-my-face marble, and Pink-E was all up in my grill.

She looked like nine kinds of hell.

Her face was squashed, half-melted, burnt black in places. The bouncy pink mane had gone flat, singed and tattered. Her antennae sparked erratically, and even her blue-sapphire eyes were surrounded by whites gone --- bloodshot?

"GET. IN. SIDE."

That wasn't a request, it wasn't a suggestion, and it wasn't a robot trying to be helpful.

I got my hooves up under me and moved.

When God had dumped Domino in order to catch me, he'd also dumped my saddlebags. Their flaps were open and several tchotchkes had spilled out across the patio, such as that saloon snowglobe I'd picked up in Goodsprings. If the buckles had burst, that'd be one thing, but it wasn't. The ghoul'd been looking for God's key again...

The key!

I looked around for a few half-panicked moments before spotting it, lying amid the disintegrating remnants of my poor old stormchaser. I ran over, mouthed it up, and galloped to my bags, hastily shoving everything back in and fumbling with the buckles.

"Domino?" I yelled, trying to keep my voice at the level of concern instead of panic, "How're we doing back there?"

"Took my ID, but the fuckin' things're heavy! They're supposeta open automatically, dammit!"

Down where the half-moon stairs dropped into surging pink fumes, the first shadows had arrived. Hazmat-suited hell-ponies, howling in their bubble helmets, charged upwards out of the mist. I reflexively went for the holster of my ten-mil pistol... and it wasn't there. Because I'd packed it into my bags, along with everything else but my hat, since when the suit inflated it would knock everything else I was wearing right off. ARGH!

God came flying out of nowhere, sideswiping the entire first wave with a colossal body tackle. As he bucked and kicked and bit at the first few Ghosts, more came running up out of the Pink, converging on him. Using the moments purchased with alicorn heroism, I threw my pack onto my back, secured it, and grabbed my pistol out --- then blinked down at the ornate piece of brasswork in my mouth. That wasn't my pistol --- it was Dog's, and it tasted funny. Was that hickory?

Well, it's mine now, and to hell with how it tastes. Wastelanders can't be choosers!

The broad, curved staircase was not terribly defensible, not against sheer numbers. A third wave was already coming up from another direction, ignoring the mob still trying to drag God down. The alicorn didn't have to be told that we were fighting for time; he would let them pile on, then back up a step while punting a Ghost or two back down with main force. I snapped into S.A.T.S. and started queuing the newcomers.

Celestia bless whoever came up with this PipBuck thing. I love it! There's not much better, in a pitched battle, as being able to take your time with decision-making. In this case, I figured I'd best double-tap the first two of the four charging me, even though the --- wait, what the fuck?

My pistol wouldn't let me queue more than three shots. Then I noticed each was taking up segments of an indicator bar marked "Action", something I'd paid no real attention to previously. More than that, each shot had its own sliding bar... I could allocate extra "Action" if I wanted. When I tried jiggling that, a notice popped up:

DAMAGE x1.25

Oh really?

The Ghosts were nothing so speedy as a Zoomer launching a rainboom. They were still locked into the same frame of motion they'd been when I kicked S.A.T.S. on. So I could afford to mess with this a bit... whoa! Apparently I could allocate the ENTIRE "Action" bar to a single shot, or even carry it over to another "Action Phase", whatever that was. It probably just meant that it would take longer than firing four normal ten-mil shots to fire one overpowered round from Dog's gun.

Nah. I didn't have that kind of time to experiment. Maybe once we weren't all about to be killed by ravening janitorial-minded demons. Besides, even just using up the one bar for a single shot brought up a new indicator, suggesting possible damage to the gun. No thank you!

I finally decided on one shot apiece for the two closest, powered up to half-again the projected firepower, let S.A.T.S. loose, and damn near lost the pistol as it kicked me in the tonsils. If it'd been small enough, I'd've swallowed it! Each of my targets fell back with explosions of pink mist, their suits blasted down the stairs like headless rag dolls. What the hell was this pistol packing?!

No time to worry about that, here come the others! I scrambled backwards, lining up Mouthkicker's brass sights on the closer of the two remaining. Eh... not a terribly creative name, I guess, but it works. Weird as all hell, though: the grip tasted of sweat and grime (Dog's for sure), and my tonguetip was still stuck up in between the trigger and something else from when S.A.T.S had taken me over to do its thing. When I squeezed down to fire, a little green light flickered on just below the rear sights, but no joy... frustrated and with that third Ghost almost on top of me, I yanked the trigger with a desperate prayer.

Sometimes, apparently, religion pays off. Mouthkicker bucked again, this time nowhere near as hard but just as effectively. The Ghost's head and helmet popped with a sound of shattering glass.

Then his buddy tackled me. Rubber-booted hooves clamped onto both sides of my head.

Back to S.A.T.S., please!

Time froze once more, but it didn't look good. My action bar hadn't had much time to rebuild itself. I regretted never having taken the time to learn a few take-down manuevers, something like a Zebra Flip or whatever it was called. I regretted promising Pink-E to lay off the Buck and Dash, both of which'd been so useful for close combat back in Slimm, and further chastised myself for not keeping a dose in my packs "just in case".

Eventually I'd have to come out of the spell, and then this thing would probably crush my head or break my neck. I scanned through every menu my PipBuck had, searching for anything that looked like it might... no, not Turbo again. That helped me run, and I didn't see that as being helpful while flat on my back.

But right below "Turbo" was something new... "Wallbuster"? Worth a shot. What's the worst that could... now I was looking at Domino. What?

He yelped with surprise and blinked at me through the barely-open doorway. "How the fuck... nevermind! Grab here and PULL!" I did, putting everything I had into it. The door slowly opened, accompanied by a harsh grinding noise.

The ghoul finally managed to push his way in, followed immediately by Pink-E. Back on the patio, God was in furious melee with a full dozen Ghosts, snapping and whirling and bucking as they tried to swarm him under. I cupped my hooves together and yelled at him.

"GOD! WE'RE CLEAR, LET'S GO!"

He didn't need a second invitation. The big alicorn popped open his wingspan, sending several Ghosts flying in all directions, then spun and galloped for the door. Domino and I pulled, grinding it open as far and fast as we could, and then God was through, trampling the plush carpets of the Casino Royale. The patio outside was almost invisible beneath the lines of emergency-yellow and howling pink murder coming straight for us.

We let the door go.

SLAM!

* * * * *

"Slap me with a trout and call me Sally," breathed Domino. “I’d forgotten what nice things look like."

It was like being transported through time, to the hay-days of Equestrian society.

Where the Lucky Chance had been dim, dusty, and faded, the Royale was bright and sparkling-clean throughout. No cracks marred the glossy-beige walls, no water stains spoiled the parquet floor. Broad carpets, sporting exotic patterns of white-on-blue, contrasted with the interweavings of mahogany and teak beneath. No trace of dust suggested the passage of even a day... let alone centuries.

And this was just the entry foyer. An oaken service desk dominated the center, effectively demarcating the casino’s threshold by its massive presence. Pristine information terminals sat in an orderly row, each one flanked by four-color brochures and event schedules that didn’t seem to have aged any more than their surroundings despite their supremely disposable nature.

Even Pink-E, despite her singed edges and warped features, seemed impressed. "Ooooooh," she sighed, "Look at those data ports! I bet the transfer rate is through the roof!" The little robot darted towards the desk, eagerly extending her probe.

Even on my best days, she was much faster than me. Today wasn’t one of my best; between sleep-deprivation and gawking at our impossibly-well-preserved surroundings, my mouth was still opening to bark a warning when each service station flashed with soft orange light.

Instantly, a row of smiling ponies appeared behind the desk terminals. Blue and green and yellow and red, with pure-white manes and teeth to match, they nodded in polite unison. If not for the lines of muted orange flickering up and down their bodies, they could almost have passed for real.

"Welcome!" the holo-greeters cheerily intoned. "Thank you for choosing the Casino Royale to meet your entertainment, gaming, and relaxation needs.” The yellow one --- nearest to Pink-E, and thus probably the trigger for this automated welcome --- focused on the 'bot as the others went silent.

"You are registered as property, of a guest, of Mister Domino Mask. Informational access is restricted to Guest Level. VIP access may be obtained with the vocal permission of Mister Mask, plus affirmation of such authentication from our concierge.”

There were a few long moments. Then the holo-pony blinked, as though remembering something important. “I am afraid all management personnel, including our concierge, are on extended sick leave. VIP authorization cannot be granted at this time. Our apologies for any inconvenience this may cause."

Pink-E turned back with a pouty “hmph!”.

I gave Domino an incredulous look. "The place looks like it just opened yesterday."

The ghoul flashed a grin and took a moment to adjust his frayed old pinstripe tuxedo. "Still a tourist. This place never did open, kid, not officially. Day before it was gonna, bombs fell, everypony died. Hell, I only got my access and penthouse a day early because Uptown Eclair owed me big-time.”

He took a long look around the foyer, a glint in his stone-green eyes. “And it’s long past payday.”

A little pink pony in my head yelled brahminshit. I shook my head. “Even places that’ve been kept up since the bombs dropped are run-down. Everything ages, but not this place...”

Domino was already edging towards the casino proper, focused on two centuries’ worth of pent-up greed while blithely ignoring the obvious. I blew out a sigh of frustration.

Something is just not right here...

The only one who didn’t seem at all impressed was God, still busily licking bits of Ghost from his hide and hooves. The dull-black areas where he’d been bludgeoned were slowly regaining their glossy sheen as the alicorn swapped magical energy for physical rejuvenation.

I couldn’t help but smile at the big lug. “Nothing really fazes you, does it?”

He turned, focusing calm crimson eyes on me. “Shock and awe are paralytic. Indulging in them could hinder service to a Redeemer, delaying my redemption for no useful purpose.”

Well, damn, son. Talk about stoic as all Tartarus...

Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash.

Five balls of orange light resolved into two white ponies in crisp-looking bellhop outfits, flanked by three more in the business-before-pleasure attire of security guards.

The bellhops smiled, gesturing towards small cubicles adjoining the casino entrances. “For the convenience and comfort of our guests, the Service Desk manages all luggage. Please place your luggage in one of these containers for transport. Penthouse residents, and their guests, will find their bags awaiting them in their suites. All others will be stored safely in the casino vault until your departure.”

The security guards did not smile at all. “For the safety and security of our guests, no weapons of any lethality are allowed beyond this point. Please move to either side of the Service Desk, and place all such items in one of the Security Transport Lockers you will find there. They will be placed in the casino vault, to be returned upon your departure.”

Son of a BITCH!

For a moment, I was paralyzed with indecision. Eclair’s Stable was somewhere under the casino, while Domino’s penthouse was all-too-obviously in exactly the opposite direction. And where was this vault located? Domino had said there might be other ways out of the Royale, but if we couldn’t get our weapons back without returning to the foyer, we’d end up having to fight our way out the front door, through an already-aroused mob of Ghosts...

The guards were turning yellow. All three intoned, intimidatingly, “You have ten seconds to comply.”

Screw it, we can figure this out later!

I quickly dashed to the right-side locker and started tossing in everything I had on me that might be considered “lethal”. Domino, on the left, was already done and setting his saddlebags into the luggage cubicle by the time I finished. Purple flashes of teleportation magic signaled the departure of his gear.

But the important thing was that the hologram-guards were settling down to normal colors, instead of riddling me with laser beams. I had a sudden mental image of my legs shot so full of holes they looked like Swish cheese, just as I dropped my saddlebags into the bin and everything I wasn’t wearing disappeared with a purple flash.

Pink-E bobbed on through the left-side checkpoint, followed by God and Domino. Apparently the ‘bot’s brain-exploding eyepiece still counted as “non-lethal” to the casino, while the alicorn depended on no artificial augmentation to be a natural engine of destruction. And me? I still had my trusty ten-millimeter pistol, tucked safely into the hair of my tail -

“You have FIVE SECONDS to comply.”

The klunk of my last gun hitting the bottom of the locker, just before it flashed away, left me feeling more naked than if I’d stripped down and done the hula for a bunch of zebras.



Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Somepony (+1 CHA) - You've become less self-centered, more considerate of the needs and well-being of others. Pinkie Pie would be proud of you!

Skill Note: Speech (50)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The place is a madhouse.

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

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

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

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

Slew out. Celestia help us all.

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

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

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

The main security menu finally came up:

SELECT ACTION:

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

* Vault Elevator [ACTIVE, READY]

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

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

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

And then the floor fell out from under us.

* * * * *

I suppose you could say we were lucky...

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

That’s where our luck ran out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? I can learn!

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My throat locked up on the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Beedee beedee bee, beedee beedee..."

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something equally horrible twinged in my chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FROM: Mr. Uptown Eclair

TO: Ms. 'Derpy Hooves' [ENCRYPTED]

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

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

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

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

ROBRONCO INC. (TM) TERMLINK PROTOCOL

ENTER PASSWORD NOW... 1 ATTEMPT LEFT



0xF4F0 MUFFIN..^[&()

0xF4FC @#%$]MUFFI

0xF508 N%&>#^"MUF

0xF514 FIN...MUFFIN

0xF520 [(%%^]]MUFF

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

0xF538 ]{#!}MUFFIN\

0xF544 \?[MUFFIN]...

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

0xF55C <;}MUFFIN*&

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

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

0xF580 FFIN*&%%{]].

0xF58C ]{#!}MUFFIN?

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

0xF5A4 (MUFFIN)_{?

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

0xF5BC @#%$MUFFI

0xF5C8 N%!>MUFFIN

Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To my Beloved, Innocent Ditzy Doo,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Your Secret, Sorrowful Admirer,

Uptown Eclair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn't Domino's.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sadly shook back and forth in the negative.

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

"GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure. That'll do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The barding! It does nothing!

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

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

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

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

I smashed it with a hoof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celestia prang my rectum with a brass tuba...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smiling, for once, I looked up at God.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>>>oOo<<<

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the sun was missing.

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

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

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

"PRAISE LUNA! LUNA FTAGHN!"

"ALL HAIL THE TRUE PRINCESS OF THE NIGHT!"

"LUNA FTAGHN! PRAISE LUNA!"

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

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

<<<oOo>>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn me damn me damn me I am the last,

Kill me kill me kill me I killed them all,

Not all but those who stood against,

Who tried for my life and money

Tried and died, as did I.

Damn them damn them damn them who can last?

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

MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY WHERE?

Food is money, no food left but hunger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"ENOUGH!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"HI!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My smile brought him up short.

* * * * *

A minute later, we were just about ready.

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

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

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

"NOW!"

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

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

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

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

Central Control.

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

Reactor.

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

"Large bomb."

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

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

Now I had no choice but to look straight down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I squeezed my eyes shut and waited.

And waited... and waited...

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

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

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

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

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

Whoosh!

BANG!

Zoooooooooooooom!

Fuck my ass, straight to the moon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Pink-E, deflate my suit!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"NOW, GODSDAMMIT!"

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

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

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

"Blow her, Pink-E."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"THE WORD!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

I exploded.


Footnote: Level Up.

Chapter 15: Bubble Trouble

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Chapter 15: Bubble Trouble

Ye can search the world for fillies fine
'Til your eyes are weak and dim,
But don't go searchin' for a mer-mare, buck
If ye don't know how to swim!

I'd only been out for a few moments before my eyes blinked open again.

I knew that much, because if I'd been under for more than a minute, I'd've already drowned. I was already deep enough that the lake's surface had become a rippling, glass-like ceiling, looking out on an endless blue expanse that grew narrower in my vision as it receded from me. Earth ponies are known for solidity, not buoyancy; I was sinking like the proverbial stone.

Yes. You may insert another joke here about how dense we are. Ha-ha. You're welcome.

A bubble of air escaped my left nostril, floating away towards the ever-more-distant sky above.

I wasn't entirely sure why I was bothering to hold my breath at this point. The remaining tatters of the burst Fun Suit dragged in the water, slowing my movements. Its collar had popped off and fallen away, likely when the suit exploded, but I'd still have to wriggle out of the remnants before I had the remotest chance of flailing my way to the surface. That would take time I didn't have. Everything just seemed so completely futile...

At least I hadn't burned alive like Commander Bitchy; I must not have fallen very far before I hit the surface. So there was at least that small comfort before I died. And right now, I was bone-tired. Aside from being knocked unconscious and/or drugged on a few occasions, I hadn't had any real sleep since leaving my warm bed at the Lucky Chance.

That'd been --- at least two days ago. Three? Time and details were blurring together, likely a side-effect of my incipient asphyxiation. Sleep would be so much nicer than the alternative...

I felt weightless, the water growing colder as I dropped ever deeper. I wasn't unfamiliar with these sensations. It was like one of my drowning-dreams, where even though I'd been cold and alone I was at least... safe. Safe from worry, safe from fear, safe from attack, safe from the world.

Well, except for that one time in the whiskey bottle, sure, but there was no hint of amber here. Only a clear blue ceiling far above, framed by a gathering darkness, the sun's light finding it increasingly difficult to smash through so much water.

The weight of that water put more and more pressure on my barrel. Trying to squeeze out and steal away my precious last lungful of air. All my efforts now went into keeping that inside, but why was I still fighting? In dreams, letting my lungs have their fill was how I found peace. There would be no waking up this time, but the end was inevitable now. I closed my eyes against the fading of light from above.

Pink-E... I'm sorry...

Even as I forcefully blew out a cloud of bubbles, I felt angry with myself.

Why should I be sorry?! To anyone, about anything?

My parents were junkies who'd sold me off for a hit of second-rate chem. My adoptive dad had dragged me across half the wasteland until he got killed. Everything I ever got in life, after that, I took from some bastard's dead body.

And Pink-E? Pink-E had been nothing but an annoyance from the moment I met her! I could've caught Benny five times over, without her interference! Well, sure, maybe I'd've been killed by the Diamond Dogs hiding up in Slimm Pass, but I might've shot or snuck my way through too. And If she hadn't managed to alert Benny when I finally caught up to him, I'd've got paid, gone onto another job, not been caught by the Zoomers and shoved into this stupid fucking balloon-suit and dropped into the Casino Fucking Royale and dumped into this lake and drowned...

Enough stalling; my lungs desperately wanted something inside them. As I opened my mouth, something warm and smooth bumped my belly. I gasped, spooked by the unexpected contact into taking a long, deep breath.

Of air.

That surprise was immediately followed by another; my hooves struck a springy, concave surface. Which, as I immediately discovered, had a definite tendency to roll. All four of my hooves went right, the rest of me went left, and I bounced twice when I hit the floor.

What the fuck?! No, seriously, what the -

A soft giggling broke through my confusion. I shook my head and focused on its source.

Just a length away, a lakepony held a fin over her mouth and blushed, still smiling behind it. The scales of her hide were the color of pale coral, fading below into the sweeping emerald-green flukes of a fish-tail. Her deep red mane floated, nimbus-like, about a face which could have been sculpted in the days of ancient Pegasopolis.

Four shocks, in as many seconds, had my heart struggling to remember what rhythm was.

Lakeponies are not supposed to be beautiful! They were grotesquely malformed mutants, a merging of equine and piscean life into a single horrific organism. They were also the reason there were few permanent fishing villages along Lake Cider, due to their habit of dragging anypony they could catch down into the depths. Every year, there would be at least one report of a fishing expedition losing one or more of its less-than-careful members, a reminder to others of the occupation's hazards (and as good an excuse as any for why fish was more expensive than steak).

Despite my natural caution, I reached out towards this unexpected picture of loveliness... and my hoof bumped into more of that smooth, flexible surface, prompting another giggle from my presumable savior.

She darted below and to my right, looking up at me. Then up and over, back to the side, around and around --- I got dizzy trying to follow her movements, lost my hoofing on the rolling floor, and fell over again with another bounce.

Now she broke out laughing, a soft-squeaking merriment that --- well, I couldn't get angry at. I guess it was pretty funny, me falling all over myself, entirely out of my element inside this giant... um... bubble.

Yes, okay, I said it was a joke before about earth ponies being dense. I'd just had a quadruple-kick to the brainpan, above and beyond having just fallen out of the sky, added to which was the surreality of rescue by a not-ugly-as-fuck-all lakepony who didn't seem interested in killing me outright. Given another moment she needn't have bothered, so...

I waved a hoof at her. She giggled again, waving a fin back.

"Hello..." I doubted she could understand me. Lakeponies supposedly spat gibberish at each other in what might amount to some kind of language, but that hardly meant one would just happen to speak Equestrian. Still, what else was I supposed to do, play charades? "Er... can you talk?"

Surprising me yet again, she immediately nodded and seemed to take a moment to compose herself.

"You funny pony. Funny color. Pretty."

I... wasn't sure how to take that. At least it meant she wasn't hostile... at which realization I finally noticed there were no color bars in my vision; my Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell had been knocked offline when I hit the water. Or maybe the PipBuck'd gotten waterlogged and shorted out? Nope, a quick set of mental commands brought the EFS back up, marking the lakepony with a green bar of friendliness.

A lot of other bars also appeared, in amber, scattered across a wide range. But I couldn't make out much beyond the little red-haired lakepony; everything just faded off into blackness in every direction but up or down. Upwards, the distant surface was visible only as a broad circle of blue light, framed in deepening greys which eventually turned black at the edges. Below (and not far below) was a brown expanse of lakebed where ribbons of green weeds drifted to and fro with the currents.

It was actually kind of... nice. Especially since I was no longer drowning in it.

She flitted back around into my view once more, then swam in close, pressing her fins and chest against the bubble's skin. I pressed back with my hooves, gingerly, feeling the pressure of her pushing.

