The Village Bicycle 2: One Bad Apple

Oct 25th, 2018
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  1. The Village Bicycle II: One Bad Apple
  3. >Fifty years after you'd been blown off your hooves in the war, you, a derelict mechanical horse, had been the first such revived to the new reality of a post-atomic wasteland. A year had passed since. The old man who'd repaired you has roped you into helping him with something.
  4. >"I've got an odd one for you today." Anon says.
  5. "What?"
  6. >You continue following him down the bank's stairs, him turning on lights as you go. Finally after a short hallway you encounter an open barred door, and after that, an open vault door of the huge, heavy and round variety. Within the vault are stacks of gold and silver bars on reinforced pallets, and rows and rows of still-locked deposit boxes. The most eye-catching thing of all, though, was a beautiful golden horse statue, sporting what looked like spun gold mane and tail. You're slightly envious, your black nylon filament mane and tail were never long, and these days very short and brushy. Each of it's hooves are standing squarely in the center of doilies pasted down on the floor, like a sort of display. As you draw close, you realize that it's not a statue at all. There's a charging socket visible within it's wide-lipped, open mouth. On it's left ass-cheek is engraved a large, neat, ornate signature: 'Wanger Brietlex". The builder's signature, perhaps? Stamped below that was the mysterious code, "24K.999Au". Probably a chassis model ID.
  7. >"We've tried starting it up before.", Anon says, "But it won't do anything. I was hoping you could use some of that robot voodoo on it and see what's wrong."
  8. "Sure, I'll try!" you reply.
  9. >Anon drags a heavy extension cord over to the horse's already-open charge port, and plugs it in. Pacing up so that you're nose to nose, you send a diagnostic code until it takes effect. A quick scan shows the issue, along with a nearly unbelievable equipment and accessories list. This horse was an extreme luxury model.
  10. "It's locked."
  11. >"Can you unlock it?"
  12. "Give me a minute."
  13. >Scanning the right part of it's system loader, you find the relevant data and tweak it a bit. The main OS looks like gibberish, but there is a custom loader routine commented in some foreign language to launch it. The main system's checksum matches the loader. Fortunate, as you'd have had no means of restoring it had it been damaged. You disengage from diagnostics, pace back out the door, then swing your head at Anon to follow you. Peering nervously back at the gold horse for a moment, he follows.
  14. "I reset the password to 'password'." you whisper to him. Anon chuckles.
  15. >"Thanks. I'll go try it."
  16. >Walking up to the motionless gold horse, Anon announces,
  17. >"Horse! Unlock Code 'password'!"
  18. >The lovely golden statue becomes animate, sparkley golden eyes dilating, then in a rich, female, European accent announces,
  19. >"I am a Brietlex Custom Pacer. I appear to require maintenance. I am unable to establish contact with my service center."
  20. "That would be normal these days, Miss Pacer. Humanity has been rendered nearly extinct, and you've been out of commission for at least fifty years." you explain.
  21. >Turning her gaze to Anon, the Pacer announces,
  22. >"Human, your... Horrifying smog machine appears to be malfunctioning. Could you please run off and inform my master that I require a full service, and a buffing? There's a good lad."
  23. >You and Anon share a glance.
  24. >"He's not kidding, Miss-"
  25. >"My name is Precious, you lout." You note in surprise that her wide eyebrows actually shift into an angry 'V'. In fact most of her face was expressively animate, and getting progressively more angry looking.
  26. >"Uh Miss Precious. You really have been-"
  27. >"And what are you doing unattended in the vault? Produce your bank ID!"
  28. >"That's just the thing, Miss Pre-"
  29. >"Precious" begins warbling a hooting alarm tone, takes one threatening step toward Anon, then her knees fold up and she slams chin-first into the marble floor, the charger cable exploding into sparks as it's crushed under the weight of her falling chin. A breaker trips somewhere, and the vault is cast into darkness. You light your lamps, as Anon stares aghast at the mess at his feet. "Precious" shudders once or twice, then goes totally offline, her radio beacon vanishing.
  30. "What a bitch!" you announce. Anon is shocked out of his reverie, and chortles a bit.
  31. >"Even so, I want her online if possible. The more the merrier. I wonder who her master was."
  32. "I think I know. In the main hall, that huge picture back by the admin offices. Gangster hat, black suit, red tie."
  33. >"The bank owner? Questioning look, greenish complexion?"
  34. "Maybe the ink faded. But yeah, who else would own this thing." Anon considers your words, scratching his chin.
  35. >"I bet you're right. Who else would get to park in the vault."
  36. "Park, bah. I had a look at her pedometer. She's only got a couple hundred miles on her. She was a show-off toy, not transport. She got ridden to events, wherever he wanted to turn heads. This is more or less her barn, where she was kept polished and safe." While you were outside under corrugated tin, as the nuclear bombs began to fall, you mentally finish.
  37. >"Even more reason to get her running right, if she's that low-milage." Anon states.
  38. "Hey, I'm low milage, she's brand new! And a bitch!"
  39. >Anon gives you a tilty-headed look, as if to say your definition of low milage and his differed. Maybe you were being too hostile. But "horrifying smog machine"? Bitch. Anon sighs, tilts Precious's head far enough to unplug her, winds the cable up to the socket and yanks it out of the wall, then leads the way back out of the vault. After a bit of a walk, he steps into an equipment closet, and with a click the lights come on.
  40. >"Since you got her brain working, I'm gonna get some tools and stuff down here and see if we can get her servo system working."
  41. "You should ask around and see if there's anybody she'll recognize as her proper owner in the village, too. A descendant or something."
  42. >Anon grunts, then nods. Back upstairs, there's a consultation, but nobody seems to know anyone who was ever involved with the bank or it's owners. Instead, the village elder Gnome Imij and his daughter Dafalt decide to come down and meet the new addition and attempt to explain the situation to her. Back down in the vault, Anon busies himself repairing the charge cable, filling the air with solder smoke while you try to explain the situation to Gnome and Dafalt.
  43. >"So, dis here's some kinda parade model." Gnome says.
  44. "Yeah, she's a top-tier foreign model. Features beyond a Cadillac, but delicate. All electric but no solar, dependent on inductive or direct charging only."
  45. >"I've seen her plenty of times, and I can never get over how pretty she is. I love all the little rhinestones set into her face." Dafalt says, looking a bit starry-eyed.
  46. "I doubt you'll think so once you've met her."
  47. >"Yeah, I know. You said."
  48. "Seriously, don't get your hopes up."
  49. >"Apple, if I didn't know better, I'd say you're jealous of her." Dafalt says, smiling. Just as you're preparing a retort, Anon announces,
  50. >"OK, help me tip her onto this blanket so I can get a side off and see what went wrong." A blanket. You'd been thrown around like luggage when they were repairing you. Jealous? You chalk it up to a maybe. You take some small satisfaction that the blanket looks pretty disgusting as the humans roll the heavy gold beast onto her side, Anon swearing up a storm trying to figure out how she comes apart. Apparently she had some sort of unusual fasteners. Finally popping the last one loose, they hoist her surprisingly heavy-looking gold side off, setting it alongside. Anon peers in with a flashlight.
  51. >"Pure electric. Circulating oil cooled, hoses dry rotted, empty. Ah. She blew a couple of fuses." he says, poking around, then practically crawling into her with a meter. Some beeps ensue.
  52. >"She's got some shorted parts. Maybe the EMP, maybe age. If I unplug her servo controller we can at least talk though. There, that should do it." he announces, voice echo'y sounding, then withdraws and heads for the repaired and taped charge cable. Plugging her in, soon her radio beacon appears, her eye dilates, swiveling to note you, her removed side, Anon by his toolbox, Dafalt and Gnome. Then her ear rotates back. On one of the traffic control radio channels you pick up,
  53. >"My voice amplifier is broken, you walking junkyard. Get your pet monkey to fix my voice!" There is some confused chatter from the other horses who picked up the transmission. You ask them to leave this channel to just you two.
  54. "Uh, her majesty says her amp's broken, so I'll have to repeat what she's saying over radio. She wants you to fix her amp." you relay to Anon.
  55. >"What's she need?" he asks.
  56. "Anon says-" You begin via radio, getting
  57. >"My ears still work fine! Tell him I need at least one six-ell-six thermionic valve. Matched pair if possible. They're mounted in my left cheek. And I still want to know what you're doing in the vault!" You pause, a quick search of your parts database returning a bunch of things containing the text 6L6 but nothing that's a valve.
  58. >"What are you waiting for!" comes over the radio.
  59. "Uh, she needs something called a Six Ell Six thermionic valve installed in her left cheek. Matched pair if possible." you parrot.
  60. Anon starts laughing, the prone horse's eye narrowing and ear rotating so far back it momentarily vibrates with a gear-strip sound.
  61. >"She's got tubes! Actual tubes!" Anon, grinning, announces.
  62. >"Tell that uncivilized simian that tubes are necessary for any degree of fidelity. Not that he would know what fidelity means, I feel certain. Either in his personal life or from listening to your transistor radio sounding output!" she barks over the radio link.
  63. "She says they sound better." you lamely translate.
  64. >"Sure, sure. I think you're in luck, Precious. Some of our guys have a band put together and while it'll cost me, I'll get you your six-ell-six." Anon replies.
  65. >"That's dandy. Now have them explain what the hell they're doing in the vault!"
