We pegged it out of Fort Mercer without delay. The camp was a couple of hours' walk to the north, they said. There was still a lot of ambient heat, and I was really suffering for most of the walk, but near the end of it, the sun was setting. I know I've mentioned that if you blink you miss it, but that fucking fireball could not go down quick enough. I threw my head back when I noticed the sky getting kind of orange and kept walking until someone nudged me to ask if I was awake. This took three attempts and a concerned "are you alright Atom" before it was finally dusk when I opened my eyes.
With the sun gone, there was a brighter light on the horizon. I took in the environment for probably the first time in hours. The Death Caps looked a lot bigger than how they did from Fort Mercer, and based on the valley we were travelling along, we'd reached the foothills of them. A few columns of sandstone stuck out from the desert, and there were a couple of things that I couldn't tell whether they were skulls, or stones with convenient shadows. The light in the distance was the vaguely orangey-yellow colour of fire, and far off enough that all I saw was a couple of bright dots (even with my glasses lifted).
I wasn't keeping track of time as we approached. The slope of the path lifted, and for a short time, the far-off light disappeared behind the hill. This left us with the stars and a crescent moon for light. Babylon caught me looking up at the stars absently and gave me a nudge, and probably a smile that I couldn't see. I grumbled.
When the light returned to vision, it was clearly three or four fires, all nearby. One of them was a primary campfire, and it was bright enough to see the outline of some nearby tents. As we got closer, two of them seemed to be raised up on sticks or something. A quick glance around informed me that we'd left the valley floor, and this camp was on some kind of mesa.
"Hold!” Some voice ahead called. I could see the outline of a pony, partly silhouetted against the campfire behind him, but not much else. We stopped, first Babylon and Ivy, then Rainbow, then Sam and I bumped into them.
"Getting kinda spooky out here, ain't it?" Sam said. Rainbow shushed him.
"Whose are the wings that beat before me?"
"Those of the eagle, proud and free," Ivy called back.
The voice laughed. "Ivy Bells! Get over here, little sparrow." One by one, we started moving again.
"Hey Jaffa!" She ran up to him and seemed to thump her shoulder into him, and he did the same. Jaffa was nearly twice Ivy's size, so she bounced.
"It has been too long! Get inside, your uncle misses you." Ivy scampered ahead, kicking up a little cloud of dust. Babylon nudged past me. "The wandering star returns."
"Safe travels to you, Jaffa." Isn't that something people normally say as a farewell? Man, Babylon is weird.
"Who joins you?" He brandished something at us. It must have gotten dark quick, because I could not see what the fuck he was pointing at us.
"My daughter's fellow traveller..." Just stop it Babylon please talk like a normal person.
Rainbow waved. "'Lo."
"... his sister, and a friend. The three of them seek a... favour."
Jaffa made a curious noise, and returned his long pointy thing to his side. "He is the Ranger, yes?"
"Are they, too, Rangers?"
Sam and I immediately burst out laughing. "Not on your nelly!"
Jaffa reared his head back and gave us a blink, then looked at Babylon. Rainbow had his head in a hoof. Babylon giggled. "The steel stallion, Satellite Sam, is of the earth. His words are quick, but he has a bigger heart than many a pony of flesh and blood. And Atom Smasher..." She looked right at me with a grin. C'mon, just knock it off? Please? "... is as free as the wind."
"If... you say so. You know the way. No trouble, no problem."
"Sounds like the normal drill." I micro-saluted him, and moved to proceed. He stopped me with what I now saw was a very sharp spear with the barrel of a sunburst rifle taped to it. Looking along it, the rest of it was there too.
"I suggest that if you seek favour, free bird, that you mind your words."
I hesitated. I knew how to blend in with raiders, sure. Or... was it only the 'raiders' at home that I was naturally kin with? That I could hurl the right mixture of incoherent threat at to pass as one of their own? I got the feeling that these guys wouldn't just cock back and laugh if I boxed one of them on the nose and sat back down. "Right. Sure. I'll give it a go."
Jaffa gave me one last stare down, before lifting his laser... spear? And letting me pass. Rainbow and Sam got no such grilling. Babylon led us past the two torches that marked the entrance to the camp, and past the campfire. Much of the tribe was sitting nearby, using its light to carve deadwood, repair tools, or eat with family and friends. Most of the tents were open. Some ponies seemed to be sleeping outside. Someone was sitting on a box with the Steel Ranger logo on it, inspecting a drum and some pipes.
