Rainbow Code ended up having that panic attack in the night. I was poking around with my ShitBuck Advance™, trying to find some way to rejig the inputs around so I could play one of the games, when he started whimpering from the bed and trying unsuccessfully to wake Ivy up. When I poked my head around, he was sweating, pale, and looked like a smacked arse. He responded to my question of 'are you okay' by pushing past me and bolting for the door. Mildly concerned, I followed him to the bathroom and heard him blowing chunks from outside. When he was done, I could hear him breathing, but he'd locked himself in and didn't answer when I told the stupid fuck to get up. As you can tell, this quest to Los Arabos is off to a fantastic start.
Ivy had evidently been woken up by this and poked her head out the door when I returned. When I explained, she looked worried, and carried on past me. I hadn't known Rainbow to have problems like this, but then I'd only really known him a week. I trusted Ivy to know what she was doing, and went back to fiddling with the game. I curled up for a nap soon after.
I was woken up a short time later by the two of them, looking still tired but more composed. Rainbow was sporting that same jacket from a downed Enclaver and Ivy was in the same tribal robes as the other day. My shit was already together, so I just had to grab my jacket and go. We stopped over in the mess for breakfast and to coordinate. I could smell that Babylon was already cooking before I saw it. Turing Test, along with Lefty Pop and Okey-Dokes or whatever, were double-checking payloads. Those two looked exactly like I expected them to - yellow and blue - but I nearly didn't recognise Turing Test. I thought a bunch of traders had wandered on base and got really confused for a second.
The two knights spotted us immediately, and offered salutes for Rainbow Code as we approached. He rolled his eyes and waved them off. Turing Test gave us a friendly nod and a "g'morning", and then beckoned Rainbow and Ivy over to talk about convoy specifics. This left me to be accosted by...
"Howdy, stranger!" Limbo Puppy was way too loud for this hour. She grabbed my hoof and shook it with enough force to knock her wide-brimmed hat down the back of her neck. "I'm Knight Lemon Puff, pleased to make your acquaintance!" Ocean's Eleven, by the look on her face, was just as unprepared for this as I was, but took it in good humour.
"Knight Ocean Breeze, at your service. You must be Atom Smasher."
I shook out my hoof as soon as Lemon Puff let go. Fucking ow. "What gave it away? Was it the Bohr diagram?"
"Rainbow's told us so much about you!" Lemon Puff is a fucking morning pony, fucking dammit to hell.
Ocean Breeze giggled. "Paladin Rainbow Code is our squad officer. We were quite happy to volunteer for this. We understand he's been keeping your presence on-base relatively secret?"
"It's not gonna be a secret for much longer the way she's going about it."
"Aaah! I'm just excited! You're the second pegasus pony I've ever met!"
I squinted. "Don't you guys skirmish with Enclave squads on a semi-regular basis?"
Lemon Puff had to think about that. "Okay, apart from them." Ocean Breeze rolled her eyes.
While I was on a roll of logic, something else occurred to me. "Also, riddle me this. How does a pony called 'Ocean Breeze' end up so far inland?"
She chuckled. "He said you were sharp. I grew up down south, by the coast. Houfston chapter."
"And what else has he been saying about me?" At this point I noticed that Lemon Puff was no longer in front of me, but to my left, hunkered down and flicking my feathers with a hoof. I bapped her on the nose with my pinion. "Hey, stop that."
"Come and get it!" came the call from over my shoulder. Babylon slid a large steaming pot off her back, next to a small tower of bowls. Breakfast had Rainbow and Lemon Puff's immediate attention.
"He said that you've had a hard life. But that you have a good heart."
I scowled. "A good heart? Fuck off. Am I really going soft?"
She smiled. "He also said you'd never admit it." I groaned. Of course he's fucking got my number.
We hurried through breakfast. Some spicy lentil and bean thingy. It was actually really good! Or maybe I was still hungry from yesterday. It's a shame I have no idea how to cook anything more complex than a bowl of cereal, because I'd love to have more of this stuff.