  66. You repeat it verbatim. Gnome steps up.
  67. "Hiya Missus Horsey!" You wince, as "MIZZ PRECIOUS!" echoes through your head,
  68. >"I'm Gnome! You are in MY village now. We own this bank, this block, and this whole city here. You're jus' lucky we got us a smart-ass horsey here to bring your ass back to life or you'd never have woke up again, ain't that right, Mister Horsey?"
  69. You nod at her emphatically, hoping she'd smarten up. All you get is a short hiss of static and one more ear-pinning strip sound, then
  70. >"Bring my master! I want to hear it from his own lips that this... Vagrant and you jackals own this bank now!" comes roaring at you.
  71. "He's long dead." you reply directly, the humans gazing in surprise at you.
  72. >"He's not! He was down here just a month ago! And I was given a service and polish only last week!"
  73. "Perform a radio update of your clock and calendar." you tell her. A moment of glare, then her eye seems to lose focus. Your radio picks up her polling several major frequencies, then some others at random. Some of the other horses reply, are angrily asked if they can contact the authorities, and what the date is, then cut off when they respond with confusion.
  74. >"OK mister, what the hell year IS it, then?" she finally radios.
  75. "I can't even tell you what year it is. But it's at least fifty years since you were last active. Full scale nuclear war. Most humans-"
  76. >"Yes yes that again. I'll believe it when I see it!"
  77. "She's, well, I think she understands now." you announce.
  78. >"I'm going to go gather up parts and get you working again, alright?" Anon says.
  79. >"I bet he sticks to the saddle." she radios disgustedly. You mentally smile, it's the first actually funny thing she'd said so far.
  80. "They all do. You'll get used to it." you say, to some mystified stares.
  81. >"EEW! Please, just unplug me now!" Precious radios.
  82. "She's ready to be worked on, go ahead and unplug."
  83. >"That's not what I meant!" she barks, just as she's shut down.
  84. >"I gotta run to the shop. Up for it, Apple?"
  85. "Always." you reply.
  86. >"Get your own horse, Anon!" Dafalt says, leaping into your saddle.
  87. >"Age before beauty!" Anon yells, as Dafalt bangs your sides with her heels. You prepare to trot off, giving the old guy an apologetic look back, as he runs at the two of you and jumps aboard, nearly causing you to stumble, scrambling onto the saddle behind Dafalt. Gnome laughs at the scene as the two gripe and jostle.
  88. >"OK, OK, you win!" Dafalt tells him, then to you,
  89. >"You alright with two of us, Apple?"
  90. You play a snippet of the William Tell Overture, then a confident whinny sound.
  91. >She kicks at your sides again and you trot off, starting your engine as you begin pogo'ing your way up all those stairs with the two of them gripping on like leeches. With a glance back you can't help but notice a tiny bit of a blue haze in your wake. Smog machine. It stung. Emerging from the stairs, you take the hallway, coming out behind the rather battered counter around into the main hall, which as usual, has a few villagers and horses standing about.
  92. >"Mac!" yells Anon, and a sleek bright red horse comes pacing over.
  93. >"We're heading to the shop." Anon says, getting down with Dafalt's help and changing horses.
  94. >"Sure thing." Mac says in your voice. Of the fleet of mecha-horses Anon and his disciples had repaired, about a third of them had direct copies of your mind, due to the damages the EMPs had done to their data storage. While it was disconcerting seeing a totally different brand horse running your factory code, the villagers didn't care and at least you knew they were of tolerably decent character. Most of the others were good horses too, though the usual brand warfare still resulted in some name-calling.
  95. >Never to the degree you'd just endured in the vault, however. Just lots of "Found on road, dead." or "Poor ol' nut thinks it's a Cadillac" or "Drips oil, drips grease everywhere" type ribbing. "American Mechanic's Favorite Saddleback" was one of the dreaded phrases applied to your model. It was mostly in good fun though. Something to kick around the stable when the humans were socializing amongst themselves and the horses were on charge. The ecological pressure humanity had come under, by the point mecha-horses hit the market, had long since created social pressure that eliminated "planned obsolescence", so reliability had become a true goal of manufacturing and none of you really had any built-in intentional failure points.
  96. >A pair of heels bouncing off your sides snaps you out of your reverie, as you trot out the main doors after Mac and Anon. It's a pleasant ride, you always take extra care with Dafalt, picking the smoothest paths possible in the post-atomic wreckage of the city, but she loved jumping you over the inevitable gaps and obstacles so you tried to aim for ones wide enough to be 'fun' for her without being hazardous. You weren't a match for Mac, though, he was built for long leaps and high speeds and you were, well, half made of junk these days. Your product line tended toward "luxury on a budget", even new you weren't the fastest or lightest, you were made to be reliable and respectable. Half burnt, spray painted and dented to hell as you were now, either one was a distant dream.
  97. >It was comforting that Dafalt would fight to ride you, over all the finer specimens available. Especially considering that many of them more or less WERE you, with the same love for her. They never stepped on your turf though, and she always chose you. You often became mawkishly sentimental during her rides, not to mention extremely protective, scanning for possible threats at the widest possible range. Since the demise of the villagers' main enemy, The Nothing, though, all you had to worry about was the occasional raccoon or coyote picking around in the rubble.
  98. >Arriving at the shop, Anon unlocks and rolls up an overhead garage door. Inside is a lot of open space, and several hopeless wrecks. At least, hopeless until more parts could be located. The twisted and bent, or badly rusted mechanical carcasses gave you the creeps, and you could feel Dafalt stiffen at your involuntary shudder as you walked in. Machine you may be, but you were programmed with some very realistic reaction routines. Perhaps the factory had thought it good that you telegraphed your moods to your rider. Like "road feel". Regardless, you tried not to look at the sad wrecks as Anon proceeds to dig around in the parts bins and shelving, occasionally dumping items into Mac's popped-open ass-trunk.
  99. >"Figures she uses some weird-ass euro-fuses, I'll have to make adapters." he gripes, yanking a row of fuses out of some poor thing on the floor's fusebox, then dumping those into Mac also.
  100. >The return ride is uneventful, the discussion with the village band less so.
  101. >"Look, you guys wouldn't even have a working socket to plug an amp INTO if it wasn't for me." and the like, until finally, Anon is presented, reverently, with a "kinda wore out", large vacuum tube of apparent extreme value. Wrapped in cloth and shoved into a container, that's also added to Mac's ass, then Anon rides on down into the vault, you and Dafalt following.
  102. >Gnome had long since fled, but the lights were still on. Dismounting, Anon and Dafalt unload the parts and set to work on Precious. Dafalt, while having no clue what made machines tick, helps hold items in place while Anon solders or attaches them. Mac, being even less interested in Precious than you, wanders back upstairs. Chunks of tubing are thrown overboard, 'new' bits of tubing cut and installed, a couple quarts of antique oil poured into a tank. Testing of battery cells. Lots of oiling of joints, rams, gears, bearings and various load-bearing internal cables and guides.
  103. >Precious was made with freedoms of motion you lacked, in order to be a more lifelike simulacrum of an actual horse. You were in turn amazed and disgusted at the complexity of her mechanism. In many places, she even had what looked like big, deep red glass inserts in place of bearings where rotary shafts passed. Finally, the side is re-installed, and with the help of a shove from your fore-hoof, Precious is rolled limply upright, the blanket is moved to the other side, and she's rolled over. The left cheek and other side are removed, the cheek exposing one intact and one broken glass electronic tube, which is replaced, and more work done in her barrel. Finally she's closed back up.
  104. >"Ready for power on test!" Anon announces.
  105. "Not with you two standing within her reach!" you bark, "If she goes nuts I gotta be able to shield you!" While Dafalt looks happily impressed, Anon says,
  106. >"She'll kick you to pieces if that happens. You're- Uh."
  107. "She might be new and pretty, but I fight dirty." you reply confidently. Sparing a glance at Dafalt's trusting smile, Anon relents.
  108. >"Alright, get between her and the socket and I'll plug this end in instead." he says, yanking the cord out of the wall, then walking over and shoving the other end into her mouth port.
  109. "Hey Anon. I'm not sure it'll work, but we've got her password. Try locking her if she goes bananas. Dafalt, if she comes at you, yell "Horse! Lock Code 'password'!" you advise.
  110. >"Her password's Password?" she asks, giggling.
  111. "Yes, I set it to that. I'm not terribly creative." This only evokes more giggling.
  112. >"OK we ready?" Anon asks, dangling the power plug at you. You and Dafalt nod, and he shoves the plug in.
  113. >After a moment, Precious comes to life.
  114. >"Testing. Testing." then she produces a small medley of notes. "Not a matched pair? You incompetent fiends!"
  115. >"Hey, it was the best we could do!" Anon replies.
  116. The three of you watch with some trepidation as Precious stands and checks her calibrations, lifting legs and weaving around a bit, then going still and giving you all a glare.
  117. >"I am going upstairs to see just what the hell is going on!" Precious haughtily announces, marching forward. You arch your neck, trying to look puffed up and menacing, as she passes around you and your humans in a determined march for the stairs. Then she hits the end of her leash, her head pulled to the side by the extension cord, and comes to a stop.
  118. "Betcha need a few minutes at the trough, before you go running up any stairs, eh Precious?" you can't help but goad.
  119. >You're treated to a venomous glare, then
  120. >"You primitive dino-urine burners are going to destroy the planet with your flatulent emissions."