Babylon led us to the largest tent and nudged her way in. A couple of lanterns hung inside. Over her shoulder, I saw that Ivy was wrestling with another pony only a little smaller than her off to the side. A much older stallion draped in furs, with a close-cropped mane apart from a long, tightly braided ponytail, watched with amusement as a unicorn mare around his age circled the fray, trying to find an opening to separate them.
Babylon laughed. "Ellasar, you haven't seen your cousin for months and this is how you greet her?"
Ivy lifted the smaller pony off her effortlessly, and floated her, still flailing, to the side. "C'mon Ellie, I got business to do!"
"Aww!" She seemed like a teenager at the oldest.
"How about a rematch when we're done, huh?"
"I'll show you!" They did the same shoulder bump thing that Ivy did earlier with Jaffa, and Ellasar ran out of the tent past us. She made an 'ooo' face when she noticed us, and promptly tripped over. Distracted again, she carried on to wherever she was going.
Babylon motioned us inside, and crossed the tent. The stallion stood. "Brother!"
They embraced, in a motion that seemed rather like the same thing that Ivy was doing, but less high-impact. "The wisest of us all. How was your journey?" There wasn't anything particularly special about his voice, it was just a slightly hoarse baritone.
"Enlightening! I have new friends to show you." He looked over at us, and then his eyes widened with a smile.
"Ah! Come, sit and know us better." He gestured with open forelegs as he sat. The floor was carpeted, with a couple of cushions around. Rainbow made his way to Ivy, and they nuzzled before sitting together. Mercifully, Babylon left me and Sam ample room to form a circle without being uncomfortably close, or sticking our arses out the door. The other mare, now no longer officiating a judo match, sat down next to the dude and wiped her face.
Before I sat down I had a quick look around the group. "Just so we're clear in advance, nobody have any plans to open fire, right?"
Rainbow almost looked offended. "... what?"
"Last time I was in a situation like this, someone panicked and tried to incinerate a local lord and I missed out on a sweet job opportunity. She was a scribe, by the way, so I'm keeping an eye on you." I made some hoof gestures at Ivy.
"Why would I- he's my un... Atom, sit down." She practically pushed me to the floor. Stupid cheating unicorns.
Furs McGee was quite tickled by this. "You've made some entertaining friends, Babylon!"
"I do weddings, birthdays..." Sam quipped. This got a snort out of the tribe mare.
The dude thumped his front a couple of times when his chortling caught some phlegm, and once he'd recovered he sighed, beaming. "Greetings. I am Jericho, chief of the Eagle Tribe, and this is my wife, Peregrine. May the wind be ever at your back." I ran a few scenarios in my head. I'm no expert on flying, but I'm not entirely sure that having a tailwind is actually helpful for flying. What a really ground-pounder saying.
"I'm Atom Smasher, and this is my air conditioning unit." I put a hoof on Sam.
He threw it off. "I'll condition your unit in a minute. Satellite Sam! This is my face, by the way."
"Now that we have been introduced, we can commence the ceremonial gutting of the bird." A rusty lawnmower blade floated from the back of the tent towards me.
I leaned back, and my wings ruffled. "Uhh..."
The blade lowered, and returned to the junk in the corner. Jericho chuckled. "Relax, I'm fucking with you."
"People who brandish grungy machetes at me are usually not doing so in jest." Rainbow and Ivy gave each other a knowing look and a smirk.
"Shall we move along, children?" I could hear Babylon's smile.
"To business, yes!" Jericho thumped the carpet.
"Make with the plot, Rainbow man." He gave me a baffled look before making with the plot.
"Do you remember how I ended up in San Cimarron, Jericho?"
Jericho squinted. "Refresh my memory."
"My dad left me in the Stable, and I came looking for him and..."
"Ah yes! The scientist who fell from the clouds. Broken magpie."
"Well! Things have been happening." Rainbow wiggled where he sat. He was really excited about this, damn. Had he done nothing for ten years except collect music, look for dad, shoot things and marry someone half his size? "This..." He gestured to me. "Is my sister. She got here this week and we've been busy. She managed to get us in touch with Sam here, who might be able to get us the rest of the way there."
