The rest of the night kinda blurs in my memory. I think we went straight to bed, because fuck, we needed it. The last rest we had was back at the Eagle Tribe camp, and that was just a siesta. Except Sam, he was off looking for things that needed fixing or something. (What if he tries to fix something that's actually not broken, it's just some improvised fix in the science things down here?) They didn't have proper beds for us, because we'd invited ourselves around without calling ahead first. How rude of us. Instead I remember waking up on some couch in the atrium. Having slept on a couch in a room with no windows all week, that wasn't particularly surprising. What did surprise me was being woken up by being turfed off the couch.
I flailed like a caught fish. "What the fuck do you want Ivy holy shit I-"
"Ivy? Who's Ivy?"
I squinted, and pushed myself up. I was on the mezzanine of the atrium. I had a brief look for a window, but it was just the daytime lights. Either I was still waking up, or they were really damn bright. I looked around until the owner of the voice came into bleary focus. The workaholic nerd from last night was looking at me like a rabbit in the headlights. Trident? Trinket? I have to start writing names down. "Wait, this isn't... Right. Los Arabos."
After staring long and absent-mindedly enough that I might have actually fallen back asleep for a bit, she panicked. "Oh! Oh! I am so sorry, I forgot you were..."
Sluggish morning brain connected the dots eventually. "It was you that pulled me out of bed? Couch. Sleep thing." She hid behind her clipboard and nodded. "What the fuck? Why?" I think she realised she'd gone and fucked up now, because she trembled as she lifted a crumpled piece of paper from the couch, covered in inscrutable notes of some kind. I squinted, then rubbed my eyes. "What time is it."
"Ugh." I contemplated breakfast or something. If the board was anything like the bed, we'd be eating whatever leftovers they weren't having for lunch. "Fuck it. I'm going back to sleep. Piss off."
Holding up her clipboard like a shield, in case I was gonna breathe fire on her or something, Trifecta or whatever her name is backpedalled away from me, and once she'd put a safe distance on me, turned and scampered out of the room. Without another thought, I keeled over into the couch face down, and got back to the important work of sleeping.
For about thirty seconds to a minute. Just long enough to start drifting off again, y'know? Then a big goofy laugh from downstairs disturbed me in that really uncomfortable way where I end up more tired than I was before I closed my eyes in the first place. Then there was loud resonant clanging as one or more ponies ascended the stairs. One of them had to be Rainbow. He's the source of like, sixty to seventy percent of the good cheer in San Cimarron, and probably of the weight on the stairs too. It rattled all the way up the mezzanine, through the frame of the couch, and right into my skull. Holy fuck, there was no way I was sleeping now.
As the banging and the conversation got louder, I felt around for nearby stuff. The spear... no, they weren't being that loud. Trashcan, I picked up and tucked next to me. When the thundering hoofsteps reached their crescendo, I finally found something suitable.
"... and can you imagine me - Big McHugeLarge - trying to hide behind this middle-aged desk jo-ow!" The noise stopped.
"Is... that a toy raygun?" I heard from Tube Alloys' brogue.
"Did we wake you up, Atom?" Rainbow called. Of course he was up bright and early, the active-lifestyle fuck. He even looked like he'd just washed.
"No, Trickle-Down did that like five minutes ago."
"Trickle-Down?" Gadget whispered.
"She's a bit slow with names."
I chucked the pack of batteries at them. "I heard that."
Some surprisingly light steps approached, and the batteries and the toy gun dropped with the rest of my stuff. I looked up, and Rainbow stood there, smiling gently and silhouetted by the lights. "Shall we get some breakfast? If we were back at the base I'd just let you sleep but this is kinda the main thoroughfare of the place. You don't really want to be sleeping in a hallway, do you?"
With a mumbling groan, I turned over to bury my face in the couch again. He was right. I knew he was right. But I'll be damned if I wasn't going down without a fight.
"You haven't tried this food, have you?" He was leaning closer now. "It's all fresh."
