Once I'd recovered from my moment of exasperation, and Jericho had convinced Jaffa to take the damn goggles already, I set about donning my own pair. I put the front half on first, and then slid the rear unit on. Through the lenses I could see the same dusty hills and dirty tents as before. I swung my head around, and my vision was no different, with the exception of removing my peripheral vision entirely.
"Hey, are these working? I don't see anything different."
I turned my head and saw Jericho stepping up to me. "You have to turn it on, free bird." I felt my head get grabbed, something click, and then it felt like someone had poured cold water down my neck.
"There it is."
Lights started appearing around the edges of my vision, and I felt my peripheral vision start to return. Then, my forward cone of sight lit up like daytime, only tinted strongly blue. "What just happened?"
"The goggles deliver the images right into your head. You don't see the way - you feel."
"Jericho..." I swung my head, and it was Turing Test talking. At least I think it was him. "How do you know so much about these things? No offence, but..."
Jericho chuckled. "Do you think the Rangers are the only ones keeping an eye out for treasures of the lost world?"
Turing frowned, then shrugged. Seemed good enough for him. I didn't really care.
I spent the last few minutes before leaving getting used to the goggles. I heard Rainbow and Ivy sharing a moment of some kind, and Jericho talking to Turing Test and Babylon some more, but I didn't particularly care. Something was doing light balancing, because when I looked at the fire I wasn't absolutely blinded by the light. It was entirely white, but it was more like looking at a sheet of paper than the sun. Sam asked me if I was having fun after staring at his glowing eye for a good forty seconds. This was gonna be weird.
We departed with little fanfare. Rainbow asked me to turn off my wristamajig, which was fine, I wasn't going to go trying to play Asteroids while also walking. Sam was able to turn off the light in his eye and still see, which I found mildly confusing. Jericho, Peregrine and Nineveh took the lead, and Jaffa and Uruk brought up the rear, putting us in the middle. I was pretty sure we could handle ourselves, but we didn't know where we were going, so that was that.
I had expected this to be another one of those drawn-out walks over featureless scrub where my mind wanders, I walk around basically dead on my feet, and I ramble to you about any old other topic. However, this was not one of those walks, because all of those scary tales about how dangerous these mountains are were not nearly as hyperbolic as I thought.
It started out gentle. I was starting to do the zoning out thing when it turned out that nobody was particularly talkative. Rainbow, when I got a good look at him, was breathing way harder than you'd think from the pace we were going. That boy was going to have a heart attack by the time we got there, I swear. After maybe a half hour of walking, the ground got a lot rougher and pitched down. I tripped over a rock, which prompted me to get a better look around me; the hills had gotten a lot steeper, and much taller peaks loomed very close. In the weird blue light of the goggles, I saw the mountains more outlined by the stars than from their own light. Closer pillars of wind-worn stone looked like flat cutouts in front of it. Two peaks either side of us created something of a canyon, and we were descending right down the middle of it.
The bottom was all gravel and loose stones that slid readily over each other. I tripped on a skull embedded in the stones and bumped into Rainbow, shaking him out of his anxious trance. Damn, spotting things on the ground with these goggles was hard. Up ahead the gravel bed was interrupted by a ridge, running sideways across the gorge. I couldn't see what was going on, but a hoof on Rainbow's front stopped him, and then me.
"Hold up," Peregrine said. Nineveh ran ahead to investigate. Now that we'd stopped, I started to notice the chill creeping into the air. It had only been dark for an hour. Was there any way to turn off my jacket fridge? Couldn't quite tell.
Nineveh returned. He was probably close enough to shout, but I guess we were taking the maximum stealth thing seriously. "Rockslide. Some time in the last few weeks."
"Is there a way up?"
"Steep, it is. But we should conquer it with our help from above."
Nineveh looked at me and Rainbow. Then Peregrine looked at us, then half the party was. I scowled. "What, you want a lift from us? Good fucking luck, I can barely lift myself off the ground. Did you miss the stable-born part or something? Don't you have a better plan?"
They didn't have a better plan.
Rainbow and I took turns helping one pony after another over the rocks. Rainbow, bless him, was doing a lot better than I was. A lift from me was more like giving them a little extra airtime jumping from one foothold to another, where a lift from him was actually a proper airlift to the top of the rocks and then down the other side. After like, the second trip over Rainbow was carrying two ponies over for every one I was. Jericho, Peregrine, Jaffa, Uruk, Nineveh...