When we got going it was still dark. Rainbow and Lemon were pulling the wagons with stuff on them. Turing Test was spending more time watching the box with the night-vision goggles than the road, and he tripped on cracks in the road more than once. We split up about half an hour from Roswhinny. It was just me splitting off from the group, so I could speed up quite a bit. By the time Isotope City came into view, the horizon was getting the first pink shades of sunrise. The light helped with finding it, but it meant that I was running short on time to get in on the quiet.
The guards had a couple of searchlights deployed, but it was easy to evade them. I glided from the overpass to the walls, taking lazy swooping arcs around the light beams, visible in the traces of dust whipping around. After a quick wing-ruffle, I pressed back against the wall and slunk along it. There was the sneaky way in, through the window, but that'd probably take me past an amoeba with a battle saddle. If I wanted to get in, I'd need to find another way.
I briefly considered the aerial approach, but if it was light enough for me to pick out the giant fucking metal atom on the horizon, then it would definitely be light enough for anyone taking advantage of the early morning cool to spot a suspicious silhouette on the roof.
With some quick mental geometry, I worked out which corner of the stadium the collapsed stand was in. It had been a few days, so I doubted they were done salvaging, and they probably hadn't started work for the day either. The emergency exits were still boarded up, and probably under a pile of rubble too, but the windows higher up were broken. I took a few steps back and ran at the wall, jumped, and beat my wings to keep speed up while running. It was more like wing-assisted climbing. One of these days I'll put the time into learning to fly properly, but for now I'll settle for taking advantage of them in the laziest possible way.
I scanned the rubble from my perch on the window. They'd erected some warning tape, and I had a full view of the city. This stand had really caved in a whole load of shit underneath it, hadn't it? I hopped out and glided to the back streets beyond the tape. Sam's workshop was just around the corner, and locked up as I expected it to be. I saw a light on in an upstairs window. I knew I'd been saving up my hover juice for something. I made sure to get my weight on the windowsill so I could hover and tap on the glass. I couldn't see in through the net curtains. Also, Sam has fucking net curtains. Who the fuck has net curtains these days? Moreover, how are they not completely stained with dirt and motor oil?
I heard Sam make a startled noise. I imagine he wasn't expecting a bang on his window at the crack of dawn. Then I heard some stomping and grumbling, and then the curtains parted. I had been preparing a friendly wave and grin, but then it was my turn to throw myself away from the window in fright when Sam's headless body pulled the window up.
"Don't you know some of us are trying to get some sleep?" The voice came from somewhere inside the room. I drifted back to the window and poked my head inside. His head was in an end table behind a book, and he looked at me with those articulated eyebrows. He fucking had to have put those on himself. There was a bed, minus mattress, with a generator on it, and wires trailed from it to some machines to the head.
"I thought you didn't sleep?" I squinted.
"Have you tried explaining diagnostics to a guy who thinks flying saucers are going to drop from the sky at any minute?"
"This is a point." I hopped through the window and over the headless doorsman. No good being spotted hanging out of a building. The remains of smoke-stained wallpaper covered the walls, the bed had a small, well-kept rug beside it, and a couple of paintings of ponies long dead hung around the walls. This in between dirty intrusions from the workshop downstairs, like a pile of small arms components in the corner, some tires, and a couple of gas canisters. Where necessities of space ended and where Sam's weird taste in decoration began was a mystery. "So, hate to come at you at short notice, but we're on the move. We've got to hoosh."
"To what now?" I'm honestly surprised I hadn't lost more people here with my vernacular.
"We've got the goggles Jericho wanted. Rainbow's on his way to their camp with them right now. Ideally we want to get there by noon."
"You weren't kidding about short notice, were you? I'll just leave a sign on the door telling everyone I've gone fishin', shall I?"
"I had suggested giving you a pager we could use to contact you, but it was already last night by the time I had that idea."