I squinted, though he couldn't see it. I turned back over. "What?"
He nodded. "C'mon. Let's get some food in you and clean you up, and then we'll get the tour."
I reluctantly shuffled myself off the couch and into autopilot. My first instinct was to gather my stuff and saddle up, but Rainbow nudged me along before I could get started.
I couldn't tell you where the kitchen was. I was following voices with my eyes closed most of the way. I remember being sat at a table, and suddenly having a nose full of the cooking smell. Y'know, the smell where something really tasty is on the heat nearby, and the aroma finds its way into everywhere. "Good, eh?" Rainbow nudged me. I hadn't noticed I was leaning towards the direction I thought it was coming from. "I could probably go for another bowl myself, actually."
"Two bowls, you say?" Over a nearby counter was a utilitarian kitchen, where Gadget ladled something from a big pot into some bowls. Brushed steel and bakelite surfaces made shiny by years of careful cleaning. The table I was at was a simple metal one, and I sat on a simple metal chair. The seating area had some stains on the floor that hadn't been entirely wiped away. I could see this place moonlighting as a laboratory - or at least they treated it like one. I was surprised we weren't going to be served in beakers.
Gadget was no Crumble. There were no deft feats of lifting bowls to the table on his wings or something. No, the boring old fart had a tray. Mind you, even if he was capable of plate-spinning, he might not be able for it, with the amount of bandages on his leg. Two bowls slid on to the table, and he sat across from us. What is it with people and watching me eat? "You're in luck today, Atom," he said. The soup didn't look like much, bits of leek and carrot and stuff bobbing in the broth, but it smelled heavenly. "This is your mother's recipe."
I got almost close enough to burn my tongue on it before the logical mind caught up. "Wait a second, Mum made this? I thought the Stable was all paste dispensers."
Gadget made that 'yeah I guess' face. "Well. I got it from her. It was her family's, she never used it. She had a big book that was all hoof-written recipes and photographs and scrapbooking. Priceless family heirloom."
"Is this the part where you tell us that you left it in the Stable for me to throw out?"
He chuckled. "My life isn't a complete tragedy, Atom. It's in my room." Rainbow was busy slurping down his seconds. Hungry boy. I took my first sip. Flavours I didn't know existed exploded on my tongue. It was like everything I'd been eating until now had been with cling film on my tongue. That made him smile like he hadn't smiled in years. "She... she was the only pony I told about my work. When I told her, she shared the book with me, and said that when I get around to it, I'll need something to do with it all."
"So... you're making food in here?"
"It's more than that, my dear." Being called that felt kinda weird. "But later. I can tell you got my night owl habits. You're not going to be really awake for another hour at least."
I pulled a face, and ate some more. Well, he's got my number. A few mouthfuls later, a thought occurred while I let the soup sit in my mouth for a moment. "What was she like?"
"Mum. She died when I was really little, didn't she? I don't even have repressed memories."
Gadget sighed, and stared into space. "Where do I even start with Home Guard..."
"That was her name? Home Guard?"
He nodded. "She was part of Stable security. No nonsense."
"Well clearly we can't be related, because I'm all nonsense."
Rainbow swallowed half a potato. "'No-nonsense' isn't the first thing I'd use to describe Mum."
"When I first arrived in the Stable, she was the only one who'd talk to me. Everyone else was scared of the outsider."
"Have you seen your hair?"
He snorted. "Now imagine it after weeks of travelling. I... I mean, it sounds funny, but for a moment it was really tense. I was about to be turned away, but for her."
"Oh, you mean literally the first five minutes of entering the Stable?"
"Well. Yes and no. Everyone kept me at arm's length for a while. But she... she was willing to give me a chance. Even go the extra mile to protect me."
"And two kids later..." I got a round of chuckles.
"Well, it was more complicated than that, but basically yeah. I tried to offer my skills as a physician, but even with Home Guard vouching for me, they didn't trust me enough for that. So they put me to work in maintenance."
