I think I just sat down and passed out right there in the wagon bay. Peak heat had rolled on, I was still tired, and I needed to digest everything I'd just heard. I didn't care that I was sleeping on rough concrete in the open, I just needed sleep. I was even in such a spot that by the time the heat was passing, the sun was low enough to shine through the open garage door and onto my face to wake me up. Not a pleasant way to wake up, but well-timed.
My nap had helped with two of my problems, and I was now fit to carry on briskly to Roswhinny, but I was still left with the dilemma over Valkyrie's offer. I put it out of my head while I walked, concentrating on anything else, and I even had the presence of mind to tell Spaceman at the door that his helmet wasn't on straight. But as soon as I was inside, the first thing I did was go straight for the mess hall (presently empty, it being too late for lunch but too early for dinner), find a quiet corner, pull Trashcan out of my bag, and sit him across a table from me.
"Alright Trashcan, what do I do?"
The grubby teddy bear stared at me, then flopped to the side.
"Oh, fucking..." I leaned over, picked him up, then squished him forward so that his stuffing would stay folded where it was. He slowly sprung back over the course of about ten seconds, then appeared to have settled. "Right, where was I..."
Trashcan didn't help me.
"Oh yeah. The thing with the offer. What do you think?"
The bastard was stonewalling me.
"I mean, you've been with me the whole time, you should know what's been going on, right? You saw the looks colour vomit was giving me."
"I mean, these are some big questions and I hate them and I just want them to go away and that's part of the question and that's what's so infuriati-"
"Atom, are you trying to get advice from a teddy bear?"
I yelped and spun on the bench. "Cripes, Crumble, what the hell?"
"Did you really think I couldn't hear you?" She smiled and ruffled the top of my head. She sat next to me (not on her stump side) and scooted up close. She smelled like hash browns and sweat. "Now, while we're here, why don't you level with me what's got your tailfeathers in a tangle, hmm?"
I huffed and sprawled out on the table in front of me. "It's nothing, really."
"Are you always this bad at lying?"
I shot up. My honour had been insulted. "No!"
Crumble giggled, and nudged me in the side. "C'mon. Lemme help you out."
Fuck. I'd showed some of my hand. "Uuuugh. Fine."
She patted me on the back. "That's it."
"What do you do, when..." I hummed while I filtered direct references out. "Is there ever an easy way out?"
"That's pretty abstract."
"Like. Say you've gone and fucked something up. Does there come a point where there's no point even trying to fix it?"
"Is this a mechanical problem or a people problem? Because those have very different answers.
"In a few cases. Usually takes more than a week to get that far though."
I stared across the table at Trashcan. He flopped to the side. Dammit, Crumble. "And what about when you suddenly get an out?"
Crumble paused, then stood up. "Gimme a second, darling." She used my back to help herself get up, which winded me. I just stayed sprawled on the table, and nudged Trashcan back into a roughly upright position again.
She returned a few moments later, and dropped a sideplate with a couple of fried balls on them. "What's this?"
"They're hushpuppies. Try one."
I frowned, sniffed one, then popped it in my mouth. It wasn't like, sudden explosion of delicious, but it was still surprisingly tasty. I helped myself to another one. "Wow, that's pretty good," I mumbled, though it probably sounded more like 'hrrf, hrgn hfnghf ghff'.
"Deep-fried cornbread. Ol' family recipe. Momma used to say they were magic, because if you looked away from 'em they'd disappear."
"What?" Or rather, 'whff', I said through a mouthful of the things. I looked down, and the plate was empty save for a few crumbs. I had a brief look of 'where the fuck did they go' before touching my face and realising where they went. How did she always seem to know when I was hungry?
"Atom, I don't know what escape plan just landed in your lap, but when it comes to people things, for any given decision, you gotta think about how that affects everyone, and running away is the balefire option. Not something to take lightly."
"I don't know if you've noticed, but running away doesn't seem to stick with my family."