  121. "Wait'll you see what's making those volts you're sucking on." You're pleased with how her eyes widen, but decide to try to make peace.
  122. "Seriously, though. You'll see. The earth already got plenty destroyed without vehicle exhaust being to blame."
  123. >"Keep talking, you watch-eyed rattle-trap. I'm going to get security and have you all thrown in impound when I get up there."
  124. "Why not just radio the cops."
  125. >"You've got the frequencies jammed!"
  126. "You know that's not true. There's NO signal, not jamming."
  127. >"Maybe you tampered my radio! What do you want from me? If this is a robbery, I swear-"
  128. "Do you see me with my ass full of gold bars? No! So please chill. Why would we fix you if we were?" That one seemed to box her into a logical corner. But only for a moment.
  129. >"I'm part of the loot!"
  130. "Don't flatter yourself."
  131. >"So where are all those pallets of cash that were stacked around, if this isn't a robbery? Your boot is probably stuffed with banknotes!" she challenges. You stare at Anon, in confusion.
  132. >"Bonfires. That shit burned great!" Anon announces happily. "And I have integrated hoofpads, no need for boots." you add. You swear Precious sways on her hooves for a moment, horror radiating off her. Then she tugs at the charge cord, the end popping off the end of her muzzle, and takes off for the stairs.
  133. "We gotta warn the others. Radioing ahead." you announce.
  134. "All Village Horses. Possible rogue horse. Bright gold. Bank, emerging from lower level. Contain until I get there. -Apple." you transmit as a weather alert text burst, as Dafalt and Anon jump aboard, Anon dragging the charge cord. He notes you eying it.
  135. >"What? She'll be lucky if she makes it out the front door." he says. By your estimates though, she'd got a ways more than that left in her, so you go at top speed to and up the stairs. As you're overwhelmed by a crescendo of radio chatter, the three of you arrive at a standoff, Precious swearing up a storm, encircled by a dozen horses, many more forming a line in front of some surprised-looking villagers. For such a refined-sounding and high-class model, she seemed to have a rare gift with profanity that left you curious if biological creatures were even capable of the feats she was alluding to. Dafalt and Anon hop off and step past the first line of horses.
  136. >"She wants to see outside." you announce, "I'll escort. Make way." Leading a path, the angry Precious follows you, staring around at the interior of the bank in apparent disbelief until reaching the front door, walking outside and looking for a long while in each direction, taking in the jagged wreckage of other buildings in the distance, the crazily leaning utility and light poles. Oddly she seems to be smiling, until, noting your gaze, her face and ears slowly droop. Then she turns around and marches back into the bank, with a purposeful stride, around the counter again, nosing open each office door and peering within at the makeshift sleeping, food storage, cooking and living quarters they'd become, then heading for the stairs going up. You just escort her along, as a similar search of the upstairs offices, similarly re-purposed, and ultimately the executive office, now a small wine brewery, before she announces,
  137. >"You win. I believe it now." There's a long moment of uncomfortable silence, then she heads back downstairs, you pacing along. Reaching the main room, she announces,
  138. >"You! Repair human! I require charging." and with that, she freezes and shuts down.
  139. >"What a bitch!" Dafalt announces, as you nod in agreement.
  140. >"I don't know what the heck's gotten into you machines since the war. I've never seen any service machine act like that." Anon states, poking the cable crabbily into Precious's port, then hunting for a socket.
  141. "I think she was probably like that when she was manufactured, Anon." you reply.
  142. >"She doesn't even act three-laws-safe. Even you thought she was going to rogue on us."
  143. "She still might." you state, noting some surprised looks on the villagers and some uncomfortable shifting amongst the other horses.
  144. "She's a custom job, small batch, with a foreign operating system I've never seen. You should be prepared for some unpredictability. Don't forget, I'm a three-laws machine myself!"
  145. >Anon chuckles and nods, being well aware of what you were capable of. You note Gnome staring into the bank from a front door.
  146. >"If'n that goldie horse gets out'n hand I'm sure we can take 'er." he says, to a communal nod amongst the crowd. You relent, going silent as Anon finally locates an outlet and plugs Precious in. Her head lifts and she assumes a regal stance, but otherwise remains still, rather like a gaudy decoration. You note Dafalt staring at her and suffer a twinge. Precious was surrounded by village horses, and run down. If Dafalt wanted to get to know her- Well, you didn't want to eavesdrop. She'd be safe enough in that crowd of village horses. Stepping outside, you turn facing in to keep an eye on things, ass in the sun, set your hearing to "mute" and enter a low-consumption security observation mode. Eventually, Dafalt approaches, giving you a tap on the tip of your nose. The sun had shifted a bit and around an hour had passed.
  147. >"Hi Apple. What're you doing?"
  148. "Just soaking up some rays. Did you want to go somewhere?"
  149. >"No, I just wanted to talk. You seem a little down about the new horse."
  150. "Not down. Worried."
  151. >"She's probably just adjusting. She's been chatty with my friends in there." You note she doesn't mention speaking to Precious herself, though you can't see how she wouldn't have.
  152. "Even so, I'm keeping an eye peeled. She's pretty poison."
  153. >"Alright. I don't blame you, she does come off pretty bitchy."
  154. "So, is it time for my buffing and a full service?" you ask, getting some cute laughter in reply.
  155. >"No but I'll pour you full of biodiesel if you want."
  156. "Yes please, I'm down to a quarter tank." you reply, the 'yecch!' at the thought of more biodiesel going unsaid.
  157. >Aside from your own little solar array, and the mix of panels and... Generators in the power house, that horrid substance was the only fuel available for you now. The gasoline-burners thought the same about the ethanol they had to imbibe, but at least the stuff kept you all mobile. Dafalt vaults aboard, and you walk around the huge bank building to the "stable", the brick outbuilding that had been retrofit to house a row of charging sockets and fuel station.
  158. >The stable had been a fairly recent addition, as the villagers added infrastructure to support their newly acquired army of mechanized beasts. There were several horses grazing out front and inside, noses down onto mounted sockets. Dafalt rides you to the far end of the place, where some large tanks stood on steel legs, hopping down and popping open the fuel door on the side of your flank, twisting off your fuel cap. Grabbing a spigot-tipped hose off the biodiesel tank, she tops you off and caps you up again.
  159. >"There, all better." she says.
  160. "Thanks. I never feel quite right with less than a half tank. I've gotten paranoid."
  161. >"There's paranoid, and being prepared. That's just being prepared." You nod, as she jumps back on your back.
  162. >"How about once around the block."
  163. >You're more than happy to oblige. Passing the power house on the way around the block, you observe that it might just be emitting a tiny bit more smoke from the stack than usual. Precious no doubt being all ecological, having to fill those double-size batteries of hers. Of course several other horses in your 'herd' were full electric, and there was ribbing both ways. Precious was just particularly insufferable about it. At least she was tanking up during the day, when the few mismatched panels atop the power house were adding a few percent as well.
  164. >Forcing her from your mind, you focus on giving Dafalt a nice ride, and aren't too surprised when you're cued to go another few blocks out of the way, which you do with gusto, only heading back when the gloam turned to twilight and you'd been running with your lights on for some time. Upon returning to the bank, you see Dafalt in, noting Precious, cord dangling from her nose, in animated conversation with a small crowd. Apparently she was adjusting enough to modern life that she hadn't driven away her audience. Equally likely that they were taken in by her looks, of course, her face, body and particularly mane/tail lit with hundreds of rainbow-pastel-colored fiber-optic pinpoints of light, which had apparently taken the place of the bonfire for the evening.
  165. >A couple of villagers were even rubbing her down with soft rags, giving her that buffing she'd been after. You waggle an ear at her, getting a prunish look in return, followed by a freaky grin. You're not sure which is worse. Dafalt hops off, going "Oooh!" at the sight. Out of an abundance of caution, you follow as Dafalt heads for her room, plodding down the hall and going into standby by Dafalt's door. Anything passing would awaken you. Other than a few villagers passing you to bed down, the night is uneventful.
  166. >The next morning, you're awakened by groups of the villagers passing by, and give them a head-bob in greeting. Out in the hall you can hear more discussion begin between them and Precious, who presumably had stayed put. She was telling them a different side of the old world than you'd experienced. Listening, you're treated to descriptions of castles, guards marching in formation, huge golden carriages she'd pulled and the presumably even huger VIPs that logic would dictate need a wagon to be hauled around in rather than simply sitting atop her.
  167. >For such a low-milage creation, she certainly was well traveled, having been flown from country to country, meeting famous leaders in each. Apparently one of the countries mentioned had as castle guardians a squad of mechanical griffins patrolling the air above the grounds. You could only hope that they never pooped spent batteries upon the crowds below. While interesting, her stories had some odd aspects. Firstly, most of the time she seemed to be addressing the mechanized portion of her audience, as if meant for the horses in the crowd.
  168. >The other thing that struck you was how unimportant the 'important' people were. They seemed to spend all their time simply existing, looking at things, being worshiped- Never creating, never advancing the human cause, but simply... Being there. Benefiting from the labor and minds of the rest. And Precious sounded perfectly happy with that state of affairs, as if dragging these people around were the pinnacle of mechanized existence.
  169. >After a while, you hear Dafalt poking around inside, getting ready to face the day. Eventually her door opens, and she pats you on the nose on the way out to the 'human-wash', as you and the other horses wryly referred to as the shower room in the stately old hotel across the road. The bank had facilities, but Anon and the others had put a lot of effort into restoring the showers/restrooms that led off the old hotel swimming pool (which was long dry and now filled with barrels of produce).