Pushing? I blinked and looked down. Sure enough, the bubble was moving, carrying me past ferns and weeds at a ponderous gait. Lifting my eyes again, I found myself gazing into hers --- how had I not noticed those before? They were as normal as any pony's, but for irises the color of strawberry milk.

How do I even know what the hell strawberry milk looks like? But the comparison stayed in my head.

I had so many questions. Why had she saved me --- just because she thought I was "pretty"? Why didn't she look like any lakeponies I'd ever heard of? Where did this bubble come from, and what kept it from popping or floating to the surface? What was her name?

But after those first few words, I could get nothing more from her. She just smiled and swished her tail, slowly pushing her captured cargo of pretty pink pony along.

Where were we even going? It sure wasn't the surface. In fact, we seemed to be taking a slightly downward angle, the lake-bed mud getting closer as we passed the occasional reef. Sometimes, the hulk of an old boat would appear in the distance, the only lasting impact surface ponies had ever made on this strange domain.

Without warning, a single huge reef loomed up out of the dimness. Actually, that did it one hell of a disservice. I should say that a castle loomed up out of the dimness, composed entirely of a single huge reef.

There were no battlements or palisades, none of the classic means by which ancient ponies once defended their holdings. Why would there be, given that any invader could just swim right over them? But there were towers and high domes and a gate-house, all built from layers of luminescent coral. Even in the wan light available at this depth, every length of the place carried a soft glow, different colors of algae providing a coat of lustrous, living paint. Around the whole thing grew a moat-like band of green weeds, like somepony's unkempt lawn.

Scattered around its perimeter stood carefully-arranged frameworks of reclaimed junk, covered with beds of coral polyps that turned land-pony garbage into undulating gardens. Seeing ruin made into something beautiful brought a smile crawling onto my muzzle; it would have made for a gorgeous snowglobe design.

An old crooner's solo blared from my PipBuck, which had decided to let me know it had relocated Radio New Pegas:

Some-where, beyond the sea

Some-where, waiting for meeee...

My lover staaands, up-on golden saa-aaaands...

Hastily I fumbled through the menu system until finally I flipped the damned thing off. That's enough of that!

"Da*kssht*Robert. 'Beyond the Sea'. D-R-B-T-S, One-Nine-Four-Six*kssht*." Um, well... I'd THOUGHT I'd flipped the damn thing off! For a moment I wished I was a unicorn so I could better control it, particularly given the scratchy and generic mechanical voice on this old recording. But no matter how hard I smacked its buttons, it wouldn't shut up.

"*kssht*ERNATE AUDIO ENCRYPTION SATIS*kssht*: Case file Magical Amethyst, One-Five-B." Without warning, the machine-voice was replaced by a normal one. Although, given Mr. Horse's reputation, most folks would have said that was from a machine, too. Luna pump my ass with an hydraulic ram! How'd that motherfucker get into my PipBuck?!

"Prin*kssht*una formed her 'Ministries' today. That was amu*kssht* to watch. They keep underestimating Sparkle, don't they? Luna acted like her acceptance of the Prime Minister role was a given. Alicorns, noblesse oblige, and all. Can't have a Princess in charge of one Ministry, without putting her in charge of all of them. The look on Sparkle's face... I don't think she's psychologically capable of exerting lordly authority over her best friends. Not even for Goddess and Country." The capitalizing was audible.

He gave one of those laughs, the kind where you can't really tell if it's genuine or not. "So of course, she abdicates! Right there on the spot, no protest, no shouting, boom, and she's a unicorn again. I would have thought it impossible, after all this time and research... but then again, she was made an alicorn via magical transformation, wasn't she? With Magic itself being both her special talent and acknowledged realm of royal power, who could possibly neigh-say her decision?"

A snort of definitely genuine derision. "Certainly not Luna, that hidebound beast of protocol... she blanched so hard, I thought she might turn pink! I am so very glad my camera was rolling. That scene alone was worth the price of admission to this --- this Ministerial farce."

There was a pause of several moments, long enough that I thought maybe the recording had ended in a glitch. Then it resumed, Horse's voice more somber now. "Interministr*kssht*airs is playing a far deeper game than *kshht*ought. Sparkle's unpredictable decision must have them second-guessing their next move. I think it might be time to find a seat at this table. A few technical demonstrations should provide a reasonable ante, get Goldenblood's attention..."

Now what the hell was that all about? Did Pink-E pick this up when she was flitting around in the Lucky Chance? When did she upload it to my PipBuck?

The recording ended with the usual double-beep, bringing my attention back to more immediate concerns; the bubble had drifted to a stop just above another low-lying reef short of the weed lawn. I looked around in time to see Red-Head flitting past.

"HEY!" I shouted after her, but she disappeared into the yawning gate-house without so much as looking back. Most of the amber bars in my vision were concentrated in that direction, so I supposed she'd scampered off to tell her friends about me.

Guess as long as nothing goes red, I shouldn't be too worried... though the air in this thing can't last forever, can it...? To take my mind off that particular reminder of my mortality, I looked down between my hooves at the reef just below the bubble.

Now that was weird. It obviously wasn't part of the castle complex, and didn't seem to be part of any garden, either, but it had a lot of very definite right angles. Not something often found in nature. From my inveterate book-reading, I knew coral would happily grow on just about any underwater surface, but normally it would just clump up at random. Natural reefs were just blobby collections of dead polyps layered on one another.

So why did this one look like a giant "T" with a perfectly round end?

A sudden swell of exuberant music caused my ears to prick up, then go flat.

Oh, what fresh new hell is this?!

When I turned to look, my interest in the minor mystery of the reef went up in a puff of mental smoke. Hundreds of lakeponies were bursting out of the castle gate in wave upon wave, not an ugly among 'em, and every one with a green bar!

Shoo be doo! Shoo shoo be doo! Aaaaand now they were going to sing me the song of their people.

They swung into color-matched chorus lines, weaving around and through one another like a basketful of hopped-up water snakes, their exuberant melody turning the whole thing into a psychedelic cacophony. It was hard to focus on any one detail from one moment to the next. For example, which of them was playing saxophone, and which was on clarinet?

Hi there, we're the Lake-Ponies, gee, you're really in a mess!

Maybe, for your sake, pony, we should send a little S-O-S?

I planted my hooves up on the bubble-wall and nodded rapidly, hoping to catch the attention of whoever was in charge. "Yes, that would be very nice, thank -"

Well now, if you catch our drift, you'll never see the shore,

A dozen or so suddenly lunged in close, leering at me with smiles full of needle-y teeth: WHORE!

You won't be around for long, but at least you won't be bored! Shoo be doo! Shoo shoo be doo!

Just like that, their E.F.S. markers flashed to red. Aw, FUCK. I knew it was too much to hope for!

And here I was, stuck at the bottom of Lake Cider. Even if I could bust out of this bubble, I'd only drop right to the bottom. I couldn't think of anything in my PipBuck's bag of tricks that would be useful, either. With Wallbuster I could teleport, but where? A quick look at the PipBuck's short-range map showed nothing but lakebed in all directions, and it didn't even come up as an option on bigger scales. It might get me back to the surface, but then what? Use Turbo to flail around for a few seconds before drowning again?

Three of the gorgeous, smiling monsters began pushing the bubble towards the open gateway, not even missing a beat. They each had their own lines, too:

Are you sinking fast? asked the smirking purple blonde.

Had some nasty shocks? inquired the white-maned green, mockingly fluttering her lashes.

Feeling like all hope is gone, and washed up on the rocks? sarcasted the bay brunette. Yes, I used "sarcast" as a verb. Sue me.

The rest all picked up on the chorus: Washed up on the rocks! Shoo be doo! Shoo shoo be doo!

I'd thought of the castle as, well, a castle. Like in the old stories, you know, with hallways and throne rooms and Imperious Twats and all. But as my escorts shoved me inside, my first impression was of a single dark cavern, a wide shaft of golden light spearing down from a huge gap at the top of the domed ceiling. In the center of the glow stood two tall pillars of carved basalt, with some knobbly bits on the facing sides. That was it.

Well, until my Luna-cursed eyes adjusted to the gloom. Shit. The floor was littered with bits and baubles, thickly enough to qualify as a formal carpet. But it was the bones that drew the breath from me. Most of them were old, pitted and grey, but there were plenty of clean white ones. And then there were those to which shreds of cartilage, and pale red meat, still clung. Some of the wrack had been arranged into piles, nestling egg clusters that shimmered with mottled shades of green and blue.

The Lake-pony Musical Revue wasn't satisfied to stay outside, nearly blotting out the sunbeam as they swooped by dozens through the dome's aperture.

My three escorts pressed in, bursting the bubble between them and sending the freed air fleeing towards the surface. As the cold water slammed in I clamped my muzzle down and kicked at my captors, but for all my underwater agility I might as well have been wearing a lead suit. I just didn't want to die without trying to get a shot in.

White-Mane darted around, leaned in, and pursed her lips to blow another, smaller, bubble around my head. My relief at being able to breathe again was cut short as her sisters puffed at my hooves, snaring them in identical spheres. Each grabbing a bubble, they dragged my flailing carcass to the black stone pillars as easy as a raider gang with a sackful of colts.

Need rescue from the Lake-Ponies? Better not hold your breath!

Blond and Brunette pulled my forelegs apart, mooring each bubble to one of the pillars' knobby bits, then did the same for my hindlegs. Spread-eagled again? This was getting repetitive. Not to mention that, with the number of near-death experiences I'd been through in just the last hour or so, I was really starting to feel the effects of adrenaline burnout.

We need to breed with you ponies, and now we'll pump you to death!

Needless to say, none of my squirming, kicking or punching had any useful effect. The bubbles would give a little, stretch a bit, but never let go. Didn't stop me from trying... wait. What was that last bit?

White-Mane swished up over my head, then dove back down and between my hindlegs, brushing through the cloud of my tail before pulling up in front again with a teasing smile. My heart was too busy trying to hammer through its ribcage for me to appreciate it on a less panicky level. Her sisters zipped away to join the chorus lines swirling beneath the dome ever more energetically as the inappropriately-bouncy tune reached its climax:

While our bubbles hold you here, as strong as any silk (Silk!)

Count upon the Lake Ponies!

We'll... see... you... get... milked!

Looking down, I watched helplessly as White-Mane cupped her fins, blowing one more sheer, delicate bubble between them. Right down at 'little buckaroo' level. Oh, you have GOT to be fucking kidding...

Lake Ponies, Lake Ponies

Then we'll eat him while he's fresh (Eat him while he's fresh!)

Lake Ponies, Lake Ponies

Then we'll eat him while he's fresh (Eat him while he's fresh!)

Oh, yes!

Eeyep... from something out of the setup for a New Reino porno flick, down to implied cannibal luau, in ten seconds flat. My head drooped with the weight of defeat, the prospect of a less-than-quick end sending a deeper chill up my back than the water could.

"WAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIT!"

The festivities pulled to a screeching halt. All eyes but mine turned a glare on Red-Head, swimming out from the shadows into the light with one fin upraised in protest... and a green, glowing EFS bar above her head.

Her milky eyes looked around at the others imploringly. "Why hurt pretty pony? Not like so many we catch, so small! Not feed many Lake-Ponies, not seed many eggs..." She reached down into a well-gnawed pile of ribs, pulling forth a little --- snowglobe? --- and held it up for the others to see. "We not have many pretty things?"

She whirled in place with it, her long red mane billowing, the globe's glass glinting in the sunlight... while another swell of music arose. Oh, I get it: fish-pony magic includes the spell "Spontaneous Musical Number". I didn't realize how wrong I was at the time... but hey, who knew?

Look at all this, isn't it neat?

Wouldn't you think our collection's complete?

Would you think we're the girls...

The girls who've got everything?

Along the curving walls, the other lakeponies stared questioningly at one another. Some shrugged, others pointed and whispered, but all paid attention to Red's song like they hadn't just done one of their own.

Look at this grotto, with treasure galore

How many Land-Ponies would gawp and adore?

If they knew what we have here, they'd say

'Sure... they have everything!'

Quite a few in the crowd started nodding at that. The whispering rose in pitch, joined by gesticulations as several of bystanders began arguing in hushed voices. Red-Head didn't pay the slightest bit of attention, caught up in her own song, zipping between heaps and piles to pick up and display one thing after another.

We've got Equestrian Bits, somewhat dirty,

There's bottlecaps and books on our floor

Up came a load of rusty, rotting rifles, whose gemstones still gleamed with the promise of malice.

Want magical weapons? We've got thirty!

She dumped them with an exaggerated sigh and turned her face upward, letting the sun's rays illuminate her features like some sort of sublime and Celestial being.

But who cares?

No big deal...

She shrugged, then raised her fins in supplication to her audience:

I want moooooorrre...

The rest of the lakeponies began to crowd in towards the light, jostling for proximity to the angelic vision and dulcet voice.It was clear that'd only been her preamble. The music swelled anew, and so did her chest, just before belting out:

Oh, I want to be where those ponies are,

I wanna see...

They tore her apart.

One moment they seemed placid enough, and the next, there was a giant ball of frenzied motion filling the dome, from which rapidly exuded a spreading cloud of red. Tiny bits of my would-be savior drifted momentarily out of the fracas, and then one or another lakepony would greedily snap them up.

Burning bile choked its way up my throat. Fighting it down, I retched several times rather than just let go... drowning in a bubble-ful of puke still didn't seem a preferable end. Some exploded into my sinuses, setting off a fit of coughing and sniffling that nearly forced it up anyway.

I'd seen violence, sure. I'd seen ponies and other creatures die horribly, sometimes even made the arrangements myself. In my job as a bounty hunter, I'd pulled the trigger on plenty more. I'd even seen bloodwing packs tear into a crippled manticore. But I'd never seen something so purely visceral, married to such intense, furious hatred.

They hadn't just eaten her. They'd performed an execution.

When the frenzied lakeponies broke up, most of them darted up out of the castle dome and away, leaving a fresh set of gleaming white bones to form their own little pile on the floor. Only White-Mane, picking a long red hair out of her needle-thin teeth, remained. Her other fin still held the bubble clamped to her side, and once she'd composed herself she resumed her sultry approach as though nothing had happened at all.

"I Sea Swish. My honor to collect seed. You like, much fun, be happy."

I blinked. "What's with the bad lingo? When you lakeponies sing, you talk just fine."

She shrugged dismissively. "Not know words, not care. Not job. You like now." She pressed closer...

*** EXCERPTED ***

>>>SECTION "15.2: Bubble Trouble Blow-Out"
>>>PER ORDER OF REPUBLIC CENTRAL SECURITY
>>>PER AUTHORITY OF CRIMINAL CODE 16.2a (Indecent Publications)

*** EXCERPTED ***

Three days.

THREE...

FUCKING...

DAYS.

Sea Swish was still there. Still patiently squeezing, twisting, and oh Luna Celestia please if you have any mercy in your damned souls take me to Tartarus with you!

There was a place beyond "numb". If I only felt numbness, it wouldn't have been so bad.

Most of my exposed muscles, stretched out and deep-chilled for literally days on end, had locked up in a rictus that was likely just shy of rigor mortis. Every now and again a few lakeponies would swim past with their fins cupped, as though guiding something along, and I'd be briefly inundated with a rush of warmer water. They needed to keep me going at least long enough to finish the job... and who knows, maybe they were basting me with something for their after-coitus snack.

By contrast, fish-pony magic kept everything inside the bubbles warm and dry, kept the air fresh, kept me from dying. Dead ponies can't fill bubbles. Maybe it even kept the fedora on my head; I hadn't a clue otherwise as to how it had remained on my head through all this.

But infrequent warm-water baths only go so far, and the equine body only has so much heat to surrender. My bouts of shivering had overlapped into a perpetual shudder at some point, matched by the incessant vibrations of chattering teeth. I fought to keep my head tipped back towards the sky... mostly because if I didn't, my tongue would flop out, and I'd bite it repeatedly until I worked it back in. The only time I intentionally dropped my muzzle was to suck moisture from the collected puddle of sweat and condensation that pooled around my neck at the bubble's bottom. Otherwise, my eyes were locked on the castle-dome's open gap, watching the distant ball of sun dragging itself across the disc of mirrored sky once again.

I'd be remiss if I forgot to mention how much it literally fucking hurts to be pumped to orgasm every quarter-hour for three days solid, without any food or sleep, regardless of whether or not your cojones have produced anything worth milking in between. Not the sharp jolt like you'd get from a hoof in the groin, but the lingering, debilitating pain that keeps you on the ground clutching yourself in a fetal ball afterwards.

Occasionally, a few lakeponies would flit in just to stare at the proceedings. I had nothing left for rage, or begging, or even meeting their eyes. I definitely did not want to look around the castle, either, not at the junk and eggs and... bones scattered across the floor. Everything I had left went to waiting, just waiting for it all to end.

For three days, that damned bubble had been squeezed straight up my urethra, pumping and draining me in ways that should have been equinishly impossible. Then, without preamble or warning, Sea Swish finally pulled it free with a soft pop of releasing suction; it almost felt like my prostate was being yanked out with it.

The sensation triggered a final, pathetic, listless twitching down below, producing nothing more than extra strain on already-overworked muscles. My entire lower torso, entirely apart from my groin, throbbed with the sort of red pain that you'd normally associate with a septic gut wound. I couldn't hold back a groan, couldn't keep my head up now that I was no longer being tormented from moment to moment. Unbidden, my haggard gaze drooped down to stare at what my days and nights of suffering had created.

She was already turning away, swimming towards the first clutch of lakepony eggs with a taut, shiny ball of whitish fluid clutched to her chest. Three days' worth of small talk (mainly me, trying to distract her, without a bit of success) had already told me why. Every blue egg seeded by a land pony's gunk would hatch another lovely pony-eating monster, and every green egg would produce a hideous mutant moron. The latter would serve the former as hunters, laborers and raiders. I was going to father dozens --- if not hundreds --- of new abominations.

At least I wouldn't live to see it. And there was nothing left in me to care about what would co - happen, next.


The rest of the lakeponies were already filtering in a few at a time, a few humming the refrain to their song. Now we'll eat him while he's fresh... Oh, just get it the fuck over already! Looked like that's what they had in mind, too, but as the crowd got bigger Sea Swish kept getting impatient glares. Apparently, dinner couldn't start until she'd finished her job -- nice to see that even aquatic barbarisms bowed to table manners.

Far, far above, the sun's disk hung in the sky's blue circle. With so much water between me and it, there was hardly any glare at all. Just a beautiful yellow orb, perfect in its simplicity, a wedge of black slowly moving from right to left across its face...

...I knew, now, what an eclipse was. When the Princesses had been around, they'd occasionally arranged one to honor Luna, but in their absence the phenonemon occurred with predictable regularity, all on its own. After half-blinding myself as a colt, I'd had something of a passion in learning the cycles.

And there was NOT supposed to be an eclipse today!

Gasps sounded from all around; I wasn't the only one struck by the dome's sudden darkening as the sunbeam was blotted out. The lakeponies began squealing, arguing, jostling... all that, I got from the noises they made, because I sure wasn't looking at them. My widening eyes were rooted to the shadow obscuring the disappearing sun.

Something was off about this eclipse... it was going much faster than I remembered. That, and the wedge was more an oblong, not circular at all. As it passed, a second, smaller oblong became evident, following in its wake. This newcomer quickly grew larger, bigger than the first, filling a sizable chunk of the sky-circle visible through the dome's hole.

Whatever it was, it was coming right at me!

That fact didn't escape the lakeponies' notice. They began swirling around the dome agitatedly, squealing challenges at the intruder. Heedless, it dropped straight through the hole and struck the floor, raising a cloud of displaced muck and bone-shards before rebounding on a course right for my right leg.

Mentally and physically, I was completely exhausted. I couldn't comprehend what exactly was happening, or what I was seeing. All I knew what that this thing burst straight through the bubble snaring my leg, latched onto the rubber cuff left behind by the Fun Suit's detonation, and bodily yanked. The bubbles mooring my remaining legs to the pillars stretched, drew taut, and then burst as well. Helpless as a rag doll, I was dragged up out of the dome, the lakepony mob in hot pursuit.

Not content to share, they drove upward to attack the counter-abductor. Whatever it was, it was going for the surface at speed, dragging me upside-down by the leg. Even if I hadn't been almost dead of fatigue, I'd have had a hard time fighting the acceleration long enough to look anywhere but down. Instead, I helplessly watched the castle, its weed-moat, and the weird reef all recede until the depths finally obscured my view.

Now it was just a matter of who would get to finish me off. It might have been a bit more exciting than I'd expected, but it was still me getting eaten by a godsdamned fish-monster of one kind or another. If I'd had the energy to curse, I would have spent the chase yelling at the whirling, colorful, idiotic mass of lakeponies trying to kill the newcomer instead of just biting my cuff loose. At least on the pillars, there'd been some sense of ceremony, a slightly more dignified end than being dragged backwards by the ankle.

From somewhere up above came the sound of shouting, splashing. It got louder, fast, and then a green-haired lakepony brushed past me, fleeing back into the depths with dark red blood trailing from a gash above the fluke. Three others, screaming with raw animal hunger, tore after her.

There were several thunk noises, with the scene repeating for each thunk --- a bleeder and several pursuers, ending as often as not in frenzy of bloody chunks. Whatever had a hold on me pulled relentlessly through the carnage, as though paying it no attention at all.

Suddenly, I was ripped bodily from the water altogether. The last bubble burst from around my head, releasing a spray of droplets that rained back down on the shining, shimmering surface of the lake --- and also my hat!