"Oh, whatever." The body stomped around me to the end table, picked up the head, disconnected some cables, and then screwed it on. "Psh. Catching me in a compromising position like this. I will get back at you for this."
I wasn't sure if grimacing or giggling was winning out when he threatened me while his head was turned backwards. "Bugging you at retarded-AM wasn't my idea."
"Alright, we're going to want to slip out quietly. How did you get in?"
"Broken window over the collapsed stand."
"I'll just use my jump jets then, of course."
"You have jump jets?"
Sam bopped me on the head. "No, you damn duck! How did you plan on getting me out of here?"
I rubbed the bump. Metal hooves hurt, man. "I was gonna figure that out when it came up."
"Well it's come up, genius."
"Piss." I kicked the floor and scrunched my face up, trying to think.
"It's not like we can just walk out the front door."
I had a brainwave. "Do you know who's on the main gate right now?"
He squinted the eyebrow things at me. "Probably Caliber, poor bastard's dad has him on all the early shifts, why?"
"Do you have any toys hanging around you could live without?"
He stared at me for a second. Then the eyebrows went up. "Ohhh."
I slipped up the steps quickly and quietly. I hurried through the light of the lamps, and took the time to soften my steps in the shade. When I reached the "office", I took a look around. The early morning watch was a skeleton crew. Sitting opposite me was the gangly silhouette, with the glowing green rifle at his side, and the oversized helmet hanging lopsided. By the glow of my terrible frankenwatch, I located the gate controls and pulled on a lever. I was briefly worried that the noise of the gate would attract a lot more attention than we wanted, but Sam was already in position with his bags, so I wasn't too worried.
Caliber jumped in fright and looked around. First he peeked out of the broken window that served as his station, then he thought to look at the controls, finding me, leaning on the wall.
I approached him and put a hoof to his mouth before he could raise his weapon. "Shhh. You didn't see anything, okay?" From off my back, I swung something rifle-shaped, wrapped in an old potato sack. When I pushed it at his front, he looked down, and spotted the coils of a broken lightning rifle, experimental Enclave model, recovered from a failed field test six years back. I could tell he'd spotted it by the way his jaw hit the floor and his eyes went saucer-wide. I took my opportunity to slip past him and get on the window verge. "Oh, and do shut that thing behind us, won't you?"
He nearly dropped his fucking bribe in his scramble to turn around and stammer out a reply. He eventually managed a "Y-y-whdj-wh-y-yessum!" I looked down, and Sam was tapping a hoof on the asphalt.
I leaned back inside. "The name's Atom Smasher, by the way." Before he could scamper away, I swooped in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Just a little peck. Enough that he went cross-eyed and lost strength in his legs, but not enough for me to taste gun oil. While he babbled and fell over, I hopped out the window and hurried ahead of Sam. Time to leg it.
The early start helped a lot with making time, as did travelling the same route a second time. We stopped in Fort Mercer for a breather and for me to get some water, and most of the ponies there were still having breakfast. We were making good time, and I decided that since it was going, an extra ration couldn't hurt. It was a nice enough little town, when the cowboys were all still asleep and hung over. I could tell Madeira wasn't looking forward to lunchtime.
We had a slight delay on the way to the camp, because I got a little lost. Can you blame me? Once you're into the foothills it's all identical-looking wind-carved rocks and hills. I was also dead on my feet last time, so it's just as well Sam was able to find something that passed for a landmark and get us back on track. I was really starting to sweat by the time we made it there.
The camp had been extended with a long canvas canopy that obscured some of other tents. The south-facing side - the side nearest us - was pulled down to the ground. I had my eyes on that as I came close enough to smell cooking, when a pole across my chest stopped me. I looked left, and there was a crystal and a blade taped and wired around the end of a shaft. I looked the other way, and a stern-looking tribespony. Oh, right.
"Whose are the wings that beat before me?" Jaffa called.
"Blah blah eagle free can you just let me go? My brother's already in there."
Jaffa slumped. He looked positively wounded. "I... I know it's only a formality, but have you no spirit, free bird?"