She looked up, thought about it, then chuckled. "Is that a sign of something, then?" She looked at me. I looked at Trashcan. Trashcan fell over. "Your brother's looking for you. And you didn't hear it from me, but I suggest you sneak a shower, you smell like a cowboy's asshole on a three week cattle drive."
I squinted. "Oh, thanks."
I hadn't noticed it until it had been pointed out to me, but now that I was thinking about it, it quickly rose up my priority list. I changed course to head straight to the showers and nick a wash while nobody was looking. I had no idea how washing was rationed, since presumably they wanted to limit water use, but I had needs, dammit. It was an open shower, and I had to shove my clothes and bags in a little pile in the corner because everyone who used these things regularly presumably had somewhere to leave their shit before washing. I didn't want to touch the manky old soap bar that was there, and it was cold and more of a dribble, and probably not the cleanest water on the base, but I didn't care. My thoughts, mercifully, drowned in the white noise of the water. My fur and feathers were a couple of shades brighter afterwards. After a doggy-shake, I stole a towel to dry the rest of it off, and discarded it in the middle of the floor. Surgical.
I paced a bit in the sun with my wings out to make sure I was properly dry before heading inside. I was starting to get the feeling that I could do with proper sunglasses. I was almost back to 'bouncy' before the dark hallway leading to Rainbow's quarters reminded me that I was in the doghouse. I hesitated at the door. This let me hear something I doubt I would have otherwise - music. Not the old radio music, but actual instruments being played. It was too clear to be the radio. There was an acoustic guitar and a tambourine at least. I sat by the door and waited some. The melody and chords repeated themselves, with varying flourishes every other bar. Six or seven bars in, the guitar played a really bad bum note, and there was a thud and the reverberation on the strings.
"Oh, bollocks, I fucked that one up." That was Rainbow's voice.
The tambourine stopped. "Hey relax, sugar." There was another little bop of the thing, and then a moment of quiet. "You wanna start again?"
I took my chance to open the door. I'd be waiting all day otherwise. Rainbow sat at the end of the bed with a guitar, and Ivy was standing in front of him, like they'd just been nose to nose before they'd turned their heads to look at me. I grinned nervously. "Surprise!"
Rainbow nodded flatly. "Atom."
"What took you so long?" Ivy went and bopped me on the head on with her tambourine.
"Uh. Bit of a hold-up at Isotope City. Ended up having to wait out the heat in a gas station."
"Right. Shall we?" Rainbow hopped off the bed, stepping around Ivy to put the guitar away on the rack. He didn't wait to step past me and out of the room. Even Ivy seemed taken aback by how curt he was. She looked at me. I grimaced and shrugged. She set the tambourine to the side, and we followed him out. We walked to Turing Test’s office in silence. Ivy caught up to him a couple of times and tried to nuzzle him in the side, but the most acknowledgement she got was the occasional wing-ruffle. I could tell from her face he wasn’t doing wonders to ease her qualms about drawing heavily from the bank of Dad.
Babylon was not in the office when we arrived. Rainbow stood to attention and awaited the command to stand at ease. Ivy had no such stiffness, and ran right up to the chair to headbutt Turing Test in the side. I just leaned on the back wall like the delinquent I am, apparently.
“There you are, darlin’! I’ve been hankering to see you ever since your mother called in.”
“We were just kicking back while we waited for Atom, daddy. We’re pretty beat after the trip!”
Hearing my name drew a curious look from me, but then I went back to paying semi-attention.
Turing Test blinked at Rainbow for a moment. “At ease, soldier.”
“I heard your little sortie went well, on the whole!”
This at least provided me and Rainbow with something to agree on today, as we both glanced at each other with that look that says ‘don’t mention the war’. Ivy, luckily, was happy to do the talking for us.
“We’ve got the tribe’s agreement. We have a good bead on the location and they’re willing to take us there, with… some assistance.”
Turing Test rolled his eyes, sighed, and pulled a heavy, dog-eared ledger out of his desk, that seemed to be as much bookmark as it was page. “What’s the damage, darlin’?”