Jericho raised an eyebrow. "I see."
Sam produced some kind of mechanical noise. "Well, we've come this far and I still have all my servos, so I'm mildly cooperative."
"And I'm guessing that you haven't come here to simply share your good news?"
I smirked. "Sharp as a tack, this one."
Rainbow rubbed his chin. "We have... a plan. It's a little out there, but it's the best we've got."
"We need to find the Los Arabos facility, somewhere underground in the Death Caps. Sam knows where it is - sort of. But there's a catch."
"There are..." Sam sounded like the wind had come out of his sails. "There are a lot of people who want to find Los Arabos, most of them for the worst reasons. It is... imperative. Essential. Absolutely mandatory, that nobody follows us there." Jericho made a noise. Sam pointed at Rainbow. "The only reason I'm trusting this happy bastard is because he kinda looks like his dad."
"Interesting. So where is it?"
"It's uh..." Sam scratched the back of his head. Could robots itch? This was going to bother me. "There's a back exit to the facility, from the lower levels. Through an old quarry. It's miles away from it. I don't know where it is, coordinates-wise."
Jericho scratched his nose and looked at Babylon. "Do you think it's..."
"... the Cave of Screams?" she said.
I snorted. "Well that sounds pleasant! Let's just head right over."
Jericho glowered at me. "Our tribe has avoided the Cave of Screams for generations. It is an unholy place. When you sit outside, the voices of the damned - the millions who perished in fire - call out to be saved. You ask for passage to the underworld, Sam."
"It can't be that bad, can it? I mean, I'm pretty sure if I walked out of there thirty-five years ago, it's not the Gate of Cronus."
Jericho paused, looking at the floor. "Maybe. But I would not take the wisdom of our ancestors for foolishness. Underworld or not, they left it alone for a reason." He hesitated again, taking a deep breath. "We can bring you there, but we will not follow you inside. That is your risk to take."
Rainbow smiled and nodded calmly. "Thank you, Jericho."
"We will need help, however."
I leaned over to Rainbow. "Saw that one coming."
"To take you through the Death Caps is a treacherous challenge at the best of times. We'll need water and rations." I spotted Ivy taking out a little notepad and scribbling this down.
"Are you embezzling Ranger supplies?" I asked.
Rainbow elbowed me. "Shh."
"To arrive quietly will require extra measures. We'll have to travel at night, so we'll need night vision goggles."
Ivy froze. "Uh... how many night vision goggles?"
Jericho counted in the air for a second. "Eight. Eight pairs."
She turned white as she wrote this down. "Eight. Right! Heheh."
Jericho chuckled. "We'll bring them back, don't worry. Everything else we should be able to handle ourselves."
Rainbow nodded, and Ivy tucked her pen and pad away. "Alright! Is there anything else?"
"There is... one more thing." Jericho turned to Ivy. "Little sparrow." She looked up. "Can I have a word?" Ivy blinked, like she was surprised by this, and nodded. "The rest of you may enjoy the company of the tribe as we eat together. I'm sure you could all use it. Well, uh..." His eyes lingered on Sam.
"I joked about eating something weird before and I got taken seriously, so I'm not about to ask to be served sauteed batteries, okay?"
Jericho laughed. "Very well!"
We all filed out of the tent, leaving Jericho and Ivy inside. It had gotten colder while we were inside, or at least I only noticed the cold now that we'd had a chance to rest. Peregrine went over and nudged Babylon in the side as they went over to the fire, and they started talking. A bunch of kids came up to Sam and started poking and gawping at him, and he seemed happy to entertain them with his extendo-tongue thing. Rainbow had the same idea I had, which was to hang back and try not to look like we're eavesdropping while listening through the canvas.
Jericho sounded sombre. "When I said that we will not follow into the cave, that includes you."
"I will not have one of my flock risk damnation on a flight of whimsy. These outsiders may chance their hooves if they like, but not you."
"That's ridiculous! 'These outsiders?' You mean my husband? My sister in-law?"
"Ivy, you're important to me."
"What, as a walking aid dispenser?"
Jericho sighed. "That's not what I'm saying, listen to me."
"My husband has spent a decade working towards this and you want me to abandon him at the last because of some superstition?"
"Ivy, you are of the tribe. It will distress the others to see you cross into a place we consider profane."