I sighed. Really? Was his job as guard that vital to his self-esteem? Was this just a thing that he liked doing and everyone else played along with it? He looked like a fucking kicked puppy. I rolled my eyes. "Those of the eagle, proud and free, are you happy now?"
He lowered the spear, but he still had a bit of a pout. "Better."
At this point Ivy had heard me, and had popped her head around from the canopy to see what was going on. She spotted the faces, and took the opportunity to give Jaffa a hug. "What are you doing to poor Jaffa, Atom?"
Sam stepped past me to check out the canopy. "I'll just go find somewhere to set up my dock, shall I?"
"Nothing! I just wasn't expecting to be pass-phrased. Or for it to hurt his feelings."
"Oh, leave him alone." She squeezed him again, and then escorted me to the canopy. It was cool underneath - not as chilled as it might have been in the basement she and Rainbow lived in, but a welcome respite from the blazing sun. A few bedrolls were set up, with Lemon Puff already passed out, and Ocean Breeze chiding anyone who would listen about how this is nothing and the humidity down the coast will really boil you alive. Turing Test was double-checking the cargo before handing it off to Rainbow, who was ferrying stuff around the camp.
Ivy steered me to the shaded back of the canopy, and looked around for a moment. "Okay, listen for a second..."
She scoffed. "Hush your mouth before you sidetrack me."
This earned me a thump. "There's... a thing I wanted to warn you about. It's a little thing, don't worry too much. I mentioned it to Rainbow earlier. When you get to the quarry, the tribe might... do a thing. I don't want you to get freaked out or anything."
"I thought they were the ones scared of this place."
"There's a good chance they might perform funeral rites for you as you go in. There's lots of chanting and it can be a bit creepy, especially if you're not expecting it."
I squinted. "Aren't we supposed to be stealthy about this whole operation?"
"Jericho's not an idiot. They won't be loud. It just might be kinda eerie, and you won't know what's going on."
"Okay, I guess? Where's lunch? I'd murder a good sarnie." Ivy threw her hooves up in that kinda 'whatever' way and left. That must have been all she wanted to tell me.
After I spent a few minutes complaining to anyone I could find about lunch, I encountered the tribe doing something about it. I wasn't sure what digging a hole was going to do, until I spotted them pulling a sack out of the ground. I also didn't know why the food was down there until I was informed that it's part of a recipe. Presses it and keeps it cold, Ivy told me. Given that the water was lukewarm sitting out in the heat, I will say that these spiced veggie ball things being served cold were appreciated. We hurried through lunch with a view to getting some sleep now and sorting out the plan of attack later. I'd been up basically since yesterday evening, so I was quite happy to keep my fridge jacket on and zonk out for a few hours.
I stirred awake at some point, and by the look of the horizon, it was around dusk. I rolled over in my bed roll and saw that I was the last one to wake. All the other bedrolls were empty. Turing Test was, as he had been ever since I arrived, anxiously checking the box with the goggles. Lemon Puff had found one of my stray feathers, and was examining it with way too much interest. Most of the tribe were nowhere to be seen - I gathered that only those not coming with us were up and about. Someone was tending to the fire, and whatever was in the pot smelled good. I yawned and stretched and scratched my neck. After scanning the horizon a second time, I spotted a goofy mop watching the first stars come out. So that's where he's gone.
I plodded up to the bank at the edge of the camp that Rainbow was sitting at the top of. He heard me coming and looked back. He had not slept well at all.
I nudged him in the shoulder. "What's eating you?"
"You had a panic attack last night and right now you look like you've been punched in the face. You sure you're gonna be in shape for this?"
He took a deep breath and sighed and looked up at the sky again. "Once we're moving I should be fine. It's when I get to stop and think about it, I..." He chuckled, then looked at me. "I've been on Dad's trail for eleven years, and in a matter of hours there's a good chance we're gonna find out what happened to him. This is... this is my life's work, paying off. Tonight."