Not my new hat! With a quick stretch I shouldn't really have been capable of, I was barely able to snap it up with my teeth, before being hauled up into the air.

Two lengths above the water, I blinked as a lakepony leapt up, was stabbed by a long spear from somewhere off to my side, and fell back with a splash. After half a dozen such tries, the remainder of the school fled beneath the rippling red riot with hateful cries and a final chorus of shoo be doo!.

I coughed out something green and vile, caught my breath, and yelled:

"Someday I'll be back with a load of balefire grenades, and then we'll see who gets shoo be doo'd!"

A familiar giggle caught my ear. With not a little effort, I managed to raise my head.

Pink-E was frowning --- no, grinning, at me. Even upside-down, she still looked like a dog's breakfast. Next to her, beneath a red-and-white-striped sail, sat the biggest earth pony I'd ever seen. Bigger than a buffalo, with a stupid-looking helmet made small by the sheer size of his cranium. He had a pale-gold coat, a brown mane done up in braids, and forelegs damn near big around as I was. Clasped between those legs, and braced against his belly, was his fishing rod: a godsdamned tow-truck gantry. Its reel, wound with what had to be at least fifty lengths of spliced cable, was mounted just behind the prow.

And I hung in the air from its hook, slowly twisting in the wind. As I did, I counted three other longships of modular design, all crewed by grinning, burly ponies --- though none nearly so overbuilt as the fisher-king. All of them carried weapons, mostly spears and rifles, and all wore the same stupid-looking helmets. The reason they looked stupid, of course, were the dual horns made from screwdrivers and hex keys.

Vikeans, I groaned internally. Somepony just kill me right now.



Footnote: Level Up.

New Perk: Adrenaline Rush - Your repeated near-death experiences have shown you how to harness fear. When you drop below 75% of maximum health, you gain +2 Strength.

Chapter 16: Immigrant Song

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Chapter 16: Immigrant Song

"Try the Falukorv!"

Pink-E giggled. I wanted to glare at her, but I just didn't have the energy. Her sapphire eyes lit up to match the beaming smile on her still-cracked face. Somehow, she didn't look as damaged as I remembered. I could've sworn her cheeks had been burned...

"Whadda'hell," I sighed more than said, "isher mayor malfunkshun...?"

"Hee hee... you look like you've been ridden hard and put away wet!" The little robot broke into a fit of giggle-snorts.

I just groaned. It had only been an hour since I'd been dredged out of Lake Cider. I didn't want to move, I didn't want to talk, I didn't want to even think, particularly not about what I'd just been through. What I wanted to do was sleep for a month, preferably right here on the pile of burlap sacks where I'd been tossed like the catch of the day. The longship's gentle rocking, once it got under sail, should have made it easy for me to nod off.

Pink-E made it impossible. She was constantly yakking about how blue the lake was, how big the ship was, how happy she was to see me alive, and when she ran out of things to yak about she started repeating the list. Somewhere in there, she also mentioned what'd happened after I ordered her to cut me loose. Instead of doing what I told her to, she'd used her sensor suite to track my progress. When my bar didn't flicker out, she went searching for a boat and rescue party.

She'd found Häsverige.

This may sound stupidly unimportant at first, but before the War, one of Equestria's top imports was furniture. Equestrian furniture was usually hoof-crafted, high-quality, and therefore not-inexpensive, which meant most ponies ran it into the ground rather than buy a replacement. Infrequent sales led Equestrian furniture makers to specialize in one type, like sofas, while selling other things to make ends meet from day-to-day like... well, whatever they could sell a lot of.

Vikea changed all that with an extensive line of cheap, sturdy, modular stuff that you could put together at home. At least, that's what every scrap of garbage I'd ever seen with their blue-and-yellow logo on it had said.

The company had done well enough back East to branch out with an experimental showroom on the shores of Lake Cider. The schtick? It doubled as a lakeside beach park and marina, where you could try out a line of pleasure craft called "Landships". Inside half an hour, you could break one down and rebuild it into either a lake-going or off-road vehicle, using only a screwdriver and hex key. The originals, using sail and pedal-power for motion, were meant for a small family to toddle around in.

After Balefire Day, somepony decided to scale up the idea. Nowadays, longships carrying as many as twenty ponies each would roll up to a town, their grinning crews would disembark, and then...

... they'd try to sell you furniture.

Talk about a head-scratcher. They had mobility, they had more than their share of the big-bruiser types, and as anypony who'd ever tried to attack their fortifications would tell you, they were no slouches at either close-up or ranged combat. They could have looted half the Moohave with relative impunity. Yet they were also some of the most polite folks you'd ever meet... as long as you showed interest in their cheap, sturdy, modular furniture.

Not interested? How could you not be interested? Look at this crap you're living with now! Your grandmother could've been buried in this! Are you trying to insult the quality of our products? Keep on that line of discussion, and they'd end up burning your place down.

Can't afford new furniture? No problem! We have Easy Payment Plans! You just forked over a percentage of whatever money, crops or goods you could pile together every month until your debt was paid off, or they'd burn your place down. Easy!

Already got better furniture? They'd burn your place down. See? Now you need some good furniture to rebuild with! And we have such Easy Payment Plans...

They might have had the world's worst hard-sell tactics, but they honored a contract once you agreed to it. Surprisingly, they also made genuinely decent furniture. A lot of hard work and craft went into each flat-packed box of sections and screws. They were still essentially raiders, but the only time they really went pillaging was to collect on a defaulted Payment Plan. Even then, they only went after the debtors, which they preferred to take as "Labor Associates" rather than kill.

Most folks in the Moohave had decided that it was easier to just buy the furniture, turn around, and re-sell it to NCR-bound caravans. My dad and I had carted a godsawful lot of those densely-packed boxes in our day. And now I was grumping over however many pallets of useless furniture Pink-E had likely signed me up for.

Paying no attention to my increasingly dark mood, she kept on with the chipper patter. I tried tuning her out, staring towards the ship's stern and its massive captain working the sail there. He shifted a boom to better catch the wind, briefly turned a hazel-eyed gaze upon me, and then went right back to his business.

He was so huge, one might have confused his ship for a little sailboat, with a one-pony crew tending a single piece of canvas, if they'd seen it from a distance. As it was, he dwarfed the rest of his crew, and they weren't small for their various species, either. I wouldn't have been surprised if his sitting back there was the reason the deck felt tilted.

The lot of them had a casual sort of industriousness I couldn't recall seeing anywhere else. It was like what they were doing wasn't really a job to them. They mended nets, checked lines, tossed bucketfuls of bilgewater overboard, and when they didn't have anything else to do they polished the beams to a glossy sheen. What they didn't do was talk --- not to me, not to one another, and definitely not to Pink-E. They all knew exactly what to do, and did it without being told or supervised.

As to the ship, well, if you've seen a Vikean longship... then you've seen a Vikean longship.

As obvious as that may sound, it makes sense when you realize that every longship uses the exact same parts, but no two captains use them exactly the same way. It's that "modular" thing I was talking about, hence why those screwdrivers and hex keys were on their helmets in the first place. A creative crew can rearrange a longship six ways from Sunday. The REALLY creative ones were said to violate the laws of Eweclidean physics on occasion.

This one looked like it was rigged for extra speed with an extended mast and boom, plus what looked like two sails clipped together. The only other major difference was the towing rig that'd been used to drag my keester up from the deep. And while I'd seen first-hoof that it could be freely wielded like a fishing rod, the swivel-mount it rested in looked like it'd been made a permanent fixture, bolted to the deck with heavy reinforcing plates. For Vikeans, that was pretty unusual.

I hope all that exposition worked for you, because it's annoying as hell to me. I grew up knowing this stuff, but every now and again I have to stop and assume whoever's watching this is a Stable pony.

Anyway, by this time it had occurred to me that I had been down there for THREE FUCKING DAYS, and that if Pink-E had been able to track my exact position the whole time --- which was why the captain's first cast had snagged me so perfectly --- why the hell had it taken so long to co- to rescue me?! It's a big lake, but not that big!

When I raised that point with my little ponybot, she cheered. "You're asking questions already? Yaaay! I knew you could do it!" While I struggled to figure out why that was suddenly a big deal, she hovered up close to whisper intently, "So remember when I told you I went whOOOshhh, and I was flying around looking for a fishing boat, or really just any boat so long as it had somepony to sail it because I really kind of can't without a body and then I found a whole BUNCH of boats with ponies on them just like this one?"

Since she'd stopped to give me a prodding look, I worked up the effort to do something that might have been a nod... or maybe a slump. It seemed to satisfy whatever passed for her logic processors. "Right! Well, at first, nopony would listen! I flew up and down the docks and asked everypony I could find where I could get a boat and some of them weren't even ponies but that's okay 'cause there's plenty of folks who aren't ponies and they're okay too!"

She went from happy-frenetic to droopy-sad in a heartbeat. "But some of them shot at me, or swung big sticks, or called me bad names. None of them believed me when I said a pony in the lake needed their help. Not even when I followed them around, yelling HEY! and LISTEN! and WATCH OUT!" Her face turned thoughtful for a moment. "I kiiiiind of think that's when they started shooting, but I'm not sure."

A shrug, and she was back to being intolerably bouncy again. "So that's when Mister Hard Way over there walked up and just asked what I was talking about!" She huffed with frustration. "Like I hadn't just been saying what I was talking about for two whole days!"

Okay. Now I could understand. It wasn't Pink-E's fault, and I didn't have to kill her. Just every other Vikean who wasn't on this boat right now. Soon. A year or two, and I'd get right around to it. But I was still missing one key bit of info:

"Ping-y," I slurred, "whadju prommiss?" Happy-go-lucky attitudes didn't get anypony to do anything. There had to have been a price tag. What would the Celestial Suite look like, stuffed with unused bookcases and coffee tables?

"We-e-e-e-e-e-ellll," she sighed, rolling her eyes --- and not bringing them quite back to looking at me --- "you do still have the ten thousand bottle caps you, um, picked up at the Velvet Stocking?"

If my look were capable of being anything but flat just now, I'd have given her a flat look anyways. "Yush. Adda S'leschul Swee'. Noddon meh."

She went right back to beaming. "There you go! We just go back to Mister Horse's place, get your money, give it to Mister Hard Way, and everypony's happy!"

Ten. Thousand. Fucking. Caps. For a fishing trip! My gut roiled with a mixture of pain and loathing, making me curl up into a tiny ball. I fought down a whimper, and also a bout of vomiting which felt like accompanying it on the way up. After everything I'd been through, I was right back to being broke again!

Pink-E drifted over to head-bump me, throwing in a sidewise look and some eyelash-batting... with what was left of her lashes, anyways. "So, how do you feel, now that you've finally gotten laid?"

I swear to Luna, she was smirking. I'd been serially raped, and here she was smirking about it.

The angry little pink pony in the back of my head wanted, verbally and physically, to tear into her. But there was simply no fuel for that fire, my engine having run out of coal days ago. Meanwhile, my backup puller team sat across from the little pink pony under a banner reading "On Strike", sipping coffee and ignoring his frantic gesticulations.

Godsdamned unions. I tried nosing my way under a bunch of loose sacks, but couldn't find the will to do more than shuffle them around a bit. No part of my body wanted to do anything, especially if it meant moving any other part, because every part hurt all by itself. Moving multiple parts multiplied the hurt. "Jus' shuddup."

A ruffling of feathered wings, and then a heavy thump, sounded from behind. I didn't bother turning more than an ear in that direction; with any luck, some monster would kill everyone else on board and let me off the financial hook. Or kill me too, so at least I'd be done with shame and misery.

No such luck. "Kapten Way, port authority gives clearance. No action reported. We're slotted to provide for third shift this week... oh, and Master Woebegone says you still owe him for last week's Falukorv Casserole."

The response was an even, low rumbling, like the rolling thunder of a distant storm front. "I'll pay him, Gore, but not for falukorv. What he provided was not to those standards. When we get in, we'll let him know that Way House favors corrective action." The two laughed as though at a well-worn joke. There was a pause, and then the first voice again:

"So there really was a live one down there. That'll put the name of Hard Way into the sagas, all right. Wonder if he looked like Svaoilfari's ballsack before they pulled him down?" Another shared laugh, this one harder; I somehow found the energy to drag my hat down and bury my face in it. I might owe them my life, but for ten thousand bottle caps you'd think I would've bought a little deference!

Paying me no heed, other than to avoid my burlap nest, the crew of the Sjönhäst got to the work of pulling into port.

* * * * *

"Ballsack" turned out to be a griffin named Gore-Nest, Hard Way's first mate and also my chaperone for the time being. He'd directed his shipmates in slinging the pile of sacks (and me) onto a wooden sledge on the dock as soon as their ship tied up, then got into harness and dragged me out of everyone else's way. Meanwhile, Pink-E kept nattering on overhead about everything and nothing.

Two mules working a neighboring longship turned to stare as we passed, dropping the crate they were moving to the ire of their shipmates. Then their shipmates noticed us. Whispers flew up and down the dock.

>>>oOo<<<

Somepony poked me in the ribs.

<<<oOo>>>

My eyes flew open. I'd been asleep, and now I wasn't. Dammit! I turned what I hoped was a baleful gaze on my tormentor, an ancient red buck with a weatherbeaten face and grey woolen cap.

"Fuggoffendye," I growled. Or tried. It came out more like a mewling.

"By Sleipnir's bridle," he breathed. The reek of fish and tooth decay that washed over my muzzle made me regret holding my guts in earlier. "And here I thought Kapten Way was off on another of his wild lakepony chases."

Somepony else chipped in, "If you believe the story, he was!" Laughter broke out all around me.

Gore-Nest began shoving them back, one at a time. "Let 'im get some air, already. Buck's been soaking up the lake a day and more already, longer if the robot tells it true." Pink-E looked indignant for a moment, but said nothing.

Oh, sure, she'll shut up for a complete stranger...

As I glared at her the griffin turned, leaned down, and gave me a backhanded claw-slap.

Any other day, I'd have been right on him swinging, regardless of his having talons, a sharp beak, and easily three times my mass. But today, the pain barely made its trek from cheek to brain. I flopped back onto the sacks, feeling reality steadily flow away from me. "Whaddafug..."

Pink-E drifted down until she nearly touched dirt, fixing a pleading set of shiny blue eyes on mine. "Cherry, you're still suffering from hypothermia and severe exhaustion. I know I've been a horrible tease about what's happened, but you've got to stay awake! Maybe some music, would that make you feel better? Your vitals... they keep slipping...!" Was that a tear dripping from her eye, or condensation?

I managed to lift a hoof and, straining, reached to wipe it from her little rubber muzzle.

That's it, said my body. Visiting hours are over.

>>>oOo<<<

Falling again. Why am I always falling, these days?

Oh, and drowning too. Falling through water; I get it. I'm asleep again. What'd Pink-E say about that, just last year? Did she mention it tomorrow? Not important enough to remember, I guess...

Plummeting through dark blue everything. There was a soft light surrounding me, warm. So relaxing. Soothing, even. My lungs started whining for air, but really, fuck those guys. What did they ever do for me?

I fell past Bitchy-Bitch, floating upwards in the opposite direction, cursing my name while she tried to put herself out. But she was made of fire and the sharp stench of burnt latex, and the water wouldn't deign to extinguish her patchwork fury. Bubbles of laughter floated up after her. I needed that. So miserable lately. Last thing I laughed at... it was something Pink-E said, right?

...why am I asking you?

God tried to tell me something, red eyes flashing; I missed him in the dark. Dog sipped from a carafe of ruby-red wine, stepped gingerly from a platform onto a moving train, and exploded into dust and gears, dissolving as I fell.

I looked left, saw nothing, then right... another Diamond Dog appeared, only long enough to experience cranial combustion. His monocle and bits of pith helmet zipped past me, stylish shrapnel. Emerging from the red cloud left behind, a wide horizon revealed itself, with massive shapes of metal, grease and steam edged starkly against a rising sun. Flags and nations, lubricating their advances in blood and oil. A filth-slicked dragon, locked in chains, writhed pitiably beneath them all...

"REDEEMER!"

Back to my left floated God. His black mane drifted in the water like Red-Head's had, as did his tail. No wonder his Goddess hated him; She'd made Herself a lovely plaything, and it came out broken.

"Redeemer! Heed my - !"

Gelatinous, glowing with malice, a great pink tentacle swept out of the distance to seize the alicorn. Its surface held suckers in the form of faces: soulless spirit-pony skulls, each one screaming wordless hatred. God darted, dodged, stabbed, bit, struggled, and disappeared into its immense, seeking coils. They, in turn, disappeared back into the distance even faster than they had arrived.

The same overwhelming sensation I'd had back in the whiskey bottle flowed up my spine. The feeling of a prey animal, fearing something I couldn't see or flee or defeat, out there, hunting for me...

A single great blue eye opened, so wide it made a perfect circle stretching as high and low as I could see. Instead of tears it wept Pink Cloud, tendrils of it swilling through the waters to surround and suffocate me.

Ha! Too bad for you I already decided not to breathe!

The thing had a voice. Hissing, angry, familiar. "Suck on this, you little pink shit..."

Rebellious jaws ignored my brain's futile commands to remain on lockdown, wrenching themselves open, while quisling lungs collaborated to draw in the candy-floss poison.

Inside and out, I began dissolving. Just like Dog, I was going to fizz away into the fathomless waters, and nopony was going to miss me. I was choking on my own blood, the mass of pulpy tissue in my chest no longer qualifying as lungs.

The Pink wormed into my skin, loosening its cohesion, so that bits of me sloughed away wherever I touched myself. Both panicked and fascinated, I tried and failed to keep myself in one piece. My flailing efforts only accelerated the process, chunks of decaying flesh drifting away into the currents as my body unraveled, outside and in...

The center cannot hold.

---oOo---

My eyes flicked open. I was flat on my back, and a magenta unicorn stallion had locked his lips crosswise on mine.

Hello, pony I don't know! Purely on reflex, I slugged him with a right hook.

He reeled back, probably more due to surprise than anything else, giving me time to roll out and get to my... um, get to... c'moooon... I went right back down with a thud, coming to rest on my belly with legs splayed in random directions. Not exactly my finest moment.

A burst of laughter was interrupted by Hard Way's booming-gale voice. "Well, Cutter, I'd say your vaunted 'kiss of life' still holds up. It would seem our guest is recovering quite nicely."

Looking up, I found the same magenta buck grinning and rubbing his cheek, a set of first-aid boxes strapped across his flanks like saddlebags. "I'd have to agree. For somepony whose heart stopped beating not two minutes ago, he seems exceptionally healthy." He pushed a blond mane out of sea-green eyes, with which he gave me an appraising look, then shoved a mug of something vaguely alcoholic-smelling under my muzzle. "Put half of this down your gullet now, sip the rest slowly. It'll help warm up your insides, while the fire helps with your outsides."

Fire? I slowly took in my surroundings. Just a length away to my right was a wide stone hearth, roaring with what had to be a quarter-cord of pinewood, flames licking hungrily at dark sap trickling from the logs. The fact that I could barely feel that heat was disturbing to say the least.

Opposite the fireplace a huge plank table stretched away, taking up the middle of an even longer room. The architecture was Classical Equestrian: cut and fitted stonework for the floor and lower walls, supporting a framework of big oak beams for wattle-and-daub upper walls. The ceiling, high and vaulted and lit with hanging lanterns, was probably thatch on its topside.

And it was stuffed, stem to stern, with easily a hundred ponies, mules, dragons, buffalo, and griffins, most of whom were staring and grinning disconcertingly at me. Hard Way, seated at the near end of the table on a pillow that would have counted as a bed for anypony else, had the biggest smile of all. He even beat out Pink-E, hovering near his shoulder.

"Welcome back from Vattengrav, boy! Welcome to Way House!"

Whether held in hooves, claws, tails or levitation fields, a hundred frothing mugs went up.

"SALUT!"

Vattengrav? Was that what they called the Lakeponies' castle? Whatever... I carefully picked up my mug with two hooves, gave it a little lift, and summoned the effort to nod politely before downing the prescribed measure. Given the consistency of what went over my tongue, I was glad for the moment that my taste buds didn't seem to be working any more diligently than the nerves in my hide.

They all followed suit, but the number of ribbing elbows and smiling asides suggested most of them had expected me to spit the stuff halfway across the room. Cutter just gave me a critical look, nodded, and took a seat at the main table, which seemed to be the cue for everyone else to find a spot of their own. Meanwhile, several molly mules began wheeling in carts piled high with steaming trays. Even through my dulled senses, I could smell meat and onions, and my mouth began to water.

Hard Way poked a hoof in my direction, still smiling. "You rest right there. Our girls will get you fed." He turned to a sizeable dun mare seated to his right, leaning over slightly to plant a kiss on her head. "Isn't that right, my stoföl?"

She laughed and pushed him back. "You dare ask, my big fat oaf?" She slapped his belly with a hoof, smirking. "See if YOU get dessert tonight!" That drew a chuckle from him (which would have qualified as threat display in any other species) and a big laugh from everyone else nearby. Then, giving the serving-molly who'd brought his platter barely enough time to pull her hooves back, he dug his muzzle into the fried fish and potatoes heaped upon it.

Whatever Cutter'd given me settled into my belly with a slow burble. A strong core of warmth developed, slowly expanding outward in tingling tendrils, like the feeling you get when your leg's been asleep and just starts waking up. I didn't know what the hell was in this mess, but I obediently sipped, keeping an eye out for shenanigans. I swear to Luna, I'll pistol-whip the next -

Pink-E floated down to hover by my side, still smiling. "I'm so happy you made it! How are you feeling?"