"Don't mind me, I'll stand here. It's fine. I'll be fine," Sam called from the bottom.
"Wh... what?" I looked up from lying on my back on the top of the rocks gasping for air. Uruk gave up on waiting for me to recover and jumped down the rest of the way like a mountain goat. Smarmy bastard probably could have climbed up himself.
"I didn't pick up jump jets by osmosis when I was in that crate."
"Rainbow you do it, I'm fucking paggered."
He landed next to me. "You think I can lift that half-ton of junk by myself? Get up." He kicked me in the side. He probably meant it gently, but it didn't feel gentle.
"Just do what I..." I gulped down some more air. Sweat rolled off me. "Just do what I did. Help him climb."
Rainbow might have been squinting, I couldn't see behind the goggles. He hopped down, ushered Sam to the rockface, got behind him and started pushing. Not what I had in mind, but not a bad idea. I dropped down to meet Sam at the first hoofhold, grabbed his head and twisted.
"Hey hey hey hey! What are you-"
"Lightening the load." I smirked, took his bags with mine and flew over the rocks with his head. I left his head at the top so he could see where he was jumping.
"If I crush your brother because I get mixed up about which way I'm jumping, I'm blaming you."
I sighed. "Fine..." I figured I might as well help. Rainbow tried to push against the ground where possible, so I got my hooves around Sam's front hooves and pulled as hard as my little wings would carry me. Which wasn't very hard, but it was something. After much huffing and puffing, Sam was able to get a hoof on the apex of the rubble, and pull himself over. With both of us pushing him, it ended up flinging him over, and he tumbled down the far side. When Rainbow and I realised what was happening, we both scrambled to get a look over the edge, straightening our goggles on the way.
"What's happening? Is it a paradox? You can show me a paradox, y'know. I won't explode."
The torso skidded to a halt in the sand, with a number of new scrapes in the metal. Uruk's cape was caught under it, but other than that nobody seemed to have been hit by a flying half-ton of robot. We seemed to notice this at the same time, based on Rainbow sighing with relief at the same time as me. Jaffa started swearing something at us, but I was too exhausted to listen.
Rainbow patted me on the back a couple of times. "Chin up, Atom. Only an indeterminate length of time hiking in dangerous mountains to go."
Have I ever mentioned how much I hate hiking? Like, it's one thing walking on roads. It's long and tedious, but it's at least relatively easy. You're on paths meant for walking, and you're definitely going somewhere. Even if it's a shitty little diner at the side of the road where you meet your long lost brother, you're going towards something. Fresh out of the stable it was the worst thing ever because I had to get my body around the idea that I might have to walk further than a few hundred feet to get something, and I got that kick up the arse again coming to Equestria because of how fucking big the place is. But you adjust, because it's a thing you have to do. I could probably be putting my back into learning how to fly better, but y'know, I'm lazy, bugger off.
But no, when you're hiking suddenly everything is terrible. Not merely a drain you put up with, it becomes an affront to your very being. The hill is always too steep, your bags are always too heavy, you've always gone through your water way too quickly, and the weather is always against you. Back home it was always rain and more rain, or the aftermath of rain making everything a horrible slog through cold mud and puddles. But tonight the chill was setting in right quick, not helped by the sweat of exertion rolling off me. Rainbow had packed a scarf, and all the tribe had cloaks to beat the band. I, however, had only my leather jacket and my natural pegasus resistance to cold to keep me going. I'd be fine, just really fucking uncomfortable. To make things worse, every time we went up the side of a hill we got fucking sandblasted by high winds. The winds got worse the longer we were out, and seemed to be carrying more dust each time.
But that's not the worst thing about hiking. The worst thing is how you're always the one who's struggling. Everyone else is happy enough fucking power-walking up sheer cliffs and you're there gasping for mercy. Every fucking time. I cannot remember a single "hike" where I haven't been nursing a stitch to keep up with fucking filly scouts and the two old mares who go for a quick 40 mile stroll in the moors every Sunday morning. And then when I have the audacity to ask to slow down, suddenly I'm the bad guy? Like, what is it about the activity of walking up mountains that turns everyone into marching arseholes? Why do I get a sneer of contempt because I haven't magically been invigorated by the activity of wandering through nowhere for the hell of it?
If I can thank the wind for one thing, it forced everyone to slow down. I mean, I could feel it getting into all the cracks in the goggles, so it was only a matter of time before these things were fucked, and the dust content drastically reduced visibility, but if I pulled the rag that constituted my shirt over my nose I could catch my breath. Incidentally, it really needed a wash.