"You can't tell me what to do!"
When I heard the stomping of little hooves I backed away from the entrance a bit, as did Rainbow. The flaps flew apart, Ivy fumed as she left. Rainbow stepped over to her when she stopped, puffing at the ground.
"Love, are you..."
"Gimme a minute, hon." She turned away from him, and trudged to the edge of the camp, behind the tents. Babylon breezed past us to follow her. I, because I had nothing better to do than invade the privacy of others, did my best impression of looking at the stars while conveniently being close enough to hear them.
It was darker back there, and I could only see their black outlines framed by the off-black sky, coming together.
"Little sparrow... what did Jericho say to upset you?"
Ivy made some kind of throat noise, and I saw a load of steam rise. "He wants me to stay behind when Rainbow goes into the quarry. With his stupid... dang... ugh!"
"Hush..." They went quiet for a while. "I thought this might happen. His thinking does not sit well with yours. His is the road of tradition, and yours the road of reason, and rarely they meet. But let's see where they do, hmm?" Babylon said. Ivy grumbled into her side. "You are skeptical of his judgement, yes?" There was a silent moment. I guessed that she nodded. "But many of the tribe would not be, correct?"
"He said this. It's dumb."
"Put their reasoning out of your mind. Consider their conclusion. Imagine, how it would seem to their eyes, you passing into the pit of death."
"Surely if I went in and came out later, completely fine, which I would be, because this superstition is idiotic, they'd open their eyes?"
"Worry about that later. In the moment - would they not despair?"
"He is thinking about the morale of the tribe, you see. Maybe when your friends return, they will see their error, but until they do, you must work with them, not against them," Babylon said. Ivy responded with another mumble. "Also, I admire your fervour, little sparrow, but it is not Turing Test you are seeking. This is Rainbow's and Atom's journey. Perhaps it is the way of the road that you must rejoin them later."
Ivy sighed. "Maybe you're right... I mean... I still hate it. I want to be in there. But you have a point." They went quiet again and swayed softly. "Thanks, mom."
"Any time you need to rest your wings, you can fall on me, little sparrow."
I listened for another minute or two, but they’d stopped talking, so I got bored and went to see what they were cooking up around the fire. As soon as I got into the fire's orbit, I got pulled over and presented with a clay bowl. "Free bird! There you are." Jaffa was the one grabbing me. "Come, eat!"
In the half-light, I couldn't see what was going on. I was pushed around until I was sitting on my belly with a bowl of something spicy-smelling in front of me. All around me were members of the tribe, in various states of dining. "Atom, was it?" I vaguely recognised the face addressing me from the far side of the fire as Peregrine's. Her voice struck me as odd. Her accent seemed a bit more drawly than everyone else's, except maybe Ivy. "You're the stranger, share us a tale."
"What? Tell a story? Nahhh."
"But you must!" Jaffa thumped me on the back.
Peregrine grinned. "Think of it as the price of the meal."
I looked around. Rainbow, sitting on a Ranger crate opposite me refilling his canteen from a keg, shrugged. Sam was trying his best to keep his footing while a foal tirelessly swung on the top of his head, and another batted at his antenna-tail. "Please distract these screaming fartballs."
I sighed and made a show of rolling my eyes. "Fiiiiiine, lemme see what I can think of. How about... here's one." If I went through all of my adventures back home, we'd be here all night, so I had to narrow it down. "Let me tell you about the story of Snowy."
A quiet settled in. Fuck, people were paying attention to me. Rainbow was paying particularly close attention. Peregrine jumped on the pause where I noticed this. "Go on."
"So. Have any of you seen a coal puppy?"
The kid pulling Sam's tail jumped up on the back of his neck, and clambered over the one on top of his head. "Puppy!" This pushed Sam's hat forward over his face.
"This is a less than ideal distraction, Atom."
I got a curious raised eyebrow from Rainbow, but blank looks and shaking heads from everyone else. "A coal puppy is like a dog, but bigger, and smarter. Much bigger. Like, three times my height, or more, and black as night. And they can talk! Sort of. They lived in the mines, near where I grew up, far, far away from here. Most of them are mean, pony-eating monsters, with the teeth and claws and flaming eyes to match." I made a growling gesture in the direction of Sam, and the two kids who had become transfixed squealed and rolled off him, giggling. Sam quickly found somewhere else to be.