I took another sip before answering. "I think I should really be angry. But I'm not. You promised him the whole ten thousand?"

She dropped her gaze to the floor. If she'd had hooves, she'd have been scuffing them. "There wasn't time to quibble over the price of a cherry." ...what? When she shook her head, her antennae bobbed from side to side. "I know how much your money means to you! But if I lost you..."

She bit her lower lip, which looked --- actually, damn near pristine. So did the rest of her, hardly a singe or streak. The Vikeans weren't known for having anything to do with robots. Was it even possible they had somepony with that kind of skill hanging around? After a pause to mull that over, I prodded. "...then what?"

Pink-E sighed, her ears drooping forward. "Then I'd have no other reason left to exist."

A tray cart rolled up, pushed by a molly whose only defining feature was a red neckerchief tied primly under the chin. "Lucky you, t'night y'got a choice. We got random fish an' chips, stewed rat with broccoli an' green onions, or radscorpion pie." She looked over her shoulder quickly, then leaned down to whisper conspiratorially in my ear. "We got a new zebra in th' kitchen with some funny idears 'bout that last one. I wouldn't try it if I were you."

I nodded slowly and sipped at my mug. "Haven't had fish in forever. What's random about it?"

She carefully lifted a tray in her teeth and lowered it to the floor beside me, revealing a pile of fried-and-spiced potato wedges covered with filets of varying sizes and colors before letting go. "Never been able t'figger out what kinda fish they're s'posta be. We just kill 'em an' grill 'em. Bon appetit!" Turning, she wheeled the cart about to continue her rounds, a pair of griffins already leaning back in their seats to flag her down.

Whatever kind of fish they were, they were the best I ever had. Part of that might've been half a week of starvation, but the rest was genuine deliciousness. They'd been so expertly filleted that not one bone was left in, then fried up golden-brown in what had to be fresh butter, sage and minced onions. The potatoes had probably been fried in the same pans, and then drizzled with more butter plus... was that jalapeño chopped up in there?

My tastebuds announced their return to full functionality, with a vengeance! In no time, I was doing such a good impression of Hard Way that I only noticed a second tray had been dropped off when I stopped licking the first. I was halfway through that too, before realizing Pink-E had puttered off somewhere.

A quick scan of the room revealed her bobbing and bouncing around another table, this one lower to the floor and snugged against the wall between the kitchen doors. Around it were the camp's children, squealing and shouting happily at the little pink robot's antics. Every so often, one would toss something at her, she would dive at it, and glomp! it was gone. Then she'd say or do something, the table would break up laughing, and something else would be thrown.

Well, at least she's happy. I want a robot to be happy. Maybe that's insane, but what's my life now?

I took my time savoring the rest of my meal and letting it digest. In between bites, I finished off my medicinal brew, which now that I really could taste it made me regret getting that sense back so quickly. Licking mildew off a rotten radhog chop would have been more appetizing. Thankfully, the returning buzz of Pink-E's hover servos gave me something else to focus on.

"Got a few questions for you." She'd recovered well enough that the response, a broad, clean smile, no longer made me worry for her structural integrity.

"Sure, Cherry! Shoot!"

"A file on my PipBuck triggered off of a random radio tune. Did that have anything to do with your snooping around Horse's casino, back in Pegas? When I asked you about it back then, you practically locked up." I was expecting a stonewall job, maybe even a repeat of the access error. But surprisingly, she bobbed her head in the affirmative.

"Yes indeedy, speedy! Only it took a while to figure out, because it was all brrrRRRRRRrrrt and bl-BL-bl-BL-bl-BL-bl and fweeeeeeeeee... just really annoying encryption! I took care of it on my spare cycles this last week, kind of a back-burner project thing. See, the Ministry of Morale has its own encryption standards, and we use a modified version of Robronco termlink for our base code, and the Lucky Chance does the same with its own modifications! So I decompiled both instruction sets, set up a virtual drivespace partition, conducted a bit-to-bit parity analysis, and then -"

"Yeah, yeah," I said, jumping in before she got her steam up, "I get it already! But back in the Royale, you said you weren't programmed for hacking into systems at all. We were all damn near killed because you couldn't." I felt like I should have said that in an angry tone, but the red monster I used to call on so frequently just wasn't in his cave today. Huh.

She slowly looked away, forcing a guilty little laugh. "A-heh... riiiIIIIiight... that was just a little bit of fibbery. The whole casino, almost, ran on a unique operating system! Nothing in my MoM files had anything on anything like it! Plus it was running the management AI for security, which would have triggered really really bad things if I'd tried brute-forcing it." Her expression shifted to an apologetic half-smile. "We just weren't there long enough to reverse-extrapolate what I could pick up on. I tried my best, though! That's why I was so quiet and nervous the whole time we were in there, it ate up like ninety-three percent of my processing functionality!"

I waited. She waited right back at me, once again bobbing and smiling now that the cat was out of the proverbial stewpot. Sighing, I went ahead and asked: "Right. So what else did you get from Horse -"

"Here ya go!" My PipBuck cut loose with a brief squeal of protest-y beeps, earning me a few curious glances while I tried to stifle it against my chest. Almost gingerly, I popped open the "Data" menu and took a look, only to find its "Misc" sub-header was now completely flooded with copied holotape records. From the tiny size of the scroll bar, it had to be several pages long.

I peered up at Pink-E dubiously. "What, did you get his entire library?"

A dismissive shrug. "Nah, didn't have time for that. I just skimmed through the good stuff!"

"Okay, one more thing then... who fixed you up, and what do I owe them?"

Her face lit up with a huge toothy grin. "Everypony and nothing!"

I covered my face with a hoof, groaning. "Imagine, please, that my brain isn't in the mood?"

The grin barely let up. "What I mean is, everypony's been feeding me snacks and scraps, and that's what I use to repair myself! You've seen me eat before, back in Big Rock City? Well, my reactor breaks food down and repurposes it for oils, lipids, chemicals and replacement mass! Bubble gum's my favorite, 'cause the chicle in it works great for facial skin and muscle structure, but Fancy Buck Cakes have so many preservatives it's like a smorgasbord! I think. That's what Vikeans call a buffet, right?"

Sure. My Great-Aunt-Robot-Head-Helper runs on two-hundred-year-old junk food. Because why not. Tomorrow I'd find out that she'd been Mr. Horse's personal brain-bot from the beginning, just because the old bastard wanted to tag along for a little voyeuristic entertainment.

While my own brain processed that tidbit of unlikely engineering, the Vikeans had grown quiet and, I noticed, were looking my way again.

Well, not exactly my way. A pair of identical dark-blue unicorns had taken up positions to either side of the fireplace, tuning up the lutes they held floating in glowing telekinetic fields. The one on the left had a dulcimer for his cutie mark, while his brother's butt sported a pair of drums, those being the only way to tell them apart. Pink-E and I were framed in between and against the fire, which had dulled to a more moderate roar. The duo pushed back their feathered caps and addressed the crowd in perfect chorus.

"Fillies and gentlecolts --- and others..." The old saw drew some quiet chuckling. "Today, Way House's own Sjönhäst earned its name, stealing back a life taken below the waves. Fished from the deeps on Kapten Hard Way's own salvage line, Dead-Shot the Bounty Hunter has become the first pony ever to survive that doom. We would be pleased if you could join us, in telling him a little..."

Both paused to strum a chord, in stereo, for dramatic effect, "...about who we are." The crowd gave a lusty cheer, joining in as the bards launched into their song:

A long time ago, in the Land of Häsverige
Papa Vikea was sending the word
To expand our Equestrian holdings
To a new desert land!

We're not just another Sofas-and-Quills
We're selling things that anypony can build
In good time; not just Unicorns, Earth pony hooves will do fine!

Vikea!
Just some oak and some pine, and a whole lot of bronies
Vikea!
We're providing the goods needed by every pony

Everyone needs a friend
And if you don't have a friend
You can find one here!

Our sails will show on your horizon today
With furniture to help you work, rest or play,
It's a new way of living that's more than barely getting by!

Sleep off hangovers in our Berry Punch Bed
Get snacks from the Donut Joe Cupboard instead,
Or relax on our Lyra Bench
In the sunshine all day!

Vikea!
Just some oak and some pine, and a whole lot of bronies
Vikea!
Our furnishing standards are high, never phony

Everyone needs a friend
And if you don't have a friend
You can find one here!

Vi-ke-a... long-ships, sailing
Vi-ke-a... easy, flat-packed
Vi-ke-a... built by, bronies

All together, we
Are one big family!

The whole hall thundered with to clapping talons and stomping hooves as the unicorns gamboled and danced about, their lutes intertwining over my head in matching magical fields until I wasn't sure which belonged to whom. I couldn't help wondering: just how far would this act get on the Pegas Strip before somepony started throwing grenades?

Just because Mister Horse isn't a fan
Doesn't mean that we will not take a stand
For quality furniture, delivered right to your door!

Our Sales Associates are on the move
Built for endurance, with nothing to prove!
For-ever we shall live, happy here on our shore!

Vikea!
Just some oak and some pine, and a whole lot of bronies
Vikea!
We're honest and fair, 'cause we don't sell baloney

Everyone needs a friend
And if you don't have a friend
You can find one here!

At Vikea!
At Vike-eee-eee-aaaaa...

The song ended with a lot of cheering, yelling, and (predictably enough) a couple of good-natured buckfights. Nopony, to my knowledge, had ever accused the Vikeans of being shamelessly self-promotional --- at least, none with concern for belaboring the obvious. And though I knew I'd regret the answer, I had to ask the question:

"What in Tartarus is a 'brony'?"

Hard Way laughed, leaned waaaaaay over, and managed to companionably smack my shoulder without leaving his seat. The impact might've knocked me into the fire, had I been standing up. "Our brethren from other species. A brother-pony, like Gore-Nest over there." He took a moment to point out the griffin just four seats down. "They are all our bronies!" Several ponies seated nearby nodded, grinned at one another, and traded a few shoulder punches.

The aforementioned griffin scowled, folded his forelegs, and pointedly looked away. "I wish you'd stop calling me that." His immediate neighbor, a portly scarlet unicorn, took the opportunity to swipe one of his unguarded potato wedges, setting off a brief scuffle between the two.

Were everyone in this House borderline brawlers by nature, or was it something in the water? I peered dubiously into the dregs of my mug. Maybe I'll just stick to swilling this slop... At least it did what was advertised; I felt thoroughly warm and dry for the first time in --- hell, was it when I left the Celestial Suite? Since then, I'd been through thunderstorms, a stasis pod, the rotting streets and nano-sprite-infested grandeur of the Royale, the sky, and a lake.

My body shuddered, remembering the cold depths all too readily despite the blazing hearth behind me.

"A story!" shouted a yellow-maned filly from the short table. "I wanna hear a story!" The call was taken up with a shout of "Story! Story! STORY!", until Hard Way finally put up his hooves to wave for silence. A respectful quiet descended, broken only by a few indistinct murmurs. The gargantuan stallion rose, him and his braided mane effectively blocking my view of nearly half the room. Between him and God, I'd still put caps on the alicorn... but I wouldn't take long odds.

"Let's hear," he boomed... and then paused, for just a moment, before sitting back down again, "...a SAGA."

If I'd thought they were cheering loudly before, I was wrong. Did the roof just pop off its rafters for a moment, there? The bards, retiring with their instruments to opposite corners of the room, made way for a sharp-eyed elder unicorn. Gray of mane and hide alike, clad in woolen robes and levitating a short wooden stool before her, she perched herself near the fire on my left and proceeded to completely ignore me. This time, the silence that descended was absolute. Her eyes roved across the gathered, quiescent masses, her nostrils snorting with indifference.

Her eyes? I blinked and did a double-take. They weren't just colorless, or white with cataracts... they were crystal, glinting against the firelight like diamonds. As she settled herself, the robes slid to one side, exposing her flank, where rode the bone-white image of an eyeless pony's skull.

Regardless of the blaze behind me and lanterns above, a darkness began to settle across the room. Her horn, flaring with ethereal fire, cast a swirl of stars across the ceiling's new firmament like paint from a magical brush. Her lips barely needed to move to send a strong contralto voice resounding from the walls. Meanwhile, in their corners, the bards strummed soft accompanying melodies with horns glowing mutedly against the backdrop of a faux-evening.

"In ancient days, long before the tribes of Earth, Pegasus and Unicorn joined beneath the Equestrian Banner, there strode Giants across the fields and glaciers of Häsverige. Of these, the greater was Grani, who rose from the depths carrying Sleipnir's ancestry to us all. Weighted with gold and glory, Grani stood taller than any pony ever has, as tall at the shoulder as a minotaur's horn-tips. Before his stride, the snow and ice would crack and part, fearful of his hooves."

From her horn swirled a gem-like, glittering cloud, spreading through the room to paint a towering image.

He --- and I could only tell the gender from our tale-spinner's use of the pronoun --- was barely even recognizable as an equine. His legs were thin and unnaturally long, attached by knobby ankles to the thickest, roughest clod-hoppers I'd ever seen. The face was almost entirely made of nose, a freakish honker ending in huge circular nostrils and bared teeth, far behind which sat bright blue eyes so small you almost couldn't see any whites. His chest and barrel were long, deep, and easily twice the conformation of any normal pony, making the spindly build of the legs seem even more ridiculous. Mane and tail, both unkempt and stringy, straggled against an imaginary wind like tattered flags. On top of which, his unimaginatively gray and shaggy coat bore no sign of a rump-rash.

"Grani" looked like some kind of mutant moron who'd never so much as earned a cutie mark, let alone glory. But his inherent silliness didn't provoke a bit of laughter... instead, the room remained hushed, even awestruck. What the hell did they see in this thing?

If my expression betrayed my thoughts, the vision-addled nag ignored it and kept on with her tale. "In those days, Giants battled one another for the love of their mares, for the ground to graze upon, for shelter against the cold winds of Häsverige. Here then did Grani meet his true love, whose name means Beauteous Burden, whose value to him above all the world's gold led him to carry her from place to place upon his own back, so that she should never be soiled by contact with mundane earth."

The monstrous horse-thing began to trot in place, a complicated movement that must have taken a lot of trial and error to make natural-looking for this little lightshow. That was a lot of craft for such a goofy result, but I managed to keep nibbling at the remnants of my dinner with a look of what I hoped was detached interest. Somewhat more difficult was the effort of keeping my eyes open; hot food, a warm hearth, and medicated drink were already taking a toll.

Another form, less distinct but more pony-like, swirled into shimmering existence to nestle comfortably upon that over-broad back. "Yet his Beauteous Burden, best filly forever, had drawn the jealous eyes of many stallions. They, with no loves of their own and hardness in their hearts, charged one night upon Grani's encampment, seeking to steal his love away for themselves..."

It figured. Right when it was getting good, I nodded off. At least for once, no dreams came to mess with me.

* * * * *

Next morning the sun rose hotter than usual, quickly burning moisture off the lake into a thin, clingy haze of humidity.

I hated it. Instead of evaporating, sweat pooled up under my hair and dripped wherever it happened to feel like it. Rubbing at my mane and face only matted the hair down against the skin, making it worse. I couldn't wait to get on my hooves and head out, even if it meant speeding my way back to poverty again.

Vasstunga, the big dun earth mare from last night, had other ideas.

"Barely up and walking for an hour, and the foal wants to run off into the wastes? Hah! Sit, colt, watch the ships. You can drag my husband to your filthy city tomorrow." She flicked her big black tail in my direction, hefted up a barrel nearly as big as she was and hauled it off to one of the six longships that had been pulled up into dry-dock. Other Vikeans were working jacks, greasing axles, and rolling out the oversized wagon wheels that would let the ships roam the desert sands.

From the buzz among their crews, three clans were collaborating for a lumber raid on Mount Morgan. Pine was easy enough to get, just a jaunt across the lake to the uninhabited forests around the Casino Royale, but the live oak needed for sturdy furniture and even sturdier ships? Morgan was the only place in the entire region high enough off the desert floor to provide a home for the breed. It was also solidly NCR territory, well outside New Pegas proper.

Not that the NCR as a whole really needed Mount Morgan's resources, being that live oaks were fairly common along the interior of the Coltifornia coast, but local military forces preferred the hardwood's solidity anyplace they dug a bunker and shipping it in from over the border took up logistical resources. If that same military hadn't already been spread so thin across the region, they'd have put a serious force on that mountain to secure it. Since they couldn't, the Vikean strategy was simple: assemble every clan in need of timber, sail down the flatlands to Mount Morgan at speed, harry the few NCR Rangers there away from the available deadwood, and get chopping.

This time out, one of the three ships House Way was committing would divert from the usual route to drop me, Pink-E and Hard Way off just outside Nellie Air Force Base. The big Vikean wanted to go directly to New Pegas for his money, but I told him Horse wouldn't let me back into the Lucky Chance to get it --- at least not until I'd finished securing his treaty with the Zoomers, using the Autodoc module that now sat safely in my saddlebags. Sure, it was (probably) a lie, but why show up on Horse's doorstep with the job unfinished? Hard Way would rendezvous with the fleet on its return leg north of Pegas, and everything would finally be "mission accomplished".

But that wouldn't be until tomorrow, and watching Vikeans prep their longships for land use is as boring as it sounds. I'd've taken off anyways, except for two reasons: getting back to Pegas on the hoof would've taken as long as waiting for the boat, and Hard Way's people had my bags locked up as "collateral" in any event. I'd only get them back when we weighed anchor tomorrow.

At least Pink-E seemed to be having fun with House Way's "littles". She was an indefatigable playmate for anything from tag-you're-it to hide-and-seek, which also made her popular with the adults since it kept their spawn out from underhoof while they worked. Not wanting to upset that delicate social balance, I decided to leave her to it and wandered up the shore towards the Showroom.

Yep. Juuust wandering up the shore.

Wandering. Up the shore. About twenty lengths from it, hugging the dotted-line of horseshoe palisades the Vikeans had erected facing the lake. Darting across the gaps between, constantly watching for movement in the waves. Flinching skittishly every time the periphery of my vision caught something... which since it was a shore with tiny but constant little waves lapping at its edge, was nearly every other step.

Every hundred lengths or so I passed an observation tower, made of old telephone poles with platforms braced atop and crewed by pairs of binocular-wielding ponies. One would scan the water, the other the wastes. Surely if they saw a horde of Lakepony mutants, surging in towards the shore, they'd send up the alarm... right? Of course they would. And my guns were in my saddlebags.

They're not out there. Don't look. Keep moving. Don't look. They're not coming for you. Don't look. You're safe now. Don't look...

I was sorely tempted to move a bit further inland, into the bustling little town the Vikeans had built for themselves along the road leading from the docks to the Showroom. Each clan's House, with its surrounding cluster of workshops and pre-fab shacks, was lined up with the set of palisades and lookout stations they were responsible for. I could hide from the Lakeponies that I knew had to be watching...

...but then, I wouldn't be able to see them com- that is, trying to get me...

By the time my hooves touched broken asphalt, I was shaking uncontrollably. My vision was blurring with hot, burning tears. Breathing came in rapid-fire bursts. I put one more hoof forward, another... another? No. My nerves were shot. It was all I could do to remain upright. I was all alone out here, caught without cover between the shore and the huge, blue-speckled box of corrugated metal beyond the parking lot. The old marina, too shallow for modern longships and thus left to rot, could be hiding dozens of greedy, needly grins amid the broken pilings. The lookouts at this end of the road would probably never seem them - approaching...

If they came to drag me back, I'd - DON'T THINK ABOUT IT!

The word clawed its way up my trachea. "Don't - !" My lungs were in overdrive, but I couldn't get enough air.

Don't think about it, don't look at me, don't touch me, leave me alone!

Something inside pulled my resolve apart, like so much wet newspaper pressed against an already-broken dike. I collapsed in a shameful, spineless pile, bawling like a colt. My hooves pawed at the ruined pavement. I wanted to dig myself a hole to hide from the world, ashamed at the torrents of blinding wet heat bursting from behind my eyes.

Why did they do that to me? Why am I thinking about it?! Stop it! STOP! Demanding, begging, pleading with myself to stop crying. Just stop! You can't see them if you can't clear your eyes! You can't run if you can't stand up!

My heart and soul told my brain to go fuck off and die already, then went back to their ongoing project of trying to resolve my flesh into a dew of salty tears.

I'd had three days to endure, but only one so far to recover. From exhaustion, to unwelcome distractions, to sleep visions, to welcome distractions, to sleep without visions... no, no wait. Now I remembered: my dreams had been full of wakeless horrors. Maybe I'd been too drugged to hurt myself thrashing around, but I'd dreamed plenty, all right, only to immediately block it out on waking. Afterward, I'd been blocking all day without even thinking about it.

Seeing the water reminded me. So now that I was thinking about it, I couldn't stop... not the gnawing fear, not the futile anger, not the burning shame of... of being reduced to a breeding tool for a fucking fish...

Oh yeah. "Fucking fish". From hysterical weeping, to hysterical laughing, in twelve seconds flat.

That was the capstone joke to my life, wasn't it? I hadn't really had any control over what I did, or where I was going since meeting Pink-E, or maybe the day I took the contract to chase after Benny. I was Horse's tool, No-Pony's psychic sounding board, the Zoomers' errand-colt, the Lakeponies' sperm donor, and now a Vikean's bank account! Tomorrow I might be abducted and probed by space monkeys!

I clutched my belly, sore from sobbing and laughing, rolled onto my barrel, attempted to get up. Failed. Ended up back on the ground, rubbing a hoof across my snot-choked nose. Plugged one nostril, blew out hard, sent a golf-ball-sized hunk of goo sailing. It landed, with a disgusting spat, half a length away.