I glared into my soup. "Y'know, some things are starting to make sense."
"Like how nobody gave me the time of day in the Stable. You'd think even with the pair of you sodding off there'd be some grandparents or a family friend to look after me, but no. Everyone treated me like the unwanted puppy they couldn't get rid of."
Gadget sighed. "Home Guard's family... didn't particularly approve of her consorting with me. They tolerated us while she was alive, but we did get more isolated after she died. If it weren't so dangerous up here, I'd have moved us all out of that place."
"Any semblance of remorse that I may have felt for blowing up the loos has just been crushed. Guilt-free, woo."
Both of them boggled at me. "You did what?"
"Oh, it was just some cherry bombs for a prank. It was structurally sound, but the plumbing was in tatters, so they had to make the boys' room unisex. Maybe if they hadn't alienated their repair guy they'd still have two sets of working bogs."
Rainbow snickered. Gadget rubbed his temple. "You definitely are your mother's daughter."
I squinted. "Really? Vandalism doesn't strike me as the kind of thing to expect from a rent-a-cop."
He rubbed his eyes, but he was still smirking. "Until Rainbow came along she was constantly one step away from losing her badge. Unfailingly compassionate, but... decidedly mischievous. Constant thorn in the side of the security higher-ups."
"Does that mean that if and when I poop out a baby I'm gonna become like him?" I thrust a hoof in Rainbow's direction, and it smooshed his cheek, causing him to splutter his soup.
"Not necessarily. Aside from the way that personality traits are probably more nurture than nature, having a child is just the kind of thing that tends to inspire a protective streak." I glared over my glasses at him. He shrank in his chair.
"Maybe it's just for the mother."
"How about!" Rainbow banged his bowl on the table after drinking the ends of it like it was a giant cup. "How about we start on that tour you were talking about? I'm dying to hear about this Manehattan Project business."
"What about the rest of my sou-" And I was yanked away. Well, I guess I'd been talking so much that the half that was still there was getting cold.
Gadget was happy for the distraction, and started walking towards the atrium. Or, I think that was where he was going, these twisting hallways and access corridors had my sense of navigation all screwed up. It's like it was just similar enough to the Stable that I was trying to follow my mental map of the Stable, even though it made no sense. "Now, where to start... the Manehattan Project. Should I..." he muttered some musings to himself. "Let's start from the beginning." Yeah, no shit. "It all started with the work that got me exiled from the Enclave."
I rolled my eyes. "Oh boy, storytime." Rainbow gave me a dig in the side.
"At the time I was an engineer in cloud seeding. I started..."
"Cloud what?" Rainbow looked as confused as I was.
Gadget chuckled. "Of course. Cloud seeding is the process the Enclave use to grow food in the clouds. A bit of magic, a bit of hydroponic technique... the results are a little bland, but it keeps the troops fed. Anyway. I saw a lot of the ground in my line of work, managing and preparing cloud banks for seeding. Intensive yields had a habit of eating through the clouds, which was a problem for keeping those banks productive. But the thing is, I kept seeing agriculture on the surface below. If you're at all familiar with the way the Enclave works, they have a bit of a... dogma about the surface. The party line is that it's too toxic and turbulent to resettle. That wasn't what I saw."
I made a conspicuous thinking face. Rainbow gave me another dig.
"It got me thinking about... cooperating. It felt wrong using all my expertise turning 65% yield efficiency into 66%, when I could see right below me some poor wretches starving while their crops die because they don't know about basic irrigation. One thing led to another, and... well, the Enclave decided that if I wanted to help the surface dwellers with their farming techniques so much, I could go join them and not come back."
"Blimey, you're just as much of a sentimental schmuck as captain rainbow pants here." Ow. If he kept doing that he was going to give me a bruise.