“In addition to the standard care package, they need, uh… eight pairs of night-vision goggles.”
The poor old bastard looked like he had a heart attack. Hooves flailing around, dazed expression, sweating, paling… the works. He eventually slammed one down on the desk. “They want what?”
“Satellite Sam insisted on only the most secure operation possible, which means we gotta make a night crossing. And you know the Death Caps. We can’t cut corners.”
“Of course. It’s just…” He wiped his brow. He was panting. “I’ll see what favours I can call in. Give me a couple days. You might have to fix up one or two pairs yourself to round them out. Paladin, you can bet your feathered ass that I’m gonna work you to the bone when this little adventure is over.”
Rainbow nodded. “I was fully prepared for that eventuality.” Crikey man, lighten up.
Turing Test made some notes in the ledger, then shoved it to the side. “Leave it with me. You can consider your normal duties resumed until I have the supplies.”
“Yes sir!” Rainbow and Ivy called out at the same time.
“Ivy, you can run along. You two,” He gestured in the general direction of me and Rainbow. “I want to have a quick word with you.”
Ivy looked at Rainbow with some raised eyebrows, then gave Turing a hug. “I’ll see you later, daddy.”
He grinned as he pulled her close. “Love you, wildcat.” Ivy made a little mock roar and play-clawed his face, then giggled and bounced to the door, rubbing along Rainbow’s side as she went. The door swung closed with an echoing thud, and the warmth evaporated from Turing Test’s face. “Now, do you want to tell me what’s going on with you two?”
Rainbow was not prepared for this. “What?” I looked up.
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed you two doing everything you can to avoid eye contact.”
“Oh…” Rainbow and I said at the same time.
“I’m not exactly a counsellor, but I can tell when something ain’t right, and if you two are falling out, doing it right when I’m about to break every rule of supply allocation in the book for you as a favour ain’t the sweetest turn of events.”
Turing Test shook his head. “Like I said, not a counsellor. I’m not looking for the story. Whatever it is, work it out.”
Rainbow looked at me again. It was the same kind of disgusted look he gave me back at the camp, but less raw, and more cool and detached. “I’m not sure if that’s possible.” I’ve been told that I actually looked genuinely hurt in this moment. I just remember trying not to have a reaction.
Turing shifted in his seat and stroked his little beardy chin thing. “I’ve got an idea. It’s a slightly unconventional one. Are you willing to hear me out?”
Rainbow’s look lingered on me, and softened as it did so. His gaze slid to the floor, then he looked up at the desk. “Alright.”
Turing Test looked at me trying to return to cucumber-cool. It took me a second to realise he wanted both of us to agree. “Oh. Sure.”
“Now, understand that this is not an order, so much as it is a request. Rainbow Code, you are not obliged to follow this request, and Atom Smasher… well, I can’t make you do anything anyway, but I’m not placing Ranger trust in you or anything. With me so far?” Two noises of assent. “There’s a little place out of town, in the desert. It’s off the main roads. Rainbow, you might have heard a couple of tales of it, so the explanation is mostly for you, Atom. There’s a little settlement called Wormwood, built on an oasis, and it’s something of a neutral ground in the area. Everyone is welcome as long as they don’t cause any trouble.” Rainbow made an ‘oh’ face. “I’d like if the two of you took tomorrow night off to wander up there and spend some time catching up and clearing the air. Wormwood has an effect on ponies. This kinda stuff just tends to all shake loose up there. So if you think there’s anything worth saving between you, I suggest you give it a shot. What do you say?”
Rainbow looked at me again, blankly. He looked at me long enough that I got a little knot in my stomach just looking back at him. “Okay. It’s worth a shot.”
I sighed relief. “Yeah, might as well. Kills some time waiting for the goggles.”
Turing Test nodded, sat back in his chair and pulled a spreadsheet over from the side. “Paladin Rainbow Code, I’ll put you on the morning patrol and you can get going once it’s cool enough. Atom, hold up a moment and I'll mark it on your map, and… try not to antagonise Crusader Prickly Pear while you’re waiting, will you?”