At least now I felt a little better, the worst of the fit having passed. I hurked and snorted 'til my nose was finally clear, took a few deep breaths, and finally got myself under control --- just in time to get a hoof in the flank.

"Get up, boy. You're making a spectacle of yourself."

Turning my head revealed a stolid, humorless, middle-aged sonovabitch of a unicorn, with a blue-grey coat and white mane that could've taken their cues for hues from the lake's waters, and whose flank-flash consisted of crossed anchors bound with lock and chain. He wore a bright blue blazer with white trim and a black flat-topped cap, the brim of which was pierced by the tip of his horn. The cap's permanent downward angle mostly obscured a pair of brown eyes deep-set into a weathered face.

Eyes that, thankfully, didn't deign to dwell on my embarrassment. Instead, he yanked me up by the mane and pushed me towards the Showroom, ignoring my squawks and protests the whole way. It seemed I was going to get the Grand Tour, whether I wanted it or not. Well, that or turn around and hoof it back to the docks by myself... and anyways, I'd been curious about the place to begin with.

"Heard what happened. Nice to see a buck survive the sea-cunts, even if it's going to make Kapten Way and his bunch more insufferable than ever. Which reminds me: you can do me the favor of telling the fat bastard that if he doesn't like my Edda's Falukorv, he doesn't have to eat it."

So this would be Port Master Woebegone, then. I do pay attention, from time to time.

I tried not to look up as we passed under the daunting steel framework of the Showroom's awning. It was covered with patches of old yellow paint, one of which a tired-looking pony was dangling from a line to scrub at, wire brushes strapped to his forehooves and a bucket of turpentine hanging nearby. Further down, another pony applied swaths of fresh yellow paint with an old broom. The scene repeated at various places around the Showroom, only with bright blue being applied to the formerly-rusty exterior instead.

You saw a lot of things, roaming around the Moohave Wasteland, but raiders performing building maintenance was not usually one of them. Maybe eventually they'd get past the "giant speckled monster-egg" look.

What had once been sliding-glass doors were now huge iron-banded slabs of oak, guarded by a pair of adolescent green dragons in grey armor that gave Woebegone a run for his money in the humorless department. They pulled the doors apart with a greeting so formal, it bordered on monastic chanting.

"Welcome to Vikea Home Supplies and Furnishings. We hope that you find all that you seek. Enjoy your stay."

Woebegone stepped past. When I didn't immediately follow, he stopped and turned to look at me. "Come on, boy. Might's well show you around the place since you're here. I need to check up on these layabout louts in any case."

I stood outside, fixing him with a scowl. "The name's Dead-Shot. I'm not one of your 'boys'."

He turned, spat on the floor, and returned my scowl twice over. "Well ya look like a damn cherry pie, to me. Stay out or get a hoof on, I've got work to do either way." That seemed as good a cue as any to the dragons, who let go the doors. Stung by the comment from left field, I snorted with irritation and trotted quickly through, before they could shut with a solid THUNK.

* * * * *

An hour later we were still --- slowly --- navigating the yawning labyrinth of the main floor. In fact, just about the entire Showroom was main floor, with a few offices and storage areas snugged up against the walls. There was only a small strip, right up front, actually serving as show-room for the best examples of Vikean hoofiwork.

The rest was sectioned into a complex assembly-line system, starting with a small log mill out behind the old wagon-loading docks. Processed lumber and scavenged goods were hauled into the bay, sorted, stacked, and retrieved as needed. Each line served one type of furnishing or job, of which there were dozens, all having their own peculiar space requirements. Mostly, the Showroom was just a giant jigsaw of plywood partitions and laboring slaves.

Funny thing was, there weren't any other guards, and only a few overseers with nothing heavier than a cudgel strapped on. The slaves had all manner of tools, from hoof-held drills to sledgehammers. What was keeping them from just killing everyone and high-tailing it out of here?

Woebegone knew exactly where he was going, threading through one area after another to find whomever was in charge of a given product or project. They'd politely trade info on events, problems and figures, then go their separate ways.

"My job in all this," he said, after receiving a particularly rousing dissertation on the progress of sawdust packing, "isn't to take charge of anyone or direct anything. I'm just the All-Seeing Eye no one wants to draw the attention of."

I arched one brow in his direction as we continued on. "And why's that?"

He grinned maliciously. "Because their House's ships might find the harbor closed, next time they put in for trade or repairs." I followed him into the next section, where teams of slaves worked with planing tools to smooth down planks and beams of raw pine. The air reeked of shavings. "I was born, raised and trained to levitate that old anchor-chain up and lock it down on every mooring, south-to-north, across our little cove. It's the only magic I do, but when I do, no vessel lands at or leaves Häsverige."

Something about that didn't seem right. "Why can't they just go overland? Vikean walls don't have gates?"

"Oh, we've got one gate through the landside defenses," he said with a smirk. "The Woebegone family's also known as the Gate-House." His gait picked up a noticeable boost of pride. "We were the first Vikeans who gave a thought for defending our holdings. Set up a keep, so we could pick off anyone from a mile or more away. Solid rock-block construction using basalt from Big Rock City's quarries. When the walls started going up, we built a second tower and put a portcullis between 'em. They're also our home, so we're always ready and willing to defend it on short notice."

The old unicorn chuckled. "Short of old-world field artillery or a tank, that gate's going to stand."

We turned a corner down a long corridor of open arches, Woebegone glancing through each as we passed. So did I; these seemed to be workrooms for generic tasks like making dowel rods, nails, screws or glue. Each was stacked with scavenged junk, filled with workbenches, and packed with curiously-industrious slave ponies.

"So... any time there's a minor infraction or quota missed, a whole crew gets kicked to the wilds?" That seemed like major overkill, and it didn't take a moment for the port-master to correct me.

"Of course not," he snorted. "Don't be a foal. It only sticks until the House at fault makes things right. Most times, I just have to remind them I will do it. Permanent exile's only for when nothing can make it right. Over the last two centuries that's only happened twice, both times for poor customer service."

I blinked. "That... seems like something really easy to fix." Somewhere far back in his throat, Woebegone chuckled again, this time rather more darkly.

"That's our euphemism for out-and-out raiding, youngling. Murder, pillage, failing to pitch the Woona Daybed while doing it. Still a popular seller, that one." He turned his head with a wink. "That second-to-last part was a joke."

My return gaze was flat. "No offense meant, but I don't think many of the folks working this floor would call slavery funny."

He shrugged, shaking out his mane as though shooing a fly. "Not going to call a spade a flower, boy. We don't take anypony that isn't delinquent on payment for goods delivered. If you know anything about us, you know that already."

"Everypony who knows anything about Vikeans worries that you'll burn their damn huts down, usually in the middle of trying to win their hearts and minds." I felt a familiar heat start building behind my eyes. "Mind you, I've tolerated working with slavers before. But my dad would've just as soon shot a Vikean on general principles, as buy a desk from one."

He stopped and, surprisingly, turned a warm smile on me. "Can't say as I would have blamed him. Principles are a necessity, for a lot of folks." An earflick, and he was walking again. "But most find that principles aren't quite as necessary as food, medicine... anything else they need to survive."

I followed him through another, wider arch, into a long room packed with row on row of free-standing shelves. Each held a meager assortment of boxed, canned or jarred food, which he carefully examined and tallied with critical eyes. "Nothing much grows around here. So when fish are in short supply --- and that's more often than not, what with competition from the Lake Ponies --- you have a lot of big, burly ponies, griffons, mules and dragons who want to go get food from someone else."

His horn glowed, wrapping a box of Fancy Buck Cakes and lifting it for closer examination. "Most Moohave farmers are little better off than subsistence level to begin with, and Horse's city folk hoard everything for themselves, so by the time New Coltifornia put in their appearance, we were already known for --- well, let's look at that spade now: extortionists." With a grunt of disgust, he tossed the box to the floor and moved along; a slave quickly scooped it up and tossed it into a wheeled garbage bin.

Our hoofsteps clopped side-by-side down the aisle. "We'd rather sell legitimately. Trading furniture at the NCR's Hub would bring in enough business to make the hard-sell unnecessary, but there's no way to approach any of the big merchant groups without getting shot at."

My PipBuck suddenly pinged. It'd done that a few times before, but I'd ignored it. This time, I had nothing better to do --- unless I wanted to keep listening to a doddering old coot rattle off the story of his people.

NEW QUEST: RAGIN' TRADIN' - Find an economic partner for the Vikeans.

Really? Like I don't have a checklist of crap to do already staring me in the face? And what would I get out of it anyway?

The PipBuck's "Quest" section had actually piled up a lot of junk, most of which was blacked out, but all I really cared about was finding a setting to turn that stupid pinging off. Naturally, it didn't have one. Huffing at the brim of my hat with annoyance, I trotted to catch up with the aforementioned coot.

"The only thing keeping us from burning half the Moohave," he was saying, "is our work ethic."

"Which is why you need slaves."

A flick of the tail was the only cue that I was getting under his skin. "Labor Associates. They work off their debt, they're free to go. We even give them a free ride anywhere one of our longships is going, when they're paid up, so they don't get killed or murdered trying to get home."

He nodded towards a passing earth pony mare, lankier than most I'd seen, with a blue coat under work clothes matted with sweat. She stopped obediently, turning to face us and taking a moment to shift her oversized packs, her straw-colored mane dripping moisture on the floor. "Hilly, you've been here five years now. You've been paid up for four. Why're you still here?"

She grinned. "Toldja before, Portmaster: it beats hell outta goin' back t'what's left o' Mustangia! Only so many balefire tornadies a gal c'n take, b'fore humpin' junk food all day starts soundin' like a pretty sweet deal. Besides," she continued with a wink and hoof-scuff, "once I figger out how t'swim, I've got three Houses that wanna sign me onta one o' their ships!"

I gave Woebegone the squinteye and a snort of derision. "Oh come on, I can tell a ringer when - "

Suddenly Hilly had her teeth bared and up in my face. Backpedaling worked, for all of two seconds, before a plywood partition stopped my retreat cold. She shouldered right up to me with a hard glare. "RINGER?! I'mma free mare, ya little so-an'-so! Y'wanna call me a liar, you jus' say th' word anytime an' we'll settle this mustang-style!" I couldn't help but notice that she had fiery azure eyes, they were very angry, and they were also uncomfortably close to mine. So were those teeth I mentioned.

Personal space! Personal space!

Woebegone put a hoof in between us. "He was calling me a liar, Hilly Half-Acre. And I don't blame him for being skeptical. Please don't be rude about it on my behalf."

She snorted, tossed her head, and backed up a few paces. "Well... if'n ya say so, Portmaster. Your pride, your hide, an' all that." The mustang mare looked over her shoulder. "I've still got t'day's quota t'hit. C'n I go now?" At his nod, she trotted away to an empty shelf and began stocking it from her bags.

Woebegone watched her work for a moment. "You're half-right about her," he murmured. "She is an unusual case. Most leave as soon as they're paid up, and some figure we have a better life here than they had back home. Most Labor Associates, if they stay, are hoping to be picked as a Sailor for one longship or another. If they make it, they're adopted into that ship's House. Once they've proven themselves as Sailors, they can apply to become a full-fledged Vikean Sales Associate. Whoever gets thrown off the ship last, gets the nod."

Well, I had to admit I'd rarely seen a more effective threat display. Then again, I'd rarely seen anypony who'd survived Mustangia's irradiated windblown steppes, much less claimed to hail from there. If she could learn to swim, she might be dangerous after all.

"Of course," he added idly, "there's always the Honey Raid. Nopony takes anypony very seriously around here until they've stolen a bagful from the hives infesting the northern shore. Sort of our unofficial rite of adulthood. Helps keep their numbers down, too."

I stopped in my tracks, staring at him. "Stealing? From paradore hives? As opposed to, say, 'wiping out and taking after they're all safely dead'?"

When he turned, his face carried a chain-yanking smile with it. "But then, who would make honey for our mead?"

Initial Impression Confirmed: everypony in this town is CRAZY.



Footnote: Level Up.

BONUS PERK: Mental Block - three days in a Lake Pony's garden made learning this a necessity of life. When still and silent, you gain +2 PER and +1 INT, as well as +5% to all checks.

Chapter 17: Surfin' Turf

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Chapter 17: Surfin' Turf

"No easy task to clear the ground, plant our tiny seeds..."

My eyes snapped open, but I couldn't move.

That's because I'd curled up into a shivering fetal ball so tightly, and for so long, that my legs had locked up. I waited, staring down the dimly-lit length of the great hall from my spot at its hearth, until my heart and breath slowed to a more manageable pace. The fire behind me had died down to dull embers, sending my shadow to flicker against red-lit walls amid those cast by the furnishings.

At least the shivering was only nerves. Not the bone-deep cold of Vattengrav I'd just woken from remembering. Once I'd had a chance to calm down, the hearth's warmth helped me relax enough to unwrap myself from... myself.

My body responded slowly in getting up. I was almost as fatigued as if I hadn't had any sleep at all. Still, I sent a little prayer of thanks up to Luna on discovering that the night's mental warfare hadn't resulted in any real-world bruising. After a few long-body stretches, I was as awake as I was going to be.

Way House, or at least Vasstunga, was already a step ahead of me. The big dun mare kicked open a kitchen door, releasing the sounds of clanging pots, clattering pans, huffing stoves and muttering cooks. A steaming black-iron pot hung from the rag clamped in her jaws, swaying back and forth until she dropped it on the near end of the plank table with an unceremonious thunk. A whirling whisk of tail and she was stomping back, slamming the door behind.

With a wide yawn I clopped over to the table, grabbed the nearest bowl, and stood on my hindlegs to move the pot lid. Riding the puff of steam came a familiar, fulsome scent --- genuine oatmeal! And none of that two-hundred-year-old "instant" stuff, either! I greedily dipped my bowl in, going for the biggest scooping I could manage without burning myself.

Oatmeal?! Whoever traded this for furniture was crazy!

It was a common enough grain in the valleys of central Coltifornia, but couldn't grow at all in the high deserts of Neighvada. Plus the NCR considered oats a strategic military resource, since they packed the most energy into the least space, so to anypony but soldiers out this way, this was a luxury food. Now where did the Vikeans...

I had barely taken a bite when this train of logic finally pulled into the station.

At best they might've got the oatmeal off the black market, somepony swapping their buddies' rations for a few extra sawbucks. Or it could have been taken in raids on civilian caravans. But the Vikeans had supposedly given that up to improve their image. Any other gang would have just eaten the stuff, rather than trade it around. That left military supplies... was I eating food taken from my nation's dead soldiers?

Even through the thick doors, Vasstunga's voice boomed. "Pick that up and clean it off, you vapid fool! I'll not have my bucks coming down with whatever you've been stepping in! MOVE!" Something metal clanged off someone who wasn't. At that moment the hall's front doors burst open, admitting Hard Way and several dozen of his burlier underlings.

"VASSTUNGA!" he bellowed as the horde took seats around the table. "WE'VE ONE HOUR TO PULL ANCHOR!"

She stuck her head back out and threw a ladle, nailing his noggin with perfect accuracy. Bonk! "So SIT DOWN and EAT ALREADY!" Vikeans began passing their bowls towards the pot of meal; as each arrived, Gore-Nest dipped it in and passed it on. While that was going on, serving-mules hurried out of the kitchen with trays of sausage and roast vegetables. In moments the hall was filled with the sounds of gobbling and munching, and then gulping as pitchers of cold milk arrived.

Hard Way paused in his gustatory efforts, eying my failure to empty the bowl I already had. "Problem?" he rumbled.

Being blunt here probably wouldn't have been a good idea. So I stifled the accusations hanging on the edge of my tongue, in favor of a more roundabout inquiry. "Yeah," I deadpanned, "where'd you get the oatmeal? That's pretty pricey stuff."

He bit a sausage off the chain being passed around, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, and swallowed. "Hit a Herd camp last month, other side of the lake. Warned them before not to set up on our shores. They can take their feud with the Republic somewhere else."

Well... that sounded reasonable enough. The fighting between the NCR and Herd had been going on for years, ever since a diplomatic party was ambushed and massacred while trying to treat with tribes across the Coltorado. When photos hit the Boneyard papers, showing how the entire party had been gutted and hung on crucifixes along the Imperial 15, support for pacification efforts beyond the Coltorado had skyrocketed.

If the tribes had remained disunited, it probably would have worked. But as NCR troops surged across the river, they presented a common enemy to groups which normally would have preferred to slit each others' throats. Within a year "The Herd" had brought most of a hundred disparate groups together, and began counterattacking wherever NCR forces were weakest. Soon we'd been pushed back across the Coltorado, where the line finally stabilized, both sides glaring at one another across Hoofer Dam. Since then, the NCR and Herd had been building up and trying to find ways around, or through, each others' lines. Most of the conflict was raiding, infiltration and skirmishing, at this point.

In that light it made sense that the Herd could have built up caches of oatmeal, whether taken off dead NCR soldiers or seized in raids on caravans and depots. They might even be growing it in their eastward territories, a huge swath which included parts of Marezona, Nuevo Mexicolt, Coltorado and Ewetah.

At least now I didn't have misgivings about eating it. I managed a second bowlful before the pot was emptied, plus some veggies and plenty of sausage. And I wasn't about to ask what was in the sausage.

House Way's crew-folk didn't waste time in idle chat or savoring their food, chowing down and filing out of the hall as soon as they were done. I tossed my empty bowl onto the pile that had amassed and, when Gore-Nest started moving, followed the griffon out into daylight.

* * * * *

The docks were busier than when I'd arrived. Six longships had been fitted with iron-shod wheels, two lengths high if a hoof, so that I could have walked under a ship without having to duck my head. Around and on each of them swarmed dozens of Vikean sailors and warriors, securing their travel kits and triple-checking every fitting. A strong, cold wind was blowing in off the lake, drawing a shiver from my neck.

"Hoy, lad! Take your pack and get aboard!" I turned, sighted the saddlebags flying my way, and gave a little jump to catch them on my back. As I buckled them down, Hard Way grinned and began clambering up the thick rope net slung over the Sjönhäst's side as a ladder. "How's the wind holding, Gore?"

Already aboard, the griffin looked down and nodded. "All fair, Kapten. Steady at twelve knots."

I found my own way, hoof over hoof, up the net until I stood on the deck near the bow with my mane and tail flapping in the wind. A moment later I had my PipBuck's inventory menu up, scanning for anything that might be missing. There's being trusting, and there's being a sucker...

All my weapons were there. That Gun, Mouthkicker, the ten-millimeter pistol I'd "inherited" from Horse's courier, a "steam rifle" --- oh yeah, from that one fancified Dog at Slimm Pass, I'd been telling myself I should try it out --- and of course, the good old "varmint" rifle that'd been the mainstay tool of my bounty-hunting career. For close-in work were hoof-knucks and a combat knife, though in my case the latter was better used for more utilitarian tasks.

AutoDoc VII module, check. All the food, medical supplies and whatnot I'd scrounged from the Royale, check. "Eclair's Golden Treasure" --- whatever that was; I hadn't really had a chance to look it over yet either --- check. Snowglobes, check.

Wait. When did I find another snowglobe?!

The one from Goodsprings, I knew about. Wasn't sure why I hadn't thrown it away, but I knew about it. The second... I popped it out of my bags to take a closer look. It was almost identical to the first, having a solid plastic base and thick glass dome filled with water. Raised red letters along the front of the base read "LAKE CIDER". Inside, drifting amid sparkling green glitter instead of faux-snow, was a perfect likeness of the lakepony I'd only thought of as "Red-Head". It hit me that this was the very snowglobe she'd been fawning over, just before she... I flipped it over to read the inscription.

"Call upon the Sea Ponies, if you're ever in distress!"

[BONUS PERK: Bubbleheaded - You can breathe underwater for up to ten minutes, once per day. If a Dragon, you now blow bubbles instead of balefire. Good luck with that!]

A sudden hiccup brought a bright, green-glowing bubble floating up from my muzzle. As I blinked, it burst, showering my nose with microdroplets of... whatever the hell it was made of. Its warmth contrasted with the chill air blowing against my rump.

Note to self: next time, ask what's in the sausage.

Gore-Nest pushed past me with two ponies, carrying a windsock up to the bow and breaking my concentration. He took some readings with the flapping cloth, then shouted back to where Hard Way sat in the stern. "ALL WINDS, TEN DEGREES FROM AFT!" Hard Way nodded back, then pointed one massive hoof at a baby dragon standing at the rail. The little red devil lifted a green flag, waving it towards the longship behind, whose crew then began signaling to the others. It looked like we were about to get underway.

I noticed Gore-Nest, still at the bow, looking at me from under his wind-ruffled crest while his assistants ran off to help with the sail. "What?"

He smirked across the width of his beak. "You're a lot of bother, for being such a little pony. Something about you just seems... off, to me." His face went hard, expressionless. "If Kapten Way doesn't come back from his jaunt with you, I want to remember what you look like from this slight, upward angle." With that hanging in the air he turned away, pulling out a red flag and waving it at someone further up the street.

Following his gaze, I saw the distant figure of a unicorn pony levitating a much larger green flag, slowly flapping it back and forth from the battlements atop Gate-House. From this vantage, I suddenly had new perspective. This wasn't just a wide, long street, tapering upwards with tall, flat-faced buildings packed seamlessly to either side.

It was a wind funnel.

Behind me, the Sjönhäst's sail filled out with a boom, sending a shiver through the longship's deck and up my legs. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then, with a soft creaking, we began rolling forward.