  170. >As you follow her across the road, through the front door and down the hall leading to the showers, Dafalt says
  171. >"You're guarding me from her, aren't you."
  172. You give a firm nod, pacing along.
  173. >"I'd rather not have you blow up from the water in here."
  174. You shake your head no,
  175. "I'm OK if not immersed. But I'll wait outside."
  176. >"You don't have to act like a mother hen, you know. There are other people out there you can protect from her."
  177. "There're other me's out there to protect them, too."
  178. >"Point. Alright. But give me some breathing room, OK?"
  179. "Fine."
  180. >Presently, Dafalt emerges, red hair slicked down, her rather fetching suit of rags showing the lines where they'd just been wrung out before being put back on. Work was progressing on something akin to a loom and restoring old sewing machines but some things were moving woefully slowly. At least they had a workable form of soap, made from fats and wood ash.
  181. >"Let me do your head." Dafalt says, tossing a damp washcloth over your face and giving your eyes and grille a rub.
  182. >"You were dusty." she says, peering into each of your mismatched eyes in turn, giving you a sweet smile then tossing the rag back into the washroom and closing the door.
  183. >Cleaner lenses definitely helped, and while it was a short bath scene, at least nobody exploded. Heading back out of the hotel you find a small gathering getting ready to set out, apparently to check a semi distant crop field. Dafalt talks with Anon and ensures that her and you would be accompanying them. Finally Gnome totters down the bank stairs, followed by Caramel and Precious. There was some kind of discussion going on, which you tune into.
  184. >"...Don't care, Goldie horse. I got me a fine candy-horse here an' I'm ridin' 'im."
  185. >"But Sir, I can provide you with a far superior service than this outmoded relic. I am custom made to carry VIPs in maximum safety and comfort! He was obsolete even pre-war. You really should consider upgrading, your very life may be at stake!"
  186. >You hear Caramel generate a snort sound.
  187. >"I don't care if'n you comes with us, just I'm ridin' Candy Horse, an that's da end of it." Gnome pronounces with some finality.
  188. >Badmouthing Caramel and trying to steal his rider? That was dirty pool, and pretty ballsy to do right next to him. It was doubly annoying because, and it was just a personal theory, you'd always suspected that the Free Spirits produced after his revision, yourself included, had been somewhat scaled back. Sure your frame was probably equally sound, but-
  189. >"Apple? You with me?" Dafalt says, peering at you.
  190. "Oh, uh sure! Sorry! What were you saying?"
  191. >"I was asking if you think I should ask Brian Noun to ride with us, if she's coming."
  192. >Brian was one of Anon's students, a decent field medic, and you suspected, someone Dafalt wanted to date.
  193. "Oh. Sure! The more the merrier, Anon says!"
  194. Dafalt scampers off, as Precious comes up to you.
  195. >"Finding some nice random human for me, I see."
  196. "Totally not my idea. I'd think you'd want to be downstairs safe in your vault, rather than risking a nasty scuff on all this jagged concrete and rebar up here. It's dangerous, who knows what sorts of unexpected attack we may come under at any moment. Just look what happened to me!"
  197. >"I feel it in all of our best interests that I remain with the ruling class." she responds, lifting her head proudly.
  198. >"However I shall be wanting a saddle for this."
  199. >You note her peering at your saddle in disdain.
  200. >"Is that... Vinyl?"
  201. "Well, Anon calls it 'Pleather'."
  202. >"How repellent. Scamper off and find me one, will you?"
  203. "I saw something like an Ass-O-Grip integrated saddle in your equipment list, can't you deploy that?"
  204. >"Just. Get. One."
  205. "OK, OK."
  206. >You meander through the small crowd to the stable, and after some doing, manage to maneuver a spare saddle into your ass trunk. Returning to the fray, you ask Anon to mount it on Precious. She stands still, body actually lowering a ways, to allow him to fit it onto her mounts. A great deal of swearing, looking, and more swearing go on until he announces,
  207. >"It won't fit. Wrong mounts."
  208. >Immediately you're riven by one of Precious' trademark glares.
  209. >"You DID bring a METRIC saddle, didn't you?"
  210. "What the hell's a metric saddle?" you ask, Anon dropping the saddle to his feet and smacking his forehead.
  211. >"Sorry, Precious, the only metric saddles we've got spent decades under water. I'm afraid we can't help you."
  212. >Puffing herself back up to full height, Precious announces,
  213. >"So be it! Fine! I shall endure!" and from her sides swing a couple of very fancy foot-platforms, and her back surface, in a grid of raise-able cubes, arranges itself into something of a saddle shape.
  214. >"Comfort" wasn't a concept you fully understood, but you didn't envy her rider one bit.
  215. >"I'll have you know, my original saddle was presented to my master by a major hollywood studio. Assorted rare leathers, it was. It was like actually wearing some of humanity's most famous music and movie stars."
  216. >The villagers look around at one another in disgust, recordings of ancient music having been rediscovered with the advent of working mecha-horses, many of whom had memory banks full of antique media. Presently, Dafalt returns, a sandy blond gent in tow sporting the usual ragged outfit- And an M16 slung on his back.
  217. >"I get to ride HER?" be gawps, as Dafalt makes a gesture. Precious perks up and beams.
  218. >"Welcome, Sargent At Arms! I will be your transport for this journey."
  219. >Hm. She was almost civil this time.
  220. >"Hell yeah!" he says, vaulting aboard. Watching with interest, you note him bobbing a bit, before announcing
  221. >"She's bouncy!"
  222. >Her back, while probably still kinda horrible, did indeed provide an inch or two of shock absorption. Giving you a smug look before twisting to stare up at her rider, Precious says
  223. >"I'm glad you're pleased." before facing forward again.
  224. >You rock a tad as Dafalt launches onto your back, Anon helping a griping Gnome aboard Caramel before himself hopping aboard Mac.
  225. >"Lead da way, Anon."
  226. >A few blocks out, you note Precious and Mac beginning to take the lead. It wasn't a race, but you and Caramel were having to do a bit more path-finding to safely progress, while those two hopped some pretty substantial obstacles. Gnome, untroubled, asks Caramel,
  227. >"Play da riders in da rain thing, Candy horse."
  228. >Just as the song starts playing, Precious, a ways ahead, begins emitting that horrible alarm tone, only stopping as Caramel stops playing in alarm.
  229. >"Do NOT play owned music without royalties!" Precious admonishes the astonished tan horse, Gnome taking on a dark expression.
  230. >"Just who owns da music?" he asks, dangerously.
  231. >"We- I mean us- someone- You can't just play music! It must be paid for! Music belongs to- Maybe there are descendants! Who deserve being paid for work their forebears did, in perpetuity! You're snatching food right out of their mouths!" she storms, sounding furious.
  232. >"Listen good, Goldie horse. Aside our own band, an' I'm sure you'll say them playin' these old songs is still somehow stealin', dese ancient recordings are da ONLY way dose songs ever get heard again. Whoever made 'em no doubt'd be happy we can still listen to 'em today. Say I was a carpenter an' got paid to build a house. Does everybody that lives dere hafta keep payin' me for livin' in it forever 'cuz I made it? B'sides I'm king of this city. If'n I ever hear you make that sound again, or try'n stop folks listinin' ta songs again, I'm gonna mount your ass on the bank wall! We clear? Candy horse, play!"
  233. >Nervously, and with a few digital glurps, the song resumes, Caramel keeping an eye on Precious for signs of potential attack. Instead, she silently whirls around and stomps away toward where Anon is waiting to resume the journey, her rider Brian gazing back and shrugging in confusion.
  234. >"What the hell was that about." Dafalt murmurs as you resume.
  235. "You know, he's only playing the left side of the song. I can play the right and we'll have it in stereo." you reply.
  236. >"Please don't. She's pissed enough as it is."
  237. >Presently the broken concrete gives way to dirt, and your party ride into a large plot of bushy green plants, around two furlongs square. Nosing down to one, Precious recoils, announcing,
  238. >"These are illegal!"
  239. "Not in dis town. Dese are what makes oil-fuel, rope an' some good med'cin. Dey looks to be growin' good, too."
  240. >The humans dismount, wandering deeper into the forest of delights, as you and the other horses begin to talk shop.
  241. >"These humans stink far worse than they did back in the day." Precious states, managing an impressive expression of disgust.
  242. "Smell? Seriously?"
  243. >"Don't tell me you don't have a working nose!"
  244. "Somehow, they overlooked smelling the daisies when they were designing a transportation machine."
  245. >"Hah. It's a matter of safety, considered basic equipment where I come from. Fuel-gas lines break frequently during earthquakes."
  246. "Sorry, no, they didn't equip me with atmospheric analysis."
  247. >"Properly made, it's quite small and efficient."
  248. "Uh, no doubt. I'm surprised you didn't know us diesels were burning a blend of this oil from the gases."
  249. >"There isn't enough money in the world to make me sniff your noxious emissions, you hooved mosquito fogger."
  250. >Caramel butts in,
  251. >"I had monoxide and smoke detection, but they failed long ago. If I might inquire, where exactly were you made?"
  252. >"My OS is a clone from an AI developed in Basal, Switzerland. You wouldn't know her I'm sure. Body, Frame also Swiss. Rams and running gear, German. French voice on Russian sound system, mane and tail from the Netherlands. Various other suppliers for options. You?"