I broke out into giggles. “Fine, fine.”
“Alright. You have your instructions, you are dismissed.”
Rainbow stood to attention, saluted, then promptly left the room. I fluttered up to Turing's desk and leaned on it with my shitbuck (registered trademark) leg forward. “So, if you’ll indulge me a curiosity…”
He paused his leaning over it and looked over the rims of his glasses. “The answer is probably no.”
I couldn’t keep a smirk from creeping over my face. “What’s your story with Wormwood? You seem to know the place well.”
He leaned back, like he really wasn’t expecting that. “Oh! Well uh…” He chuckled nervously. “Remember when you asked how I met Babylon?”
“Oh, this is already interesting.”
“I was a young knight. My squad had a night off and one of them had good word that this place was around, and they had uh… techniques to relax.”
“I’m guessing you’re not talking about yoga.”
“The reason Wormwood has its special status in the San Cimarron area is because it is the sole producer of a concoction they call star stuff.” So that’s Spaceman’s ‘supply’. “You get a little cup of it when they welcome you, and lead you in a sort of ceremony. After that, you’re free to wander around the camp and get social. Most ponies have their own booze with them. You can have more star stuff if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Anyway, I…” He chuckled. “You tend to forget who you’re talking to when you get there. Some ponies keep their uniforms on, many leave them at the door or just come al fresco, but either way, we forget they’re there most of the time. So, when I got there, I got talking to this mare. She was… wild.” He swung back in his chair, and stared into space. “She blew my mind. She had such a different perspective on life that I found riveting, and it made my little by-the-book Ranger heart go all a-flutter. One thing led to another, and we…”
He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “… shared a tent.”
“Only a tent?”
“But the best part was in the morning. We had to get going of course, because we only had the night to spend. When we were recovering our discarded clothes, we noticed what those clothes were, and realised we’d just been sleeping with the enemy.”
“See, this was back during the height of nomad-hunting. Everyone was making it their business to curb tribal activities in the area, including the Rangers. Just going by outfits alone, I should have shot her on sight as a threat to the peace. But the other thing we were struck by, was that we saw each other… bare. Without anything to say that I was a Ranger or that she was a ‘raider’. We didn’t even say anything. We just climbed back into bed for a few more minutes. But that wasn't the end of it. We saw each other again and started using our influence to defuse the situation, and here we are now. There's still old grudges hanging around, but it's a lot calmer these days. We've been sowing the seeds of peace for a long time.”
“So, you made love, not war?”
Turing Test burst out into a brief belly laugh. “That’s one way of putting it!” He coughed as he caught his breath. “Now, listen darlin’. If all that can happen from my shenanigans off-duty, then the magic of Wormwood is bound to do something for you and your brother. I don’t know what’s gotten into you two, but…”
“I’ll let you know when I find out.”
“I’m sure it’ll sort itself out.” He opened the desk drawer and pushed the ledger back into it. “Now. You might have nothing to do, but I sure as hell do, so show me your computer alread-" He stopped when he finally got a closer look at it. "What the hell is this?"
"The finest junk Ivy could find!"
I avoided Rainbow as best I could for the rest of the day. This wasn't hard, since he seemed to be avoiding me too. I hung out on the roof of the terminal building for a while, and mused on Valkyrie's offer some more. Even now, it lingered at the back of my mind every time I felt the weight of the badge I was still hiding. This was after I'd taken it to the scribe hole and run it over the strongest magnet I could find while nobody was looking.
When we caught up again at dinner, Rainbow was at least putting up with me. We didn't make much conversation, and he even managed to avoid turning into an apocalyptic-level grump every time he looked at me. It kept me quiet though. Why wasn't he telling anyone else what was getting him down? Did he not think it'd matter to them? Had he been asked about it? I just didn't get what the hell was going on in that boy's head.