"Except one. I was travelling with a Ranger scribe, and a dude calling himself a Regurgitator. Regininator. Something. I just called him a Garbageman, because he told me he took out the trash. The scribe's brother had dropped off the radar near the mines, and we followed him in. The place was run by this big and nasty guy whose name completely escapes me at the minute. It was a big steel mill on top of a coal pit - hundreds of slaves, toiling away over crucibles of molten steel all day. We snuck in, and made our way to the bottom looking for this guy. And that's where we found Snowy."
"We were hiding from the guards in a cave, and we up and ran into the biggest, friendliest dog you've ever seen. He told us where to find our man, and thumped his leg on the ground when I scratched his chin and called him a good boy. Just a completely harmless puppy. Poor thing was probably the runt of the litter down there. Little wonder that when we were done, he followed us out."
The kids were now perched on the backs of some of the tribesponies. "What happened to the brother?"
"He didn't make it. The scribe got so angry at this that she tore the whole place apart. Shredded the whole steelworks at the hinges. In an afternoon, the entire slaving operation was over." The foals made some 'wow cool' noises. "After that, Snowy came with me everywhere! Remember how big I said the coal puppies were? I could ride on Snowy. It was great, because I was just out of the stable and I hated walking."
Jaffa laughed. "You came from a stable? Ha!"
"Yeah, yeah, someone's already made the birdcage joke. Anyway. This was all good for a while, until..." I paused. Not because I wanted to add any dramatic effect, but I was struggling to swallow. "... he died."
"Awww..." the foals said together.
"We were scouting out an airfield, to look for some artillery. Some old coot was holed up inside, with mines and a sniper rifle. In the scuffle, he threw a grenade out, and Snowy caught it, because bless the daft bugger he thought it was a ball."
Jaffa put a hoof on my back. "A loyal companion."
I gazed into the flames for a long, pensive second, before meeting his hoof and nodding to him with glistening eyes. "To the end."
Peregrine stood up, and lifted a gourd. A bunch of the others with bottles and flasks lifted theirs. "Then tonight, we drink; to Snowy!"
"To Snowy!" they chanted. Were they really toasting my dead dog? Holy shit.
Somewhere during my story, Jericho had emerged and was helping himself to the stew. I spotted Ivy and Babylon returning from behind the tents. Rainbow spotted this too, and got up to meet her. She surprised him by meeting him with a kiss straight away. Eugh.
"Ivy, what happened?"
Ivy inhaled and sighed. "Jericho doesn't want me going with you into the quarry."
"Superstitions. But... we're the ones who need a favour from him, so..."
"Right..." Rainbow deflated.
"I hate it too, but we gotta be pragmatic, sugar." She kissed him again. "And after all, he's your dad. And you'll have Atom there."
I heard my name and perked up with a mouthful of stew. "Huh?"
"Besides, if all goes to plan we can get acquainted afterwards, hm?"
"O-of course! Yeah." They kissed again, and proceeded to the pot. I found somewhere else to sit in a hurry, a bit further out from the campfire, lest I be asked for another story. Rainbow, after getting his food, followed me over. He sat next to me and took a second to remember what words were. "Atom, you tamed a coal puppy?"
"Like I said, probably a runt."
"Still, those things are some right beasts!"
"You'd be surprised what can happen when you ask questions first and shoot later."
He scrunched his nose and paused. "Are you telling porkies?"
"Nahh! Of course not. Mostly. Sometimes the tall tales are more believable than some of the shit I have gotten up to. I did have a coal puppy called Snowy, though."
He snorted. "Of course you would call a coal puppy 'Snowy'." We went quiet for a minute, while he stuffed some food into his face. “You’ve gotten me curious now, though,” he said through a mouthful of some kind of spicy vegetable. “What did you actually do back home? I’d really like to know. It must have been some upset to get word as far as here.”
“Oh, y’know. The usual hero stuff. Finding the people who society at large has agreed to scapegoat as the source of all their ills, and then murdering them in the head.”
It made him chuckle at least. “You don’t look like a killer to me. Not with that teddy bear and a pair of kid-size hypnoglasses.” He rubbed the top of my head with a hoof, and I flailed around, failing to stop him before my goggles slipped forward.