Deciding I'd rather see what was coming than not, I crammed up into the bow next to Gore-Nest, propping my hooves up on the rail and ignoring his glare. "If I'd planned on worming my way into your camp, stealing your captain away, and doing anything to him, I would've left the part about being raped by fish out of it." He rolled his eyes, returning his attention to our progress towards Gate-House.

Woebegone hadn't been kidding. Situated at the crest where lakeshore met desert flats, it was the biggest post-War building I'd ever seen. Twin towers of cleanly-fitted stonework rose into the sky, a wide arched bridge linking the two, seeming to redouble in size as we approached. Its segmented portcullis had already been rolled up to permit our passage.

Gore-Nest squinted, then lifted his right talon with one claw extended. Immediately, the Sjönhäst shifted slightly to starboard, straightening out again when the griffon closed his fist. "Right on course," he declared to no one but himself. I only heard it because I happened to be there.

The wind picked up sharply, carrying a slight scent of ozone with it. Looking aft, I saw a team of unicorns with their horns aglow, telekinetically shoving more and more air at the sails, the accelerating longship now committed to threading the Gate or smashing against it. Back at the bottom of the street, another boom sounded as the next longship in line began its run.

I found myself clutching my hat to my head with one forehoof, grasping the rail with the other, and praying with all my heart to reach the dry, open, lakeponiless desert I used to loathe so much. It didn't seem like the Gate was really wide enough to let the ship through under full sail. Though I knew they had to do this all the time, I stole a look backwards to try and gauge the canvas' expanse.

Why was I surprised to see Pink-E riding the mast-head, squealing with delight? "Wheee! Avast, ye scurvy mane-shavers! Hoist the jib and batten down the hatches!"

An earth pony working the sail glared up at her. "Quiet, you! We already battened 'em down!"

Undeterred, she just shouted back, "Well, batten them down again! We'll teach those hatches!"

Hard Way just shook his head, failing completely to hide his smile. Maybe if he grew out a mustache to go with the beard... meanwhile, we continued to pick up speed despite the slight uphill grade. How fast is a knot, anyways? Ahead of us, small crowds perched atop Gate-House to cheer and wave strips of blue and yellow cloth. We topped the crest and leveled out, my stomach giving a lurch in the process. As we barreled cleanly between the towers, our wheels clattering from pavement to baked desert clay, shouts of glee and encouragement rang from the battlements, and those colorful ribbons waved even more energetically.

Forward go the conquering knights of olde, off to slay the dreaded timber wolves! Hah. Like anypony would have ever believed in that kind of malarkey! And how many of these yokels were really just hoping to see a longship crash?

Once through, the wind cut off sharply, blocked by Häsverige's high stone walls. The crew quickly reefed the sails and, just as the Sjönhäst began to lose momentum, we reached the Long Slope. Standing in the bow I could feel the ship dip slightly and begin to slowly pick up speed.

When you're standing right on it, the Long Slope doesn't quite seem like one. It's a fifteen-mile stretch of barren silt and clay, with few boulders or brush, and an incline so gradual it almost seems flat until you look to the horizon. Just beyond its western base lay Imperial Highway 93, curling north and west through the New Pegas suburbs. Further south the old freeway crossed its sister, the Ninety-Five, forming a natural rest station for caravans. Even more so, now that the Diamond Dogs had choked off the Long Fifteen. The NCR considered the junction crucial enough to fortify it as "Firebase 188", with a platoon of seasoned troops sitting behind sandbag walls and machine-gun nests.

It was a double-win for the Vikeans: any assault up the Long Slope with its lack of cover, against wall-perched snipers, would be suicide, while their longships had free rein to hit wide stretches of a major trade route anytime they chose to coast on down. It was easy to see how they had once been considered scourges of the Moohave, and why some of them might be tempted by a return to that lifestyle.

It would be so much easier than a relatively honest living...

Before long our speed was up to the point where I was seriously worried about my hat blowing away, so I took a moment to carefully stow it in my bags. Meanwhile, the Sjönhäst began a starboard turn so gradual that I didn't notice until I looked back up again. Then it took another moment to realize Gore-Nest had disappeared, to be replaced with Pink-E, who was giving me the same look he had. A familiar pulse of irritation buzzed up the base of my neck. "Now what?"

"Oh, nothing," she said with a lilt. "I just thought it was a funny look that mean ol' griffon was giving you before, and I wanted to try it! Plus I can't stay up on the mast because he wanted my spot. Well, he can have it!" She nickered, turning to look out over the desert. "I think the view's better here anyway."

With the morning sun still on the rise, the fog-tinged desolation of New Pegas Valley spread out below, and the wind of our passage blowing back my mane, it was hard to disagree. "Me too, Pink-E."

Our wheels kicked up a sizeable plume of dust in our wake, leaving a curving trail as we turned north. Its progress was obviously tracked with interest by every caravaneer on the road below, given the number of them which scattered south and west. The Vikeans might not be the terrors they once were, but that didn't mean anypony wanted to swap their current inventory for a wagonload of furniture!

After about fifteen minutes of free coasting we leveled out parallel to the Ninety-Three, a few miles north of Firebase 188. Gore-Nest, clamped to the masthead by his talons, gestured with his wings to guide Hard Way's steering. "Little bit to port... little more... back starboard... steady on, Kapten! We've got the on-ramp!"

And so we did, rumbling onto the cracked asphalt with a tumultuous clatter before rolling down to the freeway proper --- where a broken overpass waited to clip the mast in twain. Not to worry: the crew popped several bolts, then tilted it backwards until the mast's cross-beam bobbed just above Hard Way's fluttering brown mane. The moment we zipped beneath the concrete hazard, it was propped back up, locked in place, and unfurled.

Once more the Sjönhäst was moving under full sail, each of her five sister vessels repeating the same manuevers in our wake. Judging by eyeball I figured about an eighth of a mile clearance between us and the following Wayheim, with likely similar separation for the rest. Assuming we were doing about thirty miles per hour --- I'd never gone so fast, aside from falling into a lake! --- that would give about thirty seconds for the next ship in line to react if something bad happened.

Something, perhaps, like the Zoomers, reacting badly to a longship roaring towards their fence-line.

I shot Pink-E a worried look. "Run an analysis for me... how likely is this thing to survive a point-blank rainboom...?"

"Oh, that's easy! It can't!" Her smile was as bright and wide as a balefire blast.

* * * * *

With winds from the southwest, we made steady progress up the highway, easily crushing or smashing aside whatever debris or wildlife got in the way. We rolled over or past numerous abandoned skywagons, crushed or smashed aside by decades' worth of previous outings. Every time we hit one that hadn't been entirely flattened, the ship's bow bounced sharply upward before crashing back down again.

The Vikeans seemed to think this fine sport, whooping and hollering every time it happened, sometimes even pointing to a particularly nasty wreck and begging Hard Way to steer for it. Every time, he would act like he didn't hear and navigate the cleanest course he could instead, prompting choruses of disappointment --- until the next bad pileup appeared and the scene repeated itself. Everyone but Gore-Nest, who kept his eagle-eyes forward for trouble at all times, seemed thoroughly excited to be out of Häsverige and on the move.

We were coming up on another wreck, this one surrounded by several flitting somethings, when the griffon yelled down at me, "Hey, Dead-Shot, was it?" When I looked back, he had an evil smile and one talon pointing forward. "Better watch out now!"

I turned back forward to see what he was pointing at. "What - ?"

The bloatsprite caught me full in the face.

The squishy, disgusting thing exploded on impact, spraying fleshy gobbets and ichor that stuck to my face and mane.

"GAH!"

Aaaaaand that was even worse, because now I knew what uncleaned, uncooked bloatsprite tasted like. While I spat, gagged, and shook myself, trying to fling away the foul mess, the crew roared with laughter. One of them managed to stifle herself long enough to crack a joke of her own: "That's how can you tell a happy Vikean... by the bugs in his teeth!"

Two aged stallions working the lines exchanged nonplussed expressions. "Hey, Stadtler!" one of them barked. "How can you tell if a Vikean makes for a good comedian?"

The other blinked. "I don't know, Waldorf. How?"

"If they're NOT ON THIS SHIP!" Both of them broke into derisive chortles before Gore-Nest began waving everyone back to work.

"All right, all right already, you've all had the same thing happen at one time or another. We've got Henrietta Overpass coming up in five, so keep sharp."

* * * * *

Rolling through Henrietta wasn't pretty. Why would it be? The easternmost of New Pegas' suburbs held little more than wide stretches of burnt-out tract housing, the same as it had since the post-War riots. The neatly-arranged debris formed blocks that alternated with commercial strips, themselves having been looted and burned even before the houses were. The streets between were choked with abandoned vehicles, garbage and more skeletons than anypony wanted to bother with.

Whatever balefire hadn't done to do to us, we'd had no problem doing to ourselves.

The only signs of life were the occasional prospectors' huts of reclaimed scrap, but Henrietta had been picked over so thoroughly by now even those were mostly abandoned. Only the most desperate would try to eke out a living here. My PipBuck's Eyes-Forward-Sparkle spell picked up nothing but the odd radroach scurrying here and there as we blew past in our clackity-clacking din.

Despite having already cleared the Overpass, the crew seemed to redouble its activity. One even went so far as to batten down the hatches again, prompting a squee from Pink-E. I sighed and wrote it off to serendipity.

Be random, and the world just might be random with you...

Gore-Nest came flapping back down from his perch to reclaim the bow, and this time he made no allowances. "With what's coming up, you'll want to be strapped down. I'll not have you killed trying to find your sea legs." He pulled a chain-bearing leather harness from his packs, tossed it to the deck, and gave me a commanding look. "Buckle up."

Perhaps unbeknownst to him, that was one of the best ways to get me to NOT do something. I bit back the desire to tell him what he could buckle, braced myself against the rail, and stared ahead. "Whaddya mean, 'sea legs'?" I scoffed. "What sea are you even talking about?"

Silently, he pointed a talon at a distant metal overhang, to which old-world directional signs still clung. Shielding my eyes and squinting, I could just make out the faded white-on-green lettering.

EXIT 72 - Henrietta Town Park 1/4 mi.

Past that point, the freeway curved northwest, angling through the ruins of Pegasus del Norte. Northward rose the unmistakable undulations of sand dunes, an ever-shifting demarcation between ponykind's ambition and nature's reclamation. Bobbing alongside, Pink-E gave me a worried look. "Um, Cherry, I think maybe - "

Hard Way's casual rumbling escalated to a casual thunderstorm, if that was possible. "Secure for rough-riding!"

It's just a few bumps. If it were all that bad, they'd just slow down, I assured myself.

Sometimes, I am not a very smart pony.

It seemed that everyone else, based on their species, had a place to go and job to do. Earth ponies hauled out big wooden poles, securing them to oarlocks below the rails before securing themselves with harnesses they chained to the deck. Unicorns spread evenly out along the deck, their horns flaring with magical light. The other griffons, as well as the dragons, settled atop the mast's crossbeam to grip rope-loops with claw and talon. Gore-Nest pulled a pair of short lines ending in carabiners from either bow rail, clipping them into loops of chain on his belt. "SECURE!" Identical shouts sounded from each crew member, ending with Hard Way's bellow.

It occurred to me that, while watching the longships get refitted in drydock, I hadn't seen anything that would qualify as brakes being added. I whipped back around just in time to see the first dune rushing right at me, felt my pupils contract to pinpricks.

Awwwwww, HORSEAPP -

The Sjönhäst's deck, along with the rest of it, kicked up into my hooves, its wheels carrying it right up the slope and into the air. As one voice, her crew shouted, "HEAVE!"

The unicorns' horns flared, wrapping the entire ship in a levitation field. The aviators on the mast flapped for all they were worth. The earth ponies and buffalo worked their "oars" over the side, poling against dunes and obstructions. Gore-Nest, angling his wings this way or that, provided their guidance.

And me? I was sailing along, half a length above the deck, not looking forward in the least to what was coming. After several long moments, the curve of our aft keel carved the top of another dune with a hideous scraping crunch. The rear wheels found purchase a moment after, and those forward a second after that. No wonder the Vikeans prized oak so highly; a pine hull would never survive this kind of beating -

Then the deck punched me in the face. Luna felch me, but that's a lot of stars! Also, ow!

Lesson learned, I grabbed the proffered harness and fought my way into it, the ship bucking and swaying and slamming beneath my hooves at every hurdle. Before long, I'd collected enough bruises that Hard Way could have sold me to the Silver Slippers as tenderized steak. If in fact they'd been cannibals to begin with, a little pony in my head pedantically reminded me, just before another little pony covered in bruises stomped over and started pounding him.

I finally got myself chained down, started flexing my knees with the impacts, but nothing could stop my stomach from lurching and heaving like a drunken buffalo while the Sjönhäst plowed its way over the crests and through the troughs. I choked back the acid burning the back of my throat.

Gore-Nest spared me a momentary leer. "So! Got enough of those greasy breakfast sausages churning down there?"

We hit a nasty little incline just then; when we started leveling out, my stomach went into free-fall.

* * * * *

Four miles later, we had sailed (and poled and flapped and levitated) halfway across the roughs. Draped as I was along the portside bow rail, I felt positive that I had personally projectile-painted most of it along the way. I had also developed sixteen different plans for murdering Gore-Nest, ten of which were entirely impractical (if potentially satisfying) and five of which I wouldn't long survive the implementation of.

I was deep in mid-retch, mulling the details of an avian enema performed with blowtorch and industrial solvent, when Pink-E decided to chat him up. "So," she cheerily inquired, bouncing along with the ship on her godsdamned hover-servos, "Gore-Nest, huh? That's a funny name, even for a griffin!"

Coming from anypony else that probably would have been taken as an insult, but something about how Pink-E said it --- all innocence and interest --- disarmed the first mate's chance for offense. Or maybe, despite currently being engaged in guiding the longship around boulders and the more precipitous drops, he was just a lot more bored than he seemed.

"Kapten Way found me," he replied languidly, "in what was left of my mother's nest. She'd been hunting for our supper when a bunch of raiders spotted and winged her. They followed her back, attacked while she was trying to bandage herself up." A left-stretched wing fluffed out over my head, and the Sjönhäst heeled hard to port, one wheel crunching a radscorpion bigger than I was. "She killed them... most of them, anyway. When she went down, I found my bloodlust. Killed the last two myself, tore them all to pieces. Started making them the dinner. Some idiots've told me they thought that was 'poetic justice' or some crap. Me, I was just a hungry fledgling."

I managed to get my act together long enough to try and look like I was paying attention. I had been already, but it's impolite to vomit when someone in your vicinity is admitting to cannibalism. Pink-E looked like a train had just run over her brahmin, eyes wide and jaw hanging in the breeze. Finally, she managed to splutter out, "Th-that's...that's awful!"

Gore-Nest shrugged and nudged a wingtip to the right, sending us around a wrecked skywagon. The remnants of pegasi skeletons still dangled from its harnesses, twisting in the breeze of our wake. "Could've been worse. I'd've developed a taste for horsemeat, if Hard Way hadn't grabbed me up and started force-feeding me his own trail rations. Had the blood already on my tongue, you see. Tried taking it out of him instead, but even as a young buck, he was a big one. Had the heart and soul to match, too."

He hid a pregnant pause with a few minutes of directing a swerving course down and through a dry, rock-strewn creekbed, but there was the definite twinge of a smile in the corner of his beak when he continued. "I ended up following him all the way down here from Hope Eyrie's cold, high peaks... part of what you ponies call Coltorado. When I got older, I asked him what he'd been doing that far from Lake Cider. He said he went that way because it was the hardest road he could find."

"That's stupid." My stomach troubles didn't have me in a very diplomatic mood.

The griffon, taking advantage of a long open stretch ahead of us, turned to favor me with a hard look that tightened the skin around his eyes. Exactly three feathers ruffled along one cheek, and even that was probably from the wind.

"That's why he's Hard Way. Never does anything easy, says it makes him tougher for the experience. Even bent his own screwdriver to match his helmet's hex-wrench, just so he could get used to applying more torque with his teeth. From what I've seen at his side all these years, I'd have to say the idea works --- for him, anyway."

Although we still had a ways to go down this little valley before the next set of dunes, he propped himself up in the bow to stare forward again. But it didn't seem like he was seeing the desert anymore.

"I stood his deck last year, when the Zoomers pulled that hurricane stunt of theirs. Wherever you were in the Moohave, it was worse where we were, caught out on Lake Cider. Coming back from a raid on the Herd. The sky was so full of rain, not even the dragons could get airborne. We had waves high as the mastheads threatening to smash us under. Even after dumping everything overboard, they damn near rolled us. Never seen anything as terrifying as that, not as long as I've been alive."

Another long pause. I remembered where I'd been during that storm: cowering in a cave with winds screaming past the rocky entrance, hoping that what had been a dry wash fifteen minutes before didn't overflow its banks to flood my shelter. If our current traipse across the desert had been bumpy and bouncy, I didn't want to think about replacing its good solid earth for watery deeps, especially not with the addition of that storm pounding overhead.

Sometimes, Zoomers were just plain dicks.

"Kapten Way knew we needed a more stable configuration. Retooling a longship on water is difficult in a perfect calm, but that didn't stop him from taking parts off, ponyhandling them around. The wind and waves tried --- oh how they tried --- to tear him off the deck. We helped as best we could, though it was hard enough just hanging on. In the end we managed to get a pontoon out to either side, kept us stable enough to make port. Three other longships went to Vattengrav that day."

Gore-Nest fluffed out his wings again, getting ready for the upcoming rise. My stomach and eyes both clenched shut with apprehension, pulling a harsh laugh from the kittybird. "That's why they call him Hard Way, boy. That's why I owe him. And that's why he'd better come back after this business with - "

The big, sprawling dune just ahead of us exploded.

Not that I saw it, but I sure as hell felt it; a wave of sand punched me right in the muzzle, shot up my nose, and knocked me away from the rail only to be brought up short by my harness' mooring-chains. The detonation, even muffled as it was by the mass of the dune it had just eradicated, still nearly drowned out Pink-E's surprised squeal and Gore-Nest's equally-surprised squawk.

Hard Way didn't need any signals to react to that. He hauled the Sjönhäst over so hard that the longship briefly tilted up onto its starboard wheels, which incidentally gave my chains enough slack to pop loose and sent me skidding across the sand-covered deck. I was too busy coughing and spitting up grit to complain much.

Like its first mate, the ship's crew had taken a short break from the hard work of dune-surfing, and were just getting back to it when the blast hit us. Although they recovered quickly, the ship's hard turn had cost it precious momentum. We began slowing as we righted ourselves and headed upslope, next to what was now a smoking crater.

Nopony needed to say this was an ambush. Those who weren't needed on the ship's lines joined me in huddling up against the starboard rail, where I spent precious seconds snorting sand out of my nose. Since in combat my mouth tends to be full of gun, breathing through nostrils is kind of an important thing with me.

Thinking of which, shouldn't somepony be shooting at somepony else by now? Terrible hissing and grinding noises filled the air, as did the stench of industrial lubricants, but no gunshots. The two earth ponies flanking me at the rail were motionless, their faces cast in shadow, just staring up at something with their jaws hanging open.

But we're on the eastern side of the mast. It's still morning. There shouldn't be any shade...

With a sinking feeling in my stomach --- ironically, the least-awful sensation it had had to endure over the last quarter-hour --- I peeked over the rail towards the crater. From a huge pit in its center rose something out of a nightmare.

My nightmare. I rubbed my poor abused face, hoping something was wrong with my vision. After all, I'd been hit with a bug, a deck, and a sand dune within the space of an hour. Couldn't something go wrong in my favor, for once?

Aside from fever dreams, the closest reference I had for this thing was an old copy of Equestrian Army Today I'd once found in some ruins. That month's focus had been on "tanks", heavily-armored vehicles once common in major battles back East. Mainly, they'd been for breaking through entrenched lines. But here in the underdeveloped West, strategic targets had been few and spread out. Accordingly, so were the troops protecting them. Instead of dug-in slugfests, our battles had revolved around manuever and skirmishing, with little use for slower armored units like Steel Rangers, let alone tanks.

And this thing? Well, it was like a tank... sort of... if you put two giant metal legs on it instead of tracks. Legs or tracks, it didn't matter; it was facing us, venting huge gouts of steam while it finished standing up out of its hole. A single iron cannon, poking from a wide slit across its "chest", swiveled up to center on the Sjönhäst at point-blank range.

To think that if I'd taken that job in Detrot last year, I could be hunting Deadmares right now.

A sharp whistle, like a steam engine's magnified a hundredfold, cut the air; the cannon blasted forth a white plume. I barely saw the blur of its projectile before it struck, smashing through the deck planking to explode belowdecks with a deafening CRUMP.

Pine splinters flew everywhere. Reflexively I curled up, taking the needly barrage on the riot barding I'd gotten from the Royale, but grunts and shrieks of pain sounded from all around me.

Shakily, I got to my hooves and looked around. A third of the decking had been blown out, leaving several ponies in bloody, scattered ruin across the sail and rails. The hull's oak beams and planking had held up well enough, but the forward axle had shattered, dropping the Sjönhäst's prow into the sand and miring her in place. With its first shot, the mechanical monster had eliminated any chance of our escape.

Not that Hard Way seemed interested in absconding. He was already leading the rest of the Vikeans over the side, bleeding from a dozen small wounds and screaming inarticulate rage around the handle of an oversized hammer. He and they hit the desert floor at the charge, barreling straight for the walking tank. Gore-Nest already had the griffins and dragons airborne, circling the thing in an apparent search for its weaknesses.