Our path wound up the side of a mountain. It narrowed, so we had to move single file. Word passed down the line that Nineveh knew where he was going, and it's not like I was in a position to question it, so I took it on faith that the path wouldn't narrow to nothing and leave us stuck up a cliff like a cat up a tree. The dusty air meant that when I looked down the cliff to our right, I couldn’t see the bottom. The billowing cloaks in front of me were my main way of knowing I was still following the leader, even if they did mean I needed to keep a short distance or get dirty cloth whipped in my face.
A gust of wind from behind us sent Rainbow stumbling into the back of me. This got me to squat, so I didn't get blown right off my hooves, but then the front carried forward. Through the howl of the wind I heard a scream. Even with the dust impeding the goggles, I spotted the outline of someone a couple of spots ahead of me losing her footing. I lurched. She caught the ledge briefly, but the wind catching in her cloak, all that was about to do was make her swing around and launch into the canyon. Oh, what the hell.
I jumped from the cliff like a dive into water, opening my wings and letting them catch the wind before I got too far down. I had a split second to adjust my course, before bodyslamming her and holding on for dear life. My goggles got knocked off by the impact, or at least they got knocked askew, leaving me guessing. This was not a fantastically well-advised plan.
I tried my best to get some altitude and get back on the path, but I couldn't see where I was going at all. The pony I'd caught wasn't exactly in a position to direct me either - not that she had any idea what was happening. She was screaming and flailing and making it difficult to hold on to her. I rode the wind to where my sense of direction thought the path was, but I found nothing. Oh boy. This was about the time I decided that a gentle landing anywhere was better than trying to find the trail again and hitting a cliff at speed, or dropping on to jagged rocks.
A different current of wind buffeted us. It must have come from the other side of the mountain. I held on to her but I'm pretty sure that this is where I lost my goggles. We got turned end over end, and I found myself riding the turbulence where the two currents met. I hadn't a clue how fast we were falling. I could have been lifting us more and I wouldn't have known.
That was, until my hooves clipped sand and sent us tumbling over the ground. We had more lateral velocity than vertical, so it hurt, but nothing broke. Wherever we'd landed had something of a wind shadow to it, so when all my shit fell out of my bags in the roll, it wasn't all immediately lost to the desert.
I patted my head. The goggles were gone. Fuck. I patted my bags. They were a lot lighter than a moment ago. Through pawing around the ground I was able to locate Trashcan (thank fuck), the alien blaster, a few caps, and the spare tapes. My glasses were still safe at the bottom of the bag, though a little bent.
In the course of searching for my stuff, I put my hooves on the pony I'd caught.
"Ow!" she yelped.
"What happened? Am I alive?"
"Is that... Atom Smasher? What happened?"
I felt around for the shitty Pipbuck to get some light to see by. The screen flickered a bit, but it booted up. Peregrine was sitting up, and her cloak had been pulled over her head. I helped it off her. Her goggles were sideways. "The wind must have blown you off, and I don't think anyone else saw you. Or at least, they couldn't do anything about it."
She spent a moment catching her breath, clutching her chest. "Thank... thank you, Atom..." Then she grabbed me and hugged me. I forgot that this was a thing that happens in the hero business. "You saved my life."
I awkwardly peeled her off once she'd decided she'd had enough hug. "Just seemed neighbourly, y'know. Casualties are less than ideal." She didn't let go of my shoulders. Dammit.
"Owls and eagles smile upon you, free bird."
"Can... can birds smile?"
Peregrine broke into a giggle. "It's a tribe saying, dummy. I'm just really grateful, Atom."
"Yeah, no worries I guess. You gonna fix those goggles?"
She (might have, hard to tell) squinted, and twisted them to face the right way, and pulled them over her eyes. "Agh." She pulled them up again almost immediately. "I think they took a knock in the fall, it's flickering and the image is all screwy."
"Well I lost mine, so you're still one up on me."
She pulled on the overhead strap to let it sit around her neck. "Better it than us. Keep that light on, they should be looking for us."
I sighed and started stretching and dusting myself off. I had a couple of scrapes on my legs, but my jacket was fine, which was more important. Tough ol' thing. "So we kill time?"
"I wouldn't worry, we'll be fine if we have to make our own way back. I know what I'm doing."
"Are you still in one piece, is the thing?"
"Well..." She grunted as she flexed, I guessed. "Bruised, and twisted a fetlock, but as long as we're not running from any manticores, we'll be fine."