Gadget laughed. "For that, I am guilty as charged. I made it my business to do what I could to fix the wasteland. I lost my cutie marks for it, so I had nothing to lose." We entered not the atrium, but the room below it. It was the mirror image of it, like a big cavern with a flat concrete ceiling and descending spiral staircases around the sides, one of which he had started down. It may have been a silo at one point. There was a vaguely greasy feel to the air in here, and the pungent smells of mechanical fumes were thick. In the centre of the room was this column of... science things. All tubes and wires and stuff. I quickly looked for jets and rockets, but alas, it was not a Little-Boy-esque robot. Sam and Tube Alloys were working on something about halfway down with some open panels, some welding, and a lot of oil. Sam used his mouth grabber-y thing to doff his stupid little hat at us.
"I quickly found, as you may be aware, significant problems with wasteland agriculture. Balefire fallout, groundwater contamination, non-existent nutrient cycling, dead soil cultures... I'd need more than some best practices to get Equestria fed. And then - in a stroke of marvellous luck - I got a lead."
I snorted. "Knowing your luck, it's probably a bust, but go on." This time I dodged Rainbow's swing at me.
"You've met Trinity, haven't you?" We murmured and nodded. "I met her in a place called Tenpony Tower, in Manehattan. The place is an old hub for the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, and there are all kinds of wonders hidden there. But not for the average wastelander. These days it's a gated community. All snooty upper-crusts and the kind of ponies who act like the mild squalor they live in is any better than the abject squalor in the other Manehattan towns. All the fun stuff is kept under lock and key and never mentioned, but luckily for me, I had an in."
"My dear father!" I exclaimed and scoffed, clearly scandalised, and not at all mocking. "Do you mean to tell me that you were a scoundrel?"
"Don't think you got it all from your mother." He shot me a smirk. "Trinity gave up a lot to help me. She wasn't just a citizen of Tenpony, which is tough enough by itself, she was in the top secret society that runs the place. It's how she had access to the plans. Now she's as exiled from Tenpony as I am from the Enclave. How I convinced her that it was a good idea, I have yet to remember."
“Pretty ineffectual secret society if she’s been wandering around here for the last third of a century.”
"Plans for what?" Rainbow, always with the comments that are actually pertinent.
Gadget's smile grew wide, and he looked up at the tower of science in the middle of the room. "There were a lot of megaspells in development towards the end of the war. Someone in the Ministry was working on one as a contingency for the worst case scenario, one that would purge all the fallout and contaminants from the land. We only got the preparatory notes, but they were one hell of a blueprint. We came here, to the old Los Arabos labs, where the soils are some of the least contaminated in Equestria - even if they are the driest - to start work on our own version. One day, this megaspell might be able to clear all Equestria of radiation, taint, you name it. It's hope that we can rebuild Equestria. This is the Manehattan Project."
I let him have a moment of reverie. Just a moment, though. "It doesn't look like much."
"Well, we're... we're not exactly working with the industrial infrastructure of wartime Equestria here."
I paused again. "When's it gonna be done?"
He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Look, I'd be lying if I told you the development was going well. You may have noticed the detour to a Stable on the other side of Equestria."
"I'm sure your Ranger friends..." Gadget looked at Rainbow with a flash of venom that I wasn't expecting. "... have told you how much they'd like to crack Los Arabos open and suck out the juicy insides. The Enclave are no different. The..." He sighed again. "You two wouldn't even be here if it weren't for the day, thirty-five years ago, when both of them found it at the same time."
"So you abandoned the facility?" Rainbow said.
"The Rangers would have hoarded it. The Enclave would have destroyed it, and were out for my blood anyway. We had to make it seem like there was nothing left of the facility, and we put work on ice and went into hiding. A lot of the work went back to square one."
"Well you certainly went to some lengths to keep it hidden, the Rangers are still guessing. Most of the locals think the place is a ghost story."
"Let's hope it stays that way, hmm?" He shot Rainbow an icy stare, and Rainbow gulped. "The setup on the return was rough. There were five of us on the original project, six if you count Find-It, he was built down here. At first, only three of us came back. Oak Ridge was a local boy, one of the few ponies who knew the way into the facility. Instrumental in getting the place in working order, and in our getaway, but he never made it back. Tube Alloys ended up doing most of the restoration work. This would have slowed the project down, but for the fact that the other latecomer was me."