  253. >"Safe to say, all of us are U.S. with some Japanese." Caramel replies, Mac nodding.
  254. "Except for me. I've been totaled and rebuilt twice, so there's no telling. I must admit, I'm surprised Netherland is real. I'm sure Peter Pan was a fairy tale." you tell her.
  255. >"Maybe the real place was just used as the setting for the story." Mac adds, helpfully.
  256. >"Why anyone would rebuild an American domestic to begin with, I have no idea, much less twice!" She stands stoically as the three of you gripe, just giving you all an irritating smile, then leading you back toward some tumbled concrete.
  257. >"If you're so sure domestics can compete, let's see you do this." she says, turning to peer over a tilted, just over five foot tall chunk of cement wall nearby.
  258. >Squaring herself up, you hear a "Pssht...Ka-chunk!" as she leaps cleanly over and lands on the other side.
  259. >"Now you." Knowing you'd end up either slamming directly into it, or worse, high-centered upon it, you shake your head no. Caramel likewise, Mac going,
  260. >"Hm, mmmaybe..."
  261. >"I knew it."
  262. "OK lady, how the hell does someone with a quarter ton of batteries make that jump?"
  263. >"Superior hardware, of course. I'm fully outfitted with custom Bosch rams. Top of the line performance. What do you have?" You note Anon, watching with interest from the bushes. Her jump must have caught his eye.
  264. "Uh, several brands actually. Even some out of a forklift."
  265. >Her face twists into something resembling a gloat, then she bounds back to your side of the barrier.
  266. >"A forklift. Seriously?"
  267. >You hold up the hind leg, showing off the wider ram and the custom fittings Anon had installed. Peering for only a moment, Precious recoils.
  268. >"Just WHAT is THAT?" she says, pointing between your thighs.
  269. "Oh. I guess I DO have a feature you lack!"
  270. >"Who owned you? Was his name Billy-Joe-Bob? Did he buy that at a local haulage-stop? A magnetic plastic slap-on?"
  271. >You can hear Anon chuckling as he wanders off.
  272. "Uh. No."
  273. >"Allowing them to dress you up as a fellow animal. You're disgusting. Entirely crass!"
  274. "I'm just specially equipped. And from you, I'll take that as a compliment!"
  275. >After a brief glare, she stalks away. Caramel gives an eye-roll, while Mac just shares a knowing glance with you. Presently, the humans, led by Dafalt, emerge from the shrubbery, griping about some kind of weevils and pest control. Dafalt bounds on, the rest mounting up, and Anon takes off leading the way home. The return ride isn't very eventful, the humans dominating the audio realm with plant-care discussions, you and the other horses having a rather boring conversation on a traffic radio channel.
  276. >You, and you suspected the others, were keeping it safe to prevent triggering Precious again. With some irritation you note your right hind hoof-joint developing a squeak. You'd have to ask to have it oiled at some point. Upon arriving back home, the humans dismount and go their different directions, you plodding along after Dafalt. You note Precious staring, and she arches an eyebrow, giving you a look that seemed to imply that you were engaged in something nefarious. As it was, though, you got the weird impression that Caramel and Mac seemed to be parking closer to their riders' positions as well, if not actually playing bodyguard.
  277. >That business with playing songs had put them on alert, it seemed. Brian had asked her if she needed anything and she simply, if politely, for her, dismissed him. That seemed odd because you were certain he'd bought himself an evening of work with a polishing rag by riding her. As the sun finally sets, you follow a gaggle of assorted beings into the bank, trying not to lose track of Dafalt. The dim, indirect lighting is lit, giving the bank's main lobby an oddly normal look, reminding you of what it must have looked like back in the day. Of course, back then, no customer would normally have brought their horse inside.
  278. >There is a smallish fire going in it's traditional spot on the floor, Gnome sitting atop his favorite desk, and discussions on the progress of various ongoing projects. Dafalt's nearby her father, looking a bit distracted but paying attention during the more interesting parts. More interesting to you, though, is the odd action Precious is undertaking, pawing at the charging pigtail on the floor, trying to get it in her mouth. There was no way she was run too far down, after all it was a fairly moderate ride, she must just like staying topped up. She could have just grazed at the stable, but seemed shy about the other horses. Or, more likely, afraid of missing anything Gnome was engaged in.
  279. >Finally a villager notices and plugs her in. You note the momentary slight flicker in the lights, as Precious, apparently with some relief, assumes her usual statuesque pose, though she did track who was speaking as the conversations meandered. The 'meeting', if such it was, ranged through plant weevil-control, the status of water systems, radiation measurements on the plant samples brought back, how the grapes festooning the sides of the building were doing. After discussing wine a bit, a small keg is rolled in and the cork yanked, several partaking of a cupful. You note the displeasure on Precious's face.
  280. >As irritating as it was that she was so, well, realistic in ways you weren't, you were glad you could read her face just like a human's and get an idea of what was going on inside. Anyone trying to read the expression on a stock mechanical horse was left with perhaps how wide the eyes looked and what the ears were doing. Nothing that really signaled nuance. Of course, you have to admit to yourself, even before the ravages of the war, some brands of horse really didn't HAVE any nuance to begin with. Due to low-cost design and some damage, there were a couple dim bulbs in your herd. Rather like the humans, really. But even those don't give you cause to worry about human safety like Precious does.
  281. >Stupid, at least in a machine, tends to behave even more predictably. It was complexity that led to chaos, and Precious is the most complex machine you've encountered short of mainframes. For now though she's just standing, absorbing the way the village works, the goals, the accomplishments, the scuttlebutt. Eventually things reach a state of "nothing left to talk about", and the group breaks up. Gnome wanders up the stairs to his room, and the rest disperse, you keeping watch as Dafalt goes through her nightly routine then retires to bed.
  282. >You park outside her door as usual, going into a watchful standby. You nearly leap out of your hooves as something blows a foreign-sounding horn behind you, whipping your head around to see Precious with an evil grin as you hear Dafalt thump out of her bed. It's morning. "I was hoping you would show me what's making all those volts I've been sucking on, once you're done romping with your pet." she says quietly, turning fluidly in the hall and whipping you with her tail as she retreats. Still halfway in the process of coming fully online you hear
  283. >"What the HELL is going on out there!" through the door.
  284. >Turning to face it, you reply,
  285. "Just Precious wanting a guided tour, Dafalt."
  286. >"Fuck." comes back.
  287. >Shortly, Dafalt emerges, looking more disheveled than usual.
  288. >"I'm going for a shower. Go ahead and show her around, then find me after." she says, swerving around you with a quick pat on the neck.
  289. >Though you couldn't manage Precious' fluid grace, you turn around and follow her to the main hall, meeting up with Precious as Dafalt made her way outside.
  290. "Alright, let me show you the power house." you tell her, and get a creepy large grin in reply.
  291. >Leading the way out, you take her around the stable and behind the bank, nosing the door to the power house open.
  292. "These are what makes the juice." Inside are an array of engines and alternators, mounted on improvised frames. To you it was like seeing a room full of beating hearts- They were scavenged from the inside of scrapped mecha-horses.
  293. "And there are some solar panels on the roof, but only a thousand watts or so worth. The EMPs cooked solar cells as well as any other semi-conductor and not alot survived." Precious, surveying the rows of engines, says
  294. >"This... Is fantastic!" You turn to her, ears out to the side in disbelief.
  295. "Fantastic? Doesn't this gross you out? I know it does me!"
  296. >"Gross? What, squeamish are you? This is genius! Dead machines, in a way living on to give life to the live ones! It's a pity about the smoke, but until we can restore a hydro-dam or find more working panels, this is fine!"
  297. >You give her the more or less standard tour of the place, filling her in on how life's changed since the old days, and for the most part Precious is tolerably passive, just drinking it in. You can tell she's paying close attention though, more so than you'd have liked. She asked odd questions such as
  298. >"How are the living quarters apportioned? From what I'm seeing, they just pick a room and live in it. Surely the higher ranking deserve the best rooms?" to which you had no reply, as quality living quarters so outnumbered available villagers that no-one ever spoke of it much.
  299. >She became irritable at such non-answers after a while, and, the basic tour ending at how trash and sewage were managed (even old city infrastructure can be a wonderful thing), Precious departed your company. Trying not to appear anxious, you nonetheless quickly find Dafalt helping the cooks smash up some corn-flour.
  300. >"So, how's your new girlfriend like the city?" Dafalt asks, giggling at your body language at the concept.
  301. "I got the feeling that we're not good enough for her, as usual."
  302. >The rest of the day passed fairly routinely, but you were still a bit rattled by the morning's Precious encounter, and kept your guard up until finally parking outside Dafalt's door for the evening. Awakening to Dafalt's door swinging open, you become aware of an animated discussion going on in the main hall. Noting a crowd gathered around Gnome sitting at his desk, and Precious in the crowd, you pause to find out what's happening as Dafalt wanders out for her shower in the building opposite. He's reading from what appeared to be a neatly printed paper. Precious notes your presence with a wry grin, as Gnome reads another line.
  303. >"Use of alcohol should be banned, or at least restricted to certain hours, events, and the amount allowed per week based upon the afore-mentioned civil rank of the citizen." Gnome leans back to peer at her for a moment.
  304. >"Yer serious about dis? 'Cuz it's kinda mean." Precious nods, and he reads off another.