"Well that's encouraging." I heard her sit, and figured I might as well do the same. I might find a couple of my caps in the dirt. I felt around for the canteen I'd been given. Some mystery soup would really hit the spot about now. However, it felt rather light when I located it, and twisting the top off revealed it to be nearly empty. "Ah, bollocks."
I moved the PipBuck screen over it, and found the canteen had a massive gouge in it. "Canteen's punctured. Take a look."
"Wow! Atom, that... that was some rock. If you weren't carrying that, that thing would have gone into you like a bullet.
"Remember what I said about those birds?"
I chuckled. "Yeah, yeah." We settled for a bit. I pouted, because I wanted soup now and Peregrine wasn't carrying any. The wind howled past the rock peaks above. "Can I ask something?"
"You weren't born in the Eagle Tribe, were you?"
She was quiet for a moment. "Nothing gets past you, eh?"
"Only when I get sloppy."
"I've been travelling with the tribe for a long time, but some of the settled habits never go away, do they?"
"Not to pry. Just satisfying some curiosity." Hmm. Curiouser and curiouser.
We waited in the mostly-dark. The wind died off over the next twenty minutes from sandblasting to creepy-sounding breeze. Peregrine looked around with her knackered goggles every few minutes to see if she could spot the others. They must have spotted us first, because the first indication I got that we'd been found was being pounced from behind by a bear.
Sorry, my idiot brother sneaking up on us, picking me up and hugging me in the dark.
"Atom! You're alright!"
I only stopped flailing when I heard the voice. "You fucking plank what are you doing?"
"Well nice to see you too, Atom." He dropped me.
"You could have said something before picking me up by surprise while we're out here in the dark?"
"In fairness, Rainbow Code, I was about to knife you," Peregrine said.
"Peregrine?" He... he was wearing the goggles. How did he not realise she was there?
"Still kickin', thanks to Atom."
"My love!" I heard scurrying from a nearby dirt bank. I can only guess it was Jericho that raced past us to pick up Peregrine and swing her around. They were probably kissing or something disgustingly affectionate or something.
Rainbow put a hoof around me and sighed. "I'm proud of you, Atom."
"Oh, piss off."
"No, you sit down and take some credit. You took a risk and saved a life. If you were in my squad, that'd be medal material."
"I lost my goggles and Peregrine's are fucked."
I heard him cringe, but my luck was not to last. "Tech can be found and fixed. Ponies are harder to replace. Turing Test can come up with something."
I was never going to hear the end of this, was I?
I shut up and pouted while everyone got all the 'wow you caught someone you're so cool' out of their systems. Sam, mercifully, didn't seem that bothered. That actually made me feel a little guilty for being so aloof about it all. Was this... modesty? Shouldn't I be trying to ride the wave? Holy fuck, caring is confusing business.
We took the opportunity to regroup a bit, tend our scrapes, drink some water. We hadn't been blown too far off course, but we had to continue with the aid of some ropes. I was tethered to Rainbow and Peregrine was tethered to Jericho for navigation. This was awkward as fuck and I had to spend the rest of the walk looking at the ground to make sure I wasn't about to trip on something I couldn't see, and being pulled along by a party that was walking too fast. Eventually Rainbow capitulated to my whining and let me ride on his back for the last hour of the trip.
Once I was in this position I was finally able to get a proper look around. I was sans-goggles, but I could still see the outlines of things in the starlight. It must have been coming up on midnight. There was no moon out, and my lips were all chapped from the dry chill in the air. It was the kind of cold where I’d see my breath and the breath of everyone travelling with us if we weren’t all walking in the dark. Instead I saw peaks and mesas outlined by the light of stars, muddied by distant dust.
Having me on his back seemed to be helping Rainbow anyway, he seemed a lot calmer than when we set out. That or the incident on the side of the mountain had brought him back to earth a bit. One or the other. The ongoing darkness was kinda doing the opposite for me though. I strained my eyes looking for any kind of reference point to anchor the faint stars, jagged horizon and cold, sandy wind that was my entire perception right now, and even the wind was losing its power. This time a few nights ago I was cowering from the stars while my heart exploded, and even now, being left alone with them didn’t sit well with me.
A dull orange glow came up on the horizon at some point. I wouldn’t be able to pick out exactly when. It was obviously too early for sunrise, and as I kept my eyes on it, it became clear that the glow was pretty faint, and it’d take us a while to get there yet. Balls. At least having it there let me look at the stars without clutching Rainbow’s neck.