Rainbow retired early for his morning patrols, and Ivy had a late shift, so I tried to see if there was some booze I could indulge in to make an evening disappear. Crumble said that any alcohol that ended up on site was under private provision and not her responsibility, since being intoxicated on duty was grounds for reprimand. She told me to come back to her when it was a really special occasion, and then she'd break out her own 200-year-old Sweet Apple Acres brandy.
I gave up on this endeavour and resorted to wandering around the base until I was sleepy. I found myself sitting on the Little Boy and poking at some of its fuel lines and hydraulics, and watching the scribes go about their business. Ivy, coffee floating ahead of her, spotted me as she was passing the terminal, because of course she did.
"Atom, get down from there before you break something, will you?"
"It's not like he works, is it?" I slid down the Little Boy's front and leg, firefighter style. Ivy frowned, then shook her head.
"Hey, I meant to ask you, Atom, did..." She looked at the floor and set her coffee down. "Is something up with you and Rainbow? I'm trying to get to the bottom of this mood he's been in since last night, and he ain't saying nothing."
I huffed. "I was wondering how long it'd take you to notice. Your dad picked up on it right away."
"I suspected you might have had something to do with it ever since you said he had gas, but you're a tricky customer to find." She nudged me in the side with a hoof. Steady on, girl.
"He's been... he's been pretty chilly ever since I filled him in on what I got up to back home. Seemed to take exception to it."
Ivy leaned an elbow on the terminal. "And what was that?"
"Well... I was kind of a peacemaker." My smirkingly ironic use of 'hero' was losing its humour for me. "There wasn't really much law to uphold, so I just went around killing the bad people. That's when he really got upset."
Ivy furrowed her eyebrows. I gulped and started thinking about which Big Top division I'd like to try. Then she opened her mouth. "Is that it? Are you sure?"
"What?" I gulped down the wrong way and had to splutter for a bit. "I mean, yes! That was it."
"Oh, he is so innocent. You can take the boy out of the stable, but you can't take the stable out of the boy." She shook her head and took a sip of coffee. "It's part of why I love him though. That big ol' heart of his."
"It don't make him bad people." She thumped me in the shoulder. "You probably just shocked him is all. Besides, you could stand to learn some of that from him."
I looked at the floor. 'Shock' is probably among the weaker words I'd use to describe that look he gave me. "Right." Ivy picked her mug off the terminal along with a clipboard and went back to her rounds.
"Mind you, he could probably do with learning a couple things from you before he hurts himself, too." By the time I'd processed what she'd muttered she was gone.
When I woke up the next morning, Rainbow was already gone, and Ivy was heading out. I was again left with my head spinning over which one was more likely to have a civil conversation with me right now. After a swing around the cafeteria after the breakfast rush, I decided to bury myself in Rainbow's videos to make the day disappear. The tapes were in wildly varying states of repair, from a near-pristine copy of some western that bore astonishing resemblance to the ridiculous scenes in the streets of Fort Mercer, to some home-taping of live news coverage of something boring, to a recording of a music festival that was so badly damaged and warped that I took it out of the machine for fear of it coming off the spools and getting tangled up in the machine. I could work this thing, but probably not repair it. Highly variable quality of recording and entertainment value notwithstanding, it was at least diverting enough to efficiently spin the clock hands.
I must have fallen asleep in front of Star-whatever at some point because that was what was playing when a hoof like a tree trunk shook me awake. "You ready to go, Atom?"
"What?" I rubbed my eyes and yawned. My mouth felt like glue.
"It's coming up on five. Are you coming to Wormwood or not?"
He was being short with me, but he was at least talking to me. Progress! "Right! Yeah. Lemme just..."
"And do stay out of my collection when I'm not here." He glared at me as he turned off the telly and ejected the tape.
"Not gonna rewind it?" I rolled off the couch and dug around for my jacket.
"I try not to put them through so much wear in one day."
He was packing light, and waited in the door for me while I scooped up my bags and staggered after him. I wasn't expecting a very talkative journey.