I squinted. "I've been in town a week, and I put the lid on a decade's work? Am I just outrageously lucky, or was getting in touch with Sam that much of a sticking point?"
He chuckled. "We'd been trying to get in touch with Sam for a couple of years. They're fucking batty in that stadium. They shot at me when I came up out of uniform, they shot at Ivy, they shot at Babylon, they shot down a drone..."
"They shot at me too. I just started talking when they did."
"Really now? I'm pretty sure I tried that and they shot again."
"Ah. You must have encountered one of the meatheads. I got lucky and the sheriff's wimp of a son was on the door. Gave me an in."
He chuckled. "Someone in this family had to get all the luck."
"Hey." Ivy came up the other side of him, floating a couple of bowls with her. She passed one to Rainbow and one to me. "Drink up. It'll keep you going."
I took a sniff and confirmed that it was the same stuff that was cooking when I woke up. I took a sip to discover a delicious, salty, slightly spicy, just all-round tasty broth. I was apparently so visibly overwhelmed that it got a giggle out of Ivy. I glared. "What?"
"Nothing! It's good you like it. We're sending you a couple of spare canteens with some. We don't know what it's gonna be like down there."
I shrugged. "Makes sense. I've done fucking no planning for this, I'm entirely following you guys here."
Rainbow smiled. "Seems to have worked so far. We bring the plan, you bring the luck."
"That's a pretty polite way of saying I make it up as I go along."
He chuckled, and I took a long drink of the soup. Ivy leaned into him and he whispered something to her, and I took my cue to give 'em some space. The camp was getting more active. I'm guessing the smell of food got more ponies up - that's one effective wakeup call. Lemon Puff and Ocean Breeze were busy dismantling the canopy we'd slept under, while Turing Test and Jericho did something with a crate. This looked the most interesting, so I listened from a distance.
"... and I know you don't have much choice in the wind but try to avoid getting sand in them? The scribes think I'm taking these for a routine field test, and my hogs are cooked if these come back with so much as a scratch on them." I craned my neck around to get a look at the goggles for the first time. They were bulky-ass things that strained the definition of 'goggles'. I spotted a three-point strap, bit like my head torch, and a big block on the back of it, opposite the goggles part. Was that a counterweight? Were they really that heavy? Cripes.
"Turing, calm down. Would I have asked for this equipment if I knew nothing about it?"
Turing Test pulled a face, then rubbed it. "I'm really sticking my ass out for this, I'm just jumpy."
"You're sticking your ass out?" Jericho laughed. "Friend, you're not walking into the Death Caps at night."
Turing Test blew his cheeks out, and the two of them shared a miserable chuckle. "Jerry, why do we do this to ourselves?"
Jericho looked up, then around. Turing Test leaned over to see where he was looking, and then so did I. They were looking at Rainbow and Ivy, silhouetted by the twilight. "I think we both know."
Turing's face softened, and he grinned. "My little wildcat."
"She makes brothers of us."
"Ha. That she does, friend."
By the time they were locking hooves and trying to have a manly hug, I figured the sentimentality was getting a bit too much for me, and I got to finding somewhere else to be. Before the night was out, I was sure I'd be getting more than enough of that shit from Rainbow.
Of course, I found myself hanging out with Lemon Puff and Ocean Breeze again.
"So what are you and beardydad doing when we piss off into the mountains?"
Lemon Puff burst out in a giggle and dropped the tent pole she was holding. I got a snigger out of Ocean Breeze too. "Just going back to Roswhinny. Don't you have preparations to do?"
"Everyone else was having a moment, so I came to get away. Say, has anyone seen Sam around? He's been quiet."
"Satellite Sam. The smartass robot with the trucker hat."
"Uhh..." Lemon Puff looked at Ocean Breeze. She looked back at her too. "...glowing eye plate, head comes off?"
I squinted. "What did you do?"
Lemon Puff bit her lip, and Ocean Breeze grimaced, and started patting her face. "Lemon, which box did you put the power armour in?"