Rainbow stumbled hard, and it knocked me to the side. I was unable to recover, and I fell off him. My yelp got everyone to stop, for a second, at least.
"Atom! Are you okay? I’m sorry, I must have tripped on something, I…"
I pawed around for his side and used that to help me back up. "Yes, I’m fine, it’s fine. What the fuck did you hit?"
"There’s some big rock here, or..."
I felt around for it. "It’s metal. Kinda loose, let me just..."
Before I could fiddle much with it, Sam pushed in between us. "Metal you say? Let me take a look at this." I couldn’t see what he did, but it heard like he pulled it right out of the ground without much trouble. Immediately afterwards, there was a clatter on the ground. "Oh."
"What is it?"
"It’s a power armour helmet. And there was a skull inside."
Rainbow said "oh" after a moment’s pause.
"There’s a couple of these nearby, actually. I can see like, four from where we’re standing, and there’s been two dozen of them along the way. Bottom of a gulley here, crushed under some rocks there."
I looked at Rainbow. Or at least I think I did, I couldn’t be sure. "Uh…"
"Wow," he said.
Sam tossed the helmet aside and started walking again. "Now how about we get moving before we join ‘em?"
There was no argument from us. I hopped on Rainbow’s back again, and as carefully as he could manage, we hurried briskly on while he muttered stuff under his breath.
I could see the quarry ahead of us by the dim and flickering lights marking its perimeter. One of them lit up a battered sign that had all of the paint scoured and bleached off by the elements. I pushed up from his head to get a better look at the pit, and then he shoved me off because that was annoying.
"Ringing any bells, Sam?" he said.
"It's a clock tower at high noon in my head, let me tell you."
I dusted myself off and readjusted my glasses. "Something's keeping this place powered."
"Yeah, it's always been like that. Old systems left running when the place was abandoned."
On the approach, some of the tribe ponies started whispering among themselves. I started keeping an ear out for those screams they were talking about. Maybe it was the wind, but I couldn't hear much. They came to a stop before the perimeter lights, prompting us to stop with them. Jericho turned to Rainbow and pulled his goggles up.
"This far, albatross, and no further."
I snickered. "What did he just call you?" Rainbow ignored me and pulled his own goggles off, and turned them over to Jericho.
"Your service is greatly appreciated, Jericho."
He didn't seem too pleased. He stepped closer. "If you make a widow of my niece with this folly, all the stars in heaven will never forgive you."
He grimaced. "Right. Got it. No worries."
Jericho kept his glare on him before returning to the rest of the group. He nodded to them, and a few of them rummaged in their bags. Peregrine, Jaffa and Nineveh broke off and approached us in a line. "Wings of life carry you," Jericho called out. His voice reverberated off the walls of the quarry, creating a faint chorus. Nineveh pulled a feather cloak off his back, and threw it over Sam, then peeled off to return to the group. Sam was...
"Do I look cold?"
"Wings of life nourish you."
Peregrine pulled a gourd off from around her neck and put it on Rainbow Code. He gave her that 'I won't say no but I'm really confused look'. Peregrine looked... apologetic. "Just relax," she whispered, before hurrying along. Ohhhh.
"Wings of life protect you." When Jericho said this, Jaffa stepped up to me with his laser spear thing, and gave it to me. He had such a serious pout on his face. Thanks I guess? I don't know what to do with this thing, and he didn't seem pleased about parting with it either. He returned to the others too. "The cave is at the bottom of the pit. This is where our roads diverge. You may leave when ready."
I looked at Rainbow and Sam. This was the creepy funeral we were warned about? Lame. I shrugged, Sam raised one of his eyebrow... things, and Rainbow, after a moment of pensive shoegazing, nodded towards the quarry and started walking. We followed.
The quarry had these walkways partially hewn out of the rock, taking us down level by level to the tunnel at the bottom. The ground lights cast these long shadows in the rock face, and inside was utterly black from here. We'd only got one level down when there was this noise coming from the top. It was Jericho, and he was... singing. Some kind of monotone, with words I couldn't make out. When I looked back, everyone who'd accompanied us was standing next to the perimeter lights, lit from below by them in that creepy I-have-a-torch-under-my-face kind of way.
Then they shrieked... sort of. My guess it was to imitate a bird call, but it was more of a synchronised shout at a high pitch. Then they did it a second time. And a third, following Jericho's warbling.
"That's fine. This is... this is fine. Just a little something to set the mood, y'know. This is fine."