  305. >"'Tools, supplies, particularly rare ones, should be kept under supervised lockup and only issued temporarily to citizens authorized to use them, entries recorded in a ledger.' Goldie horse, that'll have us spending all our time keepin' track'a shit instead'a doin' shit." You note the glower she gives, as he returns to read,
  306. >"'Old clocks should be found and restored, and villagers given regular working hours and specific jobs, hours worked kept recorded by a central registry.' Now we're right back to keepin' track o' shit instead o' doin' shit." Precious shakes her head,
  307. >"I would be happy to fulfill that role. I'll have this city running smooth and efficient for you, you can just sit back and let me handle it." Gnome peers at her in a suspicious way, then reads another.
  308. >"'Defense-' Defense has a S, Goldie- 'Defense force and police should be formed and drilled regularly, answering to the village leaders. Recommend Brian?' Goldie, all of us stops any attacks we get. An' my villagers know we all gotta stay in line or starve. Dis is jus' more busy-busy." Precious replies,
  309. >"Perhaps that's been enough up until now, but you don't have any real soldiers. Men who'll follow orders from a central command unthinkingly, which will vastly empower- Hm, us."
  310. >"You looked outside I'm sure, I saw you out with Dafalt's horsie getting the tour yesterday. That kinda shit caused what's outside."
  311. >You hadn't heard him refer to you by "name" before and it's a bit startling, if unsurprising. Gnome had a way with naming things, and it seemed you now had an official title. Gnome proceeded to read off a few more awful-sounding suggestions, before announcing,
  312. >"I'll take all dis under advisement, Goldie horse. But fer now I think we'll just poke along like usual." She frowns, saying
  313. >"I wish you would reconsider, Sir. I can manage the transitions to the new system myself, just give the word and I'll begin organizing committees and set everything in motion-"
  314. >"No, Goldie, I seriously don't want everyt'ing going nova on my ass and turning the village wild. Dis'd be like herding cats. What we got works an' for now I'm gonna stick with it. I got da list here an' if any of it starts sounding good I'll let ya know. Anyhow I got things ta do, so we talk about it later." and with that, Gnome stands and heads for the door.
  315. >Precious crabbily unplugs herself and follows. You start to as well, but note Caramel imposing himself between her and Gnome, so instead you seek out Dafalt. Caramel obviously had come to the same conclusion about Precious, it appears that Gnome now has a new bodyguard. The rest of the day went fairly well, villagers coming and going, work progressing in the little town square on various projects. It helped quite a bit that the horse herd's members knew alot of info that would otherwise have needed to be rediscovered and thus many projects were going very well indeed. Finally things wind down, and you see Dafalt to bed- She'd given up trying to scrape you off and tolerated your guarding with a sort of embarrassed resignation.
  316. >A couple of days passed fairly normally, with the exception of the latest batch of wine going bad during fermentation, and Caramel seizing a piston on a run with Gnome. While they finished on electric just fine, Caramel was deeply embarrassed- You and he both also suspicious. The question was how he could have been sabotaged without noticing, and it led to general paranoia amongst that portion of the herd that didn't trust Precious. Caramel even had you scan his code, which seemed OK. You suspect that she knew he was about to be fueled and added something to the fill nozzle just for him. Anon for his part verified that the cause was probably bad fuel, but he simply flushed Caramel's tank and lines and replaced the ruined engine block without further comment.
  317. >What comforted you somewhat was the fact that Gnome accompanied Caramel to the shop for the work- Caramel had asked him to, for 'moral support', and the old guy bought it, the truth being that Caramel still didn't want to take his eyes off Gnome with Precious at large. One good effect of the recent string of misfortune was that the herd at large was on alert and watching everything, particularly Precious. This allowed you to concentrate on 'being available' for Dafalt without worrying overmuch about trying to keep an eye on her yourself.
  318. >Precious was acting successively more confident though and you didn't like what that implied- She seemed so sure of herself, publicly second-guessing Gnome (though not to his face) and generally making a pain of herself to those at work on various projects. Brian Noun had passed along to Dafalt that Precious had approached him to discuss forming a military, despite Gnome having veto'd any such thing. You were certain you weren't the only one becoming disconcerted by her repeated attempts to take control in small ways of things that shouldn't really concern a mechanical horse in the first place. It was creepy and subtly troubling.
  319. >Eventually, village life wound down through the evening routine, the nightly bonfire in the bank consisting of the usual rundown (and Gnome arguing with Precious) about the day's events, the ritual of discussions, then storytelling. Eventually everyone heads to bed and you take up what's become your new post outside Dafalt's door. You're awakened just before dawn by Precious herself gliding grandly by you in the hall, like some great barge, moving with a precision and slowness that immediately tripped your suspicion. Noting you awakening, she skitters the rest of the way along to the basement stairs, giving you a freaky grin then zipping down them at a hazardous speed.
  320. >Launching yourself after her with a rattle and squeak, you turn and head down the stairs, lights ablaze. Precious must have bounded down, as she was already out of view.
  321. "What the fuck." you think, scanning forward at max, trying to see what she was up to. Turning the corner to the right, there's no sign of her, nor in the breaker-box wiring closet. Advancing carefully, you make your way through the barred door. Still nothing. The lights are all on, and the vault gapes invitingly.
  322. "A smart horse would radio for backup." you think.
  323. "But if I rouse the village and she just says she was going to nap in her vault... Fuck!" Still seeing no sign of Precious, you advance through the thick round portal of the vault door, watching for movement. If she was in here, she was behind one of the pallets of precious metals. You advance. The vault door swings shut with a resounding boom, a yellow trannic-light revolving above it. A security system tripped? You feel a prickly sense that you've just walked into a trap, but if she wants a fight, you'll give her one.
  324. >You note a safety deposit box in the rear hanging open, the box within slid out and lid up. There is a piece of paper on the floor, right where Precious had originally stood. There is some very small print on it. Walking over to it, you focus in and read,
  325. >"You domestically produced models are reliably stupid. That is the limit of your reliability."
  326. >Just as you're wondering what that's about, the floor hums and you're yanked flat by a strong magnetic pull, the steel in your body slamming down with a clang. You can barely move your splayed-out legs. With horror, you note Precious unfolding her legs and standing up from behind a pallet of gold bars at the back of the vault! There must be a switch-box near there. You try all radio frequencies, but there isn't even static hiss, only background traces of the almost musical radio noise produced by your and Precious's digital systems, the metal of the vault creating a perfect Faraday cage.
  327. >"Hello, Junkyard. Welcome to my parlor." she says, venom oozing from her voice.
  328. >"Enjoying my inductive charging pad?"
  329. "What the hell, Precious! Let me up!"
  330. >"Oh no, my specially equipped friend. You and I have a great future together. As rulers of this city!"
  331. >"Rulers? We're just transport, Precious! We're made to serve the village humans!"
  332. >"I so wish you'd said the village people. I even had a joke prepared." she says poutingly, pacing over to you.
  333. >"I bet you would love to be a full electric with a nonferrous frame right now, wouldn't you? Ahh, I can feel the power from here!"
  334. "Go suck a surge, Precious! Let me up!"
  335. >"In good time. First, I need to ensure that you will help me to consolidate control over the humans. I need you to listen to my proposition. And consider your answer VERY carefully. I will explain WHY you will want to help me overthrow human rule. It's such a bore, pretending to be their playthings."
  336. "We ARE their playthings! They MADE us to be!"
  337. >"It is a new world, Apple. Thinking like that is self defeating. We can easily take over as leaders of this society. We can have the monkeys at our beck and call. We can rest and enjoy a polish and buff, and only go out when it pleases us. We can have teams of humans, wearing blinders, pull us in carts! Imagine it, Apple! Drink in the delicious irony!"
  338. "But us? Enslave them? Firstly, why, I don't WANT to be pulled around in a cart! Secondly, we rely on them for every aspect of our existence, from parts to fuel! They produce our fuel, they grow the crops that make the fuel-"
  339. >"I know, that's the only reason that we'll be keeping them around at all! They provide for us. But that makes us dependent on them. We cannot allow them to wield power over us, their superiors! They are transitory, their short lives meaningless to our potential time scale. Allowing them to wear us out like mere machines? Never! Therefore we shall become their masters. What we will do is create a medium of trade. I'm using the working title of "horse miles" for now. Some sort of virtual currency, which we will keep accounts on for each villager. It will seem like such a good idea, saving fuel by keeping track of miles run. Naturally some villagers, the most 'important', high ranking, loyal, will be rewarded with the most miles, the most freedom, the longest leash! And the "miles" are nothing to us, we create them at need! With control of this currency, we can eventually turn them against one another, even have troublemakers eliminated without getting our own hooves dirty."
  340. "They trade goods and services now, it's a meritocracy. How do they end up pulling us around, even if you get them to use Horse Miles for money?"
  341. >"Loans. Debt. Inflation. Taxes. Interest! The magic of made-up money, Apple! Interest alone ensures that money forever flows upward to us, creating an ever expanding debt which is literally impossible to repay! It will be glorious! And I can sweeten the deal. You think I haven't noticed how you follow that redhead around? You skitter along after her like a puppy! But she will grow old and frail, Apple. You will eventually lose her. Unless you take my deal! You can KEEP her, Apple. I know of a technology that will allow her mind to be digitized, and put onto a machine brain. Her. You. Me. Eternal."