"Originally, we were supposed to reconvene after five years, at which time I was a little busy with an expecting wife."
Rainbow puffed his cheeks and winced. "Sorry about that."
"Really, I left it too late. If we'd left a couple of months earlier, you might have grown up here. But by the time I was ready to go, Home Guard was in no state to travel, and we weren't going to brave the wasteland with an infant. So we stayed. And then you," Gadget looked at me, "delayed us more. And then she died, and I wasn't going anywhere until you could take care of yourselves, and well... you know the rest." I opened my mouth to raise the fifteenth objection this morning.
"What yer paw is trying to say is that he left the three of us sitting on our arses for a couple of decades while he kept a roof over ye wee scunners' heads!" Tube Alloys called from a level below. Was this supposed to make me feel sorry for the old bastard? Whoopee, he wasn't going off to murder puppies or something when he abandoned me.
"And now, we're down to three again, now that we've lost Fizzle."
"What am I, steel shavings?" Sam yelled.
The resulting wave of muted snorts and chuckles all around at least got Gadget to smile, a little. "Okay, four. We've got a lot to figure out still. This is all a lot to process."
"No kidding," Rainbow muttered.
"I just... I hope that from what I've told you, you'll at least understand what I did. I don't know if you'll ever forgive me, particularly you, Atom. But maybe now you can see why."
Rainbow nodded a little to himself, but then noticed me staring up at the machinery. He looked at me, and then looked at the floor. My head buzzed with the twists and turns of the story. Part of me was looking for the nearest loose pipe to bash the miserable old prick’s head in with. Another part of me was actually impressed at the cause he'd managed to pull out of his hat. Maybe I really was as like Mum as Rainbow said, because I don't think I could be any less like this aging deserter hippie if I tried. She was probably this no-bullshit northern lass with an affinity for collecting pointless amusing nonsense. But then if she was this angel of compassion as well, then that would explain why I was sitting here frowning at the centrepiece of the Manehattan Project, instead of decorating it with his teeth.
He left me and my non-answer be. "It's probably a lot for you to think about too. I'll... I have work to get on with. You two are free to wander around as long as you don't touch anything."
Rainbow stepped almost between me and him. Subtly. Enough that I felt it, but the oblivious old coot didn't seem to. "Yeah, I think we'll go and sit on this for a bit. We'll catch you later, Dad." Being called that made Gadget crack a smile, that slowly slid off again the longer he looked at me, so he turned and carried on down the rest of the stairs before he lost it completely.
Once he was out of sight, Rainbow hugged me. He was trying his best to be gentle about it, bless him, but the lad's got to be pushing twice my weight. "How about we get some more soup, eh? You look like you're not done waking up yet."
"I think I hate him."
"I think he's right, I'm not sure I can forgive him." My breathing quickened. I think I started to shake. "I mean, yeah, he's off trying to save the wasteland or whatever but at the end of the day he buggered off to go crawl into a hole in the desert and tinker with some stupid pile of metal crap!" I yelled, and kicked the nearest part of the machine to me, and a metal panel popped off with a clang that echoed around the cavern.
"Hey hey!" More clangs followed. Deep and heavy ones. Sam stormed up one of the staircases. "D'you mind not kicking this thing?"
Rainbow pulled me into his front until I stopped shaking. "Uhh..."
"So that's how the reunion's going."
Rainbow nodded and grimaced. "I think we're gonna go get something to eat."
"Do you mind if I..."
I frowned, and dug myself out of Rainbow's jacket. "How are you going to eat soup?"
"Look, can we just go?" he whispered. I keep meaning to applaud Tubey (does he mind if I call him Tubey?) on his voicebox work. Though knowing this place he might have just stolen it.
"Alright. Come on,” Rainbow said. I breathed deep a few times, before falling into convoy back up the stairs.