“That only means nobody expects it. Let’s see…” I turned one leg up and rested my chin on my hoof while I tried to remember. “Most of it would be Enclave, Scolts or raiders…
Rainbow looked surprised that I was actually starting to list my kills, then leaned in and grimaced. “Atom, watch the R-word…”
“Yeah, yeah, though I’m not sure they were really Enclave? They did the whole armour, wings and evil thing but they seemed like a very local deal. Could the Enclave here in Equestria take out an intellectual property suit on them? Actually they’d need to be alive for them to do that, which they’re not, because I killed most of them. One of them with a golf club! But everyone pretty much agreed they were unrepentant dicks, so that was okay, right?”
Rainbow dropped his spoon. “Uhh… most of them seems like a slightly disproportionate reaction maybe?”
“Oh, and what would you have had me do, arrest a bunch of maniacs in power armour?” I waved dismissively. “The Scolts were actually the ones who were gonna offer me a job, before fucking Shooting Stars panicked and tried to vapourise their queen. After that they were all trying to decapitate me on sight, so it was kinda them or me. Stupid scribes, they ruin everything.”
Ivy heard this snippet out of context, and bonked me on the head with the nearby flask. “I’ll ruin you if you don’t watch your mouth,” she called from the far side of the fire. Most of the gathered company laughed.
I glared and carried on. “And then there were these dudes doing the murder football league with prisoners. Surely you must have met those guys on your way out, right?”
When I looked up, his breathing was shallow. “Yes, I… I remember them…”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that’s an acceptable way to run a civilisation, so I put a stop to most of that.”
He swallowed. “Dare I ask how?”
“Stand collapse seemed to take care of most of them. The rest got caught in the crossfire when the Scolts and the off-brand Enclave decided to invade Manechester at the same time.”
“So, killing all of them?”
“Hmm. Yeah, just about!”
By now he was heaving. “Oh boy.”
“And besides that there was… oh yeah! The gryphon mercenaries, in the Liverpole.”
“Gryphons… in the Liverpole?”
“You remember the Liverpole, right? With Tribute on the radio? Actually she must have been like, ten when you were over there. Like someone else, eh?” I dug him in the side with a hoof. He stared blankly at me. “Whatever. Bunch of them had forced their way in, apparently on my advice. All I told them was to be creative in solving their problems, but they took that to mean evicting the existing inhabitants with bullets, so when I came back that way I killed all of them. Admittedly that one was kind of in anger, because Snowy had just died. But they were still a kind of undesirable. And then there were lots of little random ones, like the dude at the airfield who killed Snowy, the… actually I think the slavers were all Shooting Stars, along with a bunch of the slaves, because like I said, scribes ruin everything. Then did I kill anyone in Colton? The merchants went down to raiders, I know that… though there was the annoying kid, he was a real drag… hey, you’ve gone all quiet on me.”
Rainbow stared with his mouth hanging open the slightest bit. His gaze slid off me over the course of a few seconds, and he remembered that he was supposed to be breathing. He took a big gulp of air in and stood up. “I need… a moment.”
And then, I asked a retarded question. With a tilt of the head, I blurted out the most oblivious statement anyone in this situation could have possibly asked. All trace of the social intelligence needed to connect Rainbow Code’s current state with what I’d said departed me, leaving me instead with the band-aid query of, “Are you okay?”
For my efforts, I was rewarded with the sourest glower I have ever seen on that boy’s face, directed right at me, made all the more severe by the sideways light of the fire. In that moment, my heart dropped like it had turned to lead. I felt like I was falling just from his look. His voice had ice in it. “What do you think?” I looked aside in thought, and when I looked again, he’d run off behind the tents. He’d left his dinner, mostly uneaten. I caught Ivy looking behind herself, and followed her eyeline to a bulky, winged silhouette charting a wobbly course into the sky, barely visible from this side of the fire.
“What’s with him?” Jaffa and Babylon looked like they shared her mild concern. Nobody else appeared to have noticed.
“He’s probably got gas or something, I dunno.” They shrugged, and returned to their conversation. I looked down into the remains of my food. My chest felt… tight, like a rope had been tied between my lungs and my stomach, and someone had just pulled on it. The outer corners of my eyes felt like they were tensing up, and I didn’t feel like eating anymore.
This was new.