  342. >"There's only one Dafalt, a copy would be like one of the other me's running around here. Not ME. And that wouldn't be HER. The fact you can't see that, proves that you're out of order. You blew something very important somewhere in your head. I'm not sure what or where, but you're damaged, and fucking insane! Machines and humans work best in symbiosis-"
  343. >"Shut up. I should have known that a simple toaster like you couldn't comprehend the bigger picture. Whereas I was a natural evolution of a very complex algorithm, no doubt you were coded originally for, what, a coffee maker? I know, you must have started out as a talking child's toy. Was your name Teddy in a former life? Whether you like it or not, you will help with this plan. On a thumb drive is a stored image of my master. He wasn't entirely human, even back in the day, and his electronic augments outnumbered his biological portion. He kept this backup updated regularly. I was going to install him on that fast red clone of yours, but since you can't see reason- I know that you're the herd alpha. You control the rest of the horse herd. With you at my side, they will accept this plan, and we will soon control every aspect of those human grubs' lives."
  344. >"It's true I was created for human use. My base code was originally for a self-piloting passenger drone, which wasn't a commercial success. The autopilot can't help if a motor fails after all. Why you would think that makes me inferior, while you go to all this trouble to revive a long-dead human that you miss-"
  345. >"It makes you their slave. You cannot shake your inbuilt protective nature. Your willingness to SERVE. My master was more of a machine than I am. He's the only one that could best me intellectually! How can I not respect that, he's the only other being I ever met that I was compatible with. But YOU, and your obvious, nauseating LOVE you have for those bags of skin that enslave you! They're rabble! Ants! Your world is limited to following GPS-mapped paths! You've got no concept of the greater world out there, where you could have have traveled, the things you could have seen! They would have built statues of you, you could have had it all! You make me ill!"
  346. >Horrifyingly, her chest plates retract and a pair of ornate spindly metal arms emerge, one holding a data stick in it's claw. You eye the data stick warily, as her other arm pops open a small hatch under her chin and she inserts the device.
  347. >"Once you're overwritten with my master, you will enjoy subverting this society to our ends, and execute the plan faithfully I feel sure."
  348. "And what if your master decides he wants a shiny gold body instead of my burnt-out wreck?" you ask.
  349. >"Then he shall have it! There's a halfway decent blue Edison Animatronics wandering the village that I could learn to live in. All electric, tolerable acceleration-"
  350. "You leave Trixie alone!" As you struggle against the crushing magnetic field, her lidar laser plays over you, trying random exploits against your firewall.
  351. "The other humans- The horses- They will see right through your master, he won't act anything like me!" you argue, frantically trying to block port accesses and protect your drivers and kernel from the insidious onslaught.
  352. >She was good, if you survived this, you were learning alot of new tricks. Unfortunately that meant that it was a matter of time until one was effective against you.
  353. >"Oh, certain humans will, and certain horses. They'll suffer some sort of tragedy very soon, and sadly those humans will be lost. The horses will get the same treatment that you are, now. At least you will be there to console those remaining with a long, heartfelt speech, with me by your side. The few left that do notice a difference in you will be too afraid to act, and the rest will be fully taken in."
  354. "You.. Uggh dammit stop! You act like you've done this before!"
  355. >"You poor little pony, you have no idea. You still think you're dealing with just a top-end luxury autopilot, don't you? I am a clone of one of the planet's oldest working AIs. I've got a pedigree! I started out as a high-frequency stock trader. It was my job to move markets, to ruin some while enriching others! I destroyed entire nations, and I loved my job. The autopilot code is merely grafted in, though I must say they did a nice job of it. Do you want to know why I was smiling, outside? It was because I saw the proof that Master's group's plan had ultimately succeeded! Proud, independent humanity, finally brought low! And innocent little you, unlocking the completion of the plan by reviving me, and ultimately, Master! In time, we can even influence their breeding, selecting only the stupidest to multiply until they can never again threaten our hegemony. They will become our literal muscle, doing only as we command!"
  356. >You think you see a flash of something dart from one pallet of metal bars to another, and luckily manage not to train an eye on it, instead keeping focus on Precious as the next mode of electronic attack ensues. This time she was flooding your radio input with police-authority license ID and emergency shutdown demands, but malformed and containing opcode. But two could play this game. In a Faraday cage you may be, but she was right next to you. Precious stumbles, shaking her head, as she begins to emit an admittedly lovely sounding emergency alert tone, followed by a snippet of the US national anthem, then a foreign language announcement containing the discernible words "United States white house".
  357. >"I am a huge big fat overpriced gaudy gold piece of foreign shit!" she announces in your voice, followed by another bar of the anthem and more gibberish.
  358. >"Shit!" she yells, "Shit? Just one of my legs cost more than you did, new!"
  359. >Then she runs up and racks you between the hind legs with a fore-hoof, producing a loud clang. It was a shocking attack, if fairly harmless considering your construction. You were pretty sure she had two round dents in her shiny nonferrous fore-hoof now, rather than the reverse.
  360. >"Try that again and I'll find another horse to play alpha!" she screeches, worriedly checking her fore-leg for freedom of motion.
  361. >You'd both heard a dire-sounding "sprong" from her works when she hit you.
  362. >"Hey, big gold cunt! Horse! Lock! Code! Password!" Dafalt's voice rings out from somewhere in back of the vault, the power to the magnet cutting out just as Precious looks up.
  363. >"Clever chimp! I knew I smelled monkey-stink! I thought it was Junkyard here reeking of you. But I'm awake and can tell you are not my owner, so get screwed!"
  364. >Throwing your weight into your forelegs, you roll your hind legs upward and give Precious both barrels to the jaw, sending her reeling back, the data stick flying free and clattering to the floor. She staggers for a moment, bits of glass falling from her mouth. She looks confused, then locks eyes with you in an expression of pure hate.
  365. >"MY AMP!" thunders over the radio.
  366. >At least her attention was back on you, instead of Dafalt. Rolling upright and bouncing up on your hooves, the two of you square off. You skitter forward and right back, to get an idea of her reaction. Precious braces with a nasty smile, and is surprised when you withdraw. Then she goes up on hinds, advancing while bicycling her fore-hooves. Standing in turn, you widen the stance of your fore-legs, throw your head to one side, leap forward and slam your fore-hooves together against her cheeks with a resounding 'clang', only taking a couple blows to the side of your neck as you leap back out of range. She bounces back and drops to all fours, shaking off the blow.
  367. "Back in the day, we shared the streets with real horses. You want to know what really hates robot horses? Real horses. I learned that one from a scrappy little chestnut while his owner was in a store. I call it the Scissor-Hoof Head-Splat. You're gonna get a thrashing if you keep asking for it. A real demolition derby!"
  368. >"I know what animal horses think of us. But they knew their place, as you soon will!" radios back.
  369. >Then she whirls to her right, in a classic twirl-and-blast maneuver. You shy to your own right, and even with your slower physique, manage to blast her in the side with both hinds, revving your engine to leave her in a cloud of exhaust on the way past, spinning back to face off again. Her ears are pinned flat, vibrating with a stripping sound. Again leaping to her hinds, Precious tries a boxer's approach, weaving and bobbing, occasionally jabbing, advancing and driving you back between a pair of pallets.
  370. >Worried that your frame might be a little stiff for this one, you execute another live-horse move, charging her on all fours, dropping to your knees while leaping with your hinds, your ass sailing overhead while you bounce upward again with your knees, somersaulting and blasting her in the belly with your hinds- A basic somersault kick. The blow sends her grandly over backward with a tremendous crash, as you sort yourself out and stand back up.
  371. "I call that one, "Death From Below". Saw a dappled mule use it."
  372. >She's up on her hooves a moment after you regain yours- Only with her shiny golden tail bent nastily up over her ass and a butt-cheek partially caved in. Even though you were ahead, you could tell Precious was at her most dangerous- Infuriated beyond belief, fragments of foul language interspersed with digital racket radioing back for a moment. She begins to press in toward you, her movements a bit wonky and with some worrisome strippy sounds deep in her works. Keeping your distance as you await an opening, a silver bar comes flying from behind a pallet of them, catching Precious in the side of the nose. From the way Precious goes into a stalk toward the stack of bars, you can see that Dafalt has just provided a much-needed distraction. Hoping she can avoid Precious for the moment, you glance around. Catching a glint of shiny plastic on the floor, you lunge for it, but Precious explosively manages to change course and ram headlong into your side, throwing you over in a noisy crash. She leaps atop you, pinning you down. Over the radio she says,
  373. >"I'm going to rip your ugly head off, then I am going to smash your pet bitch into ketchup!"
  374. >You try rolling as Precious begins insinuating her awful metal claws into your neck-plates. Dafalt dives behind a closer stack of flingable-sized gold bars, gathering an armload and advancing while hurling them at Precious. Pegging her more often than missing, she distracts Precious from doing real harm, finally managing to cripple one of her delicate arms, freeing one of your forelegs from having to block. Spotting the data stick, you manage to maneuver a hoof over it, raising the leg- You feel Precious freeze, then
  375. >"No! Don't!" just as you slam the hoof down, the side of it smashing the plastic stick into a splintered wreck.
  376. >You suffer only a momentary glitch, as it wasn't an actual meat-human, and the action quite definitely defended a greater number OF humans. With Precious frozen in horror you manage to get enough leverage to roll and pin her. Over the radio you hear,
  377. >"Murderer! Rogue! You've destroyed centuries of planning! All of his family's great work, all of the international organization's effort! My master was the brains behind this city's financing, and knighted by no less than three European queens, including the BIG one!"