Twin hatches on its "shoulders" sprang open, disgorging spring-mounted machineguns. Up behind these popped dark figures, swathed in such heavy clothing that I couldn't even tell what species they were. A chill went up my spine, remembering something Pink-E had said about Terrible Creatures From the Stars!. The machine's design was at once archaic and alien, yet somehow familiar, too. And maybe when it wasn't shooting at me, I'd take the time to dwell on that!

Two dragons dove in, blasting gouts of fire at the machine-gunners, whose guns hammered them from the sky while they were still closing the range. Swinging about, the gunners sent trails of bullet-streaks chasing after the others, forcing them to dive out of the way.

I couldn't see Pink-E; had she been hit? No, there she was, scudding around behind the thing while it pivoted to aim the cannon at Hard Way's galloping berserkers. None of them seemed to be carrying anything more dangerous than mouth-held tools, such as axes and hammers.

What were they hoping to accomplish against that?!

Whatever Hard Way had in mind, he wasn't going to make it if nopony stopped that cannon from firing again. Diving into my PipBuck's inventory spell let me load up and ready my rifle in no time at all, so that when I came out of it I was all set for...

...Celestia plunge me with a rusty roto-rooter! Wrong rifle! My mouth and tongue were curled around a weirdly-made grip with a tiny trigger assembly, similar to Mouthkicker's, but the ornate steam rifle's much bulkier mass had forced the spell to cock my head sidewise to hold it up. The side of my muzzle, and the flat of my shoulder, served as wannabe bracing points. It was the most insanely difficult way I could think of to fire a weapon, short of mounting it between my legs, and it was probably going to hurt about as much when it kicked.

So be it. I slipped into S.A.T.S., cycling through the available targets --- the bucks and mares of Hard Way's suicidal schiltron, one of the lower-flying griffons, Pink-E up near the dunetops, the giant machine itself of course, and... yes! I had line of sight on one of the cannon's gunners, right through its slit.

The numbers didn't lie. Single-digit percentages are a sucker's betting odds. So I let S.A.T.S. drop and squinted to line up the sight picture manually.

Suck on this.

In my eye and mind, the universe narrowed by hundredths of a second to a single ballistic path, one moment of mathematical truth. Without conscious thought, like a runner lifting a hock, my tongue-tip tripped Thunder-Child's trigger. Within the newly-named rifle's combustion chamber, its water talisman generated a perfectly measured volume of liquid, which its fire talisman instantly flashed to steam. Compressed by the chamber's confines, the steam had nowhere to go but into and up the barrel, pushing a single .308-caliber slug down a triple-twist of precision-bored rifling.

I wasn't wrong about the kick. My head wrenched up and around, hard, the grip punching my back teeth hard enough that I tasted copper and felt something go loose. My PipBuck flashed the image of a pony's head with a crack down the middle. But my right eye, locked on that cannon-slit, was rewarded with a splash of dark red blood, mixed with grey brain matter and bits of white skull, spraying back out of it.

Now that's how we do it back on the -

With another sharp whistle, the cannon fired anyway. For a moment, the white cloud of its discharge obscured the walking tank and its victims, leaving me with a horrified hole in my stomach.

If Gore-Nest doesn't beat her to it, Vasstunga's going to kill me!

Then the wind cleared the air. Hard Way and half his crew were in close, too close for the cannon to aim down at them. The slower half were going to be hell to collect and bury. The Vikeans lunged in, bodily trying to tackle the machine by its legs, even as its pilot realized the danger. The sight of a metal monster backing away up the slope, five burly ponies clinging to its ankles, was every bit as ridiculous as it was desperate.

Even if I'd felt like laughing, I was too busy spitting out the rifle, and two molars after it. There had to be something else in my inventory, something that I could - eeerrrrgh! A sudden wave of dizzying nausea put a stop to that, destroying my concentration and popping me out of the PipBuck's spell. My brain had just realized that not only was I missing teeth, but my lower jaw had been dislocated, and by the way, OW! Every throb of my heart sent a pulse of blood up through parts of my face that really didn't need the extra pressure at the moment, to each of which the nerve endings in residence responded with a collective bark of pain.

Shit shit shit shit ow ow ow ow... I spent precious seconds digging through my packs in search of, ohyesthankyouCelestiaI'llneverprofaneyournameagain, a vial of good old pre-War Hydra! With any luck, the stuff hadn't gone bad during the centuries it had sat in a medical box at the Casino Royale. I popped the cap, spat it aside, and guzzled the sweet green serpentine. After my first experience with a crippling injury back in New Pegas, there was no way I wasn't going to have at least one dose of this stuff in my saddlebags at all times.

Instantly I could feel it coat, soothe and relieve the gaps in my jawline. Fresh new teeth began growing and stretching out from within hollowed gums, uncomfortably pushing their neighbors aside before settling in like they'd always been there. I experimentally ran my tongue across the newcomers, making sure all was well.

Frontier dentistry at its finest, I crowed to myself. Now, back to business!

For the first time in my life, I regretted not carrying heavy artillery around. Rocket launchers were heavy, bulky and most of all impractical when your main source of income relied on proof-of-kill, but faced with a giant walking armor-plated beast my poor old varmint rifle didn't have as much utility as I would have liked.

It was still plenty enough to deal with the machine-gunners poking from its shoulder-hatches. PYEWT, reload, PYEWT... the second needed an extra PYEWT, luck and the thickness of his shroudings having saved his neck from the first. Idiot. If he'd been smart he'd've ducked inside before trying to stanch the bleeding, and I couldn't have put that extra five-fifty-six in between his goggle lenses.

Gore-Nest screamed something in the language of his people which could have meant either "attack" or "dinnertime", and probably had roots in both. Whoever was left inside that tin can was smart enough to drag the bodies in and secure the hatches, but that didn't stop the airborne Vikeans from landing topside. The remaining dragon wrapped his tail around what looked like a thick radio aerial, stretched as far as he could, and tried blowing fire into the cannon-slit, but the angle was poor. The griffons worked at trying to pry the hatches open.

Now if I can only get a line on whoever else is back behind that cannon, we might just survive this...

I scanned back and forth across the slit with my scope. There were furtive movements from at least two other gunners, but they were smart enough to keep hunched down while they went about their business. My efforts at drawing a bead on one weren't made any easier by the machine's lurching movements as it tried to dislodge the Vikean warriors, who were... trying to disassemble it?

I lowered my scope to get a better look.

Hard Way clung to its shin, pounding at the side of a giant lug nut with his hammer. As I watched, the nut sheared away, leaving its stump of a bolt behind as it fell into the sand. Without pause, the big beige brute clambered towards the next, mane-braids tossing back and forth across a blood-streaked face contorted with mad glee.

That overgrown sonovabitch is enjoying this!

His crew bashed at whatever screws, bolts, or maintenance panels they could reach with whatever they had to hoof. One busily pried up loose rivets using the screwdriver from his helmet. Before long an armored plate fell away, crashing to the sand and nearly taking a Vikean with it. The maroon pony managed to jump clear, catching the outstretched hoof of a comrade; in no time at all he was back to work pestering the thing.

And boy, was it pestered. The plate's removal had exposed massive gears and cables beneath, which combined with losing the shoulder-gunners seemed to firm up its pilot's resolve. The machine stopped backing up, shook itself out, and made as if to charge... straight at the Sjönhäst.

Straight at ME. Oh fu -

One, two, three big strides, and its right hoof (paw?) sent me scrabbling for cover as it smashed into the longship's aft deck. This, the hull planks and remaining axle did not survive, but amazingly enough the oak beams of the ship's frame did. Not that destroying the Sjönhäst was the monster's immediate objective. It began scraping its other leg against the hull like a radhog trying to rid itself of paradore newts. The grinding of iron on wood almost drowned out the screams of ponies, caught between, being rendered to pulp.

A moan sounding from much closer caught my attention. Looking around, I spotted an orange unicorn with gold mane and a shell-shocked look, trying to pull herself up through the shattered forward decking. I reached out to offer a hoof up, which she took gladly. "Th-thanks..."

I didn't get a chance to reply. The tank-thing began repositioning itself to scrape the other side, which required it to pull its right leg from the longship and back up a step first. The dragon up top had given up trying to burn the cannon's gunners and joined the others in hammering at the hatches, but none of them seemed to be having any luck. Two Vikeans were left clinging to the blood-smeared appendage.

Plus Hard Way, of course. His roaring could be heard above all else, clear as a doom bell.

"By this hammer of Häsverige, creature of Hel, BE DENIED!"

Taking the bulky tool in his teeth, he reared his head back and threw it right into a nexus of several large gears. Which immediately crushed it to metal chunks and splinters.

Well, so much for that.

The machine turned, stepped forward... tried to step forward. Failed. Stutteringly, with pings and sproings and sounds like an old carousel being fed through a sausage grinder, it managed only half the manuever before sounding an horrific groan and locking up completely. Not even the most drunken of casino line-dancers would have tried to hop on one leg, especially not if they had another sticking out at that angle.

But the walker's pilot, bless his never-say-die attitude, tried.

Gore-Nest's fliers took wing. Hard Way and his remaining stalwarts leaped clear. The orange mare shrieked, clutching me about the neck so hard I couldn't breathe, which also had the effect of preventing my departure from beneath the massive war-machine's shadow.

As it toppled directly onto what was left of the Sjönhäst.

Meaning us. There was an orange flash of disorientation...

...and then we were standing atop the far slope, right next to Pink-E, who seemed not at all surprised by our sudden appearance. "Hiya, Cherry! Nice view from up here, isn't it?" I blinked several times before remembering that, yes, teleportation is a thing some unicorns can do. Convenient, that. Now if I could just get my heart to realize I hadn't died two seconds ago...?

It was indeed a nice view, for what that was worth. When the dust settled, the walker lay sprawled upon a pile of shards and flinders that had once been Hard Way's pride and joy. A tatter of red-and-white sail fluttered against the wind, until the Vikean chieftain walked over and tore it free. Around him gathered what was left of his crew, fewer than half the number that had sailed from Gate-House mere hours ago.

Dragging something --- or rather, some body --- behind them, the bloodied survivors hiked up the slope towards us, grins and grimaces alternating from face to face. Hard Way's expression was easily a match for anything Pink-E's muzzle had ever sported.

"Now that," bellowed the blood-caked, bellicose beige, "was a FIGHT!"

* * * * *

OPERATIONAL ORDERS OF CONDUCT - for 17 Jun through 19 Jun

TO: SECURITY BATTALION, Com'y B, Lt. Spot Spotsson III (Esq.)
FM: EAST-CENTRAL COMMAND, Bdg.-Gen. Butcher Dukesdotter

Proceed best speed for Tunnel Intercept
Coord. X35.10.15, Y15.25.05, Z0.0.10 (Local)

Secure Package "Muffin", tbfo Earth-type Equine "Dead Shot"
No quarter, no survivors
RTB ASAP
Good hunting

Well, wasn't this a pile of horseapples.

The "somebody" was a Diamond Dog, dressed sharply in a well-tailored uniform and carrying a small tube containing the mass-murder directive. Other papers on his body --- despite being secured in a harness, he'd broken his neck when the walker plowed in --- identified him as a "Leftenant of Mobile Armor", the very Spot Spotsson yadda yadda named in the orders. Only one of his six-dog crew had survived the battle, and that only until a very angry dragon settled the matter of his brother being shot out of the sky. No one had bothered to try pulling him off. A quick check of the pit indicated it had been dug from below at a steep angle, with the tunnel collapsed behind. Not that any of us cared to go digging around underground at the moment, anyway.

None of this made any damn sense. Diamond Dogs. Really? I mean, I'd run into a couple of Dogs with sophisticated mannerisms and technology --- Mouthkicker and Thunder Child were testaments to that. But I'd figured them to be jumped-up tribals who'd lucked into some rich pony's pre-War cache, or something like that. Your average Dog was just another kind of tribal savage, dressed in rags and emerging from their underground lairs only to steal some food or goods before disappearing again. The Dogs who'd cut off the Imperial 15 were unusual only in that they'd been aggressive enough to do even that much.

Stories from back East told of cyber-Dogs, Taint-maddened mutant Dogs, and even a breed called "hellhounds" whose claws could take a Steel Ranger's head off with one swipe. But out here, nopony'd ever seen or heard of Dogs like that. They kept to themselves, so much so that nopony even knew if they had anything like permanent settlements.

This, though... this was too much. The uniform, the walking tank, the orders, even the rank (was a Leftenant like a Lieutenant, or was there a "Rightenant"?), suggested much more than just a lucky find matched to a few ambitious tribals.

On the plus side, each Dog had carried a steam-pistol sidearm similar to Mouthkicker. It was clear that while the designs were the same, each weapon was the product of expert craftsponyship (craftsdogship?), with no indication of mass-production. Two rifles, along Thunder-Child's lines, had also been found within the wreck, but nothing else worth noting or looting.

Eight surviving Vikeans, eight steam weapons. So at least that much worked out.

* * * * *

So this is a Vikean funeral. Say what you will about 'em, at least they know how to send off their dead.

Blast-furnace heat sent up dark boils of smoke from where the Sjönhäst's remains burned, augmented by the oil and grease bound up in the dead walker's guts. It also served as funeral pyre for the fallen, who'd been meticulously collected and interred amid the broken beams. The Dogs, on the other hoof, had been dragged out and viciously impaled on metal spars along a nearby ridge. The walker's wreckage had provided for that.

At least they didn't stoop to mutilation, I reassured myself, which means they might still listen to reason. Now what exactly the hell do I tell them?

They'd seen the Leftenant's orders before I had. From their point of view, I'd been holding out on them; how could I not know that I was carrying around something worth sending that kind of firepower after? They'd sailed right into an ambush, against an enemy I'd told them nothing about --- why should they believe I was almost as much in the dark as they were?

Showing what made the steam weapons unusual, and how to use them, staved off the dirty looks for a while, but it wasn't long before Hard Way himself got back around to the subject at hoof. "So, Dead-Shot," he calmly rumbled, setting his rifle (of course he'd try one) to one side. "What's this about you, dead Dogs and Muffins?" Perfectly amiable, perfectly sociable. Meaning if I didn't put some cards on the table right now, I was a dead pony.

I sighed and pulled forth the package from Eclair's personal stable. "As far as I can tell? This." It looked the same as when I'd nabbed it: thick white paper, carefully folded around a rectangular block. It hardly weighed anything. Come to think of it, what would make Eclair's present to Ditzy Doo so important? So important that he'd rigged a fake treasure to trick somepony like Domino Mask?

He leaned in close, peering dubiously. "Doesn't look like much."

"Yeah, I know. I don't even know what's in it. Just that the guy who built the Casino Royale kept this in a little fridge for a mare who never showed up. A message on the terminal pointing her to it had the weirdest encryption: all the passwords were set to 'muffin'." I rubbed at the tension headache starting to build up under my temple. "I did meet a Diamond Dog in there, for all of about ten seconds. Got my own steam pistol off him when he was killed. He'd been trying to force an... um... well, another pony, to help him get into the Casino." I didn't exactly feel like getting into a discussion about whatever the bloody blue blazes God had been.

Hard Way snorted and stomped a hoof, sending out a tremor I could feel through all four of mine. "So you got whatever they were after. And they just killed fourteen of my best sailors, trying to take it." His tail lashed angrily; if a bloatfly had happened to zip past his rump at that moment, it would have died instantly.

I quickly laid the package on the ground and started unfolding its thick, porous wrapper. If I'm going to die today, I want to see what for, first! Like a funereal flower, Uptown Eclair's last bequest was finally laid open to the world, the rest of the Vikeans gathering in a close circle to see the "golden treasure" their shipmates had died for.