I tipped my glasses forward. "Ah, you didn't?"
Lemon pointed at a crate slightly down the hill, where their packed supplies were being kept together by the wagon. Ocean inhaled. "Could you unpack it, please?"
She jogged over to the crate, brushed the canvas off the top of it, and hurriedly started pulling latches. I followed, and when the lid came off, the three of us peered inside. Lo and behold, there was Sam in the loaf position, half buried under some bedrolls, with his head separated and leaning against the side of the box.
"Oh, for fuck's sake."
"As you can see, Atom, my reservations about Steel Rangers are completely justified."
"Get him out of there, you idiots."
They both nodded a 'yes ma'am', and got to work. I stepped back and rubbed my face, while Sam swore at the two of them.
Something yodelled at me. I jumped. The general direction of attention was at Jaffa, standing by the fire, next to Jericho. Since this looked like a briefing of some description, I ran back to the crate and took Sam's head out so he could watch.
"Just the expedition, please," Jericho said. A number of the ponies who'd come over drifted away, leaving me, Sam's head, Rainbow, Ivy (hiding from Jericho behind Rainbow), plus Jericho, Peregrine, Jaffa, and a couple of ponies I didn't know. "Now, before we get going, I feel I need to make a round of introductions. To the tribe - coming with us tonight are our friends; Rainbow Code, Atom Smasher, and Satellite S... where is the robot?"
"Down here. I'm having an out-of-body experience."
"... Satellite Sam. Our journey tonight is to reunite them with their kin. With the gracious assistance provided by our friend Turing Test, we travel for the Cave of Screams." I heard a couple of gasps, and whispers circulated. "We shall take them that far and no further!" he said, louder. "Ours is not to judge their path. Tonight we are their guides, and we shall see what comes of it in the morning." He turned to the general direction of me and Rainbow. "Now, to introduce us. You know me, and I believe you've met Peregrine and Jaffa..." Peregrine waved, and Jaffa thumped his front. "Also accompanying us are two of our finest scouts - Nineveh and Uruk." The two strangers waved and nodded at us, one after the other.
I squinted and looked around. I had a suspicion from this. Babylon, Jericho, Jaffa, Nineveh, Uruk, Elasah, and... Peregrine. One of these names is not like the others. I sat on it for now.
"We gear up, and then we leave at our guests' convenience. This way."
"Oh, don't worry about me," Sam said. "Just put me down and I'll roll after you guys. It'll be fine." I sighed and took him back to the crate. The two morons had finished unpacking his body, and he was soon enough in one piece. He found his own bags in the crate, gave them a glare, and then followed me back to the main group.
I snorted. "Wow, you really mustn't have had your head screwed on not to notice them packing you up." He thumped me on the side.
"Only I can make headless puns about me."
Jericho was handing out goggle sets to everyone. Turing Test, nearby, chewed on his hoof while Babylon stood beside him, rubbing his back and whispering reassurances in his ear. When I got my hooves on a set, it wasn't quite as heavy as I'd expected, but I still imagined that my neck would be sore by the time we got to the quarry.
"You ever used one of these before?" Jericho asked me. I shook my head. "Might feel a little weird."
I shrugged. Couldn't imagine why. Sam came up next to me. "What are these, the night-vision sets you were looking for?" Jericho held one towards Sam. "You're kidding, right? I can see light frequencies you've never heard of. You didn't seriously get one of these for me, did you?"
Jericho looked down, blinking. He scratched his nose and looked like he was having one of those 'wow I really didn't think that through' moments. "Jaffa! We've got a set for you." What?
Jaffa, perched on a nearby crate, thrust his spear to the sky. "I have the eyes of a puma. I have no need for your mechanical eyes."
The goggles floated over and bopped him on the head. "It would be a shame if we were halfway up a mountain and your puma eyes turned out to be inadequate, wouldn't it?"
I sat back and sighed. What the absolute balls fuck am I doing.