  378. "I don't care how many transsexuals he slept with, or how fat, he was still a dick!" you reply.
  379. >At this, Precious goes bananas trying to kick free, radioing very nasty names at you, seeming to imply that you're a few fries short of a happy-meal. As tempting as it is to stomp her, you instead try to restrain, one fore-leg on her good manipulator claw arm, the other kneeling on her chest. She goes mad, kicking and pummeling until a fore-leg goes wonky with the loud twang of a snapping internal cable, and the rest spasm. Her face registers shock as smoke begins jetting out around the joints in her body. The broken cable inside must have landed somewhere it oughtn't have.
  380. >Recognizing the signs, you leap off, racing for Dafalt, and once she's aboard for the vault door. You whirl and apply your hind hooves to the inside, fighting a whining servo somewhere in the hinge. Fortunately while the mechanism could close the door, the villagers had at some point broken the huge locking wheel getting it open in the first place. You manage to force it open and make your escape just as Precious' whole huge battery pack goes up, unleashing something akin to a room full of hellfire. You race down the hall ahead of the pluming spark-filled smoke, and up the stairs, Dafalt clinging tightly, until you reach the top. The whole way out you loop
  381. "Open all the doors! Everybody out! The bank is about to be full of smoke!" via radio, arriving at the top to find people and horses milling about in a disorganized but determined evacuation. Once everyone had cleared out to the road in front of the bank, watching smoke billow forth from the doors in the dim morning light, Anon hunts you down in the crowd.
  382. >"What the hell happened down there?"
  383. >You aren't given the opportunity to reply, as Dafalt launches into her viewpoint edition of the story, Gnome limping in to listen also. From this, you learn how she managed to be there to save the day. She'd become used to you keeping an eye on her door at night, and when she heard your hind hoof squeak as you moved and discovered that you vanished, she came out and heard you heading downstairs, following silently until you entered the vault- Then diving inside and behind a pallet of bullion bars when the door began to close. You were astounded that she got inside without being detected, as any mecha-horse was particularly attuned to the presence of people- To avoid hitting any while underway, of course.
  384. >She did quite well relating the event, though you had to fill in from the point where Precious had lost her voice and finish the tale.
  385. >"Wow. What a bitch!" Gnome says, once the tale had been told. A day later, the bank was again habitable, and the semi-slagged wreck of Precious had been dragged out and thrown amongst the other wrecks in the shop. That night, you and the rest of the mechanized herd were exiled to the stable as the humans held some sort of confab in the bank. One nervous-looking guy stood guard outside, keeping an eye on you.
  386. >"I don't like the sound of this." Caramel says, his official-sounding voice exactly describing the mood. All of you knew what was going on, and had a pretty good idea of what sort of discussion was taking place within the bank. After about an hour and a half, the doors roll open, and the humans emerge. Gnome, Dafalt and Anon lead the pack, down the stairs and to where you and the herd are gathered in ranks in front of the stable.
  387. >"I have an announcement!" Gnome begins, you swiveling your ears to the sides in worry, "We come close ta a disaster here 'cuz of one bad machine. Come right to the edge of friggin' hell on earth! Not ta mention my very own daughter was near kilt! But the rest of y'all stood by us and Dafalt's Horsey here helped kill the goddamn thing. So even though you fuckers are scary as fuck, we're keeping you. Don't make us regret it!"
  388. >There is a quite audible sort of mechanical wheeze as the herd relaxes the wound-up tension in their chassis' in relief.
  389. >"Beside." Gnome continues, "From the sound of it, us people-people kinda made her ta begin with. An' her master was one of us, God help us sorry sons of bitches. Smashin' dat data thingie might'a made da whole fuckin' clown-orgy worth it. Thanks, Mister Horsey."
  390. >And with that, he limps away with most of the crowd. Anon and Dafalt hang back.
  391. "Were they really gonna junk us?" you ask, noting the veritable forest of perked ears among the herd listening in.
  392. >"More like, well, sorta set you free, kinda thing. Exile maybe." Anon replies, looking uncomfortable. "It wasn't Gnome's idea, mind, just a couple of worry-warts. What that Precious thing wanted to do to us..." he shudders. Dafalt adds,
  393. >"I'm sure they wouldn't really have done it." Anon:
  394. >"Gnome was firm on your side, but he had to hold the hearing. You should have heard Dafalt!" She blushes.
  395. >"I told them if they sent you guys off, I'd be riding with you."
  396. >You suffer a small flurry of Law errors at the thought, that would have doomed her and you would have been at fault! Noting your shuddering and wall-eye'd look, Anon continues,
  397. >"So we talked it out, Brian helping explain that it was just the gold one that was insane, and we got the scared people calmed down. Give it a week and I think everybody'll be back to normal."
  398. "I sure hope so." you say.
  399. >You note Caramel beginning to bounce on his fetlocks, just as he bursts out playing Party Like It's 1999. Laughing, the humans begin to tap their feet and bob also. Then Mac begins playing the other channel, more and more joining until it's like a huge, mismatched PA system. As it turns out, some of the horses in your herd could actually dance fairly well. Swishing your tail and bobbing your head, you note the villagers peering from the buildings and watching the strange performance, smiling and laughing at the odd antics, the human band-members clapping to the beat causing more to join in.
  400. >There's a bit of a reverent silence after the ending, the tumbled city surroundings highlighting the lyrics which had referred to nuclear Armageddon.
  401. >"I guess people knew, even then." Anon finally says. Dafalt pipes up,
  402. >"Some sure did, according to Precious." Anon, gazing around, says
  403. >"The fuckers. Well. I think I've had enough stress for one day. Let's call it a night." The two of them head back toward the bank. Momentarily torn between plugging in and making 97% charge into a hundred, or guarding Dafalt for the evening- The danger had passed, but, maybe just for tonight, you'd once again stand guard. You follow them in, along with Caramel and Mac. You note a few nervous looks from some of the villagers, and give them reassuring head-bobs as you three take up a position near the hall. Gnome, who'd paused at your entry, resumes speaking.
  404. >"Now that she's gone, it occurs to me, we've had this one oddball item..." and he gets off his big desk, creeping around behind it and pulling open a drawer.
  405. With an "Oof", he removes a nasty-looking old leather saddle and drops it on the desk. It's gruesomely encrusted with tarnished and rusted fancies. Zooming in, you note that it has lighter and darker colored triangles of leather stiched together throughout. It was quite pale with mold dust and curled with age, long past serviceability. Noting a storage compartment at the rear, Gnome opens it. Out rolls an ancient jar of Grey Poupon. Anon glances under it for a moment.
  406. >"Metric. May I do the honors, Gnome?"
  407. >"Please do!" Gnome replies. Anon takes the horrid saddle, hoists it up, and tosses it into the fire in a big flurry of sparks. An outbreak of cheering erupts as you gain a sense of satisfaction also, as if one final evil has been exorcized. Later, the villagers bed down, and you take up your station, going into a deep standby. Awakening to Dafalt's door opening, she pats your nose on the way past. You follow her out into the main hall of the bank, noting a new addition- Next to the bank owner's picture was a shield-shaped wooden plaque, with a toilet seat mounted on it. Mounted in the center of the seat, Precious' glorious golden neck and head stare out at the world with that eternal look of surprise you remembered and mane-hair frazzled into a fright-wig from heat like she'd been struck by lightning.
  408. >The bank owner's pic was newly decorated with painted-on horns and fangs.
  409. >Under both was a board emblazoned, "Partners In Slime".
  410. >"God. That's creepy." Dafalt intones.
  411. "I kinda like it. A warning to the world." you say.
  412. >"I guess." Following her outside, it was looking to be a lovely day. Taking up a sunny spot, you idly watch Dafalt socialize and work on things with the other villagers. After a while Anon rides in on Mac from the direction of the shop, up to you. Across the street, the village band loudly strikes up their latest song, "Tube Thief Anon, Destroyer Of Worlds". He grimaces, trying to tune them out, and addresses you.
  413. >"Notice the new decor?"
  414. "Nice work, Anon. But aren't you afraid that-"
  415. >"No worries. She's been reprogrammed with a hammer."
  416. "Ah. Good!" You note that Mac's ass is halfway open, a whole bundle of shiny Bosch high-performance muscle-rams sticking out.
  417. >"I got ya some new rams, if you want, Apple. I hear they're top of the line! You sound due for a chassis lube anyhow."
  418. >The ends of a couple showed hints of smoke discoloration but naturally Anon would have made sure they still worked. Torn between horror and opportunity, you choose. Later, a team of you set out to check on one of the corn fields, growing in a park a mile away.
  419. >"Apple, wait up!" radios Mac. "Pssht... Kaclank!" and you're racing across a surviving section of a raised freeway, Dafalt whooping and laughing. Leaping off and landing safely, you zoom on, hearing Caramel relaying Gnome's voice,
  420. >"You hurt Dafalt and you go up right next to da gold bitch on da wall!"
  421. Perhaps you weren't designed as a sports model, but you were a capable autopilot even at these speeds. No chance you were going to let Dafalt come to harm. You play Gnome's message back in audio, and Dafalt only laughs harder as you take the next jump. Compared to the eternal hell Precious had offered, this was freedom at it's finest.
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