DONUT JOE'S
The Specialty Shoppe at Canterlot
ONE DOZEN "MADE-FROM-SCRATCH" GOLDBERRY MUFFINS
~~~buttery-good to melt on your tongue, made with love to melt in your heart~~~
"Sealed for Freshness!"

Wat. I rocked back onto my haunches, dumbfounded and disbelieving. A nearby whumpf told me that Hard Way had just done the same. Pink-E darted in with a squeal of sheer delight. "Whoopee! Pony Joe's baked goods are just the best!"

WAT. No one else could find it in them to move from where they stood or sat. No one but Pink-E, who had no trouble tearing the freshness-sealed box open with her animatronic teeth. The muffins inside never stood a chance. I felt my old red monster stirring in the depths of his cage.

This was it? This was the 'Derp Money' everypony had been after for centuries? THIS stupidity?! A bunch of fucking MUFFINS?!

"Oh look, Cherry! Schematics for a device sure to completely unbalance the world as we know it!"

"- what?" I blinked, the card-house of my building rage collapsing in on itself. Every Vikean joined me in bending over to stare at the thick, porous paper that was now covered in shredded box debris and muffin crumbs.

Debris, crumbs, and the blueprints for Eclair's nanosprite-driven dispenser technology.

Well, isn't that one giant bumblefuck of a MacGuffin right there... wait. What's a MacGuffin?




Footnote: Level Up.

Skill Note: Small Guns (75)

Chapter 18: Shadowbolt Showdown

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Chapter 18: Shadowbolt Showdown

"This isn't what I wanted."

Trotting through the no-mare's-land of rainboomed devastation ringing Nellie Air Force Base, our ragged band of survivors were treated to a buzzing by two pegasi. When I waved, they sheared away, one looking back with a hoof pressed to the side of her goggled headgear. By the time we reached the main gate, Doctor Fly Right was impatiently standing behind the red-and-white stripes of its completely useless traffic barrier.

Flanking him were a gaggle of Zoomer militia, none of whom were wearing the black jumpsuits or silver insignia favored by DeLoup's troopers. These seemed to prefer wannabe-style patchworks of pre-War uniforms that they'd probably scavenged from the base itself, all khakis and bomber jackets held together with campaign and unit patches. Their battle saddles carried equally-irregular weaponry, packing anything from like-new rocket launchers to plinker rifles more beat-up than my old varminter.

Fly Right was so furious his white whiskers --- didn't I mention those? No? He had these huge bushy sideburns, white as chalk, wiggling ridiculously with pent-up rage. Weirdly enough, he had not a scrap of white anywhere else on him... not in his orange hide, not in his faded brown mane, and not in the gold-winged bonesaw of his butt-tattoo. Only his lab coat matched. Maybe he dyed them.

Can't imagine why I didn't mention all of that nine chapters ago. Guess I was too busy vividly remembering how many drugs had been pumped through my system at the time.

"Mister Pie," the good doctor grated through clenched teeth, "where have you been for most of this last week?! Nevermind! I'm not even going to ask where you picked up these louse-ridden hooligans. I'm just going to hope, for your sake, that you've brought what you were sent for!"

"No thanks to Bitchy McCrackwing, Doc," I grated right back, stepping into nose-on-nose territory across the barrier. Some welcome, after everything I'd been through! "Your 'commander' claimed you were following her. Were you so far back you couldn't see all those Fun Suits detonating, about a mile up? That was her, trying to destroy this."

I nipped the AutoDoc module from my pack, then booped his nose with the squarish block of super-tech while he stood there with his jaw hanging open. The sudden contact set him to sputtering.

"Th-that's insane! You were moving out of our radio range... she took off after your collar's signal to stop it from igniting your suit!"

Pink-E bobbed up, all smiles. "Oh, that wasn't necessary! I was repeating your deadswitch signal over that frequency the whooooole time! No WAY Cherry's collar would have gone off! But thanks anyways!" Stifling a groan, I pushed her back a pace and returned the module to my pack.

Fly Right blinked at Pink-E, opened his mouth (most likely to ask a stupid question about why the robot head of a Ministry Mare was following me around), then shook his head with a woggawoggawogga sound. "What is... that doesn't make... why would she..."

He stopped himself with a whinny. "Nevermind! We'll sort all that out later. What's important right now is that module, and a mare's life!" He took off towards the hangars at a hard gallop.

We began to follow, only to be stopped by the clacking of upraised rifles. "Hold it right there!" shouted a mare, evidently the one in charge of this militia detachment. "Authorized personnel beyond this point only!"

Hard Way and I exchanged glances, then gave her matching grins.

I pointed a hoof at the big beige. "He's with me!"

He pointed a reciprocal hoof at me. "We're with him!"

And the lot of us charged after Fly Right together, leaving the surprised goons to fluster and bluster in a thundering wake of dust. What else were they going to do, take potshots at the buck with the Irreplaceable Widget? We ended up with a face-saving "escort" to Mother Matrix's hangar, a couple of the militia even relenting to give our walking wounded rides when they began flagging. Shrapnel in your flank might be manageable when you're just trotting around, but going flat-out for a quarter mile or so like that is a great way to permanently lame yourself.

The old base still had a fair number of intact buildings between the gate and our destination, many of which were homes, storage or workspace for Zoomers trotting about their business. Most just stopped and stared, or alternately bolted as though going for help. A small flock squawked with surprise as our mob careened past, flapping backwards with shouts of complaint before alighting on the cracked tarmac once more.

That nagging notion from before bubbled its way back up, finally breaching the surface this time.

Why weren't any of the pegasi around here flying?

With an emergency in the offing, you'd think Fly Right and his goon squad would want to get some more speed on, but no, they just galloped along like earth ponies. And it wasn't just them; nopony else in sight was flying around, either. As we were nearly to our destination I decided not to break the pace by bringing it up, but damned if I wasn't going to trot out a few questions when I got the chance...

There was no angry mob shouting about "dirt-pounders in the sanctuary" when we arrived at a hatch to one side of the hangar's giant double-doors. Fly Right wasn't about to wait for one to get started, either. "Tech Sergeant Chrysanthemum, secure this building. If anypony asks, and only if they ask, Mother Matrix and I are holding audience pertinent to Rule Thirty-Four." The militia mare saluted crisply, then turned and began ordering her troops around.

Fly Right unlocked the hatch, favoring me with a glare and a hoof outstretched in mimicry of a welcoming usher. "All of you, get inside and out of sight. And be quick about it! With any luck, saving the Mother won't require another riot."

* * * * *

Eight Vikeans, plus myself and Pink-E, had survived our short trip.

One dragon, Crag. The lanky green had been the one trying to flambé the Diamond Dogs in their machine. Ever since his post-battle bout of vengeance on the sole surviving Dog, he'd gone all silence-and-business, grunting when spoken to but otherwise aloof. I was keeping an eye on him.

Two unicorns. Sun Bright, an orange mare, kept fussing with her golden mane and steam pistol. Her occasional fits of shaking suggested the fidgeting was more about keeping occupied than anything else. Her polar twin, Bright Son, was everything in reverse: an orange-on-gold stallion who kept a stoic eye on his sister at all times. Only their emerald eyes truly matched.

Two earth ponies, maroon Typhoon and his silver-coated, hoof-catching compatriot Ricochet. No family names to either of them; they'd been drifting mercenaries hired into the wrong side of a scrap with the Vikeans. Both claimed to have grassroots in Standling, a village between Latigo and Hipshot in central Coltifornia, which was awfully specific for such a thin cover story. I'd been all over that region with my dad and never heard of any such places. Taken as Labor Associates, the pair had worked their way up to being respected Sailors in House Way's service over several years, sticking together like wonderglue the whole way. As far as Hard Way was concerned, they'd proven themselves, no matter where they really hailed from.

First Mate Gore-Nest kept ruffling and smoothing down his brown feathers, obviously not happy to be amongst the ponies who'd sunk three of the Sjönhäst's sister longships last year with an errant hurricane. Meanwhile Flap-Jack, the ship's kittybird cook, looked perpetually torn between wanting to soothe her ship-mate's anger and worrying that trying might provoke it to greater heights. She mostly settled for a combination of wringing her talons and frustratedly whipping her tail back and forth.

And of course there was Hard Way, who'd had to suck in his gut and squirm a bit to make it through a hatch originally built for pegasi. Despite having been through the same storm Gore-Nest held a grudge over, he seemed to be entirely calm and collected. To him, it was like traipsing through Zoomer territory was an every-other-day occurrence.

Now we all stood, loosely grouped about a triple-row array of tall, coffin-like pods, the air smelling faintly of sterility and ozone. Doctor Fly Right had snicked the AutoDoc module into place and was now hunched over fiddling with its settings, muttering and cursing to himself the entire time.

"Set for Equus Volatilis... female... yes, diagnose and correct for long-term emergency stasis already, you Mother-humping case of carbonized crystals..."

Finally he stood back up and sighed, brushing down his lab coat. "That's as good as we're going to get without breaking it altogether, I think. In a few minutes, we'll know one way or the other how much your delay has cost us."

My delay?! I rounded on him with narrowed eyes. "You wanted to 'sort this out later', huh? Fine! It's later!"

And I proceeded to tell him the story of how the Gang-Pressed Little Pony escaped the Casino Royale before the whole place blew straight to Tartarus by using a bunch of chained-together Fun Suits to float away with the Mark VII AutoDoc Module safe in his saddlebags, and he stopped me right there and said,

"Mister Pie... why not just return with Commander DeLoup at that point?"

So then I proceeded to tell him the story of the Backstabbing Pegabitch who tried to rob the Gang-Pressed Little Pony so Mother Matrix would die and the Happy Pegasus Ponies could all fly off to join the Grand Pegasus Enclave, ending with the Gang-Pressed Little Pony sending the aforementioned Backstabbing Pegabitch down in a ball of flames, and he stopped me right there and said,

"Mister Pie... assuming that's all true, what took you so long to make it back?"

Well, I was halfway through the story of how the Gang-Pressed Little Pony unwillingly fathered a whole new generation of Lake-Lurking Abominations, when he stopped me right there because he was starting to feel physically ill.

And then Pink-E proceeded to tell him the story of the eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraphs on the back of each one, explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.

After which we all just stared at the floating, smiling pony-head robot for a few moments of uncomfortable silence.

It would have been longer, but Mother Matrix's pod chose that moment to pop its seal, hissing as it vented pressurized atmosphere directly behind me. And there goes the All-Republic standing-high-jump record! As soon as my hooves found concrete again, I spun about to see what everyone else was staring at.

...hoooooly horseapples.

The literal mare of my dream, eyes closed, forelegs folded across her chest, lay wreathed in a dissipating sheen of half-frozen fog curling out and down from the steel-grey pod. Tiny droplets clung, diamond-like, to the feathery tips of wings wrapped almost protectively about her belly. Mother Matrix looked so innocent, so defenseless, so frail...

...so OLD.

My brief meeting inside the pods' virtual world had been with a young, vibrant, energetic mare of many colors. My thoughts of that being conceit were borne out by the harsher reality. Her bright cyan hide was a darker azure in the here and now, and the rainbow mane (so that wasn't a computerized dye-job?) was faded nearly gray, each band of color split by thin silvery ribbons. The black PipBuck, so slim and trim that it made mine look clunky by comparison (I want it! I need it!), hung almost loosely from the ankle it was clamped to. Her jaw was as gnarled and wrinkled as her limbs... which at this point looked hardly capable of supporting a pony's full weight. I supposed it was a good thing, then, that she'd gotten so thin you could see every contour of her ribcage.

And ye gods, could she snore!

Once the respirator mask popped free of her muzzle, the still-sleeping mare started ripping lungfuls like she was tearing air from the sky. It wasn't quite so bad as to make me pin my ears back, but I wouldn't have wanted to put her in the same hotel room as Harry Thimble. The NCR's President was pretty legendary in the snoring department himself, and the pair combined would probably qualify as an industrial-class sonic hazard.

But at least she's not dead. Yay me!

Fly Right was already by her side, comparing her condition to readings off the pod's new module. I caught snatches of his remarks in between beats of the Mother's rip-roaring rhythm:

"Much imp.............ank Celestia. Heart ra....................essure low but steady, ..................lacerations or bruising. Even the pancreas has reconstructed!" It took a moment for my ears to realize that the snoring had been replaced by a much-quieter smacking of wrinkled lips.

Mother Matrix yawned, stretching her emaciated limbs into an orchestral movement of the sounds snap, crackle and pop. Ignoring Doctor Right's vociferous warnings to stay put, she braced her forehooves on either side of the pod, bringing to mind the sudden notion that she might actually tear herself apart like ancient tissue paper. To my eternal surprise, she managed to hoist herself up onto her hindlegs.

She stood and stretched wide, shaking out faded rainbows of mane and tail. One hoof rubbed gunk from her eyes. Both wings fluffed out, exposing every bent and mangled feather that'd been cooped up for two hundred years without a single preening. In a sandpapery voice, barely recognizable as female, she managed:

"Not dead yet, huh? Awesome..." Then she fell out of the pod.

Right onto me!

I managed to grab the collapsing crone in my forelegs, cushioning her fall with my body before she could crack her skull on the hangar floor, but when the dust settled her rheumy violet eyes were twinkling with laughter. She'd meant to do that, the decrepit old whorse!

"Nice catch, Tank old boy... best... ninja turtle... ever..." And then she was snoring again, drooling and blowing snot-bubbles on my chest. Oh Luna, why!?

Pink-E bobbed over, looked down at us, and whirred, giving me an inscrutable look.

"I didn't think she was into stallions."

* * * * *

First order of post-stasis business: feed the pony.

The hangar's adjoining mess hall more normally served the Zoomers' flight cadets before entering their pods for training in Mother Matrix's virtual coliseum, but it was now well after breakfast hours and its kitchen was abandoned. Flap-Jack knew her business, though. Inside ten minutes, Fly Right had taught her the wonders of electric ovens and Mother Matrix was chowing down on a bowl of hot grits. It wasn't long before we all got settled in for a good solid meal, which the Vikeans seemed to take as a way of drowning their lost-comrade sorrows. The total lack of alcoholic beverages just meant they ate more to make up for it.

And I didn't stutter when I said "feed THE pony". Fly Right wanted Mother Matrix to get as much down her gullet as she could stand, and after so long in a pod she could stand a lot. She and Hard Way were both putting it away as fast as it came. That circumstance soon developed into a side-by-side challenge match. Before long, Flap-Jack had a second pot of grits on the stove just to keep them both going. Not long after that, they tossed aside their spoons in favor of gulping straight from the bowl.

In her case, it looks more like "inhaling". Where the hell does she put all that? A magical Stomach of Holding?! I could understand Hard Way's appetite --- he was just plain huge. But the Mother wasn't much taller than Fly Right, and yet she barely paused when somepony tossed another helping in her direction.

This, of course, absolutely delighted the Vikeans, half of whom cheered on their captain while the others seemed smitten by the feisty old feather-butt.

I took the chance to pull Fly Right aside.

"All right, Doc, we had a deal. You got your Mother alive and well, and Mister Horse gets his alliance." When he began to protest, I shoved my hoof in his mouth. "Shaddap. I know it's not your call. But you owe me and my employer on this one. Not to mention that, as I recall, you weren't exactly opposed to the idea in the first place. The least you can do is endorse the request."

He nodded, I removed my hoof, and he huffed. "Zoomers are free to have and exposit their own opinions, Mister Pie. My own has not changed."

Buh-RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAP!

We both blinked, then turned in unison.

Mother Matrix looked exceptionally pleased with herself, rubbing one hoof across her mouth while patting her overstuffed belly with the other. Pregnant with manticore twins was the phrase that leapt to mind. On the floor beside her lay a groaning Hard Way, who'd managed to down enough that his gut had pushed him right off the bench. When he let go his answer to the Mother's belch, it rattled -

[SYSTEM ERROR 947: EXCESSIVE SOURCE AUDIO - PARAMETER VIOLATION]

- finally picked myself back up, she was still grinning, her mane having been blown back like a bad bomb-disposal technician's. "Ooooh, yeah! I win again!" Hard Way shook a defiant hoof at her from the floor as ceiling dust continued to settle all around.

"Not the Belching Contest, you didn't!"

* * * * *

Second order of post-stasis business: establish authority by ordering everypony else around.

Mother Matrix pushed Fly Right's stethoscope away. "I've been stuck in bed long enough! Besides, I need to get out and have SOME exercise... you, there! Thunderlane! Tighten up that formation! I taught you better than that!" Her voice had definitely recovered well so far, despite a permanent quavering note. She might have outrun death, but not old age.

The chartreuse pegasus stopped flapping against his tether, dropping to the tarmac and puzzledly raising his eyebrows. "Ma'am? I'm Air Biscuit..." He pushed up his goggles to look down at the nametag on his black jumpsuit, like he was making sure. The rest of his little squadron continued beating the air a few lengths above him, moored by identical tethers to iron hooks in the runway. Supposedly this was how Zoomers learned to keep precise positioning in groups without zipping all over the place in the process, which for some reason seemed to be a big deal.

"You're Thunderlane for as long as I want to call you Thunderlane! Now move those wings!"

He gulped audibly, came to attention, and snapped a salute before leaping back into the air with a hasty "Yes, ma'am!".

It was just me, Fly Right and the Mother, walking around the base and making sure every pegasus saw her up and about. He worried over her like a hen with a hatchling, which was more likely about delaying any attempt I might make to bring up the alliance before she was ready to hear about it. I didn't mind; it was a nice day out, and I got to corroborate locations on the ground that I remembered from Horse's overhead map against their actual contents and functions up close. He'd probably appreciate the confirmation.

The Vikeans, we left in the kitchen so they could have a little time to rest up. Hard Way would have followed, except for two reasons: Fly Right didn't want any more earth ponies running around in public than absolutely necessary until things got settled, and he could no longer fit through the hatch despite making a good try of it anyway. The situation was resolved, without having to create a new doorway, when the Mother clapped a foreleg around his shoulder and smilingly promised to drag me back in chains herself if I tried to run.

Apparently, loyalty was a big thing with her.

After having made the one comment about the Mother's presumed sexual proclivities (the Ministry of Morale used to keep that kind of info on random Equestrian citizens?), Pink-E had quietly drifted into the background. When we went out, she remained behind with Flap-Jack, watching the cook at work and mumbling singsong snippets about cups of flour and teaspoons of this or that. Well, at least she seemed to be in good condition and spirits --- such as a robot can have any --- so I didn't feel too bad about leaving her in the Vikeans' company for now.

One thing to say about Double-M --- she had stamina on loan from the gods. She didn't move fast, but she did move. And she kept moving. Three hours after ending two centuries in a steel tube, and she wasn't any worse off than if she were walking off a hangover. Anypony who could figure out how to tap and bottle that endurance would be a rich buck overnight.

Fly Right kept griping about it, too, notating on a clipboard held in the feathers of one wing. "I wish you'd at least take some Cloudpack, Mother. It would assist in regeneration and heighten your pain threshold while you recover."

She gave a derisive snort. "Pfft! Rainbow Dash does not do chems, Doc. Never have, never will!"

Wait, the Rainbow Dash? The super-speedster they named the drug for, and she doesn't chem? Not sure if ironic, or just stupid...

Fly Right gawped at her, then stared at me. What the hell was his problem?!

"MOTHER! Seriously?!"

The ancient pegasus wrapped one bony foreleg around my shoulder, giving me a creepy chill up the spine. This was a little too forward from a mare who could have been my several-times-great-grandmother! "Don't sweat it, Doc. I made the Rules, remember? Do you remember why?"

He bobbed his head deferentially. "For our protection and yours, Mother. Which makes me wonder why you'd let a dirt-pounder know - "

"Hey!" she cut in, frowning darkly and poking his chest with a hoof. "My Rules have nothing about setting up pegasi as better than anypony else. Most of my best friends were 'dirt-pounders', and don'cha forget it!" He visibly clamped his mouth shut (so much for free opinions!), earning a curt nod as we moved past a throng of fillies and colts doing wing-ups. Most of them tried sneaking peeks of adoring fascination, which she at least had the grace not to bask in. Instead, she shot Fly Right a cunning look. "Besides, why don't you ask Tank here what he thinks about my real name?"

"It's stupid," I said, not missing a beat. "Sounds like something a hoity-toity fashion model would use."

The old azure mare cackled. "Hah! Rarity would've spit her tea! I can see the ads now: 'Rainbow Dash Always Dresses in Style'! Hee, hee, hee! Maybe we should've swapped Ministries for a day..." She stopped for a moment to rub her chin. "Mmm... nah. I'd've gone nuts trying to deal with Image's detail-freaks, and she'd've killed herself trying to work up a color scheme for stealth suits. Still pretty funny, though."

This old biddy? A former Ministry Mare?

I recalled something about "Rainbow Dash" from a war-era newspaper I'd read one day during some particularly nasty business. Business I'd finished up by wiping with it. Never trust a Freemane food-stall vendor to admit what he puts in his tacos!

Plus, Pink-E had told me a fair bit about the "Ministry Mares" during our travels, enough that I picked some of it up despite having tried to ignore what I thought was inane chatter at the time. They'd run six big government bureaus tasked with managing the war effort, and all of them were supposed to have died during (or shortly after) Balefire Day. If Rainbow Dash was the real deal, that definitely made her somepony worth protecting. According to Doc Right the Zoomers were formed to do exactly that, after finding her stuck in that stasis pod.

But the "single wounded mare" story sounded fishy to me. Even after the bombs, anypony that powerful should have had bodyguards and backup. Not to mention access to better medical care than hiding in a VR tube, out in the Moohave Desert, for a couple centuries.

Talk about getting your beauty sleep... not that it helped!

The medical pegasus blinked at her, then at me, then blew out a long-suffering sigh. "All right, all right already. I suppose the cat's out of the stewpot one way or the other. But can we at least get you out of the sun before you have a heat stroke? I can have the status summaries brought to my quarters."

She eyeballed him suspiciously. "No bedrest?" He shook his head firmly. "Weeeell... okay. I think one lap around the base is good enough, for now. Got any Gummy-Ade in your fridge?"

* * * * *

Mother Matrix --- or, I guess, Rainbow Dash --- seemed to take DeLoup's betrayal personally. Once she wrangled it out of Fly Right, that is. The doctor seemed bent on trying to give the absent Commander every consideration, but the old flapper wasn't having any of it.

"I just knew it!" she barked, pacing up and down the thread-worn carpeting (which led her to repeatedly stomp on a now-empty pre-War juicebox). The room had once (and apparently always) been assigned to Nellie AFB's chief medical officer, so there at least was decent space for the activity. Maybe one day the Zoomers would give the steel-gray metal a real paint job again; bare outlines remained of what once had been cloud-themed murals. Otherwise it was pretty utilitarian, consisting of bunk, closet, hooflocker, desk, and a small adjoining bathroom. We'd had to drop by the Zoomers' supply room for the Gummy-Ade.

She stopped and gave the hooflocker a solid punt, then winced, clutching the hoof to her chest. "Agh! Shouldn't've done that, I guess... but Sombra fuck me soaring! Thirty years of trying to buck this 'Shadowbolt' nonsense outta their heads, and I knew she wasn't letting it go! Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Despite having already hurt herself, she glowered threateningly at the hooflocker again.

Fly Right took the extremity under examination, trying to project a reasonable demeanor. "Calm yourself, Mother, she's dead now. With any luck, her lieutenants will knock each others' brains out trying to fill her horseshoes."

Apparently, there was an ongoing schism in the Zoomers between those pegasi who wanted to keep guarding Rainbow Dash, and those who wanted to head back East to join the Enclave. DeLoup had headed up the latter group, which had taken to wearing uniforms patterned after the legendary "Shadowbolt" strike wing and copping a far more militaristic attitude. Rainbow had put her hoof down, leading to incessant arguments about her Rules, her origins, and whether or not the Enclave was right to preserve the pegasus race if it meant leaving the rest of Equestria to die.

That said, it was still a shock to the two that DeLoup intended to murder Rainbow and present her head to the Enclave. Me, I just figured that was business-as-usual for the Wasteland.

"I'm not going to let it go that far, Doctor Right. I've already let it go too far as it is! I was so worried about keeping everypony together that I didn't nip this in the bud like I should have." She collected herself, standing tall as though posing for a photograph. I looked around for the nonexistent paparazzi. "They wanna be Shadowbolts? Fine! I'm the last of the real 'Bolts, and still their Captain! They'll fly on my wing, or not at all! OW!"

Her glower refocused on the doctor bandaging her hoof, which he professionally ignored. "What they'll do, at least for now, is lay low until everypony stops fan-gasming over the fact that you're alive and trotting about. Hopefully that'll give you some time to get your strength up... because you know as well as I do that they'll challenge what they see as an old grey mare for your authority, and they'll do it the second you pull rank."

She disgustedly blew a pale orange strand of mane out of her eyes. "I made up that rule so our troops were led by only the best. Now it comes back around, to bite me in the flank." A second later her swaggering attitude returned, full force, in a beaming grin. "Assuming, of course, that your friendly neighborhood Rainbow Dash isn't still the best!"

"At least the spirit is willing," Fly Right muttered as he finished wrapping.

"So," I interjected, apropos of nothing, "how about that alliance thing you and I were talking about, Doc?"

Both pegasi turned their heads to stare at me. Fly Right's expression could curdle milk; Dash just blinked those huge violet eyes like she'd been asked to solve world hunger. As one they turned back to stare at each other, swapping looks with a synchronicity almost too perfect to have really happened.

Her face scrunched up as she growled out, in low, menacing tones, "What. Alliance. THING."

"I did mention something about this, during our last briefing - " He shot me a hateful glance.

Ignoring it, she crowded in until her muzzle bumped his. "WHAT. Alliance. THING."

He backed onto his haunches, not wanting to retreat, but also unwilling to give in. "I didn't want to bring it up just - "

"WHAT. ALLIANCE. THING?"

I hopped off the bunk to push the two apart before he fell over backwards. "That was the price for getting your AutoDoc part, Dashie." Before either could say anything more, I replayed the audio of Horse's offer on my PipBuck.

She sat there, looking stunned, throughout the whole thing. Thing was, she was looking at me, not the speaker playing its tinny audio. "...we can work out the details at your convenience and leisure, but remember --- while I am a patient stallion, neither President Thimble nor the Herd's so-called 'Caesar' can be counted upon to wait forever."

After I turned it off, there followed a rather pregnant pause.

She coughed into a hoof. "Doctor Fly Right, please leave us. We have business to discuss." He bristled, seemingly ready to argue --- then spun on one hoof and stormed out, without another word. After the door slammed, Rainbow Dash quietly walked over and slid the deadbolt home.

"I saw that robot zipping around the mess hall. Yours?" She didn't even look at me.

"Such as it is. Yeah."

Her head drooped, a sigh smacking of resignation escaping her lungs. But when she turned back around, there was a smile. A sad one, but still a smile. "Such as it is, right. Heh." It took visible effort, but the old Zoomer drew herself back up, a measure of steel firming in the spine. "If she thinks you're worth it, so do I. But this doesn't come without strings, turtle-buddy."

I groaned, facehoofing. "Are you still on that ninja-tortoise-whatever kick?"

Now she was in my face, prodding my chest with a wingtip. "Nevermind that now! Second thing: have you actually met 'Mister Ed', or are we talking face-on-screen kind of stuff?"

I backed up a pace, trying not to scowl at my employer's likely new ally. "Nopony's ever seen the buck in person, not e